Monday, August 10, 2009

Thoughts on Dante's Inferno

In the last month I've been reading the first book of Dante's Divine Comedy: The Inferno. The Divine Comedy is a narrative poem that tells the story of one man's journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. In order, the volumes of Dante's Comedy are Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso.

I'm going to focus here on the Inferno, which begins Dante's tale — "Midway in the journey of our life I came to myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost." So goes the poem's famous opening line, parodied and copied in plenty of pop culture offerings, such as a recent episode of the Internet cartoon Supernews! In this episode the characters travel to Las Vegas, which is portrayed as concentric circles of Hell. Satan supplies the coke and hookers.

But I'm getting too far ahead here. The opening line of the Inferno means Dante has lost his way from God. He strays from God's teachings, so in order for him to be 'saved' in the afterlife and go to Heaven, Dante's beloved Beatrice instructs the spirit of a deceased poet to give Dante a guided tour of the underworld. Beatrice of course is an Angel in Heaven. What better gift could you give your living boyfriend but a tour of the fires of Hell?

Virgil, whose work Dante much admires, is his guide through the Inferno. Virgil has been damned to the first circle of Hell (there are nine in total) known as Limbo. According to the translation I'm reading (Hollander & Hollander) the first circle is reserved for, "unbaptized babies and virtuous heathens." Virgil falls into the latter category, having been born in the time before Jesus Christ. As my university professor friend who teaches the Divine Comedy pointed out to me, Virgil is the "least deserving of damnation" paired with straying Dante who is, "least deserving to be saved."

But save him they will as Dante and Virgil descend the circles to a climactic finale with Satan in the centre of the ninth circle. Along the way to Lucifer are sinners of all stripes in various kinds of torment (ex. people who commit suicide are condemned to be thorn bushes for all eternity in the seventh circle of Hell)

The Inferno is written in such a way to make you believe the actions described are carrying on even now. There is a demon in the second circle whose job it is to judge all sinners. The spirits who come before the demon confess their misdeeds in life and Minos curls his tail around himself, "to count how many circles down the soul must go." This action is described as if the event is taking place before our eyes, and will continue to be repeated even after we, the readers, have moved on.

I've chosen this book as summer reading because it seems a good choice for the dark times we live in. The recession, retreating or not (I can't tell from my vantage point) is certainly the largest cloud. And the one pouring the most rain. According to an editorial in today's Globe and Mail, employment in Canada for people 15 to 24-years-old has fallen by 200,000 in the last year. That number is two thirds of Canada's total national decline in employment.

And there's an ever present list of other woes. The one sticking in my mind at the moment is the ongoing revelations about spending at eHealth Ontario under Sarah Kramer. According to an article in the Law Times, between 2007 and 2008 eHealth Ontario spent $82 million. Much of this was spent on limos, air travel, speech consultation fees and other items that produced little or nothing of value. $82 million in public funds. Gone. Poof.

I would file this episode under theft; so let's see... (consults the Inferno) Eighth circle for you!

But hey, I'm still working on the Inferno. Purgatory is next, so maybe by the time I reach Heaven I'll report with a more optimistic view of things.

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