Reenvisioning the Inferno in the Golden State
Story by Brother Michael F. Meister, FSC
The divine comedy, by the Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), is an epic work of towering genius and a creation of poetic transcendence whose voice, nearly 700 years later, still addresses the depths of the human spirit. It is a pilgrim's diary, whose vivid reports have kindled the imaginations of countless generations of readers and illustrators.
As a mature and intelligent Christian, Dante's convictions nourished not only his soul, but also his imagination, and The Divine Comedy is, in many ways, the product of this relationship between faith and imagination. In reading the Inferno we must not lose sight of the fact that he portrays the struggle of humanity to free itself from the grip of evil and wickedness. At the very bottom of Hell where Satan reigns, frozen in the ice of hatred and self-pity - a batlike parody of his former glory as God's brilliant angel Lucifer (light-bearer)-Virgil finally steps out from in front of Dante and forces him to face the ultimate Evil in all its vile horror. Dante is struck mute and says the only thing he can: "I neither died, nor did I live."
We live in a very different world from Dante's. On every level, the collective progress of human achievement through the Renaissance; the Enlightenment; and the industrial, scientific, and technological revolutions; has given us the potential to use what we have achieved for great good. And so we strive. But we also live in a world very much like Dante's. Political intrigue and betrayal among statesmen; war, violence, and destruction; dishonest business practices at the highest levels; loss of faith in time-honored institutions-these and other social ills make the "darkness visible" and render us vulnerable to forces of evil, not always visible on apocalyptic levels, but felt in the despair and hopelessness that become the unwanted homeless who populate the streets of our hearts.
Dante's divine poem has been widely illustrated since it was published nearly 700 years ago, and Birk joins a who's who of artists who have illuminated its text and thereby kept it alive on the visual level. Some readers will recognize in Birk's illustrations the influence of the noted French engraver Gustave Doré. By borrowing elements from an earlier artist, Birk, in a very contemporary manner, recaptures the spirit of the medieval practice of translatio studii - the translation of knowledge and culture from one age to another-thus linking the past with the present by means of harmonizing and integrating newer forms with the old. While many other energies are at work in his Commedia, it is clear that Dante shared in this intellectual and cultural practice as well. In this context, Birk maintains a solid link with Dante's imagination and brings it forward to our own time in a very contemporary - and disturbing-fashion.
But if poets and artists have been prophets and visionaries in past ages, theirs is still the vocation to conjure the world to reveal itself to us. Sometimes their voice leaves us in awe at its beauty. At other times theirs is a raucous cry to look at ourselves in the mirror they present us and measure ourselves by what we see. In his Inferno, Dante the poet wrote about his world, but he also wrote about himself-Dante the pilgrim and Dante the exile. What the poet described the pilgrim experienced, as he put into verse St. Augustine's soulful yearning: "Our hearts are restless until they rest in You, O God." From the outset it became increasingly clear to Dante that his true home-his final rest from this raucous world-would be found in Heaven, and that his journey upward would make sense only if he descended into the very depths of Hell and faced his own demons head-on. The unvarnished text Birk and Sanders rendered for us here suggests the truth we (and Dante) must face as we come to know ourselves along the way.