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Saturday, February 07, 2015

DANTE: The Inferno (Canto 1, Introduction)

Taking a journey through hell is an old tradition in Western literature.  In The Odyssey Homer writes about Odysseus going down to Hades.  While he’s there he encounters shady ghosts inhabiting a shady world.  They are semi-human.  They can talk and still retain their own identities.  Odysseus even recognizes his own mother and Achilles.  But Achilles best sums up Hades when he says he would rather be a slave on earth than rule the whole kingdom of the underworld.  Dante has a much different view than Homer’s.  Dante begins The Inferno this way: “Midway along the journey of our life I woke to find myself in a dark wood, for I had wandered off from the straight path.”  This is no ancient mythic hero like Odysseus.  It’s Dante himself.  He puts himself in his own poem.

There are several interesting points about this passage.  First of all we find Dante as a middle-aged man still living on earth.  He’s midway through his journey of life.  And he says “I woke to find myself in a dark wood.”  Why is he in the dark wood?  He doesn’t say.  How did he get there?  He doesn’t know that either.  But we get a clue when he adds “for I had wandered off from the straight path.”  This is very different from the journey of Odysseus.  Odysseus was on a journey to get back home from Troy.  He hadn’t wandered off from any straight path.  He was just trying to get back home.  The gods instructed him to go through Hades first and even told him how to do it.  But Dante has no instructions from the gods.  He has no instructions at all.  And Dante begins his journey for a very simple reason: he’s lost.  He doesn’t know where home is; much less how to get there.  That’s what happens when you leave “the straight path.”  And on top of that, he’s being menaced by ferocious creatures blocking his way wherever he turns.

It seems like a hopeless situation.  But in the midst of all this fear and confusion, when everything seems lost, someone comes to Dante’s aid.  And it’s a very strange character to show up in an epic poem.  It’s not a mythological hero.  We might expect someone like Odysseus or even Achilles who could assist Dante.  They had been to an epic poetry hell before and knew their way around.  But Dante has a different kind of epic hero in mind.  Virgil.  Not only is Virgil a real man; he was one of the world’s premier epic poets.  The problem was this: when Dante was living Virgil had been dead for over a thousand years.  So already in Canto 1 we can sense the poetic genius of Dante.  He could have chosen Aeneas as his guide.  After all, Aeneas was the mythic hero of an earlier epic poem (The Aeneid) and had made his own journey into hell too.  Why not use Aeneas as a guide?        

For one thing, Dante wants to show respect to a fellow Italian poet.  He owed a great deal of his own talent and his own love of poetry to the poetry of Virgil.  For another thing, Dante wants to travel freely among living, and dead, and literary characters.  Virgil will be his guide through this multi-charactered Inferno.  And in more than one sense Dante will be literally following in his footsteps.  Virgil says “follow me for your own good, and I shall be your guide and lead you out through an eternal place where you will hear desperate cries, and see tormented shades, some old as Hell itself, and know what second death is…”  Here’s another odd thing about the choice of Virgil.  Dante was a Christian; Virgil was not.  How can a pagan safely guide a Christian through Hell?  Hell isn’t on anybody’s top ten list of tourist attractions.  But with Dante as storyteller and Virgil as tour guide, maybe it should be.        


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