And he said to me: “This miserable way
is taken by the sorry souls of those
who lived without disgrace and without praise.”
—Dante Alighieri, Inferno (Canto III)
According to Signor Dante, there are many sins that will consign a soul to one ring of hell or another. Perhaps that is reason why, upon reading his Inferno, I was most fascinated by the Ante-Inferno.
“These wretched ones, who never were alive”
Of course one assumes that the murderers, adulterers, avaristic, and blasphomous will suffer the Mintors’ exacting evaluation. But the merely meh? Those that simply lived without praise or disgrace? Seems a little harsh.
“Now you must cast aside you laziness,”
my master said, “for he who rests on down
or under covers cannot come to fame;
and he who spends his life without renown
leaves such a vestige of himself on earth
as smoke bequeaths to air or foam to water.
Therefore, get up; defeat your breathlessness”
“Defeat your breathlessness.” Well, okay; that may have to be my new call to arms…. In a rare move I decided to purchase a copy of Dante’s Inferno rather than check it out of a library. But pecuniary considerations pushed me to a used bookstore where I spent some time comparing alternate translations. In the end I went with a cheap paperback version which had the Italian on the verso and English on the recto. The translator was Allen Mandelbaum. But what did I know? I simply compared various lines and made my purchase based on the version that moved me more.
“O souls who are so cruel
that this last place has been assigned to you,
take off the hard veils from my face so that
I can release the suffering that fills
my heart before lament freezes again.” (Canto XXXIII)
I began reading my purchase at my friends’ house in Brooklyn (a lovely, dear-to-me couple who have generously allowed me to sleep on their couch half the week during my summer internship at the Met where I walk by the incredibly life-like Ugolino sculpture every work day [Ugolino was in the ninth circle]). It wasn’t until I was asked who had done the cover art that I looked at the title page and became aware that the person who did the interior illustrations (not the cover art: that was Hans Mamling) was a professor of mine, Barry Moser.
In a kind of strange synchronicity, very soon after that discovery my relationship with the eminent Mr. Moser suddenly blossomed from a professor/student admiration into wonderful friendship. I mention that for two reasons: 1) I love the crazy coincidence of accidentally reading the book he illustrated and then at the very same time I am reading it being contacted by him. And 2) full disclosure. Although—I’d have high praise for the drawings regardless of knowing, or not, the artist. When I saw his depiction of the Centaur from Canto XII my jaw dropped. My only thought was how could have anyone ever drawn a centaur any other way? It is truly menacing.
But back to Dante. By some powerful art of contradiction, Dante (through the exquisitely talented Mandelbaum) describes the utter despair and terror of hell with the most beautiful language.
“I’d utter words much heavier than these,
because your avarice afflicts the world:
it tramples on the good, lifts up the wicked.” ( Canto XIX)
I know a few corporations and politicians who should hear those words. It is quite a fun read. The book evokes so much thought about the nature of good and evil, heaven and hell, eternity and finality. But, there is also a strange avarice for, or fetishizing of punishment. The excessive nature of the punitive measures are almost absurd. And many of the crimes are….well…My son Augie was confused how anyone doesn’t wind up in hell. He’s only twelve and can see no one he knows would not be headed there. But more than that, I began to wonder things like: what does it really mean to be cold, wet, and damp (as in the third circle meant for gluttons) forever? If there is never anything other? No means of comparison? No hope of comparison? What does that mean?
Perhaps it is just a failure of my imagination to imagine a constancy of that level of pain that does not incapacitate or cause death, but so then, if you are already dead…then what? If you are already dead and suffering eternal pain what does pain or fear mean? Fear of what? Not death, obviously. It’s all gruesome and terrifying but, as Augie put it, “After a while you’d get the routine. It’d just be boring.”
*title from Canto II: Love prompted me, that Love which makes me speak.