I don’t know where I’m going, but don’t try to stop me….

by Yule Heibel on September 1, 2004

The nearly week-long descent into winter, which I described in yesterday’s entry, coincided unhappily with my first-ever reading of The Inferno, wherein Dante limmed the innermost circle of suffering as a frozen wasteland.

[Warning: Philistine alert!]

I confess that I actively disliked this text. It could be that I expected too much and set myself up for a Fall (bad pun intended). Or perhaps I just need time to learn to appreciate Dante. Or I’m too insensitive to the Christian message. But I have an aversion to anyone theorising the existence of a place called Hell. And what really offended me about Dante’s was the ease with which he condemned to it souls for utterly trivial “crimes,” and how painstakingly he scripted Virgil, his guide, who, because he is non-Christian, is also condemned to Hell for all eternity. (Quiz: “Would you want Dante for a friend?” Answer truthfully, but remember, he’ll unctiously ok your “assigned” place, …wherever it is.) Virgil’s job, via Dante, is to repeatedly assure the reader that Dante is above any reproach Satan — or God — could possibly offer. The author and Florence are the real stars of this epic, not the journey through the circles, which ends up as a repetitive pub crawl where all the usual suspects are assembled. Coupled with the parochialism of this Hell, what appeared to be Dante’s gloating cruelty made me quickly lose all empathetic interest in the ideas he might have been offering.

[Wow. So there: I’m a hopeless Philistine.]

There goes Dante through a romp in Hell, completely in control except for the few times he comes close to tripping over some poor sod stuck in the ice, or falling off a cliff. He moves through its imagined circles, yet the closer he gets to the centre, the less philosophical he becomes. It’s as though his self-created description is simply there to confirm all of his prejudices, not a few of which dance around the notion of city-state nationalism. Dante and Florence can do no wrong, and I suppose if a character had committed murder for the sake of Florence, the gates of Heaven and not Hell would have opened up for him. Some critics say the poem is about justice, but it’s also at least as much about might making right.

And did someone say gender? My eyes glazed over at a certain point, but I’m fairly certain that virtually all of Hell’s speaking inhabitants, with one exception, were male. How did that happen? Here’s how: Hell is important, which is why Dante wrote about it. Or: Dante wrote about Hell, so Hell is important. (In ideology, tautology is plenty useful.) At any rate, an important place can’t possibly be peopled by speaking women, unless it’s a place like Heaven: here, virtues effectively end the reign of History and women can safely morph into idealistic figureheads. But please: no one is seriously interested in Heaven, for pete’s sake. It’s boring, which is why you’ll finally find a few token females (like Beatrice) there: they represent a kind of virginal-maternal

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