Rail: I can remember a teacher in college saying quite bluntly one day, re: Dante’s persona:“Pretty cold son of a bitch.” Obviously that exaggerates the point, but still, here he was, a partisan in wars who placed people he knew in his own lifetime, among others, in eternal damnation, calling them out for their indecencies, making them forever famous by cataloguing their flaws. I wanted to know what your reaction to Dante as a persona in The Inferno was. This might not have occurred or mattered to you at all, for all I know.
Bang: I’m aware that one way of viewing the writer Dante is as someone who exacted revenge on those he blamed for his misfortune, and especially for his exile, by putting them in Hell. As a translator, however, I’m much more invested in the character named Dante and I find a great deal of tenderness in that character. He is so moved by the story Francesca tells him about how she and Paolo fell in love that he faints. He also faints at the end of Canto III, after passing through the Gates of Hell and confronting the horrors of hell and understanding for the first time what it means to be eternally damned.
One of my favorite moments in the Inferno is at the end of Canto 30. Dante is in that part of the 8th circle where counterfeiting and other kinds of fraudulent misrepresentation are punished. Dante watches while two of these pathetic sinners are having a spat. They punch and slap one another and trade childish insults back and forth. The one says: “You didn’t tell the truth when asked about your role in the Trojan horse incident. I hope you’re miserable knowing that the entire world knows about that”. The other says: “Well, you counterfeited coins; that means that while I have one sin, you have one for every coin you minted.” As they go on and on, Dante is mesmerized. It’s like watching an episode of reality TV. In the poem, he’s suddenly mortified when Virgil says, “Keep on staring and any minute now, I’m going to be cross with you… To want to listen to this sort of thing is a base desire.”
There is a certain kind of humiliation that comes when someone you admire sees you acting in a way that doesn’t reveal your best self. Dante periodically indicts himself as he goes along. By doing that he indicates to the reader that there are moments when all of us fail to be our finest selves. And we ought to suffer when we do, because that suffering makes us want to modify our behavior and be a better person. That is also an effective strategy in terms of the writing. It’s easy to create a dystopian society that we can all agree is despicable, but the fact is we are a part of that society too. If we’re honest, we have to include ourselves in any critique of it.