Rachel Jacoff: Hell Is Other People in Dante's Inferno

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Rachel Jacoff: Hell Is Other People in Dante's Inferno Rachel Jacoff is one of the leading lights in the small, close-knit world of Dante scholarship. In this Entitled Opinions episode on The Divine Comedy, she continues her conversation on The Inferno, with her former student, our Entitled Opinions host Robert Harrison, himself a major Dante scholar.
Harrison begins by citing Homer's Illiad: “As the generation of leaves, so is that of humanity./The wind scatters the leaves on the ground, but the live timber/ burgeons with leaves again in the season of spring returning./ So one generation of men will grow while another dies.”
Virgil picks up this evocative metaphor in The Aeneid, but its tone is more ominous and rueful among the dead of the underworld. No surprise, then, that Dante continues the figure of speech in Canto 3, as a nod to Virgil – but with an important difference: Dante emphasizes the singularity of each of the sinners, rather than their anonymity. Each resident of Dante's infernal world “chooses, does not simply suffer, individual fate.” They not only make choices, but they reenact those choices and their rationalizations in their soliloquies. And Dante the Pilgrim is drawn into each of their vices as he speaks to them.
Eventually, Dante and Virgil hit bottom: “You think that the climax of The Inferno is going to be encounter with Satan – especially if you come to Dante from Milton,” says Harrison. “But Dante's Satan is really a very uninteresting encounter. There's no dialogue. Satan is just this horrible, slobbering, three-mouthed figure. So the real terror does not come from this canto, but from the canto before, where Dante meets the figure of Ugolino.”
Jacoff and Harrison discuss how the sins of the Inferno have social consequences, and are a violation of community – hence, hell is a lonely place, even when the characters are paired. Other people are part of their torture.
This is the second of three Entitled Opinions episodes on Dante.
Rachel Jacoff:
“For most of the characters in the Inferno, their sins are dispositions that inform every stance they take – the way they relate to Dante, the way they relate to other sinners in their group.”
“For Dante, sin is a violation of community. There are no sins that do not have social consequences.”
“Part of the reason that The Inferno is full of solitaries is that sinners have cut themselves off.”
“People are grouped together, but they're so alone. The presence of other people is part of the torture.”
Robert Harrison:
“When you get to the bottom of Dante's Inferno, you want to get out. We're convinced of the poetic justice of the punishments, but it's enough.”
“An eye for an eye is one thing, but an eye for an eye for eternity becomes really problematic. … We want a world of mercy, we want a world of grace.”
“Each canticle ends on the stars. They come out of The Inferno seeing the stars again, and they come out of Purgatory ready to go to the stars. And then … The Paradiso.”
“In Dante, Ulysses does not go home at all. He's the figure of the explorer, the man who lives for knowledge. He's a forerunner of the figure of the great age of discovery in the Renaissance, the discovery of the New World, the scientific spirit. Everything that Dante called male curiosità, bad curiosity, within a century would be exalted as one of the premiere virtues of the humanism of the Renaissance.”

Rachel Jacoff’s major research interest is Dante’s Divine Comedy. She has written many articles on Dante and co-authored a monograph on “Inferno II” (University of Pennsylvania Press) for the Lectura Dantis Americana series sponsored by the Dante Society of America. She edited a collection of essays by John Freccero, Dante: The Poetics of Conversion (1986) which received Honorable Mention for the Marraro Prize from the Modern Language Association. She co-edited and contributed two essays to The Poetry of Allusion: Virgil and Ovid in Dante (1990). She also edited The Cambridge Companion to Dante (1993, 2007). She also co-edited The Poet’s Dante, a collection of essays by 20th-century poets.
She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities (1981-2, 1991-2), the Guggenheim Foundation (1993) and has been a fellow of the Bunting Institute, the Harvard Center for Renaissance Studies (Villa I Tatti), the Stanford Humanities Center, the Rockefeller Foundation’s Villa Serbelloni, and the Bogliasco Foundation’s Liguria Study Center. She was a Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar in 1996-97. She served as an assistant editor of Speculum, the journal of the Medieval Academy, and on the Advisory Board of the Stanford Humanities Center, the MLA Committee for the Teaching of Foreign Languages and Literature, and the Friends of the Harvard College Libraries. Her current research concerns Dante’s role in contemporary poetry, Dante and the visual arts, and the representation of the body in the Divine Comedy.
She is Margaret E. Deffenbaugh and LeRoy T. Carlson Professor Emerita in Comparative Literature and Professor of Italian at Wellesley College where she has been a member the faculty since 1978. She has also taught at the University of Virginia, Cornell, and Stanford. She received her B.A. with High Honors and Distinction in 1959 from Cornell University, an M.A. in English from Harvard in 1960 and the Ph.D. degree in Italian from Yale in 1977.

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