Time to ban Dante?

The Divine Comedy of Dante (d. 1321) has a special place in English literature since it has explicitly influenced writers from Chaucer to T. S. Eliot. If recent news reports (this is just one, the story was also carried on the BBC) are to be believed a human right’s group that is recognised by the UN has called for the removal of the poem from school and university syllabi because of its unacceptable stance on Muslim, Jewish and gay people. The whole affair is a silly one and will have blown over by the time of this is posted. However, there are some random issues arising from it that may be worth noting:

  • Most of the people who will discuss the issue have never read the poem.
  • Some news organs will seize on the story as an example of political correctness gone mad and rush to the defence of an author who would consign them to hell. On the other hand, people who have been the subject of discrimination are willing to put up with outbreaks of crazy political correctness if that is the price of civic equality.
  • The Divine Comedy is indeed negative about sodomites and Saracens, and although I wouldn’t agree with its stance, the case is complicated by the fact that Dante is more positive about these out-groups than might be expected. He’s a lot more condemnatory of certain popes and politicians.
  • Although most people will think that talk of removing Dante from the syllabus is silly, part of the reason for this is that the poem is a medieval one. What about dropping the study of more modern works that are racist, sexist or homophobic? Few people would ban these books, but taking them off syllabi is a little different. Almost certainly you’ll encounter some of these books during your study.