A Defence of the Protagonist: Inf.1-2 [Tony Cuzzilla]

Dati bibliografici

Autore: Tony Cuzzilla

Tratto da: Electronic Bulletin of the Dante Society of America

Anno: 5 novembre 2011

According to some scholars, the protagonist of the Commedia commits a grave error in the prologue scene (Inf. 1-2). It has been argued that his unsuccessful attempt to ascend the mountain represents a philosophical ascent of pride that is doomed to fail because there is no guide. In this interpretation, the right path is represented, instead, by the otherworld journey with Virgil, in which a necessary descent in humility (Hell) precedes the successful ascent of the mountain of Purgatory.1 My suggestion here is that Dante’s text resists this interpretation.
The Commedia’s governing metaphor is the “cammin di nostra vita:” just as one sets out on a journey in order to reach some destination, and must follow the “diritta via” in order to get there, so all our actions in life are directed to some ultimate goal, and the way of living that results in the achievement of that aim is the “verace via” (cf. Inf. 1.1-12.). The final goal that we all seek is nothing other than happiness, the “dolce pome” that Dante eventually attains by means of his ascent with Virgil (Purg. 27.115-117).

As we see it in the prologue scene, the whole terrain of our journey in life consists of two starkly antithetical features. One is a fearful dark wood in a valley where the sun is “silent,” a place of misery and death. This is where Dante says he found himself at the mid-point of his own earthly journey as a result of having strayed from the true path. Adjacent to the wood there is a beautiful sunlit mountain (Inf. 1.1-18, 60; 2.120). Since Virgil, the pilgrim’s eventual guide to happiness, describes it is a “dilettoso monte / ch’è principio e cagion di tutta gioia” (77-78.), we know that the mountain (somehow) brings about all happiness.

Having made his way to the edge of the wood, the protagonist looks up to see the heights of the mountain illuminated by the rising sun, the “pianeta che mena dritto altrui per ogni calle” (1.16-18). This periphrasis clearly implies that the sun is guiding Dante towards the ascent as the “verace via” and the summit as the goal, just as it will guide both him and Virgil in the ascent of Purgatory (Purg. 1.107-108; 13.16-21). In this world, the world of the prologue scene, however, it is the ascent of the “dilettoso monte” that results in “tutta gioia.” In the justified hope of reaching the goal at the summit, therefore, Dante returns to what must be the path from which he had strayed, although no one else appears to be on that road (Inf. 1.29). We soon learn why he is alone.

As he is about to reach the beginning of the steep (“l’erta”), two wild beasts threaten him; then a third, a ravenous she-wolf, fills him with such terror that it drives him back to the dark wood, turning his hope of reaching the summit to despair (Inf. 1.31-54). In Heaven, Beatrice is distressed to learn that Dante “è impedito / sì nel cammin, che volt’è per paura” (in no way indicating that he is on anything other than the right track) (2.62-63). She sends Virgil to his aid, and the Roman poet explains that the only escape is by an “altro viaggio,” because the she-wolf allows no one to climb the mountain, and even kills those who make an attempt (as it will continue to do until the advent of a “veltro” that will destroy the beast) (1.91-114). For Beatrice and Virgil, this impediment is what constitutes the problem; neither mentions the absence of a guide.

Such are the bare bones of the prologue scene, an allegory about the state of the world in the year 1300. The allegory is partially glossed by the narrator, who makes it plain that the ravenous she-wolf is avarizia, the insatiable desire for wealth and possessions (Purg. 20.10-15, 82; cf. Inf. 1.49-51, 94-102). We also learn that the world has declined so much from its good beginnings that avarice has corrupted the Papacy, and thence the Church and the whole world (Inf. 19.52-117; cf. 7.46-48). In fact, at the time of the journey, the influence of avarice is such that, virtually in its entirety, “’l mondo presente disvia,” for almost everyone has abandoned virtue (the right road to happiness in this life and the next), choosing instead a life of vice (the route to misery and damnation) (Purg. 16.46-84). This profoundly anomalous “present world” is the world of the prologue scene.

What follows is, in its literal sense, the account of a prophetic “vision” in which the protagonist learns two fundamental things about this anomaly. The first is its cause, which is nothing less than the undermining, by a Papacy corrupted by avarice, of the providential plan for keeping humanity on the verace via.For God intends us to have the spiritual guidance of the Pope working in partnership with the moral guidance of the Emperor. As things stand in 1300, neither institution provides guidance: there is no Emperor, and the Pope is leading his flock straight to Hell. The other key revelation is the imminent advent of a saviour in the form of the “veltro,” a messianic Emperor who will destroy the she-wolf and restore humanity’s two institutions, thus paving the way for the final fruition of the divine plan for human happiness.2

The text of the Commedia itself thus helps us to make useful sense of the fundamentals of its opening scene. The dark wood represents (whatever else it may signify) the life of vice and/or the state of mortal sin to which that path leads. The ascent of the mountain signifies (perhaps among other things) the arduous practice of virtue, the road that leads to the goal at the summit. The protagonist is right to attempt the ascent, even though the unrestrained power of the “she-wolf” of avarice will make it inaccessible until the advent of the Imperial “hound.” The emphasis is on this temporary inaccessibility, rather than a lack of guidance, as the cause of his failure.

Dante’s otherworld travels do indeed enact the divinely guided process of salvation; but it is the process that ought to be taking place in this world, the world of the prologue scene, by means of the ascent of the mountain. To see the protagonist’s failure as an ascent of pride, or the mountain as some kind of illusory good or false path, so that what he tries to do is, and always was, wrong, is to miss this key point. Such a reading significantly distorts the revelation that the Commedia presents as its reason for being, taking it as a theological allegory about the way to salvation as such, rather than as the account of a prophetic vision about why this path has become inaccessible in the “mondo presente,” and about how this is soon to change. It even makes this change, and consequently the “veltro” who will bring it, redundant.

I have tried to show that Dante’s own text gives sufficient support for these claims. I must leave it to the reader to consider whether the protagonist can be seen as attempting a philosophical ascent of pride, and as guideless, given the two biblical texts alluded to in the sun’s “silence” in the dark wood and in the verses “guardai in alto e vidi le sue spalle / vestite già de’ raggi del pianeta / che mena dritto altrui per ogni calle” (Inf. 1.60, 16-18). I have in mind “In principio erat Verbum . . . Erat lux vera quae inluminat omnem hominem venientem in mundum,” and “Levavi oculos meos in montes unde veniet auxilium mihi.”3 Readers may also wish to explore the relevance of the works in which Saint Augustine, inspired by the same two biblical texts, writes of how we can only escape the dark vale of sin and misery with the help of Christ, the risen Sun of Justice which first “vestit” (“arrays,” i.e., enlightens) the “montes Dei” (the great preachers of the gospels), from where the “lux vera” is reflected to those still in darkness.4

The main proponents are John Freccero, “The Prologue Scene,” in Dante: The Poetics of Conversion, ed. Rachel Jacoff (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1986), 1-28 [orig. 1959), and “The Firm Foot on a Journey Without a Guide,” 29-54 [orig. 1966], and Anthony K. Cassell, Lectura Dantis Americana, Inferno I (Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1989).
Purg. 6.76-126 and 16.46-132 (the principle of twofold guidance and how it has been undermined); Purg. 33.34-54 (the saviour as an Emperor); Par. 6.1-111 (the twofold guidance as it once existed in practice); Par. 27.19-66 (61-66 for the saviour as an Emperor) and 121-148 (140-41 for the saviour as an Emperor); Par. 30.133-148 (the Emperor Henry VII as the saviour Dante had hoped for).
John 1.1-9, Psalm 120.1.
Saint Augustine, In Joannis Evangelium 1.2-7, 18-19, 2.3-8 (“nisi luce vestiatur,” 2.5) and Enarrationes in Psalmos, 35.9-10 (“luce montes vestit,” 35.9), 119.1, 120.1-5. See also Richard Lansing, “Inferno 1.16-17: ‘e vidi le sue spalle / vestite,’” EBDSA, 10 December 2007.
Date: 2022-11-27