The Divine Comedy, Part III

The conclusion of my 2004 review. [June 2021 note: I’m really embarrassed for my 24-year-old self regarding a lot of the opinions here! Despite my love for this book, I still managed to come away with a rather shallow, surface reading and project my modern sensibilities onto the Middle Ages. I blame the translation I read, my lack of a teacher or supplementary notes (beyond mere footnotes), the speed at which I read, and the uncomfortable fact that my cognitive development wasn’t quite complete at that age. There are quite a lot of important details and deeper meanings I badly misinterpreted or never understood in the first place.]


I can’t give it a full five stars, however, since parts of it are dated, and a lot of it would be hard to read to the average modern reader. A lot of the people referred to or featured were people, whether figures from myth, religion, or politics, who would’ve been instantly recognised by one of Dante’s contemporaries, but nowadays most people won’t know who they are unless they’re scholars of Medieval History.

Come on, how well do most people know who all the Popes are and what they did, or all the various rulers of what became the nation-states in modern-day Europe in the Middle Ages? And sad as it is to say, most people nowadays don’t know near as much about the literature and mythology of ancient Greece and Rome as the people of Dante’s time did.

I’ve read The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid, of course, just like every educated person ought to, as well as Sophocles’s three Oedipus plays, but again, unless you’ve made it your profession to study that time in history, your average person off the street isn’t very likely to be familiar with all these people being referenced, even the better-known ones.

Like most people, I’m familiar with who Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Livy, and Ovid, for example, were, but I’ve never read any of their writings yet. That’s something you usually have to do on your own nowadays; the average school isn’t going to make it mandatory anymore to spend a lot of time reading the works of these people, let alone in the original Latin and Greek.

So in other words, either you can not read most of the footnotes and just enjoy the poetry, yet not understand fully what’s going on, or else read all the footnotes yet have the flow of the story constantly interrupted by having to read the footnotes to understand what’s happening and who these people are. Either way you’re screwed.

In a way, this is a way for Dante to give the finger to his religious and political opponents. What better way to get your revenge, even if it is posthumous, than by sticking your enemies in Hell and having them undergo terrible daily tortures? He also has some of the spirits he meets “prophesy” things that are going to happen to some of his enemies and friends in future; I’m sure that also really pissed off the people who were against him in his lifetime.

And of course, he also puts his supporters in Paradise and Purgatory. It would be so awesome to have a modern-day sequel to this book; think of all the people since the year 1300 who’ve gone to Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise! The possibilities are endless. It reads like a who’s who of Hell. Is it really true that most people only read Inferno? Come on, that’s like only reading Part One of a book with three parts total, or never reading the next two books in a fantastic trilogy!

I know all translations are different, but mine uses that old Elizabethan crap, which, while frilly and poetic, also makes it hard to read. There’s a happy medium between a literal translation that takes away the beauty of the original poetry and a flowery one that uses distracting outdated language to make it seem more poetic. You know, all those old verb forms, like wert, wast, hast, hath, doth, makest, prepareth, shalt, and don’t forget the thees, thous, thys, and yes. Come on, even modern Bibles don’t use that type of language anymore, since no one talks like that anymore! (Except some religious groups, like the Quakers and Mennonites.)

Some of the things in the book also are outdated by now; sure you have to give it a lot of slack, since it was written in the fourteenth century, but in the modern era we know these things aren’t accurate. We have some anti-Semitic stuff, primarily the tired old lie about how the Jews killed Jesus, instead of the Romans, and the usual age-old lies about the Pharisees, who were really the good guys in that era. The few Jewish characters in Boccaccio’s Decameron are treated with more respect, and that book was composed around the same time.

There are also some theories put forward about, for example, how such and such a ruler came to his end, or was overthrown, and history has borne out that that simply isn’t true. Another big historical fault is that Mohammed (called Mahomet in my translation) is in the Seventh Circle, in the ring set aside for the Schismatics. Obviously Mohammed was never a Christian, so how could he be a Schismatic? That’s Medieval bullshit. I’m told that one translation, by Dorothy Sayers, has some very insulting notes in this part. She erroneously and blasphemously calls Islam “Mohammedanism” (falsely implying that Muslims worship him), and makes some denigrating and slanderous statements about Islam. Pass.

In a way this is Church propaganda, and for Dante’s friends and supporters, which is why some people feel it hasn’t aged as well as other old works by, say, Shakespeare or Boccaccio. Those people weren’t writing with an agenda, nor did they feel themselves answerable to some higher authority for what they were writing.

However, you’ve gotta give the man credit. We’re talking fourteenth century here, and at least Dante has enough independent thought to question a lot of the stuff he sees, such as wondering why so and so is getting punished so severely for something s/he only did under duress, such as being forced into murder or cannibalism, why so and so is only in the lowest sphere of Paradise, or why so and so belongs in Hell at all, since what s/he did doesn’t really seem like a sin at all. He buys the explanations, whether by Beatrice, Virgil, or the person he’s wondering about, but at least he thinks to question the official Church line before accepting the reasons for it.

Because of the constant barrage of carnage on the news nowadays, many modern people also are probably no longer as frightened by the descriptions of Hell as Medieval people surely must’ve been. Been there, done that. Why be scared of descriptions of devils, people frozen in ice, fire, people turning into monsters and then back into people, and all these savage punishments when we’ve seen pictures and films of brutal suicide bombings, war zones, ethnic cleansings, genocides, POW camps, dead bodies, school shootings, and so on?

Even though I’m not Christian, I’ve always liked the idea of Purgatory. It really seems to make sense to me that some people are good souls at heart, but they’ve done something or other on Earth that makes their track record less than spotless. Hence, they need to do some kind of worthwhile penance in the afterlife before they can ascend into Paradise or take on a new avatar back on Earth.

It might not be as relevant nor as easily accessable to the average modern reader as it was to someone living 700 years ago, but those aren’t the reasons we’re still studying and reading it today. It only gets more understandable and accessible the more times you read it; you can understand what’s going on and who these people are as you come to learn more about the historical times and grasp it on so many different levels.

First you read for the beautiful poetry written for all time, and then you can slowly move towards truly understanding in-depth all the stuff that’s going on and all the characters. Like fine wine, it only gets even better with age. And even if the political and religious goings-on of that long-ago era aren’t as relevant today, you can’t deny that the great love for Beatrice and Virgil are still relevant and moving almost a thousand years later.

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