Tuesday, June 29, 2010


So, there I was, on the boat ride into hell inside the belly of this talking Charon boat, and I can see Orpheus, the poet, on a platform in the back. But how do I get there? There's a box to move around and a platform. At this point, a fellow professor from the English department was around. He took over when I couldn't figure out how to do this. He couldn't figure out how to get up to the platform.

Hours later, we're still passing the controller back and forth, making action hero Dante jump around and accomplish nothing. Then a stroke of genius--look online.

"What, are you cheating?" my wife, who was then watching asked.

"It's what our students would do," my colleague answered.

We figured out how to get to Orpheus. Because he is a poet and because there's probably a circle in this hell for those who cheat at video games in which we will someday be asking for an action hero's mercy, we absolved him.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Incomplete Knowledge

A footnote to Canto IV (Limbo) from Pinsky's version: "Readers who experience Dante's poetry in translation will perhaps find comfort in the knowledge that although in this passage he reveres Homer as the greatest poet of antiquity, Dante could not read Greek. His knowledge of Homer would have come from translations--and not complete ones--and from other writers' references to Homer's works."

Okay, now will this statement bear up at all if we change "Readers who experience Dante's poetry in translation..." to "Readers who experience Dante's poetry in video game format..."? How about "Readers who experience Dante's poetry through a blog about someone playing Dante's poetry in video game format..."?

How close to the "actual" must one be to "actually" experience something? To fit this blog's title: Must the poet be an action hero in fact to be an action hero?

I'm still waiting to decide what to do with Pilate. Perhaps a poll will help?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Pontius Pilate: Forgive or Damn?

Here we go, into Hell. Well, not quite yet, merely on the shores of Acheron, the river before Hell. In the poem, we pass through the gates with their famous, previously mentioned quotation at the beginning of Canto III (are my readers at Canto III in their own reading?). Then we see those who, Virgil (in the poem) says, were "neither rebellious to God nor faithful to Him, // Chose neither side, but kept themselves apart-- / Now Heaven expels them, not to mar its splendor, / And Hell rejects them, lest the wicked of heart // Take glory over them." Essentially, video game Virgil tells Dante the same thing. (Sidenote: I always wondered if these shades were the ones Garrison Keillor said "in a time of crisis remain neutral." If so, I don't think this would be the hottest place in Hell. Readers: thoughts on this?)

To the point of this post, though: before getting across the river in the game, at a doorway, we meet the first shade that we must punish or absolve: Pontius Pilate. In a sort of odd-sounding stereotyped Italian accent (Did George Lucas have a hand in this?), Pilate repeats the line, "I find no fault in this just man." That's what we get from him, and then we have to decide, punish or absolve. The on-screen text tells us that he bears the weight of all the souls in Limbo. But he makes no argument for himself, no explanation. Should he be sent further into Hell or lifted to Heaven? Readers, what do you think?

Here's my problem with this part of the game. We're talking about eternity here, the redemption or suffering of a soul (okay, yes, it's just a game, but--insert here something about the psychology of play, maybe something Freudian about how play represents something deeper about us).

Part of me wants to punish everyone I meet in Hell. My scholarly argument for this begins with John Freccero's wonderful introduction to Pinsky's translation of Dante: "...there is no sign of Christian forgiveness in the Inferno. The dominant theme is not mercy but justice, dispensed with the severity of the ancient law of retribution." But I'm not in Dante-the-poet's world, I'm in Dante-the-video-game-crusader's world. So, does that mean that I should judge these souls based on the time of the crusades or the time of the Guelphs and Ghibellines? A third option: a less vengeful New Testament sense of forgiveness--how many times did Jesus say to forgive those who wrong one?

It's complicated, but the game gives you a moment only unless you pause it and walk away for more Cheetos or beer. (Russian River's Damnation seems apt for drinking now--or wait, should I try this one from the same brewery?) This kind of snap decision, instant gratification, ignorance of the complexity of the issue of forgiveness seems as 21st century as it does 12th. Or 14th. Consider it, why? Press a button and you can rip the shade of Pilate in two with your scythe. Press another button and you send him up to heaven on a shaft of light. There's a long way on this journey, so let's move on, whichever it is. I'd be interested to see what readers vote here. And why you make that choice. Comment below.

Two more things, putting the poem and game side by side:

1) Pilate? I don't remember Pilate in the poem. In Canto III, there's a bit about "him who made the Great Refusal." Some have read this as Pilate, refusing to punish or release Christ. The notes to Pinsky's translation only say this person's identity is debated; "The most popular theory is that the soul is that of Pope Celestine V, who abdicated in 1294, only five months into his papacy, when political pressure proved too much for him." I guess Pope Celestine V would be pretty uninteresting in the game, huh?

2) The famous lines inscribed over the gate mentioned earlier? They're spoken here, but the giant head on the giant ship that ferries souls across the river. I guess the head is Charon, so he's not just the ferryman, but the ferry--turning a metonymy into a synechdoche, I guess? Oh, and after beating up on some demons, you tear the Charon-head off the ferry and hurl it into the wall on the shore's other side. Let's leave Hell in a state of destruction in our wake!

Here's what the ride on Charon's back/deck looks like:

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Gates of Hell

The Gates of Hell--or at least a video game reproduction of Rodin's work of art complete with The Thinker up top--appear before you, and you finally meet Virgil. He explains--as Virgil in the poem does, too--that Beatrice has sent him. to guide Dante through Hell. There's no intercession by an angel in this version, though.

I'm intrigued by the use of Rodin's art in the game, in part because of The Thinker--also known as The Poet. So, here we have an artist's reinterpretation of Dante in bronze looking down over another reinterpretation of Dante in pixels. Meta-art, perhaps? So what is Dante's identity? Dante the poet, Dante the character in his own poem, Dante the bronze, or Dante the pixellated? It seems to promote anachronistic thinking: Are we in the crusades, in Dante's (the poet's) times, after Rodin's, or after Electronic Arts' time? Yes to all--Hell is eternal.

I want to think of these characters as on a spectrum ranging from poet (man of words) to video game hero (man of action). And put the Thinker somewhere in between, because his thoughts are so intense that every muscle in his body tightens, his toes grip at something, even, and the shock of hair comes out the side, an idea like a plume of water starting from a fountain. Muscular, yet his pose crunches his body in on himself, he is still the poet, the man of words and thought, yet he has a dense, taut body. He's not the wispy blue (yet very buff) poet Virgil in the video game.

But there's not much time to contemplate the art, because you have monsters to fight, including one beast with a demon riding its back. You have to get the demon off the monster then get on the beast and use its beastly strength to open the doors to Hell. What bothers me about this is that, as a game player, I don't really feel like an action hero, even imaginatively or vicariously through the video game figure's deeds. So far I've done battle mostly by banging the hell (yes, hell) out of buttons and my weapon swings around a lot or I shoot glowing crosses, and eventually the stuff dies. But after inflicting some damage on this beast, I get told to hit the "RT" button. Then the blue one. Yes, there are icons on the screen appearing when I need to time these button presses. Then another, then another, and I use my scythe to hook the beast, climb up its shoulder, leap into the air, and split its rider in half.

After learning to do these steps, I felt like Pavlov's dog--bell rings, it salivates; image of button flashes on screen, I press. Not especially action hero-y, eh? But I then get to control the beast, stomp on some little demons or zombies or whatever they are, and then push my way--finally into Hell.

Like Rodin's Gates, there's no "Abandon hope" phrase here. Maybe that's because when you're an action hero, you always have hope. Or maybe when there's a screen image telling you what button to press when to overcome even a demon on a beast the size of a garbage truck. Abandon hope? Screw hope--you've got a death-scythe that looks like a blade attached to a brontosaurus's spine--you don't need hope.

Friday, June 18, 2010


In Dante's Inferno (the poem, not the game), Beatrice doesn't really appear, thoughs she's quite important (sort of like the Jacob character through the first several seasons of Lost, I guess). She gets a mention in Canto I from Virgil. After Virgil guides Dante through Hell and Purgatory, where he will "see those souls who are content / To dwell in fire because they hope some day / To join the blessed: toward whom, if your ascent // Continues, your guide will be one worthier than I-- / When I must leave you, you will be with her." Poetic Beatrice, then, isn't that important (yet) to Dante. But I'm still only in Canto I of the first part of the three book Divine Comedy. (It's the game that's slow at progressing. Not my reading.)

Video game Beatrice, though, provides the narrative reason for Dante's descent into hell. Returning to Florence, Dante finds Beatrice dead. A sword's been run through her and she's on the ground with one breast exposed. (Yes, video game nudity--something that never happened to the damsel in distress in Donkey Kong.) Lucifer, apparently, is spiriting her away to Hell. So, Dante fights some zombies that pop up out of a Florence graveyard then makes his way to a church where Beatrice's corpse is pulled down into Hell by some wispy yet surely malevolent smoke. (Her corpse, by the way, is laid out an altar completely naked, but with some weird dark vein structures showing through the chest...) The church collapses and Dante begins his descent. Soon we'll be past the first three lines of the poem!

In real life, Nicole Pinsky's notes to Robert Pinsky's translation of Dante tell us, "Beatrice was probably Beatrice Portinari, who was Dante's neighbor when they were children, and who had died in 1290 at the age of twenty-four. Dante celebrates her in his Vita Nuova as a living woman, and in the Divine Comedy as far more than just a fictional representation of that woman: Beatrice stands for blessedness and divine grace."

The instruction booklet (but who reads instructions?) that comes with the video game tells us that, "In life, Beatrice was pure and virtuous." Okay, that agrees with Dante's poetry. "Her lone sin" (um....) "was that she gave herself to Dante before wedlock," (really?) "but she did so only because Dante swore on her cross to be faithful." (Seriously? How many young women have been fed and believed that line in history? And we're supposed to accept that one of world literature's great symbols for purity would have? Even Sparknotes [yes, that thing I tell my students to avoid] tells us that she was "an allegorical representation of spiritual love.")

Of course, historical Dante and Beatrice had an unrequited relationship; both marrying others. (Dante's marriage was arranged when he was 12, about 3 years after he first met Beatrice. Interestingly, his wife is not mentioned in his poetry.) So what does the sexualization of this ideal relationship mean? Perhaps that in the 21st century we won't believe in an eternal love that hadn't been consummated physically? Who would go through Hell, risking his life against a ton of demons, if he wasn't going to get laid at the end of it all? It's the action hero plot resolution, right?

In the video game, Beatrice is voiced by actress Vanessa Branch. If you watch much television and don't Tivo your way through commercials, you'll know her as the blonde here. Very late into the game, with Beatrice ensconced in Hell, I expect her to use the commerical's catchphrase as she flashes a smile that glows as bright as a Heavenly light.

Coming up: entering the game's Hell, which includes a doorway that looks very much like one of my personal favorite works of art.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Let the Inaccuracy Begin!

Poet Dante, portrait by Botticelli: Action hero Dante, by EA:

So, how does a poet become an action hero? Maybe by not being a poet. Though Dante the video game opens with the Inferno’s opening lines about losing the path in a dark wood midway through his life’s journey, there are a few differences. Dante the video game takes place during the Third Crusade, which took place from 1189-1192, while Dante’s Inferno (the poem, not the game) is set, scholars generally agree, on Good Friday in 1300. Maybe the action hero comes back as a poet?

First, there’s a weird opening animated scene where it appears that, to get ready for the crusade, Dante the Crusade Hero takes a hooked needle, puts it in a bowl of hot water (sterilize it, man, because Crusaders can’t be slowed down by infections) and proceeds to sew a red Crusader cross directly onto his torso. Not onto his shirt, but onto himself. Like a tattoo, but of cloth, I’m guessing. Probably, though, this has the benefit of not actually being as permanent as a tattoo? So if you switch sides (Dante’s aligned with Richard and the Europeans), it’s like that tattoo you got in college but were smart enough to get somewhere like your lower back or thigh that clothing could hide it on a job interview. Coincidentally, I was in a doctor’s waiting room and saw the cover of ESPN’s magazine with Tennessee Titan player Vince Young on it, and he has a Dante-sized cross tattooed on his back (underneath his name, tattooed there as if it were the back of his football jersey, I guess so that if there’s ever a shirts vs. skins NFL game, everyone will know which player is V.Y.). And like Dante, Young appeared on the cover of an EA video game; since I’ve never played John Madden’s football game, I can’t compare the two action heroes. But this opening sewing on the cross scene, we learn later, appears to happen after your (or here, my) first battle as Dante.

It’s 1191, and Acre is under European control. Dante’s guarding some prisoners. A few of them get out and start attacking. I’m not much of a “gamer,” so I didn’t really know the controls. I just mashed the hell (pun intended) out of the four buttons on the xbox controller and did a lot of jumping and battle-axe swinging and killed these sword-wielding crusaders. Defending the Holy Land and all, I guess. Then after the battle ends, I run off. But one of them follows me, stabs me (i.e., Video Game Dante) in the back. So I have to fight Death, the grim reaper, who wants my soul and the souls of everyone I love. No way—in a prerecorded scene Video Game Dante tells Death that the ones he loves won’t have to pay for his sins. The Christian crusaders were told by a bishop that their sins would be forgiven in exchange for their crusading; Death says that isn’t so. Perhaps the cross Dante sews on himself is a sign that he’s bearing his own sins as this game continues? After much pressing of more buttons without really knowing what I’m doing, I take down Death and take his scythe as my own weapon. Then head back to Florence, where the game earns its “mature” rating for some nudity. I don’t remember nudity in video games from my childhood and adolescence. Like Pac-Man or Space Invaders. But I was entering Hell (or would be, eventually), so I should expect things to get messy.

After the opening battle scene and about a half-hour of playing, we find that we’re about three lines of terza rima into Dante’s poem—then we’ve left the poem and are into action hero mode.

Side note: Other than the opening about the woods and life’s journey, this doesn’t match Canto I of the poem at all. Interesting that it’s set in the Third Crusade where Dante’s Europe fights Saladin, the bad guy. He will appear in Dante’s poem, but as someone the Europeans respected for his nobility, though he gets stuck in Limbo because he wasn’t Christian.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

An Introduction

Electronic Arts entered the arena of great literature by releasing adapting into video game format a classic poem: “Dante’s Inferno,” which features the Italian poet as an action hero. Early press about the game wonders how one transforms a poet into an action hero. The game’s designers themselves struggled with this question, apparently, as Jonathan Knight told USA Today, “The historical Dante is not action-oriented." So, Knight has said, Dante had to be pumped up somehow: “One of the conceits of the poem is that Dante is always fainting…. That wouldn’t work for an action game.” As a poet and scholar, I want to learn more about this transformation from poet to action hero.

How does a poet become an action hero? Over coffee, I ask my wife; a wrinkled brow and cross looks are returned. While building block towers on the floor, I ask my son; he smashes the towers then toddles out of the room, being only one year old and lacking the vocabulary to respond to such a complicated issue. I ask the dog on our walks; he is more interested in finding discarded fast food wrappers or cat poop to eat than my inquiries. I ask this question in the mirror when I’m shaving; “Stop this and get a cool-looking five o’clock shadow like academic-action-hero Indiana Jones,” my reflection responds. (My wife then says I look scruffy and unkempt.)

Getting no answers in my everyday life at home, I’ve decided time has come to engage a larger audience by delving into the Dante video game. The first problem here is that I already know the answer: How do you make a poet an action hero? Well, for this poet (the one writing this, not Dante), you stick him in a beanbag chair with a handheld controller, outsized bags of cheetos, and a case of Mountain Dew (preferably in completely undrinkable-looking red sort of color with a tricked-out faux-metaphoric name such as “Firestorm Crimson”). The second problem is that I’m not really engaging a larger audience; instead, I am activating insomnia by staying up all hours of the night slaying sinners or demons or whatever it is one does in EA’s “Dante.”

So this blog comes in to get an audience and to get my thoughts in order. The plan is that here I’ll write about my experiences reading the original poem (actually, not the original poem, but Robert Pinsky’s translation) as I make my way through the X-box version of the Inferno. Like Dante stepping into Hell in 1300 at age 35 (don’t ask how old I am, but it’s close to Dante’s age during the time this poem takes place), I don’t know exactly what I’ll find, or learn, but I’m hoping this blog is the beginning of an essay. Consider this a kind of notebook version, or rough draft. Who knows, Julie Powell wrote a blog about cooking with Julia Child’s cookbook, which turned into a movie. Maybe these words will lead to the silver screen, with Amy Adams starring as me.