Before the Inferno: Initial Thoughts on Dan Brown

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I am somewhat unique among my historian acquaintances in that I don’t totally despise Dan Brown. Now don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty to dislike: shoddy research, weak plot lines, vast historical inaccuracies, and – in my opinion the most egregious fault – the claim that his books are based on historical “fact”. His locations and historical figures may have existed, but the stories he has woven around them are pure fiction. Nevertheless, I am willing to suspend belief and accuracy in order to enjoy a well-written thriller, and let’s face it, Dan Brown knows how to tell a story.

Therefore, I regarded Mr Brown’s recent work with some trepidation. For those that don’t yet know, his most recent book is entitled Inferno and – if I am to believe the dust jacket – is set in Italy with the central conflict involving a mastermind criminal who happens to be an aficionado of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. Though the book was released several days ago, I didn’t have the time to check it out personally until today. Upon examining the first few pages, two things immediately turned me off.

First, Mr Brown has inverted Dante’s Hell. The frontispiece reads thus:

“The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.”

Now, I own three translations of Dante: Longfellow, Sinclair, and Ciardi. Nowhere in these academically accepted translations does this quote appear, nor does any similar quote appear; the quote is not from Dante. I did some research on the matter, and it appears the “misquote” (as it may be called) can be attributed to President John F. Kennedy. I don’t blame President Kennedy for misquoting Dante; after all, countless Americans have been misquoting Alexis de Tocqueville for years thanks to our Presidents. I do, however, blame Dan Brown for sloppy research.

A quick perusal of either Sanclair or Ciardi would have yielded Mr Brown either a handy diagram or a map of Hell, both of which indicate that the neutral are not even in Hell proper. For their sin of moral ambivalence, these sinners have been cast out by Heaven and coughed up by Hell. Far from being consigned to the darkest part of Hell, these lost souls are doomed to forever follow a fleeting flag, born on by a tempestuous wind. It is worth noting that other mistranslations cite Dante as saying “hottest part of hell.” This view is also incorrect, as the hottest part of Dante’s Hell is reserved for the Violent against Others, who are continually boiled in a river of blood.

Had this error appeared elsewhere in his work of fiction, Brown might be forgiven. Perhaps he could have worked it into a piece of dialogue or used it as a sort of symbolism (as he has previously done with Renaissance and Late Renaissance artwork, Catholic custom and liturgy, and the writings of the Founding Fathers). Thus innocuously “hidden” in the midst of the story, the line would do little harm. However, since Brown chose this so-called quote to represent the conflict of his entire work, I must question whether he even consulted Dante at all.

Second, Mr Brown has apparently missed the point with Dante’s Inferno. From Brown’s “Facts” page:

Inferno is the underworld as described in Dante Alighieri’s epic poem The Divine Comedy, which portrays hell as an elaborately structured realm populated by entities known as “shades” – bodiless souls trapped between life and death.

Has Mr Brown ever heard of Hell before in any way, shape or form? Hell is not for the nearly dead, it is for the dead. They have no hope of resurrection to the world of the living nor have they hope of attaining the perfection of Heaven. The shades are not souls “trapped between life and death”, they are souls trapped in the eternal damnation of Hell in all its gory detail.

It is furthermore apparent that Mr Brown apparently never bothered to consult a map of Dante’s Hell. Far from being “elaborately structured”, the Hell of Dante’s imagination is made up of 9 concentric circles with each circle growing progressively smaller until Hell reaches the center of the Earth where Satan feasts on Brutus, Cassius, and Judas Iscariot. Neither are Dante’s conceived punishments particularly imaginative in that the punishment is made to fit the sin. The idea of making the punishment fit the crime is as old as law itself; it is only in the modern era that “rehabilitation” has become a more popular mode of “punishment”. Dante’s Hell is as elaborate in structure as that of a spiral staircase.

My last issue with Mr Brown has nothing to do with Dante. Again, I quote from his “Facts” page:

“The Consortium” is a private organization with offices in seven countries. It’s name has been changed for considerations of security and privacy.

I imagine that “The Consortium” is about as real as the Illuminati from Angels and Demons, SPECTRE in the James Bond novels and films (namely Thunderball and Dr. No), or KAOS in the Get Smart TV series.

The real question is this: would I read Dan Brown’s Inferno? If I’m to answer honestly, I would have to say that yes, I would read the novel. As I said earlier, I appreciate a good story. However, I would not read it within earshot of my wife. She really hates in when I start screaming at inanimate objects for being wrong and inaccurate.

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5 thoughts on “Before the Inferno: Initial Thoughts on Dan Brown

  1. What a great takedown of Dan Brown — I could practically hear your head banging against your desk.

    I wish people cared more about getting facts right. Sadly, it seems lately that the surest path to fame and fortune is to be dead wrong as often as possible.

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  2. Yup, that seals it, I am never reading this book. The Lost Symbol was facepalmingly silly, and I was already on the fence after being repulsed by the gall of Brown to associate his book with so venerable a masterpiece, but this really does it. There’s no place in this world for poseur literature. Pick your genre and be proud of it. Write pulp if that’s what makes you happy Dan, but don’t lie and put on airs to make it seem like something more. And most importantly, don’t add to ignorance, or at least don’t ask to get paid to do so, that’s just obscene.
    It’s sad that he makes millions while we poor sods write blogs. Where’s the rung in hell for that?
    Anyway, which edition of the three do you recommend? Longfellow, Sinclair, or Ciardi? I’ve got the Penguin Classics version (The Portable Dante) myself, but I’d be willing to upgrade if the footnotes were enticing.

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  3. Dan Brown is one of the greatest authors of all time. If you want a total factually accurate book then I suggest you read encyclopediae or look for another genre! The story that Dan Brown concocts up is simply mind blowing. And the only fault in every one of his books in the Robert Langdon is that it begins and ends in a similar way. But the story in between is definitely worth the read so don’t judge it before you’ve actually read it.

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    1. I actually enjoy Dan Brown, but I love Dante’s Divine Comedy. It’s like comparing McDonald’s apple pie to a homemade one.

      As far as being one of the greatest authors of all time – in now way is Brown on the level of Shakespeare, Vonnegut, or Chaucer.

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