Thursday I will begin teach Dante’s Inferno for the first time. It is the final work in my Representative Masterpieces class (essentially “Epics in Translation”), and I am using today’s post to help my students situate the work. If you wish, consider yourself as one of the students in my remotely taught course.
I focus RepMas (as Sewanee calls it) on “Gods, Monsters, and Heroes,” and we have already encountered some of literature’s most memorable monsters and heroes in The Odyssey, The Aeneid, and Beowulf. In each work, the monsters represent an internal challenge that the hero must overcome, and the same is true of inferno.
Odysseus twice must grapple with whether to fulfill his duty–return to Ithaka and restore order—or remain forever with beautiful goddesses on enchanting isles. Zeus and Athena, representing the voice of duty, declare he must go home, but the fact that Odysseus spends a year on Circe’s island and seven on Calypso’s shows the choice to be a difficult one.
Other monsters can be read as part of this psychological drama. Would he be any better than Polyphemus the Cyclops, for instance, if he gave up the call of civilization and surrendered to nature. Polyphemus, who doesn’t cultivate fields or forge tools, turns his back on Zeus and only acknowledges a god of nature (Poseidon). If we read Odyssey as an internal identity drama, Polyphemus’s cannibalism can be seen as a swallowing up of Odysseus’s Greek identity. If Odysseus were to stay with Circe or Calypso, he would revert to this primitive state—Circe turns men into swine while Calypso uses him as a sex slave. (Seven years pass before he objects—only then does Odysseus’s inner Zeus start paying attention.)
The other cannibalistic figures he meets along the way can be seen in the same light and all, significantly, are female, showing them to be another version of the Circe/Calypso temptation. The Laestrygonian queen (a “mountain high” giantess), the sirens, Scylla (I’ve described her as a toothed vagina), and the whirlpool Charybdis all threaten to swallow up the male ego and its forward purpose. The drugged-out lotos eaters, who have lost all memory of home, are another seductive lure alone these lines.
Odysseus is a hero because, in the end, he can rise above the siren call of seductive distractions and fight for Greek ideals.
A key moment in Odysseus’s journey is the visit to the underworld. As I taught the episode to my class, it’s as though Odysseus is grappling—perhaps in a trance or a meditative state—about whether to stay with Circe or to go home. Some of the figures he meets in Hades offer ambiguous answers. Achilles says that fame is overrated (if so, then perhaps he should stay with Circe) but is then heartened by news of his valiant son (reminding Odysseus that he too could live on through his son). Agamemnon warns him that wives can be deceitful and treacherous (there’s no telling what you’ll encounter when you get home) although he concedes that Penelope is no Clytemnestra (so perhaps Odysseus should journey on after all).
Following the visit to Hades, Odysseus chooses to leave, eventually reaching home. By restoring order to a kingdom that has lapsed into anarchy and (what is the same thing) contempt for the gods, he reaffirms the values of the nation.
The underworld scene operates similarly in The Aeneid. Before going there, Aeneas too is torn between remaining in the various ports he reaches and journeying on to Italy to sow the seeds of the Roman Empire. Guided by the Cumaean Sibyl, a priestess presiding over an Apollonian oracle, Aeneas consults with his dead father and others and also sees laid out Rome’s glorious future (which he then must forget upon reemerging). He returns reaffirmed in his quest.
Aeneas doesn’t have to wrestle with as many monsters as Odysseus, but women do stand in his way. Most famously there is Dido, queen of Carthage, whom he could marry (perhaps does marry) and become king of what will later be Rome’s major rival. Later he must contend with a wives riot as, tired of traveling and desiring to remain in Sicily, the Trojan women attempt to burn the boats. (This occurs while the men are playing sports, a sign that not much has changed in human history.)
The battle between a comfortable present and an uncertain future is also occurring in heaven, where Jupiter wants Aeneas to found Rome while goddess-of-the-hearth Juno wants him to fail. Although she’s willing to have him marry Dido and be king of Carthage, that’s another version of staying rather than going.
In the end Aeneas overcomes his inner doubts, conquers the Italians who stand in his way, and marries a Latin princess, thereby setting the stage of Rome’s royal lineage. Jupiter placates Juno with a consolation prize, however: Aeneas’s descendants will be called Latins, not Trojans.
In Beowulf, the drama is slightly different. If society is to remain stable, warriors must loyally serve their kings, which includes handing over their gains, and kings must be generous and fair in their redistribution of the wealth. If a warrior becomes a resentful and murderous Grendel or if a king becomes a paranoid and selfish dragon, then the basic social contract is broken and society falls apart.
In this violent world, an unstable society is vulnerable to invasion, with your neighbors showing up to either kill or enslave you. The monsters, in other words, articulate the society’s deepest fears while Beowulf represents the ideal leader, one who can quell murderous tantrums and unending blood feuds (Grendel’s Mother) without becoming a paranoid, fire-breathing hoarder.
Some scholars believe that Beowulf’s journey to the Grendels’ underwater cave may have been influenced by Virgil’s underworld episode. While there, Beowulf discovers a symbol of his destiny, a great sword forged by giants in the golden age before the flood, With this sword, Beowulf is able to bring an end to the endless cycle of Grendelian violence, just as he will go on to become the greatest Geat king. Under his reign, Geatland will experience a long and uninterrupted period of peace and prosperity.
We have a different kind of hero and different kinds of monsters in The Inferno. The hero is the poet himself—a first for epics—and the monsters are evil people, some of them historical personages that Dante knew. In this case, the epic journey is the individual Christian journey, and as such it would influence Milton’s Paradise Lost and John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. If Dante is to become a selfless servant of God, he must first identify and root out his own sinful nature.
Thus we see, at the poem’s beginning, Dante lost in a dark wood and unable to advance toward the light. Three animals, representing his own tendencies towards violence (the lion), fraud (the leopard), and especially fleshly appetites (the she-wolf) stand in his way. With Virgil guiding him as the Cumaean Sybil guides Aeneas, Dante must first journey through the Hell to understand the nature of his sins.
Dante has Virgil, representing Human Reason, to guide him through Hell and then through Purgatory, where he is shown the process of purification. Human Reason, incidentally, includes poetry, which both the ancients and Dante regarded as “the original and comprehensive form of knowledge in general” (William Franke). But Rome’s premier poet can only take Dante so far and, in the end, he needs a new guide This proves to be Beatrice, a childhood friend whom he worshipped and who died, who comes to represent Divine Love. She is his guide through Paradise, the promised end.
Once we realize that the punishments meted out in Inferno are symbolic accounts of the damage that sin does to us (what Dante calls “the law of symbolic retribution”), then we realize that the work can be read psychologically. Dante’s sinners essentially enact their punishments upon themselves.
For instance, violent people who wallowed in blood have constructed their own river of burning blood, in which they are immersed forever. Flatterers are appropriately mired in excrement, not unlike the shit they themselves produced; gluttons are drowned by dirty rain; and lustful lovers are blown ceaselessly by unending winds, never finding a point of repose. (Think of those who jump from relationship to relationship without ever finding spiritual union.)
As Virgil explains, the dead eagerly seek the level of hell that awaits them. The boatman Charon and the minotaur judge Minos are basically just there to help them get there:
“My son,” the courteous Master said to me,
“all who die in the shadow of God’s wrath
converge to this from every clime and country.
And all pass over eagerly, for here
Divine Justine transforms and spurs them so
their dread turns wish: they yearn for what they fear.”
Unlike the other three epics, I won’t be having the students read the Divine Comedy all the way to its conclusion (there’s not enough time), so we won’t see Dante overcoming the hell of the separated soul and finding union with God. This is the poem’s version of Odysseus restoring order, Aeneas setting in motion Rome’s destiny, and Beowulf achieving stability. We’ll study the monsters that block fulfillment but not the Christian hero vanquishing these inner monsters. It will be a bit like only reading the early books of Paradise Lost.
Nevertheless, by contrasting Dante’s underworld scenes with those of Homer, Virgil, and the Beowulf poet, we’ll get a sense of his project.
We’ll also get insight into our own blockages since we too have journeys, epic to us if not to other people. If we are successful, our lives will be fulfilling and joyful. If we are not, we will find ourselves acting out versions of Inferno’s torments.