JFK’s Favorite Quote: “The hottest places in Hell…”

“One of President Kennedy’s favorite quotations was based upon an interpretation of Dante’s Inferno. As Robert Kennedy explained in 1964, ‘President Kennedy’s favorite quote was really from Dante, “The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality.”‘ This supposed quotation is not actually in Dante’s work, but is based upon a similar one. In the Inferno, Dante and his guide Virgil, on their way to Hell, pass by a group of dead souls outside the entrance to Hell. These individuals, when alive, remained neutral at a time of great moral decision. Virgil explains to Dante that these souls cannot enter either Heaven or Hell because they did not choose one side or another. They are therefore worse than the greatest sinners in Hell because they are repugnant to both God and Satan alike, and have been left to mourn their fate as insignificant beings neither hailed nor cursed in life or death, endlessly travailing below Heaven but outside of Hell.”   –“John F. Kennedy’s Favorite Quotations: Dante’s Inferno,” from the JFK Library

For more, see Deborah Parker’s essay “The Historical Presidency: JFK’s Dante,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 48.2 (June 2018): 357-372.

The frequently misattributed quotation was also cited by Martin Luther King, Jr., in a 1967 address on the Vietnam War (see here).

Martin Luther King, Jr., on “The hottest places in hell…” (April 15, 1967)

“I come to participate in this significant demonstration today because my conscience leaves me no other choice. I join you in this mobilization because I cannot be a silent onlooker while evil rages. I am here because I agree with Dante, that: ‘The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in a period of moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.‘ In these days of emotional tension, when the problems of the world are gigantic in extent and chaotic in detail, there is no greater need than for sober thinking, mature judgment, and creative dissent.” [. . .]  –Martin Luther King, Jr., Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam (April 15, 1967)

Read the full address here.

Images from the day of the address, including the image pictured at right, can be viewed here.

The frequently misattributed quotation was also cited multiple times in John F. Kennedy’s speeches (see here).

Langston Hughes, “Harlem’s Bitter Laughter” (October 2, 1948)

“Harlem, the world’s largest urban Negro community, can sometimes laugh at the dog-gonest things. But its laughter is often a bitter laughter — the kind of laughter that, I imagine, reverberates through Dante’s hell when the devil suddenly slips on his own hot pavements and burns his sitter-downer.”   –Langston Hughes, “Harlem’s Bitter Laughter” (October 2, 1948), cited in Langston Hughes and the Chicago Defender: Essays on Race, Politics, and Culture (1942-62), ed. Christopher C. De Santis (Univ. of Illinois Press, 1995), pp. 113-114

Ocean Vuong, “Seventh Circle of Earth” (2016)

“I wrote ‘Seventh Circle of Earth’ [from Vuong’s 2016 collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds] shortly after hearing the news of two gay men being murdered by immolation in Dallas, TX. I originally wrote the poem in tercets, echoing Dante’s terza rima format. In the Inferno, the stanzas work as a network of rooms the speaker moves through as he descends through the circles of hell. In ‘Seventh Circle of Earth,’ however, this grouping felt off, even fraudulent, to me. A persona poem at its core, it takes on the voice of one of the men speaking to his partner. And in the midst of that fraught position, a poem in tercets, or, in other words, a ‘traditional’ poem, felt like a diluted, forced recasting of a horrific event. I ultimately abandoned the poem.

“It was not until three years later, while reading a critical work on violence and scholarship, did I see, more clearly, the footnotes on the bottom of the page. I found myself slipping right to the notes as I progressed, reading them first. They possessed, in that reading, an urgency that began to stitch itself into a fabric of broken utterances fused together by parataxis. It was, in a way, found poetry. That gave me the idea to re-work ‘Seventh Circle of Earth’ into a piece written entirely in the footnote. This time, the vast and utter emptiness one confronts on the page felt more faithful to the violent erasure of the two murdered men. It felt right to begin the poem with its own vanishing.” [. . .]  — Ocean Vuong on “Seventh Circle of Earth” for Poetry School

Read the rest of Vuong’s comments and the poem at poetryschool.com.

Contributed by Su Ertekin-Taner (The Bolles School ’22)

“Dante’s Inferno: Navigating the Complexities of Hell in As Above, So Below

These words scrawled across the walls beneath the Paris Catacombs mark the entrance to Hell for the characters in As Above, So Below. They herald in a nightmarish final act. The very same words that mark the gates to Hell in writer Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, the first part of his epic poem of Divine ComedyInferno tells of Dante’s journey through the nine circles of Hell, guided by the Roman poet Virgil. Their journey begins on Good Friday, and the pair emerges from Hell early on Easter morning under a starry sky. Though As Above, So Below draws from various mythologies, it’s Dante’s Inferno and its complex rendering of Hell that most closely mirrors protagonist Scarlett Marlowe’s quest, making for an atypical found footage film that offers impressively layered world-building.

[. . .]

The only way out is down. That they descend through a well is significant. Scarlett explains the phrase “as above, so below” is the key to all magic. What happens in one reality occurs in another, presenting a bizarre mirror-like symmetry to their voyage. The group begins by climbing down a well, and they end it by going down another well. In Inferno, wells play a part in getting Dante and his guide to the eighth and ninth circles. Later, Dante and Virgil finally reach the center of Hell and begin their escape by continuing downward. Dante is convinced they’re returning to Hell, only to realize gravity has changed, and they’re climbing up to the surface. Dante, half-way through his life, begins his journey spiritually lost. More than just a guide to Hell, Virgil becomes his guide to virtue and mortal. That’s mirrored in Scarlett, reckless and reeling from the loss of her father, and George, the strict rule-abiding ethical anchor. Much of George’s fear for breaking the law stems from spending time in a Turkish prison before the events of the film, which also parallel’s Virgil in that he detailed his personal trip through Hell in his poem Aeneid. ”    –Meagan Navarro, Bloody Disgusting, April 10, 2020

See our original post on As Above, So Below here.

“Assignation” by Sante Matteo

“Sante Matteo was born and raised in a small town in southern Italy. He is Professor Emeritus of Italian Studies in Oxford, Ohio, home of Miami University. In retirement he is enjoying trying his hand at creative writing, some of which has recently appeared or are forthcoming in Dime Show Review, The Chaffin Journal, and Coffin Bell Journal.  This ten word story was typed on a Smith Corona Super-Silent, c. 1957.”    —Dime Show Review, March 2020

 

“Thrift Store Wood Engraving Print Turns Out To Be Salvador Dalí Artwork”

“It’s pretty much the thrift store dream; to find a rare, long lost treasure on a crowded tchotchke shelf, on sale for a bargain price. That’s what happened at the Hotline Pink Thrift Shop in Kitty Hawk, N.C., when Wendy Hawkins came across an otherwise ignored piece of art.

[. . .]

The item turned out to be a 1950s woodcut print that was created and signed by Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dalí. It is part of a series of 100 illustrations depicting Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, a 14th century Italian poem about the writer’s fictional journey from the deepest circles of hell, up the mountain of purgatory and finally to paradise.

[. . .]

Dalí was initially commissioned by the Italian government to make the series in honor Dante’s birthday celebration but outrage over a Spaniard taking on an Italian poet’s work led officials to drop it. However, the artist had become so taken by the project that he couldn’t let it go. In the end he created a series of 100 watercolor paintings — one for each chapter of Dante’s book — that were reproduced as wood engravings. Each of those required about 35 separate blocks to complete the image

[. . .]

It’s called Purgatory Canto 32 and it shows a woman in blue next to a man in red.”    –Vanessa Romo, NPR, March 10, 2020

Cards Against Humanity, Third Expansion

The party game Cards Against Humanity included a black card in its third expansion pack that reads, “In the seventh circle of Hell, sinners must endure ____________ for all eternity.” The game was first made available in 2011, and the third expansion pack was issued in 2013.

Contributed by Isabelle Gurtler (The Bolles School ’22)

Franz Liszt, “Dante Sonata”

“Franz Liszt’s Dante Sonata, also known as the Fantasia Quasi Sonata, is a sonata written for piano solo (different than Liszt’s Dante Symphony). Written as program music during the Romantic period, there are nine different motifs used throughout the piece, representing the nine different levels of Hell. In addition, within the nine motifs, Liszt created two major themes or ideas, one in major and one in minor. The minor is said to represent the dark nature of Hell, and the major is said to represent Beatrice and Heaven.” –Contributor Ian Peiris

Listen to Mikhail Pletnev’s recording of the piece on YouTube (last accessed February 19, 2020). See also the previous post for Liszt’s Dante Symphony here.

Contributed by Ian Peiris (The Bolles School ’22)

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, S03E01

“It sounds insane to say but Sabrina’s journey through hell merged both The Wizard of OZ and Dante’s Inferno and it worked perfectly. Sabrina’s journey ends with a dash of Milton’s Paradise Lost and it’s all rendered is horrifying, beautiful images that would make any Renaissance poet swoon.

“It stands to reason that Dante, who took the most famous journey through hell in literature would get a shout out in Sabrina. She’s assigned to read it by her poor, formerly possessed teacher Miss Wardwell and from that gets the idea of finding a backdoor into hell, so she can save her boyfriend. Just doing Dante would be fine here, but we get the first hints of Oz as Sabrina gathers three friends to join her. And to get through hell, they need special shoes. Not ruby slippers though, but shoes of the dead. I guess the Ruby Slippers technically belonged to a dead person too, so well-played.

“After a spell that directly quotes Dante’s version of the inscription on the gates of hell – ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here’ – Sabrina, Harvey, Roz and Theo arrive in hell on the ‘Shore of Sorrow’ which sounds a lot like the way Dante arrives in hell himself, on the shores of the river Acheron (yes, Acheron is a term we hear in Sabrina for a trap for a demon). [. . .]”   — Jessica Mason, “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Journeys to a Hellish Oz by Way of Dante’s Inferno,” Review (with spoilers!) of Season Premiere of Part Three of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (Netflix, 2020) on The Mary Sue