Go to hell

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Dante conversing with the sinners in Hell, Florence, Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, Palatino 313 (14th century)

One remarkable thing about Dante’s Divine Comedy is that it doesn’t try to cancel any voices. Dante has often been accused of settling scores in the Underworld. If only for this, I think the disenchantment of the West has led to an important loss. With the Hell relegated to a merely poetic or idiomatic reality, we’re forced to deal with people we don’t like in this world and in this world alone. Sending them to Hell has lost its edge. Oh, Hell, where is thy sting? Oh grave, where is thy victory? In any case, Dante is no de-platformer.

Dante’s critics forget that dispatches to Hell were common in the Middle Ages. The 13th-century English historian Matthew Paris had at least once aligned his disapproval for a pope with his belief that the pope must be on his way to hell. ‘Go to hell’, medieval writers assure us, was an imprecation full of meaning and direction.

Once in Hell, Dante’s detractors don’t lose their voice, although they might lose other things. The Inferno is an opportunity for the poet to engage with the world’s (as well as his personal) worst people while eluding the issue of damnatio memoriae. No infernal resident is guilty enough for Dante to deprive him or her of their voices. Admittedly, it’s not a fair hearing, but it’s a hearing nonetheless. The individuals Dante encounters in Hell continue to hold the same views and to endorse the same behaviour as they did in their lifetime, so there is no potential there for persuasion or change. Dante asks us to reconsider our idea of Hell as a hot place. It’s a frozen world, a kind of Narnia where evil remains cryogenically isotropic. The worst place in Hell is also the coldest. In this, Dante is as subversive of his own cultural heritage as he is when he refuses to cancel sinners out of existence. Hell may be a frozen realm, but it is also a chatty place where sinners tell their story, show no repentance, are privy to the future but can’t change one bit of their own destinies.

Dante’s Hell is a powerful place of memory, a museum of speaking artefacts where each convict is an example from whom the pilgrim, and us, may learn something. Far from making things better, excision removes the public memory of evil, which leads to more evil in the long term.


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