On Dante’s Inferno, Cantos V & XV

I’ve been reading Dante lately, and have been meaning to say something about him on this blog.  Then a friend emailed me, asking about a few things related to the Inferno.  I thought I would paste my response here, since it pretty much sums up what I have been thinking.  My friend was particularly interested in cantos V and XV, so my comments revolve around the characters of Brunetto Latini and the famous lovers Francesca and Paolo.  Those unfamiliar with the two cantos can follow the links here and here and find them.  The translations to which I am referring in the text of the email are different from the one to which I have directed you.  I am reading Musa.  These belong to Cary.

Here is my email:

The two passages you mention at the end of your email are two of the most famous and two of the most interesting in this canticle. Brunetto Latini is suffering the punishment of the sodomites. I read a biography of Dante recently, which suggested that there is no material evidence nor circumstantial evidence to suggest that Latini was a homosexual. But, for me, that is neither here nor there. Dante places him in this particular round for a reason. It’s our job to figure out what that reason is. (This reminds me of a scene in a movie I saw recently, a documentary about a monastery in France. The monks were discussing the manner in which they utilize the holy water. One compares their method to those of another order. An elder monk says: “The gesture is a symbol. If we find something wrong with it, there is something wrong with us. We should ask why it troubles us.” I guess the beam is in their eye.) Anyway the point here is: Dante, in his vision, doesn’t make mistakes. In some ways, this can be said of every poet.

Latini was a Florentine intellectual, and Dante’s mentor. Or one of Dante’s mentors, and one report suggests the relationship wasn’t as close as Dante seems to indicate in this canto. What is interesting to me about this canto comes in the final lines, where Dante gives us the image of Latini returning to his punishment, as if one who wins. Of course, Latini hasn’t won. He has lost. Big time. In hell, one must abandon all hope. All hope of ever knowing God. This, ultimately, is what Dante is after. And it is what he finds. Through his love of Beatrice, he comes to know God.

I think I said to you once that all poetic activity is the search for the divine. For Dante, this god is the Christian God, a god of infinite mercy and infinite wrath. But ultimately he is a just God.  Latini must suffer for his sins, as Francesca and Paolo must for theirs, despite Dante’s personal feelings. Clearly, in hell anyway, he rejoices in God’s judgment sometimes. Take for instance the episode with Filipo Argenti. Here Dante enthusiastically supports the punishment and relishes participating in the divine justice. But with the illicit lovers in V, and Latini in XV, Dante’s reaction is more ambivalent. He outright faints at the end of V. But in XV he seems to master his grief with that triumphant poetic image of Latini winning the prize. It is as if Dante would have us, if only momentarily, see Latini as he would like to remember him.

In some ways, all of the souls in hell get what they want, and that is their punishment. If one loses the good of intellect and turns from God, one sacrifices one’s eternal life and, in this case anyway, makes eternal that which ought to be ephemeral. In the case you mention, at the end of your email [here my friend quotes the passage from canto V, where Dante imagines the lustful whirling around like a flock of starlings], what Dante describes isn’t love but lust. Love roots in the heart and flowers in the mind. Lust roots lower in the body, is bestial and flowers in the genitals. Sin is punished by sin. It’s like a saying which says of an asshole: his punishment is he’ll have to be himself his whole life. The asshole’s transgression is his punishment. The lustful are punished by eternal lust. A burning, which feels pleasant enough, while it lasts, as long as there is the promise of release. This release will never come to them. Forever they will be lashed about by the upheaval of the loins.

What’s interesting is that Dante feels sympathy for these two. And so do we. Like with Latini, though in this case it is the shade herself who pronounces the lines, the image of the two lovers closing the book and reading no more that day – and you know what that means – moves us deeply. And it is for that seeming sweetness they are punished. One might argue that what they feel is love, and I’m not sure Dante would altogether disagree, but if it is love it is love of the wrong thing, which is what causes one to become lost in a dark wood. If the universe is moved by love, which is Dante’s final revelation, then even hell’s governing principle is love. This is a love larger and fiercer than the one we typically experience. It has to be because, while our puny love must move us to do what, in most cases, amounts to the ordinary tasks of this or that sacrifice, God’s love must move the all of everything.

Just a brief note. Technically, hell is where God and his love are absent. However, a thing might be measured by the hole it leaves, when it leaves. It is part of the Gnostic tradition, I think, to explain the existence of evil in this way. Evil is the space God made so that he might know himself by what he isn’t. It occurs to me now that this is a good reason we might love our neighbor. He is what we aren’t. We come to know ourselves by serving others, by loving others, by forgiving others.

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