The Inferno of Dante (c. 1306)
By Dante Alighieri
Translated by Robert Pinsky (1995)

It's always hard to find new things to say about cultural touchstones that are so well known, even in passing, that everyone already has a general sense of what they're about, even if they have no actual knowledge of the thing itself. As with opium dens and Joe Jackson records, which everyone knows about but few bother to experience first-hand, such it is with The Inferno of Dante.

The translation by US Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky is as fluid and readable as you could want. Though I generally dislike poetry, being at least half hetero, I was drawn in about equally by Pinsky's sharp use of language and Dante's brilliant and imaginative imagery. The translator's powerful yet unobtrusive approximation Dante's complex rhyming scheme makes Dante's images as vivid as can be.

Many of these images – endless swamps of souls entangled in misery, giant demons forever impaling their unhappy victims – are ingrained in our collective consciousness thanks to Bosch paintings and movies like What Dreams May Come and The Ring. But the original carries a force that far overshadows its imitators with a truly breathtaking vision of eternal cruelty, all the more powerful given that at the time pretty much no one had ever written something with such a remarkable visual flair. Most of Dante's contemporaries were too busy with illegal Gregorian Chant downloads to contemplate the hell that might await them for bypassing the Vatican Record Company.

The story, set in 1300 (that's so Raven), follows Dante as he travels through the nine circles of hell, guided and protected by the Greek poet Virgil. Dante mostly confines his epic sensibility to provincial political concerns in what ends up feeling more like a personal vendetta than a masterpiece for the ages. This, in combination with his utter lack of introspection and slavish devotion to religious dogma, led me to believe that, though perhaps a great poet, Dante was ultimately not a great artist. Despite the rich visual imagination, The Inferno is a huge disappointment.

Other than what was probably shocking imagery for the times, Dante takes few genuine risks in The Inferno, questions nothing, and offers allegiance only to himself and those who agree with him. He spends countless lines of poetry meeting various Italians who lived in the late 1200s, and who negatively impacted Dante or his friends. These individuals are variously members of an opposing political party, expressed contrary religious views, or somehow led to Dante's expulsion from his beloved city of Florence for reasons unexplained.

As treacherous as many of these sinners must surely have been, they are by no means lasting figures, and most would be utterly forgotten if Dante had not inadvertently enshrined them in his work.

By contrast, Dante also meets a number of figures from the Bible and Greek mythology, which were at the time somehow intertwined with popular culture. These passages are much more interesting, though often just as confusing as the contemporary references.

Luckily, Pinsky's translation includes an interesting forward and very detailed end notes that thoroughly explain Dante's references. Without them, the book would be largely filled with impenetrable lists of names, events, and locations.

Unfortunately, Dante's inclusion of himself in the poem offers no further insight into his own psyche, fears, possible crimes, or desire for redemption. He is unsympathetic and cruel towards many of those he meets. And though he condemns those in the opposing political party, he seems to think that identical actions taken in the name of his own political party are somehow more Godly and less deserving of eternal hellfire.

Dante is kind of like a 14th-century Michael Moore. Yeah, his work is pretty entertaining, beloved and respected by many today, but in 400 years will anyone really care what he had to say about Enron? In that sense, Dante benefits from the lack of quality writing coming out of his era – with a clear degree of talent and little competition, Dante was almost destined for lasting fame. By the same token, if Michael Moore were one of like five filmmakers for this entire century, you can bet his work would be examined and referenced for centuries.

Similarly, Dante's Org Chart for Hell suffers at least by today's social values. He marginally matches crime to punishment, but in a fashion that comes across as rather illogical. The closest ring to Satan and the center of Hell contains souls who betrayed a benefactor, locked eternally in a rock solid sea of ice. Betrayal of a benefactor is the worst crime imaginable? If that's the case, just the act of writing this review on company time would technically merit a place directly under the beating wings of Lucifer himself.

Those who committed violence against others boil in blood, which makes sense, while those who committed suicide turn into trees, which makes no sense. Souls who didn't commit to either good or evil get forever stung by insects, far worse punishment than the avaricious, who are condemned to useless labors (like, perhaps, filing, faxing, copying and heavy phones). Flatterers and sycophants are somehow deemed worse than murderers, while those suffering from depression receive, instead of Paxil, eternal submersion in the muddy Styx.

All told, it was definitely worth the effort to read, but more in the sense of being glad to have finished it. It is a classic for a reason, even if it's at times pokey and obscure. And despite my reservations about the book, I am curious to read the sequels, Purgatory and Paradise (not to be confused with the BDSM club I frequent, Purgatory & Paradise). But seriously only if and when Pinsky does the translation. I took the time to compare a few verses of Pinsky's work with earlier translations, and there really is no comparison. He's put the shiniest possible coat on an old, creaky, farty dog.

Review by Crimedog