December 2, 2013 | by Alexander Aciman
A coarse, heavy rain pattered against the side of my cap, echoing like the sound of a rhythmic hailstorm pelting the skulls of sinners. The fumes from a black bog forming around the storm drain, not too subtle and very close behind us, obscured everything. I must have had a bewildered sort of look on my face, which my partner—standing just a few feet in front of me—mistook for fear. An instant later he was on his way over, cigarette floating right above his lip like a perfumed bird working the counter at Macy’s, elbows propped up against the etched glass surface.
The job had an attractive ticket, more than twice what we had ever made and with the promise of a nice bonus if we managed to expedite it. I asked Virgil if it would be possible to get into the municipal building at all. He didn’t answer my question and I didn’t press it; soon enough I would have it figured out on my own. Virgil was the only person to have ever made his way past the two secretaries guarding the county clerk’s files, and at the time he must have been new to the job and under the influence of a particular sort of luck that on occasion comes to the assistance of an ill-equipped dick.
November 25, 2013 | by Alexander Aciman
Canto 8 is perhaps the most exciting we have encountered so far. The story alone is a harrowing prelude to a great adventure: it’s like the first few minutes of a Bond movie, right before the theme song and titles start rolling. Canto 8 ends just as Dante and Virgil arrive at the edge of the Styx, where the wrathful are punished. Dante spots two towers (not to be confused with those from Lord of the Rings). These towers appear to be communicating with one another—as one launches a flame into the air, the other responds. A curious Dante asks Virgil what this signifies, and Virgil doesn’t really address his question. By now Dante has learned not to press such an issue, and knows that if he allows himself to get derailed by a mystery like two flaming towers, he’ll never get anywhere.
Phlegyas, who operates the little stygian skiff, arrives at the bank of the river. As noted in canto 7, the wrathful sinners are here hurled into the muddy Styx and are left to bob there as punishment; indeed, the Hollanders point out that Phlegyas’s job probably isn’t to carry sinners from one side to the other—like Charon—but rather to keep the sinners in the mud. As he arrives and greets Dante and Virgil, Phlegyas seems thrilled to have a fresh pair of sinners to toy with, but Virgil takes particular pleasure in announcing that he and Dante are, in fact, on a quest and as such are exempt from the punishments of hell. Phlegyas is as disappointed as “one who learns of a deceitful plot.” Read More »
November 18, 2013 | by Alexander Aciman
Canto 7 opens with Plutus, the god of wealth, babbling unintelligibly at Dante and Virgil. Pape Satàn, pape Satàn, aleppe!, he shouts, a phrase that has left readers and scholars baffled ever since it was written. Many offer their own interpretations, but there is never enough evidence for any critic to settle definitively on a single meaning. Virgil, however, responds to Plutus as though the cry is somehow intelligible to him; Plutus doesn’t want to let the pair pass because he has been tasked with keeping the living out. Again, Virgil works some Roman magic and is able to pass by.
This canto is one of the first instances in which the sinner’s condition in the afterlife begins to correspond almost unambiguously to the sin committed. Here, Dante and Virgil come across avarice and prodigality. The Hollanders note that the reason the avaricious are shown with their hands closed is as a reminder of their greed. The prodigal have their hair cropped to show inattention to property. Virgil gives Dante a discourse on fortune, and, in brief, explains to Dante that fortune is impartial, and that the unlucky are quick to revile fortune, which Virgil suggests is a misguided aggression since in fact fortune couldn’t care less what people have to say. The two carry on and stop at the Styx.
But let’s see what happens of we break this canto down. Read More »
November 11, 2013 | by Alexander Aciman
As we find ourselves in the midst of Nielsen sweeps month, it seems a good time to consider the facto that can ensure the longevity of certain shows. Yes, critical acclaim is great, but in the end, critics are only a small fraction of a high seven or even eight-figure audience turnout, and critics certainly don’t get a show a spot after the Super Bowl. For this, we rely on the viewers, and this week, it’s their turn to speak.
When I saw promos for The Inferno, I thought to myself “wow, what an incredibly awesome sounding name for a show.” And then when I learned it was about hell I thought it would be full of action and adventure, and because Virgil and Dante were traveling together, I even assumed it would be some sort of buddy cop series. It turns out I was wrong. So far, in Canto III and in Canto V, Dante has fainted. TWICE. Get out of the kitchen if you can’t stand the heat. And somehow, after fainting, at the beginning of the next Canto Dante mysteriously ends up somewhere new, probably because Virgil had to carry him. If I were Virgil I would slap some sense into Dante, or ditch him next time he passes out. And on top of that Virgil is clearly the best character but we don’t get enough of him. Maybe there will be some sort of Virgil spinoff.
November 4, 2013 | by Alexander Aciman
With multiple translations come disagreements—different scholarly notes, interpretations, and even titles. But often what allows a translation itself to become a great work of literature can be determined by something as subtle as the phrasing of a single idea.
Lord Byron, the notorious English poet who died in 1824, at the age of thirty-six, toyed around with his own translation of a passage from the Inferno. The passage is in canto 5, in which Dante enters hell past Minos, and meets the carnal sinners. He comes across Francesca da Rimini, who was killed with her love, Paolo, after the two had an affair. Francesca, like many other characters in the Inferno, identifies herself first by some obscure trait—in her case, the river near which she was born. She tells Dante that she could not resist Paolo because love itself can sway the heart of a beloved. Indeed it is one of the most beautifully agonizing passages in the Inferno, and probably one of the most difficult to translate. After all, Byron picked it for a reason. In a way, Byron even presented readers with a sort of litmus test for determining the quality of a translation; in the way a translator engages such a passage, a reader can observe not only the translator’s precision, but his or her skill as a poet. Read More »
October 28, 2013 | by Alexander Aciman
Full disclosure: canto 4, despite the ominous nature of canto 3’s ending and the fact that 4 is meant to open in hell, is not that scary. There is a distinct shortage of zombie/ghost-chase/door-gag montage scenes in this segment, and almost no haunted houses. So, we are probably meant to assume that Dante decided to take this holiday episode in a slightly more cerebral direction—he’s skipped right over the cheap scares, and has decided to hit us with a sort of theological horror show. Indeed, as Dante awakens from his spell, and walks beside Virgil, he notices that his guide’s face is stricken with a fearful pallor. When Dante inquires, Virgil informs him that it is not fear, but pity, that has altered his expression; the pair are entering limbo, where those who might have been able to enter paradise, had they lived in the time of Christ, are instead forever confined. Which is to say, no matter how saintly you are, if you had the misfortune of being born during one of the richest cultural eras in human history (like Virgil himself), you’re still out of luck, if not in hell proper.
Dante asks Virgil if anyone has ever made it out, and in the slightly embittered tone of someone who has watched countless coworkers get promoted above him, Virgil tells Dante of Moses, Noah, and a few others who were “plucked” from limbo and taken upward by some mysterious stranger. (Jesus, obviously, but how could Virgil know that?)
At this point, Dante and Virgil come across a band of poets—Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan. The poets join our travelers to help them solve the mystery of how two unvaccinated poets are going to make it safely through hell. The poets also make Dante part of their poets club. It’s probably no coincidence that seeing these great writers animated lends them a sense of immortality (both in body and in their work), and that anyone who should join them may also be graced with a similar literary significance; after all, Dante writes that “their honorable fame … echoes” in his life on earth. It’s also difficult to tell whether Dante is nerding out and imagining what it would be like to hang out with his heroes, or if he’s pulling some sort of lyrical power move and trying to assert himself as one of the greatest poets of history (again, only time will tell).
Dante briefly describes their conversation by saying that they spoke “of things that here are best unsaid, just as there it was fitting to express them.” This can be interpreted more or less as “We were talking about poet stuff … you wouldn’t probably get it.”
As the band of six approaches a haunted castle (ruh roh) with a giant river, they walk across the water without difficulty. A clue! It looks like the river is meant to keep the less than great or those who aren’t poets or philosophers or the out of this beautiful pastoral scene in Limbo. Time to investigate.
Dante names the shades he sees inside—Socrates, Plato, Diogenes, Cicero, Seneca, and, roaming all alone, Saladin. (Hollander points out that the moderns in limbo, though Dante considered them infidels, are “representatives of … Islamic culture”). But there’s one shade that Dante does not call by a name, and refers to only as the “master.” It’s old man Aristotle!
But Dante and Virgil, having come this far escorted by the four poets, must go on alone. Dante writes “The company of six falls off to two,” which we all know really just means he’s really just saying “Let’s split up, gang!” Poet stuff.