“The Divine Comedy: Inferno” by Dante Alighieri
(Written circa 1308 and completed in 1320 / This edition: Vintage Books 2013)
Taken with my postcards from Florence
Shed all hope, you who enter.
First of all, I’d like to explain my photo. I remember falling asleep reading it one night and woke up at 5am, alerted by the memory that I have postcards from Florence. (Dante was from Florence.) Though it was still dawn, I couldn’t fall back asleep and decided to get up to rummage through my collection of hundreds of postcards (organized in no order…so unorganized). I’ve been to Florence twice, but back in 2013 so my memory of my postcard purchases was kind of blurry. So you can imagine the intensity of my surprise and happiness when I saw that I actually have a postcard of a painting of Dante himself—with the illustrations of “The Divine Comedy” no less! Honestly, I had no idea who Dante was back then and just kind of chose the postcard randomly. The other two postcards are of the city of Florence.
My photo is pretty small so I’ve attached a bigger one at the end of this post. It depicts Dante holding a copy of “The Divine Comedy”, and you can see “Inferno” to the very left of the painting—with the sinners going down the nine levels of hell.
Anyway, I remember in August 2014 when I first started an internship, I was having drinks with the colleagues and we got to discussing books. One of them mentioned Dante’s “Inferno” and described how he enjoyed reading about it—about “going down and down the levels of hell” while doing this motion with his hand where his pointy finger was up and twirling in circles. And the second incident that triggered my curiosity was an episode in Mad Men where Don Draper was reading it at the beach—so, obviously I had to read it.
I didn’t get the book though until about two months ago. I was waiting for my friend in Kinokuniya and browsed through various editions of it. I read the first and second Canto while gauging whether I’d actually understand any of it before she showed up. I was able to comprehend most of it, more or less, and thought it’d be a good challenge. I decided to go with this Vintage Books edition because it has footnotes at the bottom of each page, whereas others usually put them at the back of the book or none at all. If I remember correctly, the Penguin editions have illustrations and the mapping of the levels though—those would’ve been helpful too.
Now, I think to understand it better, the reader should have some prior knowledge of Greek mythology (and not just the ones that appeared in Hercules, but all the gods, their stories, their dramas, the demons, etc) as well as Christianity. I thought I knew a lot of Greek mythology already, but with “Inferno”, I still lacked a lot of info; same with Christianity. The footnotes were definitely necessary, and I even needed to check Sparknotes after every Canto. I had to read the summaries after each one just to make sure I actually understood what was happening. I’d recommend that for anyone who reads this. Also, I Googled images of the layers to use as a guide, and that was definitely helpful—kind of to track “where Dante is” in each Canto. I’ve attached one to the end of this post.
“Inferno” is about Dante’s arduous journey down nine levels (with more sub-levels) to the very depth of Hell. He is led by the poet Virgil, who acts as a guide and his protector. On each level of Hell, they encounter the souls of those stuck in the underworld and Dante learns why they are there and see how they are being punished—pagans, criminals, seducers, etc. It’s an intense read and each scene described is haunting and disturbing—obviously Hell is somewhere you definitely don’t want to be. As Dante and Virgil descend down each level, they also run into some legends such as Homer, Horace, and Ovid, so I found those encounters very interesting.
I’d recommend it to those that are into Greek mythology, those that don’t mind having to maybe do some research and studying on the side. It’s still a fun read, even if you have to do a bit more work. It definitely gives you a scare and encourages you be a better person (haha) I’m glad I read it and I’d definitely re-read it again. I still need to read the rest of “The Divine Comedy” so if you have any tips or thoughts on those, please let me know too. 🙂
Here are some of my favorite lines:
‘…Tell me where and how they are;
I’m longing to know, is heaven
sweet to them, or hell venomous?’
And he: ‘They’re with the worst:
different sins sink them deep below:
you’ll see, if you drop that far… (Canto VI, Lines 82-87)
Through me to the city of pain,
Through me to eternal agony,
Through me to the lost tribes.
Justice moved my mighty maker:
The divine power created me,
Almighty wisdom, love supreme.
Before I was was no creation
If not eternal, eternal is me.
Shed all hope, you who enter. (Canto III, Lines 1-8)
Here is the painting of Dante and “The Diving Comedy”:
Here is a map of the levels of Hell that I found; it’s helpful and cute. (https://thebookvineyard.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/inferno-map.jpg)