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,
brightest of the falling objects, known as Lucifer, scored a direct hit,
dead center in Eurasia at the place now
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
Dis lies a third river, a manmade Channel of Blood guarded by
a dysfunctional Minotaur and a herd of armed
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).
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,
circles are the darkest points in Dante's self-revelation. In the seventh circle,
the key interviews,
Pier delle Vigne in the wood of
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
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.
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
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.
(Circles 8-9): Dante gets the dirt on Dante
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.
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;
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.
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
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
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
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
deserves, the pilgrim tries to rescue his reputation by shifting the
blame, accusing his accusers of being crooks.
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.
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
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
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;
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.
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
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.
tell a story about ourselves, we divide in two: the person talking (the
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
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
Before Freud and Dante, the practice of self-transcendence was used in the medieval church, more or less as in
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
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
and journal topics
1. Further general info for Dante
Dante on the Web
Dante Studies by Otfried Lieberknecht
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
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
Is Virgil a
reliable guide? How accurate
are the Roman critiques of the Greeks?
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
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.