Sunday, January 24, 2010


Photos of front pages of Jerusalem Post, October 8, 2000; New York Times, August of 1968.

Unpublished essay by Lurene Helzer on The Inferno, by Dante. February 25, 1985, Interdisciplinary Studies in Letters and Science (ISLS) program, Chabot College, Hayward, CA. Another paper, a revision of this version, was written a week later. On these old papers, I rarely notice grades. I can usually make out critical remarks by the instructor in pencil, though.

Lurene's email in 2014:
The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri was written between 1308 and 1321 in Italy. The Inferno is the first of three parts which comprise The Divine Comedy. It’s a long, fictional poem critical of the church’s merciless role in society, to put it simply. It took centuries before historians even understood Dante’s full impact on European history, most historians today agree.

When I look at these early papers of college, I can’t recognize myself. The punctuation and organization was comparatively poor. A few years later, however, I was able to get regularly published in local newspapers, so this must have been a period of academic growth for me:

Lurene Helzer
ISLS/B. Pope
The Inferno
February 25, 1985

Dante used political and religious characters (heavily) in The Inferno to provide a mirror image of the political climate of his day.

Dante, in Canto 4, provides the reader with an image of the church as being unfair to society. He writes about the virtuous Pagans who are guilty of not being baptized. In this passage, Virgil, Dante’s guide, explains the Virtuous Pagan’s situation to Dante.

I wish you to know before you travel on that these were sonless and still their merits fail, for they lacked baptisms grace, which is the door of the true faith you were born to. Their birth fell before the age of the Christian mysteries and so they did not worship God’s Trinity in fullest duty. I am one of these. For such defects are we lost, though spared the fire and suffering of Hell in one affliction only: that without hope we live on in desire.

(Page 50 and 51)

In these lines, the reader can assume that Dante thought the church’s teachings about baptism and the price one must pay for not being baptized, even though you would have if it might have been possible, were very unfair. The church, he seems to be saying, was being cruel to society in its impossible demands. The church was basically saying that, even if you were good all your life, you were born too late so you’re not going to heaven. Whether or not Dante believed this was a doctrine of the church, or of God, is not clear. But Dante clearly writes about the Virtuous Pagans with pity, and, judging from Virgil’s place in The Inferno, with great respect.

In Canto 9, however, Dante meets the Heretics who, instead of gaining his pity, apparently gain his scorn because of their denial of God’s gift of immortality. Dante, in this Canto, shows his loathing for real sinners. Dante gives them a severe punishment: to spend eternity in flaming graves. By telling people that life after death is nonexistent, the Heretics suffer a much worse fate than the Pagans who are in their situations because of circumstances beyond their control.

An interesting contrast can be seen in Dante’s treatment of the political sinners as compared to the religious sinners. It seems that the political sinners give Dante information all through the journey that is meant to be taken back up to the normal world. Again, Dante is only explaining to the reader what the political climate was in his time. Because politicians are often everything but honest, Dante told the real story in The Inferno by portraying them as telling it themselves in the form of a sort of symbolic confession. Perhaps this was Dante’s way of telling the politicians of his day that their sins would not go unnoticed forever and, likewise, not unpunished.

An example of this can be found in Dante’s treatment of such political figures as Azzolino and others with him in the boiling river of blood. The river of blood probably represents the blood of others that the sinners have shed in the course of their own evil doing. This seems to be a “make your bed and sleep in it too” type of punishment that Dante uses often with political sinners.

Playing the part of a messenger in Canto 10, Dante meets Farinata Degli Uberti and Cavalcante Dei Calvalcanti, who all carry on a discussion with Dante from their graves.

And as you hope to find the world again, tell me: why is that populace so savage in the edicts they pronounce against my strain?

(Page 98)

Dante tells, or should I say reminds, the doomed man of his sins and lets the reader know what is going on, as well as letting that particular politician know that he had better repent. Dante is expressing his own views to a certain extent, so it was safer for him to accuse political foes and inform the public of those accusations in the context of fictional poetry than to risk death by being overt about it.

So through these various political and religious characters in The Inferno, Dante is relaying his own political theories and pointing out to the reader who the political figures are that are the base of political unrest. Of course, he merely uses them to attack the ideas that they share: power through bloodshed and corruption. And even in his day, he recognized the destructive role that the church was capable of playing in society.

Dante, The Inferno. Translated by John Ciardi. New York: New American Library, 1954

[Some of 1985 handwritten notes, in faint pencil, on the original paper from Professor Barbara Pope, to extent I can today read them:]

Lurene –

This paper is much better organized than the C.T. paper. There needs to be a revised paper written here, not an outline. The thesis is good and you need to describe more in your own words. For example, on page 1 The Cano 4 quotation stands for all your evidence. It is not led up to by an introduction to the topic and what it has to do with your thesis.

On page 2, paragraph 1 – you introduce a contrast – comparison – where is the evidence for it?

And – What is the nature of Dante as messenger? Certainly not to an imagined soul in hell.

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