My Summer Vacation in Hell
I spent the last month of summer reading Dante’s Inferno for the first time, making the harrowing pilgrimage through the descending circles of Hell with the poet and his faithful guide Virgil. The Inferno might have been written 700 years ago, but it is as contemporary as today’s newspapers.
I spent the last month of summer in Hell.
This is not a comment on the weather in south Louisiana, where I live, though spending a day in this subtropical sauna would make you think so. Actually, I read Dante’s Inferno for the first time, making the harrowing pilgrimage through the descending circles of Hell with the poet and his faithful guide Virgil.
The Inferno is the first part of the medieval Italian poet’s trilogy detailing his imaginary journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. I figured the Inferno would be entertaining, if gruesome; that part of the epic poem is famous for the inventive tortures Dante designed for the damned. What I hadn’t counted on was how sophisticated is Dante’s view of sin and human nature. The Inferno might have been written 700 years ago, but it is as contemporary as today’s newspapers.
As Dante and Virgil enter the precincts of Hell, the Roman poet tells Dante that the damned want to cross Hell’s outer river and get what they know they deserve. At times in the poem, Virgil warns Dante against pitying the condemned, saying that to do so obscures the reality and gravity of their sin.
You see what Virgil means in Canto V, in which Dante visits the circle of Hell reserved for the lustful, whose punishment consists of being blown about by a strong wind forever. It is there that he meets Francesca, an adulteress bound for eternity to her lover Paolo; her husband, Paolo’s brother, murdered them after discovering their affair.
Francesca justifies herself to Dante by refusing to accept responsibility for her lustful act. She blames God for turning His back on her and Paolo. She says that they were seized by Love, and could not resist it – or each other. And she blames the alluring literature of romance for lighting the spark of their passion.
Dante, the character, finds himself overcome by “grief and pity” for the lovers’ fate, and collapses. It’s easy for us moderns to understand his feelings. Paolo and Francesca couldn’t help themselves, we may think; should they be condemned for all eternity because they followed their hearts?
Dante learns much later, though, one reason why he was wrong to have done so. Because free will is God’s greatest gift to man, honoring one’s freely made vows is critically important. God gives us reason and intellect with which to control our passions and direct them to a proper end. What Paolo and Francesca did was to abandon reason and yield to the passions, thereby throwing God’s gift away.