Inferno’s twisted figuration [Magdalena Gilewicz]

Dati bibliografici

Autore: Magdalena Gilewicz

Tratto da: Lectura Dantis

Numero: 5

Anno: 1989

Pagine: 59-67

«Parody,» «irony,» «figurai reversal,» «literalization» are terms often used by critics discussing the process of representation in Dante's Inferno. The very first lines of the poem indicate the mode of interpretation that the poem demands: «Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita...». The possessive gives us the license to treat Dante as a kind of Everyman. The landscape is typically allegorical. The «selva oscura» is a familiar topos, and so is the unreachable sun-lit summit. That is why when the three beasts appear the reader is ready to translate them into abstractions too, although the interpretation may be quite arbitrary. What happens, however, in canto 3 is a reversal in the mode of representation. The canto starts with the inscription on the gates to hell - written on or carved into stone (vv. 1-9):

Per me si va ne la città dolente,
per me si va ne l'etterno dolore,
per me si va tra la perduta gente.

Giustizia mosse il mio alto fattore;
fecemi la divina podestate,
la somma sapienza e 'l primo amore.

Dinanzi a me non fuor cose create
se non etterne, e io etterno duro.
Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate.

John Freccero points out the suddenness of the shift that the hypothetical first-time readers may very well experience:

If it were possible... to imagine ourselves reading these lines for the first time, without benefit of any received knowledge of what to expect, we might well share the pilgrim's perplexity, at least for a few moments. After the blank space separating the end of canto II from this opening, there follow nine lines of verse in the first person without the slightest indication of who is speaking and who is being addressed. Only when the pilgrim expresses his incomprehension do we learn, retrospectively, what has happened ... The extraordinary quality of this beginning has been masked by its very familiarity. The journey through hell begins with an interruption that serves to establish the fiction of immediacy (p. 98).

The shift is from the typically «allegorical» landscape, rich with signs loaded with signification that has been culturally established by the long tradition of Christian iconography, to bare writing, which at first reading may sound like words uttered by some voice, but later turns out to be a mere inscription. These are not living words - words that form part of an utterance - but scritta morta, «not unlike an epitaph, written in the first person and marking with a presence in stone an absence of the spirit» (Freccero, p. 100). Clearly, we are not dealing here with an Augustinián sign, that is, «a thing which causes us to think of something beyond the impression that the thing itself makes upon the senses.» Meaning here is arrested in the literalness of the statement, as it is graphically represented by the words' fixity. If the scritta morta signals a mode of representation for the infernal journey, it must be a mode different from that signalled initially by the «selva oscura» and later by the visibile parlare in Purgatorio 10, by the «living books» in Purgatorio 29, and by the «patterned fire» («distinto foco») of «living lights» («vive luci») that inscribes justice in the heaven of Jupiter. The portal to hell announces a poetic mode contrary to allegorical representation. If signs cannot point beyond themselves, «other meaning» is impossible. As Freccero puts it:

the descent to hell begins ex abrupto with the representation of a representation, words on the page representing words inscribed in stone identical to the words on the page. This re-representation counterfeits presentation by refusing to acknowledge the obvious difference between the text and the inscription; or rather, it simultaneously affirms and denies that difference (p. 101).

La morta poesì eliminates the space that we assume exists in figurai language between the sign and its signification, thus causing a total conflation of the two semiotic elements. The result is inanimate language lacking the life of the spirit - duro (Inf. 32.14).
Let me provisionally argue here that Dante's reason for this abrupt shift in the mode of representation is to disrupt the readers' expectations about allegory and gradually educate them in the process of creating allegorical meaning. To reach for the «inexpressible,» to recreate his vision in words, the poet first has to teach us how words and images mean within the new poetic system he is creating. To achieve this end with a reader whose mind is full of preconceptions about iconographie representation, he must first unbalance the relationship sign = abstract concept. Thus, let us assume that the opening canto serves as a hint to the readers that the text they have started to read is allegorical. By canto 3 they must realize that Dante will be constructing his allegory from scratch. The sudden shift is from the traditional allegorical over-signification to non-signification. Representing the death of the soul reverses the process of signification. The soul becomes the body and what was the significance now becomes the sign (cf. Freccero, p. 102). This mode of complete literalness persists throughout the Inferno, and its peculiarity has been noticed by other critics. Auerbach, drawing on the concept of «figura» he developed in his earlier work, calls it «figurai realism»:

Both figure [the characters' «earthly appearance»] and fulfillment [«their appearance in the other world»] possess ... the character of actual historical events and phenomena. The fulfillment possesses it in greater and more intense measure, for it is, compared with the figure, forma perfectior. This explains the overwhelming realism of Dante's beyond. ... Yet never before has this realism been carried so far: never before - scarcely even in antiquity - has so much art and so much expressive power been employed to produce an almost painful immediate impression of the earthly reality of human beings .

The extent to which Dante pushes his mimesis is extreme. Auerbach notices a peculiar reversal that takes place in the process: «Figure surpasses fulfillment, or more properly: the fulfillment serves to bring out the figure in still more impressive relief» (p. 200). Since I do not intend to adopt Auerbach's terminology, let me restate his position in different terms. What I see happening in the Inferno is usurpation of the role of signifier by significance. Freccero calls this process «mimesis with a vengeance» or «literalization.» If the function of allegory is to point to «other» meaning, and in Christian allegory this ultimate meaning is obviously the ineffable truth of God, there is no room for the allegorical mode of signifying in the Inferno. And since signs cannot point to God, they can signify only themselves, and through that the absence of the spirit.
Dante's entry into the Inferno precludes any possibility of a visionary experience. The realm he enters is called by Virgil «the blind world» («cieco mondo», 4. 13), and Dante refers to it as «a part where there is naught that shines» («parte ove non è che luca», 4. 151), «a place mute of all light» («loco d’ogne luce muto», 5. 26). If sight is the means through which the vision of «the ineffable» is to be achieved, blindness renders such a vision impossible. As I will show later, the apprehension of the living logos depends on seeing signs that are living and changing, signs that transform themselves into other signs, which in turn point to meanings that transcend each other, mutate, to lead the reader to the final realization that it is the vision which perfects itself to see, and through seeing, comprehend the «living light» («vivo lume», Par. 33. 110). Seeing in «the blind world» signs which are fixed literalizations of their meanings signals a mode of representation contrary to the one which Dante will start to develop in the Purgatorio.
Whereas the infernal gate at the beginning of canto 3 marks the mode of writing, the first sin punished in hell - carnality - represents the mode of reading, i.e., interpreting, the Inferno. Paolo and Francesca's literal reading of a book became the occasion for their sin. And so their punishment is literal too: the metaphorical winds of passion that moved them to action are now turned into literal physical winds - «the hellish hurricane» («la bufera infernal», 5. 31) - which torments the sinners. The literal usurps the figurai; or, to put it another way, the figurai becomes literalized. The principle of punishment (retribution) in hell - is based on the literalization of the sin. The infernal reality of the heresiarchs - those who preached that there is no life after death - is an eternal graveyard: «Suo cimitero da questa parte hanno / con Epicuro tutti suoi seguaci, / che l'anima col corpo morta fanno» (10. 13-15). Those who thirsted after blood are now immersed in boiling blood (canto 12); the evil counselors are turned into flaming tongues (canto 26); the schismatics and the sowers of discord have their bodies hacked, since in life they divided what was to remain united (canto 28). «Così s'osserva in me lo contrapasso», Bertran de Born says (v. 142). There is a reversal of the cause-effect relationship in such retribution. The perverted desires are now internalized in a stone-like fashion: they become arrested in the carnal form with a twist, with the spirit absent. Perverted desires assume perverted forms.
Punishments in the Inferno are corporeal. The forms that the human body assumes are often distorted, initially hard to recognize, but always distinct and fixed in their modes of existence. The images are most conspicuous, most tactile, olfactory. Such great concern with the body, in the realm where the substances are «shadows,» «shades,» expressions of the soul, may seem rather incongruous. The infernal forms are actually arrested in bodies, unlike the «shadows» in the Purgatorio, who have only the appearance of the human physical form, or the «shadows» in the Paradiso, who temporarily assume effulgent physical shape only for the sake of the pilgrim (and the reader). In the linguistic system of the Middle Ages developed by St. Augustine, the relationship between the body and the soul is analogous to that of the sign and its meaning. If then the soul becomes one with the body, or, in other words, if the body subsumes the soul, then meaning no longer extends from the sign but is arrested by it. In the Inferno words (in their larger application as signs) do not express meanings which by their nature are immaterial, but rather forcefully yoke meanings to words, materialize what transcends them, literalize what is metaphorical.
Let us look in more detail at one example of this process of literalization. I have chosen canto 13 for the present discussion because at first glance it appears more metaphorical or, more generally, figurai in its nature, since the souls of the suicides are not imprisoned in carnal forms, as is the case with the rest of Inferno. They are voices in dry bushes that bleed when broken, which may suggest an attempt at figurai representation. But are they really less literal than the rest?
The wood that Dante enters at the beginning of canto 13 is different from the one in which he found himself at the beginning of the poem. Although «selva selvaggia e aspra e forte» and pathless, the first wood does not appear lifeless. The wood of the suicides is dead (13. 4-10):

Non fronda verde, ma di color fosco;
non rami schietti, ma nodosi e 'nvolti;
non pomi v'eran, ma stecchi con tosco.

Non han sì aspri sterpi né sì folti
quelle fiere selvagge che 'n odio hanno
tra Cecina e Corneto i luoghi cólti.

Quivi le brutte Arpie lor nidi fanno…

If the function of the first wood is to serve as a standard locus for Dante's initial predicament and can easily be given an «allegorical» gloss, the second wood demands a different treatment. This is evident from the explanation Pier della Vigna offers the pilgrim about the genesis of the wood (vv. 94-108):

Quando si parte l'anima feroce
dal corpo ond’ella stessa s'è disvelta,
Minòs la manda a la settima foce.

Cade in la selva, e non l'è parte scelta;
ma là dove fortuna la balestra,
quivi germoglia come gran di spelta.

Surge in vermena e in pianta silvestra:
l'Arpie, pascendo poi de le sue foglie,
fanno dolore, e al dolor fenestra. C

ome l'altre verrem per nostre spoglie,
ma non però ch'alcuna sen rivesta,
che non è giusto aver ciò ch'om si toglie.

Qui le strascineremo, e per la mesta
selva saranno i nostri corpi appesi,
ciascuno al prun de l'ombra sua molesta.

What we witness here is another case of infernal literalizing, even etymologizing of concepts. Those who renounced their bodies are deprived of them in the afterlife. But since it is part of infernal justice that the punishment be corporeal, they must assume another form. Why Dante's choice is that of a wood is not clear to me. The reification here may be that of the human form giving way to the instrument of its own destruction, since hanging is probably a most common form of suicide, and since this is also the kind of eternal punishment awaiting the souls after the Last Judgment. Cassell suggests that the suicides' «infernal existence as trees apes Christ as symbolized by the Tree of the Cross in Christian art» (p. 33). There is also the possibility that Dante is playing an additional game of literalization by giving form to della Vigna's name (of the vineyard). The exegetical association of the vineyard with the kingdom of God and Christ finds its most celebrated expression in John 15:1-17: «I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. ... I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, with me in him, bears fruit in plenty; for cut off from me you can do nothing.» Dante's tactic is extremely reductive as far as the process of figuration is concerned. Not only is there no possibility of transferring meaning - this dead «vineyard» obviously does not point to the conventional signification ascribed to a vineyard; the meaning, moreover, is imprisoned in the literal with a fiendish twist. Cassell calls this procedure «obvious and blatant figurai reversal» when he discusses another possibility of interpretation the image of the thorn bush offers: «a Man crowned with thorns inverted as a thornbush crowned with a human body» (p. 34). The desperate attempt to free the soul from its material prison, since it is executed in a manner contrary to God's way of dissolving the union, results in ironic monstrosity.

Very peculiar in the case of the suicides is their way of producing speech: «Come d'un stizzo verde ch'arso sia / da l'un de' capi, che da l'altro geme / e cigola per vento che va via, / sì de la scheggia rotta usciva insieme / parole e sangue...» (13. 40-44). Thus, speech is given the material form of blood oozing from a dry branch. It appears to me that Dante is drawing here not only on the Polydorus episode in the Aeneid , but also on the early Christian tradition of the blood-stained speaking cross (of which The Dream of the Rood is probably the most popular version in English). In neither case, however, does blood become a vehicle for language. In Virgil we have bleeding shafts and a voice coming from a mound beneath them; in the Rood, the cross is heard as speaking in an undefined manner. Dante, on the other hand, creates a wholly original fusion in which blood embodies speech, in fierce parody of Christian Incarnation. If the blood-stained cross stands for the presence of Christ, the incarnation of the logos , the dry branch signals the absence, the denial of the body. Logically, then, if body is eliminated from the duality of body and blood introduced by the mystery of Transubstantiation, then the word must be assigned to the remaining element exclusively, and blood becomes language. This occurs as a process crippling signification, whose direction of signifying and transferring meaning is both defective and opposite to the traditional Christian process of signifying (Logos => Christ => human => body and blood => bread and wine). This is an operation that insists on sameness where there should be difference, that conflates the elements of linguistic signification by materializing that which is meant. And let me further note here that this kind of linguistic degradation is typical for the Inferno. Another instance occurs in canto 19 where we have a simoniac submerged in a round hole, heels over head, «lamenting with his shanks» (v. 45).
One more element worth noticing in connection with this example is the fixity of the concretization. Virgil refers to Pier as «imprisoned spirit» when he asks him to tell «come l'anima si lega / in questi nocchi» (w. 88-89). This permanence of infernal punishment is common to all the sinners, in contrast to Purgatory , where the operating principle is that of transition. It finds its culmination in Satan - the congealed center of gravity - in whose case not only the form of punishment is permanent but whose whole being is frozen. Those in hell are forever arrested in their form, like the writing on the portal at the entrance.

The case of Satan is a condensation of the signifying processes employed throughout the Inferno. Commonly considered a parody of the Trinity and/or a parody of the lignum vitae, Satan is the culmination of the mode governing the whole cantica - the perverted process of imitating the Godhead. The image of Satan's three heads chewing on the bodies of Brutus, Judas, and Cassius is but another literalization of a metaphor. As Cassell pointed out, this image reifies a metaphor found in Christian tradition where «the condition of being 'devoured by Satan's mouth' itself meant falling into temptation» (p. 99). It can also be seen as a parody of the lesson taught by Christ which is related in John's Gospel (6: 55-58), where Christ repeats several times, in «intolerable language,» the metaphor which contains the mystery of both the incarnation and the eucharist: «For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in him. As I, who am sent by the living Father, myself draw life from the Father, so whoever eats me will draw life from me. This is the bread come down from heaven...». What Christ promises metaphorically Satan executes literally.
The key terms used in discussing the figure of Satan are «parody,» «perversion,» «inversion.» They point to a mode of signifying characterized by twisted figuration, because Satan as the crux diaboli points to Christ in a manner opposite to that in which the Cross points to Christ's life-giving sacrifice. It signals an absence, not a presence, a negative signification, anamorphosis, rather than metamorphosis of images which we will witness in the Purgatorio, and especially in the final cantos of the Paradiso. Since in the Christian tradition signs are believed to be manifestations of spiritual meaning, pointers toward divine truth, the signifying process of the Inferno must be of a reversed order. In the realm of darkness, sin, and untruth, which culminates in Satan - «the father of lies» (John 8: 44) - meaning is achieved through a reversal. The infernal signs, which are often literalizations of metaphors, perversions of Christian symbols, mean only through their negative value. The recognition of meanings short-circuits, and the meaning can only turn upon itself. The moment of recognition, for example, that the image of Satan carries similarities to the cross or to the Trinity is accompanied by a simultaneous realization that it is a perversion. The initial impulse to associate a sign with a given meaning of a higher, spiritual order (a => A) is undermined by the realization that the original sign is only a negative of an already established Christian sign (a  -a). Being lies, these signs cannot point to truths beyond themselves.
It is very significant that in order to re-enter the world where the signifying process operates in a transcendental way, Dante has to turn upside-down. The sottosopra turning on the side of Satan signals the emergence from the negative into the positive, because only there can signs point to meanings of spiritual order, meanings that exist beyond the signs.
Dante represents in the Inferno a world of an order where the body through its perverted desires subsumes the spirit, where the body ruled by passions becomes the instrument of spiritual death (Romans 7:5). We are dealing here with the flesh that corrupts, «the written letter» that «brings death» (2 Corinthians 3: 6). This body is unredeemed, not affected by the Incarnation. If Dante is working toward allegory in the Divine Comedy, he has to shift to a different mode of representation in the subsequent cantiche. He has to free «spirit» from «matter» create a space between them. He announces this change at the very beginning of the Purgatorio: «Ma qui la morta poesì resurga, / o sante Muse, poi che vostro sono...» (vv. 7-8). The language has to regain its referentiality, the space between the sign and the signified - indispensable in the process of creating signification - has to be re-established.

Date: 2021-12-24