(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Discussing The System of Dante’s Hell in the light of conventional expectations regarding fictional form and content is misleading, since one of the fundamental effects the work seeks to achieve is to abolish such categories by showing them to be inadequate, suggesting thereby that they are irrelevant to the world that the author desires to depict. Rather than being a reliable narrative, the work reads as a series of variations on a scattered network of themes. As a result, the appeals to conflict and resolution that novels usually make are overridden in favor of appeals to more immediate experiences that readers will find less easy to incorporate into an overall pattern of development. The avowedly experimental nature of Amiri Baraka’s The System of Dante’s Hell is not only a fundamental fact of its character but also a crucial expression of an attempt to call into question the basis of familiar fictional discourse. The novel’s method also attempts to render what might be called the presentness of the material, drawing attention thereby to the texture rather than to the lessons of experience.

Although it moves at an unusual pace, articulates itself in an unusual rhythm, and possesses a challenging structure, The System of Dante’s Hell is by no means consumed by its own artifice. On the contrary, its experimental elements make unavoidable the author’s clear desire to be heard and to have the distinctiveness of what he has to say appreciated. Much of what he has to say draws less on individual experience than on a sense of the common experience in which individuality finds its social and cultural foundations. Although the voice of the narrator in the novel reflects upon his own experience, it also presents that experience as both part of and resistant to the common run of human activity.

Much of the novel is centered on certain areas of the author’s hometown of Newark,...

(The entire section is 790 words.)

The System of Dante's Hell Summary

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The System of Dante’s Hell is a loosely arranged prose poem, autobiographical insofar as it presents projections drawn from its author’s experiences. Baraka chooses to call it “Dante’s Hell” because he believes that what has caused him to “sin,” what has enchained his spirit, derives essentially from the Western intellectual and artistic tradition in which he received his education. These have left him somewhere between black and white cultures, accepted by neither and estranged from both.

Western culture attracts him intellectually, yet it morally damns him. The inscription on his Hell’s Gate is, therefore, appropriate: “You love these demons and will not abandon them,” a counterpoint to Dante’s “Abandon all hope, you who enter here.” Baraka abandons as well the structure of Dante’s first canto, shifting the order of Dante’s circles, redefining the sins of Dante’s poem, and breaking away for “fast narratives” when it suits his purpose. The System of Dante’s Hell, accordingly, owes only nominal homage to Dante’s Inferno.

It is Baraka’s fear that he subconsciously enjoys his “damnation,” which drives him away from structured narrative. The “anarchy” of his text matches the frenzy that he feels. He begins by questioning what most would consider self-evident, asking for any gesture which can prove to himself his own existence. He desires only the ability to move and perceive his own movement. In this he resembles John Milton’s fallen angels in Paradise Lost. Like these (though unlike the pilgrim Dante) he is incapable of true contrition, primarily because he views his sins as not of his own making. He clings to the habits which have...

(The entire section is 712 words.)

The System of Dante's Hell Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Brown, Lloyd W. Amiri Baraka. Boston: Twayne, 1980. Contains a chapter devoted to analysis of The System of Dante’s Hell, which is examined from various perspectives, including its relationship to the works of James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, and Dante, its debt to existentialist philosophy, and its formal character.

Dieke, Ikenna. “Sadeanism: Baraka, Sexuality, and the Perverse Imagination in The System of Dante’s Hell.” Black American Literature Forum 19 (Winter, 1985): 163-166. An examination of the treatment of sexuality in the novel, seen through the framework of the writings of the Marquis de Sade.

Jackson, Esther M. “LeRoi Jones (Imamu Amiri Baraka): Form and the Progression of Consciousness.” CLA Journal 17 (September, 1973): 33-56. An elaborate examination of some of the philosophic underpinnings of The System of Dante’s Hell. Particular emphasis is placed on Baraka’s debt to the aesthetic philosophy of G. W. F. Hegel. The novel’s relationship with the thought of the American Transcendentalists is also discussed.

Munro, C. Lynn. “LeRoi Jones: A Man in Transition.” CLA Journal 17 (September, 1973): 57-78. An analysis of The System of Dante’s Hell largely devoted to the work’s relationship to Dante’s Inferno (1802).

Pennington-Jones, Paulette. “From Brother LeRoi Jones Through The System of Dante’s Hell to Imamu Ameer Baraka.” Journal of Black Studies 4 (December, 1973): 195-214. An account of the development of Baraka’s cultural and artistic consciousness, drawing attention to the pivotal place of The System of Dante’s Hell in the evolution of the author’s thought.

Ward, Jerry. “The System of Dante’s Hell: Underworlds of Art and Liberation.” Griot 6 (Summer, 1987): 58-64. Considers the novel in relation to Dante’s Inferno and to other treatments of the underworld. The pertinence of these to the work of African American novelists is also discussed.

Watts, Jerry Gafio. Amiri Baraka: The Politics and Art of a Black Intellectual. New York: New York University Press, 2001. Frank reappraisal of Baraka, focusing on the contradictions between his public and private personas and balancing his brilliance with the more derivative aspects of his work. Based on rereadings of other people’s interviews, rather than new interviews conducted by the author himself.