The entrance to Hell is about as welcoming as you’d expect:

Per me si va ne la città dolente,
per me si va ne l’etterno dolore,
per me si va tra la perduta gente.

Giustizia mosse il mio alto fattore:
fecemi la divina podestate,
la somma sapienza e ‘l primo amore.

Dinanzi a me non fuor cose create
se non etterne, e io etterno duro.
Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate.

“THROUGH ME THE WAY TO THE CITY OF WOE,
THROUGH ME THE WAY TO ETERNAL PAIN,
THROUGH ME THE WAY AMONG THE LOST.

JUSTICE MOVED MY MAKER ON HIGH.
DIVINE POWER MADE ME,
WISDOM SUPREME, AND PRIMAL LOVE.

BEFORE ME NOTHING WAS BUT THINGS ETERNAL,
AND I ENDURE ETERNALLY.
ABANDON ALL HOPE, YE WHO ENTER HERE.”

There’s a lot to unpack here, and most all of it is troubling. The first stanza isn’t the problem; it’s a fairly straightforward catalog of what you’d expect Hell to be like: woe, pain, and the lost. As a modern reader, I have an issue that speaks more to my inability to deal with the metaphorical than it necessarily highlights anything questionable in the poem itself. I don’t understand why Evil has to look so…evil. I guess the sense is that evil simply corrupts everything, so that while you may have had the best of intentions in building a city of marble and white, you end up with that Skull Castle on the hill that drips blood. I’ve written elsewhere that Shakespeare gets it the rightest of all when, in Macbeth, he has the doomed Duncan say of Macbeth’s home: “This castle hath a pleasant seat; the air/Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself/Unto our gentle senses.” Duncan is dumb about a lot of things (“There’s no art/To find the mind’s construction in the face./He was a gentleman on whom I built/An absolute trust,” he says of the traitor Cawdor, who aligned himself against Duncan and the Scots with Sweno of Norway. However, Duncan doesn’t appear to learn that things-aren’t-what-they-seem lesson, and decides to stay the night at Macbeth’s house. But then, why shouldn’t he? Macbeth is a kinsman. Duncan has no reason to be wary of Macbeth; he didn’t see the way Macbeth “start[s], and seem[s] to fear/ Things that do sound so fair” when Macbeth is told that he’ll be king while the current king still lives) and it’s easy to knock Duncan for trusting his heart about Macbeth; but we have the benefit of not being a character in a play. We know the ending. Duncan does not — nor can he. And I’m now really not writing about The Inferno. Let’s get back to it.

The first stanza tells us that we’re absolutely not going to find a good time through these gates. The second stanza gives us even more reason to be terrified: God made Hell. This is Bad News Bears, guys. If Hell were a construct of Evil, there’s hope that it can be vanquished by Good at some point. There’s a sense that Good’s entire raison d’etre would be to eradicate Evil wherever it can (while knowing that, algebraically, it can never entirely wipe out Evil, because Evil needs Good and vice versa; we’ve all seen the opening credits to that Tom Cruise/Mia Sara masterpiece, Legend). But if Hell — this place of eternal woe, pain, and loss — is created by the Guy whose supposed to be on our side? If, as Dante suggests, Giustizia mosse il mio alto fattore (“Justice–” i.e., God “–moved my maker”) — then…what?

And what are we to make of the phrase e ‘l primo amore — “and primal love”? Primo can also be translated as “first” — which, for me anyway, takes away only about 0.0000001% of the creepiness factor. “Primal” sounds…well, primal. Like it can’t be reckoned with (and that about sounds like the God I know from the Old Testament). “First” sounds like there might be some sort of softening later; a reasoning that happens. (That…doesn’t sound so much like the God I know from any of the Testaments.) That there can be any amount of love contained in eternal punishment smacks of the very worst of parenting. My mom made terrible parenting decisions on a regular basis, backed by her mistaken idea of what I needed as a human being (punishment) and what her motivation was as a parent (love). Instead, though, she was simply a bitter, angry, hurting (in both senses: as in, she was in pain, and she caused pain) human being whom circumstance unfortunately put in charge of children, of sons, of not-yet-men and her entire experience of men had left her so bruised and broken (sometimes literally) that she was dead-set on allowing either my brother or me to turn out that way. We were not going to be like the men she knew, even if she had to beat it out of us. Of course, I love being here; and if there was a mechanism for pre-knowing — if, somehow, I existed before I existed and was told, “You can have a shitty and painful childhood filled with equal parts terror and wonder, or you can…not,” I’m picking the shitty and painful for those brief pockets of wonder. But I resent that those appear to be my only options.

And finally — why must I, or you, or Dante abandon any hope, let alone all? Why would God create a place absent any sense of grace at all? That Dante makes it through Hell (oh, spoiler alert) at all means that he must have kept some sense of hope about him. Is Dante saying that hope is bad? That there is a chance that one can find oneself beyond saving? And that, once stuck, hope is not hopeful, but cruel?

Maybe I make sense of it this way: I have a friend going through something paralyzingly painful. Her trust in herself and her own sense of truth has been undermined. (While on one hand Eleanor Roosevelt may be right, that “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent,” it’s also true that you wouldn’t even be in the position of having to give or not give consent in the first place if there wasn’t some asshole trying to make you feel inferior. It’s a two-way street sometimes, Eleanor; accidents happen.) These are terrible things to lose — or, in her case, have taken from you. Because they were. “So what do I do?” she asks. And then, because it’s an email, and because I can’t interrupt her, she eventually reaches a place of hope: “Maybe the situation will change back. Maybe he’ll change his mind.” And that’s a toxic hope right there. That only leads to stasis: I won’t move at all, and maybe no further damage will happen, and maybe the situation will rectify itself. But that is rarely true; and when it is true, it’s the exception, and not helpful. Maybe not all hope needs to be abandoned. But maybe useless hope needs to be abandoned. (“Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, old friend, I can’t make you stay. I can’t spend another ten years wishing you would anyway.” — Patty Griffin)

For Dante — and, I guess, for any of us — the best way out of Hell is through (tm Robert Frost). (I also enjoy Winston Churchill’s “If you’re going through Hell, keep going.”) Regardless of the warning above the gate, Dante and Virgil enter Hell. And it’s loud:

Quivi sospiri, pianti e alti guai
risonavan per l’aere sanza stelle,
per ch’io al cominciar ne lagrimai.

“Now sighs, loud wailing, lamentations
resounded through the starless air,
so that I, too, began to weep.”

Later, Dante describes the sounds as il qual s’aggira/sempre in quell’aura sanza tempo tinta (“whirling on forever in that air forever black”). I think Dante, the poet, thinks that Dante, the Lost, has been given an opportunity: to experience Hell, to witness all the punishment he is susceptible to, if he continues on his wayward path. I think, also, as we’ll discover later, Dante wants to work out a lot of frustrations against people he doesn’t like very much, too. The circles of Hell — and by the way, we haven’t even entered the First Circle yet; we’re still in Hell’s antechamber — allow Dante to catalog his grievances. It’s rare that someone gets off easy in Hell; it’s rare that someone is punished more than what Dante perceives the sin to be.

Dante introduces the reader to the concept of the Neutral Angels. These are angels who took no side in the War in Heaven, the one where Lucifer challenged and lost against God. These neutral are forever punished as Eternal Footmen; they guide the damned to the boat that will take the damned across the river, and to the start of their journey to whichever circle of hell is appropriate to their transgression. However, there are those in Hell who never even get to go to a circle. They’re doomed to forever wait in the ante-chamber. In Dante’s theology, there’s a belief that there are those souls who aren’t even worthy of Hell: Questo misero modo/tegnon l’anime triste di coloro/che visser sanza ‘nfamia e sanza lodo (“This miserable state is born by the wretched souls of those who lived without disgrace yet without praise.”). And of those wretched Neutral Angels, Virgil tells Dante Caccianli i ciel per non esser men belli,/né lo profondo inferno li riceve (“Loath to impair its beauty, Heaven casts them out, and the depth of Hell does not receive them.”).

What I find even more horrifying about these Antechamber Damned is this description (and we haven’t even reached circles Eight or Nine yet, where the real hardcore shit goes down):

Questi non hanno speranza di morte
e la lor cieca vita è tanto bassa,
che ‘nvidiosi son d’ogne altra sorte.

“They have no hope of death,
and their blind life is so abject
that they are envious of every other lot.”

These people are envious of both the blessed and the damned. All the damned. Stupidly they believe that anything else is better than where they are.

I think deep pain can cloud our judgment that way. I should be kinder to those in Hell’s antechamber. I think often my thoughts in these rambles about this poem trivialize what Dante is hoping to achieve. I lower the quality of discourse by trying to make it about my puny life, rather than about Dante’s elevated expectations about salvation and grace. But here, too: I have been in places that I thought were as low as I could get, and I’ve wished for some sort of resolution, whether it be awful or merciful. Not death so much. I was never suicidal. (There is too much about life that I love; “clocks ticking….and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths….and sleeping and waking up” — it’s the “waking up” part that always kills me in Emily’s monologue. Lewis Carroll also writes about death as a kind of sleep in the prologue poem of Through the Looking Glass: “We are but older children, dear/Who fret to find our bedtime near.”) I was as trapped as these damned by the expectation that there was some resolution due me, and looking enviously at others who had achieved some sort of closure. I think closure is just a false way of marking time.

Dante also shows a brief bit of dark humor, directing our attention to another group of damned waiting in the antechamber: Dante sees a banner racing in the sky above the crowd, carried by no one, with nothing written on it. Damned to follow this banner for eternity, in the cramped crowded Babel that is the antechamber is a line of people — sì lunga tratta/di gente, ch’i’ non averei creduto/che morte tanta n’avesse disfatta (“so long a file of people that I could not believe that death had undone so many”) — racing after the banner. These people, believing in nothing; passionate about nothing; nihilist and atheists; are forced to forever chase after an empty banner through a crowded room of wailing and gnashing souls. But Dante isn’t done yet with these unbelievers: he has them eternally stung by bees and wasps. Since they were determined to feel nothing in life, they are condemned to feel pain in death. And since their passion (or, if you will, blood) fed nothing in their life, their blood (or, if you will, passion) feeds the writhing worms that cover the floor of the antechamber of Hell.

That’s what passes for a joke in Dante. It’s going to happen a lot, the deeper we get. Dante considered himself driven by Divine Passion — his love for Beatrice being one aspect of that; his need to get down his vision of Hell being another. He can’t bear the listless.

Virgil and Dante make their way to the banks of the River Acheron, where those damned who have somewhere else in Hell to be are waiting for Charon to ferry them across. When Charon does arrive, he’s not pleased to see Dante. E tu che se’ costì, anima viva,/pàrtiti da cotesti che son morti (“And you there, living soul, move aside from these now dead.”). Charon tells Dante he’ll have to find another way across the river; più lieve legno convien che ti porti; “a lighter vessel must carry thee.” But Virgil commands Charon, compelling him to carry him and Dante across the river. vuolsi così colà dove si puote/ciò che si vuole, e più non dimandare (“It is so willed, where Will and Power are One. Ask no more.”)

Dante then meditates for a bit about the seemingly neverending rush of souls who wait on the banks of the river to be carried further to damnation:

Così sen vanno su per l’onda bruna,
e avanti che sien di là discese,
anche di qua nuova schiera s’auna.

“Thus they depart over dark water,
and before they have landed on the other side
another crowd has gathered on the shore.”

Virgil explains, chillingly, that pronti sono a trapassar lo rio,/ché la divina giustizia li sprona,/sì che la tema si volve in disio: “They are eager to cross the river, for the justice of God so spurns them on their very fear is turned to longing.” Their fear of being in Hell, of knowing that they’re about to be relegated to eternal and horrifying punishment, is turned to longing. I don’t even know what to do with that sort of theology. I’ve certainly been in a position where I was eager to be punished; but those were situations where I hoped that, by enduring the punishment, I could move on past it, and to something better. There’s no hope for these souls in Hell. Even Virgil, doing a solid for the Virgin Mary and Beatrice, can’t escape the fact that once he and Dante reach Purgatory, Virgil has to head back to Hell, and Dante gets to go on through.

It’s a curious poem, this. And in some ways ultimately I think it’s not meant for me. Or us. It’s written when the world was a different place, and we were different people. Its message is bleak and bitter — which somehow also carries with it some comfort. I try to make as much of the poem cleave to my own understanding as I can; however, ultimately, I think at best the poem and I can only walk parallel to each other.

Dante finds himself overcome by all he has seen and experienced. Canto III ends with the line e caddi come l’uom cui sonno piglia. “and I dropped like a man pulled down by sleep.”

Next week, Canto IV.

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