Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Commedia Meditations: The Violent

The poets clamber down a loose rock slide (especially challenging for Dante, who as a living man has weight, while the shades of the damned do not) into the the seventh circle of hell, the circle of the violent. As Virgil has already explained, it is divided into several rings, based on the forms which violence may take.

At the foot of this rocky slop (which Virgil explains is the result of the earthquake that shook the Earth at the time of the crucifixion) they are accosted by the Minotaur, a half man half bull born of the queen of Crete's unhealthy obsession with a bull, and later killed by Theseus with the half of Ariadne (who was the Minotaur's half sister). The Minotaur is so angered at seeing them that he gnaws at himself. Virgil taunts the monster with his history of family betrayal, and this caused the creature to jump around in such consuming rage that the poets are able to slip by him unharmed.

They now reach Phlegethon, a river of boiling blood.

O blind cupidity and rabid anger
Which so spur us ahead in our short life
Only to steep us forever in such pain!

I saw a broad ditch bent into a bow,
As though holding the whole plain in its embrace,
Just as my guide had explained it to me.

Between the ditch and the foot of the bank
Centaurs came running single-file, armed
With arrows as they hunted in the world.

Seeing us descend, they all pulled up,
And from their ranks three of them moved forward
With bows and with their newly selected shafts.

And from afar one shouted, "To what tortures
Do you approach as you climb down the slope?
Answer from there, or else I draw my bow."

My master said, "We will make our response
To Chiron there who hovers at your side —
To your own harm, your will was always rash."
(Inf. XII, 49-66)

These centaurs (quick in temper as befits the area the patrol) guard over the violent who boil in the river for their violence against neighbor. After Virgil has explained the nature of their errand, one of the centaurs is given the task of carrying the poets on his back. He bears them along the banks, pointing out famous souls as they go.

The river flows in a circle all around the pit of hell, and is deeper at one side than the other. In the deepest parts (submerged up to the tops of their heads) are tyrants who reveled in war and plunder, including Alexander the Great and Attila the Hun as well several despots contemporary with Dante (and now mainly unknown.) As they move along the river, it gets progressively shallower, as they see some souls submerged to their throats, their waists, and finally some whose feet alone are in the boiling blood. At this ford, the centaur crosses and leaves the poets standing on the inner bank of the river.

Nessus had not yet reached the other bank
When we on this side moved into a wood
That was not marked at all by any path:

No leaves of green but of a blackish color,
No branches smooth but gnarled and tangled up,
No fruits were growing, only thorns of poison.
(Inf. XIII, 1-6)

They have entered the wood of suicides, the violent against self: those who cast back the gift of life that God had given them. The imagery here is some of the most powerful in all of Inferno, and it is worth quoting much of Canto XIII:

I heard deep wailings rising from all sides,
Without discerning anyone who made them,
So that, completely baffled, I stopped short.

I think he thought that I was thinking that
All of the voices from among the trunks
Rose up from people who were hiding from us.

My master said to me, "If you tear off
A tiny twig from one of the growths here,
Your thoughts will also be nipped in the bud."

Then reaching out my hand a bit ahead,
I snapped a shoot off from a massive thornbush,
And the trunk of it cried, "Why do you break me?"

And after it had darkened with its blood,
It started up again, "Why do you rip me?
Do you possess no pity in your soul?

"Men we were and now we are mere stumps.
Surely your hand ought to have been kinder
Even if we had been the souls of serpents."

Just as a green log blazing at one end
Oozes sap out of the other, all the while
Hissing with the air that it blows out,

So from that broken bough issued together
Words and blood: at that I let the tip
Fall, standing like a man stricken with fear.

To him my sage responded, "Wounded spirit,
Had he been able to believe before
What he had witnessed only in my verses,

"He would not have raised his hand against you.
But so incredible a thing caused me
To urge him to an act I now regret.

"But tell him who you were, to make amends
By refreshing your fame in the world above
To which he is permitted to return."
(Inf. XIII, 22-54)

The thornbush contains the soul of Pier delle Vigne, a minister of Emperor Frederick II, who describes how he was the "keeper of both keys" to Frederick's heart, and was always loyal to his master -- yet jealousy which always springs up in the halls of power inflamed others against him and he was accused of treason, disgraced, and (thinking oblivion better than misfortune) took his own life.

Pier begs Dante to tell everyone, when he returns to the world above, that he was slandered, and never had betrayed the emperor's trust. Virgil suggests that Dante ask him more about the fate of the suicides, but Dante is too overcome and asks Virgil to speak for him.


So he began again, "That this man should
Gladly perform what you request of him,
Imprisoned spirit, may it yet please you

"To tell us how the spirit is so bound
Into these knots; and tell us if you can,
Are any ever freed from limbs like these?"

At that the trunk puffed hard and afterward
That breath was transformed to this speaking voice:
"The answer I give you shall be concise.

"Whenever the violent soul forsakes the flesh
From which it tore itself by its own roots,
Minos assigns it to the seventh pit.

"It plummets to the wood — no place is picked —
But wherever fortune happens to have hurled it,
There it sprouts up like a grain of spelt;

"It springs into a sapling and wild tree;
The harpies, feeding on its foliage,
Cause pain and then an outlet for the pain.

"Like others we shall go to our shed bodies,
But not to dress ourselves in them once more,
For it is wrong to own what you tossed off.

"Here shall we haul them, and throughout the sad
Wood forevermore shall our bodies hang,
Each from the thornbush of its tortured shade."
(Inf. XIII, 85-108)

In addition to this image of how this bodies of the suicides will hang from their trees, note what Pier says about the harpies: It is only through the wounds given the trees when the harpies tear at them (or as when Dante breaks the twig off Pier's bush, causing it to bleed) that the suicides can speak. Thus, it is only through the torment of the harpies that they are able to speak. Once they heal, they are mute until torn again.

As when ending their lives they used self-inflicted injury to express the despair that they felt, not they can only speak through injury.

Just then, the poets hear shouting and barking, and two shades in naked human form come rushing through the forest, breaking the branches of the wailing trees in their hurry. These are the spendthrifts, who engaged in wanton self-destruction of their goods in the same way the suicides engaged in destruction of their bodies. They are chased through the wood by black dogs which, catching the slowing of the two spirits, tear him into pieces and carry him off.

In the process, the tree of a suicide (in which the unfortunate spendthrift tired to take shelter) is much damaged, and begs the poets to gather round his root his torn-off branches and leaves. The unnamed spirit is a Florentine who hung himself in his house, and he and Dante discuss how Florence (which abandoned it's pagan patron Mars for John the Baptist) seems wracked by conflict as if Mars were taking revenge on his faithless former devotees.

Leaving the forest, the poets find themselves confronted with the final region of the circle of the violent. A desert of sand stretches out before them and large flakes of flame flutter down like deadly snow upon the shades arrayed before them.

Over all the sand, large flakes of flame,
Falling slowly, came floating down, wafted
Like snow without a wind up in the mountains.

Just like the flames which Alexander saw
In the torrid regions of India
Swarming to the ground upon his legions,

So that he had his troops tramp down the soil,
The better to put out the flaming flakes
And to prevent them spreading other fires,

So descended the everlasting blaze
By which the sand enkindled, just like tinder
Under sparks from flint — doubling the pain.

Restlessly the dance of wretched hands
Went on and on, on this side and on that,
Beating off the freshly falling flames.
(Inf. XIV, 28-42)

The first group of sinners that they see in on the burning sands are the blasphemers, the violent against God. These are typified by Capaneus, a character out of Greek mythology who made war against the gods, who shouts his defiance against the poets, God and the world in general. Virgil replies, "O Capaneus, since your insolent pride Is still unquenched, you are chastised the more: No torture other than your own mad ravings Can punish you enough for your grim rage."

The blasphemers lie on their backs on the burning sand, shaking their fists at the sky and continuing to voice their defiance towards God and all authority outside themselves.

Virgil leads Dante along the edge of the burning sands until they reach a small stream which flows out across the burning sands. Virgil explains that the flames do not fall on the stream itself, and the poets can move along it in safety. (The shades of this circle are denied the shelter of the stream.)

As they walk along the stream, through the burning sands and towards the center of hell, a second group of damned souls comes into sight. These are ceaselessly running, beating the flames off themselves as they do. These are the sodomites, the violent against nature. Like the lustful in upper hell, they are in constant motion, but rather than simply blowing in the wind they are running in a burning desert, a symbol of the inherent barrenness of the act for which they are condemned. (Remember, incidentally, that in medieval Florence, as in the Classical period, and to this day in some highly gender segregated cultures such as some traditional Islamic ones, homosexuality was primarily a matter of older men seeking intellectual and romantic outlet with boys and young men.)

I there was recognized by one who grasped me
By the hem — and cried, "How wonderful!"

And I, when he stretched out his arm to me,
So fixed my eyes upon his burnt-out features
Even his crusted face did not prevent me

From apprehending him in my mind’s eye,
And bending down my face to be with his,
I asked him, "Ser Brunetto, are you here?"

And he: "My son, pray do not be displeased
If Brunetto Latini stays back a while
With you and lets that line trek on ahead."

And I: "With all my heart, I beg you to,
And should you want me to sit here with you,
I will, if he who goes with me permits it."

"My son," he said, "whoever of this flock
Stops for an instant must stay a hundred years,
Unable to brush off the burning flames.

"Go on then. I will walk here at your hem,
And later I will join my company
Who pass in sorrow for their endless woes."

I did not dare to step down from the path
To walk by him; instead I held my head
Bowed down like a man reverently walking.

He then began, "What chance or destiny
Brings you down here before your final day
And who is this one here who shows the way?"

"Up there above in the sun-brightened life,"
I answered him, "I lost myself in a valley
Before reaching the fullness of my years.

"Just yesterday morning I turned my back
On it: when I was lost, this one appeared
To lead me home once more along this road."
(Inf. XV, 23-54)

Dante and his former teacher discuss Florence and Brunetto fortell's Dante's coming fall from power and exile in 1303. Brunetto then identifies some of his companions among the sodomites, and makes a final request of Dante:

But for all that, I did not cease from speaking
To Ser Brunetto, and I asked who were
His most noble and renowned companions.

And he told me, "To know of some is good,
Of others it is better to be silent,
As time would be too short for so much talk.

"Briefly, you should know that all were clerics,
Great men of letters, men of wide repute,
Dirtied by the selfsame sin on earth.

"Priscian travels with that stricken crowd,
And Francesco d’Accorso too, and you may see,
If you have any appetite for such scurf,

"The one the Servant of Servants transferred
From the Arno to the Bacchiglione river
Where he left his organs stretched by sin.

"I would say more, but my walking and my talk
May last no longer, since I see over there
New smoke billowing upward from the sandbar.

"People are coming — I must not be with them.
Let me commend my Treasury to you:
In it I still live and no more I ask."
(Inf. XV, 100-120)

Brunetto runs off, and Dante is met by a group of three more Florentines guilty of the same sin. These also discuss Florentine politics with him, and describe their own histories, one of them explaining:

"And I who am placed with them in this torment
Was Jacopo Rusticucci, and surely
My hell-cat wife — more than anyone — ruined me!" (Inf. XVI, 43-45)


Dante satisfies their curiosity about the current state of Florence.

After they have moved off, Dante and Virgil at last reach a cliff down which the stream they have been following tumbes as a waterfall. This is the barrier between the cirlce of the violent and the cirlces of fraud. Virgil directs Dante to throw a cord belt which Dante has been wearing over the prescipice. They wait, and after a moment see a strange monster winging its way up to them from the abyss below.

Meanwhile, Virgil sends Dante off to witness the last group of souls suffering in the circle of the violent: the userers, who sit crouched upon the sand.

When I had cast my eyes on certain faces
Of those on whom the oppressive fire falls,
I recognized none of them, but I observed

That from the neck of each there hung a purse
Having a special color and coat of arms,
And on his own each seemed to feast his eyes.
(Inf. XVII, 52-57)

Virgil then calls Dante back. The beast from the circles of fraud below has landed and is preparing to take them deeper into hell.




Thanks to:

The translation and notes of James Finn Cotter

The translation, original text, and notes provided by Allen Mandelbaum

And most especially the translation and extensive commentary by Dorothy Sayers, which Penguin keeps appearing to drop, but never quite has.

1 comment:

HanseaticEd said...

Ah, to read Dante in Lent. I read the whole Divine Comedy about seven years back, when I promised to do so in return for the three volumes of the Sayers translation. I can't judge the translation save to say that it was good to me, but to have read it with the notes was wonderful. Thanks for posting this.