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Reed Alumni Go to Hell

By Angie Jabine ’79 on March 09, 2015 09:45 AM

Dante Alighieri, author of the towering Inferno.

President John Kroger and Reed alumni gathered in Prexy last week to discuss a burning issue—Dante’s Inferno.

Balancing copies of the Divine Comedy and glasses of wine, alumni listened intently as President Kroger shared his thoughts about this 14th-century masterpiece of allegorical verse.

Like many Reedies, Kroger read the Inferno in college. (It's currently on the syllabus for Hum 210.) Recently, however, he committed some leisure time to exploring not just Inferno but its two lesser-known companions, the Purgatorio and the Paradiso.

To kick off the discussion, he expounded on several aspects of the Comedy that make it so extraordinary:

Dante wrote this religious epic not in Latin, which would have been more typical, but in his own Tuscan Italian.

He freely introduced characters from classical mythology and history—most notably the epic poet Virgil—into his biblical landscape.

He brazenly passed judgment on the figures of his day, populating the Inferno with any number of then-recent popes as well as personal acquaintances and enemies.

He effectively fleshed out a notion of a physical purgatory which Catholic believers more or less adopted as their own for many centuries.

He devised a highly symmetrical framework for his three-part epic, including a verse form consisting of three-line tercets, whose intricate ABA, BCB rhyming scheme has been the bane of translators ever since.

Having shared the Comedy’s contextual bricolage, Kroger enjoined the audience to break into small discussion groups. The room hummed with energy as Reedies blissfully batted ideas around until Kroger was forced to call them to order.

The Comedy then came in for some intriguing interpretations, including the suggestion that astrologers are consigned to the Inferno because astrology conflicts with the Christian doctrine of free will. Finally, Kroger touched on what may be the most audacious moment in the entire epic: Dante’s description of seeing the face of God himself.

It was with palpable reluctance that the group broke up, with at least one audience member exclaiming, “Let’s meet again next fall.”

The evening was sponsored by Reed's alumni relations office, which hosts dozens of alumni events throughout the year. (Which reminds us, it's time to register for Reunions ’15.)

Check back soon for a bonus feature: President Kroger’s list of “100 Books and Authors I Cannot Live Without.”