Reviewed date: 2022 May 11
Translated from the Italian by Allen Mandelbaum
I chose to read Inferno in hope that I might better understand Dante's influence on theology and on the popular cultural understanding of hell. I don't believe it was worth the time investment.
Inferno in brief
Dante gets a tour of hell and coincidentally sees all his personal and political enemies suffering exquisite torture.
Late 13th century Italian politics
Based on all the people Dante the character meets in hell, Inferno is about late 13th century Italian politics, which I care nothing about.
On the theological level, Dante’s vision of hell owes as much to paganism as to Christianity. Dante throws a little bit of everything into the story, and it’s very much not meant to be a book of Christian theology. The pagan bits are so obvious that I'm not convinced they've contributed much to the Christian conception of hell. No Christian that I know actually believes that hell is a pit with nine concentric circles, or that the Greek heroes are kicking around in hell. I've heard the phrase "ninth circle of hell" as a literary reference, and I've heard the Greek heroes and gods referred to in the same literary way, but Dante's hell doesn't match either Christian theology of hell or the popular conception of hell (as a place of flames where humans are tortured by devils with horns, tails, and pitchforks. OK, there are flames in Dante's hell, but only in a small part of it. And there are people being tortured by demonic beings, but again, only in a small part of it. Dante's hell is filled with all sorts of other forms of torture that are nowhere to be found in either Christian or modern popular conceptions of hell.)
I don’t know that I came away with any insight into Western culture. Even before reading Dante I’d already picked up some general knowledge about Inferno, so I knew that some things--like the nine circles of hell--are allusions to Dante. But I'm not convinced I got what I was looking for--no new insights, no ah-ha moment.
I could also just be missing the whole point of Inferno. Fair enough. But at least now I've read it.