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Defending Dante

In a statement earlier this week, the human rights group Gherush92 condemned Dante’s Divine Comedy as “offensive and discriminatory”, and called for it to be removed from the Italian school curriculum. According to the organisation’s president, Valentina Sereni, Dante’s masterpiece is replete with racist, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, and homophobic sentiments which have no place in the modern classroom.

Although Dante scholars – and even Gaynet, a gay rights organisation – have come out in opposition to Gherush92’s calls, it is difficult to dispute that the Divine Comedy, and the Inferno in particular, contains much that could shock modern sensibilities.

At Inferno XI, Virgil introduces Dante to the seventh circle of Hell, in which the violent are punished. Violence can, however, be understood in a number of different ways. While it is clear that murder is a clear example of violence, Dante’s Virgil also suggests that sinners can also do “violence” against God in a different fashion, and it is for this reason that homosexuals are punished in the innermost ring of this part of the underworld:

One can be violent against the Godhead,
one's heart denying and blaspheming Him
and scorning nature and the good in her;
so, with its sign, the smallest ring has sealed
both Sodom and Cohors and all of those
who speak in passionate contempt of God.
(Inf. XI, 46-51)

Those who are guilty of sodomy are consigned to reside in sorrow and nakedness in a region filled with dry and compact sand, which was “kindled just as tinder” by the heat from the “distended flakes | of fire” that “showered down” endlessly (Inf. XIV, 28-9, 37-9).

The historical connection linking Judaism with the development of early Christianity prevented Dante from condemning the Jews as a whole, and on occasions, he was obliged to place a number of Old Testament figures in Paradise. King David, for example, is elevated from Limbo to the heavenly plain by Jesus himself (Inf. IV, 58). But despite this, Dante’s attitude towards individual Jews is generally highly critical. Caiaphas, the high priest whose decision led to the crucifixion of Christ, is condemned to the eighth circle of Hell (Bolgia 6), where he is punished alongside other “hypocrites”, with whom Dante converses. Breaking off his conversation, the poet

said no more, because my eyes had caught
one crucified by three stakes on the ground.
When he saw me, that sinner writhed all over,
and he breathed hard into his beard with sighs…
Naked, he has been stretched across the path,
…and he must feel the weight
of anyone who passes over him.
Like torment, in this ditch, afflicts both his
father-in-law and others in that council,
which for the Jews has seeded so much evil.
(Inf. XXXIII, 110-13, 118-23).

Elsewhere, Jews are caricatured as greedy usurers and worse.

Mohammed is similarly singled out for particularly harsh treatment. Condemned to the penultimate ring of the eighth circle of Hell (Bolgia 9) alongside “sowers of discord”, Mohammed is presented not so much as the architect of a distinct religion, but as a “schismatic” who deviated from Christian truth. His punishment – like that received by other inhabitants of this fearful region of the underworld – is truly unpleasant.

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No barrel, even though it’s lost a hoop
or end-piece, ever gapes as one whom I
saw ripped right from his chin to where we fart:
his bowels hung between his legs, one saw
his vitals and the miserable sack
that makes of what we swallow excrement.
While I was all intent on watching him,
He looked at me, and with his hands he spread
his chest and said “See how I split myself”.
See now how maimed Mohammed is!
(Inf. XXVIII, 22-31).

Indeed, Islam itself is denigrated as a whole. Descending to the City of Dis – which comprises the lowest circles of Hell – Dante was able to see “the mosques that gleam within the valley, | as crimson as if they had just been drawn | out of the fire.” As Virgil explains, however, the reddish colour of these places of worship is not like fire; it actually is fire. Emblems of heresy and sin, they burn for all eternity.

It hardly needs saying that such views have little place in the modern world. As Valentina Sereni has observed, Dante’s sentiments are clearly unacceptable in the context of contemporary liberal politics. This being so, it does not seem unreasonable to contend that the Divine Comedy should be banned from the classroom in Italy.

But this argument relies on a highly specific understanding of reading practices and of the use of literary texts in an educational environment. Indeed, Gherush92’s argument rests on the implicit belief that literature is most properly read through the lens of the morality and politics of the present day, and that the reader’s reaction to the text is of primary importance in determining its meaning.

This is, of course, a respectable point of view, and has been endorsed by a number of prominent literary theorists working under the influence of post-modern thought. In his 1967 essay “Morte d’Author” (“The Death of the Author”), Roland Barthes used a comparison with textiles to argue that any given text consists of a multiplicity of interlacing and overlapping meanings and layers, each of which derives from “innumerable centres of culture”. Thus, it was meaningless to suggest that the “meaning” of the text arose out of a single source of experience that could be identified with an “author”, whose intellectual concerns could never be known with certainty. As a consequence, Barthes suggested that the text’s true “meaning” depended on the reader himself. Following Jacques Derrida’s development of this view, W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley ultimately concluded that “the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art”; all that mattered in determining the interpretation and meaning of a text was the reader’s response.

Insofar as we are concerned with the use of literary texts in schools, this understanding of the relationship between the author’s intentional meaning and the reaction of the reader (student) suggests that works of literature should be studied principally as an adjunct to the cultivation and reinforcement of contemporary political and aesthetic views. Although it might reasonably be objected that the “Death of the Author” does not necessarily imply that the reader always agrees with the sentiments encountered in the text studied, it could be observed that the reader engages in a dialogue between his/her reaction to the text and his/her broader experiences in such a way that potentially less “desirable” points of view might be absorbed.

Appealing – and even natural – though such a perspective may be, however, it is perhaps mistaken. Indeed, when looking at Gherush92’s arguments, it is tempting to recall Dante’s own words:

…sighs and lamentations and loud cries
were echoing across the starless air,
so that, as soon as I set out, I wept.
Strange utterances, horrible pronouncements,
accents of anger, words of suffering,
and voices shrill and faint…
And I, my head oppressed by horror, said:
Master, what is it that I hear? Who are
those people so defeated by their pain?
And he to me: This miserable way
is taken by the sorry souls of those
who lived without disgrace and without praise.
(Inf. III, 22-7, 31-6)

Two points are worth making in this regard. First, although Barthes was certainly correct to draw attention to the fact that any text is a melange of different influences, it is mistaken to conclude from this either that the author did not intend for his work to have a particular meaning, or that the pursuit of such intentional meaning is fruitless. Despite juggling a multitude of different cultural experiences, it is evident that – like any other author – Dante wrote the Divine Comedy with the intention of communicating a series of specific points (aesthetic, moral, political, etc.). This meaning was expressed through the use of specific words in specific linguistic contexts, and from within a specific temporal frame. As such, while it may not be possible to recover Dante’s intentional meaning exactly, it is nevertheless possible to arrive at a broadly accurate understanding. For Quentin Skinner, for example, the practice of placing a text in the context of its intended audience and environment allows the reader to gain a good impression of what the author was trying to “do” with his work. Alternatively, it might be said that by looking at the manner in which particular words and concepts relate to one another within the text, the author’s intended meaning can also be recovered.

Second, if Dante’s intentional meaning can – to some extent – be recovered, this gives a very different impression of the role played by the Divine Comedy in an educational environment.

On the one hand, recognising that Dante’s work was not only a product of its time, but was also designed to communicate a “meaning” specific to that period, it is evident that the study of the Divine Comedy must necessarily entail a sense of its belonging to a different age. Logically, Dante’s views on homosexuality, Islam, and Judaism must be recognised as grounded in the mores of a particular time, quite unlike our own, and thus beyond the judgement of contemporary moral standards.

On the other hand, the very practice of attempting to recover the intentional meaning of Dante’s Divine Comedy as an historical artefact entails the cultivation of a range of critical skills entirely neglected by those inherent to Barthes’ method. Demanding objectivity, balanced judgement, careful linguistic comparison, and a sense of temporal alterity, this fosters a host of more constructive and socially useful intellectual skills, all of which have application beyond the realm of mere literature. Indeed, given the lamentable prevalence of bigotry and intolerance in the modern world, one could argue that by studying Dante’s masterpiece, students might actually learn to place themselves in others’ shoes, and to treat knee-jerk emotional responses with greater scepticism.

Despite the fact that the Divine Comedy contains a number of opinions that are unpalatable to modern readers, therefore, there is good reason to argue for its remaining a foundational part of the Italian school curriculum, not just as a totemic work in the history of literature, but also as an artefact of another age that demands objective, critical analysis. Indeed, it is precisely because Dante’s sentiments are often so very different from our own that his work must be studied – not from the perspective of subjective responses to the text, but from the perspective of a thinking, balanced critic. Rather than abandoning all hope when entering Dante’s world, Italian schoolchildren should instead be reminded that they “were born not to live like brutes | but to follow virtue and knowledge” (Inf. XXVI, 119-20), and thus to rejoice.