One of the strangest aspects of Dante is that his hell is not made up solely of types or famous exemplars or figures, but rather local no-names; even those who were famous in Dante’s time are usually not famous enough to be remembered by the average reader. Similarly, the text is entangled in a politics that now feels obscure – the pressing issues for Dante have become historical footnotes that most of us only know in fact on account of reading the Comedy. This can be annoying for readers; these matters can feel like the inside joke that alienates those not in the know. It is no wonder that such alienated readers have been put off by the text and accused Dante of bringing his own petty concerns into a theological system that ought to be treated as so much “higher”.
But I feel like there is something more than this that discomfits readers – or at least me – upon encountering Dante’s organization of hell. Simply put, I think that, if Dante’s purpose were simply to get catharsis by putting his opponents in hell, he would sound much more like Swift in his more embittered moments. Swift had good reason to be embittered, and much of it was turned to good use, but there are moments when, reading him, we find ourselves cringing at his unabashed spite in some of his caricatures. Dante is different though. We cringe for different reasons.
Particularly, I think we cringe because our encounter with Dante’s figures and politics drives home our own proximity to sin. Modern readers are manifestly comfortable with types and symbols and such because they can remain just that – one can imagine a manifestly proud person, or an unfaithful person etc. while at the same time making excuses for oneself regarding one’s own relation to such vices: “Clearly the Satanic arch-figure is evil, but in my case there are extenuating circumstances and things are so much more complex – there is environment and upbringing and genes etc. to account for…” What makes us uncomfortable about Dante though is that he does not offer us figures that can be magicked away into irrelevant ether. We (post)moderns are polite and non-judgmental in our approach to the characters in the Inferno, but I think this approach is not always so altruistic as we think: We judge not lest we realize that our neighbours might be sinners, which means that we too might be sinners too. This is something we don’t like to think about because, whether secular or Christian, we prefer to hide behind a mask of ostensible morality, and this often involves denying, even to ourselves, the extent of our sinfulness. This I think is not hard to see in Christian circles, what with the many scandals etc. that one encounters in which people have been seemingly living multiple disconnected lives. What I don’t think we as readily notice is that the same thing happens with whatever other so-called values we adopt in society: multiculturalism, environmentalism, liberty, equality, fraternity etc. Society becomes a self-justifying system such that it needs to destroy whatever threatens its facade of progress and good values – and the things that threaten it just happen to be sinners, that is, all of us. In making this claim, I am not I hope simply inventing charges, for it comes out of direct experience I have had with societal treatment of mental health. We are far more interested in demonstrating that we are helpful, and getting the attached funding and accolades, than we are in actually being helpful.
This of course leaves us with the question of what to do about all this muck that Dante dredges up in us. The answer is simple and swift in its striking: