Befriending Dante: A Reflection on Readership

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Although I have always been bookish in about every sense of the word, I went through a “rebellious” phase in high school when my AP Literature class was required to read Dante’s Inferno. I was adamantly against it and now, as I reread it for the fourth or fifth time, I can explain away this opposition as perhaps being the fault of a poor translation. Possibly, it also had something to do with the fact that it Inferno not meant to be read in isolation; that popular engagement with Dante’s Divine Comedy begins and ends with hell may be telling of some morbid modern imagination or revealing of a concerning preference for darkness rather than light. Whatever the case, though, I scoffed at Dante without giving him a fair chance and declared that the whole of Inferno was not much more than a fanfiction in which he cast himself as the star. 

Although more nuanced now—having had the privilege of reading the Commedia under the Virgil-like guidance of a world-leading Dante scholar—my basic impression of Dante remains about the same. Laughing into my well-marked copy, I recall my first encounter with Inferno. Such an adorable young hypocrite I was! I belittled this great father of poets and—to think!—without Dante, my beloved Eliot would not have written!

As I mocked Dante for putting himself in a poem peopled with his favorite fictional and real-life heroes and villains, I was at the same time doing the same thing on a much humbler scale. You see, my first real attempt at a novel centers around a girl who is suspiciously similar to myself and who engages vividly in conversation with her favorite book characters: Scarlett O’Hara and Sherlock Holmes being among their eclectic ranks. As I wrote this long-since abandoned draft, I had to address the question which I now realize also occupied Dante: Why am I so compelled to document my own development in the context of people I know not only in life but through literature? 

Reading Dante’s Divine Comedy again, I’ve come up with a few hypotheses as to why this may be: First of all, loneliness. It’s no secret that we introverts often prefer the company of a good book and likely Dante was similar. He was, however, also an exile, reading and writing apart from the home he loved. His Commedia was not only a product of his imagination but of his isolation. In reading and writing, we enter a community no longer bound by time and space. Just as Virgil is able to leap from history to lead Dante on a narrative journey, people from history, myth, and fantasy hasten to meet us in the pages of books. If we are willing, we can still talk to them as though they are flesh and blood, though we must summon them with paper and ink.

Our loneliness finds relief in the company of books, even those of our own making. By engaging imaginatively with the characters I loved most, my novel draft allowed me to get to know them more intimately and to incorporate them into my own little imaginative circle. Through reading and writing, my sense of community expanded vertically throughout time and horizontally across cultures, worlds, and even dimensions. Similarly, Dante incorporates a diverse cast of characters to regain community, to situate himself solidly within his own Italian cultural and historical context, as well as to establish himself in the continuation of a poetic-philosophical tradition.

My second hypothesis is a continuation of this idea. As relational creatures, we come to know ourselves through our knowledge of and interaction with others. A prominent theological emphasis of Dante’s Commedia is that the truest self-knowledge is attained not through stubborn individuality, but in the mutual humility of community and faith. Through his conversations with various people along his journey, Dante becomes more self-aware, ultimately coming to perceive the Triune God as the divine epitome of self-love and self-knowledge. In growing in relation to others and maturing in his consideration of God, Dante himself is remade.

Similarly, readers often piece themselves together through books, stitching words and stories into patchwork personalities. My outlook on life is lovelier thanks to Anne Shirley, my wit sharper thanks to Elizabeth Bennet, and I like to think I’ve gained some gumption from Scarlett. Reading is an act of self-reflection, considering ourselves in comparison to the characters and writers we most admire. Best of all, the books—and, of course, the Book—which disclose something of our own Author lead us to a greater knowledge of our identity as human beings made in the Image of God.

Finally, it seems that reading (and in turn writing about what we read) serves as moral formation, shaping our desires and decisions. Dante encounters many sinners in hell who, through their own devices, get exactly what they wanted. They loved stories that reflected their own flawed desires and pursued these to the bitter end, continuing to desire those same lowly things in death so that these desires fittingly become their chosen punishments. This is a negative example of bad readership. Using books to reinforce or justify vice is a discredit to discernment, that incredible gift of intelligence.

In Purgatory, however, tales and pictures of virtue are presented, spurring penitent souls to better love and pursue all that is good and true and beautiful. Many good books feature fallen characters; in fact, there would be no narrative conflict were all characters and situations wholly good and perfect. However, if we read like the redeemed souls Dante encounters, we will learn from the good and the bad in books. Through discerning readership, we can engage the whole breadth and depth of human experience without leaving our nooks, honing our ambitions and hopes without the inconvenience of real-life consequences. The more excellence we glean from books, the more attuned to truth and goodness our minds and hearts will become. 

Rereading Dante now is supremely fitting. I know that I am not alone in being perhaps more lonely, more confused, and more in need of direction than ever. Dante, rather than providing an escape, has become a way of engaging my own isolation, wandering, and hope in faith and relationship. He has become a very dear literary friend—albeit a chatty one who I often wish would stop talking politics.

When Dante is lost and fearful in the first canto of Inferno, his favorite poet-philosopher appears to restore him to community and truth, and, through these, to himself. In the same way, rereading our own beloved authors might restore us to ourselves, just as talking to a close friend might bring us back to our senses. Engaging authors and characters-turned-companions provides company in loneliness, conviction amidst chaos, and, ultimately, a reminder of not only who we are but—if the books are good and true enough—who we are meant to be. 

I return now to the notes I took only a few weeks ago when I once more met Dante at the gates of Hell: Through literature, we form productive relationships with those who thought and imagined before us, as well as those who continue to think and imagine beside us. If we, like Dante, engage in humble and eager readership, perhaps we will—unlike my AP reading list—transcend beyond the filthy babbling of Hell and look toward the radiance of Heaven. Dante may begin his epic in pride, placing himself alongside the best poets and thinkers of history, but, throughout the Divine Comedy, he allows their wise words—and, indeed, their failings—to instruct as well as inspire him, to help him develop not merely as a poet-turned-protagonist but as a human being on the journey of virtue and faith.

This, my dearest reader, is the essence of readership itself: to develop together as human beings toward the best and truest communication, community, and—when readership couples with faith—communion. 

The Word Crimes Inferno

In reading Dante’s Inferno, I was struck by his ability to identify, categorize, and assign fitting punishments to various sins. This is not perhaps the most cheerful observation, but it was certainly intriguing and made me think (apologies for the morbidity): what crimes I would punish were I to write a modern Inferno and how would I punish them? Also, who would be guilty of these crimes? I realized after much thought that some of the most pressing “sins” of our times are (*thunder crash and lightning flash*) Word Crimes.

And so, it is with my grammarly pleasure (Yes, “grammarly” is a word. Besides, I made this Inferno, so what are you going to do about it?) that I present to you: The Word Crimes Inferno.

 “Aboriginal AL hops your who entertain hear.”  

It appears that the inscription on the Gates of Hell suffered from faulty auto-correct…I believe they were once meant to read: “Abandon all hope you who enter here.” 

 

         

This good sir will be acting as your judge and guide.

       

Circle I- Limbo: Here we encounter not the “virtuous pagans” or the “unbaptized infants” whom Dante met, but rather those who passed before they had the opportunity to learn the basic rules of language. Poor souls, they had no knowledge of proper syntax or good diction and must live in a world of blank, wide-ruled paper and stubby pencils forever with no hope of achieving the necessary writing skills to escape.

Circle II- The Carnal: In this ring we encounter several familiar faces, including the authors of mindless romances who shall not be named. These souls are those who used language not according to the inspiration of the Muses but rather the urging of their own dirty minds. As punishment, they are forced to listen to their own works being read aloud in a monotone so that they can no longer take any enjoyment from them and recognize them for them for what they are: lifeless and lacking in artistic merit.

Circle III- The Gluttons: Buried in heaping piles of adjectives and unnecessary commas and forced to shout run-on sentences without pausing for breath we find those writers who were never satisfied. These gluttonous lovers of word counts and lists were never satisfied with a single, solid adjective and let commas rain like glitter throughout their work. Shameful, disgusting, unnecessary, pointless, fluffy, over-the-top…that is what these were in life and continue to be even now.

Circle IV- The Avaricious: Here in eternal torment are the ambitious but impatient writers, those who so desperately desired to be famous that they refused to wait for originality. Without consideration for literary worth, these souls jumped on the paranormal romance bandwagon driven by none other than Stephanie Meyer. The most mild of the punishments in this circle consists of reading the fan fictions written by overly-emotional teenage girls while off-key recordings of the Twilight soundtrack blasts from every side.

Circle V- The Wrathful and Sullen: These souls cannot be considered true writers, but still must face judgement. In life, they never wrote anything but complaints and passive-aggressive blurbs, frequently on sites such as Twitter or- in the distant past- MySpace. In this circle, these sufferers continue as they did in life, posting depressing and rude things. However, to make them feel the shame of their crime, they never are able to use the emoji that they intend to use. For instance, a girl lamenting the woes of being single at age fifteen will be forced to accompany her complaint with a laughing emoji and, for good measure, “#blessed.”

Circle VI- The Heretics: The shades in this circle are guilty of boldly declaring skewed opinions and/or misinformations, especially when not wanted. They also tend to use big words that they do not understand and now are forced to research everything before speaking or writing, as well as take regular spelling tests. However, to make this punishment even more painful, they must do this research while broadcasts of political addresses are played on repeat and pamphlets for various organizations rain from above.

Circle VII- The Violent: These are my least favorite sinners: the abusers of the rules of grammar. This word here is the 666th word in this post, so I think the Muses agree that this sin is among the most despicable. I am deeply grieved to say that many people of my personal acquaintaince might be doomed to this circle, where their grammar mistakes become reality. For example, if one were to write “your pretty”, intending to write a compliment, he now will be forced to explain how the other person owns “pretty.” When he cannot, he will be jabbed with scalding red pens by the editing demons. They also must scroll through Facebook and correct every instance of incorrect grammar that they encounter, all the while weeping over their crimes. (Or, as they might say “they’re” crimes. Forgive me.)

Circle VIII- The Fraudulent: The criminals here are guilty of twisting their language to suit their purposes. In this ring, we find the forgers of “fluff”, the frivolous fillers that English teachers command their students not to include in essays. We also find those who used quotes out of context to support faulty claims. Now they are condemned to carve bare facts onto stones using rusty nails so that they can no longer pervert the writing. To make this even more difficult, they must do so while struggling to stay afloat in a pool of foam which parallels the fluff that could not support a sound argument.

Circle IX- The Traitors: These wretched souls knowingly committed numerous word crimes and thus are considered total traitors to the English language. They are eternally sentenced (heeheehee) to be chewed headfirst between the covers of a hardcover Oxford Dictionary with teeth made of freshly-sharpened number two pencils. Let us not dwell any longer on the horror of this center circle.

So there you have it. I hope you enjoyed your journey through The Word Crimes Inferno.  Please note that I will not actually throw anyone into this wretched place…mostly because it does not exist…