Reading Versus Watching: What's Wrong with Dante?

I think there's something deranged about Dante.

This week I read The Inferno, which, along with The Divine Comedy of which it is a part, is considered one of the greatest works of Western literature. The plot goes like this: a middle-aged Dante meets the dead Roman poet Virgil in a forest, and Virgil takes him on a tour of Hell. And that's it. The book is made up of one scene after another of the damned being tortured in highly imaginative, wonderfully detailed and so, so horrific ways. As an example, here's Dante's description of someone guilty of political corruption being tortured over a cauldron of boiling pitch (translated by Henry F. Cary):

They grappled him with more than hundred hooks,
And shouted: "Cover'd thou must sport thee here;
So, if thou canst, in secret mayst thou filch."
E'en thus the cook bestirs him, with his grooms,
To thrust the flesh into the caldron down
With flesh-hooks, that it float not to the top.

I think I'll be forgiven for thinking this sounds like something out of Clive Barker. Indeed, I think there is an under-analyzed read in which Dante is a transgressive writer; before Brett Easton Ellis, before Kathy Acker, before Sade and von Sacher-Masoch, there was Dante. (Though Dante couldn't claim to be the first transgressive writer; there's always Ovid, Seneca, Catullus and God knows how many others who've vanished beneath the waters of history.) Both Dante the author and Dante the character seem alarmingly unperturbed by the horror of what is being described. On the contrary, they seem to revel in it; Dante the author is practically joyous in his ever more fanciful descriptions of torture.

Still earnest on the pitch I gazed, to mark
All things whate'er the chasm contain'd, and those
Who burn'd within. As dolphins that, in sign
To Mariners, heave high their arched backs,
That thence forewarn'd they may advise to save
Their threaten'd vessel; so, at intervals,
To ease the pain, his back some sinner show'd,
Then hid more nimbly the lightning-glance.

A faithful movie adaptation of The Inferno would be a terrible thing. Stripped of all the beautiful language and description, The Inferno: The Movie would be the most violent, sadistic film ever made. It would make The Passion of the Christ look downright merry. (Not to mention religiously tolerant— somehow I don't think the Prophet Mohammed being brutally tortured on the big screen would go over very well in certain quarters.)

So, while The Inferno (and The Divine Comedy) is clearly important, I find it hard to agree with Harold Bloom's assessment that Dante is second only to Shakespeare. Admittedly, I haven't read the rest of the Comedy, though I plan to. But The Inferno is its most famous part, and while I can distantly admire the beauty of its language, there's no way I could imagine the characters of The Inferno getting stuck in my head, no way I could imagine the book meaning something to me on a deeper level, as has happened with other "great" works of Western literature, like The Odyssey or Don Quixote or Hamlet. But then, those works had plots and storylines, they had interactions more complicated than some poor damned soul explicating his crimes. Perhaps there are poetic depths to The Inferno beyond the sheer artful use of language that I didn't pick up on, but it's unlikely I'd ever want to re-read the thing in order to find out.

Of course, there's something to be said for artful language. Some writers, like Twain or Salinger, prefer to represent a character's language as realistically as possible, to make a character sound like they would in real life. Others, following the example of classical verse, like to make all the language that they write in some way poetic. Shakespeare, who made even the lowly guardsman at Elsinore Castle speak in flowering metaphor, is often lumped into this group, though he was also known for mixing the colloqual with the poetic, and always included elements that would appeal to the common playgoer. In fact, most writers could be placed somewhere between the two extremes, or even outside of them (Beckett springs to mind). But there are writers like Rick Moody who try so hard to be artful in their language that they end up spinning webs of mandarin nonsense in place of lucid prose. And there are writers who use colloquial language as a kind of crutch to cover for the fact that they can't actually write very well, and this includes legions of Salinger-wanna-be coming-of-age novelists, writing about adolescent protagonists in the first person with slangy diction. But if we want a good illustration of how to meld artful language with the colloquial, we need look no farther than the HBO series "Deadwood."

Consider E.B. Farnum's soliloquy from "The Trial of Jack McCall," delivered while he is alone, scrubbing a bloodstain from the floor of one of his hotel rooms:

You have been tested, Al Swearengen, and your deepest purposes proved. There’s gold on the woman's claim. You might as well have shouted it from the rooftops. That's why I’m jumpin' through hoops to get it back. Thorough as I fleeced the fool she married, I will fleece his widow too, using loyal associates like Eustace Bailey Farnum as my go-betweens and dupes. To explain why I want her bought out I'll make a pretext of my fear of the Pinkertons. I'll throw Farnum a token thief, why should I reward E.B. with some small, fractional participation in the claim? Or let him even lay by a little security and source of continuing income for his declining years. What's he ever done for me? Except let me terrify him every goddamned day of his life 'til the idea of bowel regularity is a forelorn fuckin' hope. (Pours water on the stain) Not to mention orderin' a man killed in one of E.B.'s rooms, so every fuckin' free moment of his life E.B. has to spend scrubbin' the bloodstains off the goddamned floor! To keep from... havin' to lower his rates. Goddamn that motherfucker!

What a goddamn good show. There's magic there in the drama acted out among the filth and guns, the air thick with swears and clever turns of phrase. The popularity of "Deadwood" is as good an example as any of the point we were trying to make in "What is Wet Asphalt", namely that people want interesting stories well written. Then again, the recent cancellation of "Deadwood" is disheartening, though it seems to have less to do with popularity and more to do with budgeting.

So if you happen to find me watching a "Deadwood" DVD instead of starting in on The Purgatorio, well, you'll know why.