On Reading Dante’s “Inferno”

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On Reading Dante’s Inferno

By Ann Folwell Stanford

Member since 2017

Recently, three things happened at once. Coronavirus exploded around the world. I received a devastating letter from my grown son. My partner and I pretty much had to flee Mexico, where we’d been for three months as she taught at the University of the Yucatán. We were quarantined as soon as we got home and the world seemed to be tilting. I felt I was sliding off.

I began to read Dante’s Inferno — one of those poems I had promised myself I’d get to “later” — by sheer happenstance as I came across the first canto online and thought, “yes; I know something of what the narrator is experiencing.” Oh yes, I did. And so, I got the full version and began reading.

“Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.”

How dark seems the world right now, how fearsome. What we know as normal life has suddenly been upended. We collectively, but at different times, “came to” when we realized that the virus was no longer over there, and that we were deeply in the woods. What a slow, agonizing and hard awakening it was. World leaders didn’t know if sounding the alarm would cause more harm than good; some leaders chose to ignore it even when it became clear that the crisis was global and growing worse. Dante’s woods resonate with the ones we are in:

“Ah, how hard it is to tell
the nature of that wood, savage, dense and harsh—
the very thought of it renews my fear!”

In the midst of his lostness, Dante sees a hill’s “shoulders/ arrayed in the first light of the planet/ that leads men straight, no matter what their road.”  Light! Hope! All he has to do is climb up. Easy. But he is thwarted by three wild animals: a leopard, lion, and she-wolf. He is terrified by their aggressive and threatening approach, especially the she-wolf, and begins to turn back in utter despair.

And like one who rejoices in his gains
but when the time comes and he loses,
turns all his thought to sadness and lament,

such did the restless beast make me—
coming against me, step by step,
it drove me down to where the sun was silent.

The silence of the sun (‘l sol tace) is such a provocative phrase. What is the language of the sun? And what is its silence? It has been said that a silent sun represents midday when it seems suspended and the temperature is at its hottest and most brutal. I also think of a silent sun as an absent one where no light exists, a place where darkness is, as Milton said, “visible.” It is not a nice place to be.

Dante Alighieri
Dante Alighieri

And then something happens. Virgil’s ghost appears. Dante’s beloved Virgil comes not just to offer sympathy, but to guide him out of his misery. At first blush, it sounds as bad as what Dante’s current situation is: he must descend into Hell, witnessing the misery of the lost and understanding the reasons for their torment. But Dante will have a guide through those nine circles of Hell.

Grim, I know. But there is something comforting in thinking about the fact that Dante the writer understood that none of us get through our lives unscathed, and that we need help from others and it is precisely from others that grace arrives.

And so, the journey begins. Mine too. I still have many cantos to read before I see the outcome of Dante’s journey. I have another 13 days of quarantine to find out if I was infected by the virus as I rushed to get out of Mexico—three airports, two planes and exposure to a terrifying number of people.  I’m still raw from the letter I received from my son. It’s going to be a rigorous journey to the sunlight.

Dante's Inferno

Reading Dante’s gorgeous work (I’m using the bilingual edition of the Hollander translation, by the way) helps me situate my personal fear and anxiety–along with Chicago’s and the world’s growing horror–in the context of what it means to be human and vulnerable to a powerfully destructive viral entity so small it can only be apprehended under magnification; to be vulnerable to the pain of a grown child in which I played a part many years ago; to be vulnerable to the threat of a global economic collapse; to be vulnerable to death; and yet not as vulnerable as the millions of others with minimal resources.

Dante reminds me to think about the condition of being human and the need I have—we have—to connect with each other, to be agents of grace as we journey through whatever hell we find ourselves in until we can “see again the stars.”

Written by Ann Folwell Stanford, American Writers Museum member since 2017.

One thought on “On Reading Dante’s “Inferno”

  1. Jose Vieira Arruda says:

    Dear Ann Stanford, thank you for this very well written and insightful article. it is definitely an invitation to return to the sources and Dante is part of “the sources”. It also connects very well with our present COVID-19 reality: one of fear and uncertainty. We, humans, are certainly fragile and vulnerable, to say the least, and, as we all know but too often forget, the only way we could make is, as you say, by “connecting with each other” and becoming, for each other “agents of grace”. Thank you. José

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