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.
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.