Professionally trained Dante scholars—I am one of them—believe we have special access to The Divine Comedy’s deeper layers of meaning, yet judged by Dante’s criteria, we are self-deceived. In Inferno 9, Dante challenges his audience with a direct address:
You readers, who are of sound mind and memory,
Pay attention to the lessons woven into the fabric
Of these strange poetic lines.
Who among the members of the Dante Society believes in good faith that he or she possesses the “sound mind” that Dante appeals to here? No one reconstructed the Christian doctrines that supposedly underlie the Comedy’s veils of allegory more piously than the great American Dante scholar Charles Singleton. Yet Singleton was an agnostic who took his own life, and one hopes for his sake that he was right when he declared, “The fiction of the Comedy is that it is not a fiction.” If the poem contains an arcane truth that is predicated on faith—not only in the medieval Christian God but also in Dante’s version of history, with its Holy Roman Emperors and all—then none of us will ever gain full access to it.
Fortunately the Comedy does not require such a passport for entry. Its reception over the centuries confirms that it gives itself without prejudice to “Presbyterians and Pagans alike,” to borrow a phrase from Herman Melville, himself a great Dante enthusiast. Despite a glut of English translations (well over a hundred, by my count), new versions of the entire poem or individual canticles continue to appear in rapid succession—six in the last decade alone.
In 2004 the visual artist Sandow Birk illustrated a demotic version that sets the Comedy in contemporary American urban landscapes. In 2005 the Eternal Kool Project released a rap album called The Inferno Rap, based on Henry Francis Cary’s 1806 translation. Gary Panter’s 2006 punk-pop graphic novel Jimbo’s Inferno was followed in 2009 by the popular video game Dante’s Inferno. Roberto Benigni’s long-running comedy routine “Tutto Dante” continues to draw huge audiences, and, oblivious to it all, the industry of Dante studies churns out ever more scholarly articles, monographs, and academic conferences.
In Dan Brown’s new thriller, Inferno, Dante’s first canticle holds the clues to a global bioterrorist plot that threatens humanity. If nothing else, the novel lends evidence to what its protagonist, Professor Robert Langdon, declares in his lecture to the Dante Society in Vienna, namely that “no single work of writing, art, music, or literature has inspired more tributes, imitations, variations, and annotations than The Divine Comedy.” (Like everything else in this astonishingly bad novel, Langdon’s lecture lacks verisimilitude. Delivered in a great hall to over two thousand people who gasp, sigh, or murmur at every commonplace remark, it serves as a narrative ploy to convey rudimentary information about Dante to…
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