Thursday, 18 November 2010

Upping the Dante

When I first encountered Dante's Divine Comedy, it wasn't through Alghieri's verse. It was via those amazing 19th century engravings by Gustave Doré.

I was in a Grade Twelve "English Seminar" class (the kind where you assigned yourself your own projects), and I did a class presentation on Doré's vision of The Divine Comedy because I had just discovered them and I was fascinated. Being an adolescent, I was especially drawn to the gruesome tortures Dante invented for everyone he didn't like. (Isn't revenge the next greatest teen dream after sex?) Some guy from the university was observing the class that day and asked me at the end how Dante's paradise would differ from a modern conception of heaven. I didn't have much time to think (did I mention I was an adolescent?), so I blurted out the first thing that came to me. I had just been learning about how filthy life was in medieval times, or indeed, any time before the anti-septic twentieth century came along and this had made a great impression. (Hygiene, another teen obsession -- or it should be...) I told him how clean Dante's heaven is and how smelly and vile the Inferno is, with many of the punishments relying on disgust in addition to agony.

"After a life spent walking through all kinds of waste, both human and animal, a sparkling Paradise must have looked very, very good to Dante," I said to our class visitor, although probably not in so many words. I was seventeen at the time, after all.

Of course, as revolting as it is, Hell is way more interesting. At least, Dante's version is.Anyone remember Rod Steiger's Night Gallery? One of my favourite stories in this TV anthology features a slightly miscast John Astin as a hippy who suddenly finds himself in a sort of Limbo waiting room when he gets bumped off in a motorcycle accident. Upon learning he's destined for damnation, he has visions of Doré's renditions of the Inferno, and although sobered by the prospect, you can tell he's intrigued. He gets sent to a rec room where he'd unable to turn off the ragtime music on the Victrola and a pleasant elderly couple relentlessly show him vacation slides. When he complains, the devil himself shows up to assure him that this is indeed his own special hell and that there's a room exactly like it "upstairs" where it's someone's idea of paradise. We leave John Astin sobbing: "Noooo.... Bummer! BUMMER!"

Elder daughter has been struggling with this week's essay, meditating on heaven, hell and purgatory while everyone else has somehow found the time to celebrate the end of mid-terms. Yep, I remember this. One guy was expressing his joy on his drum kit upstairs (no, no, no -- a real drum kit). I listened to him in the background while elder daughter slumped over her computer monitor and we discuss reciprocal love and lust and why Francesca and Paolo find themselves whirling in a fiendish wind in the upper levels of hell. At least they're in the upper reaches of the Inferno, one circle closer to purgatory and heaven than the gluttons who only love themselves.And at least they're together.

Noise, filth, hopes to be abandoned, lessons to be learned, and always that feeling that others are having a way better time than you are. Sounds like the Divine Comedy to me. But I don't point that out to daughter. It wouldn't fit in her thesis.


JoeinVegas said...

Have you thought about what your version of heaven would be? (or the opposite)

Persephone said...

Many times, Joe! (I've even been there!)