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

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Commedia Meditations: Swept Away By Sin

Leaving behind the quiet fields and woods of Limbo, Dante and Virgil descend into the second circle of hell.

There they encounter Minos, the mythical king of Crete who in the Aeneid is the judge of the underworld, and here serves as confessor and sentencer. An endless stream of souls approach him, confess what wrongs they have been damned for, and are then dispatched to the appropriate circle by Minos, who wraps them in the coils of his tail and hurls them downards towards their fates.

Minos challenges them, but Virgil cites the Authority under which they travel, and silences him. He and Dante then come upon the lustful, who are blown here and there on a swirling wind, carried about by the force of nature -- as they were in life.

The hellish hurricane, which never rests,
drives on the spirits with its violence:
wheeling and pounding, it harasses them.

When they come up against the ruined slope,
then there are cries and wailing and lament,
and there they curse the force of the divine.

I learned that those who undergo this torment
are damned because they sinned within the flesh,
subjecting reason to the rule of lust.
(Inf. V, 31-39)

At Dante's request Virgil identifies a number of characters out of classical mythology and history who can be seen among the swirling winds, including Helen of Troy, Paris, Dido, Achilles and Cleopatra. Dante is moved to see so many famous people, and pities their sad fate. Wanting to learn more, he calls out to two of the spirits and asks them their story. What follows is one of the most famous conversations in the Commedia, and it is worth quoting at some length:

Even as doves when summoned by desire,
borne forward by their will, move through the air
with wings uplifted, still, to their sweet nest,

those spirits left the ranks where Dido suffers
approaching us through the malignant air;
so powerful had been my loving cry.

"O living being, gracious and benign,
who through the darkened air have come to visit
our souls that stained the world with blood, if He

who rules the universe were friend to us
then we should pray to Him to give you peace
for you have pitied our atrocious state.

Whatever pleases you to hear and speak
will please us, too, to hear and speak with you,
now while the wind is silent, in this place.

The land where I was born lies on that shore
to which the Po together with the waters
that follow it descends to final rest.

Love, that can quickly seize the gentle heart,
took hold of him because of the fair body
taken from me-how that was done still wounds me.

Love, that releases no beloved from loving,
took hold of me so strongly through his beauty
that, as you see, it has not left me yet.

Love led the two of us unto one death.
Caina waits for him who took our life."
These words were borne across from them to us.
(Inf. V, 82-108)

The spirits are Francesca and Paolo. Francesca da Rimini was the aunt of one of Dante's friends and patrons. She was married to one Gianciotto for political reasons, but after marrying fell in love with her husband's brother Paolo. They became lovers, but one day Gianciotto caught them lying together and ran them both through with a sword. (Thus his likely fate in Caina: the circle deep in hell reserved for the killers and betrayers of kin.)

Dante asks Francesca how their affair began, and she replies:

"One day, to pass the time away, we read
of Lancelot-how love had overcome him.
We were alone, and we suspected nothing.

And time and time again that reading led
our eyes to meet, and made our faces pale,
and yet one point alone defeated us.

When we had read how the desired smile
was kissed by one who was so true a lover,
this one, who never shall be parted from me,

while all his body trembled, kissed my mouth.
A Gallehault indeed, that book and he
who wrote it, too; that day we read no more."

And while one spirit said these words to me,
the other wept, so that-because of pity-
I fainted, as if I had met my death.

And then I fell as a dead body falls.
(Inf. V, 127-142)

Thus Dante is overcome by pity and swoons. This is by far the most sympathetic tale we hear in the course of the Inferno, for two reasons, I think:

First, Dante as the author has designed hell as a representation of the nature of sin. The first sins that we see (lust, gluttony, spendthrifts, avarice and wrath) are all sins of the passions, and lust is in a sense the least corrupt of these, in that it consists of the mis-use of a good (love) and acts (though mis-guidedly) out of desire to please another as well as ones-self. (The more complete corruptions of sexuality, where affection of any sort is no longer present, are found much deeper in hell.)

Second, Dante as a character within the narrative is not yet resolute in his rejection of sin. Lust is a sin to which Dante himself was at times prey, and here he sides overmuch with Paolo and Francesca.

Yet, Dante the author has a message for us about the sin of lust even in this most sympathetic of narratives. Think for a moment about what we've actually heard about here. Francesca was married (however little she may have desired it) to Gianciotto, yet she allowed herself to fall in love with, and then into sin with, Paolo, her husband's brother. Yet nowhere in her narrative do we hear her or Paolo described as having any part in this. Everything is the fault of the book, his looks, her looks: anything but them. They are unrepentant, because they don't believe they did anything. Everything was done to them. Even their punishment is the result, not of their unrepented-of actions, but rather of God's disfavor towards them. This abdication of will (and with it responsibility) mirrors the sin itself, and the symbolic representation of the sin: their endless swirling in the power the wind.

When Dante awakens from his faint, he finds himself in the third circle of hell, where a cold rain pours down endlessly on the souls of those damned for gluttony, who lie in mud. Among the shades stalks Cerberus, the three headed dog of classical mythology, whose un-ending hunger mirrors the disordered appetites of those he claws and bites in the mud of the third circle.

The poets stop and Dante converses with a Florentine of his acquintance called Ciacco (the nickname means: pig). After speaking briefly of the nature of the sins for which souls are condemned to the third circle, they speak at length about the future of Florence. This if the first of a number of interludes foreshadowing the misfortunes which Dante and his political faction would face in the years to come.

In Canto VII the Dante and Virgil move down into the fourth circle of hell, where the hoarders and the spendthrifts roll giant bolders in opposite directions, taunting each other with their respective sins and smashing their boulders against each other.

Here, more than elsewhere, I saw multitudes
to every side of me; their howls were loud
while, wheeling weights, they used their chests to push.

They struck against each other; at that point,
each turned around and, wheeling back those weights,
cried out: "Why do you hoard?" "Why do you squander?"

So did they move around the sorry circle
from left and right to the opposing point;
again, again they cried their chant of scorn;

and so, when each of them had changed positions,
he circled halfway back to his next joust.
And I, who felt my heart almost pierced through,

requested: "Master, show me now what shades
are these and tell me if they all were clerics-
those tonsured ones who circle on our left."

And he to me: "All these, to left and right
were so squint-eyed of mind in the first life-
no spending that they did was done with measure.

Their voices bark this out with clarity
when they have reached the two points of the circle
where their opposing guilts divide their ranks.

These to the left-their heads bereft of hair-
were clergymen, and popes and cardinals,
within whom avarice works its excess."
(Inf. VII, 25-48)

Dante thinks he surely will be able to recognize some famous people among the avaricious, but Virgil tells him that their vice has so dirtied them (in that they grasped and kept all things of earth, while ignoring those human things that went on around them) that they are no unrecognizable, lonely in their punishment as they were in their sin.

Moving on, the poets reach the fifth circle of hell, and the last containing the sins of the passions: the river Styx, in which the wrathful fight like frothing waves, and the hateful and sullen lay beneith the water, gurgling inarticulately the hate which they always harbored yet seldom expressed in life.

On the other side of this river rise the towers and walls of the dark city of Dis, a citadel which is the stronghold of the fallen angels, and contains the deeper reaches of hell within its walls.

Phlegyas (another character from classical mythology -- he was a half-human son of the war god Ares, who was so incensed when Apollo seduced his daughter that he destroyed the temple of Apollo at Delphi, for which Apollo killed him) comes out from Dis to ferry them accross.

While we rode over the dead channel
Before me rose a figure smeared with mud
Who asked, "Who are you come before your time?"

And I told him, "I come, but do not stay.
But who are you who are made so ugly?"
He answered, "You see that I am one who weeps."

And I told him, "In weeping and in mourning,
Accursed spirit, there may you remain,
For, filthy as you are, I recognize you."

Then he stretched both his hands out to the boat.
At that my ready master shoved him off,
Saying, "Get away, with the other dogs!"

My guide then put his arms around my neck,
Kissed me, and said, "Soul of indignation,
Blessed is the woman who gave you birth!

"In the world he was a man of arrogance;
Nothing good bedecks his memory:
For that, his shade down here is furious.

"How many up there now think themselves kings
Who here shall wallow in the mud like pigs,
Bequeathing only loathsome disrepute."
(Inf. VIII, 31-51)

In the circle of the wrathful, Dante now witnesses the most destructive of the sins of passion. In part in recognition of the graver nature of wrath as compared to lust and gluttony (those condemned for which Dante felt much pity for) and in part because Dante the character his now learning to understand sin and its destructive nature more clearly, he harbors none of the sympahy for the wrathful that he did in the circles above. Virgil recognizes this as progress in Dante's path towards understanding and rejecting sin, and commends him for it.

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.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for doing this. I am getting alot out of it.

Pro Ecclesia said...

Me, too.

Anonymous said...

Me three!

Anonymous said...

Dante is doing something very important with the story of Francesca and Paolo. Keep in mind that we get the courtly love tradition out of the 12th Century, and that many of the stories in this tradition are about adulterous (or otherwise unattainable) love. The story of King Arthur, Guinivere and Lancelot is a good example of a story in the courtly love tradition, and it is no accident that Dante uses it. Dante is making a judgment about courtly love stories: if you read them as Francesca and Paolo did, you will imitate them and fall into sin. The reader will have heard of Abelard and Heloise and will also be thinking of how they fell in lust over their books.

But Dante is also taking the courtly love tradition and re-Christianizing it. Who is one of the main characters of the Divine Comedy? Beatrice, unattainable because she is dead, she is the lady who stands for illuminating grace - sent by Mary. He is taking the archetypes of the courtly love tradition and using them in a spiritual way rather than in a purely sexual way. He's taking the courtly love tradition and turning it on its ear.