Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Dante's Inferno: A Modern Reading

The blame will fall upon the injured side / As always. 
Dante, after being falsely accused
of financial corruption in 1302

The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who,
in time of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.
Dante

Consider your origins: you were not made to live as brutes, 
but to follow virtue and knowledge.
Dante
 


Lower Hell: Inside the walls of Dis, in an illustration by Stradanus. There is a drop from the sixth circle to the three rings of the seventh circle, then again to the ten rings of the eighth circle, and, at the bottom, to the icy ninth circle. Credit: Giovanni Stradano, 2007.

Dante Alighieri, or simply Dante, is arguably the greatest Italian poet, and one of the most important European writers. His Divine Comedy, the fourteenth century epic poem, might be difficult to read, but it worth the continued effort, if you have the time.

In terms of European literature, it matters little if you are Catholic, Protestant or hold any religious views whatsoever, chiefly because this is a epic poem from one of the great masters of literature. It is in many respects an informed view on social justice, and this is the view I currently take on this masterpiece. I have read it (in translation) a number of years ago, during a summer before I returned to school.

The original title in Italian is La Divina Commedia, which consists of three parts: Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. The Roman poet Virgil (Vergilius) is the guide through the Inferno and Purgatorio, or the afterlife, as it is called.

All three books are noteworthy and say much, but for now I would like to focus attention on the first, Inferno. You will note that there are nine circles of suffering, with the first designated for the least suffering, and the ninth, for the greatest. The first circle is called Limbo, the ninth, Treachery.

Accordingly, the ninth circle is designated for the worst of humans, who did the least for humanity, and brought untold suffering on humankind through their treachery and disinterest in the affairs of men. They are unmoved by misery or suffering, and fail to act to alleviate it. Such people, "in times of moral crisis," Dante said,  "maintain their neutrality."

The Tenth Circle

Now, given the state of the world,  I am sure that you can think of a few persons who might meet the criteria for permanent residency in the ninth circle. But if I were to take the liberty (and it is indeed a great liberty on my part) of adding to Dante's famous poem, I would add a "Tenth Circle," and call it InHumanity. Its permanent residents would include those world economic, political, and religious leaders who used their position of authority and influence primarily for personal gain.

What unites this cadre of privileged people—with particular emphasis on investment bankers, Wall Street traders and rapacious speculators—is their exceptional disregard for the plight of ordinary people. Their prime focus has been the voracious satiating of their appetites. In doing so, they showed utter contempt for having to "dirty their hands" administering the lives of ordinary people, despite their official duty to do so.

Their lack of interest, and neglect, of the ordinary, of the common, of the humble is one of the chief traits of the residents of InHumanity. The common good and social value of investment banking, for example, is a question that is being raised more often. For example,  The New Yorker's John Cassidy asks in a recent article: What Good Is Wall Street?

Wall Street seems impervious to such questions, viewing the deal and the profits it generates as prime importance. "Take what the market gives you." Given the high regard it was given in Life, the residents of InHumanity can take their money with them in their journey in the afterlife, as the illustration below aptly shows. After all, their ruling motto was something like "Profit over People."


Gustave Doré's illustration to Dante's Inferno. Plate XXII: Canto VII: In Gustave Doré's illustrations for the fourth circle (canto), the weights are huge money bags.
The hoarders and wasters. "Not all the gold that is beneath the moon / Or ever hath been, or these toil-worn souls / Might ever purchase rest for one."
Source: Title Page; Trans: The Rev. Henry Francis Cary, MA. Original Illustration: Gustave Dore [1832-1883].
Exclusive Member's-Only Club  

It gets better. The good news is that such people will still not have to mingle with the riff-raff , the commoners or the Great UnWashed. They will remain, in death as in life, among their own kind and kindred spirits. It's an Super Exclusive Club, admitting no more than a few thousand souls a year. They will see the same people in the afterlife as they saw in this life, which might offer some small comforts.

Most assuredly, this circle is designated for the select group of individuals, who have dipped their hands without feeling but with full knowledge and contempt, into the vat of Conspicuous Consumption to draw out all its beneficial advantages. They did so knowing that such actions resulted in the suffering of the commonweal, and yet found a way to find fault with common people for being, well, common and poor. In other words, blame the poor (see On Poverty)

For that reason, the Tenth Circle, InHumanity, is designated for that special group of individuals who have partaken of all the Sins, in some form or another, that Dante enumerated—Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Anger, Heresy, Violence, Fraud, Treachery—and so much more. I would hope and think that such a group of individuals, who always look for special recognition and honour, whether worthy or not, should get their just desserts and rewards.

Some might consider me lacking in the finer feelings for proposing such a bold addition to Dante's poetry. But it is not so. Such individuals who are always seeking respect and recognition, and who have a slavish devotion and dedication to the pursuit of their self-interests and self-regard, should neither go unrewarded nor unrecognized. That would be indecent and unfair. Nothing but the best is Reserved for these individuals of high standing so intimately acquainted with power and money.

And the best in this case is the Tenth Circle.

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