Midway along the road of our life

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Early in the spring of 1300, "midway along the road of our life," Dante is lost and alone in a dark, foreboding forest. To survive this ordeal, he must visit the three realms of the afterlife, beginning with Hell. Follow Dante's descent circle by circle through the eternal abode of lost souls, down to the pit of Hell at the center of the earth.


Circle 1, canto 4
 

Heading
Limbo
 
Icons
Classical Poets (Homer, Ovid, Lucan, Horace)
 
Allusions
Harrowing of Hell, Aristotle
 



 

 Limbo

 The concept of Limbo--a region on the edge of hell (limbus means "hem" or "border") for those who are not saved even though they did not sin--exists in Christian theology by Dante's time, but the poet's version of this region is more generous than most. Dante's Limbo--technically the first circle of hell--includes virtuous non-Christian adults in addition to unbaptized infants. We thus find here many of the great heroes, thinkers, and creative minds of ancient Greece and Rome as well as such medieval non-Christians as Saladin, Sultan of Egypt in the late twelfth century, and the great Islamic philosophers Avicenna (Ibn Sina) and Averroës (Ibn Rushd). For Dante, Limbo was also the home of major figures from the Hebrew Bible, who--according to Christian theology--were "liberated" by Jesus following his crucifixion (see Harrowing of Hell).

 
Classical Poets (Homer, Ovid, Lucan, Horace)
 Among the magnanimous shades in Limbo is a distinguished group of four classical poets--Homer (8th century B.C.E.), Horace (65-8 B.C.E.), Ovid (43 B.C.E. - 17 C.E.), and Lucan (39-65 C.E.)--who welcome back their colleague Virgil and honor Dante as one of their own (Inf. 4.100-2). The leader of this group is Homer, author of epic poems treating the war between the Greeks and Trojans (Iliad) and Ulysses' adventurous return voyage (Odyssey). Although Dante had no direct familiarity with Homer's poetry (it wasn't translated and Dante didn't read Greek), he knew of Homer's unsurpassed achievement from references in works by Latin writers he admired. Dante knew works of the other three poets--each wrote in Latin--very well, particularly Ovid's Metamorphoses (mythological tales of transformations, often based on relations between gods and mortals) and Lucan's Pharsalia (treating the Roman civil war between Caesar and Pompey); Horace was best known as the author of satires and an influential poem about the making of poetry (Ars poetica). The vast majority of characters and allusions from classical mythology appearing in the Divine Comedy derive from the works of these writers, primarily those of Ovid and Lucan in addition to Virgil.
 

Harrowing of Hell

 This event is the supposed descent of Christ--following his crucifixion-- into Limbo, when he rescued and brought to heaven ("harrowing" implies a sort of violent abduction) his "ancestors" from the Hebrew Bible. Virgil supplies an eye-witness account, from his partially informed perspective, in Inferno 4.52-63. Since, according to Dante's reckoning, Christ's earthly life spanned thirty-four years, the harrowing can be dated to 34 C.E. Only suggested in the Bible, the story of Christ's post-mortem journey to hell appears in apocrypha--books related to but not included in the Bible--such as the Gospel of Nicodemus. So prominent was this story in the popular and theological imaginations that it was proclaimed as church dogma in 1215 and 1274. Dante's version of the harrowing, as we see from repeated allusions to the event during the protagonist's journey, emphasizes the power--in both physical and psychological terms--of Christ's raid on hell.

 
Aristotle
 "The master of those who know" (Inf. 4.131). So respected and well known was Aristotle in the Middle Ages that this phrase is enough to identify him as the one upon whom other prominent philosophers in Limbo-- including Socrates and Plato--look with honor. Dante elsewhere follows medieval tradition by referring to Aristotle simply as "the Philosopher," with no need of additional information. Aristotle's authority in the Middle Ages owes to the fact that almost all his works were translated into Latin (from their original Greek and / or from Arabic) in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. By contrast, only one work by Plato--the Timaeus--was available in Latin translation (partial at that) in Dante's day. A student of Plato's, tutor to Alexander the Great, and founder of his own philosophical school, Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.) wrote highly influential works on an astonishing range of subjects, including the physical universe, biology, politics, rhetoric, logic, natural philosophy, metaphysics, and ethics. Next to the Bible, he was the most important authority for two of Dante's favorite Christian thinkers, Albert the Great and his student Thomas Aquinas, both of whom strove to validate the role of reason and to sharpen its relationship to faith. The influence of Aristotelian thought on Dante is perhaps most apparent in the content of a philosophical work (Convivio), the argumentation of a political treatise (De Monarchia), and the moral structure of hell (Inferno).



Circle 2, canto 5
 

 
Heading

Lust

 
Icons
Minos, Francesca (and Paolo)
 
Allusions
Famous Lovers (Semiramis, Dido, Cleopatra, Helen, Achilles, Paris, Tristan), Lancelot (Guinevere and Gallehaut)
 







Lust

 Here Dante explores the relationship--as notoriously challenging in his time and place as in ours--between love and lust, between the ennobling power of attraction toward the beauty of a whole person and the destructive force of possessive sexual desire. The lustful in hell, whose actions often led them and their lovers to death, are "carnal sinners who subordinate reason to desire" (Inf. 5.38-9). From the examples presented, it appears that for Dante the line separating lust from love is crossed when one acts on this misguided desire. Dante, more convincingly than most moralists and theologians, shows that this line is a very fine one indeed, and he acknowledges the potential complicity (his own included) of those who promulgate ideas and images of romantic love through their creative work. Dante's location of lust --one of the seven capital sins--in the first circle of hell in which an unrepented sin is punished (the second circle overall) is similarly ambiguous: on the one hand, lust's foremost location--farthest from Satan--marks it as the least serious sin in hell (and in life); on the other hand, Dante's choice of lust as the first sin presented recalls the common--if crude--association of sex with original sin, that is, with the fall of humankind (Adam and Eve) in the garden of Eden.

  
Minos
 Typical of the monsters and guardians of hell, Dante's Minos is an amalgam of figures from classical sources who is completed with a couple of the poet's personal touches. His Minos may in fact be a combination of two figures of this name--both rulers of Crete--one the grandfather of the other. The older Minos, son of Zeus and Europa, was known--because of his wisdom and the admired laws of his kingdom-- as the "favorite of the gods." This reputation earned him the office-- following his death--of supreme judge of the underworld. He was thus charged, as Virgil attests, with verifying that the personal accounting of each soul who came before him corresponded with what was written in the urn containing all human destinies: "He shakes the urn and calls on the assembly of the silent, to learn the lives of men and their misdeeds" (Aen. 6.432-3). The second Minos, grandson of the first, exacted harsh revenge on the Athenians (who had killed his son Androgeos) by demanding an annual tribute of fourteen youths (seven boys and seven girls) as a sacrificial offer to the Minotaur, the hybrid monster lurking in the labyrinth built by Daedalus.
 
Minos' long tail, which he wraps around his body a number of times equal to the soul's assigned level (circle) of hell (Inf. 5.11-12), is Dante's invention. How do you think the judged souls travel to their destined location in hell for eternal punishment? Might Minos' tail be somehow involved in this unexplained event? Dante leaves this detail to our imagination.
 

The original Italian of the first line describing Minos --"Stavvi Minòs orribilmente, e ringhia" (Inf. 5.4)--is a wonderful example of onomatopoeia (the sound of the words imitating their meaning) as the repeated trilling of the r's in "orribilmente e ringhia" evokes the frightening sound of a growling beast.

  
Francesca (and Paolo)
 Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta are punished together in hell for their adultery: Francesca was married to Paolo's brother, Gianciotto ("Crippled John"). Francesca's shade tells Dante that her husband is destined for punishment in Caina--the infernal realm of familial betrayal named after Cain, who killed his brother Abel (Genesis 4:8)--for murdering her and Paolo. Francesca was the aunt of Guido Novello da Polenta, Dante's host in Ravenna during the last years of the poet's life (1318-21). She was married (c. 1275) for political reasons to Gianciotto of the powerful Malatesta family, rulers of Rimini. Dante may have actually met Paolo in Florence (where Paolo was capitano del popolo--a political role assigned to citizens of other cities--in 1282), not long before he and Francesca were killed by Gianciotto.
 

Although no version of Francesca's story is known to exist before Dante, Giovanni Boccaccio--a generation or two after Dante--provides a "historical" account of the events behind Francesca's presentation that would not be out of place among the sensational novellas of his prose masterpiece, The Decameron. Even if there is more fiction than fact in Boccaccio's account, it certainly helps explain Dante-character's emotional response to Francesca's story by presenting her in a sympathetic light. Francesca, according to Boccaccio, was blatantly tricked into marrying Gianciotto, who was disfigured and uncouth, when the handsome and elegant Paolo was sent in his brother's place to settle the nuptial contract. Angered at finding herself wed the following day to Gianciotto, Francesca made no attempt to restrain her affections for Paolo and the two in fact soon became lovers. Informed of this liaison, Gianciotto one day caught them together in Francesca's bedroom (unaware that Paolo got stuck in his attempt to escape down a ladder, she let Gianciotto in the room); when Gianciotto lunged at Paolo with a sword, Francesca stepped between the two men and was killed instead, much to the dismay of her husband, who then promptly finished off Paolo as well. Francesca and Paolo, Boccaccio concludes, were buried--accompanied by many tears--in a single tomb.

 
Francesca's eloquent description of the power of love (Inf. 5.100-7), emphasized through the use of anaphora, bears much the same meaning and style as the love poetry once admired by Dante and of which he himself produced many fine examples.
  
Famous Lovers (Semiramis, Dido, Cleopatra, Helen, Achilles, Paris, Tristan)

 Physical beauty, romance, sex, and death--these are the pertinent elements in the stories of the lustful souls identified from among the "more than a thousand" such figures pointed out to Dante by Virgil (Inf. 5.52-69). Semiramis was a powerful Assyrian Queen alleged--by the Christian historian Orosius--to have been so perverse that she made even the vice of incest a legal practice. She was said to have been killed by an illegitimate son. Dido, Queen of Carthage and widow of Sychaeus, killed herself after her lover, Aeneas, abandoned her to continue his mission to establish a new civilization in Italy (Aeneid 4). Cleopatra, the beautiful Queen of Egypt, took her own life to avoid capture by Octavian (the future emperor Augustus); Octavian had defeated Mark Antony, who was Cleopatra's lover (she had previously been the lover of Julius Caesar). Helen, wife of Menalaus (King of Sparta) was said to be the cause of the Trojan war: acclaimed as the most beautiful mortal woman, she was abducted by Paris and brought to Troy as his mistress. The "great Achilles" was the most formidable Greek hero in the war against the Trojans. He was killed by Paris, according to medieval accounts (Dante did not know Homer's version), after being tricked into entering the temple of Apollo to meet the Trojan princess Polyxena. Tristan, nephew of King Mark of Cornwall, and Iseult (Mark's fiancée) became lovers after they mistakenly drank the magic potion intended for Mark and Iseult. Mark shoots Tristan with a poisoned arrow, according to one version of the story popular in Dante's day, and the wounded man then clenches his lover so tightly that they die in one another's arms.

 

Lancelot (Guinevere and Gallehaut)
 The story of Lancelot and Guinevere, which Francesca identifies as the catalyst for her affair with Paolo (Inf. 5.127-38), was a French romance popular both in poetry (by Chrétien de Troyes) and in a prose version known as Lancelot of the Lake. According to this prose text, it is Queen Guinevere, wife of King Arthur, who kisses Lancelot, the most valiant of Arthur's Knights of the Round Table. Francesca, by giving the romantic initiative to Paolo, reverses the roles from the story. To her mind, the entire book recounting this famous love affair performs a role similar to that of the character Gallehaut, a friend of Lancelot who helps bring about the adulterous relationship between the queen and her husband's favorite knight.



Circle 3, canto 6
 

Heading
Gluttony
 
Icons
Cerberus, Ciacco
 
Allusions
Florentine Politics (1300-2), Last Judgment
 








Gluttony

 Gluttony--like lust--is one of the seven capital sins (sometimes called "mortal" or "deadly" sins) according to medieval Christian theology and church practice. Dante, at least in circles 2-5 of hell, uses these sins as part--but only part--of his organizational strategy. While lust and gluttony were generally considered the least serious of the seven sins (and pride almost always the worst), the order of these two was not consistent: some writers thought lust was worse than gluttony and others thought gluttony worse than lust. The two were often viewed as closely related to one another, based on the biblical precedent of Eve "eating" the forbidden fruit and then successfully "tempting" Adam to do so (Genesis 3:6). Based on the less than obvious contrapasso of the gluttons and the content (mostly political) of Inferno 6, Dante appears to view gluttony as more complex than the usual understanding of the sin as excessive eating and drinking.

  
Cerberus
 A three-headed dog who guards the entrance to the classical underworld. In the Aeneid Virgil describes Cerberus as loud, huge, and terrifying (with snakes rising from his neck); to get by Cerberus, the Sibyl (Aeneas' guide) feeds him a spiked honey-cake that makes him immediately fall asleep (Aen. 6.416-25). Look at Dante's related but very different version of Cerberus in Inferno 6.13-33. How has Dante transformed him to fit the role of guardian in the circle of gluttony? How does Cerberus himself shed light on Dante's conception of the sin? Verses 28-30, describing the actual experience of a dog intent on his meal, exemplify Dante's attention to the real world in his depiction of the afterlife.
 
Ciacco
 The name "Ciacco"--apparently a nickname for the poet's gluttonous friend--could be a shortened form of "Giacomo" or perhaps a derogatory reference to "hog" or "pig" in the Florentine dialect of Dante's day. Dante, who certainly accepts the common medieval belief in the essential relationship between names and the things (or people) they represent, at times chooses characters for particular locations in the afterlife based at least in part on their names. "Ciacco" may be the first case of this sort in the poem. Independently of what Dante writes in Inferno 6, we unfortunately know very little of Ciacco's life. Boccaccio claims that, apart from the vice of gluttony (for which he was notorious), Ciacco was respected in polite Florentine society for his eloquence and agreeableness. Another early commentator (Benvenuto) remarks that the Florentines were known for their traditionally temperate attitude toward food and drink--but when they fell, they fell hard and surpassed all others in their gluttony.
  
Florentine Politics (1300-2)

 Spring of 1300 is the approximate fictional date of the journey: we know Dante, born in 1265, is at the "half-way point" of life--age 35 based on the conventional life-cycle of 70 years--when the poem opens (Inf. 1.1). At this time, Florence was politically divided between two rival factions known as white and black guelphs. Ciacco (Inf. 6.64-72) provides the first of several important prophecies in the poem of the struggle between these two groups that will result in Dante's permanent exile from Florence (from 1302 until his death in 1321). The white guelphs--the "party of the woods" because of the rural origins of the Cerchi, their leading clan--were in charge in May 1300, when violent skirmishes broke out between the two parties. Although ring-leaders from both parties were punished by banishment (Dante, a white guelph, was part of the city government that made this decision), by spring of the following year (1301) most of the white guelphs had returned while leading black guelphs were forced to remain in exile. However, the tables were soon turned so that by 1302 ("within three suns" from the riots of 1300) six hundred leading white guelphs (Dante among them) were forced into exile. The black guelphs prevailed because they were supported by Charles of Valois, a French prince sent by Pope Boniface VIII ("one who tacks his sails") ostensibly to bring peace to Florence but actually to instigate the violent overthrow of the white guelph leadership.

 
Last Judgment
 When Virgil tells Dante that Ciacco will not rise again until the "sound of the angelic trumpet" and the arrival of the "hostile judge" (Inf. 6.94-6), he is alluding to the Last Judgment. Also called the Apocalypse and the Second Coming of Christ, the Last Judgment in the medieval Christian imagination marks the end of time when God comes--as Christ--to judge all human souls and separate the saved from the damned, the former ascending to eternal glory in heaven and the latter cast into hell for eternal punishment. Scripturally based on Matthew 25:31-46 and the Book of Revelation (Apocalypse), this event is frequently depicted in art and literature of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, most famously in Michelangelo's frescoed wall in the Sistine Chapel in Rome. The young Dante would have had ample opportunity to reflect on the Last Judgment from his observation of its terrifying representation on the ceiling of the Florentine baptistery. According to the accepted theology of Dante's day, souls would be judged immediately after death and would then proceed either to hell (if damned) or purgatory (if saved); this judgment would be confirmed at the end of time, and all souls would then spend eternity either in hell or in heaven (as purgatory would cease to exist). The Divine Comedy presents the state of souls sometime between these two judgments. In Inferno 6 we also learn with Dante-character that souls of the dead will be reunited with their bodies at the end of time. The suffering of the damned (and joy of the blessed) will then increase because the individual is complete and therefore more perfect (6.103-11).


Circle 4, canto 7

 

Heading
Avarice and Prodigality
 
Icon
Plutus
 
Allusion
Fortuna
 






Avarice and Prodigality

 Avarice--greed, lust for material gain--is one of the iniquities that most incurs Dante's scornful wrath. Consistent with the biblical saying that avarice is "the root of all evils" (1 Timothy 6:10), medieval Christian thought viewed the sin as most offensive to the spirit of love; Dante goes even further in blaming avarice for ethical and political corruption in his society. Ciacco identifies avarice--along with pride and envy--as one of the primary vices enflaming Florentine hearts (Inf. 6.74-5), and the poet consistently condemns greed and its effects throughout the Divine Comedy. Dante accordingly shows no mercy--unlike his attitude toward Francesca (lust) and Ciacco (gluttony)--in his selection of avarice as the capital sin punished in the fourth circle of hell (Inferno 7). He viciously presents the sin as a common vice of monks and church leaders (including cardinals and popes), and he further degrades the sinners by making them so physically squalid that they are unrecognizable to the travelers (Inf. 7.49-54). By defining the sin as "spending without measure" (7.42), Dante for the first time applies the classical principle of moderation (or the "golden mean") to criticize excessive desire for a neutral object in both one direction ("closed fists": avarice) and the other (spending too freely: prodigality). Fittingly, these two groups punish and insult one another in the afterlife.

  
Plutus
 Dante's Plutus, guardian-symbol of the fourth circle (avarice and prodigality), is--like other infernal creatures--a unique hybrid of sources and natures. Often portrayed as the mythological god of the classical underworld (Hades), Plutus also appears in some cases as the god of wealth. Dante neatly merges these two figures by making Plutus the "great enemy" (Inf. 6.115) in hell with a special relationship to the sin most closely associated with material wealth. Dante similarly combines human and bestial natures in his conception of Plutus (Inf. 7.1-15): he possesses the power of speech (though the precise meaning of his words--some sort of invocation to Satan--is unclear) and the ability to understand--or at least react to--Virgil's dismissive words, while at the same time displaying a distinctly bestial rage and probably animal-like features as well.

 Fortuna

 Consistent with his devastating indictment of sinful attitudes toward material wealth, Dante has a very strong and original idea of the role of fortune in human affairs (Inf. 7.61-96). Fortune is certainly a powerful force in earlier philosophy and literature, most notably in Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy. Dante claims to have read this Latin work, which was highly influential throughout the Middle Ages, in the difficult period following the death of his beloved Beatrice. Fortune, for Boethius, is represented as a fickle and mischievous goddess who delights in her ability to change an individual's circumstances--for better or ill--on a whim. It is far more constructive, according to Boethius (who has been unjustly deprived of his possessions, honors, and freedom), to ignore one's earthly status altogether and trust only in what is certain and immutable. Adverse fortune is ultimately better than good fortune because it is more effective in teaching this lesson.

 
Dante's Fortuna is also female but he imagines her as a "divine minister" (an angelic intelligence) who guides the distribution of worldly goods, just as God's light and goodness are distributed throughout the created universe. She is above the fray, immune to both praise and blame from those who experience the ups and downs of her actions. Much as Dante "demonizes" mythological creatures from the classical underworld, so he "deifies" in a positive sense the traditional representation of fortune. The ways of fortune, like the application of divine justice generally, are simply beyond the capacity of human understanding.





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