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.