I’ve been lost in the forest before. The worst that has ever happened to me was a bit of confusion and a late supper.
When Dante got lost …
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.
Instead of making it home for dinner, he took an epic journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven. He begins in fear, he ends in love:
The Love which moves the sun and the other stars. (Paradiso, XXXIII:145)
I’ve been meaning to read this classic for years. When I saw Barnes & Noble’s beautiful leather-bound edition, I couldn’t resist.
Reading it was a challenge. It’s not every day you read a Nineteenth century English translation of a Fourteenth Century Italian text in verse! With the help of a dictionary app and SparkNotes, I fell into the rhythm of the poem and began to understand it. Reading the text aloud (even muttering the cadence under my breath) helped immensely.
I’m not qualified to comment on the literary merit of this classic, or the translation. I’ll keep my comments to theological issues.
Go to Hell!
Dante wrote his masterpiece in exile. He found himself on the wrong side of political power and was banished from his home in Florence on trumped-up charges (xi).
The Germans have a word, schadenfreude, which refers to the joy taken at someone else’s misfortune. It’s not a very flattering quality, but one Dante seems to enjoy. When he arrived in the sixth circle of hell, he wandered around tombs that held heretics who were tortured.
Upon a sudden issued forth this sound
From out one of the tombs; wherefore I pressed,
Fearing, a little nearer to my Leader.
And unto me he said: “Turn thee; what dost thou?
Behold there Farinata who has risen;
From the waist upwards wholly shalt thous see him.
The character from the crypt was none other than Farinata, his real life political enemy. What do you do with a political enemy from earth? Stick him in your literary hell! This is where an annotated text is very helpful (unless you’re up-to-date with the people of Fourteenth Century Florence).
Unfortunately, Dante’s pattern for dealing with some of his enemies has been followed many times in church history. Instead of doing the hard work of loving your enemy, it’s easier to just demonize him.
Highway to Hell
My edition of The Divine Comedy is filled with illustrations from Gustave Doré. These illustrations taught me something: hell is far more exciting and interesting than heaven. Inferno is far more frequently and graphically illustrated than Paradiso.
This attitude—the idea that heaven is boring and hell is exciting—is still around. Perhaps AC/DC popularized it the best:
Ain’t nothin’ that I’d rather do
My friends are gonna be there too
I’m on the highway to hell
Dante’s hell is full of all sorts of interesting (if sadistic) tortures. Some people are burned alive, some turn into trees whose limbs are pecked at by Harpies, some are boiled alive in a river of blood, some are shat upon. Literally. Poop falls from the sky. I’m sure a psychiatrist would have a field day with Dante!
If you squint, you can read this torture as divine justice in the light of God’s holiness. Realistically, it’s another sad example of schadenfreude. Someone needs to go back in time and give him a copy of VanBalthasar’s Dare We Hope?
Disembodied Heaven & the Impassable Deity
I always knew that I disagreed with Dante’s view of hell. I was surprised by how much I disagreed with his heaven—and his Trinity!
Dante’s God is an Aristotelian construct mediated by Aquinas:
O grace abundant, by which I presumed
To fix my sight upon the Light Eternal,
So that the seeing I consumed therein!
Substance, and accident, and their operations,
All infused together in such wise
That what I speak of is one simple light.
Withing the deep and luminous substance
Of the High Light appeared to me three circles,
Of threefold color and of one dimension,
(Paradiso XXXIII:82-84, 88-90, 115-117)
God, for Dante, is an immovable point of perfect light. Three circles symbolize the Trinity, with three different coloured lights. All manifold colours emanate from this point. The heavenly spheres (the planets), all rotate around this point as do the various levels of heavenly worshipers. There is nothing to do in heaven but to be consumed in contemplation.
That sounds spiritual, but it’s nowhere near biblical. Biblical metaphors include a throne with a blood-stained lamb. Biblical metaphors speak of a river with trees of life lining the banks. Dante’s God is a philosophical idea. I’ll stick with the Holy One of Israel who breathed his breath into this dust and called it good.
Dante’s Divine Comedy is a challenging and interesting work to read. Just don’t confuse literature with theology.
—Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Trans. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2008).