Monday, August 04, 2008

Valley of the Dead: The Prologue

I'd been going back and forth on how to phrase the prologue, as a way of setting up the conceit of the book. Originally, I'd presented it more as a piece of Dante scholarship, but it sounded too much like, well, scholarship (Boo! Hisss!), and I didn't want to put that right at the front, but I also didn't want to put it off to an epilogue, as I think knowing the setup helps the enjoyment of my version. So I hacked it down to a mere 800 words and I think I have it right as a teaser for the volume:


For the last nineteen years of his life, the Italian poet Dante Alighieri was exiled from his native city of Florence. In these years, he wrote his most famous poem, The Divine Comedy, which is still regarded as one of the greatest works of literature and of Christian theological speculation. The work is an enormous epic divided into three volumes, each of which describes one of the three realms of the Christian afterlife – Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Paradise or Heaven). The Inferno is the most famous of the volumes, and is still read by many American undergraduates as part of a religion or literature course. Even those of purely secular tastes and background are fascinated and appalled by its graphic, ghastly, but hauntingly beautiful and unforgettable images. Also, I think, they pick up on the power that the poem draws from being so intensely personal. Dante’s simultaneous anger and love for his hometown, his nation, and his church can easily be heard throughout his writing, while Boniface, Beatrice, and many other real people in Dante’s life – not to mention Dante himself – all appear as characters in the Comedy.

It’s that intensely personal aspect of Dante’s writing – easily observable by any first-time student and endlessly analyzed and praised by lifelong scholars – that started me down the path of reconstructing the events of this story. Dante fills all three volumes of his greatest poem with facts and images from his personal experiences, things he had really seen and events in which he himself had participated – Beatrice’s beautiful eyes, a baptismal font he had broken in a church, a bloody military battle in which he had fought, along with hundreds of other minute details – some beautiful, some horrible, some trivial. How else could he write so powerfully and convincingly? With that being verifiably the case, the conclusion seems almost unavoidable: during his years of exile and wandering, when details of his whereabouts are lost and legends abound, Dante must have actually seen the horrors on which he would later base the Inferno. He must have witnessed the very depths of human depravity – hate, betrayal, sadism, dismemberment, torture, disease, unbelievable monsters, unquenchable fire, unendurable ice. Lest people think him mad, and building on his deeply-held religious convictions that God must have shown him these horrors for a reason, he wove these horrors into a supposedly “fictional” account of a journey through the afterlife, significantly changing the details, populating this world with what his contemporaries would have deemed more believable and acceptable characters – demons, angels, and mythological beasts. I finally saw clearly that there really could be no other explanation for his poem.

As heady as my discovery was, I still didn’t know exactly where and under what circumstances Dante could have seen these seemingly impossible sights, until I saw how this solved a further mystery of interpretation. With a chill as immobilizing but far more invigorating than the ice that Dante describes gripping the innermost circle of hell, I remembered how one denizen of Dante’s hell indulges in a particularly gruesome pastime: in the final circle of hell, there is a sinner vigorously engaged in cannibalism, even though he is not put there for that individual crime, and even though Dante does not assign a circle of hell to the sin of cannibalism. Here was the solution I had sought: Dante must have seen such a massive, horrifying outbreak of cannibalism that he couldn’t bring himself to confine it to one circle of hell, but instead made it the state and situation of every sinner, the landscape or lifestyle of hell itself. Dante, based on some horror he had personally witnessed, came to regard cannibalism as not just one sin among many, but rather the epitome and model of all sin – self-destructive, self-devouring, never-ending hunger. And I knew, as you probably do, that there is only one situation that causes cannibalism on such a massive scale, and which would cause a devout man to imagine that all of hell must be populated by such cannibalistic monsters, or that hell itself was breaking loose upon the earth. I also saw with chilling clarity why, on the one occasion that Dante does describe a cannibal in hell, he focuses on a rather unexpected part of the ghoulish feast: he describes the sinner devouring someone else’s brains. Once again, there clearly was only one answer possible: Dante had witnessed what I had previously thought was a deadly plague only in our modern world – zombies, the living dead.

What I have now laid down, as best as I could reconstruct it from passages in the Inferno, is the tale of how Dante survived that plague, and the lessons he learned there, making his ideas more accessible to many who might be put off by his overtly Christian language, and revealing the real-life situation on which such theological discourse was based. This is far more than an interpretation or adaptation of the Inferno: this is the real story, of which the Inferno is the interpretation.


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