A Rush to Judgment: Teaching Dante’s Schema in American High Schools

Although Nicolo di Lorenzo Della Magna’s 1481 Florentine edition of the Divine Comedy is perhaps the most beautiful of all Dantean incunabula—owing to the presence of the wonderful designs of Sandro Botticelli—probably the most influential early printing was Andrea Torresani di Asola’s 1515 second Aldine edition, which featured a cross-section map of the underworld and some moral schemas of lower hell that are now attributed to Pietro Bembo (1) . The idea of creating visual guides to Dante’s work was an act of genius, as was the concept of graphically categorizing sin in the form of Satanic Venn diagrams.

As such, a desire, graphically and logically, to simplify and codify Dante’s work has been a consistent facet of the Divine Comedy‘s publication and reception ever since the ink dried on the little dolphin and anchor at the back of the book in 1515; and, indeed, just few months after the Aldine work hit the canals of Venice, its designs were plagiarized by Gregorio de’ Gregoriis da Forlì (2). They were then reused by Alessandro Paganini in 1527 (3), elaborated on by Pietro da Fino in 1568 (4), and modified and redrawn by countless others all the way to the present day. For some reason, the image of the infernal regions, carefully delineated into discretely labeled pits and circles and whatnots, has remained fascinating, not only to a small and specialized group of scholars, but to the general public as well.

In the summer of 1999, for example, Peter Hawkins noticed something odd about the last page of the New York Times Book Review:

[It was] given over entirely to Seymour Chwast’s cartoon, “Dante’s Divine Comedy: The Diagram.” This playful rendering of the three realms of the afterlife (in full color, and with subdivisions duly labeled) offered the Sunday Book Review reader a peppier version of the schematic overview provided in most editions of Dante’s poem. In recognition of popular taste for the last six centuries, Hell took up two thirds of the page, with Purgatory and Paradise discreetly tucked away into corners. Any Dante expert would be quick to not particular mistakes—how could the artist have left the Primum Mobile out of the picture?—but the larger question was why the cartoon was there, without explanation, in the first place. Why should the newspaper of record have assumed that an ordinary reader would recognize the poem being diagrammed, let alone find the recognition entertaining? (5)

Although Hawkins attempted to explain the popularity of the image by claiming that it was an ancillary effect of the overall and timeless popularity of Dante’s great poem—the Divine Comedy as an immortal literary text—the obverse is most certainly true: Dante remains popular because the general public is addicted to damnation, and since Florentine poet is the most reliable pusher of punishment: any port in a storm. The general population adores poking peanuts through adamantine bars to torment the eternally damned, but to presuppose that Dante’s work remains current in anything other than a generalized or sublimated form is unsupportable. In the English-speaking world, his work remains the province of academics and students, or is only loosely referenced by popular culture (usually in the form of stray images, usually themselves taken not from the text itself but from some graphic commentary on the text, such as that engraved by Dore) (6). Although Dante sells relatively well as far as literary texts go, he only barely intrudes on Amazon’s top 2000 list (7). The general public’s relationship with Dante is most likely similar to that relationship enjoyed by Cervantes and Terry Gilliam prior to that director’s failed attempt to bring Don Quixote to the screen. As Gilliam explained, he had not read the book, and “just had the popular conception, or misconception, of what the book was about” (8).

It is this idea of a “popular conception or misconception” that has kept the image of the Inferno current for so long a time; and its popularity continues unabated, even if the general public is, for the most part, ignorant of the work itself. For example, in mid-1998, The Onion featured a satire on corporate misdeeds, titled “Tenth Circle Added to Rapidly Growing Hell” (9). The article not only described a few new punishments devised for some contemporary sins, but also featured a wonderful new schema for the underworld. The article must have touched a nerve not only in the general population but also in Hollywood , for as the Guardian reported in April of 2000:

The American comic newspaper The Onion is moving into movies. Onion writer Todd Hanson has signed a deal with DreamWorks Animation to script an adaptation of the spoof paper’s story “ 10th Circle Added To Rapidly Growing Hell.” The article dealt with the need for Satan to expand hell to accommodate a population explosion of evil-doers, including—reports Variety—“demographers, ad execs, tobacco lobbyists, monopoly law experts working for major corporations” and the creators of sitcoms set in the workplace.” (10)

Perhaps the work that typifies best the poorly-articulated desires behind the public’s continued fascination with Dante’s text is 1976’s Inferno by science fiction writers Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (11). Niven and Pournelle’s text “updated” Dante’s text by inventing new punishments for new sins, and by filling the underworld with either real people or loosely fictionalized versions of real people. Unfortunately, and as good of an idea as it seems, the project draws out the worst not only in the book’s authors, but also in its readers.

On Amazon’s website, one reviewer of Niven and Pournelle’s book begins by stating: “Often original Classics are tedious and unintersting [sic]. I believe as times change so should literature. However beautiful, profound or whatever the original Classic might have been, in “now time” it’s a drag” (12). Another reader helpfully suggests: “To appreciate this book fully, the reader should first read Dante’s Divine Comedy, or at least its middle section [sic], Inferno(13). Yet another claims that Niven and Pournelle’s work is more of an addition to the Inferno than a sequel to it, but asserts: “It truly shows both the intelectual [sic] and humerous [sic] at times side of hell” (14). Usually, Amazon customers describe the book as being “a commentary on the morals and hypocrisy of 20th century America” (15); and most claim something to the effect that “Niven and Pournelle have a lot of fun revealing their candidates for hell—environmentalists and developers, liberals and conservatives (Kurt Vonnegut ends up in the circle reserved for Creators of False Religions)” (16). Perversely, one high school teacher even claimed that he or she had “taught this book at the Junior level for a number of years.… It is a valuable teaching tool for everything from character development to allusion!!!” (17) Another internet reviewer on a site directly linked by Niven’s own website ponderously mused: “Where would Dr. Jack Kevorkian go in Dante’s Hell? The bloodbath of the Violent? If so, would it be right for his victims to be in the Wood of Suicides?” (18).

So as it seems, Dante’s continued popularity is based at least partially on misconceptions, poor reading skills and reactionary politics. Unfortunately, and as the anonymous high school teacher proudly asserted, some of these traits routinely find their way into America’s classrooms.

Retired teacher New York teacher Chuck LaChiusa from Buffalo’s City Honors School, frequently assigned his grade 11 students a project on the Inferno (19). As a unit test following completion of the final canto, the students were asked to place at least five fictional or real people into each part of Dante’s Hell. Websites for the project that were archived from October 1999 to February 2004 reveal a disturbing but deeply fascinating situation—as a caveat to educators, it should be remembered that deleting or removing sites from the world wide web does nothing to erase the existence of a website: most are captured and independently archived by the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine (20), and remain accessible to those who have even the most basic training in computer use (21).

LaChiusa’s misguided assignment seems to have provoked the very worst in bigoted, racist and homophobic responses from his students (22). One student, for example, places Nelson Mandela in the circle of the virtuous pagans. The same student gleefully consigns Abraham Lincoln to the circle of the sullen, and dumps Martin Luther and John Calvin into the circle of the blasphemers. As would be expected with such precedents, LaChiusa’s students treat America’s famous lesbians and gays appallingly, placing Elton John, Michael Stipe, Ellen Degeneris, Rock Hudson, K.D. Lang, Boy George, and—staggeringly—Mathew Shepard in the circle of the sodomites. Other students even go so far as to place Woodward and Bernstein, Oscar Schindler, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass in the ninth circle for betraying their rightful lords and masters.

Even at an institution as removed from the high school as Harvard, William Cole noticed that his students, when faced with a similar task—that of writing new cantos, complete with new sins and real sinners—still had to be warned not to put their instructors in Hell. Another, he noted, put David Duke and Louis B. Farrakhan in the same pit, “each denouncing, hating, and fearing the other” (24).

Obviously, what seemed to be a good idea—that of testing student ability to classify and categorize the different types of sins recognized by Dante (it would be impossible to find a modern sinner to put in with the other usurers if one had no understanding of usury)—quickly transmuted into a blisteringly poor idea, with the potential for immediately incurring any number of parental complaints and lawsuits which would only exponentially as the students marched further lower into the abyss.

In the spring of 2002, in the spirit of foolish mischief, I attempted to replicate LaChiusa’s exercise, using graduate students in my Religion 850 class—Dante and Popular Culture—at Yale’s Divinity School. I handed out a table of the different parts of Hell and asked my pupils to “fill in the blanks with modern names.” The class evenly divided into two competing and moderately hostile groups: one that refused to participate, accurately predetermining what was about to happen, and another that eagerly consigned anyone with a competing understanding of the almighty to everlasting darkness. At the end of the class, I attempted to smooth relations between the two camps, and we mutually decided to destroy any written record of the results.

When all is said and done, the exercise is not without value, however, and can be modified to discourage the development of any such theological or political fracas.

Instead of requiring students to consider all of the circles of Hell, teachers should select particular circles or bolgias for the assignment. Students will not be able to indulge in rampant homophobia if they are not given the opportunity to stomp around in that particular part of the seventh circle. It is easy to acquiesce that the circle of the wrathful and sullen would provoke less potentially embarrassing or insulting results than the circle of the gluttonous. Obviously, the sixth circle would probably incite a certain type of student, and should probably be avoided.

The purpose of such an exercise should be to check if students are understanding Dante’s subtle logic, rather than simply memorizing the minutiae of the afterlife. Teachers should realize that it is completely unnecessary to test students’ comprehension of all levels, circles and pits of Hell: a few representative parts will easily suffice.

Teachers should limit students by only permitting them to use fictional characters in this exercise, but should allow students to use any pop culture source including television, cartoons, comic books and movies as well as more literary sources.

Rather than provide five or more names for any given sin, students should focus on defending their choices in the form of a few short sentences. Three well-defended names would provide a more comprehensive diagnostic tool than a random-seeming list of five or more. This approach of controlling the number of responses would also cut down on overtly asinine suggestions, such as the one from the Buffalo student who put Darth Vader in Hell for betraying the Emperor Palpatine.

Similarly, this assignment might be improved further by assigning students two sets of fictional characters, and then asking students to explain which one belongs in Hell and which one does not. Since high school students cannot be presupposed to have had a broad exposure to literary or pop culture texts, teachers would have to come up with enough examples—perhaps five pairs per circle and bolgia—to ensure that students are able to provide answers to 5 of the questions (eg, this is an assumption that out of approximately 200 texts, students will be familiar with 10).

Such an assignment might even allow for teachers to approach those cantos that contain potentially divisive subject materials. For example, a comparison of the Wicked Witch of the West and the Great Oz from The Wizard of Oz could inspire quite a debate over necromancy, but would, ultimately, have to focus on Dante’s habit of only accommodating unrepentant sinners in Hell. Whereas Oz expresses sorrow for leading everyone to believe that he was a powerful wizard, the Wicked Witch dies unshriven, and appears to be headed straight to the palace of King Minos. Similarly, a comparison of the violent against their fellow man using two movie villains, Poison Ivy and Mr Freeze from Batman and Robin, would yield the same results: Mr Freeze is redeemable, whereas Poison Ivy is not.

Finally, as yet a final variant of the assignment, students could be tested by being provided with a list of fictional characters and then asked to either place them in Hell or not. Students could be required decide where in Dante’s schema to put those characters they condemn. As an example, in Spider Man 2, Dr Octopus, after attempting to challenge the authority of God himself, repents for his actions immediately prior to his death, saves New York from destruction, and therefore would avoid lower Hell. Big Pussy, from HBO’s The Sopranos, even though he betrayed his Mafia bosses would not go to the ninth circle, but, dying unrepentant of his life of crime would go to the seventh bolgia of the eight circle.

The idea that teachers could test for student comprehension by allowing them to be their own generation’s Dante is a good one, but needs to be tempered by a recognition of exactly why Dante’s work has remained current for so long. If all else fails, direct students to http://www.4degreez.com/misc/dante-inferno-test.mv, where they can take a simple test that will assign them to the appropriate level of hell.

Carl James Grindley (Hostos College —CUNY)


1 http://www.italnet.nd.edu/Dante/text/Hell.html

2 http://www.italnet.nd.edu/Dante/text/1515_a.venice.html

3 http://www.italnet.nd.edu/Dante/text/1527.toscolano.html

4 http://www.italnet.nd.edu/Dante/text/1568.venice.html

5 The Poet’s Dante: Twentieth Century Responses. Ed. Peter Hawkins and Rachel Jacoff ( New York : Farrar, Strauss and Grioux, 2001): p.xiii.

6 My studies show that Dore’s engravings for Inferno are commonly referenced by a great variety of filmic texts, but, most of the time, such allusions are in error. For example, in Se7en , Dore’s work for Inferno is used in an important montage of shots, but the script refers to Purgatorio .

7 John Ciardi’s translation is ranked at 1880th place on Amazon’s bestseller list: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0451208633/qid=1114433126/sr=1-1/ref=sr_1_1/002-5916201-3220024?v=glance&s=books . Currently, the best selling “classic” listed by Amazon is Catcher in the Rye at number 221. One Hundred years of Solitude is number 431, and Dante’s popularity does not compare with number 615 or number 576, which, respectively are Ayn Rand’s craptastic Fountainhead and her repellent and masturbatory Atlas Shrugged : http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/new-for-you/top-sellers/-/books/10399/books/0/ref=pd_ts_b_nav/002-5916201-3220024.

8 http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2003/03/31/1048962696855.html?oneclick=true

9 Hanson, Todd, “ Tenth Circle Added to Rapidly Growing Hell.” The Onion 3408 (September 23, 1998):1.

10 http://film.guardian.co.uk/News_Story/Exclusive/0,4029,211944,00.html

11 Niven, Larry and Jerry Pournelle. Inferno (New York: Pocket Books, 1976).

12-17 http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0671670557/002-5916201-3220024?v=glance

18 http://www.marypat.org/stuff/mywords/dante.html

19 In an email to the author dated April 23, 2005, Mr LaChiusa declined to comment on any issues raised by his class exercises, and explained that he was now retired.

20 http://www.archive.org

21 http://web.archive.org/web/*/http://cityhonors.buffalo.k12.ny.us/city/rsrcs/eng/auth/dan.html ).

22 :

23-24 Cole, William. “Expanding Hell.” College Literature 20.3 (October 1993): 148-156.

Original Citation: Scientia Scholae, Volume IV, Issue 2, Spring 2006

NOTE: Links have been corrected and/or deleted.  The original “look and feel”  of the journal has been preserved as much as possible, but the original logos have also been removed.  No editing to the actual texts has been done since their original publication.

TEAMS: Teaching Association for Medieval Studies