The Virtues of Action in Dante's "Inferno"
On the active pursuit of "knowledge and excellence", and how the road to Hell is never hard to find.
It’s a commonly proscribed trope to begin a story with a character waking up – on the list of literary sins, it sits just below ending with “... and it was all a dream”. But having your character wake in a literal dark forest of metaphysical terror can reinvigorate the cliché. It certainly works for Dante Alighieri, whose opening lines to his Inferno throw the reader straight into the poet’s predicament.
Lost in his wandering through life, Dante had sat down for a brief nap and now wakes inexplicably “in a dark wood, where the right road was wholly lost and gone”. So terrifying is this bleak place that Dante finds it “hard to speak of” because “the mere breath of memory stirs the old fear in the blood”. But fear not, reader: our poet “gained such good” from the subsequent journey that he will make himself tell us all about it.
The question of how exactly Dante arrived in this place is, admittedly, still lingering at this point in his tale. His answer may seem unsatisfyingly incomplete – he tells us he can’t explain it “because [he] was so heavy and full of sleep when [he] first stumbled from the narrow way” – but he reveals quite a lot in this, or at least what is most important. It’s no secret that the rest of Inferno describes Dante’s descent into Hell (and in any case, I’m not issuing spoiler warnings for a seven-hundred-year-old poem) and this destination ties into his half-shrugging claim that he simply got tired, drifted off, and woke up lost. In this, he reveals a fundamental truth:
The path to Hell is easily discovered.
It requires no conscious effort to stumble across Hell; we will all at some point simply step into that dark wood and wander into the underworld of our souls. This might be the torment of ill health, physical or mental, or the consequences of the battle between the better angels and worse demons in our psyches. And just as Tolstoy’s unhappy families are widely varied in their miseries while his happy families are similar and few, the Hells we visit are many and varied while the good life can be difficult to find. This is why Dante borrows the Biblical metaphor of the good life as a “narrow road”; the road to Hell, meanwhile, is wide and needs no signposts.
So Dante has grown weary in life and has stopped his striving in order to slack off, resulting in his winding up in this dark forest. Not for nothing the proverb has it that the devil will find something for idle hands to do. This is the moral backdrop against which he will discover the need for and pay-offs of hard work. To sit still or hope that someone else will go to the effort of saving him will only mean lingering longer in this unpleasant place, and the forest is only growing darker.
Luckily for Dante, he is not alone in this dark forest with his fear and his sins. While wondering how he might escape this place, Dante comes across an unspeaking figure that crosses his path “as though grown voiceless from long lack of speech”.
This is the Roman poet Virgil, and in the commentary to her translation of Inferno, Dorothy L Sayers has a fascinating take on what this introduction to the character means. At the allegorical level, it strikes her as an observation “that the wisdom and poetry of the classical age had long been neglected”. There is doubtless something in her detection of the perennial anxiety that tradition is on the wane and classics on the way out.
I want to make a complimentary, if not supplementary, observation regarding the fact that Virgil’s speechlessness is resolved the moment Dante speaks to him – resolved because Dante speaks to him. If Virgil represents (as Sayers claims) “the image of Human Wisdom ... the best of human philosophy, the best of human morality”, that he is in essence “poetry and art”, then what does his initial voiceless state tell us? What is Dante revealing when he depicts the great poet speaking only when spoken to?
Dante is advising us to reach out to art, to engage with it so that it can speak to us. The poem unread, the painting unseen, or the song ignored is an impotent, pointless thing. And not only does an ignorance of art betray art, it betrays us too, causing us to sacrifice important parts of what it is to be human. As Ulysses tells us later in the poem, repeating what he told his sailors, “For brutish ignorance your mettle was not made; you were made men, to follow after knowledge and excellence.”
Sitting back in the entitled expectation that art should come to the audience and impart whatever good it contains while the viewer passively watches is to fundamentally misunderstand the relationship between audience and art. Dante shows us time and again in Inferno how this works. Every tormented soul who has some wisdom or a story to share with the travelling duo shares it only on being engaged by Dante or Virgil.
Here in the very first canto, before our narrator has even sniffed the sulphuric stench of the first leg of his triadic journey, Dante has begun to endorse the virtues of action over the pointlessness of passive acquiescence.
Just as Virgil and Dante must occasionally climb up a rock face to move deeper down into Hell, let me make a detour to get us to the next stop in our essayistic journey.
The madly productive and productively mad James Joyce had a daughter named Lucia. While the father’s odd proclivities found release through his literary outlets, Lucia’s behaviour was more destructive. She was diagnosed as schizophrenic by Carl Jung, which didn’t sit well with her father. According to James Joyce’s biographer, who interviewed Jung, Joyce-the-father insisted that Joyce-the-daughter was simply a creative genius like himself, but who was misunderstood. Jung responded that they were indeed alike in that both were people going to the bottom of a river – except that one was diving and the other was drowning.
At some point in each of our lives, we all go to Hell. We face the private torment that has been characterised in various traditions as a dark night of the soul, the abyss of depression, the mouth of the whale or the belly of the beast, as well as many other metaphors for very real suffering. Whatever your preferred imagery, like the river Jung spoke of, there are only two ways to travel into that place: to climb down wilfully or to fall, probably painfully.
This is the choice given to Dante by Virgil, who suggests Dante take him as a “guide” – “and pass with me through an eternal place and terrible”. He warns Dante that he “shalt hear despairing cries, and see long-parted souls that in their torments dire howl for the second death perpetually”. These are the souls who fell into Hell, who did not act to resist the sins that brought them to this fate. Dante stands a chance of avoiding such a tumble only by climbing (literally, in manifestation of the metaphysical descent) down to that place to face first the damned, then the saved, then the Divine – and ultimately to face himself.
Here the first canto closes, with the previously disoriented, lost, and aimless Dante deliberately following his guide, in keeping with the injunction later spoken by Ulysses that humanity is made to “follow after knowledge and excellence”. Dante then underscores the necessity of physical movement with a final, declarative line:
“So he moved on; and I moved on behind.”
While I’m not inclined to issue spoiler warnings for the Divine Comedy, I’m likewise not about to synopsise it either. Suffice it to write that the downward journey into the depths of Hell is too enlightening and too massively entertaining for new readers to put off reading it for another moment. (I’m quite serious; if your choice is between finishing my essay and picking up Dante, go spend time with the master.)
While the Divine Comedy is rewarding, it’s also hard work, and there will likely be moments in which the reader will feel like Dante does having reached canto twenty-four and the series of trenches he and Virgil must climb up and over to reach the centre. “My lungs were so pumped out,” he says, “I just had not breath to go on.” But Dante has Virgil to coach him through this:
“‘Put off this sloth,’ the master said, ‘for shame! Sitting on feather-pillows, lying reclined Beneath the blanket is no way to fame – Fame, without which man’s life wastes out of mind, Leaving on earth no more memorial Than foam in water or smoke upon the wind.’”
Like a nagging parent scolding their child for staying in to watch TV on a sunny Saturday, Virgil essentially tells Dante, “You won’t achieve anything while lazing around here.” Unlike the stern parent, Virgil has two ways of getting his message across and motivating his charge to pay attention.
First, there is his eloquence, for which he is famed and by which those hearing or reading his words are stirred to action. Dante says of Virgil that he is “that fount of splendour whence poured so wide a stream of lordly speech”, the man whose work inspired Dante to spend “long hours pondering all thy book can teach”. Virgil’s literary and oratorical skills alone, it is made clear, can command a person to listen attentively to his advice and want to emulate the poet’s greatness.
His gift goes further in this moment, providing the second method of motivation. He tells Dante that the reason to get up and keep moving is that without effort, without great works, he will vanish into the oblivion of posthumous anonymity – and in phrasing it the way he does, demonstrating the literary skill he himself is remembered for long after his death, Virgil demonstrates the truth of the claim in making it.
“Rise up; control thy panting breath, and call The soul to aid, that wins in every fight, Save the dull flesh should drag it to a fall.”
Ultimately, it isn’t possible to simply, merely, lie back and enjoy the emptiness of doing nothing. A person either rises to their feet and fights on, or gives in and falls into Hell. And no one, least of all Virgil, is saying this will be easy. It is instead the struggle itself – the fact of its difficulty meaning that what is gained by it is earned – that is praiseworthy. And it is only through action, Virgil seems to be saying, that worth and value are found.
“More stairs remain to climb – a longer flight; Merely to quit that crew suffices not; Dost take my meaning? Act, and profit by it.”
[NB ~ In this essay, I’ve drawn exclusively on the first book of the Divine Comedy as I am currently re-reading the whole work, and these thoughts came to me while I was still in the Inferno. Watch this space for the essays likely to come out of my reading Purgatory and Paradise.]
• The Divine Comedy 1: Hell, Dante Alighieri, trans. Dorothy L Sayers (1472 )
• James Joyce, Richard Ellman (1959)