A rereading of Inferno IX [John Saly]

Dati bibliografici

Autore: John Saly

Tratto da: Lectura Dantis

Numero: VII

Anno: 1990

Pagine: 36-46

The dynamic pattern in the second half of canto VIII and all of canto IX is a pattern of arrest and re-start. It dominates not only the movement of the ninth canto, but the entire journey. Canto IX is a canto whose emphasis is par excellence allegorical. The Comedy is a spiritual journey through the spiritual landscape of the human soul, the goal of which is a spiritual transformation that takes place in this life for both author and reader. If we start from this definition, we find that the difficulties of reading the poem are due to the unavoidable representation of the things of spirit — the phrase is a metaphor in itself — in the language of the senses. The reader who has not intuited them directly in a flash of mystical insight that lays bare the invisible world must needs rely for truth on the poet's imagination which has been called the handmaid of the spiritual intellect by Richard of St. Victor.
To use sense images for the sake of leading the reader to the understanding of spiritual realities is, of course, to employ the figural or allegorical method. Figures are poctic images representing personages and events to promote the understanding of spiritual things. Allegory uses another (allos) perception, not of the spirit but of the senses, to discourse about spiritual truth on the agora, a public place, not a sacred one. Can «sublime things», high spiritual truths, be investigated except by the higher faculty of the spiritual intellect? St. Bernard, perhaps the greatest speculative mystic of the High Middle Ages who figures the human capacity for mystical intuition in the Comedy, says that both faith and understanding possess certainty about spiritual things, but faith presents this certain truth «clausam et involutam», in the manner of a rolled-up scroll, while the understanding does so «nudam et manifestam», for the understanding is «the certain and manifest knowledge of invisible things» that becomes spiritual vision and intuition, yielding an experience. But such an experience, for most of us, has to begin with images from the Book of Memory which the imagination takes up to body forth the forms of things unknown, until our minds are transfigured together and the poem grows into something of great constancy, into the permanent reality of the spiritual world.
It is important that we look at these creations of the poet's «alta fantasia», because they figure for us conditions in the human soul, conditions ever present at least as permanent possibilites which the human will can choose to inhabit. William Blake in his illustrations moved away from scientific analysis of nature and from pictorial convention. He made line and tone the language of communication, as Botticelli had done in his Dante drawings. Blake aims not at the surface appearance, which is a passing phase, but at the menta! image, the inner condition, which is permanent. Such images of permanent mental states have a vital function in the structure of universal epics like the Comedy and Blake's Prophetic Books. The power of these mental images can reach the senses and create an experience through feelings which, in turn, are analyzed by the understanding. Once the experience is fully grasped in its spiritual meaning, the understanding directs the will to resume the journey with the deepening knowledge that the experience has provided.
The pattern of arrest and restart is first presented in the very beginning of the Comedy. Dante tries to move out of the dark forest by himself and climb the sunny hill, but is driven back by the beasts and stopped in his ruinous retreat by Virgil. The prospective guide offers to Dante an alternative route which avoids direct confrontation with the beasts. It teaches understanding of their true nature and thus takes away their power to stop him in his quest of the delectable mountain, The pilgrim agrees but is again stopped by doubts of his worthiness, and is ready to give up. Virgil restores his courage by telling him of a heavenly intercession by Beatrice on his behalf. So he starts Dante moving again, to learn the secrets of the abyss, the mountain, and the spheres. On the first leg of the journey such stopping and starting shows a constant back and forth movement between the poles of ultimate «stuckness» on the one hand and, on the other, the resurgence in the pilgrim of the «perpetua e concreata sete», the thirst for understanding the divine plan of his own and of mankind's salvation. From line 82 of canto VIII to the end of IX this pattern of arrest and restart is fully developed.
The movement of the journey had already slowed down just after the poets landed on the Stygian shore right by the gate of the City of Dis. «More than a thousand» rebel angels who rained down from heaven after Lucifer's revolt are inside the gate and deny Dante the entry into their city. They dare him to find his way back to the world of the living where he still belongs, while Virgil tries to parlay with them in secret. The master's effort fails; the demons close the gate against his breast, shutting out reason in sheer spite. The predominant emotion accompanying this image of infernal dickering in front of the gate is fear mounting to terror in Dante as he considers returning alone, without his guide, through the dark countryside. He feels abandoned. The outcome is a fierce state of doubt about the power of his guide and about his own ability to deal with the return journey alone. He concludes: «I remain in the "perhaps" with the yea and the nay dueling in my head» (VIII, 111). With this inner battle Dante's will to move in either direction is effectively paralyzed. Virgil, too, is confused after his rebuttal by the demons, and we hear him querulously complaining: «Who has denied me admittance to the houses of pain?» (VIII, 120). Such emotions and the mental state of doubt act as a powerful brake on the progress of the journey. The sight of the demons closing the gate on Virgil's breast adds another proof of reason's powerlessness. The will cannot move, being deprived of power, and all that remains is to peer into the foggy air for someone to come to the rescue. It is the moment of the turning of the tide — a time of listening for the new movement that must be stirring in the distance, somewhere behind the dark air and the thick fog hanging oppressively over the infernal river. But Virgil has a premonition that their help is already under way. Perhaps the tide has already turned.
The ninth canto opens with Virgil turning back from the city gate and Dante going white with cowardly fear as he watches his guide, always resourceful and self-assured, in retreat from the Gate, and obviously discomfited. The faltering words his master utters as he is trying hard to cover up his anger and his loss of composure at the inhospitable reception only make Dante more apprehensive because they seem to hint at some other horrible alternative after the tentative «if not...» in line 8. The threat of the unspoken alternative hangs over much of the rest of the ninth canto. It prompts Dante to dare find out, with a respectfully indirect approach, whether any spirit from Limbo had ever descended into the depth of the sad conch shell of lower hell? Virgil answers the question tactfully, so as not to put Dante in the embarrassing situation of having to own up to his doubt about his Master's knowledge of the way. At the end, he concludes with superior insight of his charge's need: «Ben so '! cammin: però ti fa sicuro» (IX, 30). Dante is not yet quite prepared to take in the reassuring message of Virgil's words when his eye draws him to a new sight powerful enough to make him oblivious of some other matter Virgil has also broached. He forgets to pay attention to the words of his master and guide because of the sudden powerful appearance of three infernal Furies on the red-hot summit of the gate-tower. They threaten to revenge on him the boldness of Theseus' attempt to carry off Persephone from Hades; by showing him the Medusa's head they will turn him into stone.
The reader is now compelled by the very intensity of the images and of the feelings attached to them to venture into the allegory at its various levels. Dante here delivers an explicit warning to the reader to consider the allegory. The images or figures that carry the doctrine «hidden under the veil of the strange verses» (vv. 62-63) are the City itself, the infernal trio of the Furies, the Gorgon, and the Celestial Messenger. Each one has a distinct significance on one of the allegorical levels and these significances are precisely those which commentators usually seize upon.
When one holds the vivid firelit image of the three blood-covered furies standing out against the battlements of the evil city, it is not too hard to think of them as emblems of civil strife tearing apart the cities of Italy, and to hear in their screams the death-shrieks of citizens captured, tortured, and put to death in the bloody wood of fierce purges like the one conducted by the ferocious Fulcieri da' Calboli, podestà of Florence in 1303 (I refer to Purg. XIV, 64-66). But the allegorical symbolism of this horrible scene goes beyond a warning against party strife alone. A city divided against itself will not stand free and prosperous and enjoy the blessings of good government but be torn apart by one extreme faction against another. This is certainly the political altegory of the self-lacerating Erynnies whose naked bodies are the wounded body of the civitas, whose lamentations and eternal weeping echoes the women of the city grieving on both sides for their slain husbands, fathers, sons, brothers, and lovers. In the moral allegory, however, there is another, perhaps equally valid interpretation. There it takes place within the soul of an individual who upon seeing some unacceptable evil within himself is torn by remorse and devastating guilt that devour his joy of life. As long as a red-hot wall of denial protects the secret of his soul he continues to suffer inwardly, while outwardly he maintains a calm despair. It is tempting to the reader to remain hypnotized by the bloodstained Furies over the Gate or to empathize with Dante's terror of the Medusa and stay with either the political level of the allegory or with the moral teaching about despair.
Yet Dante's explicit warning, which has a central place in this canto, to look hard for the doctrine under the veil of his strange verses demands from the reader of «sane intellect» — sane meaning entire in its capacity to grasp the full truth — that he go beyond or beneath the first two allegorical levels to the third, the spiritual level, to which the moral and the political are related as effects are to cause. The anagogy I take to be the causal ground of the entire journey because its theme is the transformation of a mode of being by living through and understanding the soul's states imaged by the poet's objective correlatives. The entire course of the journey is «anagogic», because it leads upward from the very moment when Dante accepts to follow Virgil on another road instead of trying to ascend the mountain guarded by the leopard, the lion, and the wolf. The physical descent thus becomes the first leg of the spiritual ascent, proving Heraclitus' saying that the way down and the way up are the same. It is so at least to those who seek the logos of universal order, and set out to get to know all of themselves in order to find their place in it. Therefore the journey becomes a path of transformation that begins in despair and ends in faith justified by experience. Dante's descent to the center of the earth yields him knowledge, which one who has unflinchingly faced the evil within himself and has gone through it receives as a reward. Without such knowledge no one can regain the hope of the heights.
The anagogy or upward-leading journey through vivid soul-states is similar to mystical itineraries — if it is indeed not one of them — which record dream images arising out of the unconscious but organized with a purpose to point unerringly toward a goal. It is what Charles Williams called an Affirmative Way. It is unlike the more traditional via negativa that rejects sense images to arrive at the ultimate experience of the encounter with the Wholly Other. However, the images on the affirmative way have a life of their own as creations of the active imagination and they cohere into symbolic events that develop according to their own logic. Just as in dreams, the imagination is the key that unlocks the inner world of the soul, and the proper language in which to depict these soul-states is the language of images not only seen but also felt, which arise at the poet's bidding. T.S. Eliot said that «Dante makes us see what he sees», which of course is perfectly true of his art to evoke unforgettable visual images, but in the larger figural context it is more important that Dante can make us also feel what he feels. In focusing too much on the visual aspect of Dante's poetic imagination we might neglect symbols and metaphors which would enable us to identify the affective states the poet communicates. In the Inferno, and to a lesser extent in the Purgatorio, we need to find the emotions generated by Dante's highly charged images of evil.
As we penetrate the veil to disclose the spiritual meaning of the three Furies, the Gorgon, and the City, we find that in their interplay they reveal the «dottrina» that the political and moral allegories are organically related to the spiritual sense. The resistance of the fallen angels at the gate of the city, the self-lacerating Furies, the threat of the Gorgon's stony face of despair, all have their roots in a spiritual defect, an inner soul-condition. The doctrine presented here is that untempered remorse and guilt lead to the paralysis of the will to good, therefore also to a final end of the entire journey of self-knowledge, which, as Plotinus says, is the next best thing after the vision of the One. Self-Knowledge is a necessary preliminary journey, a via purgativa, before the human intellect can contemplate its ultimate desire. The common root of self-rejection, self-torment, and resistance to the openness of selfdisclosure is, of course, pride — pride that encloses the soul in a prison of separateness. What is at stake now in the journey is keeping the momentum of the anagogical progression and energizing it by the will to pursue the upward path — even when the path first leads into the lower depths of hell. Three more images need to be interpreted before the full arrest-restart pattern can emerge.
The first image is of Dante himself, his eyes doubly secured by both his and Virgil's hands. He is still frozen by the fear of the Gorgon's head but surrenders to his Master's protection against the paralysis of despair. He accepts that he has to wait in darkness for help to come and give up his usual reliance on his eyes which are the first to bring him notice of some new revelation for which his intellect thirsts continually. As he lets go of his curiosity and trusts his Master's protective hands, his fear begins to melt away and becomes introspection. Corresponding to the inner movement in his mind, an outer action begins with a rushing of a mighty wind. This wind is the second image carrying an allegorical significance. Here the figure of Dante represents in the political allegory the loneliness of the political exile who is abandoned by everybody. Perforce he has to make a party of himself, waiting for the deliverer who has not yet arrived to save Italy from internal chaos and foreign domination. In his waiting he must obey reason's counsel and not venture on any desperate course of action, but wait for the right time when the deliverer, the Veltro, will need him in establishing the new order of truth and justice. In the moral allegory the same passage points to the need of avoiding despair by holding onto the hope of that special grace which the commentators call gratia gratum faciens. The allegorical action continues with the coming of the «Messo Celeste», whose mighty wind is generated from the clash of hot and cold air currents moving in different directions. Buti, Landino, Lombardi, even Tommaseo, all comment on this, indicating that in the dialectic of the journey, forward movement is generated by the clash of opposites. The image of the tornado advancing inexorably in a dust cloud is part and parcel of the figure of the Heavenly Messenger. The wind marches proudly like a liberator, striking fear into those who are in its way, breaking and scattering all who offer resistance. Enemies are dispersing and trying to take refuge at the bottom of a swamp of rage and hatred. Nothing can bar the progress of the liberator who crosses the evil waters of rage and hatred without getting his feet wet. AIl he has to do is to touch the iron gate with a little wand — a verghetra — the magical rod of transformation. Some commentators identify it with Mercury's caduceus. At its touch the gate springs open, revealing the hidden evil of the dolorous city.
The literal level puts great emphasis on the irresistible advance of the «Messo Celeste», who needs to be understood on all three allegorical levels. It would certainly appiy on the political level to the liberator Dante was so eagerly expecting. He would put an end to all civil feuds and lay open the hidden corruption and decay in the strife-torn cities of Italy. He is the Veltro whom Virgil invokes against the three beasts at the beginning of the poem (I, 101). On the level of the moral allegory there is a complementary interpretation: the Messenger is the sudden grace of the Holy Spirit once poured out upon the doubting and desolate apostles who felt abandoned after their Master had left them. He is the grace that comes to those who stand on the brink of despair and brings the message of hope. The moral meaning also suggests the renewal of the Church endangered by the papacy's pursuit of temporal power instead of true spiritual authority based on the cultivation of humility, poverty, truth, love, and wisdom. This renewal will be led by the «new spiritual men» of the Franciscan order who want a return to the strictness of the rule of their founder.
But as we reach the deepest meaning, the anagogic or upward leading allegorical level, we find that just as the allegories of the City, the Furies, and the Gorgon had a cause and effect relationship with the anagogue of spiritual progress, here, too, we can establish that the symbolism is grounded in spiritual events that occur on the upward path of self-knowledge. The cause of the Celestial Messenger's swift appearance is the inward event of learning to trust Reason's warning, to obey it, and not to become fascinated by despair, to give up hope, and sink into stagnation and paralysis. Instead, letting go of fear will gradually allow for an inner movement. In response to this change of intent, the rushing of a mighty wind is heard, bringing the Holy Spirit to strengthen the will to persevere on the upward path, and after every arrest to restart the journey. This contact takes place mysteriously at the very ground of the soul where the connection between the pilgrim and the goal remains forever possible. Therefore the coming of the «Messo Celeste» on the anagogical level corresponds to activating the spiritual energy of the higher self, that spark of the God-nature in the soul which for Dante was the ever-present inspiration of his poetry coming through the «moto spiritale» of love. By the manner in which this messenger approaches, clearing away from his face the thick turbid air, he becomes for the journey a momentary but most powerful guide who disperses the fogs of ignorance or wilful blindness and reveals an ever-present reality at the very core of the soul. At the touch of his wand all things hidden in the sick soul are exposed to the light of consciousness. The resistance to awareness ceases, and the anagogical journey can resume. The pattern in this case is again cause and effect but in reverse, since it works positively. While before images of the City and its demonic inhabitants, the Furies and the Gorgon, had the effect of paralyzing the will to move, here the Celestiai Messenger — though its coming is announced by fearful portents of storm and earthquake — is not a force to freeze and numb the spirit; on the contrary, it is to shake up the rigid crust of negative images that have settled on the soul's surface and prevent it from flowing onward. Contrary to the soul-arresting effect of the negative images which confront the poets before they can enter the City of lower hell, here divine reality itself reaches out from the unknown core of the soul, just when the danger — that the journey will end in stagnation and paralysis — is greatest.
Now let us return to the significance of Dante's dottrina: the entire allegory is rooted in the inward journey of spiritual growth of which poetic images and figures are the emanations, manifesting the fundamental intentionalities that prevail in each state along the way. The poet wants us to experience his own vision and intuition so that the reader, too, can touch, however evanescently, the spiritual essence of the journey and in experiencing it bring about a change in the direction of his will. But as to all the ways in which Dante does that, centuries of discussion and meditation would be insufficient. I will take only two such ways which are related to the present discussion.
The first is about the dynamics of the journey itself, seen as a series of arrests and restarts revealing the common quality of our inner and outer life experience, subject as we are to failure and separation. Our progress is a jerky movement between the two poles of full stop resistance and resurgent movement, especially at the early stages. But it is this very movement that generates the energy out of a dialectic of opposites; the dualism which appears to us as the cause of imperfection becomes the means of unifying our split condition. The direction of the movement is toward growth and transformation, through inner states symbolized by images and also by feeling the full scale of Dante's feelings, from his «caddi come corpo morto cade» (Inf. V, 142) to his final «mi sento ch'i' godo» (Par. XXXIII, 93). Affective states move the desire and the will to create experiences in which the full meaning of images and figures is disclosed to the understanding. Such illumination cannot be fully expressed in words: it can only be lived as one goes through spiritual state after spiritual state, experiencing them on all the levels of the allegory, mounting from understanding to new understanding of the oneness of all life. Evil itself has to be given form, in order to be grasped as such by the intellect. In this act of intellection it is revealed that evil is illusion, produced by the soul that chooses to impose an untruthful consciousness on the pure essence of its spirit. The bipolarity of the progress, however, changes in the higher stages. In Hell, the obstacles present themselves mostly as physical features of the dour landscape, demonic figures starkly hostile and malicious who want to block the pilgrim's way, or grossly distorted, suffering human shapes that horrify him. In Purgatory, however, the dangers and limitations of the journey are already part of a consciously planned structure that works through limitations imposed by divine law like the rule of the daily progress on the Mountain that aids those who climb upward. The obstacles are actually created to aid movement and regulate the journey so that those who purify themselves on the Mountain can find freedom by bending their will to the law so that it may be straightened out at the top of the great spiral staircase. In Paradise, the conflict becomes nothing else but a systematic nurturing of Dante's mind with Beatrice's revealed truth so that his self-acknowledged spiritual limitations can be removed step by step until he gains new sight in the stellar heaven. This is how the pattern of dialectical progress in the ninth canto connects with the overali movement of the anagogy.
The second observation concerns Dante's words which create a mood, a pattern of feelings within the larger pattern, to convey the emotional impact of the action through their sound and sense in the canto. In the first terzina Dante mentions Virgil's turning back from the Evil City's gate as if he had gotten into a cul-de-sac. The diction here becomes a collection of words with a dying fall: slowing down, applying the brake, cutting off, truncating, repressing, stopping, coming to an end, closing down. Virgil cuts off his own words, hope is cut off, and the very bottom of the universe is alluded to, the ultimate blind alley, the «più basso loco», darkest and farthest away from the Heaven that moves everything, contradicting that movement with its frozen silence and immobility. The stinking marsh with its fetid breath surrounds and fences in the dolorous city. The furies are bound with serpents and their fierce temples are tied with little snakes. Dante's very eyes are closed by Virgil's hands and are imprisoned in darkness. At this point all is still — as if all motion had died or were close to dying, bound, tied, covered up, condemned to sink to the bottom of the sad conch-shell of Hell.
When the word sciolse appears, in line 73, it is a sign that rigidity and stagnation begin to melt and the countermovement toward opening is under way. Everything that was bound begins to loosen and on the outbreath of a closed, held-in fear the movement begins again. The poets enter the red-hot city gate, and the journey restarts after the Messenger's words drive home the futility of resisting the divine purpose. For the poets to dissolve any remaining doubt of Heaven's power even down there words are not needed; the demonstration suffices. Dante's language here expresses a mood unlike the oppressive winding down in the first half of the canto. There doubt and fear oppressed the pilgrim at the sight of the fallen angels' threats, but after the «parole sante» had given them a sense of security, the poets enter the new condition in a search after knowledge. They have now become objective observers come to ascertain the nature of the new spiritual state that is opened for their inspection. Thus the language changes from affective to informative, exposing the conditions inside the fortress. The landscape, however, turns out not to be a closed cityscape with walls, towers, and narrow alleys, but a spacious plain that opens up far and wide. Suggestions of confinement and closing up are still made in many words and phrases describing the scene: «As in Arli where the Rhéne stagnates, as at Pola next to the Quarnaro which closes Italy and bathes its confines, [there are] sepulchres, tombs...» (vv. 112-115). These words describe a confined condition, but differently from the impenetrable walls and the darkness of the canto's opening. Here the state of mind which is the cause of torment is open for inspection, because all the graves are open. The Wayfarers can acquire clear understanding of the confined state and nature of the torment. This state is somewhat akin to the other mental states we have dealt with in the beginning of this canto: resistance, doubt, remorse, paralysis, non-movement. What is this condition?
Perhaps the best definition of heresy is a wilful opposition in the face of recognized higher truth. The heretic's condition is exactly symbolized in his stone sarcophagus fired from below which he uses with his fellow-heretics to keep out truth and maintain what he knows is his own false belief. But the poets, in descending among the tombs, take the right-hand path that leads to the secure knowledge of a higher, all-inclusive truth, beyond the reach of those who cling to their errors and live confined in tight, burning, and claustrophobic mental spaces. Here the general condition with which the canto has started is seen again, but is no longer a danger jeopardizing the journey. The condition has been seen, investigated, understood, and therefore is no longer a menace but a help in seeing an illusion to be contemplated and rejected by those of sane intellect. Now the entire pattern has emerged. What was initially a momentous obstacle to progress has become the source of new understanding and new strength for the continuance of the journey.

Date: 2022-01-11