The Comedy, prolegomena. The prologue scene (Infeno 1-2) [John A. Scott]

Table of contents

Dati bibliografici

Autore: John A. Scott

Tratto da: Understanding Dante

Editore: University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame

Anno: 2004

Pagine: 176-178

1. Allegory

The opening scene of the poem is notable for the presence of a traditional type of allegory whereby something is introduced merely as a signifier whose existence is entirely dependent on what is signified. The dark wood is not to be taken as an actual forest in which the pilgrim Dante found himself lost in 1300. It exists solely for the purpose of indicating the dangers of mortal sin and error, the loss of the path leading to salvation. Likewise, the three beasts—the leopard (1. 32), lion (1. 45), and she-wolf (1. 49) have no existence, except insofar as they indicate certain terrifying threats to the pilgrim’s progress. They remain stereotypical fictional animals; no reader believes that the poet requires her or him to accept their existence outside of the scene portrayed and for which they were invented (on the basis of Jer. 5.6: “a lion from the forest has attacked them, a wolf from the desert has ravaged them, a leopard beleaguers their cities”). Having no independent existence of their own, the three beasts are merely allegorical signifiers, pointing to sins or categories of sins that have little or nothingto do with the real nature of leopards, lions, and wolves. Rather than the traditional term of “personification allegory” (e.g., Love in Ovid: cf. VN 25.9), it would perhaps be more fitting to describe this reduction of human behavior and states of mind to static, undeveloped images as an allegory of reification. What we must understand above all is that for the most part Dante jettisoned this artificial method of narrative construction in the Comedy, replacing it with a revolutionary strategy that truly animates his story. Inspired by the typological or figural interpretation of sacred history, the author of the Comedy chose to portray men and women who had possessed a real, historical earthly existence. Far from being mere abstractions or exempla, such as we frequently find in medieval literature, the characters encountered by the pilgrim throughout his journey do not exist solely in order to indicate certain categories of sin or virtue. Francesca da Rimini (Inf. 5), while condemned for her sin of lust, is no superficially attractive but fundamentally repulsive “siren,” and the Emperor Justinian does not appear in paradise (Par. 6) simply as a personification of the Ideal Prince or Just Ruler. Like virtually all the souls with whom the pilgrim engages, Francesca and Justinian are integral parts of the poetic artifact, yet they retain the full weight and complexity of their humanity—a feature of the poem that for many readers confers a unique quality on Dante’s Comedy. Taking his cue from Hegel” Lectures on Aesthetics, Auerbach (1957, 167-68) explained that this unique quality is due to the fact that, as readers of the Comedy encountering its dramatis personae, “we behold an intensified image of the essence of their being, fixed for all eternity in gigantic dimensions, behold it in a purity and distinctness which could never for one moment have been possible during their lives upon earth.”

2. The three beasts of canto I

Regarding what we have termed “reification allegory;” it is of course true that, in Vita Nova 25.10, Dante asserted that any poet worthy of the name must be able to divest his words of their allegorical cocoon in order to reveal their “true meaning.” This is what he set out to do for two of his poems in the second and third books of Convivio, when he claimed that the Noble Lady (donna gentile) was in fact Lady Philosophy. However, the arbitrary nature of the linguistic sign is greatly magnified when readers have to depend solely on their wit, knowledge, and judgment for the deciphering of allegorical riddles—as centuries of Dante scholarship bear out. Regarding the enigma of the three beasts of canto 1, an important clue is surely the curse the poetnarrator hurls in Purgatorio 20.10—12 against the ancient she-wolf whose insatiable appetite finds more victims than “any other beast.” Since this occurs on the terrace where the tendency to avarice is purged, the equation she-wolf = avarice seems evident at that point. Her appearance as the worst danger besetting humanity in the opening scene may, however, be taken to indicate the generic sin of greed, of which avarice was the most specific offshoot in the medieval canon. Greed, all-encompassing, all-threatening, the destroyer of justice, is the generic sin most opposed to justice and the root of all evil, according to St. Paul. In the later Middle Ages, the sins of avarice and greed thus came to replace the emblematic feudal sin of pride, especially among the merchant classes of the Italian communes.
A clue to the identification of the leopard may be found in the springlike atmosphere surrounding its appearance, so that the hour of day (early morning) and the “sweet season” give the beleaguered wanderer cause to hope for deliverance (Il. 37-43): this may indicate lust as the typical sin of youth (or the sins of incontinence, or, according to a recent hypothesis, envy and partisan hatred). Later, at Inferno 16.106-8, we are told that the wanderer-turned-pilgrim has a cord about his waist, with which he had once “thought to capture the leopard with the spotted hide” There, we are caught up in a true mise en abîme before the yawning chasm of lower hell: the cord cast down by Virgil to “capture” Geryon, the symbol of fraud, is the one with which Dante had hoped to capture the leopard. Geryon is clearly identified as “that filthy image of fraud” (Inf 17.7), a cardinal point that makes the interpretation of both cord and leopard yet more problematic. The cord would seem to symbolize either chastity/ humility (the Franciscan girdle) or fraud itself (according to many, including fourteenth-century commentators). The latter possibility underlies the view that “the lonza… symbolizes the temptation of malizia… it signifies not the committed sin of fraud, but rather the test of man’s potential for malice.” As Bruno Nardi points out, on the other hand, in Aristotle’s Ethics (7.7 and II) fraud and lust are linked on the grounds that the latter implies seduction—a point already made in the commentary by Dante son, Pietro. Similarly, Guido da Pisa interprets the cord as a sign of “fraudulent intention,” since the goddess of love uses this cord to bind even the wise man. Nevertheless, he interprets the three beasts as symbolizing “lust, pride and avarice” (Guido 1974, 303). The lion would thus signify the sin of pride in what may be regarded as a typically schematic progress: lust (youth), pride (maturity), greed (old age): synchronically, on the other hand, the beasts represent the obstacles placed by the devil along the path of earthly existence (Mazzoni 1967, 100-101). Other scholars are equally convinced that the beasts reflect “the triple division of Hell into sins of disordered appetite (she-wolf), violence (lion), and fraud (leopard)” (Durling 1997, 86). Yet others interpret the sequential appearance of the beasts as signifying this same moral ordering of hell: leopard (incontinence), lion (violence), she-wolf (fraud).
It would surely be counterproductive to delve deeper into this allegorical maze. The reader will by now have had ample opportunity to appreciate the point already made: that this type of allegory illustrates the essentially ambiguous nature of the linguistic sign.

Date: 2022-12-26