Dante's Hermeneutic Rite of Passage: Inferno 9 [William Franke]

Table of contents

Dati bibliografici

Autore: William Franke

Tratto da: Religion and Literature

Numero: XXVI

Anno: 1994

Pagine: 82-118

1. Blockage

In Inferno 8.64-9.105, before the gate of the city of Dis, Dante’s journey risks being brought to an abrupt halt. Why this particular step of the way should turn out to be so singularly difficult may be explained as having to do with the transition to the ‘‘basso inferno’ or with the entry within the walls of the hellish city (8.75-78). As indicated by these and other border signposts, Dante stands at the passage to the inside of Hell, effectively imaged by the house metaphor of Virgil’s exclamation: “chi m’ha negate le dolenti case!” (8.120). This threshold (actually termed “l’orribil soglia” in 9.92), with its attendant metaphorics of depth and innerness, is chosen by Dante for intensive problematization of the pilgrim’s progress, which is treated as fundamentally a hermeneutic problem, and linked to that of getting inside the meaning of the poem.
The parallel between the progress of Dante and Virgil on their journey through the other world and the progress of the reader’s understanding of the poem begins to emerge when, just as Dante and Virgil are threatened with an abortive end to their venture, the narrative itself is interrupted for the first time in the Divine Comedy by a direct address of Dante as poet to his reader:

Pensa, lettor, se io mi sconfortai
nel suon de le parole maladette,
ché non credetti ritornarci mai.
(Inferno 8.94-96)

(Think, reader, whether I was not dismayed
at the sound of the accursed words,
as I believed I should never return here again.)

These words follow directly upon the words of the demons who stop Dante and Virgil dead in their tracks, threatening to send Dante back along the foolhardy path he has come by and to keep Virgil with them (8.84-93). The parallel interruptions—the one within and the other of the narrative—taken together and as performative in nature preliminarily enact the two-fold interpretive dynamic which is to be worked out decisively in Canto 9.
At the beginning of Canto 9, the progress of Dante and Virgil is blocked not only by the hostility of the inhabitants of Dis; obstacles crop up also in their communication with one another, hermeneutic obstacles. Virgil stifles what seems to be a worry as to whether he and Dante will win out against the furies (“se non…”), and Dante sees that he is covering up (“I’ vidi ben si com’ ei ricoperse”). But Dante’s reading between the lines, by his own admission, may be a misinterpretation of Virgil’s reticence, attributing to the suppressed sentence a meaning even more ominous than whatever Virgil actually held back (“io traeva la parola tronca / forse a peggior sentenzia che non tenne”—9.8-15). Furthermore, Dante responds by dissembling his own meaning, inquiring obliquely, through a circumlocution which belies the urgency of the situation and his own present fear, whether Virgil is experienced in such descents into the infernal depths. He asks whether anyone (meaning Virgil) from the “primo grado” (meaning the first circle of Hell, or Limbo) has ever before descended to the stage of Hell now before them.
Thus the blockage which Canto 9 as a whole introduces into the journey through Hell is first intimated as a hermeneutic difficulty in the relation between Virgil and Dante, normally so immediate and perspicuous that hermeneutic instruments like words are often superfluous, as when Virgil simply reads Dante’s mind (e. g. at Infemo 2.36; 10.18; 16.118-23; 19.39; 23.25-27; Purgatorio 15.127-29). This twist in the verbal action of the story suggests how the hermeneutic problematic pervades the whole episode, and closer examination will unveil in virtually every aspect of the conflict and action narrated in this canto images of hermeneutic procedure. But the deeper and more dynamic way in which Dante-protagonist’s problem is fundamentally a hermeneutic problem consists in its being fundamentally the reader’s or interpreter’s problem. Hence it is precisely at this juncture that the didactic status of Dante’s narrative fiction is made fully explicit, in the poem’s most imperious hermeneutic injunction:

O voi ch’avete li ’ntelletti sani
mirate la dottrina che s’asconde
sotto ’l velame de li versi strani.

(O you who have sound intellects,
look at the doctrine which hides itself
beneath the veil of the strange verses.)

At the literal level, the protagonist’s progress is impeded by the devils and furies (and potentially the Medusa) that gather to mock and threaten him at the top of the city’s gate and tower. However, we are enjoined not to stop short with this reading alone, but to seek out the doctrine beneath the veil of the “strange verses.” The summons to hermeneusis interrupts the narrative at a climax of dramatic tension, thus undermining the value of the narrative, together with the events it recounts, in and for themselves, and effectively preventing the reader from becoming too involved in the fictive situation. The focus of attention shifts instead to the poem as poem, with its opaque meaning and teaching, and to the hermeneutic event of reading it, a task reserved for “sound intellects.” A leap in seriousness of tone, signalled by the rhetorically monitory “O,” prioritizes this struggle as the one for the sake of which the other is being carried out.
Immediately prior to the directive addressed to the reader, another imperative, this time within the narrative fiction, also directing sight, was enunciated, and compliance manually effected, by Virgil—here called teacher (“maestro”)—upon his protégé:

“Volgiti in dietro e tien lo viso chiuso;
ché se il Gorgon si mostra e tu il vedessi,
nulla sarebbe di tornar mai suso.”

Così disse il maestro; ed elli stessi
mi volse, e non si tenne a le mie mani,
che con le sue ancor non mi chiudessi.

(“Turn yourself around and cover your eyes;
for if the Gorgon should appear and you see it,
never more would you return above.”

So my teacher said; and he himself
turned me, and did not trust to my hands,
but also with his own covered my eyes.)

Virgil’s superimposition of his outside help, not trusting in Dante’s own self-help, is strikingly like, and virtually reproduces, Dante’s very hands-on obtrusion of hermeneutic direction into his text, imposing it on his reader.
Just as Dante would be turned to stone if he gazed directly at the Medusa rather than turning away and suffering various sorts of mediation figuring the detour of interpretive procedures, so the poem would become the tombstone of mere writing as a dead-end-in-itself, if there were no hermeneutic access to the doctrine beneath the veil of the verses, and hence no progress beyond the “scritta morta” (8.127). The inscription seen earlier on the outside of the Gate of Hell is here recalled and can now be understood as a dead letter in a sense referred to the interpretive journey of the reader. For it was presented from the beginning, the very first textual edge, of Canto 3 without any hermeneutic mediation, such as narrative enframement or a discursive transition, as the very words seen by the pilgrim (i.e. this situation was approximated, since the reader sees the same words written, though obviously not on the same surface).
These “found” verses are poetry pretending not to be poetry but rather the thing itself, and such poetry is deadly in its illusory immediacy, for it denies hermeneutic passage through its own literalmimetic surface to spiritual, life-giving meaning in the form of saving doctrine. The form of death specific to interpretive impasse, namely petrification, was also intimated already in Canto 3, when the inscription was said to be impenetrable because too hard or stony (“duro” — 3.12). Thus the danger involved in reading is fully analogous to the Medusa danger, and both need to be met by hermeneutic wherewithal. In this way, hermeneutics comes forward as the only means by which both Dante’s journey as protagonist and his poem can make genuine progress, though the effect of hermeneutics is precisely to collapse these two together, revealing the one as the meaning behind the other.
It is no accident, then, that the author’s hermeneutic intervention should occur at just this juncture where the continuation of the journey is in jeopardy, if the progress of the protagonist and of the poem alike constitutes a single hermeneutic problem. Just where surface vision has been precluded for the protagonist, the author breaks into the text and breaks up the continuity of the narrative, explicitly advising the reader that the fantastic story exists for the sake of something that is supposed to be learned from it. The exhortation effects a break in the narrative, even while it calls the reader to break through to another level of meaning beyond all naive fascination with the literal narration and to seek a teaching hidden beneath it. Thus it enacts at the meta-narratological level the same sequence of impasse-calling-forthinterpretation that is illustrated within the narrative.
The principle of impasse on the surface requiring a move to another depth and sense was, of course, fundamental to the scriptural hermeneutics of the fathers of the Church: a millenary tradition stands behind Dante’s representation of impasse as the situation out of which the need for and call to hermeneusis arises. Typically, the fathers taught that certain passages of Scripture were deliberately non-sensical or otherwise unassimilable at the literal level in order to invite or even coerce the reader to seek out a spiritual sense beneath. According to Origen, building on theories of Philo, who was himself indebted to the Stoa, the search for allegorical meaning takes its departure from some logical absurdity (‘‘alogon’’) or impossibility (‘‘adunaton’’) in the literal sense. Precisely a stumbling block to interpretation, something which apparently contradicts the context, or an accepted truth, or the presumed perfection of the Author, gives the cue for hermeneutic penetration of Scripture. Augustine formulates a broadly equivalent principle— “Quidquid in sermone divino neque ad morum honestatem ad fidei veritatem proprie referri potest, figuratem esse cognoscas” (“whatever appears in the divine Word that can be referred neither to virtuous conduct nor to the truth of faith must be taken to be figurative”)—in his tractate on scriptural hermeneutics, De doctrina christiana (3.10.14; see also 2.6.7-8, 29), whose title may actually be alluded to, and at least echoes, in the verses of Dante’s address to the reader in Inferno 9.
In line with this tradition’s privileging of an invisible, spiritual meaning over literal, corporeal meaning, Dante consistently figures hermeneutic aporiae as a blocking specifically of the sense of sight. This is so in miniature, in verbal detail, as well as in the structural design of Canto 9 as a whole. A tableau near its outset depicts Virgil, after his setback at the furiously defended gate, striking the quintessentially hermeneutic posture of waiting attentively upon, of hearkening to, what must be revealed:

Attento si fermò com’uom ch’ascolta;
ché l’occhio nol potea menare a lunga
per l’aere nero e per la nebbia folta.

(Attentive, he stopped as a man who listens,
since his eye was not able to travel far
through the dark air and thick mist.)

In this simile, the obstacle consists of the thick fog and impenetrable darkness which block vision. In the episode of Canto 9 as a whole, the obstacle is constituted by the recalcitrance and menace of the inhabitants of the city of Dis who bar Dante’s and Virgil’s way. But on this larger scale as well, what calls for hermeneutics is figured by the sense of sight, since that is the channel through which the Medusa freezes up progress in perpetuity.
The sense of sight operates both in the simile and in the whole narrative sequence as a metaphor for immediate knowledge, in which one simply “sees” what is before one without having to interpret or lift any veils. This sort of knowledge seems naturally to come first and needs first to be checked in order for hermeneutic resources to be mobilized. The Medusa motif chillingly epitomizes the perils inhering in the immediacy of outer vision and its adherence to the aestheticerotic surface turning to frozen death. Within the fiction, Dante risks losing message and meaning alike when he allows his outer eye to be seduced, even just episodically:

E altro disse, ma non l’ho a mente;
però che l’occhio m’avea tutto tratto
ver l’alta torre a la cima rovente.

(And he said more, but I do not remember it,
for my eye had taken me entirely towards
the high tower with its glowing top.)

The hermeneutics required for the advance of both protagonists and readers seems, then, to be represented in terms of an antithesis between seeing and hearing, which stand for different aspects of the process of knowing, with its moments of fixation on the immediately present phenomenon and of attentive hearkening in the absence of any actual object of perception, respectively. However, here we are confronted with a paradox: the kind of knowledge to be gained through hermeneutic mediation is also figured in terms of the sense of sight, right from the hermeneutic exhortation itself, which commands healthy intellects to look at the hidden doctrine (“mirate la dottrina che s’asconde...”).
The same metaphorics of sight, where precisely nonimmediacy and looking beneath or beyond to an invisible, spiritual, or at any rate allegorical, truth are aimed at, recurs at a juncture of the Purgatorio which corresponds symmetrically with Inferno 9, namely the sacral representation, also a symbolic rite of passage, just before the entry from Ante-Purgatory into Purgatory proper in Canto 9. Here the reader is commanded to sharpen specifically his eyes to the truth:

Aguzza qui, lettor, ben gli occhi al vero,
ché il velo è ora ben tanto sottile,
certo che il trapassar dentro è leggiero.
(Purgatorio 8.19-21)

(Here, reader, sharpen well your eyes to the true,
for now the veil is so thin,
certainly, that passing within is easy.)

Indeed throughout the poem Dante consistently figures understanding or insight, whether in a discursive, rational or intuitive sense, as a kind of seeing. By “vision” reasoning is apprehended (“Or drizza ‘1 viso a quel ch’or si ragiona” — Paradiso 7.34), and by “vision” the eternal design of things, even when discursively exfoliated, can be scrutinized:

Ficca mo l’occhio per entro l’abisso
de l’etterno consiglio, quanto puoi
al mio parlar distrettamente fisso.
(Paradiso 7.94-96)

(Now drive your eye into the abyss
of the eternal counsel, as far as you can,
riveted strictly to my speech.)

Thus vision (and the kind of immediate knowledge that it figures) has not been transcended—and in fact will not be throughout this whole journey to the ecstatic vision of the deity. But vision, from the hermeneutic juncture of Inferno 9 forward, in conformity with a wellworn convention of gnoseological representation, has been set on a higher hermeneutic plane, a new foundation, and presumably represents a profounder seeing into things, no longer surface gazing of the sort so easily associated with the fatal fixation of the erotic gaze, but rather an intellectual seeing which is healthy (“’ntelletti sani”) in a spiritual sense, a kind of higher immediacy. Dante is envisaging a hermeneutically achieved vision, of a type that will eventually lead to Blake’s definition of poetic vision as “Allegory addressed to the Intellectual powers.” To the degree that Dante passes within Hell’s inner domain, his seeing is in-sight, as is the reader’s doctrinally aware comprehension of the poem.
Mere outward vision was associated in the exegetical tradition, at least since the school of Alexandria, with myth. Even Hellenistic interpretation of the Homeric poems distinguished between the outwardly apparent muthos and a rational meaning to be grasped by the intellect through allegorical interpretation. The strange verses composing the mythologically wrought and fraught episode of encounter with the furies and the Gorgon epitomize the entire strange myth of hell that envelops the Inferno, all of which after all stands in need of interpretation. To this extent, what Dante moves beyond in his hermeneutical (and Christian doctrinal) movement is classical myth.
A conspicuously mythological iconography is used to depict, in an almost unbearably spectacular description, the blood-red, hydragirdled, serpent-coiffed furies. Here language approximates pure ostension as Virgil designates them one by one with demonstratives (“Questa… Quella…”) and the imperative “Guarda,” only pointing out and naming each, “e tacque a tanto” (9.45-48). This careful naming with names culled from Latin learning (Megera, Aletto, Tesifone) seems calculated to control the scene’s delirious phantasmagoria by just enough doctrine to keep all hell from breaking loose through the power of the image. The threat of visual overkill comes to a head in the Medusa, in which myth and the visual unite forces, almost slaying Dante, but for Virgil’s doctrine and direct intervention.
The same alliance between myth and the visual is marshalled by the Inferno’s next major hermeneutic transition to a still more inward region, the descent to the Malebolge on the back of Geryon. There Dante overtly ironizes upon the absurdity at the story level of his “comedia,” insisting that despite its preposterousness, it is true. Extravagance of mythological fantasy is designed “obviously” to make the reader look for a meaning behind the verses about Geryon—just as strange as those about the Medusa—that have the face of a lie but cover some truth: “quel ver c'ha faccia di menzogna” (16.123). In his transition to a yet deeper penetration of Hell by means of this unlikely form of transportation, Dante is deprived of, or limited in, his corporeal sense of sight—‘‘e vidi spenta / ogni veduta fuor che de la fera” (17.114); “E vidi poi, ché nol vedea davanti” (124) —while instead he feels the wind and hears the rushing of water at a distance. What he can as yet only hear, on the right-hand side, makes him strain his eyes to see to the bottom:

Io sentia già da la man destra il gorgo
far sotto noi un orribile scroscio,
per che con li occhi ’n giù la testa sporgo.

(I heard already on the right hand the torrent
making beneath us a horrible roar,
so that, eyes straining downward, I crane my neck.)

Similarly, in Canto 9 we have seen that Dante’s outward vision must be blocked as he makes, or emblematizes making, a hermeneutic transition. And the same goes for the reader, whose immediate vision, or literal reading, encounters a veil which hides deeper truth. Indeed the reader no less than the protagonist has been absorbed in the spectacle of Hell as Dante has vividly depicted it up to this point, but is then called upon to see through to the doctrine veiled beneath the myth. Although Dante as protagonist is confronted with mythological enemies, to understand them as such is really the reader/interpreter’s victory, and in this sense the burden of the journey shifts to the reader’s interpretive journey, the adventures of Dante-protagonist reducing, at least in one respect, to the dimensions of a heuristic fiction.
It is characteristic of Dante’'s methods that this reduction is only half the truth and is paired together with assertions of literal truth pronounced in the most peremptory tones. This paradoxical linkage between the claim to truth and a foregrounded fictiveness is wrought almost to a breaking-point in the Geryon passage. Dante stridently exposes the fabrications which go into the making of his poem, while at the same time swearing to the veracity of the experience it recounts: “e per le note / di questa comedia, lettor, ti giuro, /...ch’i’ vidi...” (“and by the notes / of this comedy, reader, I swear to you, / ... that I saw...”—16.127-30). The ironic tone of the passage unmasks the fiction as a sort of fraud which nevertheless participates in the poem’s action of revealing an ever so true experience.
To unveil his narrative as myth at the literal level is to de-objectify it, revealing how it belongs to the reader-interpreter and the significances this latter (which includes first of all the author himself) projects upon his world. The danger is that of objectifying what is being interpreted, of separating it from the interpretive activity involved in its production, making it a strange object (“li versi strani”). For all this is exactly what petrifies understanding. The practice of allegorical exegesis, commonplace in Dante’s day, programmatically avoids objectifying as myth, or rather looks through the objectification of signifying relations which myth intrinsically is, revealing it as effect and expression of a significance, be this psychological, existential, or theological. In our time it may be called “de-mythologization,” as exactly the reversal of the objectification which characterizes and in fact defines myth, for example, for Rudolph Bultmann.
In his management of the Medusa scene, Dante expressed with maximum compression and clarity the way in which the reification of signifying relations into a face no longer seen through but itself taken as terminal object threatens to petrify understanding. The modern analyses of mythic semiosis and religion help to suggest how myth needs to be understood as stymieing progress not simply because it belongs to primitive or pagan times of the “déi falsi e buggiardi” (Inferno 1.72), but specifically because, from the point of view of historically reflective cultures like Dante’s and our own, when taken naively myth impedes the process of interpretation, the veritable ‘‘other way” (1.91) that leads Dante towards his goal of total vision.
Countering the tendency of the muthos or story towards opaqueness and self-enclosure, Dante instigates the interpretive process from within his own text, which in the scene in Inferno 9 that we have examined demands to be understood, from beginning to end, as figuring an interpretive event. The opening up of the narrative as an allegory of reading or interpretation, as it takes place decisively in Canto 9, in fact opens the whole of the Inferno to being understood as representing the basic problems, the death struggles, of interpretation in a world ordinarily devoid of grace. The basic experience of hermeneutic blockage, so incisively imitated by the textual performance of this passage, arguably becomes, with building thematic concentration, the main issue of the Inferno. This conspicuous instance of the narrative’s representing in images the drama of its own interpretation, which is being performed meta-narratologically by its reader, is illustrative of how the entire journey of Dante through the other world represents a Journey of interpretation built into the narrative as its deep structure. Interpretation operates constantly upon the narrative in textually determined ways, such as we have begun observing, and is coordìnately coded into the narrative throughout its entire extent. This happens, for example, in the setbacks of Dante as a character within the story that converge upon and represent his difficulties in telling it. Even the raw physical action of the journey, which proves increasingly difficult as Dante labors over the ruined ridge connecting the pouches of the Malebolge, becomes allegorically significant, in exquisitely suggestive ways, of the increasing difficulty of interpretation and specifically of poetry and writing.
The Inferno, understood in the light (or rather shadow) of the impasse reached in Canto 9, can be taken as a demonstration of the impossibility of merely human interpretation winning through to truth. In the event of a revealed truth, such as the poem posits, everything merely human, rational and rhetorical remains blocked. Interpretation is blocked not only by a literal sense acting as a veil but much more fundamentally by the human condition represented in the Inferno as alienated from God. Thus, beyond the consideration already touched on of how perception must be mediated to yield its truth, the dialectic of seeing and hearing as played out in this scene of interruption by an authorial, prophetic voice opens onto a larger issue concerning the possibility of a prophetic discourse, or true, divinely guided interpretation, in the Inferno as a whole, an issue not to be resolved within its own covers.
In the end the Inferno must be understood as a dramatization of the death of interpretation, as well as the necessary prelude to its resurrection in the Purgatorio, particularly in the form of poetry (“la morta poesì resurga” — Purgatorio 1.7). The pretense to prophetic powers of interpretation, on the part of Virgil and of Dante himself, is continually weighed in the balance and found wanting, as much as this subject itself becomes an inexhaustibly rich mine for poetic interpretation of characters like Manto and Ulysses, alongside Dante and Virgil. Movement through the Inferno leads to progressively greater depths of uninterpretability and insignificance sunk in impenetrable materiality. This sets up a nicely ironic counterpoint to the programmed penetration to increasingly greater depths of understanding. While Dante and his reader are granted, exceptionally, a passageway of interpretation through the Infemo, Hell itself presents a reality devoid of interpretive openings, fixed in increasingly gross, corporeal, and by the end, literally frozen physical fact. From this point of view, hermeneutic blockage—together with the need for transcendence it implies—becomes the main theme and the provisional conclusion, with a dying fall, of the entire cantica.

2. Passage

Just as hermeneutic impasse is the situation reached within the narrative in Inferno 9 right before the hermeneutic injunction to the reader, so its removal and the journey’s continuation, effected by a heaven-sent messenger, ensues immediately upon Dante’s imperative address. Indeed the syncopated resumption of the narrative (“E già venia...” —9.64) makes it overlap and interpenetrate temporally with the address itself. The appeal to the reader for interpretation seems virtually to be efficacious even within the narrative, bringing free passage in its train, in the shape of a personification of the hermeneutic principle. Thus the application of Dante-protagonist’s journey through Hell to the reader’s journey through the poem is structured into the canto by the juxtaposition of the disruptive address to the reader on the one hand (the forehand) to the protagonist’s being blocked in a perceptual channel analogous to literal reading, namely sight, and on the other (the posterior) to his being liberated by an event featuring a Hermes figure. Such is the parallelism of hermeneusis at work within and upon the narrative.
Upon return to the narrative sequence, after the interruption of the single but absolutely decisive terzina addressed to the reader, mythological motifs continue to be employed, but they no longer represent obstacles to progress. Once it has, through the hermeneutic process, been given its due doctrinal weight, myth comes to represent a means of revelation rather than a dangerously seductive veil. Instead of demonish obstacles to progress, the stores of myth bring forth a celestial deputy or messenger (“elli era da ciel messo” —9.85). The figure is reminiscent in its descent of similar descents of Hermes in Statius’s Thebaid (7.65) and in the Aeneid (4.416ff). But now myth is no longer perilously fascinating in and for itself; it is rather the bearer of a message from above and beyond. Whether or not the figure is to be strictly identified with Hermes, and so as a personification of hermeneutics, clearly hermeneutics is what makes the difference between myth’s functioning first as a deceptive veil, then as disclosure, ushering in the continuation of the journey and the entry deeper into Hell.
Once hermeneutic help arrives, and once the summons to interpret has been heeded, most importantly by the reader who looks over the shoulder of the fictive persona of Dante-protagonist, eyes can again be used to good purpose; accordingly Dante’s eyes are uncovered, and he is directed to use them:

Li occhi mi sciolse e disse: “Or drizza il nerbo
del viso su per quella schiuma antica
per indi ove quel fummo è piu acerbo.”

(He let go of my eyes and said: “Now direct the nerve
of sight upon that ancient foam
in the place where that smoke is most acrid.”)

The “antique foam” of mythological representation can now be looked at as a surface which taken for itself is obscure, but out of which a clear and luminous message emerges. Hence the celestial messenger’s role within the narrative includes clearing the air that obstructs vision (“Dal volto rimovea quell’aere grasso” —82).
The celestial messenger’s embodiment of the hermeneutic principie is also suggested by his hurry to get beyond what is immediately before him—perhaps to return to the hidden region of fullness of meaning from which he has come, like Beatrice in Inferno 2 (“vegno del loco ove tornar disio”—71); but in any case his anxiousness is provoked by other intents and purposes, by unwillingness to be confined to what is present at hand. As soon as his mission is accomplished, that is, as soon as his role within the narrative has been performed, without further ado and like a man pressing onward to other concerns beyond what is presently in front of him, he passes on: “non fe’ motto a noi, ma fe’ sembiante / d’omo cui altra cura stringa e morda / che quella di colui che li è davanti…” (9.101-3).
Even more hermeneutically significant—since it opens a whole new level of significance—than any particulars of how he is represented within the narrative, the messenger is transparently an allegorica] figure representing some kind of event of grace. The mechanism at work would seem to be typological, for the messenger is said to walk dryshod across the waters, evoking a famous passage from the gospels and hinting at a Christological dimension to this hermeneutic savior. The words ‘‘un ch’al passo / passava’’ (80-81) have puzzled commentators, whose explanations are all found to be inadequate by Sapegno. But if the phrase can be interpreted as referring to a textual passage— “one who in that passage passed”—the redundancy turns out to be motivated by a provocative double-entendre. Not just a passing, overdescribed detail in a narrative, but rather a doctrinal text that can function quasi-typologically as a scriptural precedent for this fictive (or perhaps rather figural) savior-event, would be signified by that seemingly unaccountable, but in fact deliberately redundant phrase.
Indeed reference has already been made to a previous descent into Hell, that of Christ, which opened, and by that very fact left open, the gate:

“Questa lor tracotanza non è nova;
ché gia l’usaro a men secreta porta,
la qual sanza serrame ancor sì trova.”

(“This arrogance of theirs is nothing new;
for already they used it at a less secret gate,
which still remains without a lock.”)

In this relation, the episode is presented as a repetition of another which offers a paradigm and makes the immediate situation comprehensible in a positive light, within the horizon of Christian victory. The typological apparatus of the scene, in fact, has been demonstrated in detail by Amilcare Iannucci, who offers a reading based on the Descensus Christi ad Inferas related in the apocryphal gospel of Nicodemus. Iannucci notes how Dante’s account of a descent into Hell early Saturday morning in the year of our Lord 1300 forms a radical synthesis of sacred and profane traditions, as it is prefigured not only by Christ’s temporally coincident visit to Limbo, recalled in 8.124-27, but also by Hercules’ liberation of Theseus from Hades, triumphing over Cerberus, associated in 9.91-99 with the victory of the messenger over the demons. Such intertextual typological connections cannot but bring forward the interpretive essence of the messenger’s event in the text.
But even more importantly, we must remember that Christ is not only the prototype of a heroic foray into the nether realm; the Christ event is the hermeneutic key to all events in a Christian universe. It is the type not just for the epic action of Dante’s victorious passage but also for the universal Christian struggle against darkness in the battle to understand. It prefigures the reader’s victory in that “passo” through which he passes in this particular reading, descending into a hell, a darkness, an unconscious populated by fears and furies, but along a path opened by Christ and lighted by that true light, typologically reflected. Undoubtedly, Christ and specifically his descent into Hell form the basis for the Christian understanding Dante attempts to inculcate through this scene.
The hermeneutic event of the poem is ultimately grounded on the Christ event, and the violence of the latter, displayed gruesomely in the Crucifixion, invades unfailingly the representations of interpretation, however varied, in the poem. This literally ‘‘crucial’’ aspect of the hermeneutic model Dante is working with, one which reflects on all the others and even threatens to throw them into check, is dramatically stamped upon the description of the celestial messenger’s descent. The eruption of this figure onto the scene unmistakably manifests the violent side of hermeneutics, something which is marked about Christ’s harrowing of Hell too, and which is still visible in traces of structural damage pointed out at several reprises in the course of the descent (Inferno 5.34; 11.2; 12.34-36; 21.108; 23.136). Terror and destruction make up the keynotes of the scene as Dante composes it. Before anything whatever can be made out visually, the immanent arrival is announced by a dreadful uproar of noise:

E già venia su per le torbide onde
un fracasso d’un suon, pien di spavento,
per cui tremavano amendue le sponde.

(And already along the turbid waves came
a fracas of noise, full of fright,
on account of which both banks quaked.)

A more violent entrance could scarcely have been imagined than that of this celestial messenger, like an impetuous wind which wounds the forest, ripping away branches, as it goes proudly (“va superbo” —71). The simile of the frogs escaping in terror from a hostile serpent likewise dramatizes the role of this personification of hermeneutics as aggressor. The disruption and obstreperousness that confront Dante and Virgil externally in the main plot of the episode are here carried inside the symbol of the hermeneutic process itself. Not only is hermeneutics called forth, then, by obstacles to continuation and to communication; such rupture constitutes the hermeneutic process intrinsically. This must be so if hermeneutics is to be a procedure for reaching or being reached by an otherness, as the calling in (or down) of an absolute Other, one “sent from heaven,” suggests.
Inimical to the protagonists’ progress and to the whole hermeneutic process, the demons jealously defend their realm against all intrusion of otherness. Indeed Dante and Virgil are stopped at the entry to Dis specifically because of Dante’s otherness, for the demons are outraged that Dante, being one who is not dead (“sanza morte”) should be going through the realm of the “morta gente” (8.84-85). This resistance to otherness is just what must be overcome if the hermeneutic event is to take place. But this, it seems clear, cannot be done without violence.
Dante, of course, is about to pass into the zone of the Inferno where the “violenti” (11.28) are punished. But as always, he participates in what he visits and knows, this being the condition of all knowing as hermeneutically understood, and the transition to this segment of Hell underscores precisely the violence that belongs as a constitutive principle to hermeneutics. What Dante sees here in the seventh circle of Hell reflects upon what he does in creating it: upon the violence, for example, of the interpretation of Brunetto Latini as a sodomite, against all historical or traditional knowledge and even, presumably, against Dante’s own feelings towards “la cara e buona imagine paterna” (“the dear and good paternal image”—15.83) of his own teacher or at least favored author. Dante’s interpretive violences are fully of a piece with the violences that are manifest in the sinners, as in Pier de la Vigna’s interpretation of himself as a thing whose life can be broken off by physical violence as if it were a tree. The fact that Dante is enacting, interpretively, the violence which is his theme belongs rigorously to the realization of the poem as a hermeneutic event, that is, as a knowing that proceeds not from disinterested representation, fundamentally, but from existential involvement.
The note of violence so pronounced about the celestial messenger’s descent is struck forcefully again in the flight of Geryon in Canto 17, already indicated as the next major hermeneutic transition after Canto 9:

“Ecco la fiera con la coda aguzza,
che passa i monti e rompe i muri e l’armi!”

(“Behold the beast with the sharpened tail,
who crosses mountains and shatters walls and arms!”)

This time, however, it is a violence not so much of nature, as in the celestial messenger’s descent and throughout the seventh circle (with its river of blood, rain of fire, and bleeding trees) entered almost immediately thereafter, but of human artifacts and artifice. Geryon himself is an unnatura] concoction and evinces all the fraud that artifice can trump up. This “sozza imagine di froda” (loathsome image of fraud) reads, among other ways, as a figure for Dante’s Commedia itself. For Dante’s act of interpretation in his poem as symbolized by Geryon is not only violent; it is also fraudulent. Dante’s own involvement in fraud at just this juncture, as he enters into the eighth circle, where ten-fold sins of fraud are punished, is first hinted at by the description of his own and Virgil’s path as having to be twisted a little to approach the wicked beast:

...Or convien che si torca
la nostra via un poco insino a quella
bestia malvagia che colà si corca.

(Now it is necessary to twist
our way a little, even up to that
malicious beast that is lying over there.)

We observed already in the preceding section how Dante foregrounds in this episode the contrived, not to say mendacious, aspect of his “comedia” —whether to protect or to subvert its literal truth claim. The Commedia’s own complicity in fraud receives further concentrated development in the Ulysses Canto, where Dante becomes acutely conscious of the dangers of rhetorical deceptiveness, sharply figured in the spectacle of Ulysses being consumed by a flaming tongue —dangers in which Dante himself is perilously close to his classical foil and alter-ego. This risk is felt in the self-monitory lines which constitute a hermeneutic enframement, delineating its interpretive bearings in the author’s own autobiographical drama, for this absorbing encounter:

Allor mi dolsi, e ora mi ridoglio
quando drizzo la mente a ciò ch’io vidi,
e più lo ‘ingegno affreno ch’i’ non soglio,

perché non corra che virtù nol guidi.

(I grieved then, and now again I grieve
when I direct my mind to what I saw,
and my genius I rein in more than I’m used to,

that it not run without virtue as guide.)

The Ulysses encounter moreover points'to yet a further, and a unifying, element absolutely vital to interpretation in Dante’s reflection upon it at this stage, in the phrase “com’ altrui piacque” (“as pleased another” — 26.141), which resonate up and down the Commedia and in all Christian tradition. Hermeneutics, called forth to comprehend something alien, is ultimately an endeavor to reach or be reached by an Other; accordingly, for Dante all human interpretation can find its sufficient ground only in a divine ‘‘Altrui.’’ Unlike Ulysses, deaf to the exigencies of all others, including son, father, wife, companions, and also Diomedes with whom, unacknowledged, he shares the same forked tongue of flame, Dante is reached by a divine otherness, and this makes all the difference. The Other who was pleased to intervene on Dante’s behalf in an act of grace (“com’ altrui piacque” — Purgatorio 1.133) saves him from perishing on the sea that devoured Ulysses, and indeed from which no man was ever “expert,” however great his own powers, to return.
Interpretation is a question of life or death, and Dante represents it as such. It is even a question of eternal life or death if we consider that the inhabitants of Dante’s Inferno are consistently shown to be damned by their own self-interpretations, their eternally stubborn resistance in refusing to understand themselves as God sees them, as in Francesca’s romantic idealizations of her sin or Brunetto Latini’s undying yet deadly humanistic illusions. All this with its intense pertinence for Dante himself is concentrated especially in the figure of Ulysses. Although Dante broaches the hermeneutic question in a didactic guise, it becomes progressively clear that much more is at stake in the hermeneutic junctures, given the way they determine the meaning of the whole poem, and that an existential hermeneutics is what we have to do with. The hermeneutic process in its radical form involves shaking one’s self-understanding and identity to their existential grounds. The self is taken up into a larger circle of understanding which shatters and redefines it, yanking it out of its own familiar sphere. What is required ultimately is a transformation of existence, not just a shift of perspective or change of ideas.
The structural affinity between the Geryon sequence in Cantos 16-17 and the Ulysses episode in Canto 26 as ‘‘narrative transitions’’ has been dealt with in detail by Teodolinda Barolini in “Ulysses, Geryon, and the Aeronautics of Narrative Transition.” We now need to grasp the connection between the two passages (and at least one other) also from the point of view of their hermeneutic function. The Inferno’s pivotal transitions to a hermeneutics of violence (8-9) and to a hermeneutics of fraud (16-17), as well as to a more overtly personal, selfreflexive and existential hermeneutic (26), have been flagged by Dante as specifically hermeneutic in nature through a carefully managed symbolism of directions. A code of left and right turnings is applied consistently throughout the /nferno (and even beyond, I believe, albeit with greater complications). Dante and Virgil turn always to the left in the course of their physical descent through the Inferno, as is stated, for example, by Virgil:

“Tu sai che ’l loco è tondo;
e tutto che tu sie venuto molto,
pur a sinistra, giù calando al fondo

non se’ ancor per tutto ’l cerchio volto.”

(“You know that the place is circular;
and although you have come far,
always toward the left, dropping down to the bottom,

still you have not revolved around the whole circle.”)

But Canto 9 — exceptionally — ends with a sharp turn in the opposite direction, to the right: “E poi ch’ a la man destra si fu volto / passammo ...” (132-33), just as again, in order to mount Geryon, a rightward detour has to be taken: “Però scendemmo a la destra mammella” (17.31).
These unexpected changes of direction have caused a good deal of puzzlement and confusion among commentators. Mandelbaum remarks on 9.132: ‘This is one of only two points in Hell where the poets head to the right, the other being at Canto 17.31. Normally the poets head left in Hell and right on the Mountain of Purgatory. The deviation here seems to indicate some special intent, but no commentator has defined it convincingly” (359). But having identified the two passages in question as pivotal hermeneutic transitions, we need not remain clueless upon finding them set off in this way as traversed by a movement contrary to the normal direction of movement in the narrated journey. Interpretation, as a reflexive doubling back upon literal sense, is very aptly figured by the image of a turn back in the opposite direction from that of regular progress within the narrative.
The very same connection of rightward turning back upon one’s tracks with deep, reflective interpretation, such that the former becomes an image for the latter, is made also in Inferno 15.97-99, a text seemingly a cue for allegorical interpretation, that has likewise remained highly enigmatic to commentators:

Lo mio maestro allora in su la gota
destra si volse in dietro e riguardommi;
poi disse: “Bene ascolta chi la nota.”

(My mentor then turned his head back
around to the right and looked at me;
then he said: ‘‘He listens well who takes note.”)

And when we read that the celestial messenger “led with his left” though it was tedious (“menando la sinistra innanzi spesso; / e sol di quell’angoscia parea lasso” —9.83-84), might this not encode how the literal sense always comes first even at the expense of delaying the disclosure of the true meaning of the episode and, in this case, of the messenger himself?
Dante’s virtually obsessive references to directions all through the poem are hardly casual, nor can they be treated merely as matters of fact and circumstance objectively given by the journey. Surely they have a systematic (or at least pseudo-systematic) significance: they stake out the poem’s deep structure as an interpretive itinerary, constantly operative in relation to the reader, but also surfacing in the narrative itself, which is indeed marked and measured as interpretive each step of the way. This particular key for decoding unlocks the meaning of a wealth of tell-tale details, as for example the leftward direction of Ulysses’ “folle volo, / sempre acquistando dal lato mancino” (“mad flight, / always gaining on the left side” —26.125-26). Ulysses’ sticking unswervingly to the course of his mad flight, letterblind and leftward-bound, prevents him from achieving the hermeneutic distance, through the ability to turn back reflexively and hermeneutically (rightward), that saves Dante, perhaps by a narrow margin, but in a decisively different direction, that of interpretation, in which he is led by his guide.

3. Ambiguities

Within a hermeneutic perspective, the violence and fraud manifest exteriorly in Hell become ways of exploring the violence and fraud that are internal to the interpretive process of the Inferno. Both are quintessentially characteristics of the demonic, and the cantica indeed evinces awareness at certain points of being an exploration of the demonic not only in its subject matter but in its own interpretive techniques as well. The metaphor in which the demons over the gate of Dis first appear describes them as “raining from the sky” (“dal ciel piovuti”) onto the doors or ramparts of the city. This occurs close enough to the arrival of the messo del ciel—who erupts onto the scene out of heavy weather and saves the day at the end of Canto 9—to make the heavenly Hermes look something like a version or inversion of the demons. This parallel would seem to be reinforced by the curiously, or even shockingly, cantankerous attitude of the celestial messenger, who is full of disdain (“Ahi quanto mi parea pien di disdegno!” —9.83), not unlike the demons who speak spitefully out of their “gran disdegno” (8.88).
Despite his liberating and saving function, there is something unmistakably demonic about the celestial messenger, especially in his sinister and terrifying entrance, precisely like a serpent, the enemy, that the text stridently insists on, however incongruous it may at first seem. The demonic may be defined, as Paul Tillich does in his Systematic Theology, as the raising of some finite structure of creation to the status of an absolute. It is perhaps not so incredible, then, that hermeneutics should be found complicitous in what has an at least ambiguously demonic side. For an interpretation always arbitrarily begins somewhere in its effort to understand together all the elements of an ensemble. Something particular is made to serve as key for the explanation of things more general, and so to take on a universal] significance. Although the tendency of interpretation is to seek to establish an all-encompassing, stable explanation of the whole, its own preconditions are in finite, temporally conditioned being. Therefore, these bases must be forgotten or hidden in the interest of the claim to universal validity. This builds a devilish sort of dissimulation into the hermeneutic process. It finds archetypal expression in the arch-demon and father of lies, Satan, who is also the emblem of the tendency of finite, created being to usurp the status of infinity.
Gadamer’s hermeneutic theory brings out the finitude of hermeneutics as a specifically linguistic practice, and yet also its speculative projecting of totality. Every word speculatively mirrors the whole of language, on the hermeneutic principles of the linguistic ontology spelled out in Part III of Truth and Method. Although every interpretation is only a perspective, it must necessarily strive to efface the untruth of its partiality, if the criterion of its adequacy is wholeness. This built-in tension is what makes hermeneutics regularly tend to resemble the demonic. There appears inevitably to be something potentially selfassertive and God-denying about interpretation, by virtue of which it risks substituting itself for what really is, recreating everything after its own image.
Dante’s sense of the dark side of the hermeneutic force that triumphs in Inferno 9 expresses itself vigorously in the destructive, violent characteristics of the heaven-sent messenger. The dramatization of the violence latent within hermeneutics, just when hermeneutics is called in and exalted as savior, witnesses to the strength of Dante’s imagination of this awesome power in its radical ambivalence. He had reason to be so aware, considering the God-like powers of interpretation he assumes in his poem. His interpretations of his contemporaries and of God’s judgments upon them have never ceased to expose him to charges of Satanic presumption. Much too near and dear to Dante for him not to be cognizant of it lies the hermeneutic power which emerges from his whole poem as a supreme, creative and destructive, pseudoomnipotent agency, potentially demonic in nature.
The very phrase “heaven-sent” actually recurs in one of the most audacious interpretations of the entire poem, a sort of emblem of the interpretive arbitrium on which his whole career is founded, Dante’s transfiguration of his adolescent passion for a Florentine girl into a mystic marriage of Biblical resonance:

e un di loro, quasi di ciel messo,
“Veni, sponsa, de Libano” cantando
gridò tre volte, e tutti gli altri appresso.

(and one of them, like a messenger from heaven,
singing “Veni, sponsa, de Libano”
shouted thrice, and all the others right after.)

The lexical link back to the less hallowed scene in Inferno 9 helps to remind us of the sinister side of the interpretive power Dante wields even at this most triumphal moment. The poet’s power of declaring what is sent from heaven renders possible a prophetic vocation but at the same time creates a crisis of legitimacy which Dante is constantly at shifts to try and manage.
Another example of ambivalent language used for crucial hermeneutic events is the phrase “rent the veil before me” which introduces Ugolino’s haunting dream in Inferno 33 and then recurs in a splendid vision, which bathes in the light of Christ’s transfiguration, in Purgatorio 32.71-72: “dico ch’un splendor mi squarciò ’l velo / del sonno.” Whereas sleep is here the veil, in Ugolino’s speech sleep’s dreamconsciousness is what ruptures the veil of the future: “’l mal sonno, / che del futuro mi squarcio ’l velame” (33.26-27). But in either case, the unveiling which constitutes the essential figure of the hermeneutic moment is a violent tearing. As such, it reveals both the terror and the glory, the whole range of the hermeneutic phenomenon as Dante maps it from the nether parts to the peaks of the universe.
Like the veil, the imagery of lightning is also consistently exploited by Dante for crucial hermeneutic events, thanks to its established association with revelation. Earthquakes and lightning, as stereotyped images of apocalypse, punctuate the journey’s passage-points and threshold crossings. The first of them, Dante’s crossing of the Acheron to enter Hell, is cataclysmically signaled by an earthquake in darkness traversed by a violet flash:

Finito questo, la buia campagna
tremò si forte, che de lo spavento
la mente di sudore ancor mi bagna.

La terra lagrimosa diede vento
che balenò una luce vermiglia
la qual mi vinse ciascun sentimento.

(After this, the darkened land
trembled so violently, that fright
bathes my mind again in sweat.

The tearful earth gave vent to wind
that flashed a vermilion light
which overwhelmed my every sense.)

Since religious revelation itself, as an unveiling, is first and foremost a hermeneutic event, this imagery helps configure the hermeneutic dimension and essence of Dante’s transitions. His progress is quite generally by means of an unconcealing or an apocalypse, even when this event is microcosmically concentrated in the overwhelming power of beauty beaconed from Beatrice’s eyes. Each breakthrough for understanding is accompanied by some kind of shattering violence. The violence inherent in hermeneutics is the means of a certain breaking down and shaking out that characterizes an uncompromisingly radical interpretive apocalypse such as Dante sets out to achieve, beginning in the Inferno.
Even in Paradise, Dante’s passages from heaven to heaven and to the final vision given in a stroke of lightning (“la mia mente fu percossa / da un fulgore in che sua voglia venne” —33.140-41) are marked by the violence of blinding and rending that are simply part of the event of genuine understanding which is needed to burst asunder one’s world and its order, that all may be comprehended anew. This destructiveness manifests divine power in the case of apocalypse, but can also belong to the violence against whatever is other that Dante discovers as a potential within acts of interpretation generaliy. Hermes is after all a god in some respects perilously close to being a demon. It is perhaps only under the controlled conditions of a rite of passage that the violence released by the hermeneutic event can be expected to do good rather than harm, to be freeing rather than obliterating.
So much should suffice to demonstrate that a hermeneutic problematic pervades the entire episode of Inferno 9—and not just its single most peremptory tercet—with implications for the whole poem. Theoretically informed analysis shows how Dante touches on the most crucial themes of hermeneutic thought as it has evolved even down to our own day. Although Dante’s concerns are not primarily theoretical, his representations embody basic hermeneutic assumptions in a primordial form, and his text is in turn revealed by later theory, which can bring out its implicit problematic. The venture which I propose of applying modern hermeneutic theory in the reading of Dante’s text, and vice versa, is predicated on a belief in the “hermeneutic productivity of temporal distance” and the view that understanding a text is never merely a reproductive, but always also a productive activity. In this sense, and not in a narrowly exegetical sense, I have endeavored to engage Dante’s probing dramatization of the hermeneutic problem hermeneutically.

Date: 2022-01-12