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An Inferno for Our Times?
Abandon all hope, you who seek Dante here.
By Stephen W. Smith
Although skillful and clever throughout, Dan Brown’s Inferno is finally more of a gateway argument on behalf of population control than a simple thriller about Dante, Florence, or bioterror. Considered as a whole, the novel serves as something like a “gateway to the Posthuman age,” as the seeming villain of the novel says when describing the goal of his plot. While the gateways in Dante lead either to Hell and self-knowledge or to Mount Purgatorio and a climb to the stars, this novel leads the reader into a brave new world of genetic engineering and suggests that we embrace the new means required to “save the world,” even if we find them “uncomfortable.”
As the novel opens, Robert Langdon, Brown’s professor hero, awakens dazed and confused in an Italian hospital. When an apparent assassin arrives to kill him, Langdon flees for his life with a doctor, Sienna Brooks, and right into the middle of a new Dan Brown mystery.
Langdon soon learns that a visionary genetic scientist, Bertrand Zobrist, a self-styled “transhumanist” and aficionado of Dante’s Inferno, has prepared a new global virus for release the very next day, though the location of the pandemic’s “ground zero” remains unknown. Will Langdon and others be able to find the location and the virus before it’s too late? The task will require all of Langdon’s wit as he works to decode a variety of clues and communications, all tied to Dante or art history, and cryptically left behind after Zobrist commits suicide in the prologue.
For Zobrist, the pandemic is his last and best “gift” to the world; it is his “Inferno,” his “masterpiece,” his “pride.” Seeing himself as “the glorious savior” of humanity, Zobrist claims to have learned in particular from Dante’s Inferno the need we all have to pass through “hell” to arrive at a better state of being, a new “Renaissance.” Zobrist understands himself as the true lover of humanity, possessed of a holy wisdom and a courage that few possess: “If I could hold aloft my flaming heart,” Zobrist declares in the final message recorded before his suicide, “you would see I am overflowing with love.” Zobrist is, in his mind’s eye, the true teacher of love.
Recounted in swift, four- or five-page chapters, the novel’s plot surges forward puzzle by puzzle, mystery by mystery, artifact by artifact. While an entertaining and speedy read, Brown’s book is really much more about “the truth” of the earth’s population problem (graphs are included) than about Dante Alighieri, whose work tends to be mined for details and fresh puzzle material rather than for his wisdom on how to live freely and well. The novel, especially in its concluding chapters, is more interested in confronting Zobrist’s “Population Apocalypse Equation” and exploring responses than in seeking what Dante eventually found through his journey — “the Love that moves the sun and other stars,” as the last lines of Paradiso sing.
Regarding the novel’s engagement with Dante, the book opens with a master quotation, “The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of crisis.” This quotation, unattributed in the front matter, appears twice more in the book, first in a letter from Zobrist and then in Langdon’s musing epilogue. Who is the source of these words?
Langdon tells us this line is “derived from the work of Dante.” Although the words do not appear in the Inferno, they likely refer to Dante’s treatment of the lukewarm souls in canto 3. These tepid souls, however, are not found in the darkest places of hell but rather reside forever in the vestibule of the pit, stung to motion and chasing an empty banner for eternity. Albert Camus writes unforgettably about these nameless souls in The Fall: “We lack the energy of evil as well as the energy of good. Do you know Dante? Really? The devil you say! Then you know that Dante accepts the idea of neutral angels in the quarrel between God and Satan. And he puts them in Limbo, a sort of vestibule of his Hell. We are in the vestibule, cher ami.”
In a sense, Dante’s whole poetic effort in the Comedy centers on awakening the human person from this lost and sleepy state, this interior, spiritual lukewarmness, perhaps the one true pandemic on earth, in Dante’s judgment. For Brown, on the other hand, the real pandemic emerges at the last as environmental lukewarmness, a state of comfortable denial about the trajectory of our earth and its population — too many people growing like too much algae in too small a pond. You do the math. Brown’s novel is his attempt to “seek and find” an answer to the problem of eco-sleep and tepidity, and perhaps an answer to Shakespeare’s Benedick as well, who proclaims in Much Ado about Nothing that “the world must be peopled!”
In Dante’s poem, the grace of inner transformation remedies this interior lukewarmness, if a soul is willing to correspond and struggle. The soul learns how to depend upon God anew, something the Psalmist and my great Dante teacher Raymond DiLorenzo stressed, and then how to climb from the lukewarm state to the heights of real virtue and new union with God and others. This transformation of the person is the great work of Mount Purgatorio, and poses a permanent challenge to serious readers of the poem.
Will the soul sink into its own lies, its own private Inferno, or will it climb into new freedom and the truth? Che volete voi? the angel asks Dante at the gate of Purgatorio. What do you desire? What do you seek? And what do you find when you really read Dante, not simply for the “notoriously macabre vision of hell,” as Langdon puts it, but for the new life that the rest of the poem represents and explores?
For his part, Robert Langdon seems to have little taste for Mount Purgatorio, and a limited understanding of Dante’s work as “comedy” as well. As Langdon tellingly remarks in his lecture on Purgatorio, “sadly, this grueling, nine-ringed ascent is the only route from the depths of inferno to the glory of paradise.” Langdon sees Dante’s Purgatorio only as an experience of “each paying a price for a given sin,” when really the poem provides image after image of the human person being educated, corrected, cleansed, and ennobled through the sanctification of his intellect, imagination, will, and freedom. The great call and goal is to become holy, a true lover of God and others. Langdon’s “sadly” here is quite revealing, as it suggests that he regards Purgatorio not as a living poem for the present moment but as something closer to a discredited medieval relic.
Moreover, when Langdon discusses the title of Dante’s poem, the Comedy, he claims “comedy” means simply that the poem was “written in the vernacular and geared toward the general population.” What our expert leaves out of this bland explanation is revealing, for “comedy” in Dante’s sense aims to bring about a “prosperous, desirable, and gracious” ending for the human person, in Dante’s own words (or so we think) from the “Letter to Can Grande.” At its heart, then, Dante’s Comedy is not so much about Hell, “the miserific vision,” in C. S. Lewis’s fine phrase, as it is about human happiness and beatitude. Dante’s first name means “to give,” after all, and the poet gives the reader 66 magnificent cantos after the Inferno. Did the professor stop reading?
Rather than take greater heat from Dante, who hoped that his Comedy would educate poets and leaders and inspire even “better voices” than his own, Brown’s novel ends on a strange and surprising note: an endorsement of Zobrist’s positions on the need for population control, even though most of the 450 pages have been spent trying to foil his outrageous plot. When it becomes clear that Zobrist’s sterility virus — a perfectly modern plague sans pus and pain — has succeeded, three of the main characters discuss his actions and the future of the human race.
The final defense of Zobrist in the novel is rather unsettling. In the reproachful words of his lover, “Bertrand died alone because people like yourself refused to open your minds enough even to admit that our catastrophic circumstances might actually require an uncomfortable solution. All Bertrand ever did was speak the truth . . . and for that, he was ostracized.”
Insensitivity and the unwillingness to listen, it seems, have led to their natural consequence: the viral sterilization of 3 billion people. In defending Zobrist’s pandemic planning, his lover simply quotes Machiavelli’s famous teaching that “the ends justify the means.” In response to the direct follow-up questions “Do you believe that the ends justify the means? Do you believe that Bertrand’s goal to save the world was so noble that it warranted his releasing his virus?” the lover responds only by saying that his actions were “reckless” and “extremely dangerous” and that she would have stopped him if she could. So was Zobrist actually wrong or merely imprudent? Has this conversation really ruled out “an uncomfortable solution” to all our woes—a “solution” the book implies may be necessary and unavoidable? Why the “tense silence” at this moment in the book? Is the lover’s answer credible? Perhaps Machiavelli, the Florentine writer whose writing and authority are invoked at the last, is the presiding spirit of this modern Inferno, more so than Dante, with his medieval philosophy and theology, his beauty and doctrine, and his arduous Purgatorio.
As Langdon returns to reading Dante in the novel’s epilogue, he is suddenly reminded that there is more to Dante than the experience of “the misery of hell.” Dante’s great poem, Robert realizes, is about the power to endure daunting challenges; he even claims Dante “found eternal life” through his earthly fame and his masterpiece. Here again the specter of our misunderstood Zobrist rises, and again the novel returns to that key line, “The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.” Upon reflection, Langdon acknowledges that “he himself, like millions, was guilty” of denial and inaction in the face of the world’s problems, unlike Zobrist.
Before he falls asleep, he vows “he would never forget” the apparent lesson of Brown’s novel. And yet would that he could remember Dante as well, for Dante’s poem begins with an insight like this into lukewarmness but then takes the reader on a great journey that has served for centuries as a source of self-knowledge, inspiration, instruction, and renewal for readers. Seek there, one might counsel Langdon, and you’ll find something greater than an argument for population control and a new human “species more in tune with its environment.” In Dante’s poem and vision, one begins to see the glorious liberty of “man fully alive,” in Irenaeus’s words—that, and much, much more. The real masterpiece beckons like a great mystery. Dante’s Comedy is a fit challenge and climb, and a life-changing experience, for even the greatest of symbolists. Just don’t stop at the Inferno, dear reader, for as Dante writes in Paradiso: “A little spark gives birth to a great flame.”
Editor’s note: Stephen W. Smith is Temple Family Chair of English Literature at Hillsdale College. He thanks Jeremy and the Island Bookstore on Mackinac Island for graciously supplying him with a copy of the novel at 12:01 a.m. on its release date. This article is reprinted by permission. It first appeared in NATIONAL REVIEW ONLINE WWW.NATIONALREVIEW. MAY 18, 2013 4:00 AM