Dante’s Poetics of Revelation [William Franke]

Table of contents

Dati bibliografici

Autore: William Franke

Tratto da: The revelation of imagination. From Homer and the Bible through Virgil and Augustine to Dante

Editore: Northwestern University Press, Evaston

Anno: 2015

Pagine: 312-327

1. Didactic Poem and Summa of Truth

Dante lived from 1265 to 1321 and wrote at the height of the Middle Ages, just after the high-water mark of the Scholastic synthesis, in which the metaphysics of Aristotle were wedded to Christian theology in the doctrine of God as Being (esse) by philosopher-theologians like Albert the Great (1206- 1280) and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). It was, moreover, a great age of encyclopedias such as the Speculum maius of Vincent de Beauvais (1190- 1264) and the Legenda aurea of Jacopo de Voragine (1230-1298). In its own very different way, like Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae, Dante’s Commedia represents a grand synthesis of the knowledge available to his age of culture.
From early in antiquity, as we have seen, poetry was often considered to be the original and comprehensive form of knowledge in general, and Dante revives this humanistic ideal and the claim it makes for poetry. Virgil and Beatrice, his guides, are also his teachers on a journey that is always fundamentally a gnoseological journey traversing the whole known world—past, present, and future—as it could be conceived in Dante’ times. The encyclopedic aims of the poem become conspicuous early on, in Limbo, with its extensive, immensely learned catalog of philosophers and poets, among other great and famous personages (Inferno 4.70-147).
Homer was esteemed to be the summa of Greek culture and the encyclopedia of all significant knowledge of the world. He was imitated by Virgil, in whom these “epic” ambitions became more self-conscious. Saint Augustine, too, turned his Confessions into a kind of encyclopedia, especially from book 10 on. At that point in the aftermath of his conversion story, Augustine begins interrogating Memory as the place where all knowledge is stored. He turns from a personal story of individual redemption to the interpretation of universal philosophical truths and to exegesis of the story of Creation. The Bible, of course, for Dante and his Christian medieval culture is the book of books and the book of the universe. It contains preeminently, as divinely revealed, all that can be learned from any other source. Dante’s work, in its encyclopedic scope, is thus an imitation and dissemination of the Bible.
This means also that the Divine Comedy is a didactic poem in the broadest and deepest sense. Its lesson is the most important one humanly conceivable. “Mark well my words,” it insists, like rhe bard in Blake’s Milton, for “they are of your eternal salvation.” Indeed, the literal subject of the poem is the afterlife, which consists of souls in Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven all revealed in the eschatological light of their eternal destinations. The knowledge in question is not just a knowledge of facts and culture but, much more vitally, a knowledge by revelation of the ultimate ends of life and history. In this regard, the poem fits into and, moreover, brings to its culmination the tradition of poetry as religious revelation that we have been tracing from Homer and the Bible. Of course, this would not forestall further elaborations of the tradition of prophetic poetry subsequently by the likes of Milton and Blake.

2. The Figural Method of Representation

The basic interpretive technique used by Dante to perform this revelation of ultimate, saving truth is a species of allegory known as “figuralism.” This is the key to the poem’s working as a prophetic revelation. Dante represents the souls in the form of bodies and as performing actions that epitomize the sort of action they freely chose to engage in on earth. Their earthly lives in this way serve as “figures” for what each soul has become in eternity. The souls represented as already in the state in which they will remain for eternity are the “fulfillment” of the condition that their earthly lives have prefigured. By this device, the eternal state of souls after death is made poetically palpable and graphic through realistic representation of the fateful moment and decisive act of their mortal existence: this moment figuratively represents their eternal destiny.
In its figural dimension, Dante’s poem is modeled on the Exodus. If this were not already evident from the text itself (especially in Purgatory 2.43, which cites Psalm 113: In exitu Israel de Aegypto), we could nevertheless infer it from Dante’ discussions of theological allegory in his theoretical writings, particularly the Convivio 2.i, along with the Letter to Can Grande (Epistle 13.7-8). We have already considered (in chapter 1, section III) Exodus as a model for the prophetic interpretation of history in the Bible. In Dante’s prophetic poem, the Exodus becomes a general paradigm of escape from the enslavement of sin followed by an arduous journey to the promised land of Christian salvation. From the other side of its cultural heritage (the classical), the journey is also quasi-Odyssean or “Ulyssean,” in Dante’s Latinized rendering.
This itinerary to hard-won freedom starts from a key passage in the prologue scene, in which Dante begins his ascent up the Mountain. He has just figured himself as a survivor narrowly escaped from shipwreck:

poi ch’èi posato un poco il corpo lasso,
ripresi via per la piaggia diserta,
sì che ’l piè fermo sempre era ’l più basso.
(Inferno 1.28-30)

(When I had rested a little my tired body,
I began again the way along the deserted slope
so that my left foot was always the lower one.)

As Charles Singleton pointed out, the immediately preceding verses referred to Dante’ mind (“animo”) as looking back like a shipwreck over the perilous pass that he has managed to survive (1.22-27), but it is Dante’s body that rises up out of the simile of the shipwreck in order to embark on the journey to the other world. By bringing the body of the protagonist that is going to make the journey out of a poetic simile in this way, Dante’s poem produces, out of its own powers of poetic figuration, an incarnate revelation. In this bodily resurrection of the poem’s protagonist from a symbolic shipwreck, poetic language and metaphor themselves produce a type of figural embodiment that is destined to become the bearer of the revelation of the poem.
Redemption, like revelation, is emphatically incarnate in the perspective developed by Dante’ poem, and this is one of the deeply distinguishing features of the whole Christian understanding of revelation. That is one reason why poetic representation, alongside pictorial and plastic arts, has such a prominent place in transmitting and achieving revelation throughout the cultural history of Christianity. Poetry, with its figurative, pictorial powers and its sensuous sonorities, is peculiarly apt to give an incarnate rendition of the intellectual contents of language. The language of poetry can even be defined, as it was by Roman Jakobson, as “sense made sensuous.” Poetry in the Western tradition following Dante, from Metaphysicals to Romantics to Symbolists, has often exhibited a propensity to interpret itself as, in effect, an incarnation of the divine Word in the form of some higher Truth or Meaning. Of course, the very strength of this proclivity inherent in poetic language generates many attempts precisely to interrupt and counter it, especially among modern poets, starting from Baudelaire and Rimbaud, for example, with their anti-idealist and sometimes satanic insistence.

3. Poetry as Prophetic Vision of History

Poetic prophecy, as a superior sort of vision, as inspired insight of the kind to which poets since Homer have continually laid claim, is deliberately raised by Dante to a new level of seriousness and self-consciousness. Beyond the conventional gesture of the invocation of the Muses, Dante, assuming an authoritative attitude and prophetic tone, directly addresses himself to a reader in the name of Truth. A distinctive new accent in Dante’s re-creation of the office of prophecy, within the parameters of poetry and specifically of epic narrative, is the literal truth claim he makes. We have already seen the extent to which prophecy is interlocked with history, so that in the case of the Bible we were able to define prophecy as the interpretation of history from the point of view of divine revelation. Even Homer purported to relate the true history of the Trojan War and its aftermath, and he claimed tro do so assisted by the divine Muses, to whom all history was perpetually present. But Dante claims to have been there historically himself and to have seen with his own eyes all that he relates of the eternal worlds. Moreover, at the outset of his journey, he invokes the Muses together with his own ingenious mind or memory, to assist him in making all that he has experienced manifest:

O muse, o alto ingegno or m’aiutate;
o mente che scrivesti ciò ch’io vidi,
qui si parrà la tua nobilitate.

(O muses, o high genius help me now;
o memory that wrote what I saw,
here your nobility will show itself.)

The basis for prophecy here is direct personal witness — “what I saw” (“ciò ch’io vidi,” 2.8) — which regrounds the conventional appeal to the Muses for help in representing what is beyond normal, mortal vision. This appeal takes an especially telling turn when Dante invokes his own “memory” and invites it to show its nobility by manifesting what it wrote. Writing is thereby recognized not only as an external medium but rather as intrinsic to the experience. To the extent that the experience as recorded in memory is already “written,” the literary medium by which Dante poetically conveys his vision is brought into—and becomes constitutive of—the making of the visionary experience itself.
Such reflective concentration on his poetic art and its capability of modulating into prophecy, in order thereby to reveal a higher reality, characterizes Dante’ work throughout its whole extent. The theoretical reflection on writing, poetry, and prophecy as all co-implicated in his act of literary creation and religious vision marks Dante’s poem with a distinctive character that earns it its preeminent place in the history of prophetic poetry, as well as of literature generally. In Dante, the question of poetry as prophecy becomes a central and conscious preoccupation. Poetry is not simply assumed as the necessary vehicle for a message of purportedly divine import. Nor are prophetic strains and utterances occasionally interjected into what otherwise would remain merely an artful display of human talents in poetic composition. In Dante, poetry becomes programmatically prophetic. It is prophetic as poetry, which becomes, then, not just the rhetorical dress for a religious message. The poetic act itself is discovered in all its intrinsically prophetic potential.

4. History, Eschatology, Apocalypse

In this respect—as a peculiarly intense and self-conscious instance of the communication of poetic tradition as prophetic or as religious revelation— Dante’s Divine Comedy marks the culmination of the developments that we have been tracing all through the Western humanities tradition. Poetry becomes prophecy in Dante’s magnum opus more programmatically and explicitly than ever before. Poetry as prophecy, and finally as apocalyptic, coincides with the injunction to remake one's history through reinterpreting it in the present: poetic prophecy issues in an urgent call to conversion. This is a call to conversion of religious faith, of course, but first and foremost of interpretive outlook. Interpretation is the decisive locus of revelation of the meaning of life—of individual as well as collective sense or meaning as deposited in tradition. The origination of tradition and its truth—and so also of history and its meanings—in the act of interpretation is realized by Dante more deliberately and intensely than by any of his predecessors. Although he is for the most part only bringing out into the open the far-reaching implications of their works, he also radically transforms the scope of what prophecy as interpretation in poetic literature—epic, dramatic, and lyrical—ultimately entails.
Dante, moreover, represents the terminus, or at least an apex, of Western tradition in its development toward a unified vision of reality as the total vision of apocalypse, wherein all things are revealed in their final truth. Such unity of vision has presumably become impossible in the modern world. It is often held to have been realized as never before or since by Dante in the Divine Comedy.The modern Italian poet Eugenio Montale remarks that this unity was still possible in Dante’s age, after which the historical conditions for such a synoptic vision of reality never existed again. Dante is an icon of this totalizing, unitary outlook, and the visionary mode of his poem expresses its claim of access to ultimate truth. And yet he also shows how even apocalyptic revelation relies on the dynamics of interpretation—the interested appropriation of meaning by individuals in historically specific circumstances. To this extent, individual interpretation and even creative appropriation are recognized as key to unlocking the secret sense and the final truth of human lives and of life as a whole. This truth, as it is revealed in Holy Scripture and in texts, including Dante’s own, which mediate and renew Scriptural revelation, is always in need of further interpretation in order to remain actual and operative in the minds and hearts of individuals.
Prophecy in the narrower sense of foretelling the future is already largely surpassed by Virgil. The grand vision of the Roman future at the center of his epic is actually an interpretation of the past as itself a prophecy of a future destiny that is to be enacted in the present. Dante, by grasping the importance of such prophetic-historical interpretation to the shaping of human destiny by the epic enterprise, and heightening the vocation of poetry to the level of apocalyptic revelation, makes the announcement of immanent redemption for the world the central message of his poem. According to his prophecy, the veltro (“greyhound”) will come not devouring land and wealth (“Questi non ciberà terra né peltro”) but nourished by wisdom, love, and virtue (“sapienza, amore e virtute,” 1.103-4) from a land “between Feltro and Feltro.” The felt suggests, among other overtones, medieval writing implements, specifically a felt blotter, and thereby hints possibly that the poem itself, as a prophetic revelation, may play a messianic role in the event of salvation that it announces. This cryptic code for identifying (or rather failing to unambiguously identify) the Redeemer belongs to the allegorical nature of Dante’s prophecy. It is not explicit but rather disguised in figures whose true meaning calls for interpretation, perhaps for unending interpretation. Indeed, scholarship on the veltro prophecy has never been able to satisfactorily resolve the question of the identity of the expected savior.
This anticipation of an apparently historical savior modulates into an apocalyptic expectation of the renewal of the world, for which Dante mobilizes the classical myth of the return of the Golden Age. The poem lays claim to being nothing short of an eschatological vision. That this prophetic revelation of a final End should be realized expressly in and through the experience of reading poetry is rather extraordinary. In crucial ways, it inaugurates the sense of self-reflectiveness as an ultimate revelation characteristic of modern consciousness. We have already sounded its premises as they are set down in decisive ways by Augustine. But in Augustine, writerly self-consciousness still understood itself as a reflection of Transcendence, of the infinite consciousness of God. And Dante likewise writes before the modern severing of consciousness from its ground in the Divine Mind. Yet he does so with a vivid and startlingly modern sense of discovery of himself through poetic invention as a unique, concrete human person: he grasps his humanity as participating in divine revelation in the historical sphere. Nevertheless, Dante’s awakening to new consciousness as an individual is conspicuously marked by traditional apocalyptic signs: the passage into Hell occurs between his swooning at the end of Inferno 3 (verses 130-36) in terror at an earthquake, with a flash of vermillion light, and his being reawakened from “deep sleep” by the sound of thunder at the beginning of Inferno 4 (“Ruppemi l’alto sonno ne la testa / un greve truono”). By such means, Dante’s unprecedented, newfound self-consciousness is inscribed into age-old traditions of religious revelation.
The work's prophetic, eschatological meaning is closely bound up also with a political vision that is intelligible only in light of the contemporary political scene. The two great powers of world history, emperor and pope, are bitter rivals fighting for hegemony in medieval Europe. Dante’s own city, Florence, is riven asunder by two parties, the Guelfs, allied with the papacy, and the Ghibellines, in league with the emperor. Dante himself is exiled as a result of internecine party politics, leaving the city in 1301, never to return. He writes his poem in exile and in relentless protest against the injustice that reigns in his own city and in the world at large. At the same time, he prophetically envisages an apocalyptic event that will overturn this reign of wickedness and restore justice upon earth.
The political vicissitudes of Dante’s life and times are brought to focus, first, in cantos 6 and 10 of the Inferno in relation to fellow Florentines, Ciacco and Farinata degli Uberti, with their prophecies of Dante'’s exile. The events alluded to are, in fact, important background for reading Dante’s poem. In 1260 the emperor’s party, the Ghibellines, had gained control of Florence through their victory at Montaperti near Siena. But in 1266, a year after Dante’s birth, the defeat of imperial forces at Benevento, near Naples, by Charles of Anjou, brother of the French king, Louis IX, and favored also by Pope Clement IV, ushered in an era of Guelf power in Florence in which Dante himself participated.
Dante was a Guelf, even though his ideology was to develop along imperialist lines. Ironically, with the demise of the Ghibellines, the Guelf party itself split into white and black Guelfs, reproducing the ideological divide between champions of the empire versus supporters of the papacy. The death of the imperial heir-apparent, Manfredi, at Benevento, together with the demise in 1268 of the grandson of Frederick the Great, Conradino, captured at Tagliacozzo and beheaded at Naples, sealed the fate of this imperial dynasty and therewith of the Holy Roman Empire: it was condemned to be ineffectual in Italy for the remainder of Dante’s days. The defunct status of the empire was proved again by the unsuccessful, in fact fatal campaign of Henry VII of Luxembourg, who descended into Italy in 1310. This claimant to the imperial throne was enthusiastically hailed by the poet (Epistola 7) with an impassioned call to arms (Epistola 5), but in vain: by 1313, Henry was dead.
Considered with hindsight, Dante’ visionary apocalypse projecting a restoration of unified rule to the world under the aegis of the Holy Roman Empire appears thus to have been anachronistic and politically unrealistic. As apocalyptic vision, however, it represents an ideal of world government as the only effective guarantor of peace and justice on earth among inevitably fractious human beings. And as such, Dante's vision of a unified world order remains compelling as a possible and perhaps necessary ideal in our own age of globalization, with its distressing sectarianism—its fragmentation into rivalrous and often warring ethnic and religious identities.

5. The Interpretive Journey and the Allegory of Reading: Inferno, Cantos 1-8

Humanities traditions, as we have seen, live by being interpreted, which means being constantly reinterpreted, and the truth they bear and disseminate depends on how they impinge on the present—on the historical and institutional and personal situations into which they are interpreted. Their representations of the past reveal a meaning that can become prophetic, to the extent that it represents a challenge to the present to realize its own highest possibilities as these are disclosed by the past. Energized in this way by relation to the present, the past can become prophetic of the future, which it then actually contributes to shaping. This happens especially in epic poems, which interpret the past in accordance with a claim to divine revelation that is expressed in the appeal to the inspiration of the Muses. Epics typically address this interpretation specifically to a historical people.
In this sense, every text in the humanities tradition—on the model of the epics that, to a considerable degree, found it—is not only about the past that is being recounted but also about the present, in which its meaning is sifted, and about the future, which begins to be realized by anticipation as its promises are turned into active projects. Humanities texts live by continually projecting the old stories into new historical contexts in which they take on new meanings and thereby interpret the present, illuminating it, revealing it to itself in ways that would never be possible without the historical perspective that tradition affords. Conversely, the past is revised in the light of the present and its possibilities: new, previously invisible or neglected aspects of it move into the foreground as prophetic of a possible, newly emergent future.
We have observed this reshuffling of tenses—which reverses time and anticipates it—-taking place within Greco-Roman tradition in the epic, as well as in the context of the Judeo-Christian tradition in the Bible. We dwelt, for example, upon how Adam is us all, as even his name suggests, and on how the Exodus from Egypt is memorialized in order to be repeated and relived in each new, successive generation. The text itself insists, with reiterated injunctions, that the story be told and retold to “your sons and your sons’ sons.” This demand for reliving by retelling, or by narrative rumination, re-actualizes and can even encroach upon the “original” event. Retelling becomes a retrospective, even a retroactive realization of the original events: these events are revealed and realized in their enduring meaning and truth through the process—not to say the “progress”—of tradition.
This faculty of tradition to expose and challenge the present, to address itself to us as readers, by contemporizing the past and future in the present, becomes especially intense in prophetic poems. By virtue of some extraordinary access or uncanny insight into the meaning and destiny of things, prophetic poets lay claim to delivering nothing short of divine revelation.
The claim to prophetic knowledge through inspired interpretation of the past in the present and in the incandescent light of an envisioned future becomes more conscious and explicit in Dante than ever before.
For Dante, the prophetic meaning of his narrative is actualized in an event of interpretation expressly enjoined upon his poem’s readers—particularly in the poem’s addresses to its readers. The address to the reader thus becomes the locus for revelation and for the realization of truth in self-consciously interpretive experience. Everything that supposedly happened in the past that is recounted by the poem in a certain sense happens all over again in the present of the poems telling as an event of interpretation, and it is here that its vital meaning and truth are revealed. The narrative as such assumes the status of an allegory of reading. The story is, in this respect, about the interpretations enacted by the reader and the conversion of life that these interpretations (can) inspire and embody. Explicitly through these addresses, the reader’s interpretation is integrated into the poem itself, just as the poem becomes part of the reader's life.
The emphasis on repetition of past events in the present time of poetic interpretation and reading is palpable from the first verses of the poem in the insistence on the prefix “ri” in “ritrovai,” “rinova,” “ridir”: it is so hard for Dante to retell what happened to him that fear is renewed in merely thinking of it (“nel pensier rinova la paura”). Everything is being reenacted, and it is in this literary reenactment that the full charge of emotion can perhaps for the first time register and, accordingly, the crucial meaning of events be comprehended. Then, and perhaps only then, their saving significance can be realized and result in conversion. This possibility of “conversion” is precisely what is at stake in the first canto of the poem, right from the proem, with its rhetoric of reenactment and its emphasis upon poetry as the site of an original experience of truth, inasmuch as poetry involves the reactualization of events, their being relived in poetic interpretation:

Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura,
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte,
chè nel pensier rinova la paura!

(O how difficult a thing it is to say how it was,
this wild wood, bitter and oppressive,
that fear renews in thinking about it!)

Thus literary repetition presents itself from the outset as the origin of the conversion experience that the poem invites its readers to participate in and make their own. Participative reading can validate Dante’s conversion experience, for the latter is potentially reenacted by the reader every time the text is read. This gesture of bringing the drama and its emotion into the moment of interpretation as a repetition of Dante’ original experience in the underworld is frequently revisited throughout the Inferno. It is the extreme intensity of Dante’s encounters that provokes this emotional osmosis from the original experience to the experience of interpreting it, or from the narrated temporality to the temporality of the narrating, which is itself already an act of interpreting (see, further, 3.132; 5.25-27; 6.1-9; 8.56; 16.12; 17.115-23; 22.31; 24.84; 26.19; 28.113-14; 32.71-72; in different ways also 4.145-47; 10.1; 7.19-21; and 14.16-18; 13.25, “dico,” “I say” in 8.1 and 14.8).
In this sense, the journey realized by Dante’s poem is an interpretive journey as much as a literal journey through the other world. The latter journey has some traits of fiction; the former is in every sense real. To the extent that Dante’ claims to truth may not be believable at the literal level of a journey through eternity, still there is a literal journey in interpretation that is manifestly realized in and through the poem by its being read. When transferred onto this journey of interpretation on which Dante takes the reader, the imperious claims to truth are no longer far-fetched: they become plausible and even compelling. The reader need only believe his or her own experience of poetry.
This aspect of the poem—its built-in interpretive dimension and its character as a script for interpretive acts performed by Dante himself and by the reader in his wake—is announced from the opening verses and is called back to mind repeatedly throughout the poem by the shifts into the present tense: the present is the tense of interpreting and, in this sense, of reenacting the incidents that are narrated. What the poem as a whole relates is not only the past action of Dante's visit to the afterlife in 1300 but also his reactions to it as he relives the whole journey in the experience of writing it, which is the act of interpreting it poetically. And at this level, the reader, too, can directly share with Dante in the journey of interpretation that the poem re-creates and is.
Part of this fantastic poem’s insistence on its own literal truth—as in the invocation in Inferno 2: “O memory that wrote what I saw” (“O mente che scrivesti ciò ch’io vidi”)—is to be accounted for by Dante’s new and acute apprehension of the literariness of truth, of the way that truth is produced in and by the event of reading and writing. This was already patently the case, though it remained still largely unacknowledged, in Augustine’s conversion narrative, with its multiple framings by narrations of other exemplary conversions. But Dante exploits all the resources of literature—the subtle suggestions of poetic language, the dramatic effect of graphic description, a savant design of narrative structure—in order to enact a religious revelation that occurs in the present tense of the reading of the poem. He produces thereby a text that actually performs the revelation it conveys rather than only telling about it. Any mere telling about can tend to conceal more than it reveals. But as inducing an interpretive experience—one that can be as much religious as literary in character and that, in any case, converts its reader to a new sense of existence and its possibilities—the poem itself becomes a revelatory event. The human reality of the poem as an interpretive event thus can become the revelation of a putatively transcendent, theological truth. The experience of poetry discloses what claims to be the ultimate meaning of things, and in this sense poetry becomes religious revelation.
The first fully developed dramatic episode of the poem demonstrates this interpretive-revelatory dynamic in exemplary fashion. From its first highly individualized representation of sinners, namely, Paolo and Francesca, the poem is explicitly about reading. Their sin of lust is mediated by reading and is shown to be inextricable from it. Likewise Dante’ reading of their story together with the way he provokes his own reader’s interpretations of it—is laden with implications about how sin is itself basically an act of false selfinterpretation, a misreading of one’s own life and its meaning. In some way or other, all these false readings fail to acknowledge God as the Lord of life. They are self-interpretations of individuals who obstinately opt for a view of themselves that is sequestered from divine revelation. Francesca’s interpretation of herself and Paolo contradicts God's manifest judgment revealed as the final truth about their lives by the evidence of their condition in the eternal world.
What we see directly are the punishments, but these are transparent to the sins which they, in effect, interpret and reveal in their ultimate meaning. In general, rhe punishment simply makes explicit and permanent the life-choice that is elected in committing the sin. The first in the series of sensual sins is lust: the sinners are being driven by a tempest that externalizes the inner state of turmoil of “those who subject reason to desire.” The punishment reveals the nature of the sin and fulfills its true intent by fully and manifestly realizing its inescapable consequences. This understanding of sin makes the punishment intrinsic to the sin rather than a condition externally imposed by a punishing God.
In the case of the neutrals, who in canto 3 are actually barred from Hell and so not under the same law of retribution, this logic is reversed: the sinners are subjected to the very state that they attempted to avoid, and it is intensified so as to become unbearable. Since their sin is not exactly what they chose but rather their refusing to make any choice whatever, they are being painfully spurred into motion behind a banner, and so are goaded into a perpetual parody of partisanship. Their being forced to run around frenetically makes mockery of their having preferred inaction, showing that that, too, has consequences and is, in itself, an adherence simply to themselves (“per sé fuoro,” 3.39) rather than to any greater cause. And this is deemed even more reprehensible than any of the choices they might otherwise have made. The price of passivity is made painfully tangible in their being stung or bitten by wasps and giant flies and noisome worms. Crucial is that what these sinners experience be, in any case, directly the result and, in effect, the true realization of their failure to choose for one party or the other, for good or for evil. The moral: you get what you choose, but if you do not choose at all, this refusal (“rifiuto,” 3.60) will itself become your inescapable fate and will sting and torture you unremittingly.
Deeply considered, each of the punishments externalizes the corresponding sin and thereby makes the sin transparent to the false interpretation of self that it results from and embodies and enacts. Whatever the specific nature of the sin in question, it entails some sort of positioning of oneself vis-à-vis God and others, and it is this self-understanding that issues in concrete acts. Sinful acts are the expression of erroneous, willful interpretations of self as autonomous and separate from God. There are as many sins as there are ways of alienating oneself from God. AIl are forms of distorted and willfully false misinterpretation, pivoting always on some misinterpretation of oneself. As forms of mistaken self-interpretation, the sins represented are applicable not only to the characters but also potentially to the reader. This is especially so because reading is an activity of self-interpretation par excellence. In order to interpret each character, readers cannot but interpret themselves and project onto the characters their own possibilities of being. The reader, as reader, is able thus to participate, at least potentially, in each sin as at bottom a possible mode (however covert or latent) of their own self-(mis)interpretation.
The self-reflexiveness of the poem, the potential application of its implicit moral sense to the reader, applies in some way to each representation of sin in the Inferno. But the first detailed description by Dante of an act of sin, namely, Paolo and Francesca's sin of adultery, demonstrates this emblematically by focusing explicitly on reading as the locus of self-interpretation and misinterpretation: it suggests how sin per se is symbolically bound up with “reading” understood in just this sense of self-interpretation. For at the source of Francesca” sin with Paolo and, inseparably, her self-misrepresentation is the reading of a book: the Arthurian romance of Lancelot is presented literally as literature pandering to lust. The name of the book”s author, Gallehaut, is made to serve, somewhat anachronistically, as already synonymous with pandering: “Gallehaut was the book and the one who wrote it” (“Galeotto fu il libro e chi lo scrisse,” 5.137).
It is the reading of this romanticized tale of courtly love, or rather of adulterous passion, that induces Paolo and Francesca to cede to a falsely idealized interpretation of their lust for each other. And Francesca is continuing still to pander this false interpretation by recounting her sin to Dante in the rapturous measures of the love lyric, indeed by echoing just such love lyrics as Dante himself wrote in his youth. Her “Love, which swiftly takes the gentle heart” (“Amor, ch’al cor gentil ratto s’apprende,” 5.100) rehearses the love poetry of Guido Guinizelli, on whom Dante’s own amorous verse was modeled. This line cites specifically “Foco d’amor in gentil cor s'aprende” (“Fire of love in noble heart is kindled”) from Guinizelli’s sonnet “AI cor gentil rempaira sempre amore,” which Dante imitated in chapter 20 of his Vita nuova. However, this exalted and refined language notwithstanding, some of the less polite terms, like “bocca” (“mouth”) or “questi” (“this one here”) for Paolo, betray the cruder, more sensual motives of this discourse by a bourgeois dame out of contemporary chronicle assuming pretentious airs of nobility. Heard in this conjunction, her first address of Dante as gracious “living creature,” literally “O animal” (“O animal grazioso e benigno,” 5.88) may have also a brute overtone unintended by Francesca and jarring within the classical rhetoric of her captatio benevolentiae.
Dante construes the sin of the lustful as a “subjecting of reason to desire” (“peccator carnali, / che la ragion somettono al talento,” 5.38-39), and he shows how exactly this is what threatens him and all who listen to Francesca—all those who read his text. The infectiousness of Francesca's sin of interpreting herself in a way contrary to the truth revealed by the judgment manifest in her is demonstrated by Dante’s own reactions. He literally falls for Francesca and her seductive story, as the last verse of the canto says: “and I fell as a dead body falls” (“e caddi come corpo morto cade”).
Dante (as poet, but not as character) understands this surrender to sensuality as a sort of death, the death inherent in the body per se. In Dante’s Christian medieval and moral understanding, a human body, to the extent that it is infected by sensuality, is already dead and fallen. If we listen soberly, discerningly, and even a little suspiciously, Dante’s own interpretation of himself as “tristo e pio” (“sad and full of pity,” or “sad and compassionate”) in his reaction to Francesca sounds like a moralization and Christianization of what is actually his libidinous interest in her intriguing story. Despite his affecting a religious detachment and compassion, a much more passionate sort of involvement is betrayed by the eager accents with which he solicits the juicy details of “how?” and “when?” she fell into the forbidden embraces: “at what point and in what way did love grant / you to know the dubious desires?” (“a che e come concedette amore / che conosceste i dubbiosi disiri?” 5.119-20).
From the beginning of his encounter with the lustful, Dante understands his own reaction in terms of the Christian virtue of “pity” or “compassion” (“pietà,” 5.72). This term is suggested to him by Francesca herself (5.93). But his initial perception of these souls as “ancient ladies and knights” (“le donne antiche e’ cavalieri,” 5.71) hints that he may be dupe to a romanticized misinterpretation of this company of sinners. He is like them in having his reason placed into subjection by desire: he is involved emotionally and cannot extricate himself and in the end literally faints and falls, which symbolically is to die.
The readers, in turn, are presented with the question of how to react to Francesca and her story. Should we recognize her high citations as shabby artifices employed to disguise sneaking lust and to seduce unwary readers by their romantic rhetoric? Her own idealizing misinterpretation of her carnal sensuality, which rubs off on Dante in his perception of the lustful as noble knights and ladies, tempts the reader as well. Indeed many critics and readers have glorified Francesca into a Dantesque heroine. This was the case particularly in the Romantic age, and such a strain resonates still, for example, in Puccini’s opera Francesca da Rimini (1914, Teatro Regio, Turin). But precisely this sort of reading is exposed as an interpretive trap, as itself exactly the sin for which Francesca is punished. What she does right here in the encounter with Dante, in proffering the misinterpretation of herself within which she continues to live—or rather to eternally die—:is itself the sin for which she is being punished. She performs it ever anew in the eternal present of Hell and in the endless repetitions of this text. It is, we have seen, fundamentally a sin of self-misrepresentation, of interpreting herself in a way that denies God and his judgment on her sin. The divine judgment reveals her as blinded by the lust that she legitimizes in her tale. And this is precisely what she does in the encounter with Dante, specifically in the way she presents herself thus also before the eyes of his readers: they, in turn, are tempted in their own imagination of the scene to cede to sensual lust aroused by her seductive words.
This case shows exemplarily how the true sense of the characters’ histories is presented in and through their modes of interpreting themselves presently in the text. The sinners are punished not just for what they have done in the past but for what they continue to do as we encounter them presently in our reading; their sin is an ongoing reality in the way they constitute themselves by self-interpretation in the text we read. Francesca's sin consists not only in one past act of passion and adultery or in any other facts and events of her personal history. It is constituted much more essentially by her self-(mis) interpretations performed in the text as we read it. And this specific misinterpretation may well implicate also the reader. The chain begins with Dante himself as the first reader of his Francesca, vulnerable as he is to the seductions of her story and its poetic language. The incipit of the following canto confirms that Dante’s emotions of “pity” and compassionate “sadness” fully confused him, so that he lost his mind and judgment—just like the lustful, who “subject reason to desire”:

Al tornar de la mente, che si chiuse
dinanzi a la pietà d’i due cognati,
che di trestizia tutto mi confuse, ...

(At the return of consciousness, which closed
in view of the pity of the two in-laws,
who completely confounded me with sadness…)

Francesca’s power of attraction is unmistakable, as Dante’s sympathetic reaction demonstrates. Yet there is something equivocal about her seductive blandishments and about the idyllic description she gives—even from the midst of the maelstrom that now devours her!—of her native land as the place where the river Po descends to the “peace” of the sea (5.99). For she, in contrast, is forever consumed by the winds of passion to which she willingly abandoned herself, surrendering her power of rational self-control. If we understand her sin, and each sin, as a form of self-(mis)interpretation, the deeper sense of justice in the Inferno surfaces. It becomes glaringly evident in Francesca how sin is its own punishment and how the punishment, too, is nothing other than a perpetuation of the self-misinterpretation in which the sin consists.
The pains of Hell are to be understood as eternalizing the willful desires that constitute the corresponding sins in the first place. In Hell, these willed desires are simply followed out to their natural and necessary consequences. One’s freely chosen way of being is the decisive act of will that alone can be sinful. It is the only basis for one's fate in eternity. For God does not vengefully punish: he rather gives each soul only what it has freely chosen. The punishments are not just externally imposed: they are rather manifestations and intensifications of the state chosen by those who sin. This state flows from each soul’s free interpretation of itself and of the sense of its existence. Fundamentally, sinful souls choose to understand themselves as separate from God. They prefer to believe a conceit of their own fabrication rather than to accept the divine Will that created them with a specific purpose for their lives. The damned, furthermore, persist in such a choice beyond the point of no return, the point at which their will is no longer capable of reversing itself. We see Francesca even in eternity still resisting seeing herself in accordance with the divine Judgment.
Through persistent sin, free will is eventually lost, as Saint Augustine taught, notably in De libero arbitrio. Free indulgence becomes habit and eventually results in loss of the ability not to sin. What we once chose freely becomes addiction, compulsion, necessity: we become it. Eventually we no longer know how to understand ourselves otherwise than in terms of the sin—or, more precisely, of the self-interpretation that a certain sin entails. We die morally, and at that point it is too late to change. This is demonstrated in the punishments of the gluttonous (canto 6), of the avaricious and prodigal (canto 7), and of the slothful and wrathful (canto 8). In each case, the punishment is the sin presented as involving a specific misinterpretation of being human, one that distorts and eventually destroys human nature in its original state as created by God.

Date: 2022-01-02