Lesson 23






1. Clay & Skin

2. Gilgamesh

3. Acts of God

4. Genesis


5. Odysseus

6. Men like

7. Socrates

8. Alexander

9. Virgil

10. Paul


11. Krishna

12. Rama

13. Kalidasa

14. Buddha

15. Confucius

16. Lao Tse


17. Quran

18. Beowulf

19. Genji

20. Survival Itself


21. Dante 1

22. Dante 2

 23. Dante 3

 24. Chaucer

25. Journey to the West

26. New World

27. Indians

28. Don Quixote



























































































































































































































Dante Hits Bottom


1. Read Dante's Inferno cantos 24-34 (Damrosch B985-B1025). A prose paraphrase of Dante's Inferno also appears on this website.

2. Skim the page below, and then journal for an hour.

3. If you are enrolled in this course for credit, go to the Angel web site, take the quiz for this lesson, and submit your World Literature Journal to Dr. G.







What makes us most unhappy of all?
















Left: a piece of the Parthenon frieze representing the battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs. The contention of human and animal in man is an ancient theme.






In Inferno's lowest
regions, circles 7-9, the intellect is strong but corrupt, devoted to the creation of unhappiness.




































Left:  Dante's meeting with his teacher Brunetto Latini (Dore's illustration). We must emphasize that this is a dream image of Brunetto. It is not how Brunetto really is or was; it is how Brunetto appears to Dante when Dante is not thinking wisely but using his mind  maliciously to against Florence.




















Left: Boniface VIII, early 14th century Gothic image sized extra-tall by Arnolfino de Cambrio (Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence, Italy).






























Left: Dante's first biographer Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375), image by Andrea del Castagno (Uffizi Museum, Florence). Boccaccio rebuked Florence for the dishonors it had piled on Dante, but his biography offers no proof that Dante was unjustly accused.

























Is intellect bothering you? Here's a tip. Take it from me. (Portrait of a Gentleman by Andrea del Castagno, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.)
















































Left: circle 8, the first two furrows of Malebolge (pimps, seducers and flatterers) depicted in narrative painting by Sandro Botticelli (1506). Dante's self-righteousness is on display in the bottom circles of Inferno.












































Dante and Beatrice






Dante's Eurasia stretches around half of the globe, and it with Africa is the habitat of all living people. This land mass and all human life are shaped especially by one prehistoric event, a cosmic catastrophe. In the time before people, a portion of the heavens fell burning toward the earth, and the brightest of the falling objects, known as Lucifer, scored a direct hit, dead center in Eurasia at the place now called Jerusalem.

Inferno is the impact crater, a pit that seems as if it had been designed as a series of ever-narrower, ever-deeper rings down to the center of earth's core. Since the creation of humankind and continuing into the present, human spirits of earth-bound desire have fallen into this hole, where they remain until the end of the world lodged in order of worldliness, like deposits sorted by weight. Though not Lucifer's victims, these fallen people are physically his followers. Some of them can wiggle a little, but like him they aren't ever going anywhere.

 Human Malice: Hostility
(Circle 7)

Beyond Dis lies a third river, a manmade Channel of Blood guarded by a dysfunctional Minotaur and a herd of armed centaurs. In terms of the triune brain, these beast-men mark the dividing line between the midbrain and the cortex. Their ambivalent behavior is represented by the belligerent centaur Nessus, barely socialized enough to ford the channel and carry the pilgrim across from the animal to the human side (Inf. 12:49). But arrival on the shores of stronger intellect is not the end of suffering. The places of intentional violence and other forms of malicious behavior still lie ahead on the pilgrim's tour, and that's about two-thirds of the total lines of Inferno (a proportion roughly equal to that of the cortex to total brain mass).

Bestial imagery does not disappear entirely in these lower circles. In the ditch of thieves in the eighth circle, for example, the crooks Buoso and Cianfa have between them only one body that is human in form; their other body form is reptilian. Since both thieves prefer the human body, the reptilian thief is always taking it and casting off his reptile body onto the rival (Inf. 25: 34). Another beastly outlier is the clever centaur Cacus who is smart enough to make his living by stealing cattle, though not wise enough to avoid stealing them from Hercules (Inf. 25:1). Nevertheless, despite such occasional cases of half-wittedness, circles 7, 8 and 9 are focused primarily on the intellect's creation and support of unhappiness, a corrupt condition of mind that Dante calls malice.

As Virgil analyzes it at the opening of canto 11, malice can take the form of hostility (as shown in circle 7) or fraud (circles 8-9), These two types correspond to the Achillean and Odyssean models of heroism. The hostile are subdivided into three rings according to the victims of their violence: there's hostility against neighbor, hostility against self, and hostility against God. The frauds similarly are subdivided into two rings: fraud against strangers and personal fraud. Personal fraud is presented as the worst of all painful conditions since it isolates the performer by breaking bonds of trust with family, friends, or community.

The lowest circles are the darkest points in Dante's self-revelation. In the seventh circle, the key interviews, Pier delle Vigne in the wood of suicides and Brunetto Latini on the burning sands, are, like Dante, would-be Roman imperial poets whose political misfortunes have isolated them in self-consuming hatred. The pilgrim is sympathetic to both of these self-afflicted souls, especially the humanist Latini, in reality an international man of letters whose exilic allegorical fantasy Tesoretto was a primary poetic model for the Commedia. Dante's characterization of Brunetto's defiant contempt for the people of Florence indeed is much less fitting to the historical character of Dante's teacher (he returned from exile to hold city offices and eventually die a respected Florentine) than to the permanently alienated Dante. It is not the whole man but only the anger of Brunetto's exile that attracts the angry student's attention; Dante has not seen the better points that this teacher offers.

Brunetto advises the pilgrim that he will flourish only if he avoids Florence. Dante's exile led him to pride himself in writing abrasive social analysis. The biting sarcasm of the seventh circle powerfully conveys the violent resentment of the aristocratic old guard to the emerging materialism in the early modern European world. The old Roman world with its devotion to nobility and self-sacrifice has given way to a commercial world of antisocial knights of greed and arrogance. Life revolving around money is imaged in the circle of faceless usurers who have no identity other than a purchased coat of arms painted garishly on the money bags hanging from their necks (Inf. 17: 31-78). This is great satire, but Dante's more subtle point is that it is going nowhere on the road to happiness. It is the corrupt cortex justifying and supporting Dante's alienation from home.

 Human Malice: Fraud
(Circles 8-9): Dante gets the dirt on Dante

The cortex does not need interference from the lower brains to produce misery. The intellect is quite capable of spinning false realities and making them over again, whenever it may seem convenient to revise the truth (i.e., compound the lies). When the storyteller's art is applied, any wrong can be made to appear as innocent or appropriate; blame can always be transferred to the accusers. We are all familiar with these deceptions in our age of moral relativism, talking heads and spin. Based on Dante's personal experience, Inferno warns that these deceptions are among the sources of greatest unhappiness. They put us out of touch with reality.

Ironically, the polysemantic system of Inferno is itself a kind of fraud. Dante overtly condemns others for faults that he covertly understands to be his own.  One example is the pope hole in Malebolge (circle 8, ditch 3; Inf.19), where the pilgrim denounces simony (selling of services) but implicitly exposes his own greed. The personal analogy is made clear when, in the hole upside down, Pope Nicholas III mistakes the pilgrim for Pope Boniface VIII, Dante's arch-enemy who had detained him at the Vatican while sending the expatriate Black Guelphs and French troops into Florence to overthrow Dante's government and to expel the Whites.

How can Dante be mistaken for his enemy? Like Boniface, Dante is a perpetrator of self-serving imperialist fraud. Boniface had decreed that all political power everywhere rests in the papacy; in On Monarchy Dante had contended that it rests completely in the Roman emperor, under total separation of church and state. The two ideologies were similar frauds in the sense that they were pretexts for personal political ambitions and also in that they were delusional, ending in frustration and shame. Dante's characterization of Nicholas as a thief motivated by financial insecurity is a similarly dark self-reflection. Nicholas and Boniface practiced simony, but Dante too sold out, abusing his office as poet in an unseemly attempt to gain a big Virgilian payoff.

The Malebolge episodes (circle 8) also reflect Dante's dishonesty as an officer of Florence and his subsequent hypocrisy and cover-up. With their new Black leadership installed and the Whites driven out, the Florentines accused and convicted Dante in absentia of charges of corruption in public office, either as road superintendent or city prior or both. We are not sure of the exact allegations that Dante refused to answer, but they cannot have been minor offenses, if we judge on the basis of the penalty imposed. Dante was sentenced to death by burning if he should ever be caught in Florence--and indeed he stayed out of town for the rest of his life. Can we sure that Dante deserved this sentence? Standard accounts of Dante's life suggest that the charges against him were trumped up and politically motivated, but this view is supported  only by circumstantial evidence (i.e., the Blacks expelled the Whites so they must have fabricated the case against Dante simply to get rid of him). We should hold a man innocent until proven guilty, of course, but in this case it seems that the suspect confessed.

In the crime and punishment system of Inferno, Dante's graft should be punished by the Malebranche demons who submerge bribe-takers in the boiling tar pit of Malebolge (circle 8, ditch 5; Inf. 21-22). In fact, this pit (road tar?) holds special terror for the pilgrim. The bumbling but vicious Malebranche (the prototype Keystone cops) understand the pilgrim's guilt, though Virgil does not, and they threaten to tear him with their pitchforks. Following the example of the clever grafter Ciampolo (Inf. 22: 31-123), however, the pilgrim narrowly escapes these tormenters. Using Virgil's backside, he slides to safety in the valley of the hypocrites (Inf. 23: 1-57) where he finds reflections of his career as prior, the Jolly Friars Catalino and Roderino. When these hypocrites jointly governed Florence as co-magistrates a generation before Dante's time, they proclaimed themselves bipartisan peacemakers but secretly served only one faction (the Guelphs against the Ghibellines), and eventually they were expelled for corruption. Dante's career in office followed a similar path.

Beneath hypocrisy Dante shows us a lower depth of self-righteous fraud in which blame is transferred to the accuser. After concealing his faults and attempting to run and hide from the punishment that he deserves, the pilgrim tries to rescue his reputation by shifting the blame, accusing his accusers of being crooks. As soon as Virgil teaches the pilgrim to look after his fame  (Inf. 24: 1-60), the pilgrim undertakes a rhetorically heavy but factually ungrounded tirade against Florence. He portrays the city as a shameful den of thieves who dishonor one another and hate God (Inf. 24: 61- 25:151), a city deserving Dante's curse (Inf. 26:1)

Ironically it is this image of Dante as a wronged prophet that has been handed down through the biographical tradition of the poet's life, beginning with Boccaccio's flattering tribute to his literary predecessor (written cir.1350-1355, a generation after Dante's death). The truth is that the pilgrim's hysterical accusations against Florence are made in the land of fraud. The words here cannot properly be taken at face value.

Heroic fraud puts Dante in the danger that Homer's braggart Odysseus discovered in the cave of Polyphemus. [Recall the man-eating cyclops whose name means "much fame," discussed in Lesson 5.] The famous are eaten like the Black Bull of Lascaux. That's the fate of Dante's Ulysses in the Valley of the Heroes in Malebolge (circle 8, ditch 8; Inf. 26:43-142)--to be cooked over the flames. He "veils himself in the flame that burns him." Allegorically, this is Dante's state, too, in the depth of his deceits among his patrons in exile. Making himself shine for others with his intelligence and seemingly clever words, Dante inwardly burns for his lies. Others can see his bright little flame, amid thousands of other flames like those of so many fireflies, but they cannot see him as he really is, being burned in the flame. The exile lives trapped in a fictitious fantasy world of his own making, not the world of nature in which he might have been happy, his mind devoted to truth.

Dante shared the entertainer's talents of Odysseus at the foreign court of Phaeacia, yet he could not get home simply by telling a good story.  Odysseus was delighted by the cunning lies he concocted, no matter who was hurt by them, but apparently nothing was more painful to Dante than the life of lies that he had developed in his alienation from Florence.  Confessing these matters, albeit allegorically, Dante maintained an appreciation for the truth. For that reason, in his own mind at least, he gets to climb Mount Purgatory and burn away his unhappiness, where Ulysses drowned within sight of the shore.

at the neuron level

Maladies of mind are not always caused by improper thinking, for some have chemical and physiological causes. For those who can think themselves out of unhappiness, however, there are at least two different ways to go about it. A bad neural network can be bypassed and replaced with a new one or, alternately, the old network can be repaired.

The network bypass method is practiced these days in cognitive psychology. This fix avoids the negative. As we think of more and more reasons to be unhappy, or as we replay the same unhappy thought over and over, our sense of depression grows with the ever more-strongly bonded neurons in that potentiated network. This is the neurology of Aeneas' downward spiral into a debilitating sense of "the tears of things," as he retells the tragic fall of Troy every night at Carthage to please self-destructive Dido (Aeneid book 2). Induction occurs when we play Homer every night and recount the fall of our city for umpteenth time: whatever we choose to think becomes increasingly easier to believe the more that we think it. Therefore, cognitive therapies rely on positive thinking to induce happiness. In time, patients in this therapy simply forget to be unhappy. Their old thoughts slowly weaken with disuse as the new network grows stronger through repetition. Aeneas takes on the new project of developing Rome, a project big enough to keep his mind off his past losses.

Not only the Aeneid but fiction in general can help authors and audiences to build network bypasses. And these cures can be substantial: instead of writing simply an after-dinner song that aids tonight's digestion and sleep, more ambitious fiction can attempt to produce lasting changes in the brain. We might imagine that this personal rehabilitation is what poor old exiled Dante was doing at his writing table for the last seven years of his life, composing the Commedia. Yet why would he begin such a task by reflecting on all of the past errors of his life, as Inferno seems to do? Wouldn't that negative focus simply reinforce his unhappiness, as cognitive theory suggests? Why write Inferno

There is a second way for writers to harness literature's  power of instruction. It's Dante's dark path through the woods, the network repair method. In psychology, its parallel is classic psychotherapy. Freud's "talking cure" repairs the problem network by confronting negative thoughts directly. In a successful network repair, the patient describes the sources or origins of the unhappiness in an autobiographical narrative, and this story-telling itself begins the therapeutic process.

Although psychotherapy seems far removed from cognitive therapy and its underlying neurological theory, there is theoretical justification for it--and justification that does not depend on any of Freud's superseded ideas about the unconscious or other aspects of human nature. When we tell a story about ourselves, we divide in two: the person talking (the narrator) separates from the person talked about (the subject). When the narrator gets proper control, the subject (the unhappy one, the nightmare self) comes under control of the story-teller. It's this narrator's control that is the key to overcoming unhappiness, but there are right and wrong ways to go about it. The narrative must be self-constructed, but cannot seem to the self to be dishonest. In Dante's idiom, if there's fraud, we still flounder in the deepest circles in hell. The way out begins with intellectually satisfying confession.

Before Freud and Dante, the practice of self-transcendence was used in the medieval church, more or less as in Roman Catholicism today. A sinner had to confess, fully and freely, in order for the healing process to occur. Whether medieval Christianity revealed God or God's plan for mankind can be questioned, but the culture undeniably helped to reveal individuals to themselves, for the important and necessary purpose of self-improvement. In this sense it kept alive the ancient injunction of the Delphic oracle, know thyself. Dante obviously was well aware of network repair in this public ritual form, and he followed Augustine's confessional lead in adapting it to the practice of literary art.

Human beings have not only multiple brains but also, if they live long enough, multiple lives from which stories can be made. Dante the aging poet transcends his younger selves, represented by the pilgrim who was the victim of his appetites, the coward who lived in terror of violence, the intellectual who devoted his mind to malice and fraud. The poet in retrospect understands and admits those terrible mistakes. The Inferno is Dante's first-stage mind repair, his confession, his talking cure, his means to establish perspective and objectivity that enable the pursuit of happiness to begin.

Additional related readings
and journal topics


1. Further general info for Dante

Digital Dante

Dante on the Web

Dante Studies by Otfried Lieberknecht

Dante Page

2. What makes the Commedia a classic? How does Dante manage to transform personal experience into art that has interested millions of people over the course of centuries.

3. How is Dante a product of his reading? We have described how culture is made by literature, how readers grow like-minded by absorbing the same text. How does this phenomenon apply to Dante?

4. Malice: How does one escape whose mind is habituated to hostility and fraud?

5. Homer and Dante. Compare the last voyage of Ulysses, in Inferno 26: 85-142, with Homer's account of Odysseus' voyages in the Odyssey. It has been said that Dante did not know Greek so he cannot have known Homer's poems, but he could have known a translation, and he was certainly well aware of the so-called "medieval matter of Troy," retellings of the Trojan War by medieval authors. If you had to decide whether or the the extent to which Dante knew Homer, what clues are available?

6. The name "hell," as used in conventional Christian rhetoric, slanders the ancient Hellenes, and their legendary common ancestor Hellen, the eldest son of the flood survivors Deucalion and Pyrrha (see Apollodorus, Library 1.7.2). The Hellenists' Roman and later Christian conquerors mythologized Hellenist mysteries of the afterlife as a dark underground of evil and well-deserved suffering. The revision began with Emperor Augustus' favorite poem, the Aeneid, which transformed his destruction of Greek civilization into an act of piety. When pilgrim Dante sees Hellenic heroes in the underworld through Virgil's imperialist Roman eyes, they are a people who did not follow God's laws but were misguided by their own appetites, hatefulness and fraud.

Is Virgil a reliable guide? How accurate are the Roman critiques of the Greeks?

In Dante, both Greece and Rome are superseded, at least after Dante gave up on becoming another Virgil. What grounds does Dante have to believe that the medieval Roman Catholic culture of his period was superior to its classical predecessors?

7. Purgatory and Paradise: Beyond Inferno, the remaining two parts of Dante's meditation have to do with overcoming sorrow (Purgatorio) and finding joy (Paradiso). They are full of passages of haunting beauty, well worth study. 

Instructor: gutchess@englishare.net 
Copyright © 2005, 2006