"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Comments, Inferno, Cantos XXIV thru XXIX

I think I made a slight mistake at the end of Canto XXIII.  The Malebranche told the pilgrims that the bridge for the sixth Bolge was out, and that was true.  What was false was they said the bridges in the other causeways (remember there are a sequence of causeways like spokes in a wheel that run toward the center) were available.  As it turns out all the bridges in all the causeways over the sixth-and as it turns out seventh as well-ditch are collapsed.  This collapse occurred with the earthquake that shook the world at Christ's crucifixion. 

It's interesting how Dante's body weight drags him down while climbing through the boulders of the collapsed bridges.  Here's a passage:

At last we made it to the point
where the outermost stone had broken off.

And there I felt my lungs so sucked of breath
that I could go no farther,
but I sat down as quickly as I could.

'Now must you cast off sloth,' my master said.
'Sitting on feather cushions or stretched out
under comforters, no one comes to fame.

'Without fame, he who spends his time on earth
leaves only such a mark upon the world
as smoke does on the air or foam on water.

'Get to your feet! Conquer this laboring breath
with strength of mind, which wins the battle
if not dragged down by body's weight. (XXIV. L. 41-54)

Virgil characterizes Dante's difficulty in climbing in terms of the sin of sloth.  For those interested in the allegory, I would say this is surely allegorical, and I think significant for the entire Comedia.  The body's flesh drags one down in sin, which makes the climb toward heaven difficult.  This will be more fully developed in Purgatorio, which is a mountain that must be ascended, and contrasted in Paradisio where the body becomes weightless for flight through the heavens.

While I'm on that passage, notice how Virgil's line of motivation is for "fame," and earthly endeavor.  Virgil is a pagan; a Christian would say that even fame is nothing but air and smoke that vanishes with respect to heavenly endeavors.  St. Thomas Aquinas called his work nothing but straw at the end of his life when confronted with a heavenly vision.

As someone with Italian ethnicity with immigrant parents from Italy, I had to smirk at the beginning of Canto XXV.  First Vanni Fucci makes some sort of obscene hand gesture as he blasphemes God.  It's not clear what the exact hand gesture is or what exactly it means, and Hollander provides some possibilities.  Italians today are known for their hand gestures.  I wonder if Italians in Dante's day also used a lot of hand gestures, and if they were similar.  Probably not similar, though profanity is profanity.

The other thing that catches my eye is the small rant that Dante has against Fucci's town of Pistoia. 

Ah, Pistoia, Pistoia, why won't you resolve
to burn yourself to ashes, cease to be,
since you exceed your ancestors in evil?  (XXV. L. 10-12)

I'm reminded of Brunetto Latini who goes off on a rant on Florence's neighboring town of Fiesole in Canto XV, calling them "blind," "greedy, envious, and proud," and then we see in Canto XXVIII Dante make a snarky comment about the Sienese and French: "Were people ever/quite so fatuous as are the Sienese?/Why, not even the French can match them!" (l. 121-123).  Hollander's note on those lines is worth quoting: "Florentines love to belittle the Sienese; Italians love to belittle the French.  Dante gets two for one."  I haven't noted it elsewhere, but this kind of anti-other city disparagement seems to be throughout the Comedia, or at least in hell.  I'll have to keep my eyes open for it in the other two cantica.  Back when I commented on Latini's smear I thought it was indicative of his character, but perhaps Dante sees this as a norm since he has his persona participate in it, and apparently frequently.  Some of this borders on what we today might call racist.

I wonder how much of this has to do with Italian city-state rivalries.  I know that Florence and Siena were at war frequently.  Italy didn't get unified into a country until 1871, so regions thought of themselves as insular.  Perhaps it's less so today with unification and easy travel and relocation.  But my mother, who is of an older generation and who under most circumstances is a kindly woman, will to this day slander people from different parts Italy, and she does it almost unconsciously.  Sicilians are a common whipping boy of the despised regions.  And I remember my father hating the French!  I don't know if he ever met a French person in his life, but he would malign them.  He said it had to do with being forced to learn French in school, but it went beyond that.  We do that today here with other countries too, especially the French!  Well, we should all be more considerate, but it's curious that someone as noble as Dante participated in this.

And yet Dante creates a whole ditch for the schismatics, the ninth Bolge where the sinners are split open similar with respect to the division they caused in life.  Would Dante belong in this ditch if he were conscious of his sin?  Or is he conscious that his snarky remarks are sinful and there is some underlying meaning to their inclusion?  If there is, I can't quite grasp the meaning.  It would be some sort of irony, but I can't see the greater significance.  The inclusion of Bertram de Born in that twenty-fifth canto is interesting.  He was a French troubadour poet, of which Dante had a fondness for, but Dante apparently believed de Born's  poetry caused division between father and son.  Carrying his severed head de Born is referred to as "two in one and one in two" (l. 125).  One of the commentators points out that this echoes the Trinity, "three in one and one in three."  The echo is clearly meant to be ironic, since the Trinity reflects the unity ("in the unity of the Holy Spirit") of God while de Born is not unified.

de Born's closing line, line 142 and the final line of Canto XXVIII, is of utmost importance.  "Così s'osserva in me lo contrapasso."  Hollander translates it as "In me you may observe fit punishment."  "Contrapasso" or "fit punishment" is what the entire Inferno is based on.  Either the souls choose to be locked into their sin forever, although in a degenerated manner, as in the sins of appetite, or either the souls are forced into a torture as with the sins of volition, they are all fitting punishments.  The notion of contrapasso goes back to Aristotle (contrapossum in Latin), but as Hollander points it goes back to Old Testament retribution, i.e. "taking an eye for an eye." 

I haven't discussed the fascinating sinners of the eighth Bolge, that of false counselors.  I'm going to hold off discussing Guido da Montefeltro (Canto XXVII) until we get to Purgatorio.  His son resides in purgatory and the two make an interesting comparison.  At a minimum I should say that formal repentance without a change of heart doesn't work, even if the Pope absolves your sins.  Since he is so fascinating a case, I will go into a close reading of Ulysses (Canto XXVI) later this week.

I hope you're enjoying this as much as I am.


Canto XXVI with Ulysses residing in the bolge of the false counselors is one of those special cantos that is filled with depth.  It strikes me that there are two levels worth exploring: first on the surface, which pertains to the Ulysses testimony, and second below the surface pertaining how Ulysses resonates to Dante as poet and pilgrim.  But before I get to either, I need to provide context.

1. Context.

As probably pointed out in everyone’s notes, the notion of a false counselor being associated with flame comes from the third chapter of the Letter of James.  Let me quote the entire relevant passage, because even Hollander cuts it short.  I think all six verses from the top of the chapter have relevance.

1 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you realize that we will be judged more strictly, 2 for we all fall short in many respects. If anyone does not fall short in speech, he is a perfect man, able to bridle his whole body also. 3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we also guide their whole bodies. 4 It is the same with ships: even though they are so large and driven by fierce winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot’s inclination wishes. 5 In the same way the tongue is a small member and yet has great pretensions.  Consider how small a fire can set a huge forest ablaze. 6 The tongue is also a fire. It exists among our members as a world of malice, defiling the whole body and setting the entire course of our lives on fire, itself set on fire by Gehenna.  (James 3:1-6)

From the first four verses we see how those that provide information—and I would expand teachers to include counselors—have a responsibility and will be judged “strictly” for what they say.  The fourth verse takes on a nautical metaphor which is particularly germane to the Ulysses story.  “The tongue is also a fire” in that it can inspire and lead, but if it lead toward ill it is a fire that can set the whole forest ablaze.  So we can see the Divine Justice in false counselors eternally bound in a tongue of fire.  Contrast this to the tongue of fire that comes down from heaven from the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  The malevolent tongue spews out from the inside for narcissistic ends while the benevolent tongue is a grace from outside.

More context.  Ulysses and Diomedes, his fellow prisoner in the flame, were the two characters from Greek antiquity who devised the Trojan Horse—an empty shell of a structure which tricked the Trojans and caused the fall of Troy.  Inside the belly of the horse were Greek soldiers and when the Trojans opened their gates to bring in what they was a victory offering, the Greeks came out of the horse and sacked the city.  Now Homer only alludes to that part of the story; it is not in The Iliad.  But Virgil in the Aeneid fills in the story.  Now the Romans always identified with the Trojans and did not have a high opinion of Ulysses, and that perspective filters down through the middle ages.  You can see then how Aeneas, Virgil’s hero, is more in accord with Christian values rather than the trickster, almost Machiavellian Ulysses.  In addition to Ulysses deceit, he abandoned his wife and child (although reluctantly which seems to evade Dante) and took up with many women, especially for nine years with the enchantress Circe.  Contrast that to Aeneas who saved his father and child from the burning Troy and was distraught over failing to save his wife.  Aeneas is a true family man while it could be questionable for Ulysses, and it was questioned in the middle ages.

Perhaps I should also state that Odysseus and Ulysses are one and the same.  Ulysses is the Latin name for the Greek.  Dante comes from the Latin evolved part of the Roman world, and so knows him as Ulysses.

More context.  Ulysses in The Odyssey does find his way home after spending a year with Circe.  But Dante either doesn’t know that part of the story—which I find hard to believe, though that’s what most critics claim—or he re-writes that story with care for the old story.  Dante did not have Homer’s stories in Greek, but had to go by anecdote.  But the return to home is such a big part of the Odyssey that I find it difficult to believe that wasn’t in the known anecdotes.  But I’m not a scholar.  In either case, Dante the author takes on the role of the epic writer and creates his own story of Ulysses after his Circe encounter.

2. Dante’s Re-Write of the Ulysses story. 

So Dante has Ulysses shun going home and go forth on further quest after the Circe encounter.  The flame-entrapped soul speaks of it with his first words.

Then, brandishing its tip this way and that,
as if it were the tongue of fire that spoke,
it brought forth a voice and said: 'When I

'took leave of Circe, who for a year and more
beguiled me there, not far from Gaëta,
before Aeneas gave that name to it,

'not tenderness for a son, nor filial duty
toward my agèd father, nor the love I owed
Penelope that would have made her glad,

'could overcome the fervor that was mine
to gain experience of the world
and learn about man's vices, and his worth.  (XXVI. l. 88-99)

That part about “duty’ to family is particularly meant to contrast Ulysses with Aeneas, and of course undermine him in our Christian eyes.  Particularly disturbing is his motivation to “gain experience of the world/and learn man’s vices.”  Christians don’t learn about vices; we’re supposed to reject them.  And on the ship he lets his tongue of fire motivate his men;

'"O brothers," I said, "who, in the course
of a hundred thousand perils, at last
have reached the west, to such brief wakefulness

'"of our senses as remains to us,
do not deny yourselves the chance to know --
following the sun -- the world where no one lives.

'"Consider how your souls were sown:
you were not made to live like brutes or beasts,
but to pursue virtue and knowledge."

'With this brief speech I had my companions
so ardent for the journey
I could scarce have held them back. (XXVI. l. 112-23)

So Ulysses may be in hell for advocating the deceit of the Trojan Horse, but he is a serial sinner of the sin.  He leads his men to where they shouldn’t go and search for things they shouldn’t know.  Ulysses travels beyond the known world, comes across a mountain that reaches the heavens, and instead of flying up to it, his ship submerges and they all perish. 

Perhaps a note on the geography is warranted.  In Dante’s day it was thought that there was no land below the equator.  The mountain they come across is Dante’s mountain of Purgatory which was supposed to be directly opposite Jerusalem on the globe.  Ulysses potential exploration of that mountain can be seen as a blasphemous endeavor. 

The poetic skill arriving to this should also be noted.  Notice how many flying allusions are interspersed throughout the canto.  Ulysses describes his adventure “as a mad flight” where the oars were turned to wings (l. 125).  So even at the beginning of the canto, previous to meeting Ulysses Dante refers to Florence as having “wings [that] beat over land and sea” (l. 2) and there are references to flies and fireflies in the bolge, and finally an allusion to “Elijah’s chariot taking flight” rising up to heaven.  That of course is a contrast.  Ulysses goes down, not up, and he is not holy like Elijah.

It’s interesting that Diomedes never says a word, and so the pairing seems to be similar to that of Francesca and Paolo in Canto V.  They are forever together to suffer from the knowledge of the sin they committed together.

3. How it resonates with Dante:

Hollander and others point out how similar Dante’s journey and poetic endeavor is similar to Ulysses’ supra-human voyage.  Dante is on a journey through the various parts of the afterlife that no single human being has ever attempted.  He will come out of hell to the other side of the world where Ulysses had traveled by ship and be washed up on the very shores of that island with the purgatorial mountain where Ulysses was capsized.  Dante will actually take flight in Paradise where Ulysses attempts flight with his ship.  His flight of poetic skill is analogous to the Ulysses’ search for knowledge and virtue and fame.  Recall back in the Canto XXIV where Dante is struggling to climb out of the sixth bolge, Virgil motivates him with the promise of fame (l. 49-51).  Is Virgil being a false counselor there like Ulysses urges his men to sail on?  The parallels are striking.  And notice too how in the early lines of the this twenty-sixth canto the pilgrim’s climb is filled with potential plummets into an abyss.

We left that place and, on those stairs
that turned us pale when we came down,
my leader now climbed back and drew me up.

And as we took our solitary way
among the juts and crags of the escarpment,
our feet could not advance without our hands. (XXVI. l. 13-18)

And then later:

Rising to my feet to look, I stood up
on the bridge. Had I not grasped a jutting crag,
I would have fallen in without a shove. (l. 43-45)

Their journey is filled with the same potential plunges as Ulysses finds in his demise.  And then Dante ties that potential plunge with his intellectual powers.

I grieved then and now I grieve again
as my thoughts turn to what I saw,
and more than is my way, I curb my powers

lest they run on where virtue fail to guide them,
so that, if friendly star or something better still
has granted me its boon, I don't misuse the gift.  (l.19-24)

He needs curb his “powers/lest they run on where virtue fail to guide.”  He uses the same word “virtue” as Ulysses uses in line 120, “to pursue virtue and knowledge.”  And it’s not a translation discrepancy; Dante uses the same Italian word, albeit in different grammatical form.  That’s not a coincidence.  Dante in this canto is rivaling Homer and Virgil with his re-write of an epic poem, and we will see in a few cantos further how attempts to surpass the classic poets Ovid and Lucan with his poetic use of metamorphosis.  (This parallel between journey and writing poetry is of course is allegory for those who look for the allegorical connections, but as I’ve said before this would be no different than a metaphorical connection in a modernist work.)  Dante is striving for the highest literary achievement.  

So what is the difference?  Why is Dante’s journey virtuous while Ulysses’ a false virtue?  First, Dante tells us in the conditional phrase modifying his concerning about misusing his gift, “if friendly star or something better still/has granted me its boon.”  “Something better still” is God—or Divine Providence—and the “boon” is another wording for grace.  So God has granted him this gift, but still it doesn’t explain why.  I think we can surmise that Dante is journeying for God’s glory while Ulysses is journeying for his egotistical satisfaction.  The distinction I think is captured with the imagery of Elijah rising in his chariot toward heaven.  Dante thinks of Elijah when he first sees the flames as he enters the seventh bolge:

And as the one who was avenged by bears
could see Elijah's chariot taking flight,
when the horses reared and rose to Heaven,

but made out nothing with his eyes
except the flame alone
ascending like a cloud into the sky (l. 34-39)

Elijah is the prophet who is an apologist for the Judaic God, who hears the God’s “small whisper” in the cave at Horeb, who is truly virtuous in the confrontation with the wicked King Ahab, who I think is the only Old Testament person to be assumed into heaven bodily in a chariot of fire and horses, within the midst of a “whirlwind,” mind you.  A whirlwind drives Ulysses under water, but lifts Elijah to heaven.  Dante too will be lifted into the heavens.  Elijah is righteous, Ulysses is not, and Dante is in a learning experience.  When Dante does rise up into the heavens, his thoughts of fame and knowledge vanish, and like St. Thomas Aquinas who thought of his work as straw when confronted with the heavenly vision, Dante desire for humanly fame and knowledge too will vanish.

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