The “culture” of Hell

William Blake, "The Vestibule of Hell and the Souls Mustering to Cross the Acheron"

William Blake, “The Vestibule of Hell and the Souls Mustering to Cross the Acheron”

In his introduction to Dante’s Inferno, Lino Pertile, an Italian linguist and Professor of Romance Languages and Literature at Harvard University, writes:

In psychological and moral terms, Hell presents itself as the final result of man’s attempt to attain, while still alive, completeness and happiness through the satisfaction of his desires and the affirmation of his individuality in the world. For this reason, the “culture” of Hell, namely, the culture which Hell draws upon, is most similar to that of the world of our own experience. It is a culture that promises and allows, indeed encourages, material growth and progress, social mobility, fulfillment of desire through the free use of individual initiative, enterprise, and talent. It is indeed a dynamic, unprejudiced culture, potentially democratic according to a modern political vision, inasmuch as it stimulates the progress of society towards the material equality of its most active members; but repugnant to Dante inasmuch as it foments disorder, restlessness, anxiety, and forever new desires that cannot be satisfied in this life. Accordingly, the object lesson that Inferno intends to impart is that the society to which the culture of desire gives rise is ultimately overwhelmed by it; in other words, it reveals the tragically self-destructive nature of the culture of desire. . . .

Florence, with her “accursed florin,” was for [Dante] the embodiment of a society that had lost its way, a society that had sacrificed conscience and virtue to intelligence, integrity to effectiveness and success, the good of the community to the interests of powerful individuals: in short, a society which, by obsessively seeking heaven on earth, had made a Hell of life on earth.

β€” The Cambridge Companion to Dante, edited by Rachel Jacoff


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