“Dante shows us that you can just as easily go to Hell by loving good things in the wrong way as you can by loving the wrong things,” Rod Dreher explains. He has been reading The Divine Comedy for the first time and is working on a book about it.
All the damned dwell in eternal punishment because they let their passions overrule their reason and were unrepentant. For Dante, all sin results from disordered desire: either loving the wrong things or loving the right things in the wrong way.
This is countercultural, for we live in an individualistic, libertine, sensual culture in which satisfying desire is generally thought to be a primary good. For contemporary readers, especially young adults, Dante’s encounter with Francesca da Rimini, one of the first personages he meets in Hell, is deeply confounding. Francesca is doomed to spend eternity in the circle of the Lustful, inextricably bound in a tempest with her lover, Paolo, whose brother—Francesca’s husband—found them out and murdered them both.
She says romantic poetry taught her of Love’s power and held her entralled to her heart’s passion. “Can love be selective?” she might ask. Can anyone control their passions?
“We know, however, that it is really lust,” Dreher says, “and that her grandiose language in praise of romantic passion is all a gaudy rationalization.” Dante is overcome at the end of his encounter with Francesca, but not perhaps by her fate at a seemingly small thing. He may be overcome by the idea that his own poetry encouraged her to follow her heart into death.