Epic Tradition and Inferno IX [David Quint]

Dati bibliografici

Autore: David Quint

Tratto da: Dante Studies with the Annual Report of the Dante Society

Numero: 93

Anno: 1975

Pagine: 201-207

When Dante's itinerary stalls before the gates of Dis, he and Virgil stand at a crossroads where two epic traditions of underworld descent diverge in opposite directions. The Furies misapply the typology of Theseus to the pilgrim; but Dante has not come to deprive the infernal kingdom of one of its denizens, nor will he, as the guardians of Dis demand, retrace his steps back to earth by the way he came. Passing through and beyond the underworld, Dante's journey rather imitates the descent of Aeneas. For both protagonists the endpoint of death turns into a point on a continuum: Aeneas moves on to his divinely ordained mission in Roman history, Dante to salvation and the vision of God. But in Canto IX the appropriation and parodistic inversion of the classical texts of Lucan and Statius point towards a second Stygian literary topos: the raising up of dead souls.
Virgil informs Dante of a prior descent from Limbo to lower Hell.

Ver è ch'altra fiata qua giù fui,
congiurato da quella Eritéon cruda
che richiamava l'ombre a' corpi sui.

Di poco era di me la carna nuda,
ch'ella mi fece intrar dentr'a quel muro,
per trarne un spirto del cerchio di Giuda.

Quell'è 'l più basso loco e ’l più oscuro
e ‘l più lontan dal ciel che tutto gira:
ben so ’l cammin; però ti fa sicuro.

Shortly after his death but before the Crucifixion, Virgil had been conjured by Erichtho, the Thessalian sorceress of Lucan’s Pharsalia, with instructions to draw forth a spirit from the circle of traitors. His statement, accounting for his knowledge of infernal geography, recalls the moment in Aeneid VI, 564-565, when the Sibyl claims a similar expertise. But if the passage reasserts the Dante-Aeneas analogy, it simultaneously suggests its inversion. Erichtho is a structural opposite to Beatrice. Beatrice summons Virgil up to earth to lead Dante down through Hell. Erichtho sends Virgil to the bottom of Hell to bring a spirit up to earth. This double movement, coming and going, is repeated at v. 82 where the heavenly messenger brushes aside the heavy air of the Stygian swamp; his action imitates Mercury at the opening of Book I of the Thebaid (1-6). But while Dante's messenger descends to Dis, Statius's Mercury is ascending, bringing the soul of Laius beside him to earth; the souls in Hades speculate whether Laius has been called to earth by a witch of Thessaly (11, 21-22). Dante quotes Statius precisely where Statius alludes to Erichtho, both here and in the description of Tisiphone (Theb. 1, 103) echoed at v. 41; the glow in Tisiphone's eyes resembles the moon under the witch's spell (Theb. 1, 104-106). Statius clearly admired the Erichtho episode, for he made it the model for Tiresias's conjuration and prophecy in Thebaid IV.
During their demonic invocations, both Erichtho and Tiresias run into temporary opposition from the infernal spirits. The conjurors threaten the recalcitrant shades with higher authority. Erichtho cries out:

Paretis? an ille
Compellandus erit, quo numquam terra vocato
Non concussa tremit, qui Gorgona cernit apertam,
Verberibusque suis trepidam castigat Erinyn
Indespecta tenet vobis qui Tartara, cuius
Vos estis superi, Stygias qui peierat undas?
(Phars. VI, 744-749, my italics)

and Tiresias:

novimus et quidquid dici noscique timetis,
et turbare Hecaten, ni te, Thymbraee, vererer
et triplicis mundi summum, quem scire nefastum.
(Theb. 1v, 514-516)

These two texts, cited in the first chapter of the Genealogia Deorum, occupy an important place in the history of the literary imagination. Together they form the textual authority for Boccaccio's figure of Demogorgon, the all-powerful creator and master of the gods.
The tradition of Demogorgon, however, predates Boccaccio. The fourth or fifth century Thebaid scholiast Placidus Lactantius found in Tiresias's menacing words an allusion to the demiourgos of Plato's Timaeus.

iuxta picturam illam veterem, in qua tormenta descripta sunt et ascensio ad deum. dicit autem deum δημιουρϒόϛ, cuis scire nomen non licet.

Carlo Landi notes the distortions that take place in the Latin translations of δημιουρϒόϛ in the manuscript tradition of Lactantius’s commentary. Citing instances of demogorgon and demogorgona, Landi plausibly argues for a fusion or confusion of demiourgos with the analogous passage in Lucan: “qui Gorgona cernit apertam.” Indeed, I have found a reference to a recognizable predecessor of Boccaccio’s Demogorgon in the gloss to Erichtho's speech in the twelfth-century commentary on the Pharsalia of Arnulfus of Orleans.

ILLE Demogorgon, qui fuit pater Omagionis, Omagion Celii, Celius Saturni, Saturnus lovis. QUI GORGONA CERNIT APERTAM id est aperte, nec mutatur in lapidem, sed non aperte dicit pro Perseo qui eam vidit nec mutatus fuit, sed non aperte vidit immo per egidem.

This is Demogorgon the divine progenitor as Boccaccio would later describe him. Dante appears to have been aware of this interpretative tradition behind the conjuration passages of Lucan and Statius, particularly of the Demogorgon's ability to withstand the gorgon’s glance, from which one half of his composite name derived. The gorgon in question, as Arnulfus makes clear, is Medusa, the supreme barrier halting the pilgrim in Canto ix. The heavenly messenger who arrives to let Dante into Dis thus parodies “Demogorgon,” invoked to free the conjured shades out of Hades. The messenger descends from above while Lucan's chthonic deity would rise from the primeval depths beneath the underworld. The up and down trajectories converge at the walls of Dis.
By now the pattern of literary allusion in the canto is clear. The two alternatives which the uncertain pilgrim faces outside Dis—to continue his descent or to return to earth—both have precedents in the epic tradition. Dante makes the first correspond to the journey of Aeneas, the second to the conjuration of Erichtho. The heavenly messenger breaks the impasse and decisively reaffirms the Virgilian model. Yet the messenger himself, by his allusive associations with Statius's Mercury and with “Demogorgon,” draws attention to the road not taken.

When Dante represents the rejection of one epic model that is implicit in his choice of another, he reverses the history of late Latin epic, where conjuration is, in fact, a conscious poetic substitution for the Virgilian topoi of the underworld descent and the intervention of the divine messenger. These latter episodes in the Aeneid provide moments for the poem to interpret itself, to assert the ideology of Roman destiny which gives meaning to the violence of the epic agon. These interpretative moments lie outside the human world of the poem and dramatize its claim to an extratextual significance: Anchises predicts the future greatness of his race from the timeless perspective of death, Mercury brings down the pronouncements of the gods. When Lucan and Statius invert Virgil's fictions, they are attacking not only his political ideology but also the authority of such privileged moments: they are attacking ideology itself.
The Erichtho episode, which takes place in the sixth book of what was to be a twelve-book epic, occupies the same position as Aeneas's underworld journey in the Aeneid. The reanimated Pompeian soldier evokes the same catalogue of distinguished Roman souls whom Anchises had pointed out in their embryonic state to his son: the Decii, the Gracchi, Scipio, Camillus, Cato the Censor, etc. But there is no joy in their vision of the future: they are weeping for the carnage of the civil wars and the demise of the republic. Moreover, the soldier’s prophecy is vague, aside from its threat of punishment to Caesar and promise of reward to Pompey in their respective afterlives. It is tinged with Stoic renunciation: death is the only certainty. The attempt to contact superhuman authority not only fails to arrive at an interpretative statement, but is in itself an act of horrible and most un-Virgilian impiety. Lucan dwells lovingly upon the stomach-turning details of the witch's rite in order to emphasize the monstrosity of the literary incarnation of a “divine” voice in the human poetic text. Paradoxically, the Pharsalia makes history its subject matter in order to demonstrate the inauthenticity of poetic interpretations of history. The poetic text remains either “disembodied” or “inanimate,” its authority self-contained.
In Book II of the Thebaid, we have seen that Statius makes explicit the obverse relationship between the descent of the heavenly messenger and the demonic conjuration by conflating the two conventions. Recalling still a third epic topos, the journey to the realm of Sleep, Statius's Mercury descends not to earth but to the underworld in order to raise up the soul of Laius. His mission is not the revelation of meaning but the instigation of further violence. The episode illustrates emblematically the Thebaid's adaptation of the epic machinery of the Aeneid to the Pharsalia's climate of demystification. The interrelationship of the three epics derives in large part from their common inspiration in the Roman civil wars.
Civil conflict, with its reciprocal violence and interchangeable victims, poses what René Girard has recently characterized as a crisis of undifferentiation. According to Girard, each contending faction claims divine sanction for its violence in order to distinguish itself from its opposition. Suppressing their human sameness, the sacred becomes the sign of the conqueror over the vanquished and oscillates according to the vicissitudes of battle. With its AeneasAugustus analogy, Virgil’s mythological poem proposes an ideological interpretation to recent history. The victorious imperial party has the last word: its poet-propagandist discovers in the ascendancy of Augustus the fulfillment of a divine historical plan. When Lucan dramatizes those same events as the spokesman for the lost republican cause, he cannot, of course, change their outcome, but he can at least remove the divine machinery which masks their undifferentiated structure. The Olympic gods of the Aeneid recede into the background of the Pharsalia and leave the wars to the play of Fortune. Statius's recourse to myth is a return to Virgilian form that only reiterates the insights of the Pharsalia. Beginning and ending in fratricide, the Theban cycle is the archetypal myth of civil warfare. The gods of the Thebaid become figures for that very Violence which indiscriminately consumes the rival factions and refuses to explain its own origin.

The confrontation of epic traditions in Inferno IX pits the Virgilian underworld descent and heavenly messenger against the conjuration scenes of Lucan and Statius. The former are conventions by which divine significance enters the poetic universe, while the latter renounce the possibility of such extratextual authority. It is not hard to see why the Christian poet Dante chooses the Virgilian model, for he is assured of the spirit beyond the letter.
Looking at the classical environment of Canto IX, Benvenuto da Imola identifies the heavenly messenger as Mercury.

nam Mercurius poetice loquendo est nuncius et interpretes Deorum, qui mittitur a superis ad infernos ad executionem omnis divinae voluntatis, sicut patet apud Homerum, Virgilium, Statium, Martianum, et alios multos.

Both Benvenuto and Pietro di Dante assimilate the verghetta of verse 89 with the caduceus of the god. The two commentators follow the allegory of the De Nuptiis Mercurii et Philologiae and identify Mercury with Eloquence. But they also understand him in his traditional epic role as the angel of mediation. Pietro cites St. Augustine’s etymology.

Et Augustinus 7° de civitate Dei dicit Mercurius portitorem sermonis Dei. Et ideo dicitur Mercurium quasi sermo medius currens.

The descent of this Christian Mercury is analogous to the “condescension” of Scripture which Beatrice describes in Paradiso Iv. The revelation of the Word sanctions the Commedia's converse poetic ascent towards reunion with the Word; in the dramatic representation, thé heavenly messenger opens the gates of Dis and allows the resumption of the pilgrim's journey. During the frightening impasse which halts the Virgilian descent outside the walls of the infernal city, the “other” tradition of Lucan and Statius is recognized as an inversion of Dante's poetics, a literary alternative which must be confronted and discarded before the pilgrim-poet may proceed.

Date: 2022-01-12