Near the bottom of the Inferno, in the eighth circle, Dante encounters the sowers of discord: fomenters of schism and civil war. The wounds of these sinners are represented by a man with his throat cut, his nose severed up to his eyebrows, and possessing only a single ear. Another sinner endures decapitation; it carries “by the hair its severed head dangling from its hand like a lantern which looked at us and said, ‘Woe is me!’”
Dante is transfixed at the horrifying pageantry: “The great crowds and the diverse wounds/ had made my eyes so inebriated/ that they were eager to remain and weep.” His guide, the Roman poet Virgil, chastises him for bestowing inordinate attention on the “sad, mutilated shades.”
The Inferno is only the first of three parts of Dante’s Divine Comedy, but it is the most read and the most entertaining. The Comedy, as it was known in its day, is always great reading–but never more so than at this time of year, the season of Halloween, a holiday whose popularity seems to increase with each passing year. Now a thoroughly secular celebration, Halloween is short for All Hallows Eve, the holy evening preceding the November 1 Feast of All Saints–whose celebration began as a way of honoring the martyrs of the early Church. In the liturgical calendar, All Saints is followed by All Souls, a commemoration of the unity of the dead and the living.
Take a film like Seven, from the 1990s, about a serial killer (Kevin Spacey) who is repulsed at the way the modern world wallows in the seven deadly sins. He decides to take it upon himself to provide instructive acts of punishment. He begins selecting salient examples of each of the vices, and executes each individual in a way designed to illustrate the vice in question. The result is a grotesque version of the medieval sermons on the deadly sins, with vivid examples of the disorders involved in our attachment to vice.
The killer is pursued by two detectives: the young and pugnacious Mills (Brad Pitt) and the aging and jaded Somerset (Morgan Freeman). At one of the crime scenes, the killer leaves a quotation from Milton: “Long is the way and hard that out of hell leads up to light.” Somerset catches onto the pedagogical intent of the killer and suggests to his partner that they consult Aquinas, Dante, and Milton. The impatient and combative Mills casts asides a copy of Cliff’s Notes to Dante with the taunt, “Dante, poet, faggot.” Meanwhile, Somerset heads to the library, where he unfurls a map of Dante’s Inferno–which, in this film, could function as a map of the city itself.
Seven’s ending, which unveils the utter destruction of the bold Mills, ranks among the grimmest endings in modern American film. Seven is thus a truncated and deformed Divine Comedy, a hell without prospect of purgatory or paradise, a world of evil and vengeance bereft of providence, mercy, or love.
In Dante, by contrast, the visions of the horrors of hell are inscribed within divine justice, which itself is a partial manifestation of divine love. For Dante, the great mystery is not evil, but goodness. Evil is fairly easy to describe; it is finite and parasitic on the good. One of the few contemporary authors who can be said to stand in the tradition of Dante–William Peter Blatty–has said of his book, The Ninth Configuration, that it addressed the question of the mystery of goodness. Blatty explained, “If we are reducible to matter without spirit, to soulless atomic structures, then we ought to be always rushing blindly and irresistibly to serve our own selfish ends. Yet how is it that there is love in this world–love as a God might love–and that a man will give his life for another.”
This is precisely Dante’s goal. But before he can reach the love that moves the stars, he must traverse the full extent of Hell, including its lord. In the depiction of Satan, Dante manages at once to satisfy our appetite for horror and to undermine our expectations about the power of Satan. Disproportionately large, with three heads and huge, flapping wings, Satan is submerged in ice, immobile (except for the wings), with tears dripping from all six eyes, and each mouth filled with a traitor (Judas, Brutus, and Cassius). The combination of his fearful visages with his paralysis and tears creates an image at once terrifying and humorous. Satan is, in the end, an absurd, petty rebel–not a noble anti-hero.
Like the medieval cathedrals that found a place for gargoyles alongside saints, Dante gives us what we seem to want in our popular celebrations of Halloween: masks, disguises, and the momentary thrill of being scared. But, through Virgil, he warns us against inordinate fascination with vice and the grotesque. Dante also gives us a sense of the significance of the liturgical celebrations of All Saints and All Souls, celebrations now ignored in the onslaught of Halloween activities.
The introduction of examples of virtues, to counter examples of vice, marks the transition from Hell to Purgatory. The training in being repulsed by evil gives way to the longing to imitate virtue and participate in the living source of all goodness. Dante has a harder time describing the delights of Heaven than the monstrosities of Hell. But this is not because Heaven is less interesting; on the contrary, its beauty is so intense, at once arousing and satisfying the “ardor of his longing,” that his “memory is overcome by excess.” Here Dante perceives the interconnection of the lives of the living and the dead, of the saints already enthroned in heaven with the humblest and least noticed of lives on earth.
As enjoyable and entertaining as our contemporary Halloween festivities may be, they pale–on the scales of entertainment and significance–in comparison to the presentation of the mysterious union of the living and the dead in Dante’s masterpiece.