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Un cammino attraverso la Commedia (Inf. 7-12)

In a recent post on dotCommonweal, Robert Imbelli discussed Charles Taylor's term "excarnation," which Imbelli glosses as "the avoidance or denial of those dimensions of humanity that threaten our sense of being autonomous individuals." I have not read all of A Secular Age, but Imbelli's discussion has helped shape my thinking on Inferno Cantos 7-12. After all, one way to think about the seven vices that chart Dante's journey through hell is that each vice becomes progressively more excarnated. In the name of making us more autonomous, sin ends up dividing us from ourselves. Sin offers an ersatz autonomy that places human will over divine providence and the nature that God created. Sins make bodies less meaningful because meaning can only exist in community. And communities only exist through the interactions of embodied individuals.

There is no community in Hell because there are no bodies in Hell. Unlike the shades he encounters, Dante is embodied. His body still communicates meaningfully. In Canto 12, as Dante walks among the covetous and the wrathful, Chiron notices Dante's footprints. "When he had uncovered his enormous mouth / he said to his companions: Have you observed / the one behind dislodges what he touches? / That is not what the feet of dead men do. / And my good leader, now at Chiron's breast, / where his two natures join, replied: / He is indeed alive, and so alone, / it is my task to show him this dark valley / Necessity compels us, not delight" (Inf. 12:79-87).* In this life, the more embodied we are, the less alone we are. Our bodies enable communication with others. We long to be in touch with our friends and loved ones. And being in touch is not a metaphor. But in Hell, no one can be in touch because there are no bodies to touch or to do the touching. (It's an interesting and important question to ask how immaterial souls can suffer physical torment, but we'll have to come back to that.)

Therefore, because Dante is alive, because he is embodied, he finds himself alone in Hell. He cant be in touch even with Virgil.** In a sense, the souls in Hell were excarnated, disembodied, before they even died. Their punishment simply continues what they have already done. I think this puts the sin of usury in its proper context. The problem with usury, as Virgil explains to Dante is that through usury money becomes unconnected to embodied labor. "By toil and nature, if you remember Genesis, / near the beginning, it is man's lotto earn his bread and prosper. / The usurer, who takes another path, / scorns nature in herself and in her follower, / and elsewhere sets his hopes" (Inf. 11:106-111).

Of course, all of the Inferno and all of the Commedia is in part an exhortation to its audience. The pilgrim stands for all of us. He therefore speaks to everyone. And he can only exhort his audience, he can only relate what he has seen, because unlike the shades he encounters, he is embodied. This is why the two apostrophes we encounter in Cantos 8 and 9 are so important.

By Canto 8, Dante has already visited the lustful, the gluttonous, the avaricious and the prodigal. In that Canto while he is among the angry and the sullen, and after he has crossed the River Styx, Dante encounters fallen angels. For the first time in the poem, the pilgrim directly addresses his readers: "Reader, how could I not lose heart / at the sound of these accurs'd words, / for I thought I would never make it back" (Inf. 8:94-96). The angels demanded that Virgil leave Dante to return to the land of the living by himself. With his words, Dante acts as an angel to us by reminding us of the horror of being left in Hell. Even if he cannot touch Virgil, Dante can't make his journey without him.

In Canto 9, Dante and Virgil reach the Gates of Dis, and beyond the Gates of Dis he will encounter shades whose sins were ever more excarnated because these sins increasingly separated human beings from each other. We still have to reach the circles where the shades committed violence, fraud, and treachery. (We see heresy in Canto 10 and begin to see violence in Cantos 11 and 12.) Dantes apostrophe in Canto 9 reads: "O you who have sound intellects, / consider the teaching that is hidden / behind the veil of these strange verses" (Inf. 9:61-63). Robert Hollander notes that there is much scholarly disagreement about these lines. Without trying to adjudicate those scholarly disagreements, let me offer a reading here that coheres with my argument about excarnation. Dante's audience can have sound intellects now because they read his text and hear his words as ensouled flesh or as embodied intellects.

Dante's journey serves as a warning to his audience to keep their intellects and their bodies in harmony, which is another way of saying that Dante urges his audience to cherish their own incarnation. Dante reminds us that the pain of being human is surpassed only by the pain of being once human and facing a judgment that will leave us excarnated.

I recognize that I have still not addressed Dante's poetics in any meaningful way. I'll be sure to do that in the next post. In fact, I think the discussion of harmony is a perfect segue.

What did you find interesting in these cantos? Is my discussion of excarnation helpful? What of importance did I miss?


*Similarly in Canto 8, the boat that crosses the river Styx only becomes heavy when Dante steps in it. See Inf. 8:25-27
**That is to say, Im not sure how to read, e.g., Inf. 9:60 where Virgil hands cover Dantes face.


[For Part 1 of our discussion, see here. For the introduction, see here]

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About the Author

Scott D. Moringiello is an an assistant professor in the Department of Catholic Studies at DePaul University, where he teaches courses in Catholic theology and religion and literature. He blogs at dotCommonweal.



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Scott, this is my first reading and what surprises me is how thoroughly engaging it is. I always thought it would be "difficult" and yet, without needing a scholar's grasp of all the layers of meaning, I am finding it a pleasure and pretty easy to follow. So thank you for proposing this journey. I appreciate your comments.I find myself wondering who among the political leaders and/or dictators of modern society would be found in which circle of Hell (an excellent diversion). And I wonder where Dante's choices of torment came from. e.g., the river of blood that gradually leveled off so that some souls were up to their eyeballs in it, and the "less guilty" were covered only to their ankles, and those with sharpened tongues, etc. My biblical knowledge is scant!It also struck me as odd that if Dante had divine protection, what did he need to fear from the Gorgon and the Minotaur?

Scott, I really like your discussion of excarnation as a way of understanding the organization of Dante's hell. There are certainly spirits that seem to be in community (Paolo and Francesca are still together, for example, as are all those heretics hanging out in sepulchers whom Dante expects to share messages with one another), but it isn't community in any productive or generative way.That said, what strikes me most about these six cantos is the way they both insist upon and undermine their own organizational logic. There's that magnificent bit at the beginning of Canto 7, where the narrator says, "Ah, Justice of God! Who heaps up/such strange punishment and pain as I saw there?" Which sounds like an outraged denial of God's justice (how can this be justice, to cause so much pain?), until the next tercet continues, "And why do our sins so waste us?" That line, while still expressing shock and puzzlement at the suffering Dante finds in hell, and still allowing a potential indictment of the God who permits sin to exist, could also be read as putting the blame on the sinners themselves: it is they who heap up their own punishment and pain. But the question about God's justice isn't erased.Similarly, in Canto 11, where Virgil outlines the structure and logic of hell, Dante again raises the question of God's justice by way of a question about hell's organizational logic, asking of those in the first five circles, "'why are they not punished inside the fiery city/if God's anger is upon them?/And if not, why are they so afflicted?'" Virgil reproves him and explains, and then Dante tells him that his words are as clear as the sun and have "resolv[ed] [his] doubts." But again, the question still lingers. I think again of Paradise Lost, where Adam's inquiries about the nature of the cosmos in Book 8 draw an impatient rebuke from Raphael, who refuses to answer the question of whether the earth goes around the sun or the sun around the earth. The poem's next lines seem to underscore the insufficiency of Raphael's reply: "To whom thus Adam cleerd of doubt, repli'd./How fully hast thou satisfi'd me, pure /Intelligence of Heav'n." Cleared of doubt? Fully satisfied? REALLY?I'm not trying to suggest that Dante's system doesn't make sense or that he doesn't believe in it or expect his readers to as well; 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 can't grasp those simultaneous truths.

1) In some cases forced togetherness is a harsher punishment than isolation. Canto X has Farinata, a Ghibelline, and Cavalcante, a Guelph, sharing the same tomb - - enemies in life, eternal companions in death. Imagine a Fox News blowhard and an MSNBC heckler engaged in never-ending crossfire in the same TV studio. In contrast, theological adversaries Aquinas and Siger of Brabant will be happily reconciled in the same circle in Paradiso.2) FDR in his 1936 "Rendezvous with Destiny" speech draws a widely accepted political lesson from the Inferno's architecture and its cast of characters: "Governments can err, Presidents do make mistakes, but the immortal Dante tells us that divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted in different scales. Better the occasional faults of a Government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a Government frozen in the ice of its own indifference." of course politicians will have their own punishment when Dante considers fraud in Canto XXI.

Necessity compels us, not delight (necessit l ci nduce, e non diletto). This is the contrary to what Augustine wrote about the bread of life: Est quaedam voluptas cordis, cui panis dulcis est ille coelestis. Porro si poetae dicere licuit, Trahit sua quemque voluptas (Virg. Eclog. 2); non necessitas, sed voluptas; non obligatio, sed delectatio: quanto fortius nos dicere debemus trahi hominem ad Christum, qui delectatur veritate, delectatur beatitudine, delectatur justitia, delectatur sempiterna vita, quod totum Christus est?non necessitas, sed voluptas; non obligatio, sed delectatio "Not necessity, but pleasure; not obligation, but delight."A deliberate contrast, or are these commonplace oppositions?

I love the notion of "excarnation." I find it to be a helpful way of thinking about the lack of community that we find among the sinners in Hell, which comes about at first through their lack of self-control and later through their own twisted choices. The best examples that I can think of that demonstrate this tendency are the poet-count Bertran de Born who literally "excarnates" himself as he holds his severed head aloft in front of Dante and Virgil in canto 28, and the tragic figure of Count Ugolino, who gnaws away at the skull of his enemy Archbishop Ruggieri in canto 32. I also like the idea about the "flawed organizational logic" that exists in the Inferno. I see an instance of this in the "dance" of the avaricious and the prodigal, which seems at first perfectly organized into a semi-circular movement, much like the movement of the heavenly spheres in Dante's ptolemaic cosmology. They seem regular and without change -- and yet Dante quickly undermines this regularity with Virgil's discourse on the hidden ministrations of the goddess Fortuna. Her operations are anything but regular and symmetrical, and so humans on Earth are left puzzling out the question of why some people flourish materially while others perish. I think these two ideas, excarnation and organization, seem to point to a kind of anti-human "dead-ness" about Hell. There is nothing living in Hell, nothing spontaneous. Everything seems to proceed according to a logical, pre-determined flow-chart. Sinners arrive, they're judge, and punishment commences. The point is that there is no sense of God's creative surprises here in Hell. God, if he is mentioned at all, is spoken of as a judgmental figure infinitely removed from the scene. There is no one who comes and says anything along the lines of "see, I am doing something new." And yet, there is evidence of the Incarnation, of God's "unreasonable" or "asymmetric" creativity, all over Hell. The impregnable fortress of Dis is opened at the touch of a magic wand. References to the anastasis, Christ's descent into Hell to rescue the patriarchs, continue to pop up, in cantos 9 and 12. So as Dante travels through these circles, he becomes more aware of his own bodiliness, his own agency, his connection to the world of the living and his participation in divine grace. We see him growing increasingly bold (as with Filippo Argenti) as he begins to discover the painful future that awaits him in his exile from Florence, where his fellow citizens will try to "excarnate" him through the organisms of the law. Perhaps his poetry can be considered a personal response to excarnation and a call to build community!

I must confess that I chuckled when I read in Canto VII that tonsured heads (clerics, popes and cardinals) were in hell among the avaricious. Hopefully, Pope Francis will have an influence in preventing any future additions to this level of Hell.In the earlier cantos of the Inferno Dante shows show some sympathy for the plight of those who are receiving punishment for their sins even though it is a just punishment. But when he meets a political enemy of his in Canto VIII he is not so sympathetic and even wants further suffering for this person. It is interesting that shortly after this incident Dante begins to fear that Virgil, the voice of Reason, will abandon him. Politics can bring out the worst in people and is often accompanied by a loss of rationality.In Canto X Dante learns that the shades are able to know the past and to see into the future. Farinata notes that after Judgment Day the gates of the Future are closed a sobering observation. The shades, however, have no awareness of what is happening in the present. Today I have seen advertisements for workshops on Mindfulness, another was of saying Living in the Present Moment. They teach techniques for focusing on the present because the present is where your life enfolds. For the shades in Hell their present is over. There is no way that they can rectify their sins.Throughout the Inferno the people in Hell interact with Vergil and Dante but not each other. This is another aspect of their punishment. They are denied community and companionship. After all, misery loves company.

I like the term "excarnation," and I like its definition - the avoidance of those things that are common to us as humans, and hence threatening to our ever-alert and fragile sense of individualism - though I don't know that Dante would have seen the phenomenon he knows as sin in that way. He might have seen it the opposite way - that it is in going "each unto his own way" that people go wrong. This picks up on what an earlier commenter noted, just how objective and clear Dante seems - he is not clearly obsessed with any one thing, like people's shoes or the way they speak or how they feel about one or another political issue. He seems to be taking everything in. And I feel that this is true - that in the end we do not get to create our own reality, and our failure in any one aspect of our development comes back to haunt us. I will give an example from a man I know: a wonderful, thoughtful, competent man who was good at almost everything, he never wanted to be in charge of anything. Recently he was in a position where everyone wanted him to step into a leadership role at work, which he refused to do, saying he didn't want to have to lead - he prefered to influence decisions from behind the scenes. Well, the person who took over promptly had a fight with him and fired him, and since then he has had horrible financial difficulties (he is older and is having difficulties finding a job in the area, but is in no position to move). The one aspect of his life which he refused to develop is getting back at him.I often feel that the sinners in hell are the people who had one problem that they never were willing to work on or improve - and at some point it got them.The scene with Vergil covering Dante's eyes, and the "veil of the strange verses," I think must be an allegory of some sort, but Lord knows what it is.

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