Monday, 15 April 2013

Week Fifteen - Jeanette

The Divine Comedy 1: Hell (c. 1314) by Dante
Recommended by Louise

‘I hope Thatcher rots in hell,’ is something I’ve heard, or read on the internet, a good few times this week.

When she was in office, people wished her expelled. When she was alive, people wished her dead. Now that she is dead, people wish her eternal torture. Hearing the concept of hell so frequently and fervently invoked helped me reflect on Dante’s epic poem (although it certainly didn’t help me to process my emotions about Thatcher). This week, at least, it seems post-Christian secular Britain is still willing to condemn a sinner to eternal damnation.

I think it’s Dante who is largely responsible for the tenacity of hell in popular culture. While I remember a bit of Satan-chatter in the New Testament, the place itself remained largely unexplored territory. It’s probably Revelation that comes closest, at least in terms of vivid imagery – and Revelation’s not about hell per se (let alone about any kind of narrative coherence). Yet Hell, in contrast to Revelation’s angry gibberish, makes a great deal of logical sense. Dante codifies and classifies hell, finds a place and an inventive method of torture for every kind of sin, and also allows its inhabitants to explain their actions and experiences. He makes hell easy to visualise, natural to fear, and tempting to want people you hate to end up there.

The story – the very deftly-paced story – of Hell is that Dante, aged thirty-five and spiritually adrift, is led by the Classical poet Virgil through the complicated (de)meritocracy of the damned. We gawp with Dante at sights such as he finds in the fifth circle (where the Wrathful dwell):

            At fisticuffs – not with fists alone, but with
            Their heads and heels, and with their bodies too,
            And tearing each other piecemeal with their teeth.
                                                                          (Canto VII, 112-14)

At its simplest level, Hell is a travelogue, a cheap holiday in other people’s misery.

But simplicity can’t be levelled at Dante for long. He didn’t write about hell to amuse or horrify with shocking descriptions. He didn’t even write to warn against straying from God. The Divine Comedy is ranked among the greatest achievements of all humankind because it is such a profoundly lyrical reflection on reason – and particularly on reason’s relationship with the soul, and then with that soul’s relationship with God. It was thus inevitable that Hell led me to slice open to my own innards: my morals, my relationships, my trespasses. Yes, Dante writes from within a Christian worldview, but I found Hell have intense resonance outside of it, too. Free will and consequence, the nature of spiritual fulfillment, the transience of life: they’re not questions we spend nearly enough time on these days.

Still, that’s not to say Hell is only that, either. Another reason Dante wrote was to comment on contemporary Italian politics and, it seems, air some grievances against people he didn’t like. Who wouldn’t? You’re writing about hell, chuck a few enemies into the pit. From what I gather about the Florentine situation of the time, it was a ridiculously complicated mix of petty family squabbles and genuine class struggle, elevated to murderous severity because of the power each faction wielded. The pope and the odd French monarch sticking their respective oars in didn’t help, either. Reading Hell in a week led to no more than a superficial consideration of all this, but one story particularly struck a chord, down in the ninth circle of hell in the region of Antenora, a place reserved for traitors to their country.

Here, we meet Count Ugolino, a double-dealer between the factions, who had been imprisoned on earth with his (innocent) sons. The confined Ugolino relates to Dante how he heard his cell door being nailed up; he then realised he and his sons would starve to death.

I gnawed at both my hands for misery;
And they, who thought it was for hunger plain
And simple, rose at once and said to me:

‘O Father, it will give us much less pain
If thou wilt feed on us; thy gift at birth
Was this sad flesh, strip thou it off again.’
                                                            (Canto XXXIII, 58-63)

Ugolino watches his sons die. He ends his tale by saying ‘famine did what sorrow could not do’. The commentary says this line is a reference to Ugolino’s death, but (thanks, Night Of The Living Dead) I think Ugolino meant that he ate his sons’ corpses. Who knows? Nevertheless, the sad story of Ugolino – where wrong begat wrong begat tragedy begat tragedy – is naught but frantic horror, whatever his region of hell, purgatory, paradise, or earth.

Contributing much to my enjoyment of Hell was Dorothy L. Sayers’s scholarly, and waspishly witty, commentary. Of an earlier Dante work (the Vita Nuova), she writes

If we only had that book to go upon, we might suppose that from his tenth to his twenty-fifth year [Dante] did nothing except circulate sonnets among the intelligentsia of Florence, and moon his tearful way from one emotional crisis to another.

Actually, I can imagine Dante’s recommender, Louise, saying something very similar. For Louise’s intellect is sharper than Sheffield steel. She and I have been acquaintances for a while, but I’d say it’s only really over the last year that we’ve become proper friends. Writing this now, I realise how little I actually know about her, but that’s okay; actually, it’s exciting, because I discover something new every time we meet (and it’s always something dead interesting, too). I do know that she has true personal grace, a strong backbone, and the gravitas of a Wilkie Collins heroine. It’s really not a surprise that’s she’s recommended me my most highbrow book to date.

Just as with Louise, there’s obviously a (hell of a) lot more to discover in The Divine Comedy. After all, it has inspired cultural heavyweights from Alfred, Lord Tennyson to Chris de Burgh (I’m assuming ‘Don’t Pay The Ferryman’ is about crossing the infernal river Acheron, rather than being a mandate to defraud P&O). So, I can think of little way to sum Hell up; it’s better to just quietly exit, murmuring the lines that made me clutch hands to face in awe.

            There the mere weeping will not let them weep,
            For grief, which finds no outlet at the eyes,
            Turns inward to make anguish drive more deep;

            For their first tears freeze to a lump of ice
            Which like a crystal mask fills all the space
            Beneath the brows and plugs the orifice.
                                                                        (Canto XXXIII, 94-9)