Of things which my Commedia does not mean
-Dante, The Inferno, Canto XXI, Lines 1-3
We tend to look at ancient texts with a certain sort of reverence. It is automatic. As was said in the movie Chinatown – politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they live long enough. It’s a kind of reverence that can blind us to the fact that at one time, the author was a breathing, living person and the work was new and fresh. It’s the kind of reverence that makes us forget that Shakespeare filled his verses with sexual innuendos to please the commercial masses. It’s the kind of reverence that makes us forget that Dante was a f%#*’n potty mouth.
Along with brilliant weavings of theological musings, mythological imagery, horrific reflection, and political commentary – Dante’s great work had its share of irreverent humor and visceral (that’s a fancy way of saying “gross!”) phrases. In some cases it’s just the images that are best described with those short (four letter) words that bring the disgust home.
With shit, you couldn’t tell which one he was”
-Dante, The Inferno, Canto XVIII, Lines 107, 108
In other instances, Dante uses the roaring, laughing demons, to great effect, to offer their irreverent actions and words. In Canto XXI, Dante and Virgil are led by an escort of demons, “And the leader made a trumpet of his ass.”
Now put the two together…the violent action of the demons and the description of the aftermath…and we have a really gross image and a swear word…
And missing its end-piece ever gaped as wide
As the man I saw split open from his chin
Down to the farting-place, and from the splayed
Trunk the spilled entrails dangled between his thighs
I saw his organs, and the sack that makes the bread
We swallow turn to shit.”
-Dante, The Inferno, Canto XXVIII, Lines 22-28
But forget gross for a second. Dante also puts a little humor into some action sequences. Probably the strangest, action packed moment in the epic, happens in Canto XXI. Dante and Virgil are being chased by the angry demons that had earlier, escorted them. The duo reach a hill. With speed and without a word, Virgil picks Dante up, puts him on his back, and then slides down the hill (with Dante using the wraith as a sled) at tremendous speed…escaping the howling demons. And there it is…the strangest chase scene in literary history.
You know…if a modern movie of The Inferno were ever made (God I’d love to write that script), that is the sort of scene that would probably get taken out in the adaptation. The film makers would probably think that this is too goofy…that it was not of a reverent enough tone, to represent Dante, the ancient author. Ironically…that’s the kind of attitude that would take the work away from the author’s original intentions.
I’d keep the sledding scene.