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Un cammino attraverso la Commedia (Inf. 13-20)

This is only my third post on the Commedia, but already a little community has formed in the comments. (Of course, I encourage more people to share their thoughts!) To encourage this community, I want to build on two comments I found particularly helpful in my last post. These comments help set up a discussion on how Dante sees his own poetic work, which I think he stresses in these cantos.

In the comments to my last post, Flavia and Griffin Oleynick stressed the importance of structure in the Inferno. Flavia wrote, "I take Dante, like Milton, as sincere in his justification of God's ways to men. But the poem seems unafraid to raise our own doubts by reminding us that, hey! It's really hard to reconcile the idea of an infinitely-merciful God with one who is also infinitely just. We may believe it to be true, but human logic, like human emotions, just cant grasp those simultaneous truths." Griffin, in turn, extends Flavias discussion when he says, "Perhaps his poetry can be considered a personal response to excarnation and a call to build community!"

Since at least the time Adam named the animals, words have structured the way human beings have encountered reality. But words do more than that. For Christians, the Word doesnt just structure reality, it creates reality. And if we read the first chapter of Genesis with the first chapter of John's Gospel (and an assist from Eph. 1:10), we see that God is not content to be excarnate. God desires to pitch his tent among humanity by becoming incarnate (Jn 1:14). God enters into the structure his Word has created by becoming named himself. (Thus we should read Matthew 16:16 along with Exodus 3:14.) We ought to think of such naming as a kind of poetry. The poet creates worlds just as God does. And the challenge that the poet sets for himself or herself is to convey to his or her audience how those worlds make sense, how the various things in those worlds cohere.

It is a particular difficulty, then, to make sense out of a world that is marked by incoherence. If mimicking the poetry of God through speech and action leads to coherence, the violence we find in the second half of the Inferno, a violence that mocks the poetry of God, must lead to incoherence. And here we see the particular difficulty that Dante sets up for himself: he must, as Flavia noted, present two truths that are difficult if not impossible to reconcile and he must, as Griffin noted, present these truths in a way that builds human community, that draws his readers in enough to warn them of the judgment that will confront them if they commit such violence. Dante must say "O vengeance of God, how much / should you be feared by all who read / what now I saw revealed before my eyes" (Inf. 14.16-18). But he must say this knowing full well that he will be telling his audience things that, as Virgil says, "you will see things that, in my telling, / would seem to strip my words of truth" (Inf. 13.20-21).

The truth, it seems, must be understood in a community of people.

One can only reach truth, Dante seems to imply, through discussion with others. That's why I think he stresses his conversation with different poets. Like Dante, these other poets have created worlds through their verse. But unlike Dante, the poets in Hell have not understood God's providential love and wisdom. Dante understands this love and wisdom as the work of art (art)*: "O Supreme Wisdom, what great art you show / in Heaven, on earth, and in the evil world, / and what true justice does your power dispense" (Inf. 19:10-12). In this context, I find Dante's interaction with Brunetto Latini so important. We can read Dante's interaction with Brunetto Latini both as an homage to an earlier poet and as a boast that it is Dante who will create an immortality for Brunetto that he could not create for himself.

"For I remember well and now lament
the cherished, kind, paternal image of You
when, there in the world, from time to time,
You taught me how man makes himself immortal.
And how much gratitude I owe for that
my tongue, while I still live, must give report.
What You tell me of my future I record
and keep for glossing, along with other texts,
by a lady of discernment, should I reach her.
This much I would have You know:
as long as conscience does not chide,
I am prepared for Fortune as she wills"
-(Inf. 15:82-93).

Dante is prepared for Fortune in a way that Brunetto was not. (If Brunetto had been prepared for Fortune, he wouldnt have ended up in Hell.) Yes, Brunetto has taught Dante important lessons, and yes, Dante can continue to gloss these lessons and learn from them, but Brunetto himself hasn't learned from the poetry that he himself created. Brunetto's poetry and life did not share in the great art of divine Wisdom as Dante's does.

Dante wants us to recognize the difficulty of his task. Here in Hell, he must write truthfully of things that have turned away from the truth. He begins Canto 20 by telling his readers, "Of strange new pain I now must make my verse, / giving matter to the canto numbered twenty / of this first canzone, which tells of those submerged" (Inf. 20:1-3).The "submerged," of course, are the diviners who didn't speak the truth of the future. When he meets the diviners whose bodies are crippled such that their faces have turned around to look backwards, Dante says, "Reader, so may God let you gather fruit / from reading this, imagine, if you can, / how I could have kept from weeping" (Inf. 20:19-21). In an important sense, of course, Dante's entire comedy wants to tell the future. He wants to explain to his readers what awaits them if they do or do not understand themselves in God's great poem of creation and redemption. In light of what befell those before him, how could Dante keep from weeping?

I began with two comments from readers, and so let me end with a third. On the last post, Fr. Komonchak compared Dante's line "necessity compels us, not delight" (Inf. 12:87) with a line from Augustine about the Eucharist, which is "not necessity but pleasure, not obligation but delight." Not only does necessity compel Dante in Hell, I think it haunts him. And perhaps it haunts him because he realizes that in Hell, he cannot partake of the delight that comes from living in the truth of God's love. (We'll have to wait for the Paradiso for that.) As Dante says in Canto 16, "To a truth that bears the face of falsehood / a man should seal his lips if he is able, / for it might shame him, through no fault of his, / but here I cant be silent. And by the strains / of this Comedy -- so may they soon succeed / in finding favor I swear to you, reader" (Inf. 16:124-129). Dante realizes his truthful words must speak about the falsehood of sin. He realizes that his speech must seek a community outside the Hell that has no community. He hopes his poem, though it must bear these necessities, will bring delight.

 

*And I do think art is better than skill here.
 

[For Part 2, see here. For Part 1, see here. For the introduction, see here. Please feel free to comment and join our discussion.]

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Thanks for the kind words, Scott!Like you, I spent much of cantos XIII-XX thinking about the way the poem depicts time and our relationship to it: if the sin of the diviners is, specifically, to have tried to predict the future, all the damned have as one of their punishments no awareness even of the present, much less the future -- and "living in the past," even as we use the expression colloquially today, is always understood as a sad, limited, and limiting thing. Not only do the damned have no future, but they have no capacity to recognize anyone else's. They're stuck in their old errors or presumptions.I also find your connecting Dante's poetic creation and God's creation of the world through a speech-act illuminating: both are doing something generative and hopeful, gesturing toward a future (in contrast with the sinners, who didn't create in life and don't get the benefits of that creation now).But I wonder whether there's the danger of hubris here, too (something most religious poets wrestle with, though I haven't seen it dealt with as explicitly in Dante as in Milton or Herbert): there's always the danger of falling in love with one's own creation, or of believing one's own creative powers rival God's or are independent of God. And if predicting the future is wrong for the diviners, how is it right for a poet? This brings me back to the question I raised in our first discussion, but still have no answer to, which is how we're meant to read Dante's or our own affective responses to the damned. I'm really uncomfortable -- probably in a naively modern way, but still -- with Dante's assigning specific people, known to him in life, to specific rings of hell, not always (to judge by the thin notes in my edition) with clear historical warrant. That feels like presuming upon God's judgment. In some cases the narrator-Dante is also grief-stricken to find those people there while in other cases he seems to think they deserve it, but I can't quite get a handle on whether we're *always* to assume there's some ironic distance between how narrator-Dante reacts and what poet-Dante intends; whether we're meant to share his reactions; whether we're meant to criticize them; or what.I suppose that we're meant always to scrutinize our own and the narrator's reactions, treat them skeptically, and try to divine (oops, that word again!) what the "correct" response is, thus participating in a kind of moral self-education. But I don't think poet-Dante is any more above scrutiny than narrator-Dante.

This section of Hell, Cantos 13-20, is particularly brutal and painful to read. Canto 13 tells of the punishment of those who commit suicide. They are turned into trees and thus will never be reunited with their bodies that they destroyed. Even a man who in a moment of despair over being falsely accused of treason has the same fate. Thank goodness that we have a more compassionate view of suicide today, although I know a few people would still hold on to an eternal damnation scenario. I had to go to the Catechism of the Catholic Church to convince a colleague about current Church teaching on suicide when one of our students killed himself.Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide. (2282)We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives. (CCC 2283) Canto 15 is particularly upsetting for Dante since it tells of his meeting a mentor/teacher of his, to whom he is grateful, in the area of hell reserved for sodomists. If I have read this section correctly, we are told most of the people here are scholars! In addition, I am not sure that Dante was aware of this aspect of this man whom he admired so much or that he even cared. What comes to my mind are the people today who know and admire a priest who is accused credibly of sexual abuse. He may have married them or baptized their children. Its hard to put aside feelings.Also in this canto we learn that Dantes bishop was accused of sodomy and that the do-gooder pope, Pope Boniface the VIII, transferred him to another see. (Nothing new under the sun.)I gave myself a good laugh at the fate of flatterers, who in Canto 18 are submerged in excrement. Maybe, I am getting carried away but I could not help thinking that a typical response to disingenuous flattery is, Thats BS.Canto 19 is the place for simonists and a prominent member there is a pope, Pope Nicholas III. (Im shocked, shocked.) He mistakes Dante for Dantes enemy, Pope Boniface VIII, who Dante is placing in hell or at least insinuating that Boniface deserves it. In Canto 20 Dante meets the fate of the Fortune Tellers and Diviners. The have their heads on backwards and their eyes are full of tears. What an image! These are the shades tried to seethe future, and thus will spend eternity looking behind them with blurry vision. For some reason, Dante weeps over their punishment. Perhaps, can it be that he at one time in his life he visited them?

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About the Author

Scott D. Moringiello is a Lawrence C. Gallen fellow in the Humanities at Villanova University, where he teaches the Augustine and Culture Seminar and courses in the theology department.