Essay / Misc.

Metathon 2012 – Dante’s Inferno

After about a decade of close readings, late-night discussions, pizza, cake, and camaraderie, the Torrey Metathon is in the last year of its current iteration, and we’re going out in style–with Dante for company. If you’ve never been to a Metathon, the formula’s pretty simple: get a bunch of people with a commitment to honest discussion, an avid desire for knowledge, and a single common text; put them in a very small room with a world-class scholar and his out-of-this-world mentor; leave them cooped there for a minimum of four hours (aim for twelve or so) each day for a weekend. Epiphanies ensue. Debates on minutiae abound. There’s laughter and seriousness, humility and intrepidity, hugs and maybe a few tears. There’s real, communal work unlike what you’ll find anywhere else. It’s very, very good. No big.

Thursday was Dante Metathon day one, and in our four hours we got shockingly far into the text: 10 whole pages (that’s a.k.a. “everything that happens before they enter hell”).

It is, of course, impossible to record a conversation that’s as long and roving as these Metathon discussions are, so I won’t try to. Instead, I’ll share my thoughts on three topics that sparked my curiosity last night.

1. Dr. Geier: “For some reason, [Dante] decides to keep on going when he finds himself in the woods.”
LDR: “Because of terror?”
Dr. Geier: “Yes, fear, maybe. Or hope.”

Fear and hope kept coming back and back and back in our discussion. They’re puzzling: at the beginning of the book, they somehow come across as both alike and opposed. On the one hand, they produce the exact same result for Dante: they make him move toward salvation. On the other hand, they keep casting each other out: Dante’s fear causes him to lose hope, and his hope eliminates his fear.

That first point is strange. Why is it possible to mistake fear for hope, or hope for fear? What on earth could they have in common?

The second point is remarkable. How could each of them (hope and fear) be weak enough for the other to cast it out, and strong enough to cast the other out? Do they receive their strengths from something else?

Their similarities seem strongest at the beginning of the book, though, while Dante is still disoriented and alone. By the time Dante and Virgil enter Hell, the two seem increasingly dissimilar. Dante has placed his hope in an object at the end of a fearful salvation, so fear becomes incorporated into his hope. It’s disempowered.

2. Dr. Geier: “He must be experiencing a false salvation. …He needs to be convinced that he’s not safe. …Where does the leopard come from? …’I’ll throw a leopard at him. And if that doesn’t stop him, I’ll throw a lion. And a she-wolf.’ …He needs his confidence to be undermined.”

At the beginning of the book, when hope and fear sometimes looked so similar, Dante pursued salvation in the wrong places, and alone. Coming out of the dark, savage wood in which he found himself, he began scaling a hill that looked to lead him to God’s comforting light. Finding himself faced by three strong beasts, however, he was beaten back down. It’s hard to say what the hill stands for (Calvary? Zion? Law? Rome?), but it’s clear that it wasn’t Dante’s to climb. He had placed his hope in an immediately accessible salvation, one he could achieve alone, and he was unequal to the work. As soon as he was blocked and menaced, he had no assurances of salvation to fall upon, and fear overcame his hope. He had hoped, not in God, but in himself.

This is foolhardy at best and wicked at worst. Until Dante learned to receive his hope from God, and entrust himself to Him, he was doomed–he was in his own hands. How magnificent, then, that he should be shocked out of that way by beasts stronger than he was, and sent running right down to Virgil in the wood. He was sent from a false salvation (which ended up meaning damnation) and a false hope (which ended up being fear) to God’s given salvation and a revealed, mysterious hope.

I don’t want to sound trite, but this is important for me. It matters where my hope is. Dante makes me think that erring confidence and illusions of safety are much more dangerous than big unknowns. I’d rather hope in God and not know what that means than have understanding and a false hope. When Dante submits himself to Virgil, he’s enacting that preference too. He’s begun to conquer fear.

3. NG: “That’s a huge transformation. How does Virgil’s story manage to put Dante’s heart ‘in order’? How does it make their wills into one?”

Even after Dante learns who Virgil is, he’s got his doubts about the project. He needs to know that the dangers Virgil will take him through are really ones that are meant for him. He’s not going to follow a ghost willy-nilly into hell, even if that ghost is an awesome epic poet. Plus, you know, he’s still a coward. Virgil’s up to the task of reassuring him, though, and the way he does it is important. He begins with God’s desire for Dante’s salvation, expressed by Mary (the Queen of his church), recounted by Lucy (the saint of his profession), initiated by Beatrice (the love of his life), and executed by Virgil, who speaks to him now. It’s a long, straight, direct line from God Himself to Dante, bridged by ladies who care for him, look out for him, and touch his heart. Dante sees that God is reaching down through his people and his world to touch him in his most tender places, and to draw him back to himself. With that truth in mind, no hell need be fearful. What can stand against a love that passes in a great, personal chain down directly to him? All the people he loves most, all the activities he excels at, all the communities to which he belongs have been marshaled by God for his salvation.

When Dante sees this clearly, when he sees his place in an ascending chain of love, he can hardly help but join his will to it. His will becomes one with Virgil’s, with Beatrice’s, with Lucy’s, with Mary’s, with God’s. Finally, his hope isn’t false. Finally, fear cannot stand. His God is his salvation, and though he go through the valley of the shadow of death or down into hell, that loving God is there.

There are three nights of discussion left, and it’s time for me to get to the next one. Maybe I’ll be back again tomorrow with an anecdote or insight. We’ll see. In the meantime, I wish you as pure an experience of togetherness as the one I’m heading toward. G’night.

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