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This article is taken from PN Review 43, Volume 11 Number 5, May - June 1985.

The Divine Comedy (translated by Eliot Weinberger) Jorge Luis Borges

Paul Claudel has written - in a page unworthy of Paul Claudel - that the spectacles awaiting us after death will no doubt little resemble those that Dante showed us in the Inferno, the Purgatorio, and the Paradiso.

This curious remark is a proof of the intensity of Dante's text: the fact that while reading the poem, or remembering it later, we tend to believe that Dante imagined the other world exactly as he presented it. We inevitably assume that Dante believed that after death he would encounter the inverted mountain of Hell or the terraces of Purgatory or the concentric heavens of Paradise. Moreover, he would speak with shades - shades of classical Antiquity - and some of them would reply in Italian tercets.

This is, of course, absurd. Claudel's observation corresponds not to reason - for to rationalize it is to realize it's absurd - but rather to a sentiment, and one which could isolate us from the pleasure, the intense pleasure, of reading the work.

There is a great deal of evidence that refutes this. One is a statement attributed to Dante's son. He said that his father had proposed to show the life of sinners through the image of Hell, the life of penitents through the image of Purgatory, and the life of the just through the image of Paradise. He did not read it in a literal way. We have, moreover, Dante's own testimony, in the epistle to ...

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