Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Bottom of Hell

In theology classes, the question "Does Hell have a ceiling?" is a familiar, unanswerable chestnut -- like the number of licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop, 'the world may never know.' It definitely has a floor, though. It comes as a surprise to many that in Dante's vision, the bottommost layer is a lake not of fire, but ice -- symbolizing the immobility, the stasis, the incapacity for change that, for him, were the ultimate marks of evil.

"It is no easy undertaking to describe the bottom of the Universe," as Dante himself admits in Canto XXXII, but describe it he must. And, as he so often does, Dante suggests this vastness with little things, as he unknowingly stubs his toe on the twinned heads of Alessandro and Napoleone, brothers and Counts of Mangona -- famous for having killed one another. Nearby is Mordred, the treacherous nephew of King Arthur, for he, too, is guilty of killing kindred. Most of the other inhabitants of this final, dread circle are unknown to us today, but in its center stands Satan, three-headed in mockery of the Trinity, with a different traitor in each mouth -- and their names are are familiar: Brutus and Cassius, who betrayed Caesar, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Christ. That men who killed a pagan emperor are grouped with a man who betrayed God himself may seem strange, but Virgil assures Dante that Judas is  "the soul that suffers most," since he is both burned by Satan's "fiery chin" and mangled in his maw.

Worse is yet to come, as the only exit is for the two Poets to climb down Satan's hairy backside, with all that that implies (thankfully, Dante spares us a description, but suggests the disgust by having Virgil turn his eyes away and stare at his own feet). The next stop for them is the Purgatorio, where those who suffer only from venial sins have them 'burnt and purged away' -- but we emerge, perhaps more jovially, into the world of Chaucer.

So has this journey been worth it? Have the vivid crimes and punishments contained within this diabolical funnel amused us or frightened us, reassured us of justice or caused us to doubt it? Pick an inner circle, and someone within it, whose sad fate stirred you the most, and say why:

Friday, January 22, 2016

Send Someone to Hell

We all probably know someone -- some public figure, entertainer, politician, actor, or celebrity, living or dead -- whom we'd like to see in Hell. There are the usual candidates: Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Jeffrey Dahmer. Or perhaps you have a pet peeve? Can't stand the sound of Justin Bieber's voice (even when slowed down 800%)? Heard a commercial for Dance Moms once too often? Bothered by Donald Trump's comb-over? Now is your chance for revenge.

You are Minos, the judge, whose tail coils 'round the sinner once for each circle of Hell they are to descend. And once you get your sinner to his or her reserved seat, don't stop there. The punishment should fit the crime, and you can be as creative as you like: trapped for eternity in a Costco? Forced to eat nothing but bags of expired, stale Cheese Doodles? Strapped to a giant turntable while some giant demon plays DJ? You pick.

So, for this week, name your victim, place them in the appropriate circle in Dante's Inferno (and explain why they are there), then describe there punishment. And don't forget to use plenty of adjectives.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Dante's Inferno

When Dante Alighieri proposed to write his epic treatment of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven -- under the collective title The Divine Comedy, it was not the subject matter that was revolutionary -- it was his decision to write in the vernacular (Italian) rather than Latin, which until then had been thought of as the only language suited to such serious poetry. It was not just that Italian wasn't as prestigious, but also that it had no standard form at that time; Dante tackled this problem in a treatise written in Latin, De Vulgari Eloquentia ('On Eloquence in the Vernacular'). In it, he argued that one's native language, because one learns it in infancy 'sine omnia regula' (without any rules), and because it is the language of love, is in fact far closer to the soul, and to the heart, than any 'secondary' language such as Latin.

The vernacular revolution had started a generation earlier, with the Troubadours, whom Dante greatly admired; among them was Arnaut Daniel, whom Dante honored by calling him 'il milgior fabbro del parlar materno' ("the better craftsman of the mother tongue"). The key difference was his taking this language from the enigmatic love-lyrics of the Troubadours to the epic architecture of a massive three-volume journey beyond the grave. In this, as in other things, Dante, though an innovator, saw himself as a follower of those who came before, chiefly Virgil, who appears here as his guide.

Dante was no theologian -- but he did take care that his representations of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise sorted sin with precision. Generally, Hell was for those who had committed "mortal sins" -- willful violations of God's commandments -- and had not obtained absolution; as to "venial sins" -- lesser sins, or sins committed out of ignorance or carelessness, these could be 'burnt and purged away' in Purgatory, with the length of one's stay proportionate to the sin. Those who were fully shriven and absolved could skip that step and head straight to Heaven (For a fuller explanation of moral vs. venial sin, see the Vatican's helpful website).

In the Inferno, which we'll be reading, the sins are therefore of the kind that can no longer be forgiven; aptly it is written over the gate, "Abandon Hope, Ye Who Enter Here." And yet, though damned, the habitants of Hell still have their pride; almost without exception, they ask Dante if, back among the living, their names are still remembered. And, when it came to the punishment fitting the crime, Dante's imagination was boundless: trees that bleed their speech in bloody sap; men hurled upside-down in latrines; rivers of blood and excrement, clothing wrought of solid lead. He was not above putting quite a few of his enemies -- and even a couple of his friends -- in Hell.

The influence of Dante's verse has been enormous -- on poets, illustrators, and writers of every kind. Even Bob Dylan, in "Tangled up in Blue," speaks with awe of Dante's words:
She opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the fifteenth century
And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burning coal
Pouring off of every page
Like it was written in my soul, from me to you.
And that's the way literature in the vernacular works -- it's not business, it's personal. From me to you.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Welcome to English 121

Map of the World as a "Tube" Map © Michael Tompsett
The idea that literature, like food or music or dance, should possess or embody a national culture, is quite a recent one in terms of world history. The older dream was of a universal literature, written in Greek or Latin and readable around the world and for all time. This dream, for better or worse, faded with the collapse of the ancient empires, particularly that of Rome. It wasn't until some centuries later, when nations were beginning to emerge from the medieval checkerboard of duchies and domains, that the idea of writing literature in one's own native language, and expressing the natural and national character of its speakers, began to emerge. It was this vernacular writing with which national literatures were born, and with them the sense that each nation ought to have its own pantheon of literary and artistic giants.

Today, while we can use terms like "American Literature," "Irish Literature," or "Japanese Literature," it's not always easy to separate them off.  People emigrate from country to country; most nations contain many languages, ethnicities, and faiths; the most successful literature is translated and read around the world. Still, each country's literary heritage has something of the essence of the nation in it, both as it might be perceived internally, and as it might be seen by others.