Famously, Jean-Paul Sartre said that hell is other people. L’enfer, c’est les autres. His explanation however was a bit more prosaic than you might infer from the memorable phrase.

Christian theology, promulgated by Thomas Aquinas, technically sees hell as a state of existence rather than a place, as

“Incorporeal things are not in place after a manner known and familiar to us, in which way we say that bodies are properly in place; but they are in place after a manner befitting spiritual substances, a manner that cannot be fully manifest to us.”

Fair enough, it sort of fits with the truism that mental anguish is so often worse than physical pain, an observation most doctors will have made at some point in their careers. Hence:

In a theological sense however, hell is something else: it is the ultimate consequence of sin itself, which turns against the person who committed it. It is the state of those who definitively reject the Father’s mercy, even at the last moment of their life….Damnation consists precisely in definitive separation from God, freely chosen by the human person and confirmed with death that seals his choice for ever. God’s judgement ratifies this state.

This preamble is the context before coming to the more common conception of hell as a bleak and violent place of endless physical suffering, run by hordes of textbook demons. The kind of imagery conjured up by Dante in the first book of The Divine Comedy: Inferno. Dante’s vision, which is 700 years old has pretty much informed the whole gamut of Western art’s depiction of hell and damnation. Quite an influential work, all things considered.

The Knife first read it in the Carey translation, illustrated by Dore’s brilliance, by a swimming pool at the Ocean Palace Hotel in Tenerife, which was actually nearer to Sartre’s definition.

Which brings me to a piece of typical 21st century stupidity, first highlighted to me by the estimable Taki  in The Spectator:

..a human rights organisation that advises the UN on issues of racism and discrimination wants to do away with a book by one Dante Alighieri called the Divine Comedy. Bad Dante, bigoted Dante! He represents Islam as a heresy and Jews as greedy and scheming moneylenders. Homosexuals are damned by the bully Dante as being against nature. The spokeswoman (dread word) and president of this outfit, one Valentina Sereni, wants the book removed from school and university curricula. She calls the epic poem racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic. She covered all the bases so at least we know where we stand if we read the Divine Comedy. It means we are homophobes, anti-Semites, hate Islam and want to kill all black people.

As the Independent’s John Walsh pointed out, on the back of all this:

But we know what these “human rights” people are up to, don’t we? They don’t give two hoots about the supposed racist or homophobic or anti-Semitic content. They’re terrified of Islam. They’re scared that, if a single prickly Muslim objects to the portrayal of the Prophet, Italian schools would soon have a jihadist inferno on their hands. Their declaration is a pre-emptive strike against potential nutters. They say they worry students may not have sufficient “filters” to appreciate the historical context; I suspect they worry that Muslims may not have enough.

In fact, Dante’s poem owes a good deal to Muslim religious writing, especially Isra and Miraj, about Mohamed’s night-time journey to heaven, and the Risalat al-Ghufran, about a poet’s wanderings in the afterlife. In Dante’s lifetime, there was lots of contact between West and East, much productive traffic between Christian and Sufi mystics. Might it be better for Gherush92 to suggest that students were taught the connections between Islamic and Western philosophy, than trying to emphasise their differences and hide Italy’s greatest literary masterpiece because they’re frightened of upsetting a gang of extremists?

Idiots like Ms Sereni will always be with us, and paradoxically are likely to encourage more people to read Dante, particularly in a country which produced the sublime Oriana Fallaci and her fantastic polemic The Rage and the Pride.

There are currently well over twenty different translations of Inferno on Amazon, many of them recent. There must be something beyond academic interest that makes a medieval poem so popular in these secular times, even with the  jaded decadence of the politically correct apparently so dominant.

Anyway, even if hell is a state of being, rather than a physical reality, the most striking visual expression of it that I’ve seen outside of a Bosch painting is here, the ending of Pasolini’s  mindbending Canterbury Tales. Not for the faint hearted.

the ninth circle

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