Posted by: mmkelly | October 18, 2009

Dante’s Inferno

Dante writes three long poems in which he describes the entirety of the universe from heaven to hell in minute detail. This seems like a fairly ambitious project, to construct an entire framework of justice and punishment for all humanity while incorporating the often contradictory mythological and religious heritage of pagan and Christian Rome. Yet, what strikes one when reading Dante’s Infernois not the profundity of his poetry, but the intimacy of it. Though he chooses these vast and complex religious structures (hell, heaven, purgatory) as his subject, Dante seems primarily occupied with his own life and with the life of his city, the poem’s setting merely providing a symbolic setting for his criticisms of the contemporary world.

Dante often uses important figures from recent history to illustrate the crimes punished at each circle of Hell. Thus, the triumvirate of corrupt Popes from Dante’s lifetime—Nicholas III, Boniface VIII, and Clement V—appears in Canto XIX to illustrate the sin of simony. While certainly their inclusion helps illuminate the types of prisoners contained in the third bolgia, it seems they serve a further purpose. The poet is not simply trying to denounce the type of person who would “prostitute for gold and silver the things of God,” he is denouncing specific trends in the contemporary Catholic churches hierarchy. When Dante speaks with Boniface, his words are passionate and his rhetoric personal (indeed, he worries that perhaps his diatribe was “overbold”) for he sees the sin of simony (essentially, the selling of the Church’s sanctity) as monstrously corrupting. The public nature of this sin infuriates Dante because simony’s wide effects on wider society, for the Boniface’s “avarice afflicts the world, trampling on the good and exalting the wicked.”

By using contemporary figures, Dante heightens the moral immediacy of his poem. The point is not simply that simony is bad. The point is that simony is bad and the Catholic church is currently perpetuating the practice of simony. While he acknowledges the abstract sin of simony, he places emphasis on the immediate effect of its current practice. Writing of the men under whose shadows he had lived, Dante’s lines take on additional poignancy. Perhaps he might be among the good who have been “trampled upon,” perhaps his wicked enemies have been “exalted.’

The autobiographical nature of the Inferno therefore, adds a layer of complexity. Oftentimes, it seems that the poem is simply an allegory, a medieval Pilgrim’s Progress. Yet, while Dante and Virgil are symbolic characters representing various stages of human enlightenment, and while each circle of hell is suffused with a sort of symbolic justice (punishments matching sins, physical appearances reflecting inner corruptions), the book seems more like a poet’s attempt to understand a cruel and unfair world than a theological poem attempting to understand the celestial reality beyond earth through a steady stream of symbolic constructions. There is a temporal centrality to the Inferno: the sun always lurks ahead urging Dante and Virgil on, the stars of the sky, invisible in hell, signify their reestablishment in the normal world when they journey back out to Earth. When Dante talks to the sufferers in hell, he always looks for the people he knows, seeking out the famous Florentines at every level. He is a gossipmonger, finding out the dirty secrets of his fellow Italians, promising to carry back messages and lessons to Earth. Strangely, Dante never seems particularly interested in the inner workings of Hell—though he notes its various topographic eccentricities and orderings, he does so more out of compulsion than curiosity—and often expresses a desire to halt his tour of hell in order to continue a conversation with one of his contemporaries.

Perhaps this is why Dante’s trilogy has become such a canonical book. There seems to be a palpable enthusiasm for all things human, even though humanity is always tainted by sin. No greater cases exist than Dante’s treatment of Francesca, Ulysses, and Ugolino. Dante, supposedly, should feel no pity for the judged sinner, because God cannot but judge rightly. However, in these specific cases, he becomes so embroiled in the lives of his subjects that he forgets about their sins, the brightness of their exaggerated humanity palliating his moral outrage. Francesca’s capacity to love, Ulysses need to explore, and Ugolino’s endurance of dreadful torture all capture Dante’s imagination. His conversations with these characters, unlike the conversation with Boniface, end in no moral indignation or sermonizing, rather they end with a certain awe and respect for humans who have lived life on a higher plane, who have felt greater passions, and who have seen greater sights.

This introduces a second odd, and slightly troubling, aspect to Dante’s Inferno. Dante, though he often expresses his agreement with the punishments meted out to sinners, sometimes seems to regard the punishments as excessive or unjust. Though he places the heathens, those who never had a chance to believe in Christianity, in a relatively comfortable place in Hell, there is still a sense of injustice in knowing that they are punished at all. Indeed, Dante simply seems in awe of all the great poets and philosophers walking around this ring, offering no criticism of their great, though unintentional, sin. Should these great thinkers, these influential persons, these intellectuals who have released such knowledge and such beauty into the world really be constrained eternally in Hell? Dante, apparently, does not think so. Certainly, Virgil proves that these great men can escape divine justice, that their fated unbelief can be transformed and they can be freed from their ignoble position. But, if exceptions can be made for the greatest and most creative of humans, doesn’t this reflect poorly an entire celestial system designed to enforce pure and unadulterated justice? Dante’s exile is the subtext constantly shifting behind the description of hell, the poem barely concealing his bitterness at those sinful worldly forces that caused his social ostracism. He writes about hell to expose the sins of those who, he believes, have corrupted human institutions–who have led Florence into such violent civil strife and the Papacy into such hypocrisy and moral lassitude.

Ultimately, one might be able to picture Dante’s hell as a reflection of his desires for the temporal world. Whereas the temporal world is filled with injustice and moral iniquity, hell is filled with justice–the sinful of the world finally get their just deserts, they are contorted by their punishments and deformed by their burdens. Yet, on occasion, Dante recognizes the individuals affected by this rigorous system of justice and feels a sense of unease. As much as he craves the justice of hell, as much as he wishes for the consistency of divine punishment, he recognizes that only in the earthly sphere can someone love like Francesca or explore like Ulysses. There is, then, opportunities in the earthly realm that would be negated in hell, specifically because of its all-consuming fairness. Two pulls act upon Dante: the desire for the consistent justice of hell and the recognition of the limitless possibilities, and all the creativity and passion implied, of Earth.

A few other thoughts:

1) I think I have read the same Dante quote in three separate books by Wallace Stegner. He uses the phrase “they read no more that day” from the Francesca story to describe a particularly intellectual sexual encounter between characters. I always thought it was both a strange and thought-provoking quote (particularly because he used it so many times) and I was glad to read it in its original context.

2) Having never read Virgil and not really knowing anything about him, I always felt slightly confused with his role. Why had he been granted so much power? Why did he seem to have access to God and Christ–after all, he had been among the heathens who did not believe in Christianity? The commentary I read along with the poem acted as if Virgil represented the ideal of the state or empire. In my ignorance, this seems forced. Wouldn’t he rather stand for Dante’s ideal of a poet who comprehends the fullness of truth?

3) I didn’t discuss at all the fact that Dante manages to reconcile Classical and Christian mythology into a consistent syncretic mixture. Was there a medieval basis for doing this or would other contemporary commentators have found it offensive? Certainly St. Augustine would have disapproved of any theological confusion between what, to him, were two entirely separate religious and cultural systems.


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