Tuesday, November 18, 2008

canto iii

The third canto contains what the most recognizable line in "The Divine Comedy," and possibly one of the best-known lines in Western literature. It is the sign above the entrance to hell: "Abandon all hope, all ye who enter here."

That line encapsulates the miserific vision of hell: no hope, no escape, just unrelenting torment, day after day, year after year, until even the mountains have been worn down to grains of sand, and even then, there is no relief. The finality of such a sentence is one of the reasons I don't particularly care for the doctrine of hell.

As avoidable a fate as it may be to those who set the doctrines, an eternity of searing torment is still too much, too late. The torments of Dante's hell offer no redemption to those incarcerated there, as the sufferings of this life may; nor is there an escape, as Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle provide in their own "Inferno" novel.

And yet readers have returned to "The Divine Comedy" for centuries, despite objections to the severity of hell.

A lot of the reason for the poem's appeal begins to come clear in this very canto. Alighieri uses some apocalyptic imagery in Canto I, placing savage animals in Dante's path that commentators see as representing both political states and worldly vices; and Canto II saw garden-variety mysticism in the intercession Beatrice makes on Dante's account to rescue him from the dark wood; but so far we have seen none of the turn-your-head sorts of images that we associate with "The Inferno." Until now.

Here at the entrance to the land of the dead, unearthly moans assault Dante's ears with a din that he renders in a manner both poignant and unsettling. The people uttering these tormented cries run through the vestibule of hell, stung by hornets and wasps as they chase a banner that flutters in the breeze, just beyond their reach. Their tears mix with blood as they fall to the ground, where they are consumed by worms.

And this picturesque torment is just what occurs in the vestibule to hell. The sin for which these people are being tormented is merely one of cowardice. Those punished could not bring themselves either to follow God nor to live lives of open sin. Virgil likens them to angels who neither fought with God when Satan rebelled, nor sided with the devil. The price of their cowardice is that neither heaven nor hell will admit them.

And in this procession of banner-chasers is where we find a cipher for one layer of interpretation of "The Inferno." Dante claims to recognize several members of the crowd, but comments only on one, whom he accuses of "cowardice in making the great refusal." Alighieri makes no further comment on this, but commentators apparently believe it was Pope Celestine V, who resigned the papal office five months later and gave it to Pope Boniface VIII..

From what I can tell, Celestine V's papcy is remarkable only for its brevity. The issue Alighieri has with Celestine seems to be solely that he relinquished his papal office. And to a man like Dante, who took a bullet not once, briefly, but over much of his adult life, for his views, that decision to reject the Seat of Peter must have been not only incomprehensible, but reprehensible as well.

And, after all, what is hell is all about? Setting aside our theological basis for hell, the people we most would like to see in hell are the people who are unlike us. A hundred years ago in the United States, native fundamentalists conflated dislike of hard-drinking Irish workers and Italian immigrants, with religious differences that Protestants have the Roman Catholic Church, and condemn them all.

Today it's not uncommon to hear conservative preachers calling down God's wrath upon pro-choices, gays and lesbians, and environmentalists; or for liberal Christians to get snarky and suggest that when things go wrong for the GOP, it's because conservatives aren't following God. Hell's a great place to send people who aren't like us, because they clearly deserve it. If they didn't, they would be more like us.

Canto III is also where we see Alighieri begin to draw more fully upon Greco-Roman mythology to flesh out his vision of hell, from its soteriography to its personalities. Virgil here refers to the Acheron, one of the rivers that flowed through Hades; and Dante himself beholds Charon, the ancient oarsman whose job it was to ferry the dead across the River Styx.

A widely held religious view in the Middle Ages was that anyone who worshiped pagan gods actually was worshiping a devil, a belief Alighieri indulges in his poem, if not actually embracing it. He portrays Charon not just as an old man, but as a devil "with eyes of glowing coal," with no patience or pity for any who dawdle.

The entire experience is too much for poor Dante. Although he had resolved at the end of Canto II to put aside fear, he notes that even years after this experience occurred, he still trembles at its mere recollection. Now having crossed the Styx a living man, he is witness an earthquake accompanied by a bright light, and he passes out.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

canto ii

The first time I ever tried the high dive, I was too scared to jump.

It was agonizing. The whole time we had been at the pool, I had been watching one kid after another climb the ladder, walk or even run the length of the board, and then dive in. Some of them had jumped. Some of them had cannonballed. A few actually had dived, arms stretched out to part the water before them. It looked like a lot of fun, and so I had decided to give it a shot.

It didn't feel as easy as it looked, though. For one thing, the top of the ladder seemed much higher off the ground than when I was on the ground. And the diving board didn't feel very safe once I was standing on it. I walked carefully out to the end of the board, and froze. There were kids down in the water, playing and splashing about, and having a grand old time, and I knew that it was perfectly safe just to jump off.

But I couldn't do it. Heart in my throat, I carefully turned around and walked back to the ladder, which I climbed back down to terra firma.

So I think I can understand the reaction Dante has at the start of Canto II. At this point, he is still in the dark wood, in sight of the holy mountain and not yet on his way down into the circles of hell. It's at this point that Dante has the only sensible reaction anyone can have at the mouth of hell: What am I thinking? I can't go down there!

When I stood at the end of the diving board, I'm fairly sure I tried to psych myself into making the jump. I'd been off regular diving boards plenty of times. I'd seen dozens of kids jump off the high-dive that day alone. (I had the same problem trying the zip line at an Afs camp in New Zealand in 1987.)

Dante does the same thing. Journeys into hell are a pretty common thing in literature, after all. Odysseus made such a trip in “The Odyssey”; Heracles went there at least twice; the Bible teaches that Jesus descended into hell to free all those who had died in faith; and so on. Dante calls to mind two other such stories, in an attempt to put his impending descent into perspective.

The first tale he mentions is Virgil's own “Aeneid.” In that poem, Aeneas, one of the surviving members of the royal family of Troy, visits hell and discovers that he is destined to be the ancestor of the Roman Empire, which will restore a golden age to the earth under the august leadership of its first emperor. (Coincidentally, I'm sure, Virgil wrote “The Aeneid” during the reign of Augustus Caesar.) The other tale Dante mentions, which I've never read, comes from a medieval account of a vision of the Apostle Paul descending into hell. (2 Corinthians 12 tells of Paul having a vision of heaven.)

What's interesting about these reminders is that, to Dante, they underscore his unworthiness of such an undertaking, which he is sure he will regret. He is neither a great Trojan lord, nor a hero of the faith, like Paul, and he is fairly sure he is going to regret such an undertaking once it has begun.

Perhaps it would be useful here to differentiate between Dante the character in the poem, and Dante Alighieri the poet. Dante the character is practically shaking with fear here, humbly considering himself unworthy of the task set before him. Dante Alighieri is using this to lay the foundation for declaring his worthiness to his readers.

And that justification comes swiftly from the mouth of Virgil, who as the premiere poet of ancient Rome naturally is going to make an impression on Dante. Virgil explains that he was in Limbo, the first circle of hell, where, as Alighieri explains in a later canto, virtuous pagans and unbaptized infants go when they die.

Virgil explains to Dante that he was sent to his side from Limbo by Beatrice, who came to him straight out of heaven to see him lead Dante away from the wild beasts that had been threatening him on the hillside. And not only Beatrice, but two other women from heaven, are calling for him. (Though I count three besides Beatrice: the Virgin Mary, Lucia and Rachel.)

Dante finds this heavenly encouragement more than enough, and he resolves anew to go into hell, with Virgil as his guide.

So what's at work here is that Alighieri, in presenting his Dante avatar as fearful and unnerved by the trip, essentially is casting himself as a humble sort of fellow who would never presume on his own to say any of what follows in the remaining cantos of his own poem. As a result, the journey he takes, the things he claims to see, and the political ramifications of what he finds there – such as political foes suffering the torments of the damned – acquire a gloss of greater credibility.

The closest I've ever come to hell was attending middle school for three years, but at the time, that high dive felt pretty close. I tried it again later that same day, and after some of the other kids in line teased me for wanting to chicken out a second time, I made the jump.

Unlike Dante, I had a blast.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.