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[829] Inferno – Dan Brown


“The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.” (Ch.38, 211)

Inferno is typical Dan Brown and Da Vinci Code all over again: somewhat repetitive plot line, famous antiquity-rich cities, hidden, cryptic messages and riddles, scavenger hunt with a fast pace. But all that said, it’s worth a read because Dante’s nightmare vision becomes the book’s visual correlative for what its scientific calculations suggest.

Inferno opens with Robert Langdon being in dulled wits. The professor of symbology awakens in a Florentine hospital disoriented and with no recollection of the past few days, including the origin of a sealed biotube hidden in the seams of his tweed jacket. It’s a carved cylinder (a Faraday conductor) showing Botticelli’s Map of Hell as depicted in Dante’s Inferno, but altered. The levels of Dante’s inferno has been scrambled, and that, when they are replaced in the proper sequence, yields a message embedded in a mural by Vasari in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. But the shaking opening turns out to be one of the many tricks jampacked in the book, along with his female partner in adventure, Dr. Sienna Brooks, who is not what she says she is.

From there Langdon runs up against macabre symbols of biohazard, plagues, imagery of Dante’s hell, and poems imitated in Dante’s style. It’s soon revealed that Langdon on a global chase to save the human race following a trail of clues about Dante left behind by the plotter, who adopts an extreme but unethical view about the world. So Langdon is not dealing with downright villainy, but sinister cultism of some sort, the dark scheming that involves curbing overpopulation.

The riddles are intriguing and the twists relentless. Alliance changes and reverse about midway through the book, throwing reader on the edge. Wisely, Brown does not let himself get hog-tied by the sequence of events in Dante’s poem, but still able to draw imagery and allusions from the work whenever he feels that he needs them. Everything that refers to something else generates more codes and symbols and messages. The book is a constant thrill and confirms that Brown is a plot-maker (but only that). It’s a good story combining science and history.

611 pp. Anchor Books. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Approach to The Divine Comedy

While I was taken up with my reading at the sunny-side corner of Book Bay Fort Mason, with George at my feet gnawing at his Himalayan yak-cheese bone, one of the volunteer shopkeepers, a retired librarian, drew his attention to my The Divine Comedy. He enlightened me with a suggestion to read more about Dante Alighieri as I move on to Purgatory. The autobiographical information does come in handy to understand Canto 10, in which Dante, in Circle 6 of Hell, meets Farinata degli Uberti (d. 1264), who led the Ghibelline faction which defeated the Guelphs in 1248 and 1260. Both times the Guelphs returned to power a few years later. Obviously Dante and Farinata adopt opposing political view despite their politeness.

Religious references don’t give me pause reading Inferno–political figures do. The work after all is a depiction of the nature of damnation from the medieval Christian point of view. Politics is not my métier, let alone political history of Dante’s time. The retired librarian’s suggestion can’t come at a more perfect timing. Dante’s life is just as disordered as his era; but The Divine Comedy is the most ordered long poem in existence. So far (I’m on Canto 14, where there is brief allusion to homosexuality) there has been some references to his native Florence, where during his lifetime was divided by factional strife. In Canto 9, souls who were once heretics have power to see the near future. As a government official and propagandist, when his party lost power, he was banished. Indeed when confronted by the heretics in Hell, he is concerned with his exile.

The beginning of the book can be daunting, if not impenetrable. Knowledge of philosophical thinking of Aquinas and system of virtues and vices designated by Aristotle mandate the understanding of Dante’s poem. The constant use of allegory and symbols doesn’t make it easier. But I figure out my own system to approach The Divine Comedy: to read a canto without paying any attention to the notes that explain the major references, usually political figures with whom Dante’s life is interwoven. I would read five cantos heedless of the notes and re-read, using the references. So far I understand enough to make the reading worth my effort, and most importantly, I have fun going through Hell.

The Divine Comedy: Inferno Canto 1-7

I have started reading Dante’s The Divine Comedy, the Mandelbaum translation online and the Penguin The Portable Dante edited by Mark Musa. Both texts are fairly readable and I’m approaching the end of Canto 10 (Circle Six: The Heretics). I feel the need to re-read, starting from the very beginning today, since I was bogged down by the footnotes and editorial remarks. The second time around is so much smoother—I even read the lines out loud to hear the poetic tone.

From the very beginning, when Dante stumbles upon a dark wood where three beasts—the leopard, the lion, and the she-wolf confront him, it’s obvious that Inferno is a fascinating and imaginative allegory, a depiction of the nature of damnation from the medieval Christian point of view. He is barred from reaching the mountaintop, which is the Divine Light, and is aided by Virgil, whom his lover Beatrice calls from Limbo to guide him through Hell. Canto 1 is about how Dante must choose another road because, in order to arrive at the Divine Light (which is the mountaintop) it is necessary first to recognize the nature of sin, renounce it, and pay penance for it. This arduous road passes through the place of eternal punishment (Hell) and then a place of lesser punishment (Purgatory); before reaching God’s city (Heaven). Encouraged by Virgil’s assurances, Dante sets forth with his guide.

Canto 2, which elaborates on how Virgil is summoned to be Dante’s guide, holds tremendous allure to me. The Lady, presumably Virgin Mary, takes pity on Dante the Pilgrim in his despair and instructs Saint Lucia to aid him. The saint turns to Beatrice because of Dante’s great love for her, and Beatrice in turn went down to Hell, into Limbo, and asked Virgil to guide her friend until the time when she herself would become his guide. Dante feels comforted to hear that his beloved Beatrice has gone to Heaven and cares so much for him. He praises both her and Virgil for their aid and then continues to follow Virgil toward Hell. Beatrice reminds me of Margarita in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, who cares more about the Master’s fate than her own. Margarita literally goes to hell for her lover. To Woland (Satan disguised as a magician) and his power she turns for salvation. Unfazed by memories of her time at Satan’s ball, Margarita’s soul is made perfect and her love for the Master fully sealed.

Canto 3 sees Virigil and Dante at the Periphery of Hell, from which emanates cries of the souls of those who did not commit to either good or evil but who lived their lives without making conscious moral choices. Therefore, both Heaven and Hell deny their entry. They are not subjected to any physical torment, but they must chase constantly after a blank banner. Flies and wasps continually bite them, and writhing worms consume the blood and tears that flow from them.n and Hell have denied them entry. The principal “shade” in this group is the man of the great refusal: Pontius Pilate, who happens also to be a main character in The Master and Margarita. Satan of course bridges the gap of time as well as the two intertwined narratives in the book because he was right there when Pilate, fearing to ruin his career, sent the innocent man to death. Pilate was the one who washed his hands off the business with Christ. In both Bulgakov and Dante’s books he has to suffer eternally because of his cowardice.

Starting Canto 4, the duo poets descends into the different circles of Hell. In the First Circle of Hell: Limbo (Canto 4), spirits from pre-Christian world who led honorable lives experience no physical torment, but live in desire, no hope of seeing God and salvation. Virgil himself is called upon by Beatrice to leave Limbo in order to be Dante’s guide. In this circle also are the Pagan poets Homer, Ovid, Horace and Lucan, as well as a skein of philosophers, historians, and writers. “Their great worth alone was not enough, for they did not know Baptism” (4.34-35) “In this alone we suffer: cut off from hope, we live on in desire.” (4.41-42) The Second Circle of Hell: Lust (Canto 5) consists in beings forever whirled about in a dark, stormy wind. Those who committed sins of the flesh live in incessant torrential rain. In the Third Circle of Hell: Gluttony (Canto 6), the shades are mired in filthy muck; eternally battered by cold and dirty hail, rain, snow, and sleet that make the earth stink because the gluttons must lie on the ground as the sewage rains down upon them. In this canto, Virgil points out that each soul will regain its flesh at the Last Judgment. To that Dante asks the question: without flesh how does it even suffer torment? These shades seem to be airy weights that adopt human forms. Canto 7 affords the sights of the Fourth and Fifth Circle of Hell. Fourth Circle of Hell: Avarice and Prodigality. The two groups (opposite in nature: one is hoarding and the other squandering money) push heavy boulders with their chests around a circle in opposite directions. When they collide, they clash and hurl insults at one another, turn back and repeat the never-ending jousting journey. It was said that those with the bald heads are popes, cardinals and priests within whom avarice works its excess (7.46-48). For all the gold that is or ever was beneath the moon could never offer rest to even one of these exhausted spirits. (7.64-66) In the same canto, the Fifth Circle of Hell: Wrath and Sullenness, the wrathful are mired in the bog, constantly tearing and mangling each other. They were so consumed in anger during their previous lives that the wrath outlived them in Hell. Underneath the slime of the Styx, the sullen shades cause the bubbles on the surface, for they are now gurgling and choking on the black mud of the swampy river.