Critics once emphasized the unity and apparent perfection of Dante’s Divine Comedy. In Mismapping the Underworld, John Kleiner emphasizes instead the imperfections, the inconsistencies, and inaccuracies in Dante’s work both to give a more accurate assessment of Dante’s artistry and, as he remarks, to help readers “learn to enjoy” the imperfections (p. 2).
The five chapters of the book are devoted to various cruces in the Vita nuova and the Comedy. The first chapter considers numerology in the Vita nuova: pointing out that scholars’ arguments for that work’s numerological symmetry have been flawed, Kleiner asks if Dante had as much “passion for order” as scholars have assumed. The second chapter, from which the title of the book is taken, considers earlier scholars’ attempts to draw accurate maps of Dante’s vision of Hell and inaccuracies and inconsistencies in that vision. Probably not many readers, for example, have realized that Satan, partially buried in the ice of Cocytus at the bottom of Hell, must be about 2,500 feet tall, if one calculates his height from the evidence Dante has given us, and even the part of his body extending above the ice must approximate “the height of the World Trade Center.” One must then ask how Dante, the narrator in the poem, is able to give such detailed descriptions of the tormented bodies of Cassius, Brutus, and Judas dangling from Satan’s mouth: “at their height they should be as insignificant a sight as a trio of deluded tourists waving from the top of the Empire State Building” (p. 44). One of the reasons why scholars have attempted to map the underworld so precisely is, as Kleiner points out, that Dante makes it seem so much more concrete than the “dreamlike” surface of earth. (Here C. S. Lewis may have taken a clue from Dante, in his notion that the concrete belongs to Heaven, that things on earth are only “shadowlands.”)
The third chapter concerns Dante’s reputation as a student of classical literature. Here, focusing on two cantos of the Inferno and the Purgatorio, Kleiner considers Dante’s inaccurate citations from Virgil, Statius, and other [End Page 415] classical writers and his intentional use of “masterful distortions” to create the effect he wanted. In the fourth chapter, Kleiner discusses Dante’s use of scientific material, such as his precise description of the duration of a lunar eclipse that no one on earth would have been able to gauge and his design of an impossible experiment concerning reflected light. The final chapter associates Dante’s interest in Geryon, the monster who appears in Canto 16 of the Inferno, with the medieval fascination with the grotesque. Moreover, the Ovidian allusions in this canto, Kleiner believes, make the encounter with Geryon a meditation on poetry and show “fiction’s proximity to fraud, its perilous attractiveness, and its susceptibility to perversion” (p. 132). Thus the Geryon episode represents Dante’s concern with the dangers inherent in reading, dangers depicted earlier in the Inferno in, for example, the Francesca and Paolo episode of Canto V, in which the lovers had been seduced into committing adultery after reading the story of Lancelot and Guinevere. In such episodes, Dante reminds us of the power a writer has over his readers and of his duty not to use that power irresponsibly.
Because of the post-Renaissance emphasis on the importance of unity in a work of art and the later emphasis on realism, earlier critics naturally emphasized the unity and consistency of Dante’s work. A great work, they assumed, had to have these qualities. As Kleiner’s book reminds us, however, earlier writers did not always prize them as highly as modern critics do, and some inconsistencies and errors (some deliberate, some not) seem to have been acceptable. Inaccurate citations of classical works are due in part to the fact that medieval writers often knew earlier works only from commonplace books and in part to their belief that they could freely adapt and change earlier...