What the Hell

From The New Yorker:

DantePeople can’t seem to let go of the Divine Comedy. You’d think that a fourteenth-century allegorical poem on sin and redemption, written in a medieval Italian vernacular and in accord with the Scholastic theology of that period, would have been turned over, long ago, to the scholars in the back carrels. But no. By my count there have been something like a hundred English-language translations, and not just by scholars but by blue-chip poets: in the past half century, John Ciardi, Allen Mandelbaum, Robert Pinsky, W. S. Merwin. Liszt and Tchaikovsky have composed music about the poem; Chaucer, Balzac, and Borges have written about it. In other words, the Divine Comedy is more than a text that professors feel has to be brushed up periodically for students. It’s one of the reasons there are professors and students. In some periods devoted to order and decorum in literature—notably the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries—many sophisticated readers scorned the Divine Comedy as a grotesque, impenetrable thing. But not in our time. T. S. Eliot, the lawgiver of early-twentieth-century poetics, placed Dante on the highest possible rung of European poetry. “Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them,” he wrote. “There is no third.”

…Translators are not the only ones drawn to Dante. Since 2006, Roberto Benigni has been touring a solo show about the Divine Comedy. In 2010, Seymour Chwast rendered the poem as a graphic novel. There are Inferno movies and iPad apps and video games. As of last week, their company has been joined by a Dan Brown thriller, “Inferno” (Doubleday). In many ways, the new book is like Brown’s 2003 blockbuster, “The Da Vinci Code.” Here, as there, we have Brown’s beloved “symbologist,” Robert Langdon, a professor at Harvard, a drinker of Martinis, a wearer of Harris tweeds, running around Europe with a good-looking woman—this one is Sienna Brooks, a physician with an I.Q. of 208—while people shoot at them. All this transpires in exotic climes—Florence, Venice, and Istanbul—upon which, even as the two are fleeing a mob of storm troopers, Brown bestows travel-brochure prose: “The Boboli Gardens had enjoyed the exceptional design talents of Niccolò Tribolo, Giorgio Vasari, and Bernardo Buontalenti.” Or: “No trip to the piazza was complete without sipping an espresso at Caffè Rivoire.” As we saw in “The Da Vinci Code,” there is no thriller-plot convention, however well worn, that Brown doesn’t like. The hero has amnesia. He is up against a mad scientist with Nietzschean goals. He’s also up against a deadline: in less than twenty-four hours, he has been told, the madman’s black arts will be forcibly practiced upon the world. Though this book, unlike “The Da Vinci Code” and Brown’s “Angels and Demons” (2000), is not exactly an ecclesiastical thriller, it takes place largely in churches and, as the title indicates, it constantly imports imagery from the Western world’s most famous eschatological thriller, Dante’s Inferno. Wisely, Brown does not let himself get hog-tied by the sequence of events in Dante’s poem. Instead, he just inserts allusions whenever he feels that he needs them. There are screams; there is excrement. The walls of underground caverns ooze disgusting liquid. Through them run rivers of blood clogged with corpses. Bizarre figures come forward saying things like “I am life” and “I am death.” Sometimes the great poet is invoked directly. The book’s villain is a Dante fanatic and the owner of Dante’s death mask, on which he writes cryptic messages. Scolded by another character for his plans to disturb the universe, he replies, “The path to paradise passes directly through hell. Dante taught us that.”

More here.