6. Dante, Inferno:

Discussion topics: Exile, what is it?  discuss it in terms of time and space (place); relation of exile to poetry/writing/language.  Discuss a sin you find compelling and the punishment accords to it in hell (non-commitment? suicide? avrice? we discussed these in the park) Which one do you think is the characteristic sin of OUR TIMES (in Dante’s time it seems to have been the traitors).  You may of course write on another topic.

dante on bedford Sq 2 Dante on Bedford Square P1010912 P1010914


5 thoughts on “6. Dante, Inferno:

  1. Speaking as someone who, for most of my life, has consistently identified “home” with any space with a decent floor, mirrors, and music, the first time I found myself mentally tagging London as “home” was something of a heady experience. In this city I had found, quite unexpectedly, a place where I felt like myself, where I could grow and be challenged but also find comfort in the present. Going back to my hometown of Lafayette, Louisiana for Christmas only highlighted this—I was glad to be around people I love and care about and appreciated the familiarity of the city in which I had lived for eighteen years—but missing London wasn’t too bad because I knew I would be returning in short order. But in just under three months, I’ll board a plane to America and I won’t be coming back. I won’t even have an option to, because my visa to study in the UK expires in the summer. As Professor Yousefzadeh pointed out to me in class, perhaps that will be exile, because I won’t be able to come back—at least, not with any degree of permanence in the foreseeable future. I am going to New York in the fall, and London and New York do share quite a lot of the characteristics that drew me to both cities in common. But New York is not London, and frankly I have no idea how I’ll fit there. I fear that as amazing a city as it is, the fact that it just isn’t London—isn’t home—will be lurking in the back of my mind.

    I think that exile is defined by not having a real possibility to return to a place that is, undeniably, home in the foreseeable future. Dante and Machiavelli were both exiled from their mutual home city of Florence, the city they loved above all others. Sure, they had places to go, places with people they cared about and that perhaps had many of the same attractions and features that Florence did. But it simply would not be the same for either of them. These other cities would not be home—much like Majnun was unable to see any woman other than Layla (Layli), even those who looked remarkably like her, because they simply were not her. The present becomes irrelevant because of this longing for what has passed and futile hope for the future—not unlike the inhabitants of Dante’s Inferno, who can see the future and remember the past while knowing nothing of the present outside of their torments.

    So what did they do? They wrote masterpieces. Majnun wrote his poetry. Machiavelli’s The Prince is sometimes described as a work of passion, one that was born from his longing for his home city that he had served so faithfully during his fifteen years working for the republic. Dante gave us The Divine Comedy. Of course there is an obvious comparison here to Rumi’s “The Reed Flute’s Song” and Plato’s Symposium. In Rumi’s poem, the reed flute sings because of the pain of longing, of wanting to be returned to its home—without separation, there would be only silence. In Symposium, Aristophanes tells his allegorical tale of the separated halves and the resultant longing for reunion every person has. This theme is developed further in Diotima’s speech, where Eros is defined as the desire to have what one has not, to possess it forever, and to create in a beautiful medium. All of this adds up to the idea that the pain caused by separation (or exile) from what one loves in any form—a person, a home—leads to creation.

    I think it is more than just the pain of longing created by exile that leads to artistic output, however. There is something about being separated from home, from what you love, that reveals who you are to yourself. When I fractured my ankle four years ago and couldn’t, in my mind, go home (to the studio), I discovered many things about myself that I had not fully grasped before. Or take the study abroad experience: we’re encouraged to do this to learn about a new culture, to experience new things, but what I think this experience really reveals is yourself—that is, if you pay attention. And once you know who you are, you realize what it is that you have to say that no one else does, and it is from that understanding that art emerges. As Martha Graham put it, “…because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique.” Getting away from home can reveal who you are—being forced to stay away, I think, leaves one no choice but to use that knowledge and longing to create in some manner, or else languish in silence.

  2. The theme of the exile is, without any doubt, central to Dante’s work. After being banished from his beloved Florence in 1301, he never returned to his homecountry, and was doomed to a life-lasting pilgrimage around Italy. This was, most likely, the main happening in his life (or at least the one that marked him the most), along with his love for Beatrice (obviously!). The Supreme Poet was exiled from his city due to political reasons, and due to his active role in political life. It doesn’t take much effort to realize how important this exile was for him in terms of his ideas and later works (although he could’ve stayed in Florence paying a fine, but he refused): the Divine Comedy takes the form of an allegoric story, in which the writer himself is the main character of the story. We find him “in medias res”, lost in the Selva Oscura, the dark forest; not much later his journey begins, suggesting the similarities between Dante the poet and Dante the pilgrim, both wandering towards an end: the poet wishing to go back to his beloved Florence, the pilgrim aspiring to the Heaven and God.
    I also believe there is another story of exile within the Divine Comedy (Inferno to be precise), as Hell was created by Lucifer, the Devil: he was once the most beautiful and appreciated of all angels, who then lost control of his mind, sinning of arrogance, regarding himself better than God. A battle burst out, at the end of which Lucifer was defeated and banished from Heaven: God hurled him towards the Earth, but since not even the land was willing to come in contact with him, it pulled back, creating the whole which is Hell, and compensating on the opposite side of the globe with the mount of Purgatory, which Dante later reached through the “natural burella”.
    And what sinners do we find in proximity to the Devil? Traitors. Exactly what Dante had been accused of, and the reason why he was exiled. Not a coincidence.
    If we try to think about the consequences that the exile has had on Dante, we quickly come to the conclusion that he was inspired to write his masterpiece due to this event, as a consequence of his pilgrimage around northern Italy. We would have virtually never had the possibility to read this text if he had not been sent off of Fiorenza. Moreover, he keeps on supporting his Guelf ideals (judging the Church several time throughout the three Cantiche). The exile and Dante’s subsequent will to return to his origins allowed him to mature in his own self what is expressed in the Inferno: the melancholic language is a reflection of his inner feelings. The exile was transformed by Dante from something which was supposed to make him politically sterile, to an instrument of poetical fertility.


    I love Dante’s Inferno because he provides his own answer to the questions that I deal with every day. I may not be consciously worrying what will happen to everyone once they die, but it is an overarching question that I think about often. Similarly, I struggle with some of my interactions with people who I believe are unjust or committing a “sin.” And by sin I do not mean a religious sin, but an action that, in my opinion, warrants some sort of punishment. Everyone creates his or her own hell. We all decide what actions are most sinful, who belongs in our personal hell, and we choose whether or not to enter this hell on our own. In my opinion, hell is a mindset that people can enter any time they choose to, it is a conscious choice to enter your own hell. Hence, I love Dante because he makes this personal hell come to life.

    The Wood of the Suicides in Canto XIV represents the most compelling circle of hell for me. I had a friend in high school who attempted to commit suicide, and this profoundly impacted me. Ever since then, I began to wonder what could push a person to that specific point where he or she cannot handle the outside world. Suicide has always been an action that makes me shudder just thinking about it. I cannot imagine the immense pain that a person could be going through to resort to hurting his or her own body, the most sacred possession. I can understand that suicide is a sin in a religious context, however, it is so cruel to imagine those who commit suicide are left to suffer for all of their eternal lives. I’d imagine that they suffered enough during their mortal lives.

    The extreme irony of the Wood of the Suicides is compelling, indicating that a person really never can escape his or her own body even after that person takes his or her own life. The forest is lined with dark, overarching trees that were once humans in the real world before they took their own lives. Dante describes these trees in Canto XII, “No green leaves, but rather black in color, no smooth branches, but twisted and entangled, no fruit, but thorns of poison bloomed instead.” The most hauntingly beautiful portion of this canto is a quote from one of the trees after one of his branches is torn off. Here is the tree’s speech regarding the placement into the seventh circle:

    “‘The moment that the violent soul departs the body it has torn itself away from, Minos sends it down to the seventh hole; it drops to the wood, not in a place allotted, but anywhere that fortune tosses it. There, like a grain of spelt, it germinates, soon springs into a sapling, then a wild tree; at last the Harpies, feasting on its leaves, create its pain, and for the pain an outlet. Like the rest, we shall return to claim our bodies, but never again to wear them – wrong is it for a man to have again what he once cast off. We shall drag them here and, all along the mournful forest, our bodies shall hang forever more, each one on a thorn of its own alien shade.'”

    When I read the above excerpt, chills run down my spine and I start to feel my eyes swell up. I have such a strong emotional connection to this type of cruelty because I have known someone who went through similar pain in her life and tried to take it away, to imagine her or any other lost soul who tried to “cast off” her own body enduring such immense pain eternally is beyond cruel. In a literary sense, this circle is the most perfect representation of Dante’s hell, in my opinion, because it is the cruelest of them all. However, in my personal hell, suicides do not belong there. They belong in a happier place. As I’ve stated, we all create our own hell.

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