Thursday, July 8, 2010

Inferno, Cantos 18-26

Moving right along to part three of my four-part series on Dante's Inferno for The Divine Comedy read-along hosted by Richard. Above is one of Salvador Dalí's illustrations. I forgot to credit Gustave Doré in my last post.

Picking up where we last left off with Dante and Virgil disembarking from Geryon.

Canto 18

Not much happening here - mostly exposition for the Eight Circle, where the fraudulent are punished. Dante calls it Malebolge or the land of the "evil pouch/sack." Each bolgia holds a different type of sinner. Among the panders and seducers in the first bolgia Dante recognizes an unnamed man who confesses to having forced his sister to sleep with a powerful aristocrat. The flatterers are plunged in human excrement in the Second Bolgia.

The image of the sacks or pouches is an implicit comment on the motivation of greed.

Canto 19

The first two bolgias punish simple fraud. Now the sins are getting worse. The Third Bolgia is for those guilty of simony, the buying of Church office. Dante meets Simon Magus, the Samarian magician who offered the Apostle Peter money in exchange for the power of transmitting the Holy Spirit by laying hands.

Dante's involvement with politics is the biggest influence on this canto. His nemesis Pope Boniface, who was probably responsible for Dante's exile, had declared papal supremacy over secular rulers and excommunicated King Philip IV of France, who in turn declared the Boniface's election invalid. At issue here is the alleged Donation of Constantine, a document proven false in the fifteenth century, which claimed that because baptism had cured Emperor Constantine of leprosy, the Church was rewarded the entire Western Roman Empire. This led many Popes to believe they could interfere with worldly affairs (unam sanctam), which Dante feels is the cause of most of the Church's problems.

Dante was a purist who believed that the Church should be characterized by voluntary poverty and was disgusted by the practice of buying and selling indulgences to get people out of Purgatory. It was also common to advance family members regardless of qualification and to pay one individual for two archdioceses, which led to frequent absenteeism. In this canto Dante addresses the clergy, who"adulterate for gold and silver" (4) when they should be just and honest Christians.

In this bolgia the rocks on the sides and floor are perforated with holes. Sticking out are the burning feet of the sinners imprisoned here. Dante is curious about one who seems to thrash more than the others. He compares himself to a friar hearing confession from a condemned assassin, who were buried alive head down according to Florentine law. Since this particular soul was a pope, this is a radical simile indeed. Even better: the soul, identified as Pope Nicholas III Orsini, actually mistakes Dante for Pope Boniface, who was still alive during the writing of Inferno. Nicholas, whose corruption was legion even by contemporary standards, further claims, indirectly, that Boniface had persuaded Pope Celestine V to abdicate and sealed his election with bribes. The tearing apart of the "lovely lady" refers to Boniface's extensive use of simony. Recall from Canto 10 (last post) that the etymology of the word "heresy" is "to cut" or "separate," and that Christ had taught that we are all one body. This also links to political heresy and the suicide of the body politic, which I also discussed previously, as well as the medieval metaphor of the city as a human body. To this day, the word "corruption" is synonymous with disease and decay.

Nicholas goes on to predict a short reign for Boniface, saying it will be less than the time he has spent in Hell (twenty years). He also foresees the arrival of another "lawless shepherd of even uglier deeds" (83), an allusion to Bertrand de Got (aka Pope Clementine V), Boniface's French successor who was appointed by the King Philip IV. Nicholas also calls him a "new Jason" due to his promise that the King will receive a tenth of all papal revenues from France for five years.

Dante denounces both Nicholas and the corruption of the clergy, proclaiming that the Lord had demanded no material wealth or temporal power from Saint Peter, the first pope. He also reminds us that "[n]either Peter nor the others took from Matthias / gold or silver" (94-95). In other words, the Church's nepotism grew out of its great wealth. You deserve your punishment, Dante informs Nicholas, and only my reverence has prevented me from ever rising high in the Church, which you achieved through bribery. Even today, your selfishness continues to trouble the world. Dante compares Nicholas to the great harlot from the Book of Revelations and calls him an idolater who worshiped gold and silver. Even the idol-worshiper prays to but one god, Dante adds, but you prayed to hundreds of gold and silver coins and treasures.

Nicholas kicks his feet in response but Virgil is pleased. They head to the Fourth Bolgia.

Canto 20

These are people who used the magical arts, particularly the diviners, who have had their heads turned backward for trying to see the future. Dante weeps to see the human form so distorted (since it was made in God's image) but Virgil rebukes him by reminding him that this is divine justice. These include not only Mantua, for whom Virgil's native city was named, but also various classical prophets, medieval fortune-tellers, and simple women who cast spells.

The diviners are juxtaposed with prophecy via the placement of several popes in the previous bolgia. The pope's job is prophecy, which is actually a way of speaking with biblical insight to help the world understand its problems and work on solving them. Prophecy is not foretelling the future. The ancient oracles are prime examples of diviners.

Canto 21

Dante is so distracted by the boiling pitch in the Fifth Bolgia that he doesn't notice the devils approaching them. This is the place of barratory - political corruption, or secular simony. Dante would be personally accused of this by his enemies, the Black Guelphs, some three years from the writing of Inferno. Not surprisingly then, this is the only place in Hell where Dante is in real physical danger, as the devils want him imprisoned there as well.

The devils who guard the sinners here are equipped with grappling hooks which they use to rip apart those who dare rise above the pitch. Unfortunately, the bridge to the Sixth Bolgia is down so Dante and Virgil have to deal with them.

According to line 82, Virgil isn't aware of the Christian God per se but knows that there is a higher authority at work here. He explains that their passage is divinely ordained and the reluctant devils promise an escort of ten.

Canto 22

The devils' attention is diverted by a Navarrese grafter who is willing to talk to Dante. The devils believe that the souls merely seek relief from the pitch, which they cannot normally gain without being skewered by the hooks. The soul tells Dante that he can summon seven other Italians but two of the devils dive in after him and become mired in the sticky pitch. As their compatriots try to help them, Dante and Virgil slip away.

These two cantos are intended to be comedic and are based on the common portrayal of devils at medieval fairs. Acknowledging a salute, the captain of the devils "made of his ass a trumpet."

Canto 23

Dante worries they may have provoked the devils and Virgil agrees. They subsequently realize they are being pursued. Virgil grabs Dante in his arms and makes it to the Sixth Bolgia, which the devils cannot enter because it is not their assigned area.

The sin here is hypocrisy: faking, feigning, acting, pretending. The word "hypocrite" is linked to morality and religion. Its Greek and Latin etymology comes from the word for "actor," which alludes to the actor's ability to separate themselves and pretend to be something else. The Greeks in particular are known for turning ritual into theater to reenact their myths. This represents a schism of sorts: while you may participate in a ritual, you're detached from a theater production because the actors are only playing at religion, ethics, etc and you're only watching it. As such, everything hypocrites do they do for show.

These souls trudge in a circle, clad in hats, capes, and cowls coated in gilt and lined with lead, which makes the garments massively heavy. In other words, a pleasing exterior conceals a very different interior. One soul lies crucified on the ground and is eternally trampled upon by the others. He is Caiphus, the high priest of the Jews under Pontius Pilate. Dante reminds him that he had foreseen the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus for the world's sins (John II). Dante, a Christian, represents the reality of that vision. My notes refer to Elaine Pagels's The Origin of Satan, which argues that as Christianity increasingly separated from Judaism, it began to find more fault with it.

Virgil asks for directions and learns that the devils had lied to them about the route to the next part of Hell.

Canto 24

It is a difficult and treacherous climb down that puts a strain on Dante's physical body. Dante and Virgil have a conversation regarding Dante pretending to be stronger than he really is. But the inner and outer individual must correspond with one another, as assuming a role can make you assume a habit. It is best to assume a virtue you don't have and maybe you will eventually learn it. We must always examine the social context of our behavior.

Thievery, the sin punished in the Seventh Bolgia, always takes place in a social context, as it presupposes ownership. The souls are chased by serpents while their hands and legs are bound by snakes. One soul burns into ash upon being bitten. He identifies himself as Vanni Fucci, an acquaintance of Dante, who was guilty of robbing a sacristy. Angry, he foretells the defeat of Dante's party, the White Guelphs, which upsets Dante.

Canto 25

Dante takes great joy in the sight of Fucci being strangled in serpents and attempting to flee after cursing God. He then sees three souls bound together so tightly by a serpent that the four beings merge together as one. Another soul is bitten in the belly and slowly transforms into a serpent as the serpent that attacked him undergoes a reverse metamorphoses. Recall from Canto 12 that sin degrades man to the level of beast. This also alludes to Ovid's Metamorphoses.

The shaming of Fucci following his bluster also reinforces the social context of thievery.

Canto 26

Recognizing the three bound souls as Florentines, Dante sarcastically comments on Florence's widespread fame in both Hell and Earth. Dante and Virgil head to the Eighth Bolgia, for the counselors of fraud, where many flames burn in the darkness. Each one engulfs a soul as the externalization of the inner intellect and malice that motivated their counsel. It also relates to the Bible's description of the Holy Spirit as a tongue of flame.

Virgil identifies Diomedes and Ulysses, who hated each other in life and are subsequently paired together to increase their punishment for three acts: the Trojan Horse; persuading Achilles to join them in the Trojan War, which led to his death; and sneaking into Troy at night and advising the traitor Antenor to steal a statue of Pallas Athena, which caused her to turn against the Greeks. Virgil recalls their influence on his poetry and warns Dante that they may not wish to speak with him since they are Greeks.

Ulysses responds and tells of his escape from Circe, a woman who turned his men into pigs. Instead of returning home, he decided to explore the world. In this way, he was disloyal to his family and is the antithesis of Virgil's Aeneas, who went to the underworld to see his father and pay homage to him.

Despite Hercules's warning, Ulysses also used his golden tongue to persuade his troops to travel through the Straits of Gibraltar. He urged them to think of all their adventures together and invoked the excitement of seeing "the world without / people" (116-117). He appealed to their desire for the virtue and knowledge for which they were born. They travel for five days and five nights until they encounter what they think is new land. It turns out to be a whirlpool that sinks their ship and drowns everyone on board. It was apparently the Mount of Purgatory.

According to my notes, to "boldly go where no one has gone before" has been a Western mantra only since the Renaissance. In Dante's time, heroic discovery doesn't exist for its own sake; you have to consider other factors as well. The tragedy of Ulysses and his men demonstrates what happens when you divorce knowledge from love and fail to see internconnections.

Coming up: Cantos 27-34

Cantos 1-8
Cantos 9-17

"Knocking on Forbidden Doors" (lyrics)


rhapsodyinbooks said...

Your notes have been fabulous. And I love reading about all the techniques Dante finds for torture. I mean, what's so bad about having your head backwards? I presume we haven't gotten to the circle that includes waterboarding....

Anonymous said...

Some more interesting things to learn! When I was reading this section, I was somewhat surprised at how strongly Dante worded his criticism of the Catholic Church (or at least certain popes), especially since this was a good 200 years before the Reformation. When I thought it over, however, it seemed likely that politics was involved. It's very interesting to see the way that politics and personal vendettas crept their way into what has become such a timeless epic poem.

Eileen said...

Jill: Punishment fits the crime, eye for an eye - those are Dante's mottos. It's called contrapasso.

Simpler: I was surprised at how vehement Dante was towards the Catholic Church as well. I had assumed there'd be laws and punishments regarding that type of thing in his day. Apparently he was of the belief that "the Church is perfect; the people are not." There was an attack made on Boniface by some political rivals and Dante actually disapproved of this, much as he may have sympathized with the motives. Much as he hated Boniface he respected the Pope's office.

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