Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Dante's Inferno

The following is from First Things:

Nothing is more difficult for one who teaches this poem to students than to convince them that all of the damned souls, no matter how attractively they present their own cases, are to be seen as justly damned. The poem creates some of its drama from the tension that exists between the narrator’s view of events (in Inferno often represented by Virgil’s interpretive remarks) and that of the protagonist. What makes our task as readers difficult is that at some pivotal moments neither the narrator nor Virgil offers clear moral judgments. Instead, Dante uses irony to undercut the alluring words of sinners who present themselves as victims rather than as perpetrators of outrage in the eyes of God. Guido da Pisa’s gloss (to Inf. XX, 28–30) puts the matter succinctly: "But the suffering of the damned should move no one to compassion, as the Bible attests. And the reason for this is that the time for mercy is here in this world, while in the world to come there is time only for justice."

If it was John Milton’s task in Paradise Lost to "justify the ways of God to men," Dante before him had taken on the responsibility of showing that all that is found in this world and in the next is measured by justice. Everything in God is just; only in the mortal world of sin and death do we find injustice. And it is small wonder that Dante believes there are only few living in his time who will find salvation (Par. XXXII, 25–27). Words for "justice" and "just" recur frequently in the poem, the noun some thirty–five times, the adjective some thirty–six. If one were asked to epitomize the central concern of the Comedy in a single word, "justice" might represent the best choice.

In the Inferno we see this insistence on God’s justness from the opening lines describing Hell proper, the inscription over the gate of Hell (III, 4): "Giustizia mosse il mio alto fattore" (Justice moved my maker on high). If God is just, there can be absolutely no question concerning the justness of his judgments. All who are condemned to Hell are justly condemned. Thus, when the protagonist feels pity for some of the damned, we are meant to realize that he is at fault for doing so. This is perhaps the most crucial test of us as readers that the poem offers. If we sympathize with the damned, we follow a bad example. In such a view, the protagonist’s at times harsh reaction to various sinners, e.g., Filippo Argenti (canto VIII), Pope Nicholas III (canto XIX), Bocca degli Abati (canto XXXII), is not (even if it seems so to some contemporary readers) a sign of his falling into sinful attitudes himself, but proof of his righteous indignation as he learns to hate sin.

If some readers think that the protagonist is occasionally too zealous in his reactions to sinners, far more are of the opinion that his sympathetic responses to others correspond to those that we ourselves may legitimately feel. To be sure, Francesca da Rimini (canto V) is portrayed more sympathetically than Tha├»s (canto XVIII), Ulysses (canto XXVI) than Mosca dei Lamberti (canto XXVIII), etc. Yet it also seems to some readers that Dante’s treatment of Francesca, Ulysses, and others asks us to put the question of damnation to one side, leaving us to admire their most pleasing human traits in a moral vacuum, as it were.

It is probably better to understand that we are never authorized by the poem to embrace such a view. If we are struck by Francesca’s courteous speech, we note that she is also in the habit of blaming others for her own difficulties; if we admire Farinata’s magnanimity, we also note that his soul contains no room for God; if we are wrung by Pier delle Vigne’s piteous narrative, we also consider that he has totally abandoned his allegiance to God for his belief in the power of his emperor; if we are moved by Brunetto Latini’s devotion to his pupil, we become aware that his view of Dante’s earthly mission has little of religion in it; if we are swept up in enthusiasm for the noble vigor of Ulysses, we eventually understand that he is maniacally egotistical; if we weep for Ugolino’s piteous paternal feelings, we finally understand that he, too, was centrally (and damnably) concerned with himself, even at the expense of his children.

Dante’s innovative but risky technique was to trust us, his readers, with the responsibility for seizing upon the details in the narratives told by these sympathetic sinners in order to condemn them on the evidence that issues from their own mouths. It was indeed, as we can see from the many readers who fail to take note of this evidence, a perilous decision for him to have made. Yet we are given at least two clear indicators of the attitude that should be ours. Twice in Inferno figures from Heaven descend into Hell to further God’s purpose in sending Dante on his mission. Virgil tells of the coming of Beatrice to Limbo. She tells him, in no uncertain terms, that she feels nothing for the tribulations of the damned and cannot be harmed in any way by them or by the destructive agents of the place that contains them (Inf. II, 88–93). All she longs to do is to return to her seat in Paradise (Inf. II, 71). And when the angelic intercessor arrives to open the gates of Dis, slammed shut by the rebellious angels against Virgil, we are told that this benign presence has absolutely no interest in the situation of the damned or even of the living Dante. All he desires is to complete his mission and be done with such things (Inf. IX, 88, 100–103).

Such indicators should point us in the right direction. It is a continuing monument, both to the complexity of Dante’s poem and to some readers’ desire to turn it into a less morally determined text than it ultimately is, that so many of us have such difficulty wrestling with its moral implications. This is not to say that the poem is less because of its complexity, but precisely the opposite. Its greatness is reflected in its rich and full realization of the complicated nature of human behavior and of the difficulty of moral judgment for living mortals. It asks us to learn, as does the protagonist, as we proceed.


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