Unlike most other world classics, "The Divine Comedy" is a
self-help book. People read Shakespeare with no expectation that they
will become Shakespeare. But many read Dante expecting to mimic his
results and transform themselves from seekers, lost in their own
questions, into poets, certain and transcendent.
In "The Divine Comedy," Beatrice, the woman Dante truly
loved, catches sight of him lost and suffering in that dark wood from
her seat at the height of Paradise. She asks the poet Virgil to bring
Dante to her. Virgil tells Dante that Beatrice asked him to join her in
Paradise -- and that to get to her, they must descend into hell and then
up the steep purgatorial mountain. "The way up is the way down," was
Dante's discovery, now a therapeutic convention.
In hell, the "Inferno" section of the work, Dante sees that all crimes
involve loving the wrong things: money, power, oneself or another's
spouse. In divine justice, the punishment fits the crime. Adultery
doesn't end in divorce. It doesn't end at all: Sinful lovers are locked
in eternal and numbing coitus. The malicious float in a river of their
own excrement. Narcissistic parents dine nauseatingly on the brains of
their suffering children.
Of the "Comedy"'s 14,000 lines, the most unnerving are the 143 that
comprise "Inferno 26": the circle of liars, thieves and consultants.
In this circle, Dante encounters the hero Ulysses. His soul, no longer
hidden by his mortal body, is not a pretty sight. He had been a
deceiver, a trickster who won the battle for Troy by creating the Trojan
Horse, promising gifts of peace and then murdering the Trojans he
deceived. Ulysses burned with brilliantly clever ideas in life; in hell
he simply burns. This leader, this enflamer of men, is now encased in