For every calendar year we can find reasons to commemorate—if not celebrate—the anniversary of a notable event. Last year—2014—the most notable event that cried out for recognition—if not for celebration--was the centenary of the start of the Great War (as it was known at the time). This year, thankfully, we commemorate—and celebrate—the notable anniversaries of the conclusion of two bloody wars: the Second World War ended 70 years ago and the American Civil War ceased 150 years ago.
This year's notable anniversaries are not just about conclusions, but also about beginnings. One hundred years ago Billie Holliday was born. And 150 years ago, Lewis Carroll brought forth Alice in Wonderland onto the scene. But perhaps the most notable anniversary this year is that of a birth that took place 750 years ago: a man irreverently described by the Devil in Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman as one of “the greatest fools that ever lived,” because he described Hell
as a place of mud, frost, filth, fire, and venomous serpents: all torture. This ass, when he was not lying about me, was maundering about some woman whom he saw once in the street.
Dante, of course.
Putting Shaw's satiric remark aside, for Dante's 750th anniversary I wish to take a brief look at Dante's own use of satire in The Inferno.
Why is there such a thing as satire? The simple answer is that the world is filled with falsity: folly is applauded as wisdom; vice is accepted as virtue. And something must be done to unmask the deceivers and reveal their true faces. The art of satire is in the doing.
Satire can be general or specific. In The Inferno Dante targets both the general mass of mankind (all of us nameless sinners) and specific historical and contemporary individuals. His satirical strategy is really a simple one: he makes the figurative literal. Before citing examples from The Inferno, let me illustrate the maneuver by offering the following excerpt from one of the greatest satires of all time-- Swift's A Modest Proposal (which, as you know, is based on the idea that the best way to alleviate the economic distress in Ireland is to have the children of the poor become food for the rich):
I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.
“Devoured” is the key word here, as Swift morphs a figurative observation about economic distress (the landlords have devoured the poor) into a literal (and repulsive) action.
In The Inferno the controlling conceit (both literary and theological) is that the sinners suffer punishments that are the literal equivalents of the sufferings they endure in real life. For example, in Canto VII the hoarders and the wasters, whose souls in life were obsessed by (figuratively burdened by) material things, are condemned to smashing great weights (literal material things) against each other:
I saw a nation of lost souls,
far more than were above: they strained their chests
against enormous weights, and with mad howls
rolled them at one another. Then in haste
they rolled them back, one party shouting out:
"Why do you hoard?" and the other: "Why do you waste?"
So back around that ring they puff and blow,
each faction to its course, until they reach
opposite sides, and screaming as they go
the madmen turn and start their weights again
to crash against the maniacs.*(Translation by John Ciardi)
This is general satire—against the undifferentiated mass of material sinners. The hoarders and the wasters, though seemingly opposites, are just different faces of the same coin. And (segueing from figurative to literal) coins—money, riches—are what they've given their souls over to. In life they are suffering from the figurative burden of their material lust. In Hell they will suffer the literal burden.
Much deeper in the bowels of Hell—in the Ninth Circle (the lowest)--Dante (the character) comes upon sinners frozen in ice, with just part of their faces free. They are in ice because they committed murder calculatedly, cold-bloodedly. (Those who killed in the hot-blooded heat of passion are in the Seventh Circle.) There, Dante comes upon Friar Alberigo, who points out Ser Branca d'Oria to him. Their presence in Hell astonishes Dante. He asks Alberigo, "What! Are you dead already?" and complains to the friar about the latter:
"I think you are trying to take me in," I said,
"Ser Branca d'Oria is a living man;
he eats, he drinks, he fills his clothes and his bed."
This is a brilliant example of Dante's specific satire. The souls of two living men are in Hell before their deaths. And in real life, the eating, drinking, clothes-wearing bodies are inhabited by demons:
I will tell you this [Alberigo explains to Dante]: when a soul betrays as I did,
it falls from flesh, and a demon takes its place,
ruling the body till its time is spent.
The ruined soul rains down into this cistern.
So, I believe, there is still evident
in the world above, all that is fair and mortal
of this black shade [Branca d'Doria] who winters here behind me.(Canto XXXIII)
Here again, Dante uses the figurative/literal transfer. To demonstrate that these living men are figurative demons, he replaces their souls with literal demons.
As we said above, satire—that purposeful art—aims to strip away the false mask of virtue and expose the true face of vice hidden behind it. Dante has gotten behind the mask, gone beyond the face, and exposed the soul.
*In an article in the Guardian, Alex Preston sums up his visit with one of the premier collectors of Nazi artifacts and memorabilia as follows:
I had met a man wrestling with a hobby that had become an obsession and was now a millstone. Collecting was like a disease for him, the prospect of completion tantalisingly near but always just out of reach. If he was mad, it wasn’t the madness of the fulminating antisemite, rather the mania of the collector.