Wednesday, October 2, 2019


Dante's Inferno is a 14th- century poem that seems calculated to cause the greatest possible pain to a 20th-century humanist, or to anyone who is attracted to Christianity because of its compassion and belief in the possibility of redemption. The God of the Inferno has precious little compassion and no forgiveness. He was the God who not only turned a blind eye to Belsen, but also exercised great ingenuity in constructing His own blood-chilling concentration camp, where sinners should suffer, not only during their brief lives, but for all eternity. What is particular about Dante's God is that He consigns sinners to their particular circle in Hell according to an immutable tariff of offences. No attention is paid to mitigating circumstances, or the idea of doing justice to the individual soul before the Divine Court. Hell, in short, was made on exactly the lines that the present Home Secretary would wish to impose on our present sentencing system. How do we reconcile the enjoyment of a great poem with what must seem, to many of us today, a repellent theology? Ulysses may best capture our own views in his speech to his sailors. He celebrates the dignity of man and says: "You were not bornto live as a mere brute does/ But for the pursuit of knowledge and the good". But such sensible humanism is, apparently, no better than the excuses of the gluttons and the adulterers. Ulysses is condemned as a thief and must suffer in Hell. In an admirable Preface to Robert Pinsky's translation, John Freccero deals with past attempts to enjoy the poem without revulsion. Coleridge advised us to "suspend disbelief" and enjoy the poetry without accepting the theology. Erich Auerbach suggested we separate "Dante's didactic intent from his power of representation", and held that the reality of the condemned characters overwhelmed their allegorical meaning. Perhaps we should simply remember how Dante suffered from the ruthless power-seeking and political intrigue in Florence and take Hell as an accurate picture of politics today. George Steiner, the distinguished critic and polymath, has suggested in his book In Bluebeard's Castle that the Holocaust is the Christian idea of hell made real and that the most knowledgeable guide to the camps is actually Dante. Robert Pinsky, the recently appointed poet laureate of the United States, was asked to comment on this notion in an interview in The Forward that marked the publication of the poet's acclaimed translation of Dante's Inferno.

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