Guy Raffa, “There’s a Special Place in Dante’s Inferno for Wafflers and Neutral Souls”

“Dante’s Divine Comedy, an epic poem recounting the Florentine’s journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, remains the go-to guide to the afterlife, the world’s most famous travelogue for the great beyond. But Dante matters more than that. Dante’s encounters with the dead offer enduring lessons for the living, including one that speaks with vital urgency to us today.

“Consider California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s press conference on June 5, 2020, as a Dantean case study. The governor insisted that ‘we’—institutions and the community at large—must change to combat systemic anti-Black racism. Urging individuals to ‘take a stand,’ he quoted the medieval Italian poet: ‘Dante infamously said that the hottest place in hell is reserved for those in a time of moral crisis that maintain their neutrality.’ The lesson drawn by Gov. Newsom? ‘This is not the time to be neutral.’

“This might be the place for me to stop, tear out my hair (or what’s left of it), and object, ‘Dante never said those words! They imply that neutrality is the worst sin for Dante, but treachery is, and the punishment for that sin isn’t fire but ice!’ But I won’t do that, because the complicated life of this fictitious quotation is so deeply embedded in U.S. history that the correction is pointless.”   –Guy P. Raffa, “There’s a Special Place in Dante’s Inferno for Wafflers and Neutral Souls,” Zócalo Public Square (August 31, 2020)

See also our posts on the use of the famous (mis)quotation by Martin Luther King, Jr., and John F. Kennedy.

“A White Canon in a World of Color,” by Sierra Lomuto

“I was recently in my hometown of San Francisco, walking through the Mission district on Christmas Eve looking for a place to pop into and get some work done. I had some grading to finish for my Chaucer class. I worked for a bit in a café at Valencia and 24th St. But when it closed early at 4pm, because of the holiday, I made my way toward the local library a couple blocks away.

[. . .]

“Wrapped around the face of the building were etchings of names, six per column, and the first read: Homer, Virgil, Rabelais, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dante. My eyes followed the carved words around to the side where they ended, each name digging a pit deeper into my stomach. Here I was, in the heart of the Mission, a Latinx neighborhood for as long as most San Franciscans’ memories can reach back to, and a building that is meant to represent knowledge, learning, community, safety. . . is encased with the names of white men. I wanted this old stone building, this old library in the Mission, to offer me some solace amidst a devastating present, to remind me that knowledge, education, and learning are paths out of socio-economic oppression.

“Instead, it reminded me that those paths too often lead us toward our own epistemological oppression—and do too little for the places and people we came from. The façade of the Mission library reminded me that those paths belong to white men; the rest of us merely walk them. [. . .]”   –Sierra Lomuto, “A White Canon in a World of Color,” Medievalists of Color (March 26, 2019)

Inferno at San Francisco’s Gray Area Festival

“I’m in the middle of the dance floor. The strobe lights above me are popping in time with the thundering kick drums and violent synth-bass rolling out of the speakers at 110 beats per minute. I’m shuffling to the rhythms, but I’m only able to control the lower half of my body. All of my movements from the waist up are being dictated by an exoskeleton strapped onto my trunk like a jacket.

“My arms jerk up and down and twist from side to side with the beat, but my own muscles aren’t doing the work; my flesh is being pushed around in space by the 45 pounds of metal, cable, and hydraulic cylinders running across my shoulders and down my arms. A robot is making me dance.” [. . .]

“The dance show, titled Inferno, is meant to be an experiential representation of hell, and I suppose it is, just maybe more fun. Inferno has been touring the world for a couple of years, and it made its US premiere in San Francisco this past weekend at the Gray Area Festival.” [. . .]    –Michael Calore, Wired, July 30, 2019.

Read more about Inferno and the Gray Area Festival on Wired.

 

Reading Dante as a Feminist

“Classical literature has numerous inherent values and should still be extensively read by today’s readers. Still, despite my love for Dante, I would argue that it also essential to read classical literature with a critical eye, especially as our concepts of human rights and equality have greatly transformed since these works were written.

“Metamorphosis is traditionally typically about erotic, passionate love. Eros, this type of sinful love, is a subject that Dante explores extensively in the Divine Comedy. Dante studied Ovid extensively and engages with Ovid’s works in La Commedia. In his epic poem, Dante challenges Ovid and transfigures this process of transformation — often shaping metamorphoses into a perverted punishment of sin. Dante explicitly uses metamorphosis as a cruel, twisted form of punishment. Thieves transform into snakes and those who committed suicide are perversely turned into bushes and trees. Further parallels to Ovid can be drawn in Dante’s hell. Daphne was rendered a tree for all eternity — just as those in the circle of suicide were cruelly revoked from their human form.

“In the Inferno, the circle of Lust is predominantly full of women, including Cleopatra, Dido, Helen of Troy and Francesca. Though Dante engages with a few famous male literary characters — such as Paris and Achilles — in this circle, Francesca gives the longest soliloquy. Francesca is one of the few women in La Commedia to be given so many lines, and yet her identity and actions are tied to two male figures. Francesca was killed by her husband when he caught her having an affair with her brother. Dante portrays Francesca as a beautiful, gentle seductress–even the poet temporarily succumbs to her enchanting words. Although Francesca’s story provides interesting commentary on the constraints of love and society, it is unfortunate that Francesca is one of the only dominant female voices in the Inferno. Dante’s work would be more nuanced if he developed other female characters whose roles were not tied to lust and sexual temptation. ” […]    –Sophie Stuber, The Stanford Daily, June 4, 2018

 

Camp Fire in Paradise, CA (2018)

california-2018-paradise-fire“The burned-out wrecks of abandoned cars lining the roads out of this once-picturesque mountain town bear silent witness to residents’ frantic efforts escape the hellish advance of the raging Camp Fire.

“Tires melted down to their steel belts. Windows blown out. Paint evaporated. Rims liquefied and then solidified after running down the pavement. Fire leaping across the road.

‘It just looked like Dante’s Inferno,’ said evacuee John Yates, 65. ‘Black and red was all you could see.'” — Trevor Hughes, USA TODAY, November 10, 2018

Read more about the fire here.

The Binding of Isaac, Rebirth (2014)

“Within the video game The Binding of Isaac, Satan is located in the 9th level of the game; Hell is described as ‘cold’ if the player dies on this level (both mirroring Inferno).”    –Anonymous Contributor

The Binding of Isaac, Rebirth is a 2014 video game published by Nicalis, an American publisher based out of Santa Ana, California.

You can check out more from Nicalis on their website, and you can buy The Binding of Isaac on Steam and on Humble.

Gretchen Menn’s Album Abandon All Hope (2016)

“This is such a daring and visionary album, a contemporary masterpiece of composition. Multilayered, rich and colourful. Dark and radiant at the same time, thrilling and mesmerizing.” [. . .]    — Erkka Lehmus, Bandcamp, 2016

Abandon All Hope is an album by guitarist and composer Gretchen Menn released on December 12, 2016. Learn more about this artist on her website.

The track list below includes links to the songs on Bandcamp:gretchen-menn-abandon-all-hope-2016

  1. Shadows 05:51
  2. Limbo 02:46
  3. Tempest 06:57
  4. Hellward Swoon 00:47
  5. Hound of Hades 03:44
  6. Tombs 05:29
  7. Sentry 02:07
  8. Bloodshed 03:47
  9. Weights 05:11
  10. Rise 03:22
  11. Savages 02:12
  12. Lake of Ice 04:28
  13. Mist 02:19
  14. Beast 06:44
  15. Grace 08:37

Inferno by the American Contemporary Ballet (Los Angeles)

Lincoln-Jones-American-Contemporary-Ballet-Inferno-2017

In October 2017, the American Contemporary Ballet of Los Angeles, under the artistic direction of Lincoln Jones, performed Inferno, based on composer Charles Wuorinen’s ballet “The Mission of Virgil” (featured on Dante Today here).

“You can really draw a parallel between Dante’s time and our time because of the incredible divisiveness. The issues were different on the surface but underneath, probably a lot the same. In Dante’s time, cities would fight wars with each other. Dante wanted to get his point of view heard and send the people he thought should be in hell to hell. I think maybe there’s a lot of similar feeling with the diatribes people are writing today against those they feel have it wrong. So there’s a lot of similarities, political corruption, factions.” — Interview with American Contemporary Ballet artistic director Lincoln Jones in the LA Times (October 10, 2017)

Vivian Lee Reach, A Choreographer’s Voyage Within Dante’s Inferno (2017)

Vivian-Lee-Reach-Choreographers-Voyage-Dantes-InfernoVivian Lee Reach (MFA ’17, University of California, Irvine) presented her thesis concert, A Choreographer’s Voyage Within Dante’s Inferno, at UC Irvine’s Winifred Smith Hall, on April 11, 2017.

Of the inspiration for the performance, Reach explains, “In May 2015, I was introduced to Inferno by one of my past English professors as a ‘fun summer read.’ I was hooked after the first tercet. From that moment on, I decided to dedicate my time to Dante’s Inferno. I am deeply humbled by literary mentors, Giuseppe Mazzotta and David Bruce, who brought me face to face with the elaborate and structured panorama of Dante’s first canticle through their books and words of wisdom.”

Vivian-Lee-Reach-Program-Choreographers-Voyage-Dantes-InfernoWatch the performance on YouTube here.

For the full concert program, click here.

Rebecca Solnit, “Check Out the Parking Lot”

Rebecca Solnit’s London Review of Books essay “Check Out the Parking Lot” is primarily a review of Sandow Birk’s illustrations of the Divine Comedy, but it also contains an extended comparison of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles to the three realms of Dante’s afterlife. Here is an excerpt:

“[The Getty] is Dante’s Divine Comedy as a theme park, and just as in the Divine Comedy, the Inferno is the most compelling part.Getty-Museum-Dante-Solnit-Architecture

“You take the Getty exit, and if you’ve been heading north, swing over the overpass and, after a few wriggles, dive into the garage. You come out of the smog-filtered Los Angeles light (which always gives me the impression that a thrifty God has replaced our incandescent sun with diffused fluorescent light) into a dark passage. The garage is underlit, with a low-slung ceiling and construction that evinces the massive weight first of the cement slabwork and then of the floors and earth above. The weight presses down on you as the signs urge you onwards. Down you go, and down, and further down, spiralling into the seismically unstable bowels of the Los Angeles earth in circles of looming darkness, questing for a parking space of your own, further and further down. I believe there are nine circles, or levels, in this vehicular hell. Finally, you find a place for your car in this dim realm, stagger to an elevator, and move upwards more quickly than Dante ascended Purgatory.

Getty-Museum-Purgatory-Dante-Solnit“Though you aren’t in Purgatory yet. The elevator opens onto a platform where you can catch a monorail up the hill to the museum. Disneyland too has a monorail, and though on my first visit to the Getty I thought of it as a nice tribute to its sister amusement park, we perplexed everyone around us by walking up the unfrequented road the quarter mile or so to the museum. Altitude correlates neatly with economic clout in urban and suburban California, so although the presumed point of the Getty was to let people look at art, first they parked, then they looked at the mighty fortress of the Getty hunched up on high, and then up there at various junctures they got the billionaires’ view. Purgatory was the museum itself. There you went through the redemptive exercise of experiencing art, lots and lots of it, from ancient times through to the early 20th century, room after room of altarpieces and portraits and still lifes and drawings.” [. . .] — Rebecca Solnit, “Check Out the Parking Lot,” London Review of Books 26.13 (8 July 2004), 32-33.

The full LRB essay can be accessed here.