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Morality and Hell: the power of Dante’s Inferno

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Novelist Dolan Cummings explains how Dante's exposition of Hell in the Divine Comedy inspired his next novel.

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In the next discussion in our ‘Ask an Artist’ series, novelist Dolan Cummings talks about how Dante’s Divine Comedy inspired his second novel.

In Dolan's words:

Dante's Divine Comedy, composed 700 years ago, is one of the foundational texts of Western literature. It was written in Dante's own Florentine dialect, and according to those able to read the original, no translation has ever adequately conveyed both its poetic force and imaginative power. Even in translation though - and there are hundreds in English alone - the poetry, narrative and imagery of Dante's work have made a lasting impression on generations of readers, as they have followed the author on his own tour of Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. And of the three parts of the poem, it is Hell that is most loved. Why? That's part of what we'll discuss.

Dante's Hell was the inspiration and model for my second novel, Gehenna: a novel of Hell and Earth (forthcoming). In it, an unnamed author guides the Glasgow cop DCI Alexander through the various circles of Hell, meeting some of Dante's characters and others inspired by them, including historical figures and characters from literature as well Alexander's own world.

I'm not foolish enough to think I can stand comparison with Dante as a poet, but I am just about foolish enough to think I can rub shoulders with him as a moralist, if only because I benefit from another 700 years of thinking about morality. In addition to discussing some of Dante's unforgettable imagery, I will consider the morality of Hell - both Dante's and ours.

You don’t have to read anything in advance, but if you want a flavour of Hell, I recommend the following sections:

Canto 5, especially lines 73-143 (Paolo and Francesca)

Canto 11 (the geography of Hell)

Canto 21 (Evil Claws, and the most famous fart in world literature)

Canto 26, especially lines 43-142 (Ulysses)

All can be found in the original and translations at: https://digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/ (just select the canto number under Inferno)

Speaker

Dolan Cummings is a freelance writer and editor, and author of That Existential Leap: a crime story (2017). Much of his writing can be found at dolancummings.com.

About the series

What are the artistic reference points for today’s artists? How do exemplary works of art from the past inform their creativity? In this new series of Arts & Society forums, we invite artists in a variety of spheres to select a work of art and explain how it has influenced them. How has their chosen piece prompted them to emulate its achievement?

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