System of Dante's Hell

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According to chapter headings and author Amiri Baraka's (LeRoi Jones) assertions, The System of Dante's Hell (1965) is structured in a manner similar to The Inferno. However, the reader of System is hard-pressed to find readily apparent parallels between the two works. This difficulty lies primarily in the cryptic, fragmentary style of Baraka's only foray into the domain of the novelist. Like Tales (1967), the author's collection of short stories, System is a loosely structured, highly suggestive, and strongly autobiographical work of fiction. A vivid montage of scenes and characters from key phases of Baraka's life, this experimental bildungsroman evidences that the author's debt to James Joyce is at least as compelling as that owed to Dante.

Critical reception of this work has reflected the continuing argument between those who favor Baraka's experimentation and the politicizing of his art and those who deem it detrimental. Bernard Bugonzi notes, for example, in a review of System, “This is ultimately a political act rather than an imaginative or creative one. And not, I think all that effective” (New York Review of Books, 20 Jan. 1966). On the other hand, William Harris, in praise of System, refers to Baraka as “the pioneer of black experimental fiction, probably the most important since Jean Toomer” (introduction to The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader, 1991).

The early sections of System are reminiscent of the lyrics of Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note (1961) in both tone and sentiment. The narrative voice of the “Heathen” sections, for example, expresses the same self-loathing and despair so powerfully felt in the earlier lyrics.

As in all of Baraka's writings, the most pervasive theme of System is that of racial identity. The protagonist's struggle is the same as that faced by Clay of Dutchman (1964). He is torn between the path of self-denial on the one hand and the path of authentic black identity on the other. The centrality of this theme is emphatically underscored in Baraka's characterization of those he calls “Heretics,” individuals whom he places in “the deepest part of hell” because of their maniacal pursuit of assimilation. The narrator notes, “It is heresy, against one's own sources / running in terror, from one's deepest responses and insights … denial of / feeling… that I see as basest evil.” The narrator's recollection of the Newark of his boyhood, adolescence, and young adult years deals with images of this “heretical” behavior and the sense of guilt thereby engendered. The book abounds with satirical snapshots of leaders and aspiring leaders of the black middle class, all twisted by cultural shame and motivated by the overwhelming desire to distance themselves as far as possible from their black roots.

This theme receives more compelling and direct treatment in the latter sections of the novel. In the section entitled “The Eight Ditch Is Drama,” Baraka dramatizes the split psyche of the assimilationist through the creation of two characters, “46” and “64,” who represent the warring factions within. Toward the novel's conclusion, the experimental mode gives way to a markedly more accessible, or traditional, story line. Both “Circle 9: Bolgia 1—Treachery to Kindred” and “6. The Heretics” focus on the narrator's interaction with highly symbolic black women, each of whom represents, in almost allegorical fashion, racial authenticity and acceptance of self. Until he is able to embrace these women unconditionally, the narrator relegates himself to “the deepest part of hell,” a psychological hell of self-contempt and guilt.


Subjects: Literature.

Reference entries

LeRoi Jones (b. 1934)