I feel personally broadsided. As someone who assigns Dante’s Divine Comedy (in Allen Mandelbaum’s great translation) to college students at least once every year-and-a-half or so, the following news headline, from London’s Telegraph, is disconcerting (to say the least):
Dante’s Divine Comedy ‘offensive and should be banned’
The headline represents the serious position of a (self-described) human rights organization, based in Italy, which is calling for Dante’s Divine Comedy to no longer be taught in schools and universities. The “human rights organization” calls itself Gherush 92, and the Telegraph says it “acts as a consultant to UN bodies on racism and discrimination.”
I wonder how one actually gets a job consulting at the UN on racism and discrimination, but if I had such a job, here’s what I’d say about any proposal to ban a literary text like Dante’s Divine Comedy:
It is racist, discriminatory, and patronizing to assume that adult college students are not properly equipped to read or discuss a text. Cultural capital—the bank of things educated people know about—is power, and to deprive an individual of access to cultural capital is to exclude her from power. It is every human’s right to make up her own mind about the nature of the ideas she encounters.
But I don’t have the UN advisory job; Gherush 92 does. And here’s one of the group’s justifications for wanting to boot Dante from the classroom: Valentina Sereni, the group’s president, is quoted in the Telegraph as worrying about the offense Dante causes to some Muslims:
The Prophet Mohammed was subjected to a horrific punishment – his body was split from end to end so that his entrails dangled out, an image that offends Islamic culture.
Well, yes. Mohammad gets the South Park treatment in the Divine Comedy.
As do Jews and homosexuals.
And mature adults, whether Muslim or otherwise, can handle it. Somehow, for example, educated Jews and homosexuals appear capable of reading Dante for profit and without emotional deformation. The great Yale literary critic, Harold Bloom, loves Dante and is Jewish. He places Dante at the very center of the western canon of literature, second only to Shakespeare. And Oscar Wilde, who was homosexual, alludes to Dante in his posthumously published letter, De Profundis. So he read him as well.
I’m also of a minority tribe. I’m an agnostic. I have no religious affiliation whatsoever. I’m a member of the doubting community, and Dante puts numerous of my heroes—the pagan poets and philosophers—behind the gates of hell. Why? Because, as Virgil describes it (“Inferno,” Canto IV):
. . . they [the pagan poets and philosophers] lacked baptism,
the portal of the faith that you [Dante] embrace.
And if they lived before Christianity,
they did not worship God in fitting ways;
and of such spirits I myself am one.
For these defects, and for no other evil,
we now are lost and punished just with this:
we have no hope and yet we live in longing.
Isn’t that a sublime and devastating punishment, psychologically speaking, for non-Christian poets and philosophers? Dante cuts me to the quick here. I’m O.K. that Dante wrote it. I’m even glad he wrote it. It makes me think.
So let us allow Dante to speak, and teachers to teach, and students to read. Have a little faith in people.
But let’s also face the Mohammad issue in the Divine Comedy directly. Why does Dante write harshly of Mohammad?
In my view, it’s because Dante saw Mohammad as a schismatic (one who divides people on matters of religion). As such, Mohammad and other schismatics, when they get to Dante’s hell, are harried by a devil with a dividing sword. This is their punishment for being schismatics. When they turn toward the demon he slices them open, and when they heal, but turn again toward him, he slices them open yet again. It’s an allegory of division. It’s nothing particularly personal about Mohammad as such; Mohammad is just the most well-known representative of the schismatic type (for Dante’s medieval Catholic audience), and so takes center stage at that moment in the poem as the chief of schismatics.
Here’s the passage from the “Inferno,” Canto XXVIII. I promise it won’t hurt you to read it.
No barrel, even though it’s lost a hoop
or end-piece, ever gapes as one whom I
saw ripped right from his chin to where we fart:
his bowels hung between his legs, one saw
his vitals and the miserable sack
that makes of what we swallow excrement.
While I was all intent on watching him,
he looked at me, and with his hands he spread
his chest and said: “See how I split myself!
See now how maimed Mohammad is! And he
who walks and weeps before me is Ali,
whose face is opened wide from chin to forelock.
And all the others here whom you can see
were, when alive, the sowers of dissention
and scandal, and for this they now are split.
Behind us here, a devil decks us out
so cruelly, re-placing every one
of this throng underneath the sword edge when
we’ve made our way around the road of pain,
because our wounds have closed again before
we have returned to meet his blade once more. . . .”
Whether you like the subject matter or not, that’s good and vivid writing. And there are many depictions in the “Inferno” that are equivalently graphic (read, for instance, Ugolino’s horrific tale, told to Dante and Virgil, in Canto XXXIII).
And for centuries, Western artists, inspired by Dante’s gift for vivid description, have attempted interpretations of the Divine Comedy in drawing and painting, including the schismatic scene that includes Mohammad. Here’s an example. It was done by Gustav Dore. Again, it’s O.K. You can look.
Dore’s drawing, executed in 1857, matches the general description of the schismatics, but not Mohammad exactly as Dante depicts him, so I guess you could deceive your students, if you wanted to “protect” them from a sensitive issue, showing this image without saying who the character at center is, opening his chest. You could even tell your students outright that it’s not Mohammad, just a depiction of an anonymous schismatic.
But that would be a lie.
That’s Ali in front of Mohammad, covering his face.
William Blake also depicts the Mohammad scene from Dante’s “Inferno.” This watercolor was done in the 1820s. Shall we give up showing Dore and Blake to students as well? The logic of Valentina Sereni’s argument against Mohammad image depiction in the presence of a class that might include Muslim students demands it.
And here’s Botticelli—of Botticelli’s Venus fame. He drew a response to every canto in the Divine Comedy. That’s how much he loved Dante. Here’s his 1481 depiction of the “sowers of dissension.” Mohammad is in there, but you’ve got to do a bit of a “Where’s Waldo” search to find him. Don’t show Botticelli to students either?
If you want to kill western culture and western individualism (and maybe Ms. Sereni does), place the imagination under a ban; keep people like Oscar Wilde from ever encountering Dante’s Divine Comedy; and remove cultural and religious practices—like sharia and the taboo against portraying Mohammad—from public criticism or mockery by force of law. But Oscar Wilde, in De Profundis, offers the proper retort:
I am a born antinomian. I am one of those who are made for exceptions, not for laws.
That’s the creative individual; the eccentric Dante; the only proper locus for an assertion of rights. There are no group rights; there are only individual rights.
Let Dante continue to be read.