Art was meant to hold the high ground in civilized society. But in this age of increasing digitization, artistic impression has been eclipsed by more exacting, concrete knowledge. With the erosion of lofty artistic ideals, gone too is man’s ability to transcend moral ambiguity and infuse larger meaning in life. Enter Dan Brown’s “Inferno” hell bent on resurrecting the power of heaven and hell from the rubble of contemporary “bestsellerdumb” by bridging the futuristic vision of a Michael Creighton with Dante’s archaic symbolism which was originally adopted by the Catholic Church as a means of asserting unspoken authority over the lives of its followers. In what is a thrilling feat of literary engineering, Brown confangles Dante’s subterranean symbolism with the miracle of technology into a contemporary tale. His uberman, able to jump off large (historic) buildings in a single leap, mints a new theology between man and nature called “transhumanism”. A term appropriated from Dante, Brown’s notion of “transhumanism” dissolves the traditional separation between man and god/nature, and Brown’s uberman demonstrates how mankind can self-evolve according to their own design.
Not often does a suspense thriller trigger such thought provoking mental machinations, asking readers to rethink basic tenets of their existence. In this regard, Brown’s book would utterly and completely fail were it not buttressed by Dan Burstein’s and Arne De Keijzer’s “Secrets of Inferno: In the Footsteps of Dante and Dan Brown”. In my initial reading of Dan Brown’s “Inferno”, I experienced a cardboard classic science fiction thriller with characters distinguished more by hairstyle (spiked, bald, or grey flowing locks) than by character, and the sheer magnitude of Brown’s big thinking escaped me. I came away sadly unenlightened by the nifty role reversing denouement and found the narrative trickery amateurish. For me, “Inferno” was little more than a fun filled James Bond travelogue. Without Burstein’s and De Keijer’s opus, “Inferno” was destined to be little more than formulaic pulp fiction, and Brown’s writing nothing to “write” home about.
How ironic it seemed that Dan Brown’s “Inferno” set the scene for Burstein’s and De Keijzer’s “Secrets of the Inferno”, not vica versa. What was originally conceived as a derivative work seemed more important than the original. Not even a companion piece, but a work which overshadowed the actual novel. “Secrets of the Inferno”, a must read with or without Brown’s version. Given that in its conception, Dan Brown’s “Inferno” was a derivative work of Dante’s “Inferno”, and that Dante’s “Inferno” had been previously derived and parodied in masterpieces like Nikolai Gogol’s “Dead Souls” and T.S. Elliot’s “The Wasteland”, I discovered that experiencing “Inferno” was like going on an archeological dig. Its domino effect has even spawned numerous artistic masterpieces which in turn laid the groundwork for the papal ascendancy. So from my layman’s perspective, experiencing “Inferno” meant experiencing layer upon layer of derivative works (anything short of Spark Notes), and “Secrets of the Inferno” proved the necessary touchstone that provided easy access and dispensed contemporary appreciation of the original work. (Need I add, this very book review is yet another derivation of a derivative work.)
Brown’s text and Burstein’s text work in concert. Without the analysis of experts, how many of us have a true read on Dante’s original moral compass which took on the task of breaking down “the demarcation between gods and mortals” instituted in Dante’s original “Inferno”. Replacing Dante’s theological vision of heaven and hell with a technological transhumanistic vision of life where human beings experience a physical immortality by (somewhat ironically) sowing the seeds of sterility, Brown’s uberman encompasses both hero and antihero by breaking down the known scientific code of life and freeing us up for unknown.
-Laura Gordon Kutnick