Dante is lost in the woods – metaphorically, one assumes – when he is met by the spirit of the poet Virgil (whose greatest hit is The Aeneid), who says he is on a mission from Dante’s dead love Beatrice to show him hell and heaven so that he may mend his ways and achieve salvation.
There is no denying that The Divine Comedy is of inestimable importance in the development of European thought and literature in a post-Roman world (the poem was written in the early 14th Century), nor that in many ways it sums up and expands upon Medieval Christian mythology, nor that it proved once and for all that real art could be created in Italian (and other national tongues), not just in Latin, which was still the dominant literary language of the time. These are a few of the concessions I’m willing to make, and many a scholar throughout the centuries has exalted Dante to the status of superhuman genius, so there is obviously a lot to the guy. But, to the modern day reader with a genuine interest in literature but no interest in analyzing it into oblivion, is The Divine Comedy, as it were, the good stuff?
Well, I don’t know Italian, Medieval or otherwise, so I’ve only read this book in translation. Said translation (Ingvar Björkeson’s Swedish one) is acknowledged as a good one, but I do hope the verse sounds a hell of a lot better in the original, because the version I’ve ogled can’t hold a candle to Shakespeare or Homer (or Virgil, for that matter). It contains many brilliant descriptions of heavenly light shows and – famously – inventively sadistic suffering in a vividly constructed Inferno, but many of Dante’s similes and metaphors (quite a few of them extended in absurdum in the classical style) are tediously repeated several times like encores at a best-of concert (yes, lightning is indeed very fast, Dante, don’t keep going on about it). Strangely, the poetry works better if read as poetic prose rather than lyrical verse, since there is a chatty quality to it rather than the ringing, clanging melodiousness of other epic poems.
Physical description is Dante’s strong point, painting living, breathing worlds outside of our own and filling them in with masses of detail and structural systems (hell, it turns out, is a highly organised, compartmentalized place). Many of the organizational arrangements of the hierarchical levels of Inferno and Paradise are borrowed from the various mystics Dante loved, and they give him the chance to show off his wide, esoteric reading habits. This is all very interesting if you have an edition as rich in explanatory footnotes as mine, but if you try reading The Divine Comedy without what we can call a road map to the places, thought systems and characters, you’ll soon find yourself lost in Dante’s obscure references.
Unsurprisingly, the first part, “Inferno”, is far more arresting than “Purgatory” or “Paradise”, which two latter sections drop virtually everything except long-winded, cloudily reasoned “logical explanations” about the nature of god and heaven, and about the “evidence” for their existence. This soon gets boring in its over-earnest, pious repetitiveness.
Guided by Virgil (and later on by others), Dante travels through realm after realm, making himself guilty of vast quantities of namedropping. Technically, the book is a narrative poem, but the scant story just serves as a clothes-hanger from which hangs a plethora of natter with the departed souls Dante encounters. These fall into three categories: 1) famous historical people such as various European kings, along with Plato and Aristotle, 2) famous fictional characters such as Odysseus and the Virgin Mary, and 3) people who are in Inferno/Purgatory/Paradise solely based on Dante’s personal opinion of them.
The conversations he has are often a kind of faux-Socrates style “investigation”, which is really just a whole lot of drivel trying to make sense of religious faith and the nature of god and the architecture of heaven and hell, as if any of those things actually could make sense. Dante’s whole faith and philosophy, and his theories about his “holy” subject matter take the form of a strange hodgepodge of Christian mysticism, Graeco-Roman mythology and a smattering of science to make his dragged-out-of-his-rear-end ideas sound superficially plausible.
Dante’s visual imagination and advanced taste in reading matter are impressive, but ultimately the whole poem becomes more misguidedly didactic and garrulous than beautifully resonant. He sounds like a guy whose primary goal is to convince the reader of a non-cohesive idiot belief of no substance. Which is of course exactly what he hopes to achieve. One could have wished that he had spent more effort on the poetry and general sense of awe, wonder and terror, where his strengths lie. As it is, The Divine Comedy gets dull rather quickly, and also waters down much of its power through the absolute opposite of the noble, selfless religion Dante espouses, namely his recurring, small-minded bitching about Italy, his hometown of Florence and the people who exiled him from there in real life.
One more thing: despite all the thought Dante put into erecting his Paradise, it comes across as singularly unappetizing place, where all you do is feed the ego of a smug megalomaniac by singing all day about how great he is. The fact that this god equates “infinite mercy” with boiling people in hell just makes him look like that much more of a real pal.
So no, I don’t think The Divine Comedy is the good stuff. If I wanted to be facetious – which of course I do – I could say it has a great setting, but needs a better story and more well-rounded characters. And far less backyard “theorizing”.
I’d like to leave you with a quote from Dante, in which he is blissfully unaware that he is perfectly describing his own random grab bag of theological ideas: “Do not hasten towards yes and no in matters where your eye is blurred; foremost among fools is he who thoughtlessly and without discernment denies or claims something he has not tried. An opinion one makes without reflection often leads astray, and the love that arises for it locks up reason.”
Rating: 5 of 10 in terms of reading pleasure. A lot more than that as a view into the early 14th Century mindset.