Dante & Pop Culture
It wasn’t until recently I realised that Dante Alighieri, the poet behind The Divine Comedy, is after seven hundred years, still all around us. Of course, his three volume work titled Inferno, Purgatorio, and, Paradiso, has kept poetry lovers and scholars in a constant state of awe despite (or because of) its Christian origins. It’s Dante’s reception and surprisingly long life in pop culture that has that hasn’t only surprised me, but to degrees captivated me.
The Divine Comedy is undoubtedly an inspiring piece (to the say the very least), though the poem seems to have taken on a life of it’s own. Within popular culture, Inferno, has been absorbed the most. It’s been adapted for a video game, and the also ‘modernized’ for a film. The film, interestingly enough, involves a cast of “politicians, presidents, popes…and pimps” and is set against the back drop of used car lots, gated communities and strip malls. The video game sets out to be a replication of Inferno’s nine circles (which is does surprisingly well). The player is Dante, and is tasked with navigating the circles in order to find Beatrice, with help from Dante’s companion Virgil, the poet. The video game, however, is out done. It’s design is intelligent, but nothing is quite as a musing as “Dante’s Inferno Test” a website which determines which circle of hell you’ll end up in via questionnaire (and yes, it’s linked here (and yes, I claim no responsibility for anything that may or may not happen)).
The pop culture icons for the others are contradictorily pleasingly and sadly small. Inferno’s renditions walk a fine line between saluting the creative genius in a modern way, and destroying with all the brutality of the pop culture machine. Nevertheless one can’t help wonder if that’s because the idea of paradise and purgatory aren’t nearly as appealing as a decent through your sins. Personally, I find the idea of purgatory more insufferable. That said, the best pop culture relation to Paradiso I found was entirely unrelated (a cinema in New Zealand and a rock music venue in Amsterdam) if you add an extra ‘i’ however, you end up with a Belgian Euro dance group. If these are what Paradiso has come to, then dwelling in limbo’s air of sadness doesn’t seem nearly as bad as it sounds.
While Dante seems, thankfully, to have avoided the weight of the movie world. We won’t know if Peter Jackson takes him on until it’s much too late, and frankly (although I did enjoy the Lord Of The Rings adaptions) some works are better left to the page. The Divine Comedy is, however, alive and kicking in the music world. As I mentioned above Gas Light Anthem have referenced the poem (reference: “All hope abandoned, ye who enter here”) and so have Rage Against The Machine (reference: “Send ‘em to tha (sic) seventh level”). Metal band Sepultura have written an entire album based on the comedy, aptly titled Dante XXI and Finnish rock band HIM also released a nine track album with each corresponding to a circle.
Comic books have also taken to Dante but not with nearly as much vigor as the music world. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series involving a heavily Dante inspired hell and the X- Men have also wondered into realms inspired by the great poet. These are perhaps the most notable and most current works, though they themselves maybe a little out of date. The ‘Dantean movement’ (my new all encompassing and non academic term) is notably stronger in the centuries leading up to the 21st. Where there were sculptures and greater cultural works to come out of Europe. That said, the shift to a lesser Dante inspired world, while being noticeable and quite large, doesn’t reflect on the poet at all negatively.
After surviving seven hundred years, a shift in the view of the poem’s importance in popular culture is to be expected. Although I would hesitate to say that what was once called the mouth piece for the Church will be forgotten or removed from pop culture any time soon. The lack of address does surprise me, we’re talking about one of the greatest works of all time, but I also can’t elide a sense of relief, I will rue the day Dante, like Wilde, ends up with quotes on chewing gum packets or printed onto cheap t-shirts.
With any luck, the culture industry won’t be lining up for Dante, but the fact that he still exists in pop culture, amongst land slides of fanfiction, memes, gifs and strange things called ‘Tumblr’ is still important for the work. It may not spur as many people to read the poem as one would like, and it also may not convert many but the work has become as much of an English cultural artifact, as it has Italian. And this important not, only for Dante, but for us as a culture of disposable art.
Along side Aristotle and Plato, Dante has developed an idea that we take for granted. The idea of Satan as a monster, of Hell as dreadfully hot and unequivocally horrendous. As with most great works, it was in some aspects much before it’s time, as was the man himself. After falling out of literary favour and rising back into it centuries later, there is still hope that he will do the same again, and championed by Dante-ists around the world, this seems like a legitimate hope that won’t led into the arguably further bastardization of the text, but will allow it remain separate from its pop culture counter parts.