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Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Fall 2005)
  One Last Look at Imaginary Worlds
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  Stepping Through Dante's Inferno: Cantos 10-34
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ENG Q20: Basic Writing

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Stepping through Dante’s Inferno
Cantos 10-34

PRINTER FRIENDLY NOTES


Stepping Through Dante's Inferno: Cantos 1-10
 
Canto 10
  • Virgil has been demoralized by his failure before the gate of Dis; Dante isn’t too happy with him either.  At the beginning of this canto, Dante is really sarcastic as when he addresses Virgil, “O matchless power…who lead me through evil’s circles at your will…”  There’s a serious rift between them; Dante flatters him ironically, sarcastically; they are both being slightly or largely dishonest with one another.  Virgil is literally and physically pushing Dante around at the beginning of the canto.  What will restore them?  The interaction with Farinata in Circle 6 (the heretics) seems to smooth the ruffled feathers.  Why might this be?
  • Francesca was the challenge to understanding and judgment in Canto 5, and Farinata poses the same kind of challenge here. Farinata is a heretic because he’s been a follower of the Greek philosopher, Epicurus, who denied the existence of the “eternal soul”—his teaching was that when the body dies, the spirit dies with it.  Virgil explains where they are, but you can tell he’s miffed by the way he accuses Dante of being dishonest about his thoughts.  What do you suppose is the “secret wish” Virgil refers to when he accuses Dante of holding back his real thoughts?  And how does Virgil know about it?  Is he being perceptive, reading Dante’s cues, or is really inside Dante’s mind?  Does it seem as though, slowly, as Dante gains strength and grows more clear-headed that Virgil is able to practically read his mind?  Dante’s reply is edgy and evasive.  He tells Virgil it’s not that he isn’t speaking his mind and revealing his heart, just that he’s trying to be quiet as Virgil has instructed him.  Does that mean he has no secret wish, or that he’s keeping it to himself because Virgil told him to be quiet and observe back in Canto III?  Pretty ambiguous.  
  • When Farinata enters the scene he addresses Dante as a fellow countryman, flattering him about his “courteous speech”—which is as ironic (though probably not sarcastic) as was when Dante flattered Virgil, since Dante hasn’t been courteous to Virgil but secretive and evasive.  On the other hand, Farinata does recognize Dante’s “noble” Tuscan dialect; they are countrymen.  This direct recognition seems to startle Dante and he shrinks back towards Virgil, who pushes him away!!
  • Farinata’s first speech acknowledges that he “possibly” has  brought “excessive harm” to Florence.  Is this an admission of guilt, or a polite gesture?  Dante’s first description of Farinata is of a man so proud that he “seemed by how he bore his chest and brow/To have great scorn for Hell” (lines 32-33).  Does such a proud figure as this ever actually admit guilt about anything?  It seems to be more of a pretense.  The image of this kind of pride surviving even in Hell is unforgettable for many readers, who view Farinata, along with Francesca in Canto 5 to be ambiguously sympathetic characters.  Farinata has an impenetrable “dignity” that the Inferno cannot defeat, just as Francesca and Paolo are inexhaustible in love.  There’s no question that these dynamic portraits reveal Francesca and Farinata’s enduring humanity—that is Dante’s gift throughout this entire book; yet I’m with the readers who feel more scorn than approval.  I see Dante cleverly, brilliantly exposing the seductress in Canto 5, and the haughty political warrior here.  And yet in both cases, Dante maintains a high level of sympathy—he understands what he has in common with these characters, how he has himself (either in the past or the present) fallen into the same pit of error.  It is his encounters with these contemporaries that leave him the most deeply shaken and changed; in them he most easily recognizes himself, his own failings.  Meeting Francesca shows Dante how his participation as a leading poet in the lyrical tradition of courtly love, a kind of “religion” with its own ethical codes and its own “truth,” has been in error, off the “straight path.  Farinata and Calvalcanti show him how narrow and meaningless political and even family ties can be—the only tie that really matters is our common humanity, and when we allow our partisan politics to obliterate our awareness of the big picture, we’re in trouble.
  • Farinata “pierces” Dante with his “proud gaze.”  You can feel, along with Dante, the arrogance and snobbery radiating from his stare.  His first question, “Who were your ancestors?” has all the warmth of a champion breeder questioning a mutt’s pedigree.  Dante “conceals nothing,” verbally flashing his family crest; he’s ready to spar.  Farinata’s response is a boast, but Dante’s counter-boast is a thrust.  Their joust is interrupted by the appearance of Calvalcanti, who is anxious to hear news of his son.  Notice that both Farinata and Calvalcanti are driven to address Dante because of his connection to home, to their life on earth.  They have no other mental orientation; even in the afterlife, all they care about is home.  Imagining his son dead, Calvalcanti bemoans his loss of the “sweet light” of being alive.  Farinata had also been driven to address Dante because of his connection to Florence.  
  • While Farinata is still making excuses for himself, insisting on respect for the fact that he alone refused to “level Florence” when his party had gained political and military victory.  Dante seems to respond to this argument; it’s as if a little light-bulb goes off in his head. If her were in a cartoon panel, you might see a little thinking bubble appear above his head:  “It’s true we’re from different parties.  He’s a Ghibelline and I’m a Guelph.  BUT we are both Florentines after all; we both love Florence equally—we have that in common.”  His reply is sympathetic, even tender—”may your seed find peace again”—and he asks Farinata to reassure Calvalcanti that his son is alive, also a friendly gesture.
  • Dante learns that Farinata is entombed with over a thousand of the dead—but that is not what concerns him; what concerns him is that Farinata has told him that in the future he will chased from Florence, never to return.  That is a body blow.  When Dante returns to Virgil he is visibly upset, but this time he’s less sarcastic and more direct about why.  Here Virgil could impatiently rebuke Dante for being short sighted, for caring more about his “fate and fortune” on earth than about his eternal soul; he could say, arrogantly, as he did in Canto 7: “Foolish creatures, how great an ignorance plagues you.  May you receive/My teaching…” (lines 62-64)—but he doesn’t take this kind of high, haughty tone.  It seems he has learned not to be so impatient and proud, so “holier than thou.”  Instead of shouting at Dante, he tries to patiently reassure him that it’s not his earthly fortune that matters, so it’s not this fortune-teller in Hell that he needs to be concerned with:  “Preserve in memory what you have heard/Against yourself…And I pray/You, listen…When you confront her radiance, whose eyes can see/Everything in their clarity, be assured/Then you shall learn what your life’s journey will be.”  Virgil is reminding Dante to keep his eyes on the prize.  Farinata may be able to tell him his future on earth, but Beatrice will tell him of his future in Paradise.  Which is the better future to heed?  This is an extremely warm, reassuring speech from Virgil (remember he was shoving Dante around when the canto began).  They seem to have gotten past their rift; a common enemy has united them, as is so often the case.  They continue on their way, less at war with one another, pursuing a common goal.  Is it Beatrice, who’s name radiates with love and understanding, heals their wounds, or that Dante and Virgil have just learned something from the encounter with Farinata?

Canto 11
  • The canto begins with Dante and Virgil “above a pen more cruel.”  They are above the fray in this canto, taking shelter and pausing in their journey for a short time.  They are getting acclimated, pausing “until this rotten breath/Has become familiar to our sense of smell.”  Dante the Poet is never far from explicit sensory detail to make the Inferno seem as real as possible.
  • Dante requests that Virgil take the opportunity to discourse upon some matter that may fill the time productively, and Virgil replies that he was “so minded”—further proof that the two are back on good terms with one another, that they are on the same wavelength.  
  • Virgil takes the opportunity to describe what they will experience as they continue their journey into the lower regions.  The 7th Circle is subdivided into three regions where the Violent are punished: the violent against God, against oneself, and against other people or their property.  The 8th Circle is where Fraud is punished—but a distinction is made between acts of fraud that involve a betrayal of trust and those that don’t.  The 8th Circle punishes acts of fraud that don’t involve a betrayal of trust.  The 9th Circle, the deepest circle, punishes acts of fraud that do involve a betrayal of trust.  These are the worst crimes against Heaven because they destroy the trust that LOVE creates.
  • Dante’s question show that he is reflecting on what he’s seen so far.  He asks Virgil about the nature of the circles they’ve already seen?  Why aren’t they within the city of Dis?  Virgil admonishes Dante for forgetting his Aristotle, whose philosophical work, The Ethics, teaches that of the three kinds “dispositions counter to Heaven’s will”—those encountered earlier in the form of lust, anger, gluttony, hoarding and wasting, and anger were the least offensive.  They were all sins of incontinence (lack of self-control); but what’s to come are sins of malice and insane brutality.
  • Dante asks Virgil to explain why Usury is such a punishable offense.  Virgil explains:  Aristotle insisted that ART must imitate NATURE.  NATURE is the image of God’s intelligent design.  It follows that art which imitates nature, also imitates GOD.  Now if we synthesize Aristotle’s philosophy with Genesis’ spiritual teaching, we find that Genesis stipulated that man must thrive and gain his bread by the sweat of his brow; he must labor.  His arts are to serve this labor.  Usury, however “takes a different way”—that is, the usurer doesn’t produce any labor; he gets his money by having money.  It’s a corrupt system because it’s not natural, and it breaks God’s decree.

Canto 12, Violence toward others: the river of boiling blood
  • Virgil and Dante meet the Minotaur, another half-human, half beast hybrid, but notice how the lower we go, the more bestial and the less human these creatures become.  The Minotaur, already, has very few human qualities.
  • •    Virgil says he “defies” and quells the Minotaur.  It seems he hasn’t yet transcended that same hubris that got him in trouble earlier.  Here he is making the same mistake again, confusing the divine power with his own power.  In a sense it’s sad; Virgil is as stuck in his hubris as the Minotaur is stuck in its rage.  They are both paralyzed, or frozen, in their inability to overcome their sins.  Seeing Virgil so blind to his own pride helps Dante (and his readers) feel less pity, perhaps, for the fact that he’s stuck in Limbo.  
  • Virgil explains how the landscape in the Inferno has changed since he’d last visited this region.  Paradoxically, it’s a dynamic place, even though we are led to think of it as eternal and static; does the fact that it’s not completely static and fixed help make it more realistic for readers?  When explaining how the landscape has changed, notice how Virgil emphasizes that LOVE was the power that shook (even) this world.  That LOVE is the primary divine force is a major theme of the entire Commedia.
  • Dante and Virgil have to climb downward; their descent is difficult physically, which seems realistic enough.  Also, the description of the landscape is compared to a real place in Italy to further give it that sense of reality.  This is a motif that Dante works through the entire 7th Circle; these places are very comparable to familiar places in our world, he says to his readers; does this have the effect of connecting the sinners more concretely to our world, too?
  • The travelers descend to the level of the second river in the Inferno, the river of boiling blood (the Phlegethon, named later).  This river, like the earlier Acheron, is an elaborate place marker—it helps distinguish the region of the 7th Circle, which is more complex than the earlier circles outside the gate of Dis.  The 7th Circle is subdivided into three “rings” where different types of violence are punished: violence against others, violence against oneself, and violence against God.  Violence against God is further distinguished: first in the form of violence toward God (blasphemy), then in the form of violence toward nature (sodomy), and last in the form of violence toward “art”( usury).
  • Dante’s address to the reader is a lament—the tone one of growing awareness.  He’s bemoaning this new consciousness he has, lamenting the covetous desire and insane anger that bring us to this incredible state of abject misery.
  • The Centaurs are the first creatures we encounter who are not merely guards, though they still are guards, but also participants in the punishment.  The Centaurs are there to shoot at the sinners if they rise too high out of the river of boiling blood.
  • The contrapasso at this level is pretty obvious:  the people whose violence has harmed others, much or little, are submerged to a greater or lesser degree in this gruesome river of boiling blood.  Since these people submerged themselves in blood while alive they now get to spend eternity submerged in the same.  While Dante uses examples from classical literature and history as well as his contemporaries, notice how the contemporary examples range from all sides of the political spectrum—since his experience with Farinata, he’s losing his partisanship and seeing things more universally.

Canto 13, Violence toward oneself: the suicides (Pier della Vigna, Frederick’s counselor)
  • Notice how syntactically, grammatically, Dante emphasizes the negative as this Canto opens.  There are lots of “negative descriptions” because these are the negators of life, the suicides.
  • •    The Beasts in this area are, like the Centaurs, not one, but many: flocks of Harpies feed on the trees, which are the startling incarnation of the human souls who’ve committed suicide.  Also like the Centaurs, the Harpies actively participate in the punishments.
  • The strife of pity theme is developed here, very subtly.  Virgil intentionally leads Dante to break a branch, knowing that this will inflict suffering on the soul entombed inside.  Does this mean he has no pity for these suffers?  He claims he was just trying to teach Dante by experience what he wouldn’t learn any other way.  Dante himself can’t speak because he is stunned with dread.  Virgil must address the sinner instead of Dante.  Pier della Vigna tells his story, which fills Dante with pity.  Why are the suicides so severely punished?  (See the note in your text, p. 325.)
  • Dante learns that this horror only gets more horrible; that there’s no hope for these souls ever being released from this torment
  • A dramatic moment interrupts Dante’s interview with Pier della Vigna.  Two naked men are crashing through the wood.  When they stop they are torn apart by “black bitches” who “set their teeth on the one who stopped to crouch, and tore his limbs apart; and then they took the wretched members away.”  These are the spendthrifts, who squandered fortunes, or threw their lives away rather than be paupers.
  • Dante takes pity on a bush which addresses him with a request; it turns out that this was an anonymous suicide from Dante’s beloved city of Florence.  He provides a bit of the history of Florence and demonstrates his wrongheadedness in attributing Florence’s continued fortunes to Mars, a false (pagan) god.  Yet, the more poignant point the reader is meant to understand is that while Florence has been destroyed and rebuilt many times, survived many wars and disasters, this person took his own life.

Canto 14, Violence toward God, Capaneus
  • Notice the quick summation of themes and threads: (1) The expression of pity at the beginning; (2) a description of area, which is the third ring of the 7th Circle; it’s a flat, barren plain; (3) the address to readers, where Dante stresses that this is a place which represents the “vengeance of God” which should be feared by all…Dante’s text is meant to inspire the fear of God which might save a few souls;  (4) the description of sinners: naked souls in herds, lying, crouching, walking restlessly about, rained upon by fire.  There’s no shelter, no protection, just a ceaseless rain of fire.  Dante the Poet compares the scene to Alexander’s campaign in India (a doomed campaign that defeated him).  
  • Dante’s address to Virgil is a bit of Pythonesque black comedy!  “O Master…who vanquish all except the stubborn fiends that opposed us at the gate,” Dante begins.  Is this a nasty reminder of Virgil’s limited power, because he was too proud about “defying and quelling” the Minotaur, or is it Dante’s attempt to be polite while urging Virgil to notice that they might be in trouble?  
  • Capaneus is a vivid character who embodies a defiant (stubborn?) spirit.  Death can’t defeat him; no punishment can cow him.  He declares, “What I was Alive, I am in death!”—and he goes on to boast of his great stubbornness at defying God’s vengeance.  He won’t give God the satisfaction of seeing him miserable.  This is Violence against God—blasphemy, defying God.  Virgil takes a strict tone with Capaneus and points out that his constant raging only makes his punishment the worse.  Here’s another sinner in the Inferno who can’t transcend his sin.  He’s doomed to go on sinning in the same hopeless, fruitless way for eternity.
  • They reach the spring of the bloody river, Phlegethon.  Virgil makes the uncanny claim that this is the most amazing thing the travelers have seen so far!  Notice how Dante responds: he says he’s “hungry for the food to fill the appetite these words inspired”—in this pupil/teacher relationship, Dante is playing his role very well.  You have to be hungry for knowledge in order to acquire it.  If you’re ever going to seriously learn anything, you have to have a hunger for learning.  This simile helps him express this abstraction, and it also emphasizes Dante’s active role in the learning process, how his free will is always engaged.  Virgil teaches him that the river of blood has its origin in our own world.  I think we get the allegorical significance of that piece of information!

Canto 15, Violence against nature (Brunetto Latini)
Violence against nature is violence against God, because nature is the child of God.  Sodomy is “unnatural” and here we meet the Sodomite, Brunetto Latini
  • Once again, we begin with a description of the landscape, which is compared to a real place in Italy.
  • Brunetto Latini’s group is squinting at Dante, eyeing him closely—a sexual advance?  (Look for other hints of homosexual behavior; I’ve read analyses that can build a pretty convincing case!) Then Latini recognizes Dante.  Dante seems surprised to find his old teacher here, and his address is tender.  He welcomes the chance to talk, and his interaction with Brunetto Latini is very respectful and poignant, though sometimes ironic.  For instance when they first start walking and talking (they have to keep moving), Dante has to bend his head in order to converse; his body language is ironic because although it looks like the proper reverence a student might have for his teacher, the appearance belies the reality: Dante has surpassed Latini in every way—intellectually as well as spiritually.
  • Latini understands that Virgil is Dante’s guide; but his tone suggests he feels a bit competitive, a bit jealous.  His former star student has a new teacher.  Notice how Dante answers his defensive questions so clearly and succinctly; he summarizes his experiences and explains who Virgil is with no stumbling or confusion.  It’s a sign that Dante’s head is getting clearer and clearer.  He’s a lot less disoriented.  
  • Latini graciously acknowledges that Dante was a star pupil—and he wishes he could have lived longer to cheer on his success; yet (maybe vindictively?) he reveals the difficult future he is able to foresee.  Dante’s “fortunes” will be bleak; the prophecy is all negative.  Yet he’s also amble to see that, like a sweet fig among the bitter sorbs (trees), Dante will emerge from his bad fortune victoriously.  By his rhetoric, Latini reveals that he is highly politicize and embittered; there’s a kind of class/race war behind his jabs at the “mountain people” who will invade and take over Florence. Dante has looked up to Latini as a father figure, but now he can see that he was a misplaced father figure.  His teaching, that the way a man makes himself eternal is by earthly fame (books, publishing, scholarship), is grave error.
  • You can vividly see how Dante has progressed by the way he reacts to this bleak fortune Latini reveals; he hears the prophecy with a sense of calm—he has learned to remember that it’s Beatrice who (who will show him his “fortune” in eternity) who deserves the last say in this matter.  He’s learned that from his encounter with Farinata earthly fortune is less important that eternal salvation, and he declares: “This much still/I say: so long as conscience is not betrayed,/I am prepared for Fortune to do her will./My ears find nothing strange in what you have said:/As Fortune pleases let her wheel be turned,/And as he must let the peasant turn his spade” (p. 123).  This is definitely a kind of spiritual progression.  He’s absorbed Virgil’s lesson about Fortune.  These prophecies about his difficult future don’t disorient him any longer.  When Virgil hears how well Dante has understood this lesson, he nods his approval.
  • Latini leaves Dante declaring that his eternal life is in his book, the Tesoro.  But Dante the Poet knows better.  He is not so bad-mannered as to contradict Latini to his face, but he has learned that, on the contrary, Latini’s “eternal life” is to be trapped in the Inferno, along with the other sodomites (especially now that Dante has imagined him there!).  Dante tells, poignantly, how his last glimpse of his old teacher is that of a runner who seems to win the race.  But it’s a sad victory, a pyrrhic victory.  
  • Brunetto Latini’s character closely parallels Dante’s (as many of the main characters he feels pity for do).  If we understand Brunetto’s sin not as simple “homosexuality” but as “sacrilege,” we can see that Dante is observing how he went astray by being too worldly, too caught up in scholarly pursuits.  The fame Latini seeks (his notion of “eternity”) has to do with earthly fame for his book rather than spiritual transcendence.  It’s a short view as opposed to a long view.  Dante is learning to take the long view.  What is so great about gaining the world if you lose your soul?  Brunetto’s eternity is therefore hell; he sins in a scholarly, intellectual way, putting human knowledge ahead of spiritual pursuits.  Brunetto’s work, the Tesoro (Treasure), is very parallel to Dante’s Commedia.  Studying how they are similar and different (a research project) would reveal much about Dante’s purpose in the Divine Comedy.

Canto 16
  • Dante is recognized once again by his fellow Florentines.  The three who run toward him and then weirdly link together like wrestlers challenge Dante’s pity; their burned limbs cause him “painful distress.”  Is this the same as sympathy?  Virgil encourages Dante to stay and speak with them; he seems to pity them as well, telling Dante they deserve “courtesy.”  (Why?)
  • The three “wrestlers” turn out to be politicians, Florentine Guelphs (Dante’s party) from the era just before Dante’s birth.  These are men he had asked about earlier (Canto 6) along with Farinata.  Although he sympathizes strongly with these men (he’d join them if he didn’t know he’d be badly burned), he is able to demonstrate that his political bitterness is behind him.  The three want news of Florence, but Dante is only able to tell them the bad news: “newcomers” have brought the corruption of sudden profits and excesses.  
  • Distances are a little surreal in this canto—the waterfall that seems distant at the beginning of the canto is suddenly, with little movement, so close as to be deafening.  Perhaps this sets the scene for the surrealistic monster Geryon, and their flight to Malebolge on his back.
  • The travelers turn toward the right—a movement which links this canto with the only other right turn at the gate of Dis.  Significance?
  • When the travelers walk to the edge of the precipice and Virgil summons Geryon by tossing Dante’s cord into the abyss, Dante wonders what “strangeness” will “answer from the deep.”  He is trying to imagine what it might be when Virgil tells him he’ll soon see it for himself: “What your mind dreams will soon be before your eyes.”  Virgil once again demonstrates his ability to “read” Dante’s thoughts.  But even more amazing is how the way he responds to Dante underscores the Poet’s power, which is the power of the imagination—the power of dreaming, of mythic language, of metaphor, to describe abstract truth, abstract reality.  Dante marvels at Virgil’s ability to not only “observe the action but see the thought as well.”  It’s an exchange rich in layers of meaning.  Is Dante remarking on Virgil’s ability as a mind reader, a perceptive companion, or a great poet?  It’s all there.
  • Study the section where Geryon rises from the abyss.  Here’s a really significant theme that’s explored as Dante prepares to introduce Geryon: the relative “truthfulness” of the Comedy as a work of “true fiction” and not “fraud” (lies, deception, etc.).  Dante emphasizes that the image of Geryon is almost too incredible to describe, and describing it will give it the appearance of a lie—it will seem like he’s lying.  So he takes extra care to assert that this is “true.”  What does he really mean by “true”?  It seems that what he really means is that this vision of Geryon expresses an abstract truth, that if it seems merely imagined and “made-up” (a lie) that it’s nevertheless authentic on a metaphorical level.  This poem is an authentic testament—readers must understand that allegorical truths may come wrapped in seemingly false imagery.  Dante can communicate his “vision of truth” in powerful poetic imagery which may not appear to be literally true but is nevertheless allegorically true.  If we don’t make this distinction, if we expect the story to be literally true, then the author might be accused of the very fraud he’s going to describe in the next circle, the sin that Geryon represents.  But here Dante asserts that poetic truth is as valid as literal truth, and that the Comedy is true, despite its obviously imaginary, surrealistic people and places.

Canto 17
  • Notice Virgil’s elaborate, dramatic introduction of Geryon, who is a fearful creature, a kind of precursor or foreshadow of Lucifer.  He has a deceptively kind face and the body of a serpent. He’s an arch demon who “crosses mountains, leaves walls and weapons broken,/and makes the stench of which the world is full!” Dante the Poet, with narrative hindsight and omniscience characterizes Geryon as “fraud’s foul emblem,” making his allegorical significance quite explicit for a moment.  In Greek mythology, Geryon is a monster as well, a man with three bodies and three heads, the strongest man alive.  In Dante’s text he’s another infernal hybrid, half man/half beast.  Dante emphasizes his intricate, artful design.  I wonder if Geryon, as “fraud’s foul emblem” might not be the allegorical equivalent of “money” (which we are still apt to call the “root of all evil”).   
  • Geryon’s flight down into Malebolge is a major place-marker in the text, a graphically vivid image that helps signal a significant division between Circle 7 (violence) and Circle 8 (fraud). The action and the imagery link this scene with Canto 8; they compare/contrast in interesting ways that reveal Dante’s (and Virgil’s) development, as well as the development of the book’s themes.
  • Virgil leaves Dante to parlay with Geryon, sending him off to encounter the usurers alone.  What do you notice about this incident that is different from a similar incident in Canto 8?
  • Dante meets the “usurers” who are meant to represent a kind of violence toward art, which is a kind of violence toward God (because God is the grandchild of art, as Virgil explained in Canto 11).  How does a usurer become an “artist”?  He is an adept at the “art” of making money.  Think of art, not as the “fine arts” but as a technology, a technique, a method.  The ursurer makes money not by any productive labor, but only by manipulating money.  The description is vivid, almost comic; Dante unleashes some of his sharpest ridicule: the usurers resemble dogs with fleas—now biting their tales, now scratching their necks.  One man, behaving like an ox, sticks his tongue out at Dante, which makes him look absurd. The purses that hang around their necks are parodies of family crests!  What do they stand for?  Money, money, money.
  • We are just over midway through the book; there’s a real convergence of themes, motifs, and developments in this Canto.  See if you can recognize them.  You can especially note Dante’s power as a poet capable of revealing “truth” powerfully, articulately.  Earlier (at the end of Canto 16) he was able to acknowledge the poem’s fictiveness (it has the “face of a lie”) while boldly declaring its underlying truth.  This is quite a different poet from the one we originally encountered in the dark wood—the poet who fumbled for words and couldn’t describe anything.  Dante is beginning to surpass Virgil in both his grasp of the truth and in his poetic power. There are still setbacks ahead, but it’s a hopeful midway point.  Dante seems eager to show that the newer Christian mythology has the power to surpass its pagan ancestors.  And yet these mythological figures from ancient Greece and Rome are too powerful and “true” in their own right to be simply discarded; instead they are integrated, brought within the fold; and in that process, this brilliant student is surpassing his brilliant teacher.
  • Until now the demons in the 7th Circle have posed no real threat to the travelers and need no rebuke (except maybe the Minotaur).  Taking stock, you can see that at this point Dante the pilgrim is more enlightened, less apt to quarrel with reason, and less encumbered by confusion and the threat of despair.  But now, faced with the prospect of climbing on Geryon’s back, Dante is nearly paralyzed with fear.  How does he react?  Does he master his fear or does it master him?  How does this compare to Canto 8?  What kind of example does Virgil provide that is different from the example he provides in Canto 8?  In spite of the fear, there’s a funny moment when he tries to talk to talk to Virgil (“Hold on to me!”) and his voice goes squeaky with fear.  From this moment of comedy, Dante deftly changes the mood and plunges us into one of the more poignant moments between Virgil and Dante in the entire book.  Before Dante could so much as squeak out a syllable, Virgil had already encircled him in his protective arms.  He was already there, no need to ask.  Virgil’s commanding voice is reassuring.  So different from Canto 8.
  • Dante’s sensory description of his flight on Geryon is famous for its sublime believability in a time before flight was possible for humans.  The imaginative power of our poet shines through here.  Allegorically, Dante is proving his ability to overcome the sins of fraud that Geryon represents (just as, later, he will muster the courage to scale Lucifer’s back and climb “up” his leg to exit the Inferno).  But even if readers never think for a minute about the allegorical significance, they will still likely  remember the image of Geryon’s surrealistic, slow-motion descent into the abyss of Malebolge, and the way, once he’s dropped them at he bottom, he shoots off supernaturally like a speeding arrow.

The 8th Circle: Malebolge, the sins of fraud
Malebolge, Dante’s name for the Circle 8, continues the circular, funnel-shaped landscape; it’s graded steeply downward toward a low, central pit.  This central pit will be the next and last circle, the very bottom and center of Hell.  Before arriving at the center, the pit, the travelers have to make their way into and then up out of 10 deep ditches, or “pouches” (“bolgia”), that make up the eighth circle.  Each pouch is devised to punish a particular type of fraud.  It’s apparent that the contrapasso become more and more severe the deeper the travelers descend.  At the bottom of Malebolge, the horror is not for faint-hearted readers.

Fraud incurs a severe form of divine justice because it involves the active use of reason, our distinctly human, angelic faculty, for unnatural ends.  The sins of incontinence may be less severely punished because they can be considered crimes of passion which don’t involve the intellect as directly.  Sins of violence can go either way—they are sometimes crimes of passion, sometimes premeditated.  Violent crimes against your neighbor are likely to involve the least amount of will, whereas violence against God, Art (“God’s grandchild”), and Nature are more likely to involve the will.  Fraud, however, always involves a perversion of human intelligence—that is, human intelligence used for evil (rather than angelic) purposes.  There is always the active use of reason, the active free will involved.  

Since in Dante’s medieval scheme, humans are distinguishable from the “lower” animals by their rationality, their intelligence, it stands reason that to corrupt this aspect of yourself, to abuse reason, is to fail most miserably at being a human being, and to be, consequently, the worst possible sinner.  

Canto 19
  • Dante describes the landscape, and the travelers make their way through the first two “pouches” or ditches.  They pass the “seducers, pimps and panderers” walking in endless circles; they pass the smelly, unforgettable “flatterers” who are swimming in a ditch filled with excrement. The contrapasso is not hard to figure out here: they spewed “b.s.” while alive, so now they get to swim in it.  Interesting how Virgil hurries them along out of this pouch… “let our sight be satisfied” he says, but I’m sure his nose was eager to make a quick getaway, too.
  • In Pouch 3 they encounter the simoniacs, who are half-buried face-first underground; just their legs are sticking up and on fire.  Notice how Dante intensifies his tone in his address to readers—a righteous anger emerges; there’s no sympathy here.  These are the corrupt church officials who used the trappings of the church for fraudulent purposes, to gain money or power.  In another address, Dante acknowledges the “Supreme Wisdom” that rules Heaven, Earth, and the Inferno.  These are just punishments, in his opinion.  There’s no sympathy (or alter-ego) to stand between him and an appreciation for the wisdom of divine justice here.
  • Another ironic moment emerges when Dante addresses a pair of feet dangling upwards out of a hole in the ground. He tilts his head and listens in the pose of a “confessor”—but the confessee turns out to be Pope Nicholas!  When Nicholas mistakes Dante for Boniface, his successor, Dante is momentarily disoriented, stunned.  Virgil has to prod him to answer.  But when he does find his voice, notice how boldly he lashes out and lectures Nicholas on the evils of simony.  Dante’s long tirade helps readers understand why the Pope’s simony is particularly heinous (it “distributes grief, afflicting the world by trampling good and raising the wicked”).  It all started with that land grant from Constantine—that power and wealth came to no good.
  • Virgil’s approval is so strong it’s visceral.  He lifts Dante completely up and carries him like a child up the difficult ridge to the next ditch.  

Canto 20, the diviners
  • Pouch 4 is where the fortunetellers are punished.  The “liturgical” pace of their walk is one thing that gets Dante’s attention, but he quickly notices why they are so weird looking—their bodies are distorted; their heads are twisted completely backwards so that they are deprived of forward vision.  Dante’s pity for these fortunetellers greatly contrasts his lack of pity for Pope in the previous canto.  And yet, there’s that touch of black comedy:  Dante tells us how he pities “our human image so grotesquely reshaped,/Contorted so the eyes’ tears fell to wet/The buttocks at the cleft.  Truly I wept…”  
  • Virgil is angry at Dante for this regression into pity, and he regresses, too, back into his former arrogance, calling people “fools” once again.  
  • As part of his lecture, Virgil launches into a long discourse on the history of his hometown, Mantua.  You can imagine there are subtleties to this discourse that we won’t go into here.  But we can note how Dante comments that Virgil’s speech inspires “certainty,” presumably because it is about the past rather than the future.  Hindsight is one of the keys to clearer understanding; if we want to see clearly, we have to look behind and understand where we’ve been, not try to “divine” the future through false prophesies, a pagan practice.  Notice how Dante, after Virgil’s history lesson, says that his mind “turns back” to the fortunetellers and their fate, which is a kind of a pun.  It also re-emphasizes Dante’s mistaken orientation in this canto, which has Virgil a little peeved.  They are still talking as they exit the pouch; about what we are free to imagine.

Canto 21-22
Pouch Five holds the Grafters. These are people who use their official offices for profit or personal gain; they make money or win advantage by an abuse of their office.  Barratry, specifically, is the buying or selling of church or state office.  These sinners are immersed in sticky tar (“pitch”)—a fitting punishment for their “sticky fingered” crimes.  These sinners are watched over by the “Malebranche,” demons armed with murderous hooks and claws which they use to keep the sinners under the pitch.

  • We hear that Dante and Virgil have been chatting like chums.  They do not quarrel at all anymore, even when Dante is in the wrong. Virgil doesn’t get haughty with him.  Notice how Virgil is very quick to protect Dante from the Malebranche.
  • These two cantos are famous for their slapstick comedy.  It’s a little comic relief from the seriousness that’s been and the horror that’s to come.  
  • The sinner rises butt first and the Malebranche call his butt his “Sacred Face,” which is a reference to a landmark in the city where he comes from
  • Sinners are like meat in a stew of tar
  • When the demons try to attack Virgil he plays them like a fiddle; there’s no real fear involved.  
  • The demons beg to give Dante just “one touch on the rump” but their leader rebukes them
  • The leader’s name is “Malacoda” or “Bad-Tail” (Bad Ass?).  Canto 21 ends with a fart. (“And the leader made a trumpet of his ass.”)
  • The troop of Malebranche all have names that are puns on families from an Italian city Dante is parodying.
  • In Canto 22, a sinner is caught because he’s too stupid or too slow to dive away.  All we know about him is that he’s from Navarre.
  • The Malebranche rip at the sinner they catch, but it’s not horrifying.  Just as he was slow getting away, he’s slow to respond to his punishment, which involves ripping out a muscle in his arm.  He just “stares at his wound” (p. 181).  Then he proceeds to lie through his teeth.  He wheels and deals and “sells” them a promise of seven other souls to torment, if they just stand aside and let him whistle.  They suspect his cunning and threaten him elaborately, but he convinces them he’ll be cunning on their behalf.  When he dives away and escapes, the demons are so furious at being tricked they end up fighting among themselves and they end up in the pitch.  They are baked to a hard crust before they can be “rescued.”
  • The whole experience is likened to an Aesop’s fable at the beginning of the next canto: the treacherous frog (the Malebranche) are defeated and the innocent mouse (Virgil and Dante) go free.
Canto 23
In Pouch Six Dante sees the Hypocrites who now wander through all eternity weighed down by heavily weighted robes that appear golden and bright on the outside, but inside are laden with heavy lead.  Hypocrites deliberately manipulate appearances to be more attractive than reality.

  • Considering how their experience was like an Aesop’s fable leads Dante to realize that the Malebranche are likely to be hopping mad and he suggests getting out of there right away, before there’s trouble.  Virgil readily agrees, and we see something new here.  Dante is the one to suggest the plan of action; Virgil goes along—it’s a real sign of progress.
  • Virgil’s loving care is emphasized; the way he carries Dante (and he carries Dante a lot from here on out) is described in maternal terms.
  • Notice how angry Virgil gets when he realizes that the Malebranche lied to him!  His anger explodes across his brow, which Dante finds disturbing.  There is a little bit of suspense as to how Virgil will react to his anger that leads us into the next canto.

Canto 24
Here in Pouch Seven the Thieves are punished.  Their punishment is fairly complicated.  At first they are surrounded by monstrous snakes that coil like ropes around the hands, binding them fast.  Once immobilized, another reptile darts out to strike the sinner’s throat, causing the sinner to explode into flame. But the punishment is not over yet—from the flaming ashes, the sinner re-emerges to undergo the torment again and again.  

  • The long, elaborate pastoral simile that opens Canto 24 reminds me of Virgil’s Eclogues, a form of poetry that celebrates the simple agricultural life and the virtues of living close to nature; here Dante demonstrates how Virgil is able to put his anger aside, how he is able to master that animal emotion, that bestial side of himself—he can conquer his body—something he will urge Dante to accomplish later in the Canto. Dante fondly recalls the “sweet face” that Virgil showed him in the dark wood of Canto I, the sweet face that rescued him from despair.  It’s a poignant moment that reminds us of the feeling Dante has for Virgil.
  • Athletes take note of the passage where Virgil urges Dante to dig deep and find the soul to go on despite being tired of body.  He argues that FAME (honor, reputation, being known for your great deeds) is only won by putting your whole soul into the effort and conquering your body.  What is life without fame?  A thin wisp of smoke easily dispersed into thin air.  To really win fame (a form of earthly immortality to correspond to spiritual immortality), you must conquer your body.  Dante responds and really tries to follow Virgil’s advice, hiding his tiredness in a stream of speech.  Philadelphia sports fans demand no less of their teams than what Virgil demands here.
  • After we see Fucci flaming into ashes, he tells Dante a prophecy “to bring him grief.”  It’s a prediction about Dante’s bleak political future.  Yet does it bring Dante grief?  He never even mentions it!  He completely shrugs of these worldly gains and losses now.  He has his eyes on the prize.
  • In Canto 25, there’s the memorable image of Fucci giving two “figs” to God, a major blasphemy.  He runs away, demons hot in pursuit.
  • The horror of the thief who exchanges substance with a serpent is something new in terms of metamorphoses, as Dante boasts.  Let Ovid and Lucan (both famous Roman poets of antiquity) come and look on.  The contrapasso is pretty obvious: the thieves stole others’ substance, so they must lose their own.

Canto 26, 27
The Evil Counselors are punished in Pouch Eight, hidden in great cups of flame that symbolize their guilty consciences.  Here Dante sees Ulysses and Diomede, the instigators of the Trojan Horse ploy.

  • The highlight of this canto is the travelers’ encounter with Ulysses, the hero of Homer’s great epics, the Iliad, which tells the story of Greeks’ defeat of Troy, and the Odyssey, which tells the story of Ulysses’ adventures as returns home from the war.
  • Dante’s portrayal of Ulysses is ambiguous, like many of the great memorable characters we meet in the Inferno.  Like Francesca, Farinata, and Brunetto Latini, Ulysses’ “sin” may be recognized by some readers as a kind of nobility; all of these characters present “traps” for the Pilgrim, who must struggle to understand the nature of their sin, being very close to them in one way or another.  There’s much to sympathize with in the case of Ulysses, and there are so many parallels between Dante and Ulysses to observe.  They have a lot in common.   First, understand that Dante invents this episode in the life of Ulysses.  He imagines Ulysses’ death.  It is not in Homer or Virgil.  As far as those poets are concerned he was a great hero who helped the Greeks win the Trojan War; at the end of the Odyssey, he is home with his wife and son.
  • Now look at what Dante invents for him, beginning with his speech on p. 221.  Note the nobility of character.  Ulysses has a tragic flaw, however, and that is his wanderlust, his thirst for “experience”—for knowledge of the world which is not his to have.  Why is it forbidden?  Why does his ship sink within sight of Mt. Purgatory?  
  • What are the parallels between Ulysses?
  • Ulysses drowns in the sea that Dante has metaphorically come out of in Canto I (he almost drowned, but didn’t).  Both characters come within sight of Mt. Purgatory but can’t reach it.  Both have pursued it by the wrong road.  Ulysses “thirst for knowledge” is pagan, and Dante has equally lost the “straight road.”  When Ulysses spots Purgatory, God sends out a storm to destroy his ship.
  • Both characters have a thirst for knowledge; when he was younger Dante pursued learning with vigor and thought Philosophy was to be his “consolation” after the death of Beatrice.
  • Both are leaders, counselors—but Ulysses give false counsel and Dante true (the Commedia).
  • Both are extremely clever (the poem is Dante’s evidence of cleverness; Ulysses is celebrated for his cleverness).
  • Both have political cunning (Ulysses was able to persuade Achilles to go to war, and he devised the strategy of the Trojan Horse)

  • In Canto 27, we meet Montefeltro, another “false counselor,” a contemporary of Dante’s this time, a character whose discussion seems to prefigure some of the Machiavellian arguments made in The Prince, a hundred and fifty years or so later. This is interesting because the character would never speak about these secret things if he thought word would get out.  These are the dirty little secrets that politicians like to keep hidden from public view, but which Dante exposes here, before Machiavelli.

Canto 28
Pocket Nine holds the sowers of religious, political and family discord. In life these people ripped apart peace and placidity; now in death they are ripped apart physically. Dante sees Mahomet, who, in Dante’s view represents religious schism. Mahomet’s torso is ripped by a sword slice. As he approaches, Dante observes that Mahomet is “mangled and split open.” Dante then sees Bertrand de Born, a French troubadour/knight traditionally blamed for the rift between Henry II and his son. As he comes closer, Dante sees that de Born’s head has been severed—as he advances he holds his head before him like a lantern, one of the most horrifying scenes in the whole poem.

  • It makes sense that the blood and gore which feature prominently in this canto should be present.  Schism leads to feuding and war.  There’s an immediate focus in this canto on the horrors of war, the physical and mental toll it takes, the insanity that can ensue.
  • The ripped torsos of Mahomet and Ali, his nephew, are vivid and horrifying…Muslims would not like this canto.
  • The severed head at the end of the canto is one of the more gruesome images in the entire Inferno, though we’ve yet to experience the horrors of Circle 9.
  • Notice that Dante expresses a modified kind of pity at the beginning of the Canto (p. 245, 247), but he’ll lose his pity entirely by Circle 9.  This is the last of it.

Canto 29-30
In Pocket Ten Dante views the falsifiers—alchemists, evil impersonators ( NOT Elvis impersonators!), counterfeiters, and false witnesses. These sinners, who in life, corrupted all, now are made to endure every sort of corruption and pain. Darkness, dirt, filth, disease, hunger, thirst and noise surround them.

  • notice Virgil rebukes Dante sternly for his “low desire” to eavesdrop…Dante is so shamed that Virgil forgives him right away.

Canto 31: An Interlude
Canto 31 is a chance for the travelers to get their bearings.  They’re about to enter the 9th Circle…they can see through the mist, darkly.  At the bottom of Malebolge a ring of Giants guard the central pit.

The 9th Circle: the frozen pit and the sins of treachery
Dante arrives at the bottom of the Inferno, and the first book of the Divine Comedy builds to the travelers’ climactic encounter with Lucifer, the source of all sorrow and futility. Readers encounter some of the most graphic, gruesome material known to western literature in the animalistic battle of wills between Dante and Bocca (Canto 32) and the cannibalism of Ugolino (Canto 33). As Virgil and Dante prepare to exit this most sad, most horrible, most terrifying, and most human landscape of unredeemed evil, they look upon what was supposed to be the Inferno’s most fearsome demon yet: Lucifer himself. But Lucifer, though more gigantic than anything in Hell, is strangely powerless and passive. He makes no move at all to threaten Dante and Virgil as other lesser demons have. Lucifer turns out to be a weeping, drooling, pathetic sort of monster, unforgettably sunk into immobility, flapping his wings in futility like the rest of the Inferno’s sad castaways.

Canto 32
  • Dante addresses readers, warns them about the R-rated violence; this will not be for the faint of heart. He writes of his struggle to find the appropriate language to convey the grating nature of his subject. This is an aesthetic struggle, and we know by now that if such language exists, Dante is the poet to discover it.
  • Dante once again insists his work is true, and struggles once again for words that will not “diverge from fact.” This struggle for language is also an artistic struggle, but perhaps a mystic one, too. Even the most “realistic” imaginative literature struggles to convey its measure of “truth,” not just to the mind but to the heart and to the stomach. These cantos engage us at every level, and they do not fail to make the “stomach believe” (a Tim O’Brien phrase from The Things They Carried).
  • Notice the foreshadowing: Dante reports hearing a voice which tells him to watch his step. He then takes notice of the lake of ice where the sinners are buried up to their heads in ice so thick even volcanic lava wouldn’t melt it. Later, when Dante kicks the head of Bocca accidentally, or maybe on purpose, or accidentally on purpose, he’s just not sure, we can remember this passage and do a little reading between the lines.
  • Notice the incredibly intense image of the two sinners facing one another in a perverted kind of “heart to heart” conversation which climaxes in futile, silenced rage.
  • Antenora, where those who’ve betrayed their country are sent, is the second area in this pit “where all gravity convenes.” The first area was called Caina, for the betrayal of kin. Here in Antenora is where Dante “accidentally” kicks one of the partially buried heads, yet isn’t sure whether it’s an accident or not. This man he kicks turns out to be Bocca, as Dante learns after their futile violent struggle. Readers may be shocked at how Dante’s behavior with Bocca is so strikingly different from his behavior earlier, because he seems to cross the line into cruelty, violently pulling out tufts of Bocca’s “hair” and threatening him repeatedly. When Dante attacks Bocca, it’s obviously no accident, but an attempt to demonstrate his contempt and his superior “power.” Yet Dante’s power seems a little lacking, as Bocca stubbornly refuses to cooperate, “barking” at him in a subhuman, animal rage. I think it’s significant that the shade who calls out to Bocca says, “What devil is at you now?” The “devil” turns out to be Dante. But is Dante devilish? Has he become demonic? Why is he behaving this way? What has become of the sympathy he’s been struggling with the entire book? Has the evil he’s witnessed warped him somehow, or has he learned the essential lesson that sinners in hell are to be punished, not pitied? If so, then where must we draw the line between suppressing our pity in the service of a higher understanding, and actually being cruel? Is there a line there? Has Dante crossed the line? Some readers might want to argue that the lack of pity which Dante feels and demonstrates actually has the effect of dehumanizing him, in which case it’s a good thing they’re about to leave. It’s significant, I think, that Virgil does not rebuke him for any of his cruel behavior (including his bald lie in the next canto).
  • The roller coaster dips momentarily at the end of the Canto 32, and Dante feels something when they notice Ugolino. He decides he wants to hear Ugolino’s story, promising to repeat it in the upper world if it’s “worthy.” Notice the boldness, the audacity.  The dead want so badly to be remembered among the living.  Dante uses (abuses?) their desire as a bargaining tool.  But unlike his previous empty promise, this is one he decides to keep.

Canto 33
  • Ugolino tells his story and it is worthy to be reported, Dante has decided. Not only that, but Dante the Poet, the narrator, cries for the divine will to swallow the city of Pisa, to drown it between two rivers for breeding such horrible citizens who do nothing but commit crimes against humanity. Is Dante expressing sympathy here or is he passing judgment?  How are the two related? Are their differences more significant than their similarities?
  • Ugolino’s tale is truly one of the most pitiful, disgusting things in the entire book. Yet the contrapasso outdoes even the tale. Here, crowning the horror, is the mother of all bloody retribution, the most clever of Dante’s contrapassos, because not only is the sinner being punished, but he is inflicting punishment, which is also a kind of punishment for him. All of this is accomplished in the same action, the horrifying cannibalism he inflicts on Ruggieri.
  • Notice that this is perhaps the longest narrative speech given by any of the sinners we meet. That seems appropriate, given its penultimate position.
  • Why is this Canto so horrifying, do you think? Why the extreme violence? What does Dante the Pilgrim make of it? How does he respond? How do you respond?
  • It’s hard not to make note of Alberigo, the sinner who, covered in ice, explains that his body may still be “alive” though his soul is down here in Hell. This is arguably the first representation in literature of the “zombie.” This sinner is so evil that he lost his soul and a demon possessed his body while he was still alive. Dante listens, shocked to learn that there are others who may have experienced a similar fate. What’s his response? What has Dante learned is the proper response to the evils he encounters?

Canto 34
  • As the last Canto of the Inferno opens, Virgil speaks for the first time in a long while. Why has he been silent through this 9th circle, do you think?  He speaks to urge Dante to have “fortitude.” What’s significant about this request? Fortitude is the “strength of mind that allows one to endure pain or adversity with courage.”
  • This image of Lucifer is one of the more vivid images in Western literature. What do you notice about it?  Lucifer, the arch demon, is weeping.  Why?  Compared to the drama of Bocca and Ugolino, Lucifer seems static, remote.  Why?  Why doesn’t Dante talk to him?

 

 

 

     

 


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