Friday, February 28, 2014

Inferno, Canto VI

James: Let’s move onto Canto VI, the circle of the gluttons.

To review: Dante regains consciousness again and sees new torments and souls; this is the third circle. Frozen rain, huge hailstones, dirty water, and black snow fall endlessly on this place, forming a putrid slush. Fat, gluttonous Cerberus feasts endlessly on the souls here. It notices the Poets and faces them, but Virgil throws two fistfuls of the slush down its throats and the three heads stop clamoring and choke on it. Dante's steps fall right through the ethereal souls which lie drowned in the slush. One of these sits up and talks to Dante, a man he knows from Florence but doesn't immediately recognize: it's Ciacco the Hog. Dante asks him to tell the future for Florence, and he prophecies that after many words, it shall come to blood, and the white shall rise over black, routing the Dark Lord's force. However, after three days, the fallen shall rise, and by the "power of one now gripped by many hesitations", Black will dominate White for many years. Then "two are honest, but none will heed them. There, pride, avarice, and envy are the tongues men know and heed, a Babel of despair."

This, particularly seems to be referring to conflict between the White Guelphs and the Black Guelphs (Dante's faction).


Ciacco stops speaking and Dante asks him about the fate of good men in Florence; Ciacco replies that they lie even deeper in Hell. Virgil explains that these souls will all eventually be summoned to flesh again for judgement before God, Dante asks whether their fates will be the same after their final sentence. Virgil replies, "Look to your science again where it is written: the more a thing is perfect the more it feels of pleasure and of pain. As for these souls, though they can never soar to true perfection, still in the new time they will be nearer it than they were before.” Finally they reach the edge of this layer, guarded by Plutus.  This last bit is interesting.

Oh? Let's start with that then.

The idea that some of these souls may have lesser punishment and more perfection after judgement is interesting and something with which i'm not familiar, since obviously some of the souls deeper in hell like the suicides just get worse when judgement comes.

Notice how Virgil says that when we draw closer to perfection, we feel pleasure or pain more closely, so as the souls in hell draw closer to perfection by receiving their bodies again, they will feel more pain, so their punishment increases

Ah, I see.

We mentioned before about receiving once again our bodies at the last judgment, which is an integral part of Christian teaching, and as it is posed, having our bodies is more perfect, reiterating the catholic understanding that we are a hypostasis of flesh and spirit, rather than one or the other. I find it really interesting, though, the way that Virgil makes it clear that perfection is linked to FEELING. This continues the theme from the beginning where error is achieved through lack of feeling

I find that interesting too, related to the idea that the correct way of living is to live intensely.


Returning to the beginning of this Canto, Cerberus I suppose represents gluttony itself, and Virgil (reason) defeats it by showing it its own filth.

Why do you think Dante chose Cerberus?  I'm not sure if Ciardi himself makes a note of it.

Cerberus did have a role in Hades, allowing only the dead to enter (ate live meat) and allowing none to leave, so there's that. it might just be as simple as Cerberus's taste for live flesh, but perhaps there is more to it.  What are your thoughts?

Of course, you're definitely on the right track. The three heads themselves; what a gluttonous thing to feed for three. What I found interesting was the way he was neutralized; what do you make of it ?

The way Virgil force feeds his filth back to him, it is like the action of a mirror.

Go on.

It’s almost like a hideous and and disgusting person looking in the mirror and recoiling at i
James: Not bad, but I think the avenue I would take with it is the idea of Cerberus himself. This was the fiercest guard dog in all of mythology; only great heroes could best him (Hercules, et cetera), yet here, he's depicted as easily neutralized. I think what Dante is trying to show us is the nature of gluttony itself: why gluttony is wrong. He's showing us that through gluttony we forget our greatness, our task, and our discipline that the original Cerberus had. We get lost in eating and material things of pleasure, and even this pleasure isn't a good thing.  It chokes us, and so we are easily conquered in our lack of discipline and we forget our post.

I don't disagree with your interpretation.

How about the sinners themselves and their fate? What're your thoughts on them ?

I think we've pretty much covered it indirectly: they are choked in their own filth.

James: Indeed. I think their positioning is also telling of it: laying down. The interesting thing is that the thickness of the sludge isn't that deep. After all, Dante and Virgil can walk through it, yet because the gluttons are so full, they cannot easily get up; they are tormented by their own fullness. Dante shows that our punishments and the way our lives are screwed up come from ourselves, that God's justice is one of giving us what we clamour for, and letting the natural consequences flow. I also find it interesting that Cerberus cuts them up with his claws in the same way that they themselves enjoyed cutting meats; I thought it was a fitting addition to the punishment. We see this continuation of the theme of loss of control and loss of stability: those in the hurricane are swept around, and those in the sludge can't pull themselves up easily.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Inferno, Canto V

James: Let’s move on to Canto V.

Thomas: As the poets descend, they encounter Minos, who is kind of a grotesque beast now. Minos attempts to stop them and turn them back, but Virgil brushes him aside, telling him that their mission is from above and will not be impeded. They come to a pitch dark, very windy place; the gusts whirl and batter all of the souls as they shriek and blaspheme God's power (these are sinners of the flesh, betraying reason to appetite). Dido, Cleopatra, Helen, Achilles, Paris, and Tristan are here.

I find it pretty forgiving of Dante to put Achilles all the way up here, when he could conceivably be way down in the 7th layer, but I suppose that Achilles was all in all a decent fellow.

James: Well, the distinction between upper and lower Hell is something we'll discuss when we hit the wall with the rebel angels, since it's not just a matter of degree that Dante places Achilles here.

Thomas: In any case, Dante next speaks with the shade of Francesca.

James: Yes, and her lover Paolo.

Thomas: Dante takes pity that such young love can lead to this, and she replies that the double grief of a loss bliss is to recall its happy hour in pain, and that they had read the rhyme of Lancelot being mastered by love, and one soft passage overthrew the caution in their hearts, and they stopped reading and embraced.  Dante faints from pity toward her.

James: The first point i wanted to look at was Minos himself, the way he would coil his serpent tail around a sinner to judge where he should go. Dante opens up this section of hell with this monstrous Minos. Why do you think he chose him in this way ?

Thomas: The obvious answer is because he sent seven youths and seven virgins every year to the labyrinth to be eaten by the minotaur, so it's only appropriate because he's once again in the role of consigning people to grisly fates.  Youths and virgins sort of makes sense for some of these upper hell sins, as they have a lot to do with being carried away by passions and not exercising virtue and self-control; sins that can result from a lack of understanding or restraint.

James: You're definitely on the right track. What i also see is this idea that we sacrifice our innocence to bestiality; sacrificing virgins to a minotaur, a beast. Minos himself was sired from a carnal meeting between a bull (Zeus) and his mother, so it would make sense that he would preface the carnal act, because the theme of upper hell is allowing the appetite (the Minotaur) to overcome the intellect (which should be the office of a king). The whole episode of Minos is very appropriate as a symbol of us sacrificing our innermost innocence towards something animalistic.

Thomas: Indeed.

James: Let's talk about the punishment of the sinners - Dante chose to have them damned in a giant hot hurricane, what are your thoughts on it?

Thomas: It makes sense, as it poetically describes the blind and whirling passions into which young lovers are swept up and lose themselves.

James: Indeed. they have no real stability.

Thomas: The conversation with Francesca is interesting, the bit about the story of Lancelot seems to mean that they failed to heed the message the story was meant to convey or something of that nature, "stopping halfway", in essence, not considering the consequences?

James: What do you mean exactly? I think this is an interesting avenue, keep going with it, explain it to me a bit.

Thomas: If we take a very basic version of Lancelot's romance with Guenevere, everything begins with a more noble and elevated courtly, unrequited love, and then there is an illicit and forbidden consummation, which leads to both of their being cut off from Arthur's kingdom. Therefore, stopping halfway through the story and then succumbing to each other seems to indicate getting carried away with the romance and not being aware of the terrible consequences that follow.

James: I think it's an excellent reasoning for why Dante included that as the text they were reading; I think your understanding on this is spot on with the idea of halting halfway.  This dovetails into what I found rather interesting about this particular conversation, because it is here that Dante begins to introduce a theme throughout all of the Inferno. You will notice that as she and Paolo talk, all of what they say is an explanation: “the book made us do it”, “we would have been okay if we weren't killed”, “it was all too much”. At no time do either blame themselves or take responsibility for their actions. This will be a major theme throughout the entire Inferno, where the sinners at no time take any responsibility, and it's interesting the way Dante weaves this into the narrative because it's almost convincing, to the point where he has such pity that he swoons. That this is the diabolical nature of sin, that we might be unconscious to it, that we can blame others and not take responsibility for it ourselves. This is something we'll also see Virgil rebuke Dante for, as I'm sure you've already seen in a few Canto.  I thought this was an interesting point about the way sinners behave, especially if we look at the way Francesca calls the book and its author “a pander”,  transferring guilt from herself to the book, even though she's already in Hell.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Inferno, Canto IV

James: And now, Canto IV is Limbo. Why don't you share your thoughts on this Canto?

Thomas: Canto II is interesting in that Dante credits Aeneas as the ultimate progenitor of even the seat of Peter.

James: Correct, he showed how God set into motion a grand architectural plan; an allegory of the way he sets up our lives.

Thomas: And now in Canto IV, Julius Caesar, the Greek philosophers, and even Augustus are in the “Country Club” of Hell, Limbo.  Dante seems to be implying that Christianity is the culmination of paganism, the continuation and perfection of the old role of Pontifex Maximus that Augustus and the other Emperors held, rather than the repudiation and dismissal of it (which is the prevalent modern assumption of many Catholics today, even.)

James: I'd say that's probably true, although in the scholarly circles, especially at the university, we had a great understanding of this typology between the old and the new, something reinforced by the Novus Ordo regulations (since we finally have readings from the Old Testament to show the types that lead up to Christ), but this is why the mountain imagery is so important in Dante: because it shows that the foundations of history all culminate at a point at the top.

Thomas: The way Dante approaches it seems to suggest that the Old Testament is less absolute and eternal than the New Testament, in other words, that it is one point of the base from which one can begin ascending the mountain.

James: Of course you can interpret that; that has been Catholic understanding of it ever since we preserved Plato and Aristotle for the ages.

Thomas: It seems as though he puts the classical tradition more or less on par with it; he has sinners in hell for blaspheming Zeus, and so on.

James: This is why the mountain is the image, not the pillar: because it draws the entire base to the point, not just a column.That is not to say, however, that we elevate the classical texts and traditions to the sphere of canon as they are clearly not in the Bible itself. This is indicative once again of the tension between the false dichotomy of today: one that looks either to wholly reject the ancients and the pagans as clearly heathen and the other which seeks to apotheosize that which God has not chosen to be his rightful conduit to his Church. The truth is more in the middle that although the traditions and myths of old hold great standing in the Catholic world as we see Dante demonstrate in his inclusion of his European mythos, but they do not ascend to the same level as the Old Testament in their direct association with the Christian Era. Rather, it is once again hierarchy which Dante employs that better illuminates this "middle way." While not discarding the importance of the ancients, they are ranked as supporting characters. We can see this easily in the mountain imagery as well. The path of the Old Testament leads directly up to the summit of the New Testament (one can easily see the type/antitype dynamics therein) whereas if one starts at different points in the mountain, the path may wind around and around or be blocked by rocks and trees. It is not impossible to climb to the summit from there, but certainly much more difficult and possibly deadly, but they still all point to the same summit at the top and may even run at parallel course to the road of the pilgrim.

Thomas: Interesting. My summary of the Canto is as follows. A clap of thunder wakes Dante up, and he finds himself on the brink of a great chasm. Virgil becomes pale at this sight also, but out of pity, rather than fear. The souls here in Limbo are sighing with an untormented sadness. Among these souls, there is a radiance about some of them that even God recognizes, that eases their existence here. Homer is the leader of these souls, followed by Horace, Ovid, and Lucan - they turn and honor Dante and then lead him to a great citadel next to a sweet brook, passing through seven gates and coming to a large meadow. Here Dante beholds the master souls on a luminous height: Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, Hector, Aeneas, Caesar, Camilla, Saladin.  

James: Let's hear some of your thoughts on it.

Thomas: The seven gates have an initiatory feel to them and the sweet brook obviously means something, although none of it is immediately lucid to me. I appreciate that Hector is here and Achilles is somewhere burning.
James: Naturally, and Ciardi points this out as well: the sevenfold numbering is fairly blatant; I think it's no surprise that the virtuous pagans are protected by seven enclosures like the seven virtues, as a means of protecting themselves from the pain of hell.

Thomas: Indeed. The streams and rivers are interesting, as well. The infernal rivers of Hell are fairly straightforward, they represent powerful or perilous currents that have to be crossed or overcome, but I am not sure what to make of the brook.

James: Indeed. I was thinking perhaps it was just a simple means of sustenance like the flow of sweet poetry. Something perhaps a bit more 'obvious' or straightforward perhaps. If there is something deeper it eludes me presently.
Thomas: Perhaps. Moving on, there isn't too much else I have to say about this that we didn't already cover from the second Canto.

James: If I were to think of my own personal spin on it, the idea of a citadel in the depths of Hell makes me think that relying on the pagan virtues helps us to avoid the pain of the inferno, but we are constantly besieged; there is no relief. It is a 'stuck' position. True, we might be spared deeper pain, but we are denied true living; living under siege as it were.

Thomas: There are many ways to interpret it, but they are all somewhat similar to what you just said.

James: Speaking of the mountain imagery we were talking about before, it was interesting about the inclusion of several Muslims, including Saladin and Avorreoes, just as a side note i suppose.

Thomas: Indeed.  The benevolence and goodness of Saladin's rule was recognized even by the West, so it shouldn't be too surprising that he's included here.

James: I agree. The Islamic commentaries on Aristotle make the philosophers a natural choice.

Thomas: Although, I believe they are the only post-Christian figures that achieve a place in Limbo, which is interesting.

Thomas: All of the other figures are from the era before Christ, so it’s an interesting addition.

James: Indeed, although I think Virgil makes the note of "the Christian faith in which YOU were born in", or something to that effect, so I think Dante extends the umbrella of paganism if one isn't necessarily born into it, though the textures of that line are rough, to be sure.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Inferno, Canto III

James: I wanted to look over Canto III, with the opportunists. It's your first taste of infernal punishment, although they aren't in Hell proper - they're in Hell's vestibule. How would you summarize events?

Thomas: Dante asks Virgil of the meaning of the harsh inscription at the entrance to Hell, and Virgil only replies that he must now steel his soul against cowardice. The first thing he hears is a cacophony of pain and anguish, and Virgil explains that these directionless souls are the nearly soulless who did not draw either blame or praise - they have no hope of death and are nameless and forgotten, envying every other fate. Among these is Celestine V, who, in fear for his soul, renounced the Papacy after being convinced by the priest who became Boniface VIII (who symbolizes the worst corruptions of the Church) to abdicate in order to save his soul from being corrupted by the worldly influences that beset that throne.

James: When Benedict XVI retired, people kept mentioning Celestine V in the Inferno, although the funny thing is that it’s not actually confirmed in the text; it’s Ciardi’s guess. The other possibility is that it was Pontius Pilate, which fits the crime and category, though Dante, naturally being Rome-sympathetic and disliking Papal corruption most likely meant St. Celestine V.

Thomas: Especially since a lot of the figures in Dante are his near-contemporaries.

James: Why do you think Dante didn't bother naming him definitively?

Thomas: He names other popes definitively, so it's not that - rather I think he wanted to give it other meanings besides just the particular: it is not just Celestine V but all of those who fit his archetype.

James: Excellent, you're getting closer. Why do you think none of the ones inside this area are named in general? Well, perhaps to help us along - what is their crime? Let’s identify that.

Thomas: Their crime is basically that in life they remained neutral in cowardly faction, and therefore, since they are "nearly soulless", they are forgotten due to their lack of distinction and action. They are nameless and "envy every other fate".

James: Yes, good. A name indicates an identity, and by not taking a side and staying neutral, they abandoned a label, an identity, an allegiance - so they are robbed of identification. Since that is what they wanted in life, that's what they get in death. This is Dante's 'contrapasso'; counter-suffering in a rough translation, the method by which the punishment fits the crime although the poetics of it are more elegant than that.

I want to touch on the bees and the black flag; what do you make of it?

Thomas: They're being chased by bees and maggots are eating the flesh that falls off. Because their lives had no direction, they are constantly running here and there, all over the place, from this or that small but sharp menace, and their flesh is being feasted upon by beings of the lowest order because they wouldn't take a stand.

James: Yes. you've hit it all very well. Since they refused to follow a flag on earth, so the flag they follow in death is black: blank; nothing; void. Since nothing spurred them in life, they are spurred by stings. Since they feasted on the movement and pain of others through their opportunistic passivity, so do maggots and worms, opportunistic eaters, feast on their blood and tears - Contrapasso 101. What do you think about Acheron and the river?

Thomas: So, the souls are eager to go across to upper hell, which is curious. The poets meet Charon, who transports the depraved across the river, and he tells Dante to get lost, but Virgil invokes divine authority and forces him to take them across, and the terror of Charon's voice when they begin their journey causes Dante to faint.

James: So tell me about why you thought it was curious - the eagerness.

Thomas: Dante explains that the souls crave what they fear, so it's as though even the unjust crave justice and punishment, underlining that this is the correct order of things, such that even in suffering, these beings wish to be put in the correct place, at least on some level.

James: Indeed, you are correct. Furthermore it is a reinforcement of the Catholic understanding that Hell is created through us; that we inflict it upon ourselves.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Inferno, Canto II

James: Why don't you get yourself settled in and center yourself a little, then pull up your notes and we can get started. If you need some time to review your notes or whatnot I don't mind; I've already eaten breakfast so I have no pressing concerns until lunch.

Thomas: I was just doing that now. This is a truly great poem.

James: It really does challenge us to ascend mentally. Reading it is like feeding the soul and exercising it at the same time.

Thomas: Indeed.

James: So tell me: what do you think of this canto?

Thomas: The most striking thing about it is Dante's bold synthesis of Classicism and Christianity.

James: Go on: explain what you mean.

Thomas: One gets a sense that he places the Homeric tradition that goes from the Illiad to the Aeneid on the same level as the Old Testament; making Aeneas a forerunner of Peter and Paul and implying that while Aeneas was able to enter the underworld, he himself (Dante) was unworthy. You can also see his ideas about the divinely inspired nature of Rome's founding more clearly in the Monarchia, since it's written as a treatise.

James: You are close to the mark when you say it almost seems as if he elevates the stories of antiquity to that of biblical proportions, but I believe what you are seeing is a kind of layering where he shows that what encircles us above has parallel structures here on earth. That the hierarchy "repeats" itself as it rises higher and what is higher has "shadows" of itself down below. Therefore, I believe what you see is a parallel structure of old-new in the writings of the classical poets being succeeded by his poem in the same way that the Old Testament is succeeded by the new.

Thomas: As above, so below, both in terms of time and in terms of space.

James: Correct, dimensions, which are a major theme for Dante that he clues us into not just via his elaborate architecture, but also in the "timing" of his poetry: specific days and star formations.

Thomas: Events, relationships, and dramas form archetypes and repeat themselves ceaselessly over eternity. This is why myths are truly a higher form of history - they are eternal.

James: Correct. As they say in Ecclesiastes: "there is nothing new under the sun".

Thomas: Likewise, the metaphysics of the divine world and the prototypes that exist above are reflected in the world here below.

James: In fact, Dante makes use of this imagery in this Canto in particular as he not only traces the parallel structure of the successorship of Peter, but also through the Heavenly hierarchy of Mary, Rachel, St. Lucia, and Beatrice. One might even argue that Dante's defense of hierarchy is rooted in the natural order of metaphysics: that there is a higher "gold standard" which ought to be emulated in successive tiers.

Thomas: It goes to the fundamental nature of things, of which there can be three different views: Monism, which is the most archaic view found in the ancient religions and the Vedanta, stating that Heaven and Earth (or Spirit and Matter) are the same thing and that the differentiation is merely an illusion, Dualism, which posits good and evil and asserts that Spirit is good and Matter is evil, which is the Manichean view, and then a third way positing that Love is the fundamental principle of the universe (rather than being), and that Love, like the sun, both illuminates things (makes them visible to us) and gives them life, such that Spirit and Matter are indeed two separate things, but are bound together in a relationship of love that gives manifestation to the one and elevates the other. If we look at old Buddhist spirituality, which is Monist and seeks to dispel illusion, although much of the beginning of the path is the same (and truth be told, there is much of worth in the tradition), the end goal is always the destruction of the personality itself, and the absorption into divine one-ness. Christian spirituality, on the other hand, is fundamentally different as it maintains the human personality and elevates it.

James: This Christian spirituality of the elevation of ourselves expands horizontally as well in the vocation to elevate that which is around us. Your observations on the differences with Buddhist philosophy can be expanded in this same manner as well. Consider the Asceticism present in both religions. Whereas in the Buddhist tradition, it is an annihilation of the material world, in Christianity, it is the elevation of it. This is why (and this would cause great scandal to modernists), Dante's Catholic view on reality is all-inclusive. It is the consideration of all things in the universe as an invitation to form it properly. In the same way that God takes the raw material of matter and forms man by breathing his spirit into it, so does Dante take the raw material of words and creates poetry and meaning. It is this invitation to intercourse with the material that gives birth to his vision and it is by his understanding that all things can be formed properly that he engages in the proper appreciation of the ancient works.

Thomas: Bishop Williamson actually had a good little piece he wrote a while back on the reading of the classics: .

James: You know, it is actually rather interesting to note that John Milton, the great Puritan epic poet who wrote Paradise Lost also had a section near the beginning of his poem for an invocation, but, instead of how Dante had done it by invoking the muses of antiquity, he invoked directly the Holy Spirit. I think it is a kind of irony that is so demonstrative of Protestantism as an unfortunate estrangement from the family lineage that Milton attempted to appeal directly to God. The rejection of what came before him is indicative of man excommunicating himself from the rest of humanity: in this case the humanity of those who walked before him, as if death absolved him of filial obligations. In any case, let's return a bit to the text. I'd like to bring up what you had mentioned before, about Dante feeling his unworthiness. What do you make of that and Virgil's reassurances?

The feeling of unworthiness is all rather natural. The poetry of "feeble second thoughts" staying strong purposes until it spells all the first zeal away is good - there's also a consistent theme of talking about the will: "I prayed her to order and command my will", Virgil says, and then at the end: "My Guide! My Lord! My Master! Now lead on: one will shall serve the two of us in this."

James: And what do you think Dante is attempting to tell us about will?

Thomas: In the latter bit, he's talking about uniting his will with Virgil's (or Reason), and then Virgil is talking about subordinating his own will to that of Heaven. Therefore, Dante's will is also subordinated to heaven, but it is subordinated to such through Virgil and not directly.

James: Very good. It is also a type of successorship and a type of kinship: in the same way that a family grows through marriage and children so that it spreads out, so does evangelization and faith. It is through a hierarchy of Love. Another aspect I find rather interesting about the way in which Beatrice's visitation is described is that Virgil is enticed to align his will to the heavenly command not through authority per se, but through the beauty that mediates that authority through invitation. In essence, Dante is setting up the understanding that the act of faith is a romance. One obeys not just because it is right and good, but because it fulfills and excites in a pure and perfect way. The question I would pose to you is why Dante decided upon Beatrice: he could have had St. Lucia send the message, or some other saint, but why did he choose Beatrice?

Thomas: Beatrice was his great love on earth, starting of course as a natural love. Beauty arises when natural desires meet the divine, when it is formed by the divine and elevated by it; conformed to it - beauty is that which makes the yoke easy, and the burden light, in Christ's words.

James: He could have chosen any particular beautiful figure: what do you think he was attempting to tell us in the particular choice of Beatrice?

Thomas: He could have, but Dante is in love with Beatrice and the beauty he sees in her elevates him to a higher plane. Beauty comes form a union of natural desire with supernatural desire, from Love, which is the mortar binding all such unions. Therefore she is an appropriate liaison with Heaven.

Excellent: which brings me to my next question: the Holy Women of whom Beatrice is part of in this hierarchy starting with, of course, The Blessed Virgin: why do you think Dante decided to have this compassion trickle down to him through the women?

Thomas: The Blessed Virgin represents the still, purified waters of the soul that perfectly reflect the spirit, resulting in the birth of Christ within us - "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." If the waters are disturbed in any way (impurities, tumult, etc.), the Holy Spirit does not have its proper complement and Christ cannot be born. Hence, the moral law and the sacraments aimed at the purification of the soul are vital. As Dante is about to undertake a journey which has just this purpose, especially at the outset, it only makes sense that the Holy Women are those who urge him on forward. What is your take on it?

James: It is the interplay of the masculine and feminine that really strikes me in this Canto. Human Reason in Virgil takes a masculine form. And this makes sense: masculinity is the pouring forth of an internal essence. This is what reason is: an internal generation that is poured out. Divine Revelation, on the other hand, in the form of Beatrice and the Holy Women is feminine. It is the acceptance of the logos into the Tabernacle of Mary's womb which makes her the most fertile human person while still being a Virgin. Thus, I think, Dante shows the two modes in concert. The masculine and the feminine work to bring the soul to fulfillment, to a new birth. The mode of reason is the pouring forth of essence: it is the emulation of God (hence why the gift of reason is what confers to us "the image and likeness of God") whereas Divine Revelation is the willing reception of divine essence. It is the willingness to foster inside of us a spiritual birth. This further reinforces Dante's thematic layering where a human's sexuality and his sexual organs are but shadows of the higher essence, of the higher mode of intercourse.

Thomas: Indeed.

James: I want to draw your attention to the very first lines: "The light was departing. The brown air drew down/ all the earth's creatures, calling them to rest/ from their day-roving, as I, one man alone,/ prepared myself to face the double war". What do you make of this introduction to the canto?

Thomas: The rising and falling of the sun is something we don't see again until Purgatorio. Without the light of the sun in Purgatory, as we can recall, no upward progress is possible, but it is possible to hold position and not slide all the way downward, at least, although to regress is an easy thing also.

James: So what does this symbolize for us? The disappearance of the light, that is.

When the twilight of the sun brings the Earth's creatures to rest or sleep, this may be a metaphor for death, as sleep often is - sleep and forgetfulness are often metaphors for death. The disappearance of the light is a metaphor for Dante's lack of any kind of communion with God; he is in the dark.

James: Excellent, go on.

Thomas: He alone strives to stay awake through this deepest darkness and travel through it with his guide until he can once again come to the light. As for the "double war", the writing seems a little unclear - does he mean that the journey and the pity are the two wars? Or is that not the implication?

I believe you're right with that reading of it. This idea of a double war, what do you think is the significance?

Thomas: In this case he means that although the journey is arduous for obvious reasons, the other difficulty is the amount of pity Dante will experience as a result of the pain and suffering he will witness in Hell, although in a more general sense, the idea of the "Double-war" usually is associated with holy war or jihad in the sense that a man's exterior battles and enemies are a mere outward analogy to the "greater holy war" that he fights to gain dominion over himself.

James: Excellent. Exactly so. It is yet another dimension of this depth which is a major theme in Dante: that all things run parallel -- or perhaps it is better to describe them as running in concentric circles, the same shapes yet removed from each other by degrees. So the exterior life and the interior life are related in the same way that salvation history tracks the same trail as the movements of poetry from Homer to Virgil to Dante.
I'd like to pull your attention once again to the successorship that Peter takes on from the Roman Empire before him. We will see in the subsequent Cantos that not only does Dante work on the vertical "depth" of orientation from the material to the spiritual, but also from the personal to the communal: society. We have already examined the successorship in spiritual terms, what is Dante saying about society if anything when he mentions the inheritance of Rome?

Thomas: The basic idea is that what happened prior to Christ was a necessary preparation, that Christ was born in the fullness of time when Augustus was Monarch, as Dante writes in the Monarchia. The Roman Empire had the legitimate right to rule the entire world, which mirrors Christ's equally universal spiritual jurisdiction: "And it came to pass that in those days there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled." This is why it is not Herod who has the authority to crucify Christ - he is not a representative of the Empire. It is only Pilate who represents the Emperor and who has the authority. Therefore, this also gives Christ's sacrifice a universal nature, as Rome has universal jurisdiction, and that universal jurisdiction extends to both Emperor and Pope throughout eternity, even if one of those seats is vacant. So was Aeneas's founding of Rome with the aid of forces from on high of profound importance, since it set the stage for the center of human history.

James: What I also find rather interesting meditating upon this is the whole idea of civilization itself that Dante highlights the crowning achievement of. If we look at the historical movement of mankind, it follows a rather interesting pattern. First, you have those who developed farming and grew and produced crops and food. Next, we had the rise of the city states and the merchant commerce that would happen between them in Greece, Egypt, et cetera. After this you had the crowning achievement of Rome unifying these city-states into an Imperium, and finally, the Pope with a spiritual kingdom of which he is Prime Minister. The course of history marks the hierarchy of the social classes: producer, merchant, ruler, priest.

Thomas: A rather progressive view of human history; it was in the oldest days that the priestly caste was the most central to civilization - but an interesting observation nonetheless.

James: Naturally, but I meant in the case of a "universal jurisdiction". You rightly point out that civilization had these aspects in microcosm, but throughout the course of universal history, on a universal scope, it developed upward.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Inferno, Canto I

Thomas: So James, you'll be amused at what I've been up to.

James: Eating lunch?

Thomas: Reading cantos.

James: Ha, and since when has this been happening?

Thomas: Things are slow lately, so I
was thinking of reading. I was going to delve into some more Evola, but thought that I was in the mood for more primary sources today, instead of analysis and interpretation.

James: Go on?

Thomas: I just got through the first canto of Inferno, I'll probably read three or four today.

James: So, tell me your thoughts on Canto I, then.

Thomas: It seems pretty straightforward; let me know if I am missing anything.

James: Sure; go on.

Thomas: Dante starts in a groggy, dreamy state, suddenly finding himself in the midst of a dark forest. From here, he beholds a mountain reaching toward the heavens. As he approaches the mountain, he is stopped by a fearsome lion and a she-wolf, and dares not approach, so he turns back toward a desert, meeting Virgil (the famous Roman author of the Aeneid) there. Dante asks Virgil to protect him from the beasts, but Virgil recommends to him a different path, and offers to guide him through it. He warns, however, that since he himself is unworthy of entering heaven, his guidance will end at Purgatory. He also mentions that a Greyhound that will come and drive out the she-wolf one day. Is that more or less the whole of it?

James: Indeed, though there was one more beast, the Leopard, I think.

Thomas: Oh yes, the Leopard. The way that Longfellow rendered it was fairly opaque, but maybe a more elegant translation will be more lucid.

James: I think you got most of the literal elements pretty solidly , though, despite the Victorian English.

Thomas: Well, naturally everything in myth and poetry is symbolic, but one must have a good grasp of what is literally being told before reading into such things.

James: Absolutely. So if you have some time, I wanted to pick your brain about Canto I; chit chat about it.

Thomas: By all means.

James: Did anything in particular stand out for you? (Before I bias you with my particular favourites, or potentially bias, I should say.)

Thomas: It's interesting that God is referred to as an Emperor, and also there are theories that the figure of the Greyhound also represents the Imperial principle. It's also interesting about the Lion and the She-Wolf; that the two are separate, but in the text it seems that the Greyhound primarily only drives out the She-Wolf.

James: Correct. I'm not surprised that the power structure was one of the most immediate since you did come into contact with Dante through Evola, but yes, the imperial connotations in the Greyhound are present.

Thomas: One thing that wasn't clear to me was that he wakes up in the middle of a dark forest, but it seems unclear how he gets out of it to view the base of the mountain and the desert. It may just be the translation; it seems as though he's in this unnerving forest, and suddenly he is at the base of a  mountain with a desert valley behind him.

James: Actually yes; I'm comparing your Longfellow translation with my Ciardi translation.  Ciardi translates it as, "but at the far end of that valley of evil [ the forest] / whose maze had sapped my very heart with fear ! / I found myself before a little hill", which is kind of the reverse of how Longfellow does it, so that longfellow makes it seem like he got to the mountain first, but in reality, he's going through the valley of the forest.

Thomas: Ah. That makes more sense. So how does the desert then end up behind him?

James: I think it's translation, because in the Ciardi it's rendered as 'waste' instead of desert, and it explicitly says in the lines "till I slid back into the sunless wood", denoting that he returned to the forest and that it was a wasteland of a forest.

Thomas: Aha. Now it is clear.

James: Good. Now, let's return to the beginning for a moment. The first thing, naturally, is the way Dante says "midway in our life's journey", which is of course the way in which Dante signals that his pilgrimage is the model for all of our lives: it is 'our' journey not just 'my' journey, which cues us into the universality of his poetic message.

Thomas: Indeed.

James: Then, we come upon the dark wood itself. I thought it was an interesting choice. What are your thoughts on why he chose a dark wood?

Thomas: To me it seems rather clear; a labyrinth of error that envelops those who stray from the path of light.

James: Right, and true, but why did he choose a wood instead of, say, an actual labyrinth, or immediately start with a cave?

Thomas: As I understand it, the dark wood is not a part of Hell nor a part of Purgatory or Heaven, so it would make sense to choose a more natural medium.

James: Correct. Sure, it makes sense literally as opposed to something like like floating rocks, but he chose a wood instead of some other natural thing. What I understand from Dante's choice of a wood as opposed to, say, a cavern or a desert is because a wood is life itself, but life in a way that becomes so overbearing, so clouded and unordered, that it blocks out the sun. Only in a forest does this strange paradox of something living and yet blocking out sunlight occur. Whereas a cavern, for example, is not living but stone, so Dante shows that he is still in the land of the living, and yet in the living, we are obscured from true light. Life 'overgrows' around us in a dark wood.

Thomas: That was my inclination also, but you have put it in a much more lucid and complete way. Since this is your own realm of expertise, I suppose I'll allow your superiority here.

James: Ha, don't worry: I don't say this as a matter of competition , but only in the same way that Virgil has walked the infernal paths before. I do it as a matter of service to you.

Thomas: Well, I'm kidding, of course.

James: Another note I wanted to pick your brain about was lines 10-12 where Dante writes "how I
came to it [the dark wood] I cannot rightly say / so drugged and loose with sleep had I become / when I first wandered there from the True Way". Tell me what you thought about this detail.

Thomas: I only have a somewhat superficial thought on it so far, that essentially his error encroached upon him in such a way that he had not full awareness of it until he suddenly experienced an  awakening of sorts and realized where he was.

James: Indeed. One of the great things about Dante is that he writes the way the Bible is written. The bible is read in fourfold exegesis of literal, anagogical, tropological, and allegorical modes, so if we were to take the tropological meaning behind the lines: in other words, 'the moral of the story', what do you think Dante was trying to convey?

Thomas: That it is rather easy to fall into the dark wood of vice without even being aware of it during the process?

James: Yes , that's rightly so. It also shows what we've discussed quite often in the past: that in order to lose the true way involves a mode of anesthesia. You and I bemoan constantly our society which seeks to anesthetize pain or feeling, to drug itself on sex, violence, pornography, chemicals, and pop culture. Dante is showing that error comes about when we dull our natural reason and that error is borne out of this sleepiness that man has when we become such a lazy society, and avert ourselves from true feeling.

Thomas: I agree, and this was roughly how I saw it, as well.

James: Excellent; let's discuss Virgil himself. Tell me what you can make of him symbolically.

Thomas: It seems to me that he symbolizes a great number of things. Firstly, he symbolizes the actual figure of Virgil, secondly, he symbolizes in a general way, the classical Greco-Roman virtuosity.

James: Excellent.

Thomas: Thirdly, he is a personification of Dante's internal Logos.

James: Go on; explain what you mean by that.

Thomas: We could certainly say that he represents Reason, but "Reason" with a capital R these days has a meaning that is too tied to the Enlightenment perspective, so I think that "logos" is a more appropriate term to explain what Dante is getting at.

: Ha, this is true, though both you and I could understand it in Ratzinger's own extolling of 'fides et ratio', but you're absolutely correct; excellent.

Thomas: For Aristotle, logos is something more refined than the capacity to make private feelings public: it enables the human being to perform as no other animal can; it makes it possible for him to perceive and make clear to others through reasoned discourse the difference between what is advantageous and what is harmful, between what is just and what is unjust, and between what is good and what is evil. This seems basically to be on the mark of what we're talking about.

James: Quite apt for that question i gave you . Why do you think it was Virgil, as opposed to
any of the other old ancients like Plato or Aristotle, who hold reason in such high estimation?

Thomas: These are quite deep questions for a first reading; I am enjoying this. I believe Virgil is chosen because he shares Dante's vocation (Poetry) and is Dante's most esteemed model for it. Also, it is Virgil who wrote of Rome's mythical founding and of the genesis of the imperial seat.

James: Excellent, that's a good answer. I am taking the crash course approach; eventually
you'll start getting the legs for it and these will come easier.

James: So let's look at that anagogically. Meaning, does that model of using a poet for a poet
shine any meaning behind Dante's message on a spiritual level?

Thomas: I believe he means basically that the Logos should assume a form which is consistent with one's inner constitution.

James: You are actually rather amazingly close, Tom; absolutely correct. It is this idea that in order to properly 'reach' a person, that external Other must resonate with our internal heart. I am sure you are aware of the principle of resonance. Even though i use it figuratively, it is apt to look at the idea scientifically. Resonance is when we have an identical frequency being transmitted; in this case, a poet resonates with a poet. Now, think about the implication of this. When we look at Christ, that God reached out to man by becoming Man, this is why the Christian religion is superior to others (one reason at least), because it is only in our religion does the divine employ the most resonant call to man by becoming one of us. Therefore, God captures the Human heart through a human heart, and it is layered into Dante's utilization of a poet for a poet. This is one reason why Dante is considered the most eloquent singer of the Christian idea: because he compacts such ideas and ideals into simple,
unassuming literal lines.

Thomas: Indeed.

James: Furthermore, I would venture to say (though this is only my interpretation), that the other reason why a poet was chosen was because a philosophical encounter with, say, Aristotle, would be too sterile. Dante is showing the mode in which God reveals his revelation to man, that it is not through a laundry list like Islam and the Quran, but through a human encounter with a poet, who is able to mould words into something layered with meaning, which is EXACTLY the way in which God creates the world, though on an infinitely smaller scale.

Thomas: I see.

James: Another interesting line in Canto I is about line 88 where Dante says "And he [ Virgil ] replied , seeing my soul in tears". This is obviously a rather strange line, this idea that our souls cry. What do you make of it?

Thomas: Can you copy the full context of it?

James: "see there , immortal sage , the beast I flee / for my soul's salvation , I beg you , guard me from her the she wolf] / for she has struck a mortal tremor through me / and he replied , seeing my soul in tears : / ' he must go by another way who would escape / this wilderness , for that mad beast that fleers / before you there , suffers no man to pass"

Thomas: Basically, it seems that his soul is in despair that the she-wolf blocks the immediate path upwards.

James: Indeed, though it's interesting that he assigns such carnal aspects to the human soul,
the idea that it 'cries', though obviously not to be taken so literally, but it is a kind of graphic idea that puts forth the sentiment. In fact, he mentions the same image of the soul crying again in canto III near the beginning. Of course, the shades in hell cry and wail and all of that goodness. What I find the most interesting about it is the idea that our souls have a kind of language to them, that our very souls act in a way that is very close to our body; because our body and soul are intrinsically tied together. It's not as interesting of a point, though, as line 93 where Dante goes on to say how the she-wolf grows hungier with every feeding. What do you make of that ?

Thomas: The obvious interpretation is that the more vice one indulges in (particularly vices related to incontinence), the more the appetite for vice increases, though I suspect that there is a deeper meaning as well.

James: You hit it right on the head; appetite in sin never satisfies, it only spurs itself on into more and more consumption. Let's contrast that with the Greyhound in line 95 which "will not feed on lands nor loot, but honour / and love and wisdom will make straight his way": what do you make of the Greyhound?

Thomas: In the sense of the Greyhound I sense both an inner meaning as well as a kind of metapolitical meaning.

James: Correct. Go ahead.

Thomas: In the former sense, the Greyhound is that true center and seat of authority inside of a man, which should govern both his reason and his appetites: this is the seat of authority inside man which is in communion with the transcendental and spiritual principles of honour, love, and wisdom. In the latter sense, it is much less clear to me, but I believe what Dante is referring to is a manifest reign with similar legitimate authority from above, which will establish itself and drive out the usurpers of this authority, as though the lion represents secularized and degraded monarchy (the house of France) and as though the she-wolf represents corruptions within the clergy (which Dante seems is clearly identifying throughout his journey). In that sense, the Greyhound seems to hint at the imperial principle, related to the Holy Roman Empire. As Dante was a White Guelf, it would make sense.

James: Correct, on all counts. All of these work simultaneously in layers, in much the same way that if one looks at the story of the Israelites coming out of Egypt on a historical level (i.e. literal) it's easy to understand, but on an anagogical level it is the movement of man towards Heaven, the promised land. On a tropological level it is man escaping the bondage and slavery of sin.

Thomas: Of course, the essence of the supernatural idea in basically all traditions is that although the events on different levels (the inner and the outer) all appear to be distinct and unrelated, they are actually closely tied together and follow the same eternal law from above, which is best expressed in poetry and myth.

James: Yes, exactly. This is also why Dante uses the impossible star configurations, showing that something that seems far removed actually has a real and eternal meaning behind it. The stars literally align for his soul's journey, and it is a signal for us to look at the reality around us to discern the poetry therein. Shakespeare puts it in Hamlet as "the play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king". Shakespeare shows through the play within the play that we ourselves live out the play-poem that God wrote, and we use art such as poetry, music, or theatre to recognize that created reality around us.

Thomas: Indeed.

James: The last note I'll mention from Canto I is the little mountain, the mountain Dante was trying to climb, it's the little hill that he's trying to climb up and the three beasts stop him from reaching the summit: what are your thoughts on his usage of a mountain? Naturally, we'll see the larger mountain in Purgatory.

Thomas: That's quite clear; mountains are always metaphors for spiritual quest.

James: Go on , tell me more about that.

Thomas: The symbolism is similar to the Grail legends: a great mountain to scale (Montsalvatsche, with the Castle of Joy atop it), raging rivers that can scarcely be crossed by mortal men, but must be crossed in order to approach the mountain, and so on. It is a metaphor for the process of purification that must be undergone in order to approach joy and perfection.

James: Excellent, and an arduous journey, indeed. I'm also always reminded of the structure of a mountain: a conical figure. This is a very prominent figure in Catholic theology; we have the mountain of Calvary, the mount of olives, and so on, each serving as a kind of spiritual nexus pointing upward towards a point, as if all of that dirt was in service of a single point at the summit. I was reminded of the way Msgr. Giussani denoted History. Topologically, the connection to the divine is one of a mountain.