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

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Dante's Inferno, Cantos XXIV thru XXIX

Continuing on with the summary of Dante's Inferno.  First installment was here. Second installment here. Third installment here.  Fourth installment here.  

As it turns out the bridge of the seventh ditch is also out and so the pilgrims need to make their way through the boulders and terrain.  It’s a struggle for Dante to climb up the upside of the ditch but finally they reached the seventh ditch, that where thieves are placed.  The sinners here are placed to reside with snakes, and in a tour de force of poetic skill Dante describes the metamorphic exchange between the bodies of the sinners with the bodies of the snakes.  And when the exchange is complete, the pilgrims witness the beings burst into flame, be consumed to ashes, and then reconstituted back into the original form, only to go through this cycle for eternity.  They meet a man Dante recognizes from the town of Pistoia, Vanni Fucci, who reveals he is there because he stole religious articles.  Spitefully he tells Dante how his White Guelphs will be routed by the Black in the near future.  (Canto XXIV)

After Vanni Fucci made a profane hand gesture and let out a blasphemous curse, a snake curls around his neck and merges into him.  The pilgrims observe other souls being metamorphosed and scorched, the centaur, Cacus, and then a group of Florentines. Here the metamorphous is described in excruciating detail so that Dante the poet is actually outdoing the poeticism of the Roman poets Lucan and Ovid, who were known for their description of transmutation of beings.  (Canto XXV)

The pilgrims struggle on to make through the terrain of the seventh ditch until they finally reach the eighth, where they see the crevice filled with flickering lights like fireflies.  Here reside the sinners who gave false counsel, forever locked inside of flames just as their tongues on earth were flames.  One particular flame catches Dante’s interest.  It contains the Greek heroes Ulysses and Diomedes from the Trojan War who devised the notion of the Trojan Horse to bring down Troy.  Dante wants to hear their story and Virgil beseeches Ulysses, who tells of his epic quest after the war to gain supreme knowledge.  He tells how with his crew they sailed to other side of the earth to where they came across a mountain that reached the heavens, but then in a whirlwind the ship was flipped under and they all drowned.  (Canto XXVI)

Another flame makes his way toward the pilgrims and this one asks about the recent political developments between the northern Italian cities.  Dante the pilgrim delineates the political status of his day, and asks who the soul inside the flame.  Cunningly he never provides his name but gives enough of his personal bio for us to identify him as Guido de Montefeltro, the Ghibelline captain who was known for his devious strategies.  He tells of how toward the end of his life, he decided to give up being guileful so that he would enter heaven, and so became a Franciscan friar.  But then Pope Boneface VIII, in the middle of a war, called on Guido to provide him with a winning strategy, and he would absolve him of whatever sin he recommended.  Guido told him to lie to trick the enemy, and so it worked.  But when Guido died, despite St. Francis coming for his soul, a demon overruled St. Francis and brought Guido down to hell.  (Canto XXVII)

Having made their way upon the span once again, the pilgrims come to the ninth ditch where those who caused schisms reside.  In perfect divine justice, these souls have their anatomies cleaved apart in some fashion.  These souls forever healed but then re-severed by a demon with a sword.  They meet Mohammed (who apparently Dante believed was once a Christian) split open from the neck to the groin and his son-in-law Ali split from the head to the chin.  They meet an Italian, Pier da Medicina, who’s throat is severed, and others until finally they meet the war poet Bertran de Born who stands with his head severed, held by the hair in his hand.  (Canto XXVIII)

Virgil observes that Dante is lingering overly long in this ditch of the schismatics, and prods him to hurry since their allotted time is approaching.  Dante observes a relative there, Geri del Bello, who is upset with him, and so moves on.  The pilgrims move to the tenth ditch, that of the counterfeiters.  Here the sinners lay about in mortal agony like the dying at a hospital, lamenting from eternal ills such as malaria, plague, and leprosy.  They come to two sinners, Griffolino and Capocchio, sitting on the ground back to back, both forever picking at scabs that cover their skin and speak about their deeds.  (Canto XXIX)

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Comments, Inferno, Cantos XVIII thru XXIII

Some observations about this section.  I think for the first time I finally understood the bridge structure of the Malebolge.  Dante keeps mentioning a bridge for each ditch, and yet they seem to keep walking along.  So I think there is an arched span over each ditch, which constitutes a bridge.  But each bridge butts up against its adjacent neighbor, and so the structure is similar to a causeway span.  There are a number of these causeways that run toward the center, forming a spokes in a wheel structure given that hell is circular.  Also the causeways connect at the center to a circular platform goes around Cocytus, the ninth circle and the heart of hell. 

I have to say that the Malebolge section of hell gives me the willies.  This is the brutal hell we all envision and fear.  When common slang refers to "being medieval," that is filled with torture chambers, this is a perfect example.  It seems to me that the sinners of this section are not here because they want to remain in their sin, even if it exiles them from God, but though they are not repentant in the least,  they do try to escape and get free.  And so the vicious demons are planted there as enforcers of punishment and torture.

There seems to be quite a few allusions to and actual appearances of Franciscan Friars in this section.  In Canto XIX Dante stands beside Pope Nicholas III "like a friar who confesses a treacherous assassin."  In Canto XXII the Navarrese soul, some have identified him as a man named Ciampolo, names Fra Gomita of Gallura as one of the residents of the ditch.  At the very first terza rima of Canto XXIII Dante describes he and Virgil as walking like two "Friars Minor walk along the roads."  Indeed, the pilgrims meet two Franciscans just a little further in that very Canto, Catalano and Loderingo, who in life were Jovial Friars, which are not Franciscans but of the Order of Blessed Virgin Mary.  Still they are friars.  Even the cord that Dante takes off his vestment and drops into the pool that summons (or forms, I can't tell which) Geryon (Canto XVI) suggests a Franciscan vestment. 

So what's going on?  Clearly alluding to Virgil and he as friars and then coming across two friars is meant for us as a comparison.  But what exactly are we to draw from the comparison?  I can't figure it out.  Perhaps he and Virgil are supposed to be honest while the others were frauds?  Perhaps the fair number of allusions to friars (and remember Brunetto said that there were quite a number of clerics and scholars, which I take as Dominican Friars, in his circle.  Now there will be positive friars in Purgatorio and Paradisio, so I don't think Dante is picking on them.  But there does seem to be a fair number of references for friars in hell, and I can't recall a single Benedictine Monk in hell.  There will be monks in heaven; in fact St. Bernard of Clairvaux will be his final guide.  Perhaps it has to do with Dante himself being a Third Order Franciscan, which is the Lay Order of the Franciscans.  Perhaps it has to do with Dante having been taught by the Dominicans as a youth.  Perhaps as a city person he has come in contact with friars much more so than monks, who are usually more detached from society.  Perhaps familiarity gave him knowledge of particular friars and prodded the imagination.

One other thing I'd like to discuss is the state of Pope Nicholas III in Canto XIX in the circle of simony.  Notice the number of inversions that make up for the irony of the punishment.  The sinners there are stuck upside down in what resembles a baptismal font, the very means of Christian initiation.  Their feet are lacquered with oil, which alludes to the anointing chrism placed on the head of the heads of those receiving baptism and holy orders.  Only for the sinners, the oil is on their feet, not their heads.  And their feet are further afflicted with a constant application of flame.  Here too is a Christian inversion.  The Apostles received the Holy Spirit in the form of a fire on their heads, a fire which filled them with inspiration, while these sinners are burned in torment on their feet.  And notice the inversion of roles when Dante goes up to the Nicholas, who can't see him and draws out a confession.  The Pope is confessing to a lay person.

I think it's unfortunate that at the end of Canto XIX Dante goes off on a rant decrying Popes.  He even alludes to the Papacy as the beast in Revelations with seven heads, which I think is a misreading of Revelations.  Protestants call up the same sort of nonsense to rip the Catholic Church.  Still it's sobering to know there have been bad popes, but rest assured there will be some good ones in Paradisio. 

Four Popes were mentioned or alluded to in Canto XIX.  Let me just list them for you with the years of their papacy.  You can look them up if you wish.
Pope Nicholas III, 1277-1280
Pope Celestine V, 1294
Pope Boniface VIII, 1294-1303
Pope Clement V, 1305-1314

I did want to revel in the Malebranche scenes, which start in Canto XXI and extend even into the beginnings of Canto XXIII.  Hollander says that this is the longest extended scene in the entire Comedia.  No other scene actually touches three cantos.  Let’s just enjoy them too, so here is Hollander’s translation of the last third of Canto XXI.  Virgil has assured safe passage he and Dante, and so calls Dante out of his hiding spot.  But the Malebranche are devilishly provocative and constantly instigating.  Let’s start with the feint jab at Dante’s rear and end with the blast from the demon’s rear.

They aimed their hooks, and one said to another:
'How about I nick him on the rump?'
And the other answered: 'Sure, let him have one.'

But the demon who was speaking with my leader
turned round at once and said:
'Easy does it, Scarmiglione!'

And then to us: 'You can't continue farther
down this ridge, for the sixth arch
lies broken into pieces at the bottom.

'If you desire to continue on,
then make your way along this rocky ledge.
Nearby's another crag that yields a passage.

'Yesterday, at a time five hours from now,
it was a thousand two hundred sixty-six years
since the road down here was broken.

'I'm sending some men of mine along that way
to see if anyone is out to take the air.
Go with them -- they won't hurt you.'

'Step forward, Alichino, Calcabrina,'
he continued, 'and you Cagnazzo,
and let Barbariccia lead the squad.

'Let Libicocco come too, and Draghignazzo,
Ciriatto with his tusks, and Graffiacane,
Farfarello, and madcap Rubicante.

'Have a good look around the boiling glue.
Keep these two safe as far as the next crag
that runs all of a piece above the dens.'

'Oh, master,' I said, 'I don't like what I see.
Please, let us find our way without an escort,
if you know how. As for me, I do not want one.

'If you are as vigilant as ever,
don't you see they grind their teeth
while with their furrowed brows they threaten harm?'

And he to me: 'Don't be afraid.
Let them grind on to their hearts' content --
they do it for the stewing wretches.'

Off they set along the left-hand bank,
but first each pressed his tongue between his teeth
to blow a signal to their leader,
and he had made a trumpet of his asshole. (XXI. l. 100-139)

LOL, their salute is a razz with their tongues, and his commanding bugle blow is a fart.  This is farcical, low comedy.  Hollander points out that Italian critic Gian Roberto Saroli identifies these sounds as the only musical notes in all of hell.  Paradisio is filled with music, and I recall that Purgatorio too has hymns, but hell has razzes and farts for music.  Malacoda, the leader, tells his minions to guide them so no one will hurt them and to keep them safe. Yeah sure.  They are going to anticipate the pilgrims fouling up. 

But look at how Dante the author goes to such an extent to name the demons.  Scarmiglione, Alichino, Calcabrina, Cagnazzo, Barbaricci, Libicocco, Draghignazzo, Ciriatto, Graffiacane, Farfarello, and Rubicante.  To really appreciate it, you have to hear it in Italian with its long drawn out vowels.  I have had the good fortune of being Caaaahl-caaah-bree-na, Baah-baah-ree-zioh, Leee-beee-coooh-coh, Farrr-faah-reee-loh, Ruuu-bee-cahn-teh.  Hollander is spot on in keeping the names in Italian.  Esolen in his translation makes a huge mistake in my opinion by translating the names into English.  Dante is taking joy in the creative sounds of his Italian.  But we also should note in what the names mean.  Here’s how Esolen translates them.
Malacoda – Eviltail; Scarmiglione – Crumplehead; Alichino – Tramplefrost; Calcabrina – Harlequin; Cagnazzo – Larddog; Barbaricci – Curlybeard; Libicocco – Stormbreath; Draghignazzo – Dragonsnout; Ciriatto – Swinetooth; Graffiacane – Dogscratcher; Farfarello – Gobgoblin; Rubicante – Redfroth.  Somehow, the English doesn’t have the same comedic vigor.

Notice in the next canto how the Malebranche handle the one sinner who tries to rise out ot the pitch. 

On we went, escorted by ten demons.
What savage company! But, as they say,
'in church with saints, with guzzlers in the tavern.'

My attention was fixed upon the pitch
to note each detail of this gulch
and of the people poaching in it.

Like dolphins, when they arch their backs
above the water, giving sailors warning
to prepare to save their ship,

so from time to time, to ease his pain,
one of the sinners would show his back
and, quick as lightning, hide it once again.

And just as in a ditch at water's edge
frogs squat with but their snouts in sight,
their bodies and their legs all hidden,

so were the sinners scattered everywhere.
But they, at the approach of Barbariccia,
withdrew back down beneath the boiling.

There I saw -- and my heart still shudders at it --
one who lingered, as it can happen
that one frog stays while yet another plunges,

and Graffiacane, who was nearest him,
caught a billhook in his pitchy locks
and hauled him out, looking like an otter.

By now I knew their names,
since I had noted these when they were chosen
and when they called to one another.

'Set your claws to work, Rubicante,
see you rip his skin off,'
shouted all the accursèd crew together.  (XXII. l. 13-42)

The Malebranche are walking along menacingly, looking at the frog-like sinners submerged beneath the pitch when Grafficane hauls one up by the hair – like he’s pulling out an creature from a lake and tells Rubicante to set his claws to rip the sinner’s skin off.  But it’s Ciriatto who rips at him and Barbiriccia who wants to get into the action by crying out, “Stand back and let me jab him.”  But it’s Libicoco who gets pride of place.

Then Libicocco said: 'This is just too much,'
caught him with his grapple by the arm
and, ripping, gouged out a hunk of flesh. (XXII. l. 70-72)

They’re all fighting over each other to get the prime cut.  This and the closing vignette of the canto where the two demons fight with each other and in doing so both fall into the boiling pitch and get burnt to a crisp border on slapstick.  From what I understand, the medieval plays that featured demons all portrayed the demons as bumbling torturers or stumbling cops.  Dante is continuing a tradition, but he just seems to love the art of it.  This may be the funniest scene of the entire Comedia..  

Friday, February 23, 2018

Faith Filled Friday: Dr. Jérôme Lejeune

With the horror of aborting those innocent little ones simply because they have Downs Syndrome, I offer this quote I came by Magnificat (Feb 2018) by the discoverer of the chromosome abnormality that causes it, Dr. Jérôme Lejeune.  I take the quote from Anthony Esloen’s article there titled, “The Least of These.”

For millennia, medicine has striven to fight for life and health and disease and death.  Any reversal of the order of these terms of reference would entirely change medicine itself. 
         ~ Jérôme Lejeune

Without question his discovery of the Trisomy 21 abnormality should have warranted a Nobel Prize in Medicine.  But when he spoke out against the horrific practice of using his detection method for identifying and then aborting Downs Syndrome children, he went on to say to his wife, “Today I lost the Nobel Prize.”  And that is exactly what happened.

Dr. Lejeune was a French Catholic, most definitely pro-life, and has been recognized as a Servant of God by the Church.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Dante's Inferno, Cantos XVIII thru XXIII

Continuing on with the summary of Dante's Inferno.  First installment was here. Second installment here. Third installment here.  

Having landed in Malebolge, Dante describes its structure as having ten concentric ditches or pockets, each for a different sin type of fraud.  Horned demons, stationed at each ditch, prevent the souls from escaping through harsh weapons and violence.  The ditches are connected by a series of bridges running toward the center.  The first ditch belongs to the pimps and seducers, where the sinners are whipped and where the pilgrims meet a Bolognese man who pimped sister and Jason the Argonaut, who in his adventures had seduced several women.  In the second ditch, the residence for flatterers, submerged in human excrement, the pilgrims meet a man from Lucca and Thais from classical literature.  (Canto XVIII)

The pilgrims come to the third ditch, where those who have sinned of simony.  Here the sinners are placed upside down in a hole that resembles a baptismal font, where only their legs stick up outside and the bottoms of their feet are flicked with flame.  This piques Dante's curiosity from above on the bridge and Virgil offers to take him down.  On the ground Dante stops to talk to one sinner, who submerged can't see who Dante is but confuses him with Pope Boniface VIII, who is expected to replace him by pushing him further down into the ground.  The sinner turns out to be a previous Pope, Nicholas III, who speaks of his sin.  Dante then rants against him telling him how all such Popes have made the world worse by their greed.  (Canto XIX)

They come to the fourth ditch, for sinners who have tried to divine the future.  Here the souls are twisted so that their heads face their back, forced ironically to walk with their heads backwards, and tears flow from their eyes and drip into their buttocks.  Virgil points out a number of sinners, but elaborates on a woman named Manto, a soothsayer, who was the legendary founder of Virgil's home city of Mantua.  In describing how Manto founded the city, Virgil gives a loving description of the natural milieu, suggestive of the poet's lyric poetry and offers a contrast to the hideous and repulsive nature of hell.  More sinners are identified and the pilgrims move on.  (Canto XX)

The pilgrims enter the fifth ditch, where those who committed barratry and other grafters reside.  The ditch is filled with boiling tar in which the sinners submerged.  A squad of demons with grappling hooks jab and carve the sinners if they try to rise up.  One demon has just arrived with a new resident, carrying him on his shoulder like a side of meat.  Virgil has Dante hide while he engages the demon, and tells him when demon is about to hook him that he's is there by the will of God.  The demon relents, Virgil has Dante come out, and the squad gathers threateningly around them.  They will let them go, but the demon tells them the next bridge is down and they will have to take a circuitous route onward.  They move on but Dante is afraid as the demons follow behind.  The squad gathers before their leader for a salute, and the leader acknowledges with a fart for a trumpet sound.  (Canto XXI)

Still in the fifth ditch the pilgrims look down into the pitch and see the sinners' nostril's as if they were frogs beneath the surface of a pond.  They scatter when the demons pass by except for one, and one of the demons grab him by the head and lift him out.  The pilgrims wish to talk to him and find out he's from Navarre, someone who had worked for the king and took bribes.  The demons slash at his being, ripping flesh off him.  He tells the pilgrims about others that reside there, and he plays a trick on the demons by leaping off to escape them.  Two of them chase him, argue and brawl, and fall themselves into the boiling tar.  While the other demons try to pull them out, the pilgrims run ahead.  (Canto XXII)

The pilgrims make an escape from the Malebranche by climbing and sliding down the back that separates the ditches, with Virgil holding Dante in his arms.  They make it over to the sixth ditch just in time as the squad of demons reach the edge of their ditch and can go no further.  The sixth ditch is where the hypocrites reside, painted souls who wear glittery vestments but filled with lead inside so that it wears them down.  They meet a pair of friars who walk and talk with them, reaching a soul staked in a crucified position on the ground.  We learn he is Caiaphus, the Jewish high priest who contrived to have Jesus crucified.  The pilgrims ask for directions to move to the next ditch and find out the Malebranche lied about the bridge being out.  (Canto XXIII)

Sunday, February 18, 2018

An Interview with Rod Dreher on Dante’s Divine Comedy

I was thrilled to find that at Discerning Hearts website, Kris McGregor in a podcast interviewed Rod Dreher on his book, How Dante Can Save Your Life:The Life-Changing Wisdom of History's Greatest Poem which is a personal memoir on how Rod found himself in a similar dark place that Dante finds himself, and how reading Dante’s great work pulled him out of his dark place to find God’s grace.  It’s a wonderful interview.

I have not read Rod’s book, but I’m getting it.  Right now it's only 99 cents on Kindle, so it's a great bargain.  You can find it on Amazon here. 

Here is the inteview.  It won't embed, so you'll have to go here.  

Rod leaves the interview with a really great quote, worthy of a Notable Quote entry. 

“If you surrender yourself to Dante, he will show you to the Lord.”

Discerning Hearts is such a great web site.  If you’re Catholic it should be a go to place for great podcasts, prayers, and meditations.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Comments, Inferno, Cantos XII thru XVII

I wanted to do a close reading of Canto XV, the one with Brunetto.  There are certain Cantos that Dante himself seems to highlight as important, and when a single character dominates a particular Canto as in XV, then surely this is an important one.  Brunetto Latini was a poet, scholar, and politician in Florence, and was part of the poet movement called the Dolce Stil Novo, which means in the new sweet style.  Dante was a member as was the Guido Cavalcanti, whose father we met in Canto X.  Brunetto appears to be a good generation older than the other poets in the movement, and so is a father figure for Dante.  One wonders what Dante's relationship with his father was since he is never mentioned in his work, but there are numerous father figures right here in the Comedia.  Virgil is one, and there is an interesting disconnect between Latini and Virgil in this canto, which I'll get to.

Latini, though, was more than a father figure; he was Dante's official guardian when Dante's father died when Dante was eighteen years old.  Dante's mother died when he was nine, and it just now occurs to me that those were the same two years Dante claimed to have met Beatrice, when he was nine and when he was eighteen.  Dante was also married at eighteen (to Gemma Donati), but apparently that marriage had been arranged when Dante was twelve.  It seems that Latini was around for some of Dante's key moments in his life.  Brunetto was also a Guelph, a polished orator, and a notary, which gives him the title of "ser."  He was certainly respected and honored.  He died in 1294 when Dante was roughly 29.  His tomb is still at the Santa Maria Maggiore Church in Florence.

That Dante honors Brunetto in Canto XV is without doubt.  But Dante places Brunetto, (a) in hell, and (b) in the circle for homosexuals or sodomites.  Hollander points out that there is some dispute as to what the sin is here in Cantos XV and XVI, but he is sure that it is sexual in nature (the punishment requires constant moving, which happens with the other sexual sins) and involves some perversion that would offend God.  What is interesting is that there is no mention or suggestion in the history of Latini being homosexual, so unless it failed to make the history somehow, this is strictly based on Dante's personal knowledge.  Latini was married and had children.  

So let's take a closer look at the text.  Before actually meeting Brunetto, the pilgrims see a group of souls walking toward them.  The fact that the souls are in a group also suggests some sort of sexual sin.  Most of the souls in Inferno are isolated, but Francesca and Paolo (Canto V) were together.  The fact that they are together and unable to ever consummate their sexual desires is apparently part of the punishment.  The souls observe the pilgrims, and Dante gives one of his great similes, actually a double simile:

Here we met a troop of souls
coming up along the bank, and each one
gazed at us as men at dusk will sometimes do,

eyeing one another under the new moon.
They peered at us with knitted brows
like an old tailor at his needle's eye. (XV. l. 16-21)

Such a beautiful nuanced description, trying to distinguish someone as one does at night in the dark.  Hollander thinks that use of eyeing at night under the moon is an allusion to homosexual "cruising." I find that a little farfetched, but Hollander knows the medieval, Florentine culture better than I would.  I find the second simile more interesting, squinting as a tailor threading a needle.  That to me suggests the parable about it being harder to get to heaven than a camel passing through the eye of a needle (Matt 19:23-26).  And how appropriate that is for Brunetto!

The next thing that catches my attention is the relative position of the Dante and Brunetto throughout the Canto.  Dante and Virgil are walking on an elevated bank to avoid stepping onto the burning sand; Brunetto on the sand, lower in height.  It is not noted what the difference is in elevation but we see Brunetto grasp the hem of Dante's garment and Dante reaches down to touch Brunetto's face.  This suggests either or both that Brunneto is fallen or that Dante has become the greater artist.  That moment of recognition is one of the great moments of Inferno, and should be quoted:

Thus scrutinized by such a company,
I was known to one of them who caught me
by the hem and then cried out, 'What a wonder!'

And while he held his arm outstretched to me,
I fixed my eyes on his scorched face
until beneath the charred disfigurement

I could discern the features that I knew
and, lowering my hand toward his face,
asked: 'Are You here, Ser Brunetto?' (XV. L. 22-30)

The fact that they touch is most noteworthy, especially since it's an affectionate touch.  I don't recall Dante touching any other sinner in hell, and the fact that Brunetto's expressive "What a wonder!" is also noteworthy.  Many sinners identify Dante as oddly alive in hell, but only Brunetto finds wonder in it.  The Italian is "maravilglia" or literally marvel.  To acknowledge wonder is first a sign of intellect but also a sign of a mind that accepts mystery, even the mystery of God.  No other sinner in hell I think comes this close to faith, which shows you the love Dante has for him, and perhaps the tragedy of his fate.  It should be noted that Dante the poet rhymes "Brunetto" two lines above with "ntellectto" or "intellect."  And that's not a coincidence.  But Dante the character gasps (that's the way I would read it) in shock "'Are You here, Ser Brunetto?"  Note the respectful title, even though the man was familiar and like a father to him.  

Note too how twice Brunetto calls Dante "son" and Dante the character refers to him as "paternal" (l. 83).  Given the disparity in elevation, as they walk Dante bows his head "like one who walks in reverence" (l. 45).  And they talk.  Brunetto tells Dante to "follow [his] star" and that Dante will be "glorious" with his work.  Now here I think we get the first sign of a sinful nature.  Even though Brunetto is now in hell, he doesn't talk about Dante saving his soul but about fame and glory, which I think shows a self-centered pride.  Certainly had he lived longer, he says, he would have helped Dante reach his fame.  And then he goes into a rant about how the crowd from the neighboring town of Fiesole will become Dante's enemy, and he roots the Fiesole enmity in history to Roman times.  I found that rather odd, I don't know what to make of it.  Brunetto also uses an agricultural metaphor: the Fiesolans are a bitter fruit ("sorbs") where Dante is a "sweet fig" (l. 65-66).  And he continues on with the metaphor:

'Let the Fiesolan beasts make forage
of themselves but spare the plant,
if on their dung-heap any still springs up,

'the plant in which lives on the holy seed
of those few Romans who remained
when it became the home of so much malice.' (XV. l. 73-78)

In today's parlance that is sort of racist language, but I'm not sure how to read it in the context of Dante's day.  The significance I think is that it's exclusionary rather than community building, and so shows a lack of charitable love.  But according to his Wikipedia entry, one of the things Latini had accomplished in his political life was a "temporary reconciliation between the Guelph and Ghibelline parties," which strains against how Dante portrays him.  Does Dante know him better than his public image?  Perhaps.

Dante laments when he recalls Brunetto's paternal image and that he "taught me how man makes himself immortal" (l. 85).  Now that should be taken as a line of irony, given that Brunetto is forever in hell.  Dante goes on to tell Brunetto of a lady that is linked to his destiny, never mentioning Beatrice's name, and that he is ready for his destiny.  And here Virgil, who does not say a single line in this canto, enigmatically says, "He listens well who takes in what he hears" (l. 99).  I'm not sure what Virgil is specifically referring to, but Hollander believes it's a caution for Dante.  But a caution for what?  Dante should be listening to the negative implications of Brunetto's words?  

But the two go on talking, and Dante asks who Brunetto's are companions, and Brunetto mentions they are all great and famous scholars but all "befouled/in the world above by a single sin" (l. 107-8).  He tells Dante "had [he]/a hankering for such filth" he might have joined the company.  So poor Ser Brunetto was done in for a single sin, "hankering" suggesting compulsion.  But that's in English but I can't speak to the suggestiveness of the Italian.  

The conversation concludes with Brunetto asking Dante to remember his work Tesoro (which means Treasure) and Dante noting it down in the Canto has immortalized it.  Finally we see Brunetto run off "like one/who races for the green cloth on the plain/beyond Verona" (l. 121-3).  That's apparently a reference to a race that was held in Verona where the runners ran naked over the course but the winner got to wear a green cloth while the losers were left to be embarrassed in their nudity.  But ironically Brunetto trails his companions, so he is more the loser.  What a wonderful and complicated character and scene.  


I promised Leslie I would explain why Virgil is the main guide for Dante.  And given that I just discussed Brunetto Latini, who under some circumstances might have made a sensible choice for a guide, I think this is a good place to explain it.  Leslie asked:

Why did Dante not choose a saint to greet him and instruct him? Why not an archangel? I think I'd like to see Saint Michael after so much garbage in my lifetime, but perhaps he must move up the ranks to merit even a saint's presence.

It's a very good question Leslie I think Virgil makes the most perfect choice when you consider all the themes that Dante is striving to express.  First, let me stipulate, Virgil is not the only guide throughout the Cantica.  He is the first guide, and we are told in the second Canto of Inferno that Beatrice selects Virgil to assist Dante because Virgil has "polished words (II. l. 67) and that she is "trusting to the noble speech that honors [him] and those who paid it heed" (l. 113-4).  So she trusts in Virgil's reputation as a great poet and speaker.  It's not clear exactly why she doesn't come down herself, but perhaps implied there is a suggestion that Dante, who reveres Virgil as the greatest poet, will listen to him.  

Now of course, that's just the narrative rational, but why does Dante the author select Virgil.  He could have created a similar rationale for another guide.  For those that may not know, Virgil is the guide throughout the Inferno and through the first twenty-nine of the thirty-three cantos in Purgatorio.  So it's almost two thirds of the entire Divine Comedy.  At the thirtieth Canto of Purgatorio, Beatrice takes over as guide because Virgil as pagan, cannot enter heaven.  Beatrice guides Dante through most of heaven except at the very core where the Blessed Mother and the Trinity reside.  From there Bernard of Clairvaux takes over as guide for the final few Cantos of Paradisio.  I can't recall the rationale for why Beatrice has to give over to St. Bernard (I'm admittingly weak on the Paradisio) but we'll explore it when we get to it.  But for structural purposes you can see Dante the author creating another triplet analogue.

So why Virgil?  Remember the three main themes of the Comedia: the conforming to God's will, the creation of a proper civic polity, and the creation of a poetic style that is reflects God's beauty.  

I think the theme on poetic style is the most obvious link to Virgil.  He was the greatest known poet in the Latin speaking world.  Dante had no firsthand knowledge of Homer.  We'll see that later in Inferno where we will come across the Homeric character of Ulysses (the Latin name for Odysseus) placed in hell.  Dante seems to get parts of the Ulysses story incorrect.  Of the Latin poets, Virgil makes the most sense for a number of reasons.  In his Aeneid, the central character Aeneas also travels down to hell and encounters a justice based system of punishments and deceased souls.  So Dante is clearly drawing from Virgil anyway.  Dante honors a number of poets throughout the work, especially in Purgatorio where he honors a number of Italian poets, but Virgil is clearly the most the model Dante believes offers an aesthetic link to his work.
Virgil is also the perfect poet to accentuate the theme of creating a proper civic polity.  The central theme of Virgil's Aeneid is the struggle and values needed to create the Roman people, which led to the formation of the Roman Empire, to Dante the greatest governing body ever, and a justification and model for the Holy Roman Empire and how it should be run.  Aeneas, as Virgil constructs the narrative, is known as the forefather of Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome.  In contrast to Rome Dante provides so many characters and scenes of people from the Florentine polity and government.  At this point in Inferno (midway) other than the mention to King Frederick II, we haven't gotten many allusions to the Holy Roman Empire, but more will follow.  There will also be more allusions to ancient Roman Empire.

Finally you would think Virgil wouldn't fit the religious theme of conforming to God's will, but here too Virgil turns out to be the perfect selection.  Aeneas, the central character of the Aeneid, is also a devout believer and practitioner of his faith in the Roman gods.  He is known as pius Aeneas, where piety is of the foremost importance to his character.  Self-sacrifice is what he must repeatedly do in the Aeneid to accomplish the will of the gods to found Rome.  He saves his father from death when the Greeks sack Troy, carrying him on his shoulders as the city burns and later gives up his fleshly love for Dido to go on to reach the Latin people.  Of all the characters to come out of classical literature, he is the most devout.  In addition, Virgil in the medieval world was known as a precursor to Christianity.  His other works show a love for a life of simplicity and faith.  In one of his poems (Eclogues IV) he describes the birth of a boy child who will bring glory.  People in the middle ages associated the child with Christ.

There are probably a few other reasons on why Virgil.  He spans back to the ancient world, and dante wants to show a continuum with the classical.  Virgil is a Latin poet, and so the forerunner of Italian, and Dante's choice to pick the vernacular Italian contrasts with Virgil's Latin.  There are probably more reasons but I think those are enough. 

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Dante's Inferno, Cantos XII thru XVII

Continuing on with the summary of Dante's Inferno.  First installment was here. Second installment here.  

The pilgrims enter the seventh circle, where the souls are punished for their acts of violence.  The Minotaur guards the entrance, and after a stern rebuke from Virgil, lets them in.  The seventh circle is divided into three circlets, each for a different form of violence.  The first is for those who committed violence against others, and it’s protected by the Centaurs.  The circlet is mostly made up of the river Phlegeton, a boiling stream colored red by the blood of the sinners forever feeding the stream.  After some discussion, the Centaurs agree to carry Dante and Virgil across.  (Canto XII)

Across the river, the pilgrims are dropped into the second circlet, a dark forest where the suicides reside, those who did violence on themselves.  The souls of the suicides have here been transformed into trees and shrubbery, forever to be broken and munched on by the Harpies.  Virgil tells Dante to break a twig off a tree, and so they encounter a soul who is never named but can be identified as Pier della Vigna, a fellow poet and a minister to the Emperor Frederick II.  Further the pilgrims meet two other souls who in life did not commit suicide but destroyed their material possessions.  These two souls are being chased by dogs who shred them with their teeth.  (Canto XIII)

The pilgrims reach the final circlet, a barren field of burning sand where flames fall down from the sky like snowflakes.  Here is the third section of the circle of violence, those who did violence against God.  The pilgrims only walk on the safe edge of the burning sand since the sand would destroy Dante’s feet.  The barren field is also divided into sections for different types of sinners against God, and here first is that of the blasphemers.  They meet the ancient Theban King who in his victory boasted he was greater than Jupiter himself.  Finally the pilgrims come to a waterfall where they stop and Virgil explains the geography of the rivers in hell and how their source is up above on earth.  (Canto XIV)

The pilgrims continue on a road within the barren field and come across a group of souls forever forced to run on the field.  Here the sin of sodomy is punished, and to Dante’s shock he comes across his beloved teacher and model for one who combines the poetic life with the life of political leadership, Ser Brunetto Latini.  Dante and Brunetto have perhaps the most gentile and affectionate conversation of any Dante has in hell, which shows just how much Dante loved him.  They discuss the wickedness of Florentine politics and Dante’s career as a man of letters.  Dante asks who else is there with Brunetto, and he says mostly other clerics and poets.  (Canto XV)

The pilgrims continue on on the field and come across another group of sodomites, these being famous Florentine politicians and soldiers.  All three he meets were former Guelphs and Dante feels a connection so strong with this group he nearly jumps in with them.  But the pilgrims move on and they come to a waterfalls that drops down deep into the pit.  Virgil has Dante unstrap his vestment cord, hand it to Virgil, and Virgil flings it into the stream.  Rising from the stream as if it were the cord transformed was a serpentine monster.  (Canto XVI)

The beast turns out to be the three parted creature from Greek mythology, Geryon, a monster that was part man, part serpent, and part bird.  While Virgil tries to command Geryon for their use, Dante goes to examine the last type of sinners in the section of those who did violence to God, this being the usurers.  While the sodomites were destined to be in forever motion, the usurers are destined to be forever sedentary.  When Dante returns to Virgil, he finds his guide on Geryon’s back, and Dante hops on.  They will use Geryon to descend down to the eighth circle, which is now too steep to descend on foot.  (Canto XVII)

Sunday, February 11, 2018

My 2018 Plans

Given I can no longer plan with any certainty what I plan to read, I don’t know if outlining my plans make sense.  Maybe I should post separate this into two halves, the half I know what I will read and the half I would like to get to read if I may.  The problem is I don’t know how many I can list with any confidence that I know I will read.  Of course this all has to do with me taking on the role of moderator at the Goodreads Catholic Thought Book Club.  Books are nominated and put to a vote and chosen by the entire club.  But let’s try it. 

Books I know I am pretty sure I will read.

(1) From Islam to Christ: One Woman’s Path through the Riddles of God by Derya Little.  I know for sure this book will be read because I have already read it!  It’s a wonderful coming of age memoir about a Turkish girl who grew up Muslim, became an atheist, had a conversion experience to Christianity, and then through her research and learning found the fullnesst of Christianity in the Roman Catholic faith.  It’s a great story and I will certainly post something on it shortly.  In the meantime, I highly recommend it. 

(2) Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, but this is going to count as six books since I will be reading all three parts, Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradisio, and I am reading two different translations, the Robert and Jean Hollander translation and the Anthony Esolen translation.  Again I’m pretty certain to to complete these.  It’s been picked for the book club and we’re doing Inferno now as you can see by my recent posts.  We will break after Inferno for other Catholic reads, return to Purgatorio I estimate around May or June, break again, and return for Paradisio by around September or October.  If you want to join in, either read along and comment on my blog, or join the book club.  It’s free.

(3) I’m going to squeeze in the next volume of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, which will be the fourth volume, which is called, “The Idyll in the Rue Plumet and the Epic in the Rue St. Denis.” 

(4) I’ll try to complete some of the ones I didn’t complete last year.  The Virgin and the Gipsy, a short novel by D. H. Lawrence should be a fast read once I get a week to concentrate on it.

(5) Another started last year but not finished was Hildegard of Bingen: Selected Writings, a collection of the saint’s writings translated and edited by Mark Atherton.

(6) I’ve started a gorgeous book on the life and art of the early Renaissance painter, Fra Angelico, simply titled Fra Angelico by Laurence Cantor and  Pia Palladino.  I will post on some of the paintings as well.

(7) I just purchased and have read more than a third of a short devotional, The Way of the Cross by Caryll Houselander.  It’s one of my reads for Lent.  I’ll have to see what the book club chooses. 

(8) My poetry read this year will be The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot’s Contemporary Prose: Second Edition by T. S. Eliot and edited by Lawrence Rainey.  I will post my thoughts on all five sections of the great poem.

(9) Biblical reads will Isaiah in Old Testament, and the Letter to the Hebrews, and the Letters of James, First and Second Peter, and if I have time the three letters of John and the Book of Revelations.  This year I will read all Biblical texts in both KJV and Ignatius translations.

(10) Of course the short stories, which will get picked mostly on impulse.  I only did eighteen last year but I will strive for my usual two per month.

(11) I’m reading The Chronicles of Narnia books with Matthew and so I hope to include one or two in this year’s read.  I’m actually well into the first of the series, The Magician's Nephew.  I’ve never read them, and what a joy it is so far.

Books I hope to get to:

(1) Three years ago I had started the tetralogy (a series of four) Parades End by Ford Madox Ford.  I had read the first two books in the series and I was supposed to read the third last year.  I did not get to it.  I really hope to get to it this year.  The third in the series is titled, A Man Could Stand Up —. 

(2) I really want to continue through a few books from French literature.  On my list for a very long time is Stendhal’s The Red and the Black.

(3) I want to read the recent Nobel Prize’s winner, Kazuo Ishiguro’s great novel, The Remains of the Day.”

(4) I really would like to read something by Alice McDermott and her most highly acclaimed work is Charming Billy. 

(5) I started Shakespeare’s trilogy of the Henry VI plays, so if I can I would like to read Part II and Part II.

(6) If I can persuade the book club to pick Pensées, by Blaise Pascal it would add to my French literature and to Catholic great works. 

Well, I know I’m not going to get to all that.  But one can only hope!