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Un cammino attraverso la Commedia (Inf. 29-34)

I had hoped that I could tie things together in this post. I wanted to bring together some thoughts on Dante's debt to Virgil both as a poet and a guide, on Dantes poetics, and on the fittingness of the punishments that Cassius and Brutus and Judas receive. But I've been rethinking it all the last day or so, and now believe that the strength of an ending comes from the way it defers its own ending.* And I think Dante does that through his use of the word cammino.

Dante, of course, knows the importance of endings. He chooses not to end the Inferno with an image of Judas's legs hanging out of Lucifer's head. Dante doesn't end with his own fear or even his own resolve to change his life. He doesn't give Virgil the last word. Instead, Dante returns to the cammino with which he began the poem (Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita.) Thanks to the excellent Princeton Dante Project website (which, as I've mentioned is the work of Jean and Robert Hollander, whose translations I use), I've discovered that Dante uses cammin or cammino fifteen times in the Inferno, and two times in Canto 34. In other words, Dante constantly reminds us that he is on a journey.

In Canto 34, Dante and Virgil have passed Lucifer, and Dante becomes confused about where he is. As readers, we too are confused, although we shouldn't be surprised that we are. Dante tells us as he enters the frozen floor of Hell in Canto 32 that "It is no enterprise to be taken lightly --/ to describe the very bottom of the universe" (Inf. 32:7-8). Although Dante has not taken the enterprise lightly, we cannot expect clear thoughts described in clear language in a place of such opacity. Virgil realizes Dante's confusion and addresses him. The text reads: "The master said to me: 'Get to your feet, / for the way [cammino] is long and the road not easy, / and the sun returns to middle tierce'" (Inf. 34:94-96).**

Dante and Virgil have gone through Hell in the Earth's core and ended up on the opposite side. (I think that would put them in the Pacific Ocean off New Zealand!) Notice here that Virgil says the way is long, the road is still uneasy. Virgil doesn't tell Dante they are almost done. He doesnt offer comfort or congratulations on getting through hell. Virgil isn't done with Dante, and Dante's not done with us.

We see this again in the last lines of the poem. "Into that hidden passage [cammino] my guide and I / Entered, to find again the world of light, / And, without thinking of a moment's rest, / We climbed up, he first and I behind him, / Far enough to see, through a round opening, / A few of those fair things the heavens bear. / Then we came forth, to see again the stars" (Inf. 34: 133-139). Dante's journey is not over. As he notes, even when Virgil and Dante saw the light, they didn't even think about resting for a moment.

There is a breathlessness that characterized so much of the Inferno. This breathlessness has been the result of the marvels that Dante has seen, the fear and pity that those marvels have aroused, and the recognition that his language is inadequate to capture this experience. He barely understands the cammino he has been traveling. We keep reading for the same reason that Dante keeps traveling: to come to a greater understanding of that cammino and thus a greater understanding of ourselves.

We're onto the Purgatorio. I'll post again either Saturday or Sunday on the first 6-8 cantos of the poem. I'm still trying to keep up with 2 cantos a day.

 

*The question of deferral reminds me that I've also been thinking about how Dante anticipates so many discussions in modern and postmodern literary theory. I'll have to leave that discussion to another post.
**Hollander tells us that this means it is 7:30 AM. Virgil here, for the first time in the poem, is telling time by the sun rather than the moon.

 

[For Part 4, see here. For Part 3, see here. For Part 2, see here. For Part 1, see here. For the introduction, see here.]

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Phew! Still keeping up. . . just barely. I'm going to have to read ahead this weekend if I'm to have any hope of making it all the way.Helen's comment on Part 4 about Virgil's role as guide and teacher touches on one of the two things that most interested me about this last section of the poem. The other, and I think related issue, is one I brought up last time: fame.Virgil is, explicitly, Dante's "master," and I don't doubt the authority he's meant to hold, both poetically and in terms of his knowledge of and attitude toward hell and God's justice. But as a pagan and as merely an instrument of God (/Mary/Lucy/Beatrice), I presume there's at least a little space for irony in narrator-Dante's esteem for him; clearly, he isn't the last word on anything to do with a Christian God. I don't actually see any places where it seems we're meant to treat Virgil's words skeptically; however, to the extent that he's bound up with Dante's pretty clearly ironic treatment of fame, and especially poetic fame. . . I wonder.Dante's great promise to the damned, in order to make them speak, is that he'll keep alive or spread their fame in the world above--which is ironic on several levels! First of all, fame of the sort he and the damned seem to mean is a pagan notion: the "afterlife" you get when there's no afterlife. And indeed, the damned have no afterlife worth writing home about, so if this is a consolation, it's obviously a poor one. Second, as Bocca points out in Canto 32, they don't or shouldn't want to be remembered above, and certainly not as Dante is portraying them. I think narrator-Dante is sincere in thinking his promise of fame will make the shades happy, but poet-Dante (the one who's actually assigning some of his enemies to circles of hell, including people who, as Helen pointed out, are still alive) knows perfectly well what a nasty gift this kind of "fame" is.So, you shouldn't want fame; you should want heaven. And when narrator-Dante is earnestly promising the damned that his verses have the power preserve their names and right their reputations, he also has to be poking some fun at his own ambition and his desires for his art. And maybe that's where Virgil comes back in: as a reminder that even the greatest poet isn't saved by his art alone.

As we get to the end Dantes journey through Hell, things begin to get a bit testy between Dante and Virgil. Its as though Dantes nerves are getting frayed (as mine are). In fact, Virgil gets angry with Dante for needing to listen to a quarrel between two shades and Dante feel shame in canto XXX. Virgil is anxious to bring Dante out of this Hell (and so am I).The situation in canto 30 becomes personal for Dante. He wants to stay and seek a kinsman who he believes is in hell. Virgil wants him to move on but Dante realizes that the kinsmans death has not been avenged by his family. Interestingly, no mention is made of why his kinsman is in hell. Was it for being a sower of discord (canto 28)? If so, what did he do? His death must have been violent and must be avenged. Neither Dante nor Virgil seems to have any problem with committing murder to avenge family honor.The most painful to read part of the Inferno, at least for me, is the story of Count Ugolino and Archbishop Ruggieri, who condemned the count and his sons and grandsons to starvation. I wonder if this is deliberate on the part of Dante to make this story the last one that he narrates about contemporary of his. Dante certainly has a way of drawing us, me in particular, into his narration. I just noticed the several times that he refers to the reader, personally, e.g.,How faint and frozen I then becamedo not ask, dear Reader, for I do not write it down,since all words would be inadequate.(Canto XXXIV)As we finish Dantes journey in Hell, I wonder if his work had any influence on the moral life of his readers. Did any, who read or heard it read, experience a conversion from a sinful life?

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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.