In 1996 David Denby, the New Yorker writer, published an account of his return to university, after thirty some years, to sit in on Literature seminars at Columbia University. This sit-in was not a protest against the canon and all it stood for, rather an older man’s attempt to observe, and maybe learn from, what students in the early 1990s made of major writers found in said canon. Reviewers at the time were divided over the worth of such a venture (Great Books : My Adventure with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World. Simon & Schuster, 1996) and we read the book now as a snapshot of the American zeitgeist at the end of the Cold War.
Chapter 16 is where Denby and his fellow literature students tackle the first book of the Dante’s Comedy. That the course doesn’t have time for the other two books proves in itself to be a fault in what follows, as the students judge the Florentine solely on what he creates in Inferno, without chancing what happens next, namely Purgatorio and Paradiso. For some of us, Inferno is virtually impossible to read meaningfully alone. A large part of its meaning hinges on what Dante reveals in the last two books. Some would say Inferno is a dead end.
The class didn’t go so far, going on to Boccaccio the following week. Boccaccio would have had his own terse opinion about such an approach to Dante’s masterpiece (it was Boccaccio, not Dante, who called the poem Divine, because it ends with the sovereignty of the good) but be that as it may, the seminar conversations recorded by Denby in his own book prompt further responses, some of which are recorded in what follows.
The first criticism levelled at Dante by these students is that he is a hater who puts into Inferno people he wants to “get at”. He seems obsessed with the people he places there and the tortures they endure. He even seems to get pleasure from this, though Denby is unforthcoming with evidence for this from the text itself. While we know Dante uses the stories of people he knew from life and literature, how far we judge Dante’s choices as personal vendettas will remain open to conjecture. While it amuses us that bad popes end up down there, it is the sin itself that is the reason from them being there. The students read the situation as being one of people tortured against their wills, as one might do who reads the story outside of its purpose of the possibility of hope. But those in Inferno choose to be there, this is the result of free will. The people Dante selects for Inferno are the best examples he can think of. Their transgression (lust, betrayal, anger) is an example to us, the witnesses who read the poem, and a warning. If Inferno were no more than Dante’s way of getting back at his enemies it would have enjoyed a short life as a popular poem. He is showing us the consequences of sin without repentance.
We also have to keep in mind that Dante is repeatedly shocked by what he sees in Inferno. It is cause of distress and disbelief to see many of these people in such a place. He cannot credit it and has to be assured by Virgil, or the characters themselves, that what he is seeing is for real. Dante’s reactions to what he sees in Inferno are one of the important indicators of meaning in the poem. Even at the literal level, where Dante the poet is read as Dante the lost traveller (or later, pilgrim) in the Comedy, we have to concede that a simple equation of hatred vindicated has limited traction in the Comedy. Dante’s main concern is not the person but the sin. In Inferno he learns the hard way that he can do nothing for those he may wish to be compassionate about. The moral issues at stake in each circle of Inferno are Dante’s primary concern. It is these that he presents to his readers not as a lecture in ethics but as a series of retold stories for our own judgement.
Another unusual claim made by David Denby is his view that, in his arrogance, “Dante the poet made himself the hero of his trip to the underworld.” If Dante is a hero in his own poem, what kind of hero are we talking about? That the poem is egocentric in some ways may be admitted, it is certainly about the life and world of this particular 14th century Florentine. But the Dante character spends most of his time behind his guide Virgil, usually in a state of dread as to what might happen next. He is not put forward as a hero in any medieval sense and as the poem proceeds we develop a reliance on Dante and see things through his eyes, as how else can we hope to understand anything that’s going on? Dante has little idea, we have less. In fact, Denby’s view raises questions in our mind. Just exactly how do we describe Dante? What is his role in the poem? Is he simply the trusted authorial voice? Or do we follow his part as pilgrim later in the Comedy as a form of conscience for how we should act in each circumstance put in the way by the poet?
The most revealing misconception in Denby’s essay comes when his teacher mentions in passing “that the Romantics and the Victorians had disapproved of Dante because they believed in mercy, not judgment.” This simplistic reduction not only skews the picture of 19th century reception of Dante, it is a misrepresentation of Dante himself. But to know why requires you to read Purgatorio, where mercy gradually is introduced as the beginning of any way out of the dead end of sin portrayed in Inferno. Indeed, only to read Inferno in isolation from the other two cantiche is not only to miss the essential thought of Dante, it is to miss a large part of the meaning of Inferno, a place understood in retrospect better than by first encounter. It is for this reason that Denby’s report of his Dante class becomes increasingly frustrating: the students read Inferno as a document of terror and violence, unmediated either by Dante’s art, or the rest of the Comedy. One wishes they had started at the centre of Purgatorio, where Dante explains how everything lives according to its self-awareness of innate good.