Written in the early fourteenth century by Italian politician Dante Alighieri, the Divine Comedy is a literary reaction to the bitterly contested politics of medieval Florence. Florence, the richest of the Italian city-states and possibly all of Europe at that time, was divided between two political parties – the Blacks (who supported the Pope) and the Whites (who didn’t). When Pope Boniface VIII schemed with the Blacks to seize power over Florence in a military coup, Dante was exiled. His hatred of the Pope can be seen throughout his Divine Comedy.
The Divine Comedy is Dante's fictional account of himself traveling through the three divine realms: Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Not surprisingly, in this story Dante puts his enemies in Hell; the Inferno is heavily populated with corrupt Florentine politicians characterized as sinners.
But more than just a means to get payback, the Divine Comedy is the first Italian epic work of poetry that is not in church Latin but in the vernacular – the language of the common people – the Florentine dialect of Italian. So Dante played a major role in standardizing the Italian language, coining new words and paving the way for major works of literature written in the vernacular. In other words, Dante’s a big kahuna among poets.
Few people in history have fallen so hard and so fast as Dante Alighieri, and fewer still have recovered to reach such heights. In the space of a few weeks, he went from a famous poet and influential citizen in his native Florence to a desperate political exile.
Let’s imagine a far-fetched contemporary scenario set in America that would roughly approximate Dante’s catastrophe. You’re a famous novelist, and your latest masterpiece won the Pulitzer Prize. You have a penthouse apartment in New York City and every night you dine alongside rich and powerful friends. As a young man, you invented an entirely new way of writing, which your fawning critics labeled “the sweet new style.” Owing to your good reputation, you’ve become deeply engaged in government, and as long as your political party maintains power, you can depend on having its patronage and protection.
But one day, the unthinkable happens. While you’re on a trip to Europe to visit some foreign dignitaries, your political party is completely wiped out. You’re told that if you return to America, you’ll be put to death on the spot. Your house and bank accounts have been seized, and your friends have either been killed or have turned against you. You’re now forced to move from country to country, a political refugee living on welfare.
Think this could never happen to you? So did Dante.
This is about the point where Inferno begins. That is to say, in the middle. Far from being simply about revenge and punishment, Inferno is really about a man trying to pick himself up off the ground – battered and bloodied – and find some kind of meaning in life.
Inferno is a story for people at the end of their rope, or people who can at least imagine what it would be like to find themselves there. Hollywood movies tend to preach instant redemption, mostly because they view success in terms of money. But Dante shows that real spiritual loss is a very different animal. You don’t have to be rich or famous to lose everything. You can imagine some variation of Dante’s scenario playing out at school or in your family. And once you’ve lost your dignity and your ethical compass, you can’t get them back again without experiencing some pretty harrowing things. Maybe not ones involving serpent-demons or cannibalized clergymen, but harrowing nonetheless.
Looking at the big picture, the most interesting thing about Inferno is the direction of the Pilgrim’s journey. He’s trying to climb a mountain, but to get there, Virgil says, he’ll have to go underground. Huh? This makes no sense, but facing a choice between a ferocious man-eating beast and Virgil, Dante is willing to trust the friendlier face.
Put another way: to become a good person, Dante has to understand and, to some degree, participate in some of the worst atrocities every committed by humans. To find God, he has to crawl through Satan’s intestines. The upside is that when you think you can’t go any lower, that things can’t possibly get worse: that’s the moment when the world flips upside down. You undergo go a conversion – literally, a “turn” – and suddenly start traveling back up toward the light.
We could go on and on about the importance of Inferno in literary history, but plenty of smart folks have done that elsewhere. We can only say: we second that motion, and then some. What we really hope to convey is that Inferno is a book that can totally blindside you, in a good way. Leave all your intellectual baggage and prejudices about “classic” literature at the foot of those imposing gates of Hell. While you’re at it, you’d better empty the change out of your pockets, too: you’re about to have your world flipped upside down.