The Visit to the World of the Dead as the Origin of Apocalyptic Prophecy
We come to Dante’s Inferno as the culmination of a series of visits to the underworld. Dante’s most direct precedent is Aeneas’s journey to meet his father in Hades, as told by Virgil in Book VI of the Aeneid. Aeneas’s voyage is modeled in turn on Odysseus’s encounter with shades of Hades in Book XI of the Odyssey. The epic quest in each of these models pivots on a visit to the domain of the dead, a discensus ad inferas, as a climactic episode at its center. However, Dante makes this episode the general framework of the whole poem: from beginning to end, Dante’s poem narrates a voyage through the world beyond the grave. In this respect, Dante’s Inferno, and indeed the whole Divine Comedy, is conceived primarily as an expansion of the ancient epic motif of the katabasis or “going down” of the protagonist to the underworld for a revelation of his destiny from beyond the threshold of death. Like Virgil, Dante interprets history prophetically, finding in it the essential pattern of things to come. But this projection now reaches to an eschatological future beyond history altogether—to an uncannily dynamic realization of eternity.
The other world that is visited by Dante asserts itself unequivocally as ultimate reality. It is not just some shadowy world of bloodless phantoms like the shades that approach Odysseus, nor is it vacuous and inane, as are Virgil’s “houses void and empty realms of Dis” (“domos Ditis vacuas et inania regna,” Aeneid VI. 269). Dante’s “other” world shows up as even more vivid than the world of ordinary sense-perception by virtue of a strikingly realistic, indeed surrealistic imagery. Dante heightens the mythological topos of the visit to the underworld that he inherited from Virgil and Homer. He uses it to represent the true and eternal life: the vera vita. Dante’s world of the dead, moreover, is not just one in a series of episodes befalling the protagonist: it is rather the final and definitive experience, the apocalypse that reveals the true meaning of all possible experiences and thereby the meaning of the cosmos as a whole. This is perhaps implicit and incipient in Homer, or at least in Virgil, since the journey to the underworld in each case frames a revelation that illuminates the meaning of everything else and orients the protagonist’s entire subsequent journey through life up to death. But Dante’s other world is more than just the place for a miraculous glimpse into the true meaning of life: it transposes the essence of this life on earth into actual existence in a transcendent dimension.
Of course, Virgil had interpreted the whole of Roman history through the optics of prophecy, but his prophetic history was directly disclosed only at privileged moments within his poem. Dante’s poetic narrative transpires wholly in an eschatological register disclosing the final ends of human life. It aspires to reveal, beyond the limits of history, a full-blown vision of eternity—history as projected into the eternal world that it is taken to prefigure. While at the level of content Dante expands the theme of a visit to the underworld into an entire poem of epic proportions, more deeply, at the level of genre and in terms of its mode, Dante’s whole poem is prophetic in character. In it, history and narrative become themselves prophetic rather than only forming a background or a frame for prophecy.
So the descent to the dominion of the dead—a symbol for the revelation of the ultimate meaning of life—is more than just a thematic thread that runs through each of the works we have examined so far. In Dante it becomes the central axis of a poetic text that is per se religious revelation. Moreover, Dante greatly intensifies self-consciousness of the revelatory function of poetry. His work represents an unprecedentedly powerful reflection on poetry as revelation in the modes of prophecy and apocalyptic, in as much as the customary literary means of poetic expression are now revealed in their intrinsically prophetic and apocalyptic potency.
From the Aeneid, Dante could learn that prophecy reveals not so much fated facts as an order of significance that opens within history and activates a dimension of human freedom. We observed an allegorical dimension in the Aeneid, in which the heroic actions of the past were spoken into the present—so as to impinge on the moment of decision for Virgil’s contemporaries in Augustan Rome. The poem indirectly challenges the Romans to realize a future prefigured by their heroic past, particularly in their founding father, Aeneas. This sort of implicit interpellation mutates to an explicit form of address in Dante’s poem, specifically in its addresses to its readers.
The First-person Protagonist and the Address to the Reader
In general, prophetic discourse is never merely descriptive or predictive; it is always also prescriptive, and as such it is addressed to a public. The hearers or readers of prophecy are involved in a future that is revealed, yes, but revealed as to be achieved by their own efforts. Virgil and his contemporaries, Augustus Caesar foremost among them, who see along with Aeneas the prophetic revelation of the glory that is in store for Rome, are at least subliminally called upon to act worthily of their noble ancestors. Moving beyond this, Dante writes the reader right into the text consciously and explicitly through his use of direct addresses.1 The poem calls the reader to conversion as a consequence of its eschatological revelations. There is even—in marked contrast to his epic models—a hidden form of address to the audience from the very first line: “In the middle of the way of our life” (“Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita”).2
The reader accompanies Dante on his journey through the afterlife, and in a certain sense everything that happens to him is to be realized by his readers in its pertinence to their own lives and in the now of their act of reading. It is their acts of interpretation of themselves as they confront interpretive challenges such as those presented by the poem that will be decisive for the readers’ own lives and even for their afterlives. Sin and salvation in Dante’s afterlife stem from how one interprets oneself, and the reading of the poem can be crucial to determining the outcome of this drama: how we read is, at any rate, symptomatic of how we live and act morally. The poem can thus reveal us to ourselves and can even become instrumental to our salvation through the insight it provokes.
Dante’s prophetic discourse is different from Virgil’s and from his other models, which are principally biblical. In crucial ways, he personalizes prophetic address, dramatizing his own role as first-person prophet-poet addressing himself directly to his reader. Dante’s whole personal experience and history are now vehicles of the divine Word. This is not exactly the direct speech of God such as was conveyed by the biblical prophets: they functioned purportedly as simple mouthpieces, intoning “Thus saith the Lord . . . .” Dante offers rather a personally mediated experience to which poetry, language, culture, and reflection all contribute: his historical baggage and even his personal biases become overt mediators of a revelation of the divine.
The first-person protagonist thus becomes the fulcrum for realizing the poem’s truth in the present of each individual reader’s personal experience. The address to the reader, with its injunction to interpret, extends the exercise in self-reflection from the poet-protagonist to the reader: each is engaged in a realization of revealed religious truth by personal appropriation in terms of their own life and experience. This self-reflective, subjective locus of revelation owes as much to Augustine’s unprecedentedly personal story in the Confessions as to the invention of history as revelation in Virgilian epic. Augustine had fore-grounded reading as the means and medium of a divine revelation understood as an inner illumination in the life of the individual. Dante now addresses himself expressly to the individual reader, who is enjoined to become the living center of a dramatic actualization of his poem’s prophetic truth. The poem’s pretensions and projections become reality in and through the interpretive responses of the reader, whose life becomes potentially a locus for the operation of divine grace.
Dante’s Journey and the Augustinian Itinerary through Self to God
Augustine forms a vital link from the ancient epic, as well as from the Bible, to Dante. The Confessions, too, situate themselves symbolically on the trajectory of a descent to the world of the dead. This happens expressly when Saint Augustine writes “ibam iam ad inferos” (“I was going to hell,” V. ix) to describe his moral disease, the death of his soul (“mors . . . animae meae”). The Confessions adumbrate an existential descent into the depths of Augustine’s own sinful self and into the abysmal heart of a fallen humanity as the precondition and the necessary path of his conversion. This existential descent into the self and its personal hell is dramatized on an epic scale by Dante.
Dante combines classical tradition with Christianity, and Augustine is a major precedent, even though Augustine, in his Confessions, rejected pagan literature and specifically the Aeneid. Augustine guides Dante to a fundamentally Scriptural rather than a classical poetics.3 Nevertheless, Dante places his emphasis on synthesis rather than on disjunction between classical literary tradition and Christian revelation. We know that Augustine saw Virgil’s fictions as temptations. Pagan literature distracted him from the serious challenges of his own life. The classics and the rhetorical institutions within which they were studied are of this world and, at least at first, an impediment to gaining the next. Given this imposing precedent, it is striking that Dante, in a bold symbolic gesture, should make the pagan author Virgil his guide to salvation specifically in a religious sense. More broadly, he brings biblical and pagan traditions together in his unique creation of a poetic-prophetic vision. He thereby reverses the prejudices and moralizing objections expressed by Augustine and other Church fathers that inhibited full appreciation of pagan literature, the auctores, in the course of a Christian education. Building on revivals of classical literature in humanist schools like Chartres from the 12th century on,4 Dante envisages a full integration of all human learning in a Christian-prophetic perspective. And yet, notwithstanding this radical revaluation of pagan letters, Dante remains profoundly Augustinian.
An Augustinian itinerary is mapped out from the opening of the Inferno in the “prologue scene.” This scene stages Dante’s failed attempt to scale the mountain mantled by the light of the sun, a natural symbol of divinity, as Dante explains elsewhere (Convivio III. xii. 7). This hill is identified, at least symbolically, with the mountain of Purgatory, at the summit of which lies the Earthly Paradise, the original place of human happiness on earth. But Dante’s attempt to directly ascend the slope proves abortive, and he is constrained to take a detour that leads him all the way to the bottom of the Inferno. This recalls Augustine’s descriptions of his experience of intellectual conversion to the certainty of the Truth, spurred by his reading of “certain books” of Platonist philosophy, and consequently his attempt to ascend directly to the Light in Book VII of the Confessions. His will, nevertheless, remained unable to follow suit by conforming itself to the Good until his complete moral conversion as described at the climax of Book VIII.
Augustine’s account is itself modeled on Saint Paul’s drama of the divided will in Romans 7. At the literal level of the narrative, Dante is in fact impeded in his ascent by the three beasts that emerge to deter him from progressing upwards. The leopard, the lion, and the she-wolf can perhaps be decoded as allegories of envy, pride, and greed (see Inferno VI. 74), or of lust, pride, and avarice, the devastating threesome rehearsed again in XV. 68. Such moral corruptions inhering in Dante’s will prevent him from reaching happiness, even after his intellect has been able clearly to see the way to it. These figures, moreover, exemplify some of the more traditional, didactic features of Dante’s poem that are surpassed as it distinguishes itself from the medieval context of symbolic-allegorical literature by the power of its new idiom of realistic representation.
Dante, like Augustine, then, seems to have experienced, first, a conversion of the intellect on a Neo-Platonic model. This would correspond to the period of his philosophical work, the Convivio, abandoned unfinished, perhaps in view of the new Christian-moral perspective inaugurated by the Commedia. Dante’s flirtation with philosophy as a substitute for authentic Christian salvation would be allegorically encoded into his attempt at the beginning of the Inferno to ascend the hill cloaked in the light of the sun, the planet that “leads men straight along every road” (“pianeta / che mena dritto altrui per ogne calle,” I. 17-18). In fact, Virgil, for whom, as a pagan, direct philosophical ascent to enlightenment would be possible and indeed the right way to go, asks Dante why he is returning to so much suffering rather than simply ascending the delightful mountain (“dilettoso monte”) that is the source of all joy (I. 76-78). He proposes an alternative route only after he sees Dante weeping (“poi che lagrimar mi vide,” I. 92) and evidently understands something about his moral condition.
We learn that Dante had been climbing in a spiral because his “left foot was always the lower” (“’l piè fermo sempre era ’l più basso,” I. 30). This line has been ingeniously elucidated as meaning that the protagonist’s will drags along behind his intellect in the process of conversion. John Freccero shows this by drawing on exegetical literature by the church fathers, including Ambrose (from whom Augustine learned to interpret Scripture spiritually), concerning the two feet—or wings—of the soul, of which one, the will, lags behind the other, namely, reason.5
The Platonic dialogues are predicated on the principle that virtue is knowledge, but Dante, like Augustine and Paul before him, discovers that knowing the truth, or seeing the light, is not enough. Indeed in the biblical view, virtue and moral reform are not matters purely of the mind. As Paul avowed, “The good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I practice” (Romans 7: 19). Likewise for Augustine, intellectual illumination by Platonic metaphysics may give certainty about God and his sovereignty, but it does not give him the power to realize the good that he now would do. And Dante similarly finds in Inferno I that he is unable to ascend the mountain, even though he sees the light. This is what forces him to take “another way” (“altro viaggio,” I. 91), passing through all the hazards of Hell. It means going through excruciating moral self-examination by facing up to sin always also in himself, as he views his own woefully fallen humanity mirrored in others at each step of his way. Read in this perspective, the prologue scene to Dante’s epoch-making poem is about the necessity, beyond merely intellectual illumination, of a more thorough-going moral and existential conversion such as Augustine undergoes finally in Book VIII of the Confessions.
Didactic Poem and Summa of Truth
Dante lived from 1265 to 1321 and wrote at the height of the Middle Ages, just after the high-water mark of the Scholastic synthesis, in which the metaphysics of Aristotle were wedded to Christian theology in the doctrine of God as Being (esse) by philosopher-theologians like Albert the Great (1206-80) and Thomas Aquinas (1225-74). It was, moreover, a great age of encyclopedias such as the Speculum maius of Vincent de Beauvais (1190-1264) and the Legenda aurea of Jacopo de Voragine (1230-1298). Somewhat in the image of Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae,Dante’s Commedia represents a grand synthesis of the knowledge available to his age of culture. From early in antiquity, as we have seen, poetry was often considered to be the original and comprehensive form of knowledge in general, and Dante revives this humanistic ideal and the claim it makes for poetry. Virgil and Beatrice, his guides, are also his teachers on a journey that is always fundamentally a gnoseological journey traversing the whole known world—past, present, and future—as it could be conceived in Dante’s times. The encyclopedic aims of the poem become conspicuous early on, in Limbo, with its extensive, immensely learned catalogue of philosophers and poets, among other great and famous personages (Inferno IV. 70-147).
Homer was esteemed to be the summa of Greek culture and the encyclopedia of all significant knowledge of the world. He was imitated by Virgil, in whom these “epic” ambitions became more self-conscious. Saint Augustine, too, turned his Confessions into a kind of encyclopedia, especially from Book X on. At that point in the aftermath of his conversion story, Augustine begins interrogating Memory as the place where all knowledge is stored. He turns from a personal story of individual redemption to the interpretation of universal philosophical truths and to exegesis of the story of Creation. The Bible, of course, for Dante and his Christian medieval culture is the book of books and the book of the universe. It contains preeminently, as divinely revealed, all that can be learned from any other source. Dante’s work, in its encyclopedic scope, is thus an imitation and dissemination of the Bible.
This means also that the Divine Comedy is a didactic poem in the broadest and deepest sense. Its lesson is the most important one humanly conceivable. “Mark well my words,” it insists, like the bard in Blake’s Milton, for “they are of your eternal salvation.” Indeed, the literal subject of the poem is the afterlife, which consists of souls in Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven all revealed in the eschatological light of their eternal destinations. The knowledge in question is not just a knowledge of facts and culture but, much more vitally, a knowledge by revelation of the ultimate ends of life and history. In this regard, the poem fits into and, moreover, brings to its culmination the tradition of poetry as religious revelation that we have been tracing from Homer and the Bible. Of course, this would not forestall further elaborations of prophetic poetry subsequently by the likes of Milton and Blake.
The Figural Method of Representation
The basic interpretive technique used by Dante to perform this revelation of ultimate, saving truth is a species of allegory known as “figuralism.”6 This is the key to the poem’s working as a prophetic revelation. Dante represents the souls in the form of bodies and as performing actions that epitomize the sort of action they freely chose to engage in on earth. Their earthly lives in this way serve as “figures” for what each soul has become in eternity. The souls represented as already in the state in which they will remain for eternity are the “fulfillment” of the condition that their earthly lives have prefigured. By this device, the eternal state of souls after death is made poetically palpable and graphic through realistic representation of the fateful moment and decisive act of their mortal existence: this moment figuratively represents their eternal destiny.
In its figural dimension, Dante’s poem is modeled on the Exodus. If this were not already evident from the text itself (especially in Purgatory II. 43, which cites Psalm 113: In exitu Isräel de Aegypto), we could nevertheless infer it from Dante’s discussions of theological allegory in his theoretical writings, particularly the Convivio II. i, along with the Letter to Can Grande (Epistle XIII. 7-8). We have already considered (in chapter 1, sec. III) Exodus as a model for the prophetic interpretation of history in the Bible. In Dante’s prophetic poem, the Exodus becomes a general paradigm of escape from the enslavement of sin followed by an arduous journey to the promised land of Christian salvation. From the other side of its cultural heritage (the classical), the journey is also quasi-Odyssean or “Ulyssean,” in Dante’s Latinized rendering.
This itinerary to hard-won freedom starts from a key passage in the prologue scene, in which Dante begins his ascent of the Mountain. He has just figured himself as a survivor narrowly escaped from shipwreck:
poi ch’èi posato un poco il corpo lasso,
ripresi via per la piaggia diserta,
sì che ’l piè fermo sempre era ’l più basso.
(Inferno I. 28-30)
(When I had rested a little my tired body,
I began again the way along the deserted slope
so that my left foot was always the lower one.)
As Charles Singleton pointed out, the immediately preceding verses referred to Dante’s mind (“animo”) as looking back like a shipwreck over the perilous pass that he has managed to survive (I. 22-27), but it is Dante’s body that rises up out of the simile of the shipwreck in order to embark on the journey to the other world.7 By bringing the body of the protagonist that is going to make the journey out of a poetic simile in this way, Dante’s poem produces, out of its own powers of poetic figuration, an incarnate revelation. In this bodily resurrection of the poem’s protagonist from a symbolic shipwreck, poetic language and metaphor themselves produce a type of embodiment that is destined to become the bearer of the revelation of the poem.
Redemption, like revelation, is emphatically incarnate in the perspective developed by Dante’s poem, and this is one of the deeply distinguishing features of the whole Christian understanding of revelation. That is one reason why poetic representation, alongside pictorial and plastic arts, has such a prominent place in transmitting and achieving revelation throughout the cultural history of Christianity. Poetry, with its figurative, pictorial powers and its sensuous sonorities, is peculiarly apt to give an incarnate rendition of the intellectual contents of language. The language of poetry can even be defined, as it was by Roman Jakobson, as “sense made sensuous.” Poetry in Western tradition following Dante, from Metaphysicals to Romantics to Symbolists, has often exhibited a propensity to interpret itself as, in effect, incarnation of the divine Word in the form of some higher Truth or Meaning. Of course, the very strength of this proclivity inherent in poetic language generates many attempts precisely to interrupt and counter it, especially among modern poets, starting from Baudelaire and Rimbaud, for example, with their anti-idealist and sometimes satanic insistence.
Poetry as Prophetic Vision of History
Poetic prophecy, as a superior sort of vision, as inspired insight of the kind to which poets since Homer have continually laid claim, is deliberately raised by Dante to a new level of seriousness and self-consciousness. Beyond the conventional gesture of the invocation of the Muses, Dante, assuming an authoritative attitude and prophetic tone, directly addresses himself to a reader in the name of Truth. A distinctive new accent in Dante’s recreation of the office of prophecy within the parameters of poetry and specifically of epic narrative is the literal truth claim he makes. We have already seen the extent to which prophecy is interlocked with history, so that in the case of the Bible we were able to define prophecy as the interpretation of history from the point of view of divine revelation. Even Homer purported to relate the true history of the Trojan War and its aftermath, and he claimed to do so assisted by the divine Muses, to whom all history was perpetually present. But Dante claims to have been there historically himself and to have seen with his own eyes all that he relates of the eternal worlds. Moreover, at the outset of his journey, he invokes the Muses together with his own ingenious mind or memory, to the end that all he has experienced may be made manifest: