Sunday, July 4, 2010

Inferno, Cantos 1-8

Once again, I'm afraid I'm a bit late here. The Divine Comedy read-along, hosted by Richard, began its Inferno discussion on July 2. See, this is what happens when you go for a week and a half without blogging! You fall behind!

Right now, it's the Fourth of July and I'm currently sitting upstairs at our mountain lake house listening to, appropriately, to MCMX a.D., the highly influential New Age album by Enigma. Its dual themes of religion and sexuality are explored by mixing electronic dance beats with Gregorian chants, excerpts from the Book of Revelation, and a musical interrogation of the Marquis de Sade. (That would be "Sadeness" – yeah, I thought it was called "Sadness" too. You may be familiar with it from that Dave Chapelle skit where he does his laundry in slow motion.)

But enough about me and my vacation. I lent my Robert Durling translation to my brother and have no clue what he did with it. Luckily, I still have all my notes and coursework from the Dante class I took in college, but you'll have to forgive the lack of direct quotes beyond what was included in my own writing. And so, here is my rundown of Cantos 1-8, about the first quarter of Inferno.

Canto 1

The opening line of Inferno clearly establishes a collective perspective by specifying that this is the "journey of our life" (emphasis mine) (1). Having lost "straight way," Dante is menaced by three figures, a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf, who all block his path and prevent his progression onward. The communal value of Dante's story is further reinforced by the universal aspect of the wolf – "many people" – who pushes him back to "back to / where the sun is silent." This introduces the theme of contemporary Italian politics, which will pervade Inferno.

In the medieval Christian tradition, speech – the Word, logos – is also associated with light. This wood in which Dante is adrift is a place of darkness, confusion, and irrationality. He meets Virgil for the first time and does not know if he is man or shade.

Canto 2

Dante has already impressed upon us that this is a physical journey: there is a clear division between his weary body and persevering spirit. As our narrator, Dante is also relating his adventures to us long after the fact. This is further reinforced by the opening of Canto 2, which follows the ancient Greek tradition of invoking the Muses. Their mother is Memory, who is often seen as the faculty that writes. Hence, we are reading Dante's memory as a book.

Virgil explains Dante's mission to him and recounts how Beatrice, a beautiful angel from Heaven, descended to where he was "among those who are suspended" (52). She asked him to come the aid of a friend of hers who had gotten lost (Dante) and promised to praise him in Heaven as reward. Again, this refers to speech and memory. Beatrice also links goodness to nobility and recalls how Dante's love for her inspired him to "come forth from the common herd" (104). Hence, love leads to speech and motion – the ability to progress.

Canto 3

Dante and Virgil arrive at the gates of Hell, where they hear screaming, wailing, and the discordant babble of tongues that will endure forever in a dark air beyond time (I don't know if that's a quote or not). Virgil says that this is the place of the neutrals, those angels who would side with neither God nor Lucifer in the great battle. Not good enough for Heaven, not bad enough for Hell, they exist forever in a state of non-being. There can be no speech made in their memory, a privilege which even the denizens of Hell are allowed. The etymology of our word "fame" comes from the Greek/Latin words meaning "to speak."

Hey, Dante's a T.S. Eliot fan too! Lost souls gather on the beach by a tumid river (Acheron): "So many . . . I had not thought death had undone so many."

Charon, the demon who leads souls to Hell, says that Dante will need a lighter craft. This is another reference to Dante's physicality.

Now this is interesting: my notes refer to the words fluctus (Latin) and paideia (Greek). Apparently the first one connotes a torturous, impenetrable river that is the metaphor for the earthly drive for material wealth. The latter is the education and knowledge that can free one from this unquenchable greed.

Canto 4

This is Limbo, the First Circle of Hell, for the unbaptized and the virtuous pagans who died without knowledge of Christ. The learned pagans of antiquity, whose fame still resounds among the living, are gathered around a fire.

Although these souls are not suffering, Dante pities them. Unlike Hell, where time is over, and Heaven, where present is perpetual, Limbo reflects normal temporal time. As such, these souls are literally suspended – neither happy or sad, eternally waiting for something to happen. Again, love and motion are related, and Christ is love. Many of these great poets, scientists, philosophers, rhetoricians, and so forth thought they had accomplished everything. But the satisfaction of secular knowledge is ultimately deceptive, as it is not the full Truth. These people never reached that one highest goal. They got stuck. Limbo is the destination for people who only think they've reached their destination.

Canto 5

Dante and Virgil arrive at the Second Circle, where they meet Minos, whose job is to judge each soul and determine which Circle they belong in. This is indicated by the number of times Minos wraps his tail around his body. Dante hears more discordant noises: weeping, wailing, etc. He observes that this is "where all light is silent" (28); that is, where all knowledge is extinguished.

The Second Circle is for sinners in love. They are condemned to be blown forever in a nonstop whirlwind (which actually sounds like fun), just as they allowed passion to pull them along in life (fluctus = stormy passion). Like the learned pagans in Limbo, these souls substituted something worldly for God – in this case, love for another human being which, although important, is not the final destination. Many great Classical figures are here, says Virgil, including Dido, Achilles, Tristan, Cleopatra, Paris, and Helen. Dante speaks to two fellow Italians, a pair of adulterous lovers. The woman, Francesca, remembers her hometown Po as peaceful, like the river that is in constant motion until it reaches the sea. She perceives love as an active agent and blames an Arthurian romance she was reading for leading her astray, which recalls Plato's admonitions to not lose yourself in the wiles of poetry.

There is also a parody here involving the perfection of the circle: a shape without beginning and without end, just as Christ is the first and the last, the Alpha and the Omega. The denizens of the Second Circle are condemned to eternal circular flight around something empty.

According to Augustine's Confessions, humans have restless hearts that will not find peace until they accept God.

According to Aristotle's theory of the soul, probably the world's first psychological treatise, Francesca et al further erred by subverting the proper hierarchy of being. The following diagram was developed by Aristotle's commentators:

The sinners of love subverted their God-given intellect to base instinct. There was also, however, a neo-Platonic debate raging as to whether or not the intellect actually belonged to a higher plane that humans can only borrow from. If that was the case, then humans are little better than animals and can only respond to certain stimuli in certain ways. Dante disagrees with this.

Canto 6

They have arrived at the Third Circle, a dark, stormy place of "[g]reat hailstones, filthy water, and snow" (12) guarded by Cerebus the three-headed dog. There are souls lying on the ground, being punished for the sin of gluttony. Dante converses with a fellow Florentine he knew named Ciacco, which means "hog" in their local dialect. Dante asks him what is going to happen to the "divided city" (61) and is given an obscure prophecy of bloodshed, "the party from the woods," and "the power of the one who now / hugs the shore" (64-69). Florence, from which Dante was exiled at the time of Inferno's writing, is conceived of as a body pursuant to the popular theory of the city. It is a sack (stomach) overflowing with envy, greed, corruption, and pride, and its civil war is a sickness, the body turning on itself. Two factions fight one another as Pope Boniface VIII maneuvers in the background, sending a "peacemaker" who was really helping Dante's enemies.

Dante requests news of three other Florentines whom he was also friends with, only to be told that they are even further down in Hell. Ciacco then begs Dante to speak of him in the land of the living so that he will not be forgotten. Discrepancy: you can be highly esteemed, worthy of memory, and yet still damned. Dante is telling us that it is impossible to know God's judgment.

As they walk away, Virgil and Dante discuss the Final Judgment, when the dead will be returned to their bodies and their eternal punishments handed down. This is neither better nor worse than what they have now: on the one hand, physical suffering may be more difficult to endure, but at least they will "have more being than this" (109-111). Our heroes then encounter Plutus, "the great enemy" (115).

Canto 7

Plutus babbles nonsensically about Satan, which contributes to the image of Hell as akin to the Tower of Babble: confused, discordant, irrational, and where speech is corrupted.

The Fourth Circle is for hoarders and squanderers, misers and spenders. In life, "no measure / governed their spending" (41-42). Greed and avarice are antithetical - "[b]ad giving and bad keeping" (58) - and yet the same, going in such opposite directions that they meet again around the bend. This is another parody of the perfection of the circle, which also finds expression in these souls' punishment. Each one is rolling a weight with their chest, going in two different directions until they run into each other. "Why / do you hold?" one side cries. "Why do you toss?" cries the other (29-30). They're basically fighting over worthless rocks - forever.

According to Aristotle, virtue is in moderation, the path between two extremes, to "walk between the dry bank and the wet bank."

Most of these souls were clerics, cardinals, and popes who made a mockery of the goods bequeathed to them by Fortune. What is this Fortune, Dante asks, that holds so much of the world "in its clutches"? (67). Virgil replies that when God made the heavens, he gave each quarter a governor to ensure that they all shone equally. Fortune is in charge of earthly distribution and rewards (fame, power, material goods, etc), which she periodically bestows and withdraws. No one knows how she decides who to reward and who to punish, but it is not, as we like to think, random. In this way, Fortune, my notes say, is an interface between what we see and what we don't understand. The Classical Fortune was either a blindfolded goddess or a wheel.

Dante and Virgil then move across the circle to the other shore and come to a boiling bog that flows into a ditch. They follow this stream until they arrive at Styx, the dark, disgusting swamp "at the foot of the evil grey / slopes" (106-107). There are additional souls submerged in the muck, all beating on each other. In life, these people were either angry or overly depressed. Other souls, trapped underwater, gurgle a hymn describing their sins because they can't fully form the words.

Canto 8

(We're still in the Fifth Circle. Everyone's mad in this part.)

Dante sees two flames signaling one another, which signifies war. They are at the river Dis, where they are met by an oarsman named Phlegyas. More references to Dante's physicality: Phlegyas's boat is "laden" and "[cuts] more of the water / than it does with others" (27-30). Once we get past Dis, this is some real bad shit. This is Lower Hell. *ominous drumroll*

A spirit named Filippo Argenti arises from the muck. Dante recognizes him and hotly informs him that he had comin', he had it comin,' he only had himself to blame. Virgil is pleased with this, as Argenti was apparently so awful in life that there remain no good memories of him (but at least there are memories). That's why he's so angry now in Hell. Dante is further pleased to see the other souls tear him to shreds.

It all goes back to moderation: anger is permissible but it must be kept in check.

As they approach Dis, Dante sees mosques glowing red with eternal flame. Since the Middle Ages associated Islam with devil worship, the presence of these monks foreshadows the entrance to the Sixth Circle. A crowd of fallen angels refuses to let them pass, which also recalls the devil's resistance to the Harrowing of Hell, when the Old Testament heroes ascended with Jesus from Limbo to Heaven. Really, they've done this before, Virgil assures Dante, at a "less secret gate" (125), which is apparently the one at the entrance to Hell, where Dante saw the sign "Abandon hope all ye who enter." Virgil is a mere soul, not an all-powerful guide, and they are in need of divine intervention.

In this way, Dante is comparing his journey to Christ's.

Coming up: Cantos 9-17 and more Enigma



The doors in this music video are actually a sculpture by Rodin called The Gates of Hell, which was inspired by the first section of Inferno. Their appearance here also references a later track called on MCMX a.D. called "Knocking on Forbidden Doors." ("Sadeness" lyrics)

6 comments:

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Re Canto 4: Limbo: This is so infuriating to me! I don't understand why Christianity would come up with the rather uncharitable notion that "the unbaptized and the virtuous pagans who died without knowledge of Christ" deserve to be in the First Circle of Hell, even though it may not be as hot as, say, Tucson.

E. L. Fay said...

The Catholic Church doesn't believe in it anymore. But you're right: it's really not fair even though it does fit in nicely with Dante's worldview.

irisonbooks said...

Re: rhapsodyinbooks It always puzzles me as well, but it does fit Dante's worldview and I really enjoyed the admiration that shone through in that part of The Inferno.

Bellezza said...

Your review is so informative! I've never had the benefit of any coursework in Dante, or literature beyond Russian, in college, so I loved reading your breakdown (And from me? You get to hear my connections to Styx and Harry Potter's three headed dog.;) Anyway, of course Logos-the Word-which is Christ is missing in the beginning. Dante is in utter darkness, literally, and without Jesus.

Also, I loved how you said that the circle is also indicative of the Alpha and the Omega, no beginning or End to Him.

Those are the two most powerful connections for me, but like I said, what a great review you wrote! Very informative! And wise, I think, to take it piece by piece. You've inspired me to continue with Purgatory...I wonder what bands will jump at me from there? ;)

Richard said...

E.L. Fay, great point about the equation of logos with light! I think that's very important to keep in mind in Inferno...even though I'd forgotten it myself while I was reading it, ha ha. Also, while Dante did this more provocatively than most of his peers, I'm always struck by how far medieval Christians went out of their way to salvage a sort of intellectual kinship with their pagan predecessors; you'll notice that despite the poetic "giants" being stuck in limbo, antiquity's writers received more props from Dante than fellow Christian writers in Inferno. The reception awarded Virgil and others, despite their spiritual "flaws" or lack of awareness by Dante's standards, is terribly interesting, don't you think?

E. L. Fay said...

Iris: Yes, I think it was very important in pre-modern Europe that the cosmos are orderly and make sense. You see that all the way up through the Enlightenment. That's what a lot of the Modernists of the early 20th century lamented - the new irrationality of the universe, which made it meaningless.

Bellezza: Enjoy it while it lasts - I'll be on my own, just as you were, less than halfway through Purgatorio.

Richard: Yes, Dante certainly has an odd way of underhandedly "complimenting" the ancients. On the one hand, they're in Hell (nice Hell but Hell nevertheless), yet on the other, he's more respectful to them than to many of his fellow Christians, whom he places even lower in Hell. And he actually knew some of these people!

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