SEPTEMBER 14, 2021, MARKED the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri, the Florentine author of the world’s most renowned and masterful of all poems, The Divine Comedy. Not only did this poem have a marked impact on European vernacular languages in its notable departure from Latin, it also transformed how we understand the relationships among perpetrators, victims, and witnesses of violence. But more than this: it is perhaps with Dante that we really began to imagine what Hell looked like, which in turn demanded a revolution in how we understood the wretchedness of life, the fate of the sinful, and the path out through an all too earthly call to love and poetry.
The Divine Comedy was made up of three books, Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, each of which consisted of 33 sections or cantos. And whatever we may think of the religiosity of its worldview, its lasting literary impact has never been in doubt. Samuel Beckett, for example, kept a copy by his bedside as he lay dying in a Paris. The poem also provided comfort to Oscar Wilde during his time in Reading Gaol. Nevertheless, while the work is undoubtedly a masterpiece, I find myself agreeing with Victor Hugo, who once noted that Inferno truly stands out and that, “when the poem becomes happy, it becomes boring.” With that idea in mind, I will keep my focus here on the first book and consider its continued relevance.
As a political philosopher, I am concerned with how we do justice to this text some seven centuries after its arrival. What is left to be said about the challenging and no doubt provocative lines Dante playfully and brutally scribed? Could such a poem even be written today, especially given the climate of political correctness that so often hinders risk-taking and debilitates the poetic imagination?
Dante has undoubtedly been pivotal in how we learned to morally witness and, in the process, understand sacred forms of violence in the modern world. Indeed, while Immanuel Kant inaugurated modern philosophy through his secularized Copernican reworkings of the Fall, we should not overlook the role Dante played by giving rise to a new literary imagination in which mortal suffering had a central place. While Dante personalizes the violence and its sacred claims, he also gives us a language that fuses the theological with earthly notions of justice — a living holocaust in which we would all be forced witnesses and accomplices to the torment and shame brought upon the damned of history.
Part of Dante’s genius is that he includes Virgil as his poetic guide and learned sage, allowing him to traverse both the classical and the Christian worlds, even if the Latin poet himself is ultimately unable to pass over into heavenly salvation and the paradise that awaits. As Giambattista Vico wrote: “For all his erudition and esoteric knowledge, Dante in his Comedy portrayed real persons and represented real events in the lives of the dead. And he titled his poem the Comedy because the Old Comedy of the Greeks portrayed real persons on the stage.” Such human misery is evidenced in artist William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s 1850 masterpiece Dante and Virgil. Indeed, more than merely inventing Hell, as is often claimed, the Divine Comedy also stresses the importance of situating condemned figures within specific scenes of damnation, where their sins are directly punished by a sacred violence of unquestionable justice. Every act of violence inflicted on the damned has both a transcendental and an earthly meaning, and the terrestrial nature of the violence is made explicit by its extreme ecological framing.
Dante brings together the figurative, the scenic, and the ecological with such command that the lasting sacred effects of his work can still be appreciated today. Hell, he maintained, was no longer ephemeral or outer-worldly, not some unlocatable and inaccessible domain. It was a place one entered, clearly marked by borders of entry and exit — an infernal topography of suffering that could be mapped out, physically experienced, and sensually appreciated, wherein all the damned of the earth could be found. In the worldly drama of suffering that Dante narrates, everything endures; nothing disappears. For even the greatest sinners — the traitors whose torn flesh is perpetually gorged upon by Satan himself — still have the presence of mind to feel their torment, to be anguished by the Devil’s screams, and to act as witness to the suffering of others for all eternity.
According to the work of Antonio Manetti — the 15th-century Florentine architect and mathematician who diligently sought to give specific form and measurement to Hell — Limbo alone was apparently 87.5 miles across. Dante managed to bring the cartography of suffering alive by directly connecting legitimate forms of torture and punishment with the earthly elements that become active parts of the witnessed scenes of torment. Dante thus inaugurated a profound moral, political, and aesthetic economy that not only inspired artists, writers, and theologians but also would become integral to ensuing political understandings and representations of what we might call the natural history of violence.
That nature was capable of adding to the torment via the weaponization of the elements is a recurring theme throughout Inferno. Dante begins his journey alone in the dark woods, full of self-doubt. The landscape thus becomes a metaphor for his uncertainties and the wounds he harbors. Dante then moves from darkness to light, and back again, before meeting the poet Virgil and beginning the descent into the circles of Hell. As Dante famously writes: “I found myself, in truth, on the brink of the valley of the sad abyss that gathers the thunder of an infinite howling. It was so dark and deep and clouded, that I could see nothing by staring into its depths.”
But Dante soon becomes witness to an entire ecology of suffering. In Canto III, for example, Dante’s crossing of the river Acheron, guided by the mythological ferryman Charon, propels him into a trance from the sheer terror and unspeakable violence of his surroundings. In Canto V, the very air is a violent force that sweeps up those who have been condemned to eternal damnation for the sin of lust. The souls who in life had succumbed to their carnal urges are caught in a whirlwind of despair, or what Dante calls “the infernal hurricane that never rests,” which he describes, using violent, sexualized language, as “hurtl[ing] the spirits onward in its rapine; whirling them around, and smiting, it molests them.” Here we encounter Francesca da Rimini and her lover Paolo, with whom Dante empathizes, wishing for an end to their torment: “O Poet, willingly, speak would I to those two, who go together, and seem upon the wind to be so light.”
While the fifth circle of Hell and the River Styx capture the imagination, as the toxic and polluted waters separate the different tiers of the damned from one another, the seventh circle offers still more vivid descriptions of extreme ecologies of suffering. Policed by the Minotaur, it contains those who have committed violence upon others and are forced as punishment to wade through a river of boiling blood and fire. Dante and his guide move on to witness those who have committed violence against God and are therefore condemned to live on the burning sands of a desert expanse drenched by a fiery rain. Dante thus depicts a cycle of revenge that connects the violence of humans with the extremities of the worldly elements, which are so brutal that they become an integral part of this horrifying regime of terror. This ecological theme is further exemplified in the forest of suicides, where the limits of our free will are made explicitly clear. Those who have chosen through their own volition to renounce life itself are not simply bestialized but anthropomorphized into a truly vegetative state of suffering and damnation. The body that commits violence against itself is rendered less than human, preyed upon by obscure beasts or Harpies, whose feasting at least makes their suffering known.
As we reach the lower depths of Hell, the cruelty and literal coldness of divine retribution appear in their most naked of guises. Gustave Doré’s 1861 painting Dante and Virgil in the Ninth Circle of Hell offers a remarkable visual testimony to both the ecological brutality and the symbolism of this setting. Virgil and Dante stand on the icy surface populated by barely human forms, despairing bodies eating one another’s flesh. Virgil is cloaked in red in a way that is symbolically reminiscent of El Greco’s The Disrobing of Christ, a work that proved integral in disseminating Christianity to native populations in the Americas, thereby suggesting the importance of the Latin poet as one who has already sacrificed and is therefore able to direct and impart knowledge. Virgil is determined, and the path he sets for Dante is preordained. Dante, by contrast, is wearing blue and looks more youthful, with an air of confidence and surety, as he has ventured into these desolate landscapes and seen the worst of the human condition. He wears a laurel wreath — an allusion to Apollo, the god of poetry — signifying that Dante is a supreme poet armed with divine wisdom. Dante has suffered into a truth whose legacy will outlive that of his master, though he will remain forever indebted to him. And Virgil must continue to sacrifice without personal reward, forever denied redemption, as he was born prior to the arrival of Christ. Therefore, he suffers the same fate as all nonbelievers, in a system of absolute justice that is chronologically skewed in favor of those born more recently.
At the earth’s core, Dante encounters a three-headed Satan encased in ice, appearing as both the tormentor and tormented par excellence. A parody of the beauty of God and the tranquility of Heaven, Satan is disfigured and bestial, the true embodiment of the dark event at the heart of all myths, unable to contain his own rage as he screams out to give Hell itself its most violent of compositions. It should be noted that, in marked departure from such imagery, Milton’s Paradise Lost moved away from a spatial arrangement, with Satan instead proudly boasting of his freedom from the confines of his incarceration: “The mind is its own place, and in it self / Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.” Not only then was the Devil part of the territory of the mind; the capacity for violence, as Milton explained, was unbounded and yet subject to infiltration and demonic possession. What was Hell? In short, it belonged to the realm of the imagination, and hence was open to subjectivization. By that token, so too were the ecological conditions of suffering and torment in Dante’s Hell.
Critics of this view have stressed the dangers that these subjective and internalizing claims might effectively deny the reality of a designated place for the wretched and their mortal pain. But to say the imaginative and the subjective belong to a world of pure abstraction is to miss the most fundamental point stressed by Dante — namely that, if we are to understand violence, we must be accompanied by the poets of history, for they have learned to stare into the abyss, confronting the worst of humanity and walking for all eternity with this unbearable knowledge. They have thereby moved beyond merely bearing witness to violence to recognizing and carrying the intimate burden of pain and suffering.
Dante is the guide who led us into our modern conceptions of humanism. While his poem was explicitly bound to religious themes, it also trafficked in earthly desires, transgressions, punishments, and sacrifices. Guided by Virgil, Dante offered a literal figuration of the world, depicting earthly passions and communicating the importance of the arts in overcoming humanity’s fall from grace. What Dante didn’t imagine, however, was the wretchedness and cruelty that would hold sway once God abandoned the earth and left its inhabitants to their own devices. Dante’s Hell would be unleashed on earth, which would become as infernal as the world he imagined — not by connecting to the old gods, whose suffering was so visible on the cross, but by appealing to a new order of sacrifice, whose sacred object would also be quite literally pulled down to earth. Christ would no longer be the suffering and the resurrection, and God no longer the final arbitrator of justice. Rather, humanity would learn to set itself up in the image of God, and the poets of history would move from Hell into the trenches. The sacred order of politics would thus fall to earth with the mightiest of bangs.
But where does this leave us today? Can Dante still speak to us in these violent and vengeful times? I would argue that we need to try and imagine a politics that takes us away from the sacred; a politics that is equally poetic but doesn’t bind itself to the necessity for violence in the name of whatever sacred calling, whether religious or nationalist; a politics for the sake of the victims of violence.
One way to think about this is to imagine what would it mean to reread and rewrite this poem in reverse. What if we were to fabulate a new poetic image that begins at the sacred completion, then works its way from the metaphysical stars back down to the earthly depths? The “Comedy Divine,” then, as a tale of the violence that starts with the ends of sacrifice, the metaphysical gift that inverts the story so that it becomes one of witnessing the slow damnation of a man, revealing the divine violence at the heart of the comedy of existence. Without being too teleological, it would certainly be important to retain the numerical sequencing of the cantos, albeit in the opposite direction. Rather than presenting itself as a natural and logical unfolding to a more elevated and emancipatory state of celestial wonderment, the Comedy Divine would become a countdown to desolation and the realization of our most animal state. We would in the process become less concerned with the triumphant circularity of the number three, in terms of both destination and theological symbolism, than with the singularity of the number one: the first cantica of our reimagined work would result in a solitary man wandering in the wilderness of own his thoughts.
The more pessimistic could even imagine Dante walking in the dark forest for all eternity, trapped in the unforgiving void, incapable of putting into words the horrors he has seen, muted by the terror of divine violence and abandoning the metaphysical hope for a sacrificial life worthy of its place in Paradise. Thus, starting the journey on the summit in Canto XXXIV of Inferno, so the Comedy Divine might begin:
Now we went in, gazing one last time upon the stars.
Some of the beauteous things that the skies above bear;
Till I simply beheld through a round aperture
We mounted up, he first and I the second,
And without care of having any rest
Now entered once more, to return to the abysmal world;
The Guide and I into that hidden road.
Our rewriting of this chapter, in which Dante descends into the Inferno, would certainly require a new and more critically astute guide. Virgil would not be up to this task; his poetics are too committed to the sacrificial. Nietzsche, on the other hand, would at least understand the significance of the mountains and the descent into the abyss. And he would have enough critical fortitude to guide our willing traveler back into this wound in time. But who might we now meet on this journey? Rather than merely castigating individual sinners, what if we found Satan devouring the treacherous pillars of faith, hope, and reason themselves? Soon after, we would come upon the universal truth-tellers, feasting on one another’s flesh in the frozen lake of Cocytus, home to the fraudsters of history. Beyond its shores, we would likely find Tony Blair seated on a chair in a barren wasteland, in a readaptation of Marina Abramović’s performance The Artist Is Present. His eyes are closed, but every minute he opens them to look upon the ghostly faces of the victims of war since the dawn of humanity. Blair’s witnessing never ends, as the victims give themselves over to this eternal return.
As we descend further, the torments of Ugolino della Gherardesca and his sons might be reimagined as “the ideologies of man,” devouring with schizophrenic pleasure the rotting brains of their pitiful and impotent forefathers. And what of these ideologies’ principal architects, armed with their sacred claims? Let’s imagine Dante led by Nietzsche to a square mirrored pit that has been dug into the ground, each of its sides fully covered. As they look down, they see four chairs whose corners are touching and facing outward in a cross formation. Bound to the seats we see Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin, and Harry Truman, whose heads are fixed forward so that they are forced to stare into the distance of themselves. They are comforted only by the presence of the others, the four ultimately alike in their thought processes.
But what of those whom Dante had moralistically condemned? What of the forest of suicides? Let us no longer pile further suffering upon those who have already suffered too much in their mortal lives; rather, let us now stand witness to the likes of Celan and Deleuze, who are joyfully leaping into the void, over and over, like children in their exhilaration. And what of Paolo and Francesca, the tormented lovers? Yes, they remain caught in the swirling winds that throw them into the skies above, but now they are looking into each other’s eyes, staying true to their love that had long since denied the idea of sin, knowing they would do so for all time regardless of their punishment. Later scenes would be populated by all religious figures from history, at least to give Muhammad company. And it would be tempting to set aside a closed room where Jesus of Nazareth debates Judas Iscariot, mediated by Borges, about who sacrificed the most. And perhaps Iphigenia will replace the ferryman Charon, the one who makes the treacherous journey possible to begin with, but now she carries Dante across the River Styx a wearied man, sick from all the violence and suffering he has been forced to witness.
But Nietzsche would ultimately have to leave Dante at the gates of Hell and send him alone into the wilderness, for Nietzsche, too, is still allegiant to the sacred. And so, as our protagonist looks back at the entryway into hopelessness, standing alone in the woods, he just might hear the voice of Beatrice telling him she never wanted him to sacrifice so much, never wanted any violence associated with her name. And so, he calls out, in Longfellow’s translation:
Speak will I of the other things I saw there.
But of the good to treat, which there I found,
So bitter is it, death is little more;
Which in the very thought renews the fear.
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
I found myself within a forest dark,
Midway upon the journey of our life
But the wilderness in this adaptation cannot be reduced merely to the solitary, pessimistic place identified above. Dante is no longer alone, isolated in his own mind. The wilderness into which Dante returns could alternatively be interpreted as one lit by the flames of history. Here he is back in the flow of becoming, freed from the sacred chains, gazing upon the sun whose laws have revealed themselves. Surely, he would know, the ground beneath his feet was precarious, and would quake with his every step.
Dante must now learn to wander the heights and depths of the wilderness, its unknown fiery paths. Having wilfully thrown himself into the void, he must not be tempted back by the sacred call, whose melancholic lament can still be heard in the distance. Dante must find joy in the bewilderment of the wilderness, having already walked away from the light and seen the violence carried out in its name. Recognizing how sacred language all too easily calls for vengeance, Dante must open his heart to the idea of a love without sacrifice, giving himself over while asking nothing in return. We can only imagine how the world might look to one who has liberated himself at such peril. That imagining is Dante’s gift to us.
Acknowledgment: This essay features excerpts from my recently published book, Ecce Humanitas: Beholding the Pain of Humanity (Columbia University Press).
Brad Evans is a political philosopher, critical theorist, and writer, who specializes on the problem of violence. He is the founder/director of the Histories of Violence project, which has a global user base covering 143 countries.