Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Inferno, Cantos 9-17


On Sunday I kicked off my discussion of Dante's Inferno for The Divine Comedy read-along hosted by Richard. Today I continue with Cantos 9-17, using my notes and written work from college. My brother still hasn't located my Durling translation that I lent him six months ago, so once again, I apologize for the lack of quotes.

We left off with Dante and Virgil stuck outside the great city of Dis (which I mistakenly identified as a river in my last post) because the demons won't let them in. Virgil went to speak with them but they shut the door in his face. We are about to enter the Sixth Circle, the first part of Lower Hell.

Canto 9

With no help coming, a frightened Dante asks Virgil if anyone from the First Circle (Limbo) has ever come down here to Lower Hell. Virgil says it's rare, although he once went to the circle of Judas to retrieve another spirit on behalf of one Erichtho, so he does know his way around. At the moment, Virgil's helplessness is expressed through language, particularly the use of ellipses to show that is voice has trailed off. Although he is certainly knowledgeable, he can never be the perfect guide since he lacks Christian revelation. Virgil's entire existence in Limbo prevents him from ever reaching that final conclusion; hence his truncated words. The ultimate reference of all language is God himself, the Sun that is never silent (paraphrase from Canto 1).

The three Furies of Classical myth appear as snaked-haired women, raging and threatening to bring out the gorgon Medusa, whose gaze will turn Dante to stone. The behavior of all the demons here is clearly vengeful. Since the war in Heaven, they have been obsessing over their conflict with God. In other words, they are frozen in wrath, and Medusa symbolizes this. The Furies also lament their lack of retribution against the ancient prophet Theseus.

In fact, everyone here is stuck for a variety of reasons: Dante, Virgil, the demons. Now remember the diagram of Aristotle's hierarchy of souls in Sunday's post? Here is another version:

Will and intellect are two components of the human soul, whose rationality separates it from the souls of plants and animals (the two lower levels). Returning to the Second Circle in Canto 5, recall that love is presented as a passive experience - love is an entity that acts on human beings. This is important to Canto 9 because Dante had apparently written a love poem in which he compared a woman to Medusa. This gives Canto 9 another, deeper meaning that also reflects Augustine's position that one must look beyond the surface text of the Bible. Love in this context is the petrification of the will and intellect: you fall prey to baser instincts and lack the strength to resist and move forward. Human love is important but, again, it should not be your highest goal. God always comes first.

Other medieval thinkers were of the neo-Platonic belief that at the very tip of this pyramid is a higher, collective plane that humans cannot access. I will return to this in Canto 10.

Divine help finally arrives. A heavenly figure walks across Styx with "dry feet" (81) and easily opens the gate to Dis with a small wand. He disdainfully inquires of the demons why they bother with this "overweening" of theirs when they know that God will always defeat them and increase their suffering. Dante and Virgil enter Dis with no further problems and come to a broad plain covered with tombs and scattered fires. This is the Sixth Circle, where the heretics are punished.

Canto 10

Virgil identifies some of the heretics as Epicurus and his follows, who believed that since the soul died with the body, they should live it up while alive. To Dante, this shows disrespect to both God and humanity. No afterlife and no salvation delegitimizes the role of Jesus and makes a mockery of morality. To deny the spirit is to reduce everything to the corporal.

As elsewhere, Dante meets with several Florentines, including one Farinata. Like many souls in Hell, he is stuck on trivial matters. In fact, he's so obstinate that the defeat of his party, the Ghibellines (who were Dante's enemies) is more painful than his present torment in Hell. Also present is Emperor Frederick II, who had encouraged tolerance for Muslims. Another soul asks why Dante is here instead of his son Guido Calvacante, also a poet, and Dante retorts that perhaps it's because Guido has scorned the Blessed Lady. Distraught, the soul returns to his tomb, believing his son dead. This is Dante's way of judging Guido's beliefs: by portraying them as the product of misunderstanding and leading to death. (The father misreads Dante's words and concludes that his son has perished. Remember the importance of language, reading, and light.)

Now back to that neo-Platonic idea I mentioned above in Canto 9 - Dante feels that this position is heretical because it doesn't do justice to human nature as it has been revealed to us. Love of God is transcendent, and it is Dante's trust in this ultimate love that will guide him on his journey through Hell. Canto 9, after all, depicted Virgil the pagan as helpless against the demons' wrathful stubborness. You must always pursue that divine reference. Guido's beliefs are intellectual death.

Lastly, it is important to note that Dis is a city, which for Dante represents the epitome of civilized life. Like the circle parodies in the Second and Fourth Circles (Cantos 5 and 7), Dis appears as an aberration of something noble, especially in the context of Augustine's teachings on the City of Man v. the City of God. Although earthly kingdoms are only temporary, he wrote as Rome was about to fall, much depends on our time in the human community. The word "heretic" comes from the Greek word meaning "to cut" (separation), and this does violence to Christ's teaching that we are all one body. The essence of Christ's message is forgiveness and loving thy neighbor. Farinata, with his continuing political hang-ups, symbolizes the division of humans against one another and the outcome of war. If man is merely a material being, as Guido argued, then violence is all we can expect from ourselves.

Dante and Virgil leave the heretics and follow a path that lines an abyss from which arises a foul stench.

Canto 11

The horrible smell forces our heroes back against the lid of a great tomb. According to the inscription, it is the resting place of one Pope Anastasius, "whom Photinus drew from / the straight way" (8-9). What that means is anyone's guess.

Unable to pass until the stench dissipates, they are left with time to kill. So Virgil launches into an overview of Lower Hell and the three subdivisions of the Seventh Circle. The sins down here are distinguished by malice, the goal of which is always injustice. To act contrary to the law is always to injure someone, as the purpose of law is to ensure that all are treated fairly. Fraud is especially hateful to God because it is unique to humans: it is a corruption of the human intellect (part of the top of the pyramid).

Since violence can be directed against three entities - God, oneself, and one's neighbor - the Seventh Circle is divided into three sections for each one. These are all crimes that defy nature. Violence against other humans is apparently the most natural, so they are in the top sub-circle. Next are the suicides. At the bottom of the Seventh Circle are blasphemers, usurers, and homosexuals (although probably not in the sexual sense - more on that later). These are more serious than murder because they are against God Himself.

Virgil further distinguishes between simple fraud (against someone who has no special reason to trust you) and treacherous fraud (against someone who had every reason to trust you). The former violates only the natural bonds of humanity, which is why they are in the Seventh Circle. The latter however, have violated a very special bond and are justly located in the very pit of Hell - the dreaded Ninth Circle.

The sins of lust, gluttony, and hoarding/squandering are merely sins of incontinence, which is why they are punished less severely in Upper Hell. The sinners down here, by contrast, acted deliberately and even tried to justify their behavior as morally upright. Virgil also says that Nature, as God's creation, is analogous to human craftsmanship; therefore, art that follows nature can be seen as God's grandchild. Usurers and homosexuals scorn Nature by evading sacred decrees: by living off the labor of others and/or not being fruitful and multiplying.

Virgil then states that it is 4:00 a.m. in April.

Canto 12

This is the first sub-circle of the Seventh Circle. Virgil and Dante descend from the path by crawling over a collection of boulders that had fallen in a landslide. They meet the half-man, half-bull Minotaur, whom Virgil taunts with his defeat at the hands of Theseus. This so enrages the Minotaur that Dante and Virgil are able to slip by while he's distracted. They come to a lake of boiling blood full of those who had shed the blood of others. The banks are guarded by Centaurs, half-man and half-horse, who courteously guide Dante and Virgil. One of them, Nessus, carries Dante on his back and points out famous sinners. The greater their violence, the deeper in blood they are submerged. The presence of tyrants represents Dante's concerns about leadership.

Lines 11 and 19 refer to "mad bestiality" and "bestial anger." The act of murder degrades the murderer to the level of animal on Aristotle's pyramid. The Minotaur and Centaurs are mixed human/beast and represent the impossible voice of irrationality (animals). Since human memory is linguistic, for animals to speak is against Nature.

Canto 13

The second sub-circle is the Wood of the Suicides, which recalls the "dark wood" of Canto 1. It is harsher and denser than any wilderness on earth. The Harpies, part human and part bird, have their nests here. They are degenerate eagles, the very symbol of Christ and Empire. This speaks to the decline of leadership in Dante's time.

Dante hears cries of woe from all around and assumes they are from people in hiding. In response, Virgil tells him to break a twig off one of the trees. Much to Dante's surprise, the tree cries out, bleeds, and asks Dante why he has injured him. The tree says they were once men but have become plants and asserts that Dante would have been kinder to a serpent. Once again, this recalls Aristotle's hierarchy of souls, in which animals are above plants. As self-murder, suicide is even more against Nature and even more degrading to the those who do it.

Blood and words pour from the stump's mouth. To speak is to suffer wounds like those the suicides had inflicted on themselves. Dante promises the tree he will write about him in exchange for his story.

Note that Dido is not here. These are mostly political suicides. This particular tree was Pietro delle Vigne, poet and prime minister to Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. Now recall from Canto 10 that heresy is both religious and political. The basis of Frederick II's government was Classical law, according to Rome and Justinian. In the Middle Ages, jurisprudence was the most important course of study and many of the Popes were also lawyers. (Let the jokes begin. . .)

Delle Vigne was accused of plotting against Frederick II, and his story contains elements of treason, justice/injustice, trust, faith, fraud, belief, honor, and envy. The first seven lines of his speech are all negative, which complements his act of the greatest self-negation possible. One school of thought at the time believed that suicide could be justified as an assertion of dignity and proclamation of innocence, but Dante disagrees. This goes back to the concern for tyranny Dante expressed in Canto 13. Emperors in the Middle Ages were asked to look to Christ as an example and practice humility and service to humanity. The interaction between Delle Vigne and Frederick II, however, emphasizes the context in which these types of suicides take place. Frederick II was an envious emperor, and one who is envious is blind (non video - "I don't see"). This made Frederick II a tyrant. Since the first article of his laws addressed the crime of heresy, and he was guilty of political heresy (suicide of the body politic), he was therefore guilty of the very thing he was opposing (hypocrisy).

Though he was adopted by the Pope following his parents' deaths, Frederick II demanded no interference from the papacy in his role as emperor. In this way he can be thought of as the messiah of the "imperial church" - one who also preached religious tolerance, which is why he's now in the Sixth Circle. As prime minister, Delle Vigne can be likened to Frederick's chief apostle. By essentially worshiping his Emperor instead of God, Delle Vigne lost his frame of reference, which subsequently influenced his decision to kill himself in light of his "god's" betrayal. More heresy.

Two souls suddenly come running through the Wood of Suicides, chased by black dogs and breaking branches in their path. One tries to hide in a bush and is subsequently torn to shreds. The crying bush identifies the dismembered soul as Arcolano da Squarcia di Riccolfo Maconi, whom Boccaccio had claimed was a notorious squanderer in Siena. Thus, suicide and prodigality are linked as needlessly wasteful. The bush adds that he himself was a Florentine and notes that the patron saint of Florence was Mars until the city's conversion to Christianity, following which it was changed to John the Baptist. Will Florence always be divided then, since Mars was the god of war? (More suicide of the body politic.) Dante doesn't think so - war is not inevitable. The bush reveals that he hanged himself in his own home.

(In The Aeneid, Virgil's hero Aeneid landed in a place he thought his people could settle. He was about to build an altar when he heard the voice of a murdered Trojan prince. He thought it was a tree but the voice led to a corpse.)

Canto 14

Dante and Virgil emerge from the woods and enter the lowest subsection of the Seventh Circle: those who committed violence against God, the most unnatural form of violence possible since it's against your very Creator. It is a plain of burning sand, upon some souls are lying, some are sitting, and others moving. Falling from above, like abominable snowflakes, are flakes of fire. Dante notices one soul lying with his face turned scornfully towards the fire and asks Virgil who he is. Overhearing him, the soul announces that he will not give "Jove" (God) the satisfaction of punishing him. Virgil rebukes him more harshly than Dante has yet heard, informing him that his pride is part of his punishment. He explains to Dante that this is Capaneus who had stormed Thebes.

They come to small red stream, along which lies their passage. Virgil tells Dante about the statue known as Old Man of Crete, whose tears are the source of Hell's four rivers. The Old Man faces Rome, has its back to Egypt, and stands for mankind's fall from the Golden Age (analogous to the Garden of Eden in Graeco-Roman mythology). The head is gold but the body is comprised of gold, silver, brass, and iron, all corresponding to the ensuing Ages of Man. The left leg represents Rome and is made of iron, while the right leg, which represents the Catholic Church, is made of crumbling clay to signify papal corruption. The location of the statue also follows the medieval theory of history: that civilization will move from the East to the West until the end of time. Like the Greeks and Romans, the Middle Ages saw the course of history as one of degeneracy, as visualized through the statue's tears, which also connect Classical legend to medieval reality.

Canto 15

Dante and Virgil continue their exploration of the Third Sub-Circle of the Seventh Circle. They encounter the homosexuals, who evaded the divine commandment to "be fruitful and multiply," thus scorning Nature directly and God indirectly. The vapor from one of Hell's rivers protects Dante's physical body from the raining fire.

Their sin may not necessarily be sexual, however. In a scene doubtlessly inspired by T.S. Eliot's "Little Gidding," Dante and Virgil meet a new band of souls, one of whom recognizes Dante. It is his old mentor (intellectually if not actually), Brunetto Latini, a prominent Florentine "proto-humanist" who urged the study of classical rhetoric and civil virtue. He is the author of a great encyclopedia called Treasure.

The "sodomy" punished here is more a form of narcissism (named, of course, after Narcissus). One of the tenets of proto-humanism was man's centrality. Brunetto's encyclopedia is a reflection of himself, and he thinks he still lives in it even though he's currently in Hell. According to this interpretation of sodomy/homosexuality, Brunetto is guilty of refusing to recognize the independent minds of his students, which makes him unjust. Instead, he projected himself onto them. This "love of the same" (homo-) is a sterile relationship that implies a love of your own image, whether reflected back at you in a pool or revealed through your own masterwork. (According to Brunetto, many of the sinners here were men of letters and great literary fame.) For this reason, Brunetto could never be the paternal figure Dante may have wanted. Still, Dante claims that he walked with "my head bowed, as one might / walk reverently" (44-45).

Or he really could have been gay, in which case the current distance between him and Dante - Dante walking on a rim and Brunetto strolling alongside on the ground - indicates that they are close enough to talk but not enough for anything else. Brunetto also mentions that Andre de' Mozzi is here. He was a Florentine bishop whose misdeeds led the Pope to transfer him to Vicenza.

Brunetto predicts great things for Dante's literary talent (or rather, Dante predicts great things for Dante's talent) and laments dying too early to encourage him. But, Brunetto cautions, Dante's "just actions" will also earn him enemies. He hints that Dante will be exiled (which he was) by noting that "among the sour / crab apples it is not fitting that the sweet fig should bear fruit" (64-66). Dante's future does hold great honor, though, and both the White and the Black Guelphs will seek him out. Dante mentions for the first time that he is writing everything down and Virgil praises him for this.

Canto 16

Still among the sodomites, Dante encounters Tegghiaio Aldobrandi and Iacopo Rusticucci, whom he had mentioned in Canto 6. They are charred beyond recognition and disappointed to hear from Dante that gluttony and arrogance still reign in Florence.

Virgil throws Dante's belt into a ravine filled with dark water and a horrible creature arises.

Canto 17

It is "the beast" that "makes the whole world stink!" (1-4). Geryon, the personification of fraud, has the head of a kindly man and the body of a serpent with paws. His brightly colored torso hearkens back to the leopard in Canto 1. His tail is tipped with a poison fork like that of a scorpion. While he negotiates their passage with Geryon, Virgil urges Dante to visit with three souls sitting near the cliff in order to have a full experience of the Seventh Circle.

These souls are trying to defend themselves against a fire. He doesn't recognize anyone but observes that they each have around their necks a bag of a special color with a different emblem on front. The blue bag has a lion, the red a white goose, and the white one a blue sow. These are the usurers. Two are Florentines but one is a Paduan, who speaks to Dante and orders him to be brief. Dante indicates that these souls are not worthy to be known (undeserving of fame) but notices that one was a Guelph, the other a Ghibellines, and the Paduan a Scrovigni.

Virgil has Dante sit on Geryon's back, with Virgil behind him to protect him from the poisonous tail. Virgil tells Geryon to travel slowly due to the weight of Dante's physical body. His command to "make your / wheelings large, [and] your descent slow" (98-99) is similar to the instructions given to Phaƫton and Icarus. Dante compares his fear to that of the former when he abandoned the reigns of the Sun's chariot, and to that of the latter when he felt his wings melt. It is pitch black and Dante can only tell direction by the wind blowing on his face. Below he hears weeping and the horrid rumbling of the river. He also sees fire.

His comparison of Geryon to the falcon that returns to its master unbidden and without prey suggests that Geryon did not carry them willingly. This is reinforced by the image of Geryon's departure as an arrow shot from a bowstring.

Coming up: Cantos 18-26



Cantos 1-8






"Callas Went Away" (lyrics)

6 comments:

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I checked out the reference in Canto 11. Here's the deal: there was a controversy in the early Church - (the same old controversy, it seems to me), over the nature of Christ - in this instance, was he divine only, or both divine and human? The Church went for dualism. Pope Anastasius II was considered a traitor to the Church because he "received" Photinus, who was a Monophysite, or believer in the one nature "heresy."

E. L. Fay said...

Really? I thought I remembered our professor telling us no one knew what Dante was talking about, and that's what my notes seemed to indicate. Huh. Maybe I should email her.

simplerpastimes said...

Wow, you're really sharing a lot of interesting information on Inferno! I got so caught up in the reading of the story itself that I forgot that there's all these layers of meaning to look for. Of course, it's been so long since I've had to look at a literary work for the underlying meaning or layers, that I'm really rusty and am glad you're able to share.

I find the information on Canto 15 especially interesting. From the notes in my copy, I could see that the zone was that of the Sodomites, but I didn't see anything in the Canto itself to suggest the sexual meaning, and had wondered where the label for this zone had come from. (I had assumed that perhaps the Florentines Dante met were known as homosexuals by their contemporaries, but the intellectual explanation makes sense given the context.)

E. L. Fay said...

Apparently the sexual interpretation of Canto 15 comes from commentators in later centuries. I wonder, though, if it's possible Dante might have intended both meanings. Like maybe he equated intellectual narcissism with homosexuality just to emphasize what a bad sin he thinks it is?

simplerpastimes said...

Interesting to learn that. I've heard (I think in one of my history classes when I was in Florence?) that in the Renaissance (and maybe Middle Ages too, I'm going off my memory here) that there was a lot of homosexual activity in Florence, so I could see Dante meaning it either way. It's fascinating the way there can be so many layers of meaning to one text.

E. L. Fay said...

I think it's definitely possible he meant it both ways, although we can never be sure. I could be mistaken on this but I feel like the Western obsession with homosexuality is a relatively recent thing. Which isn't to say that the Middle Ages or the Renaissance were gay-friendly - I highly doubt that - but I wonder if how much of a big deal people made of it.

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