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News & Features » February 2016 » Read an excerpt from The System of Dante’s Hell by Amiri Baraka

Read an excerpt from The System of Dante’s Hell by Amiri Baraka

To celebrate the release of The System of Dante’s Hell, the long-awaited reissue of Amiri Baraka‘s remarkable 1965 novel, we’re pleased to give you a taste of Baraka’s provocative writing with an excerpt from the book.

SystemofDantesHell_currentThe System of Dante’s Hell


Circle 1. Virtuous Heathen

Circle 2. Lascivious

Incontinent Circle 3. Gluttons

Circle 4. Avaricious and Prodigal

Circle 5. Wrathful

Circle 6. Heretics*

(1) Violent against others

Violent Circle 7. (2) Violent against self

(3) Violent against God,

nature, and art

(1) Panderers and Seducers

(2) Flatterers

(3) Simonists

(4) Diviners

Circle 8. Simply (5) Barrators

Fraudulent (6) Hypocrites

(7) Thieves

(8) Fraudulent Counsellors

(9) Makers of


(10) Falsifiers

(1) to kindred

(2) to country

and cause

Circle 9. Treacherous (3) to guests

(4) to lords and


*I put The Heretics in the deepest part of hell, though Dante had them spared, on higher ground.

It is heresy, against one’s own sources, running in terror, from one’s deepest responses and insights . . . the denial of feeling . . . that I see as basest evil.

We are not talking merely about beliefs, which are later, after the fact of feeling. A flower, turning from moisture and sun would turn evil colors and die.


NEUTRALS: The Vestibule

But Dante’s hell is heaven. Look at things in another light. Not always the smarting blue glare pressing through the glass. Another light, or darkness. Wherever we’d go to rest. By the simple rivers of our time. Dark cold water slapping long wooden logs jammed 10 yards down in the weird slime, 6 or 12 of them hold up a pier. Water, wherever we’d rest. And the first sun we see each other in. Long shadows down off the top where we were. Down thru gray morning shrubs and low cries of waked up animals.

Neutrals: The breakup of my sensibility. First the doors. The brown night rolling down bricks. Chipped stone stairs in the silence. Vegetables rotting in the neighbors’ minds. Dogs wetting on the buildings in absolute content. Seeing the pitied. The minds of darkness. Not even sinister. Breaking out in tears along the sidewalks of the season. Gray leaves outside the junkshop. Sheridan Square blue men under thick quivering smoke. Trees, statues in a background of voices. Justice, Égalité. Horns break the fog with trucks full of dead chickens. Motors. Lotions.

The neutrals run jewelry shops & shit in silence under magazines. Women disappear into Canada. They painted & led interminable lives. They marched along the sides of our cars in the cold brown weather. They wore corduroy caps & listened to portables. The world was in their eyes. They wore rings & had stories about them. They walked halfway back from school with me. They were as tall as anyone else you knew. Some sulked, across the street out of sight, near the alley where the entrance to his home was. A fat mother. A fat father with a mustache. Both houses, and the irishman’s near the playground. Balls went in our yards. Strong hitters went in Angel’s. They all lived near everything.

A house painter named Ellic, The Dog, “Flash.” Eddie, from across the street. Black shiny face, round hooked nose, beads for hair. A thin light sister with droopy socks. Smiling. Athletic. Slowed by bow legs. Hustler. Could be made angry. Snotty mouth. Hopeless.


The mind fastens past landscapes. Invisible agents. The secret trusts. My own elliptical. The trees’ shadows broaden. The sky draws together darkening. Shadows beneath my fingers. Gloom grown under my flesh.


Or fasten across the lots, the gray garages, roofs suspended over cherry trees. The playground fence. Bleakly with guns in the still thin night. Shadows of companions drawn out along the ground. Newark Street green wood, chipped, newsstands. Dim stores in the winter. Thin brown owners of buicks.

And this not the first. Not beginnings. Smells of dreams. The pickles of the street’s noise. Fire escapes of imagination. To fall off to death. Unavailable. Delayed into whispering under hurled leaves. Paper boxes roll down near the pool. From blue reflection, through the fence to the railroad. No trains. The walks there and back to where I was. Night queens in winter dusk. Drowning city of silence. Ishmael back, up through the thin winter smells. Conked hair, tweed coat, slightly bent at the coffee corner. Drugstore, hands turning the knob for constant variation. Music. For the different ideas of the world. We would turn slowly and look. Or continue eating near the juke box. Theories sketch each abstraction. Later in his old face ideas were ugly.

Or be wrong because of simple movement. Not emotion. From under all this. The weight of myself. Not even with you to think of. That settled. Without the slightest outside.


Stone on stone. Hard cobblestones, oil lamps, green house of the native. Natives down the street. All dead. All walking slowly toward their lives. Already, each Sunday forever. The man was a minister. His wife was light-skinned with freckles. Their church was tall brown brick and sophisticated. Bach was colored and lived in the church with Handel. Beckett was funeral director with brown folding chairs. On W. Market St. in winters the white stripe ran down the center of my thots on the tar street. The church sat just out of shadows and its sun slanted down on the barbershops.

Even inside the house, linoleums were cold. Divided in their vagueness. Each man his woman. Their histories die in the world. My own. To our children we are always and forever old. Grass grew up thru sidewalks. Mr. & Mrs. Puryear passed over it. Their gentle old minds knew my name. And I point out forever their green grass. Brown unopened books. The smell of the world. Just inside the dark bedroom. The world. Inside the sealed eyes of obscure relatives. The whole world. A continuous throb in the next room.

He raced out thru sunlight past their arms and crossed the goal. Or nights with only the moon and their flat laughter he peed under metal stairs and ran through the cold night grinning. Each man his own place. Each flower in its place. Each voice hung about me in this late evening. Each face will come to me now. Or what it was running through their flesh, all the wild people stalking their own winters.

The street was always silent. Green white thick bricks up past where we could see. An open gate to the brown hard gravel no one liked. Another day grew up through this. Crowds down the street. Sound in red waves waves over the slow cold day. To dusk. To black night of rusty legs. “These little girls would run after dark past my house, sometimes chased by the neighbor hoods.” A long hill stuck against the blue glass. From there the woman, the whore, the dancer, the lesbian, the middleclass coloured girl spread her legs. Or so my father said. The dog Paulette was on fire, and I slipped out through the open window to the roof. Then shinnied down to the ground. I hid out all night with some italians.


Amiri Baraka

AMIRI BARAKA/LEROI JONES (1934–2014) was the author of numerous books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. He was named poet laureate of New Jersey by the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, from 2002–2004. His short story collection Tales of the Out & the Gone (Akashic Books) was a New York Times Editors’ Choice and won a 2008 PEN/Beyond Margins Award. He is also the author of Home: Social Essays, Black Music, The System of Dante’s Hell, and Tales, among other works.

Posted: Feb 10, 2016

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