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Un cammino attraverso la Commedia (Inf. 1-6)

It's always worth thinking about context and expectation when we encounter books, especially books that our culture has deemed important or great. Reading Dostoevsky is something very different from reading a recipe. But I think reading Dante is even more challenging than Dostoevsky, even than Shakespeare, even than Lucretius or Vergil or Homer. Dante implicates his readers in his journey in a way that few other books do. For me, only the Hebrew Scriptures or the New Testament or the Quran come to mind as books that are as challenging. Like them, Dante doesnt let us off the hook. The Commedia is a mirror we hold up to ourselves as much as it is a pilgrim's journey through the afterlife. In fact, that's precisely why it's a mirror we hold up to ourselves.

So if you'll indulge me, I'll offer a (very) brief rehearsal of my own encounter with Dante because it will help situate my remarks during this Easter season. I was 15 years old when I met David Lat, now a famous blogger on legal matters. At the time, though, he was an alumnus of my high school, and I met him at (of all things) a debate tournament. "Oh, you're a freshman," he said. "You should have Mr. Connelly do the medieval reading group with you." When I asked Mr. Connelly (Robert Imbellis high school classmate!) about this, he raised an eyebrow, asked if I realized what I was getting into, and agreed. Along with five other students, we would meet at 7:30 am on Wednesday mornings. That meant waking up at 5:00 am, getting a train at 6:10, and then getting to Regis High School by about 7:30, a full hour and twenty minutes before homeroom. In addition to our regular work load in our English and history classes, we read the Commedia and the Song of Roland and the Canterbury Tales and others whose names I've forgotten. And truth be told, I remembered little of even the Commedia except for Paolo and Francesca (which piques the interest of a 15-year-old) and Ulysses. I remembered Statius in the Purgatorio and Bernard in the Paradiso. I remembered the stadium and the lights and the picture of love. And I knew that I would have to read it all again outside an academic situation. Each fall at Villanova, I teach one of the parts of the Commedia -- but here I am, almost 20 years after my first encounter with the text, not teaching part of it, but reading the whole thing, and fulfilling a promise I made to myself.

What I offer here, and what I hope to continue to offer, are simply thoughts on certain aspects of the text that strike me as I read. Needless to say, I dont aim to be comprehensive, but I hope to be coherent.

The Inferno is, of course, a deeply sad poem, although whether or not we should find it sad is, I think, a real question. In Canto 3, Dante tells us that the Gates of Hell are marked with the words "Justice moved my maker on high / Divine power made me / Wisdom supreme, and primal love. / Before me nothing was but things eternal / And I endure eternally / Abandon all hope, you who enter here" (Inf. 3:4-9). If primal love and supreme wisdom and divine power have made hell, why should Dante be sad, why should he pity those he meets, why should he be afraid? After all, in what must be some of the most tender lines in the poem, Virgil recounts how Mary asked Lucy to ask Beatrice to ask Virgil to take Dante through Hell and through part of Purgatory (Inf. 2:58-140). Does Dante not trust Virgils words? Could we possibly expect him to?

Dante suspends his sadness and pity and fear temporarily to enjoy the company of Virgil, Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan in Limbo. I have always admired how no matter how afraid Dante is or how awestruck he is by what he sees in the journey, he never lets his audience forget how good of a poet he is. "Of course, the poets of antiquity showed me a greater honor still, / for they made me one of their company, / so that I became a sixth amidst such wisdom" (Inf. 4:100-102). I suppose it ain't braggin if it's true.

And reading the accounts of the lustful in the first circle of Hell and the gluttonous in the second circle of Hell, how could Dantes boast not be true? I mean that sincerely. I don't think you can read the Commedia without recognizing how deeply beautiful it is. In the weeks ahead, we will explore that beauty in its various forms: the language, the similes, the remarks on literature and politics and philosophy and theology. The question for every reader, I think, is: how does one respond to this beauty? And that's another way of asking: given that it is beautiful, what do I do with the parts that are uncomfortable, with the parts that judge me (as they surely do), with the parts that seem so obviously wrong? These are questions that Dante himself seems to anticipate. Paolo and Francesca, remember, are in Hell because they got caught up in reading something beautiful, something about love. The line between the love of Mary and Lucy and Beatrice, and the lust of Paolo and Francesca is razor thin. After Dante hears Francesca's story, he recounts, "While the one spirit said this / The other wept, so that for pity / I swooned as if in death. / And down I fell as a dead body falls" (Inf. 5:139-142). As I read those lines and as I read Ciacco's account of Dante's friends who are in Hell because they were on the wrong side of a political dispute, Dante's words to Virgil become my words to Dante. "Master, for me their meaning is hard" (Inf. 3:12). I'm a year shy of 35, which Dante, following the Psalmist, considered the middle of our (not his) life. But Dante's words are much harder than I realized 19 years ago.

What do you think? I'm sure what interested other people is quite different from what interested me. And I'm eager to hear what others have to say.

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Before we get down to the nitty-gritty of our study: A former colleague of mine, who taught English, had a sign over the entrance door of his classroom: "Abandon all hope, you who enter here." I still have the The Divine Comedy textbook from Freshman English in college. Inside the book I found the paper that I wrote on Cantos XXX and XXXIII of the Paradiso. It was submitted on May 16th. My calendar tells me that Pentecost when we finish our study is May19th

My friend V. says: "The fear that inhabits us and weighs Dante/us down seems to be counterbalanced by the sun or by Virgil waiting for him, and that echoes what pope Francis is saying, that we should go out and seek what will take us out of our fear. It's really quite simple. Virgil says, lift up your head and look at the sunshine; and then allow yourself to be surprised out of your fear. I think that' s what it's most about.For Virgil at the moment it's a matter of not focusing on one's fear. Allowing oneself to be surprised is a gift.A community is out there looking for Dante - those three women wishing him well -, not just Virgil. If we could only trust community. That's the challenge."

While it's easy to disagree with Dante's judgements on particular people - I have always been uncomfortable, for example, with his apparent damnation of St. Celestine V, the prime exemplar of papal resignation (whose tomb Benedict XVI very publicly visited) - it's obvious that his judgement of people, most of whom he never met, will not be the same as God's. But I'm impressed at how well his vision has held up over time - what, Scott, do you see as "obviously wrong"?I think at least some part of us wishes that there would be no hell at all, but even on this point I waver. I think it's obvious that in this world hell does exist and some people are in it. But Dante seems to suggest that we find a way to put us about where we'd want to be, in a certain sense. In this part Paolo and Francesca end up together - which they presumably would want. To Dante it seems like hell - because in the end he knows he would want more than just to be with a particular person. But for them perhaps it was all of God's kindness they really wanted.Of course one of the themes of Inferno is that there is no need to feel any pity for the people who are there - they are right where they wanted to be. If that is true, that would be a hell I could live with. Of course if they don't want to be there, it's a bit more difficult to swallow. But still not obviously wrong.

I have not read the Inferno since my undergraduate years way back in the mid-fifties. Am using the World of Dante website and the Mandelbaum translation until a Hollander edition arrives from Amazon. I find that, as in reading Scripture, certain phrases resonate, stay with me. In Canto IV, 4.42, for instance, Virgil says of himself and others in limbo, that "we have no hope, and yet we live in longing." Haunting. In an odd, twisted way, the words suggest Advent since that is the time when, by contrast, "we live in longing, yet we have hope." I'm put off by Dante's score settling, his placing of political enemies in Hell. The World of Dante site fills in some of the history here, at least briefly.

For me one of the most striking images in the early cantos is that of the damned rushing to their judgment and punishment which they seem to desire. The more I reflect upon it the more terrifying it becomes:"As in the autumn the leaves drop off one after the other till the branch sees all its spoils on the ground, so the wicked seed of Adam fling themselves from that shore one by one at the signal, as a falcon at its recall."Inferno III, 112-14Many see an echo of a Virgilian scene (and in these early cantos Virgilian similes are common):"Here a whole crowd came streaming to the banks . . . As leaves that lose their hold on boughs and fall through forests in the early frost of Autumn."Aeneid VI, 305-11Or Ecclesiasticus:"Like abundant leaves on a spreading tree that sheds some and puts forth others, so are the generations of flesh and blood: one dies and another is born."Ecclesiasticus XIV, 18Some scholars see in Dante's lines an allusion to medieval images of the withering of the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden after Adam's sin (and its restoration after Christ's death on the cross).

As I read these six cantos I am struck by what a well-integrated person Dante is. He appears a whole person, with no pretense, no denial of conflicting parts of his personality, and completely transparent.I am amazed how he can skillfully he can bring me into his world: not just his thoughts and emotions but also the people, beliefs, and values of his time. It is as though he is exposing me to a Summa of medieval culture.Before reading (or rather rereading) the Divine Comedy I thought that Dante had placed Pope Celestine V in Hell for having resigned from the papacy (for having made the great refusal).But I know now that Dante has placed Celestine V just outside of Hell in the vestibule of the Inferno, a place for those who for souls who neither good enough for heaven nor evil enough for hell, a place for cowardly souls. (He could have put him in the lowest circle of Hell for being a traitor to the papacy and Church.) I wonder if Dante chose that location because he knew that Celestine V was canonized in 1313 during the time when he was probably composing the Inferno, which is said to have been published around 1317.

John, I meant the stress on that sentence to be on the "seems" rather than the "obviously" wrong. I should have made that more clear. Part of the beauty of the poem comes from the fact that nothing is obvious. I was thinking about how I needed to explain to my students why Dante (and the tradition preceding him) would have thought that suicide was a worse sin than murder. To them that seemed "obviously wrong." Dante continually confounds our expectations. I agree with Ellen and Patrick about the haunting images in Dante, and that's certainly something we'll have to keep an eye on as we proceed. And thanks, Patrick, for the references to other texts.And I also agree with both Claire (or her friend V.) and Helen. On the one hand, Dante does seem to be remarkably integrated. Yet, on the other hand, there does seem to be a divide between his fear and his hope. I think we'll continue to see that productive tension in the poem.Thanks for these opening thoughts! I hope others will chime in as well.

Oh, and one more thing. I'll post again on Saturday with reflections up to Canto 12.

This is hardly an original comment, and is largely a repetition of some points that the Hollanders make in their comments on the poem. But it's worth remembering first, that Dante's whole journey, both to Hell and to the two higher levels, is for him and educative experience, and all the way through the trip he's learning things; and second that Virgil, guide and voice of human reason though he may often be, is hardly infallible. The judgments made by both of them may err, and particularly that of Dante in the Inferno.The Hollanders are determined opponents of what they call the "romantic" tradition of reading the Inferno. Dante's hell is full of con men and con women, and Francesca da Rimini is one of the prime examples, seducing Dante's emotions of pity, and seemingly winning him (and many readers) over to her side for what is plain old fashioned adultery. The Met broadcast Zandonai's Francesca da Rimini a couple of weeks ago, an opera based on d'Annunzio. Though I didn't hear the whole piece, it's pretty clear that the work is based on a romantic reading, and the Wikipedia article as an 1870 painting by Cabanel depicting the deaths of the two lovers:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Inf._06_Alexandre_Cabanel,_Morte_di_Fr... which you'd never know that in real life Francesca was in fact fair, fat, and forty.

Hi, everyone! My name is Griffin, and I am so pleased to participate in this online reading group. First off, I would like to share a bit about my own background: I'm a fifth-year graduate student at Yale University, working on a Ph.D. in Italian Literature. My thesis looks at the connections between Dante and his (and everyone's) favorite saint: Francis of Assisi. I'm about halfway through the writing (getting closer to a completed first draft!), and so I am thrilled about participating in an Easter reading of Dante's Comedy in this company of fellow travelers.I've been fascinated by Dante ever since I first had the opportunity to study his poetry in Italy back in 2005. The Comedy is a text that has altered the course of my life indelibly; reading Dante has helped me to discover a deep vocation to love and knowledge within myself, and the poem for me is a continuing source of wonder, joy, and gratitude. As I read, I was struck by the many levels of dissonance that we find in the early part of the poem. I'll describe two of them. First, there is the tremendous gap between two different "Dantes" in cantos I and II. There is Dante as the confident poet who has already completed the journey to God and now sets his story before his audience; yet there is also Dante as the pilgrim just setting out, fearfully, on his journey through Hell. Fear and confidence alternate vividly in this section of the poem; thankfully, confidence decisively vanquishes fear. I love the image that we find at the end of canto II: Dante compares his own blossoming confidence to a flower in bloom. As the flowers turns on its stem and raises its petals to receive the warm rays of the morning sun, so too does Dante strengthen his resolve to make the voyage to God. This is a beautiful image of the pilgrim's confident resolve, and certainly instructive for us during the Easter season.A second kind of dissonance that I noticed is the contrast between the horrors of the dark wood in canto I and the story of the circle of grace (Mary, Lucia, Beatrice) related by Virgil in canto II. At first the two settings -- the darkness of sin and perdition and the light of mercy and salvation -- seem radically opposed to each other. Heaven apparently has nothing to do with Hell. Yet we soon realize that the "end" of Dante's journey, the glory of heaven, is already present to him in the beginning: dawning within the darkness of the forest, there is light. Beatrice, awash with the light of beatitude, is not afraid to descend into the darkness of Hell. A citizen of eternity does not hesitate to enter directly into Dante's personal history. Dissonance here is only apparent: Dante's story is, after all, a whole and integral tale. Every stage in the journey matters. Even in his darkness and his lostness, Dante undergoes the concrete experience of being found. It is within the dark wood, the very place of despair, that he comes to know that he is loved.As we continue to read and reflect on Dante, I hope that he can show us all how to look beyond the dissonant oppositions that we so frequently experience in our lives. In the Comedy, as these first cantos show us, things are never quite as bad as they appear: at the edge of despair there is always a reason to hope. Dissonance is subsumed by harmony, and bitterness is washed away by grace.

"...from which youd never know that in real life Francesca was in fact fair, fat, and forty." Tsk, tsk in 21st century politically correct terms.Too bad Rubens didnt paint the subject.

Because I know Paradise Lost much better than I know Dante (and am reading PL with my graduate students as I read Inferno with you-all), I can't help but compare the two in matters large and small. I'd never before thought about the leisure activities of the fallen angels in Book II (poetry, philosophy, athletic contests, etc.) as being indebted to Dante, but I think Dante's sojourn with the poets and philosophers in Canto 4 lies somewhere behind that episode -- especially the larger message that those activities, however beautiful or well-executed, are essentially, value-neutral, or at any rate not enough to save one's soul.And as you say, Scott, Dante is terribly sad. Much sadder than Milton. The affective responses the damned inspire in us (and Dante) seem intended as instructional--but I'm not sure to what end. I don't think it's an *incorrect* response, or intended as the same kind of illustration of our fallenness as sympathy for Milton's Satan is, but I'll need to think on that further as we go on.(And hi, Griffen! I did my Ph.D. at Yale, too, though in English. . . and earlier enough in the century we wouldn't have overlapped. Hope New Haven is being good to you.)

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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.