Dante 2015: Inferno Part 1: Cantos 1-11

Series Index

It’s been a few years since I wrote reflections on my summer reading on Dante, and back then I used to do three posts each summer, one on Inferno, one on Purgatorio, and one on Paradiso. This go-round I’m going to do nine posts in all, three on each Canticle.  For the past several years I’ve been reading from John Ciardi’s translation, which does a sort of rhyme scheme but, because English is not Italian does not attempt a full-on terza rima translation.  And, as with other Christian Humanist read-throughs, I welcome comments not only on what I’ve included here but also on what I should have included.

Dante’s Dreary Descent

Since I started teaching Inferno every fall (Emmanuel College has gone to an array of intro-to-literature classes to replace the old uniform class, and I get to teach the ancient-and-medieval section) I’ve paid much more attention to the opening few cantos, not least because close-reading the allegorical elements in the first run of stanzas pays dividends as students read on through the Canticle.  As I’ve paid closer attention I’ve noticed the geography of the opening canto more than I had before, and Dante’s situation in the opening canto is bleaker than I remembered.

Like the souls in Limbo, whom Dante meets in canto four, Dante in the poem’s opening knows that there’s a city on a hill and that beatitude lies there, and like those souls, Dante does not have the ability to ascend.  The way I like to read things now, the poets and philosophers and luminaries of Rome in Limbo experience the bar to entry simply as an invisible lack of will, whereas Dante, who is learning his own soul all the way through Hell and Purgatory, experiences the obstruction as the pursuit of dangerous beasts, irrational forces each seeking to devour his soul but notably not inclined to pursue beyond the boundary of the dark wood.

In conversation with Rod Dreher this spring and in my own teaching I’ve come to realize that the more I devote myself to reading the Commedia allegorically, the more I enjoy things, not only because I don’t have to worry as much about literal inconsistencies but also because more networks of meaning emerge.  In this case the beasts who obstruct but do not pursue unto death make good sense of Dante’s Mosaic objections, the sorts later picked up by T.S. Eliot, that he’s neither an Aeneas, fit to descend to the underworld by his own heroic virtue, nor a St. Paul, who is caught up to the third heaven by virtue of his own apostolic commission.  Nonetheless Dante, the poet, will both descend and ascend, and he does so not because he’s overcome vice as the virtuous pagans of Limbo have done but because three saints, all women, have loved him enough to recall him from that way from which he can see the hill of Jerusalem but never can ascend to it.

Going down into Inferno proper Dante encounters his first round of protests, an ironic detail that I haven’t paid enough attention to in previous readings: at every step, the souls of the damned insist that this is my Hell, and nobody among the living has any rights to it.  The parallel between the souls of the damned in the poem and the souls of the lost in our world couldn’t be more interesting in that right.  In a somewhat-unrelated detail, I don’t know why I never noticed this before, but Charon in Dante’s version of things is a white-haired old man, and I can’t think that the parallel with Cato of Utica at the beginning of Purgatorio is coincidental.  I’ll be looking, to be certain, for another white-haired figure at the beginning of Paradiso.  But as for what struck me on this reading that hadn’t before, I remembered on this reading what I had forgotten before, namely that Limbo is not a realm of darkness, like the realms of Inferno dedicated to punishing vice and crime, but a realm of light (canto 4), a place whose inhabitants can see goodness even as God’s decree denies them the ability to rise towards full goodness.

Roman Partisanship in the Commedia 

I’ve come to terms with Dante’s love for Rome over the years.  What I’ve learned to see is that, for Dante, Rome is not merely one city among the world’s cities but both the site of the Republic and the Empire, the proper forms of human community; and the site of Peter’s and Paul’s late ministry and thus the roots of Christ’s Kingdom; and the papacy, the rightful spiritual guide to all the tribes of humankind.  Thus the selection of who goes where–if you’re not as much a Roman as Dante is–sometimes leaves us moderns wondering by what virtue they avoided the fates of their Greek and Levantine counterparts.  So, for instance, Dido and Cleopatra are in among the lustful, but Aeneas is among the virtuous pagans, and Antony is nowhere to be seen.  Likewise, and later on, Julius Caesar is not among the bloody conquerors, Cato of Utica is not among the suicides but at the boundary of Purgatory, and perhaps most strange, Ripheus a relatively unknown Trojan traveler in the Aeneid, appears in Paradise even though Aeneas remains among the virtuous pagans.

What I used to regard as a mere oddity in the poem now I see as an invitation to see the world in terms that, without Dante, I’d never have access to.  I can see, as clearly as anyone, that Dante privileges Rome over all other cities, and that strikes me as arbitrary because it’s not my way to see things.  What I realize, when I slow down and let Dante teach me, is that my own tendency to regard Rome and Tokyo and Capetown and Los Angeles and Bogota as relatively interchangeable is just as arbitrary.  Of course, the point of such moments of insight is not to stop there but to engage in the dialectic that works out which vision discloses more and which ignores more, and at least one of the favors that Dante does for us moderns is to put that question, which normally does not occur to us, on the table.

I think the brevity of the Paolo and Francesca episode strikes me every time I read and every time I teach Dante, not least because so many people have spent so much time on it.  The narrative itself only lasts eighteen lines, and the frame isn’t much longer, but literature teachers do love to talk about literature about literature, so there you have that.

Delusions of the Damned

Descending further to see the misers and the spendthrifts, Dante sees enacted one of the central truths of Inferno that will see its redemption in Purgatorio: people in Hell tend (not universally, mind you) to see their sins either as insignificant, as minor compared to their neighbors, or as a cause for pride.  In the early circle given to those with distorted relationships with money, those who spent money irrationally yell at the tightwads, “Why do you spend?” and the tightwads at the spenders “Why do you waste?” (canto 7).  That call-and-response, as each side tries to push a Sisyphean rock onto the other side’s heads, provides an icon of sin: to be ignorant of one’s own damnation makes the damnation itself somehow worse.

Even more absurd are the fallen angels who bar Dante’s and Virgil’s way into the city of Dis: as I mentioned above, the damned in Dante do not merely suffer pain; they make their own in several cases.  When the poets approach the boundary between the merely vicious and the criminally violent, the travelers must wait for angels to arrive, to will the gate open, and to allow them to continue.  This is one of several places in the poem in which Dante (the narrative persona more than the character) stops to tell the reader that, in fact, what’s going on is an allegory.  Here the implication at least seems to be that what seems to obstruct the faithful is nothing, in the eyes of God, than a delay, a momentary pause as the march to salvation goes on.  Dante learns in the moment of waiting that apparent obstructions yield quickly enough to divine decree and that salvation, which is the world’s fate as much as any sinner’s, might slow as the result of opposition but never comes under real threat.

When the angel does open the gate, Dante encounters two of the most deluded characters in the early poem, Faranati and Cavalcante.  The absurdity comes in layers: for one, both are damned for being Epicureans, deniers of the eternal soul, yet there’s not so much as a hint that they realize they were wrong, even though they’re lingering about in Hell.  On top of that, both shades are obsessed with maintaining the prestige they enjoyed in Florence when they were alive in spite of the fact that they’re in Hell waiting around for the final judgment to shut their resurrected bodies in stone boxes from which they will never rise again.  (Such is the nature of the Inferno: the fates of the souls illustrate, stripped of their lies, the true nature of some mortal sin.)  And then, if that’s not enough, Cavalcante finally shows some genuine sorrow not for his sins but because an obscure verb tense that Dante speaks makes him think that his son has already died.  (No parallel concern with whether his son will end up in Hell seems to animate the spirit.)

All of that sets up Virgil’s conversation with Dante in canto 11, where he explains that ultimately violence against neighbor, against nature, and against God will lead a sinner to more spectacular woe than will mere excessive appetite.  Worse than violence, in Dante’s vision, is fraud, which does not merely exert the will against God and neighbor but which commits crimes that require a prior trust in order to complete them.  So seduction, as Dante will see, because it requires the seducer to gain the desire of the seduced, is worse than murder because it violates a relationship of souls.

Such a hierarchy, once again, does the modern reader favors not because we’re wrong and Dante is right when we rank murder as the worst of the sins but because he provides us occasion to say why and perhaps to entertain–though the poem does not require us ultimately to adopt–a different way to think about sins.  To imagine a philosophy that takes the eternal soul so seriously that alchemy, which falsifies the character of the physical world, is a graver act than overrunning a neighboring kingdom takes some imaginative muscle.  To think that seduction is far worse than lust because lust merely gives sway to the desire to be desired, while seduction never desires the mark for his own sake but only for goods far inferior to the love of an eternal soul, puts a stark challenge to the biologism and sentimentalism that characterizes so much of our talk of love.  And it’s precisely those sorts of intellectual challenges that brings me back to Dante, as reader and as teacher, over and over again.

2 thoughts on “Dante 2015: Inferno Part 1: Cantos 1-11

  1. I’ve recently been reading the Comedy for the first time (Musa’s translation). I just finished Inferno and am now on Paradise. Really enjoyed it

    It’s interesting that Dante later compares the Roman Catholic church of his day to Babylon the Great. While Dante does idealize the Roman Empire, he also seems aware of how badly empires can go in practice. Though given how unstable and fractious Italy seems to have been at the time, it’s understandable that he would romanticize the alternatives.

  2. Even today,
    it’s an easy temptation (especially for those of us with a more
    conservative bent)
    for real problems of the present to make us feel overly nostalgic for
    past eras while forgetting that whatever good things the past may have
    had, it also had its own serious problems

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