Deep Hermeneutics of Complicity and Conversion: Inferno, Cantos 8-17 [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: 328-343

Self-interpretation, which is so crucial to the fate of the souls in the afterlife, is made manifest as a crucial structuring principle of the poem in the segment that begins with Dante’ entry into the city of Dis. This transition directly involves the reader as interpreter by means of the poems explicit addresses to the reader. The first explicit address to the reader occurs in canto 8 before the Gate of the City of Dis, where the difficulties for Dante in his descent through the Inferno become humanly insurmountable. Demons and furies gather to make him remain (“rimarrai,” 8.92) there, separating him from Virgil, his guide. The address comes in the form of a direct meta-narratological intervention that interrupts the narrative, which has reached an impasse (8.94-96). Recalling his fear that he might never return, Dante turns to his reader:

Pensa, lettor, se io mi sconfortai
nel suon de le parole maladette,
ché non credetti ritornarci mai.

(Think, reader, if I did not panic
at the sound of the accursed words,
since I believed I'd never again return.)

This express involvement of the reader throws into focus a whole new field of reference for the realization of the narrative’s meaning.
The significance of this dimension, in which the reader is brought directly into the poem, begins to become clearer when a similar interruption occurs again, but much more dramatically, in canto 9. Here the address to the reader follows upon the appearance of three infernal furies that block the Gate and threaten to show the Gorgon’s head that would petrify Dante, forcing him to remain in that place forever. By close proximity and association with the address to the reader, these threats are made to figure the risk also to the reader of remaining fixated upon the literal level of the narrative and consequently failing to penetrate to its deeper doctrinal meaning. Precisely such hermeneutic penetration is expressly enjoined by the address to the reader in canto 9:

O voi che 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 this point, “the veil of the verses,” that is, the story which serves as vehicle for the allegory or doctrine of the poem, has become particularly riveting and tends to arrest attention upon the visual surface of the narrative, where the furies are described in graphic detail, with their blood-flecked female limbs and snaky hair. Only Virgil’s naming of them with traditional mythological names - “Megaera,” “Allecto,” “Tisiphone” - exerts some measure of control over the hallucinatory visual intensity of this scene. Without Virgil’s verbal mediation, Dante’s (and the reader’s) gaze would be liable to remain fixated, petrified forever by the Medusa. However, the figures of the furies and the Medusa are typical of the sort of myths that were routinely interpreted in accordance with allegorical meanings in medieval exegesis. By literally blocking the protagonist’s further progress through Hell, they serve as figures for blockage of the hermeneutic process of interpretation on the part of the reader.
Stumbling blocks at the literal level force the interpreter to dig deeper in order to find the rational, allegorical meaning that is masked beneath the mythic exterior. The interpreter must avoid becoming obsessed merely with the story and its images and rather pass beyond the literal sense. The face of Medusa, whose beholders turn to stone, emblematizes this tendency to remain fascinated and frozen or literally petrified by the aesthetic-erotic surface. Virgil, representing the better part of rationality, rescues Dante also by putting his hands over his protégé’s eyes and turning him around, so that he not remain petrified when the Gorgon’s head (Medusa) appears.

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

(... and he himself
turned me, and did not rely on my hands,
but with his own also closed my eyes.)

This act directly precedes the injunction to the reader. Virgil does this in a coercive manner that concretely imitates the authors intrusive intervention into the text by direct address to call the mind of his reader away from the literal narrative and its dangerously engrossing action. The call to allegorical penetration beyond the veil of the verses warns the reader not to be absorbed by what simply appears in its immediacy on the narrative’s surface. Virgil’s action within the narrative in this way figures the interpretive action performed by the author «pon the narrative: the abrupt breaking off of the narration (diegesis) with the sudden switch to the discourse of address (appellation) invasively interrupts the reader’s involvement in the story on its literal level. Made in the image of Virgil turning Dante about and covering his eyes, the address to the reader forcibly turns the reader away from the literal surface of the narrative and demands reflection searching rather for its allegorical meaning.
The prompting of the readers to look beyond the letter of the text and to find a hidden, allegorical meaning, inevitably by application of the text to themselves, thus becomes perfectly explicit in cantos 8-9, in the transition from upper to lower hell (“basso inferno,” 8.75) and into the City of Dis. We noted that this sequence is subtly prefaced by the encounter earlier in canto 8 with Filippo Argenti, who, like the other damned souls, remains where he is in hell (the word “rimani” in various declensions reverberates in lines 34, 38, 92, 116). Argenti’s condemnation to remain is confirmed by Dante’s curse. He stays in the Styx, whereas Dante himself passes over it and into further depths of the nether world, as Dante curtly remarks: “If I come, I do not remain” (“S’ i’ vegno, non rimango,” 8.34). Even more significantly, the poem leads Dante, together with his reader, into further depths of revelation, into a space of interpretation where the true journey beyond the fictive one unfolds. The forward motion through hell thus becomes a figure for passage beyond the poem's literal sense to its “doctrinal” - its educative and prophetic and ultimately apocalyptic - meaning. Dante’ going deeper into hell within the narrative becomes an image for the interpreter’s looking beneath the letter of the narrative to its deeper figural and salvific meaning, as is enjoined expressly in canto 9 by the address to the reader.
Already at the end of canto 8, Virgil recalled the “dead letter” (“la scritta morta,” 8.127) that Dante saw inscribed over the Gate of Hell as he entered (canto 3). Dante was not able to understand this inscription when he saw it immediately before his eyes. The sense of the words was “hard” for him (“il senso lor m’è duro,” 3.12), since his understanding was, in effect, petrified by being confined to the literal level. Only by entering into hell—and seeing not just the literal landscape but seeing through to its figural meaning—is he able to understand the sense of this inscription, which is presented with literal immediacy to him at the entrance. This inscription appears also to the reader at the head of canto 3 as a “dead letter” whose meaning, if it remains merely literal rather than becoming the gateway to deeper “doctrinal” understanding, will spiritually kill him: “For the letter killerh, but the spirit giveth life” (2 Corinthians 3:6).
Contrary to this dead letter, Christ is the key to all true interpretation, and the sprung bolts on the Gate of Hell mentioned at this juncture allude to him (8.126). The traces of Christ’s descent are inscribed unmistakably in Hell in the form of the Gate left unsealed (“sanza serrame”) by the earthquake that was caused by his descent into Limbo. The evidence of this quake is also seen in ruined bridges and debris of landslides pointed out along the way, most conspicuously at 12.4-10 (see also 5.34; 11.2; 21.108; 23.136). Passage through the lower Gate to the city of Dis is secured for Dante and Virgil by a figure who descends from heaven in the track through Hell opened previously by Christ. This “one” sent from heaven (“un… da ciel messo,” 9.85) indeed crosses the Styx and “walked as if on land and with dry soles” (9.81) like Christ (Matthew 14:24-33). The celestial “messenger,” which is the literal Greek meaning of “angel” (άϒϒελος), is in effect repeating Christ's descent into and unsealing of Hell. Hell is opened now for Dante as protagonist, as well as for his reader, both of whom enter into “secret things” (“cose segrete,” 3.21), in order to emerge with new and supernaturally enhanced understanding.
Christ is the interpretive key that clears away all impediments to Christian understanding for the reader. He unveils allegorical meaning behind the mere letter of the “fatal text” (“la scritta morta,” 3.127) that kills. Classical myths of descent into Hell by heroes such as Hercules and Theseus, alluded to in lines 98-99 and 54 respectively of canto 9, were similarly taken in medieval exegesis to be allegorical prefigurations of Christ’s descent. Illuminated according to their spiritual or allegorical sense, these descents, too, reflect the light of Christ that lightens the way through Hell for the protagonist, as well as for the reader on the path of life. In this manner, the events in the narrative ensuing immediately upon the injunction to the reader in canto 9 read coherently as figuring an event in the interpretive journey of the reader.
The violent descent of the “heaven-sent messenger,” causing the great disruption that is drawn out in detail in verses 64-105 of canto 9, is homologous to Dante’ abrupt interruption of his own narrative. Dante’s intervention by direct address forces the reader to break away from the literal narration in order to reflect upon and decipher its meaning in allegorical terms. The angelic figure is a sort of Hermes, the god of interpretation, whose name actually lies at the root of the word “hermeneutics” for the theory and practice of interpretation. The messenger’ descent recalls the descent of Hermes (in Aeneid book 4.146ff) intervening to free Aeneas from an erotic attachment potentially fatal to his world-historical mission. The celestial messenger’ intervention is now necessary to unblock the way for Dante and Virgil to descend deeper into the Inferno and to allow the deeper allegorical sense of the poem for the reader to emerge from beneath its surface. Paralleling the action of the messenger within the narrative, the intervention of Christ from outside upon the reader’s mind is necessary to enable the reader’s understanding to penetrate deeper into the meaning of the poem.
Interpretation, like the Christ event itself, and specifically the descent to Limbo that caused so much visible structural damage in Hell, is often inevitably a violent activity. Interpretation must disturb the surface in order to penetrate the depth of an experience or a text. And in this, too, the text of Inferno canto 9 strikingly mimes and highlights the essential elements of the hermeneutic process. Since Dante enters into the circle of the violent (the seventh circle) just beyond this juncture, it is no accident that the violent side of interpretation should be foregrounded with particularly impetuous imagery such as is used to describe the descent of the celestial messenger. He breaks on the scene with a frightful fracas of wind and storm that provoke a scattering of branch and beast and herdsmen (9.64-72). He is a Christ figure (we have already seen that he walks on water), but in this world of threats he also ambiguously possesses some demonic traits: the terrified souls flee before him like frogs from the “enemy snake” (“la nimica / biscia,” 9.76-77).
The violence Dante focuses on is never exclusively that of the characters and events represented in his poem, but always also that perpetrated by the interpretive event that the poem itself is, which includes also, by anticipation, the interpretive act of the reader that is proleptically folded into it. This is demonstrated by Dante’s own interpretive violence, which is underscored throughout this circle, for example, against his beloved teacher, “Ser Brunetto.” Dante’s poem in this manner realizes its meanings performatively—in the event of poetry as an interpretive act.
The realization of the journey in an interpretive dimension is then carried to the level of the reader programmatically by Dante’s explicit metanarratological addresses to the reader. These begin, as we have seen, in Inferno 8 and establish themselves as key to the poem as a whole in canto 9. But just as strikingly, within the narrative the characters themselves are all involved in acting out dramas of self-interpretation. In fact, their sins are presented by Dante most fundamentally as forms of self-misinterpretation, and we see such self-misinterpretation enacted by them directly as they appear in Dante’s text. Particularly compelling instances of this can be found in the first and last extended first-person narratives of damned souls in the Inferno: Francesca da Rimini’s in canto 5 (as we saw in section II) and Conte Ugolino’ in cantos 32-33 (as we will see in section VI).
Another telling example of sinful self-misinterpretation can be found in canto 10. The insinuations concerning Guido Cavalcanti have proved confusing to commentators. Nevertheless, they make a clear statement that he refused the necessary support of grace and guidance from above and beyond himself. His very name, “Guido,” means “I guide,” and Dante pronounces it in answering Guido's father, telling him that his son held God or Beatrice in disdain (“forse cui Guido vostro ebbe a disdegno,” 10.63). Whoever Guido disdains, it is a mark of lack on his part of openness to guidance from above and therewith to transcendence. Guido flies rather by his own “high genius” (“altezza d’ingegno”), exactly as his father’s words suggest. This constitutes a self-centered rather than a God-centered interpretation of his life’s journey. He has no guide but his own conceit of genius, and that marks his essential difference from Dante and from the type of journey that the latter is on. Like Guido, whose fate is evoked here, so the heretics, with whom his father is punished, are condemned by their misinterpretations of Christian doctrine and therewith of their own existence. Most flagrantly, this is the case of the Epicureans, who “make the soul die with the body” (“l’anima col corpo morta fanno,” 10.15).

1. Linguistic Self-Interpretation and Sins of Rbetorical Violence (Inferno, Cantos 13-17)

In Pier de la Vigna, Capaneo, and Brunetto Latini, the poem continues to offer perspicuous examples of how self-understanding and self-interpretation determine the eternal state and destiny of each individual Dante meets. The history of each, with respect to their fateful nemesis, is seen realized i nuce in their present encounters with Dante and in the compressed dramas of selfpresentation that they act out before him. They all, as we encounter them, actually do whatever it is that they are condemned for, showing this to be in no way incidental or over—and, to that extent, forgivable. Rather, their sin is manifest as the very essence of who they are for all eternity as a result of their own free and fatal choices. Capaneo says as much explicitly: “Such as I was alive, so am I dead” (“Tal fui vivo, tal sono morto,” 14.51) —at the beginning of a blasphemous speech defying the gods that reenacts in Dante’s presence the very sin for which this Greek king (one of the Seven Against Thebes) is being punished.
A more complicated and elaborate display of sin as erroneous selfinterpretation is folded into the verses presenting Pier de la Vigna. Pier's tortuous rhetoric exposes one type of interpretive fallacy, that of becoming tangled up in his own neurotic self-consciousness and its excessive verbiage, which is “knotty and convoluted” (“nodosi e ’nvolti,” 13.5) like the branches of the shrub into which he has been turned. Indeed such a destiny seems to be written into his very name “de la Vigna,” meaning “of the vine.” This characteristic involution is realized tellingly in Pier?s own self-reflexive language and twisted logic, obscuring the natural and normal function of language. This function, according to medieval logic and semantic theory, is primarily to refer, to designate objects in the world. And it cannot do this well if it gets all wound up around itself, The presumably proper function of language is perverted disastrously by the courtier who becomes enmeshed in viscous verbal formulations that show up as impenetrable like the twisted and knotty wood of the vine.
A vertiginously convoluted pattern of language is patent in Pier’s description of how the “meretrix” or “courtesan,” allegorically Envy, worked against him when he was the loyal privy counselor of the emperor, Frederick II. He protests that she “inflamed all minds against me;/and thus the inflamed inflamed Augustus” (“infiammò contra me li animi tutti; /e li ‘nfiammati infiammar sì Augusto,” 13.67-68). A likewise doubly-folded, opaque verbal style inflects again Pier’s description of his “injustice against his own just self” (“ingiusto fece me contra me giusto,” 13.72). The same thick, self-reflexive rhetoric, moreover, is dangerously reflected into Dante’s own language from the outset of this very canto: “I believe that he believed that I believed” (“Cred’io ch’ei credette ch’io credessi,” 13.25).
The tendency of highly rhetorical language to become self-involved, thereby interfering with transparency and obscuring reference beyond itself, is signaled from the beginning of Pier’s speech, in his pleading for indulgence for what is about to become a woody or viscous (“inveschi”) discourse:

“...e voi non gravi
perch’ io un poco a ragionar m’inveschi.”

(“...let it not burden you
if I dilate a little in discoursing.”)

This is the first hint of how speech can thicken into a substance and cease thereby to properly serve its purposes with reference to the world, and so become a tangle and a trap. The intrigues of the imperial court, which led to Pier's demise, are all wound up with language taking on a disproportionate weight in and for itself: it thereby becomes a sticky bird lime (the most literal meaning contained in “m’inveschi”) rather than a transparent medium. All the descriptions of speech in this scene insist on its becoming physicalized, its being turned into a thing and thereby being made into a mechanical production rather than a natural human expression of thought and spirit:

Come d’un stizzo verde ch’arso sia
da lun de’ capi, che da l’altro geme
e cigola per vento che va via,
sì de la scheggia rotta usciva insieme
parole e sangue...

(As a green branch that is burned
at one end, that from the other groans
and squeaks from wind that passes through,
so from the broken stump words and blood
came out together…)

The mixing of words and blood is a palpable carrying out to an extreme of the degradation and befouling of speech by an overly conspicuous rhetoric. In Pier’s punishment, words actually become concrete things: his language and its immaterial meaning metamorphose into blood and words mixed together, and his speech is mechanically generated like the hiss of a burning log (13.40-45). This artificial concoction and simulation of human spéech is spooky, but it is also uncannily close in its results to the familiar artifices of rhetoric. For this is what rhetoric tends to do: it dwells upon the sensuous, material qualities of language and draws attention to words as things in their own right.
Turned to bloody substance or mechanical sound, the intellectual quality of speech is corrupted; it becomes completely mired in the material world. This sort of hypostatization is tantamount to a denial of the referential function of proper language to point beyond itself. In fact, rhetoric tends to take language as a substantial medium to be molded into shape by purely formal means. Having denied to language transcendence of the world that it should, rather, reflect and represent, Pier then denies transcendence to life itself - through his suicide. He acts as if the soul possessed no transcendence of the material world but could die along with the body. Pier's rhetoric and his suicide constitute a negating of the transcendence of language and of the human soul respectively, and the two are shown to be tightly intertwined.
The power of language to negate real things is placed into evidence from the opening of the canto, with the insistently negative grammar used to describe the pathless forest: “No green foliage… no smooth branches… no fruits were there... No such thickets harsh and dense” (“Non fronde verde… non rami schietti… non pomi v’eran… Non han sì aspri sterpi né sì folti,” 13.4-7). This is rather like the description of the island of the Cyclops in the Odyssey, which similarly specified only what was lacking and what things were rot. Rhetorical language, by virtue (or vice) of its innerlinguistic density and self-referentiality, is at some level the negation of real beings. Such language readily induces also the inverse negation or categorymistake of reducing language—which is arguably that by which humanity is made in the image of God and transcends nature - to a thing. From treating language as if it were a thing without intellectual transcendence, it is a short, slippery step to treating one’s own soul and its immortal life as if they were a mere thing that could be snuffed out, broken off, extinguished.
The dupe of his own rhetoric, Pier takes himself, just as he has taken words, to be a thing - and so he actually becomes one, a mere thing, and for all eternity. Befuddled by the instrumentalization of language reified into mere material to be manipulated through rhetoric, he takes also his own life as if it were a material thing that could be destroyed. Misunderstanding the spiritual nature of the soul as much as of the word, he tries to break off his own life as one would break a branch off a tree. Such is the crude misinterpretation of himself with which he is condemned thenceforth to live in an eternal death. This curiously disarticulates all natural relation of the soul to the body, as is grotesquely illustrated by the hanging, after the Last Judgment, of the bodies of the suicides on the trees into which their souls have degenerated and metamorphosed. Nature is thus perverted to a macabre metaphor for instrumentalizing words and bodies, as if they were external, dead material rather than animated spiritually from within.
Pier, as a rhetorician, molds language like a malleable substance, yet precisely its susceptibility to manipulation allows rhetorical language to be used against him by the court flatterers who undermine the emperor’s trust and confidence in him. Concrete experience, such as Virgil affords Dante in bidding him to break the branch of Pier’ shrub rather than relying only on the text of the Aerceid about Polydorus, is a sounder basis for true belief. But Pier turns to and believes in rhetoric more than in reality itself. He becomes therefore eternally entangled in rhetoric’s intrinsic negativity and involutedness. Dante, too, is susceptible to falling prey to such deceptions, especially being a poet and finding himself lost in a dense, pathless forest. But to Pier, such belief in mere words becomes fatal: he is mortally wounded and envenomed by words of calumny to the point of physically annihilating himself.
This concentration on the pitfalls of rhetorical language hints at how, in this case again, the sins Dante sees are virtually and potentially his own, for Dante himself inevitably and self-consciously employs rhetoric in the making of his poem. Its seductions and deceptions represent aspects of his own selfinterpretation, aspects that he must guard against, lest they become the fatal motions of his soul and fix how his will is determined for eternity. The reader, moreover, is in nearly the same case as Dante vis-à-vis each of the exempla of sin, since what readers make out of the Commedia’ characters is intimately related to how they understand themselves. It is symptomatic of how they are able to understand human beings generally and therefore of how they interpret themselves also—for good or ill, salvation or damnation.
Canto 13, seen from this perspective, is about the horror of reification of the human, of the human becoming a thing, and this involves particularly the reification of language. Language, in the humanist tradition to which Dante so decisively contributes, particularly in his De vulgari eloquentia, is the essential vehicle and sign of a transcendence of mere nature. Language is what distinguishes humans from beasts in the classical humanist outlook reflected in De vulgari eloquentia (see particularly book 1, chapter 2) and enshrined in the Aristotelian definition of man as an “animal endowed with speech” (Ϛώον λόϒον έχον, Nichomachean Ethics 1.13). But language can also be perverted into the negation of this transcendence. This happens through the corruption of language by mendacious, self-serving rhetoric, whenever language is detached from its civic purpose and content and becomes mere form and flattery. Pier has fallen victim to the deceptions of his own style of intricate, rhetorically elaborated speech. This negative potential of language is insisted upon from the opening lines of canto 13, and Dante’s own rhetoric is in jeopardy of becoming all for naught, as suggested by its homologous mirroring of Pier’s patterns of rhetorical convolution: it, too, could become suicidal for his mission by becoming an end unto itself.
Dante’s critical examination of rhetorical humanism continues in the encounter with Brunetto Latini. This episode, however, inverts the lesson imparted in connection with Pier de la Vigna. This encounter develops an indictment of rhetoric as inducing not to a materialization of speech but to the illusion of a final transcendence of matter and time through man's own works and words. Brunetto interprets himself as a winner of eternal life betokened by the ever-green banner he runs after in the concluding verses (15.121-24) of the canto. He sees himself as immortalized through his own rhetorical achievement in his Li Livres dou Tresor or “Tesoro,” literally his “treasure”:

“Sieti raccomandato il mio Tesoro,
nel qual io vivo ancora, e più non cheggio.”

(“May my Treasure, in which I still live,
be commended to you, and I ask no more.”)

Since “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:21), this indeed becomes his self-willed lot and portion for eternity. He substitutes a self-created image, an artifact, in effect, an idol, for what should have been rather a living soul blessed eternally in the sight of the living God.
Nonetheless, Dante represents himself as still somewhat under the spell of his great teacher. This sentiment is attested by his expressions of deep affection and attachment, as well as respect signaled by the formal “you” (“voi”). Yet Dante’s reminiscing upon the way Brunetto taught him “how man eternalizes himself” (“come l’uom s’etterna,” 15.85) shows up as tragically ironic in this scene blazoning Brunetto’s eternal damnation. Brunetto reenacts precisely this sin and its damnation again here and now in this very text by the manner in which he still interprets human being, particularly his own, humanistically. Specifically, the desire for eternity, for personal immortality, is pursued by Brunetto, as by a certain breed of humanists generally, through merely human channels rather than by submitting to God as the ultimate and only Lord of life. The humanist dream of self-immortalization through an artifact of one’s own creation, one's literary work or oeuvre, is exposed as really an illusory evasion of time and death through an idolatrous sort of false transcendence.
Of course, Brunetto is actually condemned to the seventh circle of Hell for the sin of sodomy, but this too may be understood as falsely interpreting one's mortal, worldly, and physical life as perennial and even eternal. The specific form of sodomy in question here, namely, pederasty, can be analyzed as a self-deluded form of pretending to be ageless and eternal. Through amorous liaison with a youth, the pederast perhaps seeks an illusory escape from his own mortality. The sodomite’s indulgence in sterile sex—especially the pederast’s passion for infertile sexual relations with a young boy—constitutes, from a certain Christian moral perspective, a self-deceptive denial of time, to which all are nevertheless subject. Pederasty is a use of sex that dissociates it from the death of the old and the birth of the new and denies its implication of ceding one's own place to the next generation. Reproductive sex defines the limits of our personal life: it entails the succession of generations and therewith our own mortality, whereas pederasty perverts sex in its refusal to recognize these limits.
The pederast remains spellbound by a fascination with apparently ageless, ideal beauty. Just such a passion is explored by Thomas Mann in his story “Death in Venice”: the aging protagonist’s love for the beauty of a youth proves fatal to him.!” In this way, sodomy and humanism, which were closely linked historically in educational institutions based on the relationship between young boys and masters of the liberal arts, are exposed together as both forms of seeking a false transcendence. Each mirrors and reveals the other.
Brunetto Latini is, furthermore, a deeply individual and personal version of the “old man” of New Testament resonance (Romans 6:6 and Ephesians 4:22), of fallen humanity, that Dante also treats on a historical-allegorical level as the “Old Man of Crete” in canto 14. “Erect” (“sta dritto,” 14.103), like Capaneus, the “veglio” embodies iconographically the pride through which humanity falls in its very attempt to raise itself in defiance of the divinity it wills to supplant. An allegory of the succession of empires, as in Daniel 2:31 ff., this figure tells the story of humankind as a history of progressive decline—from gold, to silver, to bronze, iron, and clay. Its tears, forming the four rivers of Hell, concretize the flow of history and its tragedy into eternity, with ineffaceable consequences.
All of these examples, moreover, point out how absolutely central language, as interpretive medium, is to the sins and fates of the characters in the Inferno. That sin and indeed human action per se should be fundamentally linguistic in character is in itself an index of the extent to which Dante is conscious of human life as interpretation through and through. Self-interpretation—construing ourselves in one way or another—constitutes the very essence of what we, as free agents, do and are, and it takes place preeminently in the medium of language. Accordingly, Dante analyzes all the ways that language can be employed and perverted by interpretation for sinful purposes. Practically every sin is understood as basically linguistic in nature, or at least from the standpoint of its linguistic manifestation. As Robin Kirkpatrick suggests, “the speeches Dante attributes to the damned represent a pathological display of the many ways in which words can die or become, quite literally, immoral.” Directly dependent on language is not only the essentially human power of rationality, specifically perverted in graver sins, but also freedom, a necessary prerequisite for the possibility of any sin whatsoever. Only an animal endowed with speech is capable of sinning.
This linguistic emphasis of Dante’ outlook takes on particular importance through a kind of recursive twist, inasmuch as language is also the medium of Dante’s poem. The poem, therefore, constantly calls itself into question as a linguistic act and artifact. The poem and Dante’ act in writing it are themselves vulnerable to being marred by all the sorts of sins that are manifest linguistically and inventoried in the course of the journey. As poet, he can directly participate in the sins he represents specifically under the aspect of their linguistic manifestations. Dante’s examination of sin and of how it infects human language constantly reflects on himself and his own dilemmas with language in attempting to write a prophetic poem, a human work of art that will somehow communicate the Word of God, even from the depths of damnation in Hell.
Throughout the Commedia, Dante is in search of a new sort of language, a language with an authority that is not that of philosophy, which is liable to being corrupted by intellectual pride or “presumption,” as Augustine warned, nor just that of poetry and its rhetorical brilliance. He ruthlessly impugns all language that depends on his own capabilities or on any merely human resources whatsoever. The Inferno is a relentless undermining of all the conventional sanctions of human and institutional authority that Dante might turn to for legitimation and validation of his language. The solution he finally adopts is that of a sermo humilis, a humbly sublime Christian prophetic word that lets divinity speak by disavowing and discrediting its own human authority and prestige. He goes so far as to bumiliate his own human speaking and persona. Dante's artistically self-conscious production of poetry is merely human, and he prominently highlights and exposes its limitations as such. Dante’s model is, ultimately, the Bible, which speaks from beyond its human authors and their individual voices as the Word of God. But he can approach this model only to the extent that he effaces his own authority and delivers his text up to be used for a higher purpose by another Author.
In canto 16, the noble Florentines indirectly confirm Brunetto’ prediction that Dante is destined for greatness by recognizing the privilege of his descent while living into the world of the dead. They entreat this marvelous man traversing hell safely on living feet (“vivi piedi” 16.32) to tell them who he is. The extraordinary fact of his presence among the dead is immediate evidence of his enjoying the special favor of God. To this extent, Dante’ authority as poet and prophet in the interpretive journey is directly grounded on the corporeal journey of Dante as protagonist that demonstrates his election by grace for a world-historical mission. That is why all the vicissitudes to which Dante is subjected as a pilgrim cannot but reflect upon his status as poetprophet. What happens to the character also happens to the author, even if somewhat indirectly, since the character is represented as in the process of becoming the author. Even the indignities to which he is subjected are necessary to strip away the merely human bases of his authority: Dante’s human capacities are compounded of a corrupt admixture needing to be purged away in the course of his descent for the sake of his divine calling. These capabilities are indeed foregrounded, yet not as reliable resources assuring him the mastery necessary to achieve his goal but rather as offered up to a higher Author and Person and Purpose, in order that they may be made genuinely fruitful.
Dante’s first and most indispensable human resource as a poet is, of course, his language. And the scene with the sodomites is one of myriad scenes that point up the essentially linguistic status of the past and of every spiritual condition in the present. Time and language are inextricable. This is suggested by the reply the sodomites give to Dante's ringing denunciation of the Florentine nouveaux riches:

“Però, se campi d’esti luoghi bui
e torni a riveder le belle stelle,
quando ti gioverà dicere ‘l’ fui,’
fa che di noi a la gente favelle.
Indi rupper la rota, e a fuggirsi
ali sembiar le gambe loro isnelle.
Un amen non saria possuto dirsi
tosto così com’ e’ fuoro spariti…”

(“Therefore, if you make it out of these dark places
and return to sight of the lovely stars,
when it will please you to say ‘I was,’
do make mention of us to the people.
Then they ruptured the wheel, and fleeing
their legs seemed wings for speed.
An ‘amen’ could not have been said
as fast as they were gone…”)

Past time is identified as the tense that says “I was,” and a minimal moment of present time is measured by saying “amen.” These hints of the essentially linguistic definition of the past and present highlight the power of language to determine our reality particularly in its temporality. This power will prove fundamental to Dante’s attempt to use language to prophesy the future.
But immediately after this demonstration of appreciation for Dante's highminded, prophetically intoned speech delivered “with face upraised” (“Così gridai con la faccia levata,” 16.76), which is recognized right away as “the truth” (16.78), speech is drowned out by the waterfall of the Phlegethon tumbling down to the next lower circle of the Inferno, where indeed vision will take over from discourse, the eye from the ear. The sound of rushing water now deafens Dante and Virgil so that they can hardly hear each other speak:

che ’l suon de l’acqua n’era sì vicino,
che per parlar saremmo a pena uditi.

(for the sound of the water was so near us
that we would scarcely have heard ourselves speaking.)

The simile used to describe this falling water compares it to “Acquacheta” - literally “Quiet Water” - in the Apennines by “Monte Viso” (16.95), which can be taken to mean “Mount of Sight” (“viso” is, in fact, used in this sense a few lines later: “al tuo viso si scovra” - “be uncovered to your sight,” 16.123). This hushing up or drowning out of speech signals the transition - which is imminent - to a region where disclosure will depend more on the power of the image than on the word. Dante is building toward his thoroughgoing and devastating indictment of speech, in its turn, as chief among the all-toohuman means of interpretation.
Precisely at this point the transfer to the Malebolge takes place, with Dante and Virgil on the back of Geryon. It is a transfer from the circle of violence to that of fraud and, at the same time, an exposure of fraud in Dante’ own poetic interpretations. This parallels the transition from the circles of incontinence to those of heresy and violence (cantos 10-17), in which Dante’ interpretations themselves tend to become violent. By swearing to the literal truth of his commedia in one of the most obviously preposterous moments of the whole poem, Dante deliberately provokes the question, Can we take all this seriously? Obviously not at face value. Rather than being any sort of natural creature, Geryon, that “filthy image of fraud” (“quella sozza imagine di froda,” 17.7) with the face of a just man (“faccia d’uom giusto,” 17.11), is a literary pastiche, a production of high artifice like a Turkish tapestry or like Arachne'’s virtuoso web. The many colors of his hide suggest “colors” of rhetoric, just as the knots and convolutiòns painted on his surface (“dipinti avea di nodi e di rotelli,” 17.15) make him an emblem for textuality and for some of the more far-fetched literary inventions that have been woven into the text of the Inferno. Both knots (“nodi”) and scrolls (“rotelli”) are terms suggestive of writing and written artifacts. Geryon’s symbolizing, in these respects, Dante’s poem itself suggests that the poem is “a truth having the face of a lie” (“ver c'ha faccia di menzogna,” 16.124).
The claim to straightforward literal truth, to actually having seen this very beast come rising up out of the depths of hell, conspicuously invalidates and ironizes itself. It thereby forces us to interpret the poem’s nonetheless serious claim to truth on a different level. Ingeniously, Dante manages to impose the authority of his text precisely by exposing its extravagant fictiveness. For exactly this sort of self-ironic interpretive twist is what is necessary to reverse the fraud of fiction and turn it into an instrument of prophetic revelation. Dante’s prophetic authority can be asserted only at the expense of the human poet’s authority and voice, for the latter can be but a purveyor of fictions and therefore, in strict medieval rationalist terms, of lies. Still, the episode affirms the truth of fiction in its very preposterousness, since fiction, by exposing its own falsehood, becomes, paradoxically, true. In this sort of interpretive selfconsciousness resides fiction’s capacity to tell truths indirectly that otherwise cannot be told at all, so as to grasp what otherwise remains ungraspable about real life.
The actual descent, with the blocking of Dante’ sight and the concomitant concentration of attention on the sense of hearing, enacts the drama of another hermeneutic transition: it figures interpretive penetration to a new depth of sense, thus taking up the relay from canto 9. Canto 16 concludes with the image of a diver returning to the surface, after having freed an anchor snagged on something beneath the sea. This may hint that Dante, too, has had to make some adjustments in the depths of his own poem, helping it to become unstuck from too rigidly literal an interpretation of the deep truth to which it is indeed anchored. So the “bark” of his poem is freed to sail on.
In this transition from the circle of the violent to that of the fraudulent - and thus from the second to the third major structural division of the Inferno {the first being incontinence) according to the classes of sin outlined in canto 11 - Dante again emphasizes ways in which his own poem is complicit in the type of sin it portrays. Behind the face of a just man, Geryon has the body of a serpent (17.12) - recalling the first prevaricator in the Garden - and a sharp tail that menaces unseen (17.1 and 84), Also, its descent in one hundred circles (“per cento rote,” 17.131) is a figure for the poem’s one hundred cantos. Throughout the eighth circle, Dante will concentrate on how poetry itself is apt to become a sort of hermeneutic fraud. Only by just such a selfaware admission and open exposure can the fraud inherent in poetic fiction be neutralized and even be corralled into serving indirectly as a disclosure of divine truth.
In his descent to the eighth circle, Dante registers, through his references to two notoriously over-audacious voyagers in heaven, Phaethon and Icarus, his worry over trespassing upon territory where as a living human being he does not belong. Both are emblems of the risk Dante runs of encroaching upon a realm that is off-limits to him. As a human being and particularly as a poet, he is liable to producing a representation of the other world that cannot but be fraudulent. It is a risk that he is able to contain only by admitting the absurdly arduous, mad undertaking on which he has embarked in his poem. By clinging close to Virgil as father figure, an all-too-fragile delegate of ultimately divine authority, Dante corrects for the transgressiveness of the temerarious sons who ignored their fathers’ warnings. By calling attention himself to his dangerous proximity to such figures, he claims to be in conscious control of the risk and thereby differentiates the program of his poem from their disastrously deluded enterprises. While his poem is inextricably complicit in the very fraud and violence it denounces, sins which prove to be his characters’ eternal damnation, this diagnosis and conscious denunciation opens a possibility of being saved by grace for Dante and for those who follow him on his journey of self-interpretation.

Date: 2022-01-12