Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, March 21, 2015

DANTE: The Inferno (Canto 28 Schism)

There are several different approaches to reading books and Great Books are no exception.  How should we read the Great Books?  We can read them for fun.  Or we could read them to become more informed about the history of ideas.  Or we could read them to learn how to live better lives.  There are many reasons to read Great Books but it seems important that most readers spend more time reading the text itself and less time reading what someone else has to say.  Dante’s Inferno is a good example and Canto 28 is an especially good example.  This canto is all about schism.  A scholarly approach to reading Dante might start with defining the term “schism.”  The online Merriam-Webster dictionary tells us that schism is “a division among the members of a group that occurs because they disagree on something.”  This is a good start.  We have to remember that all these characters (in one way or another) caused strife and division.  Another good scholarly tool is to consider the etymology or origin of words.  Where did schism come from and how did it get started in the first place?  The M-W online dictionary says the modern term schism came from the Middle English scisme; which came from an old Anglo-French word cisme; which was derived from the Late Latin word schismat; and that came from an old Greek noun schisma, which means cleft, or division.  Ok, that’s mildly interesting but so what?  Ancient Greek to Late Latin to Medieval Anglo-French to Middle English to us.  Does that help me understand Dante any better?  Maybe, maybe not.  But here’s something else.  First known use: 14th century.  Dante’s Inferno takes place in the year 1300 A.D. (the start of the 14th century).  Was Dante on the cutting edge of defining schism in terms of the modern phenomenon as we know it?

Maybe, maybe not.  But we could get lost in the labyrinths of all these etymologies and histories.  (Side note: this kind of reading appeals to some obscure librarians.  For a good example of this kind of literature read some short stories in “Labyrinths” by Jorge Luis Borges.)  Before long we can’t see the forest for the trees and lose sight of The Inferno itselfDante isn’t writing for obscure librarians.  The Inferno text is often blunt and downright bawdy.  In Canto 28 he writes “I saw someone ripped open from his chin to where we fart.  Between his legs his guts spilled out, with the heart and other vital parts, and the dirty sack that turns to shit whatever the mouth gulps down.”  This is disgusting.  Who is this guy anyway?  Dante writes, “See how Mahomet is deformed and torn!” 

Schism causes deep divisions.  To many people Mahomet is a holy man of God but Dante has put him in Hell.  And as usual Dante’s punishment fits the crime: “The souls that you see passing in this ditch were all sowers of scandal and schism in life, and so in death you see them torn asunder.”  Consider Julius Caesar; a hero for many Romans but a traitor to others.  Dante writes about Caius Curio, the guy who talked Julius Caesar into crossing the Rubicon: “This man, in exile, drowned all Caesar’s doubts and helped him cast the die, when he insisted: ‘A man prepared, who hesitates, is lost.’  How helpless and bewildered he appeared, his tongue hacked off as far down as the throat, this Curio, once so bold and quick to speak!”  Also on this level is Bertran de Born, who caused the rebellion of Prince Henry against his father, Henry II, King of England and now Bertran “held his (own) severed head up by its hair, swinging it in one hand just like a lantern…”  More knowledge of Islam, Roman and English history would obviously broaden our understanding of Dante.  But the best way to understand Dante is to simply read Dante.     


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