Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Inferno III: The shape of the world


Per me si va ne la città dolente,
per me si va ne l'etterno dolore,
per me si va tra la perduta gente.

Through me the way is to the aching city,
Through me the way is to eternal pain,
Through me the way among the people lost.
If the first canto of the Divine Comedy had one of the great ‘into the middle things’ beginnings in all of literature (‘Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself within a forest dark’…), the third canto has the most cinematic one before the invention of cinema. There is no introduction, no explanation: just the epigraph carved above the gates of Hell, made visible to the reader in words as a camera would to a film audience.
Giustizia mosse il mio alto fattore;
fecemi la divina podestate,

la somma sapïenza e ’l primo amore.


Justice incited my sublime Creator;
Created me divine Omnipotence,
The highest Wisdom and the primal Love.
There is no narrator, either. The gate hasn’t even come into being yet. There are just words.
Dinanzi a me non fuor cose create
se non etterne, e io etterna duro.

Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate.

Before me there were no created things,
Only eternal, and I eternal last.
All hope abandon, ye who enter in!
It is only when the last of the nine lines is uttered, or formed in one’s mind, that the structure on which they are stamped becomes clear. We are at the famous threshold between the realm of the living and the realm – or rather, the city – of the damned.


But where is this place? For the Romans, the entrance to the underworld was in a very specific geographical location – a cave near lake Avernus, in modern-day Campania – while Homer placed the Hades visited by Odysseus either in Southern Italy again or, according to some readings, on the East coast of Spain. This, in spite of the fact that the Acheron river is located in the Epirus region of Greece. Mythical and observable geography were as blended for ancient Europeans as they were during the Middle Ages.

Before we get to Dante’s own conception of the world, let’s clear up a stubborn misconception: namely, that Christians before Copernicus and Galileo thought the Earth to be flat. As a matter of fact they knew perfectly well that it was round, although they had no real clue of its size. On this they followed the ancient Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy, who had sadly departed from the astonishing empiricism of his predecessor Eratosthenes, basing himself instead on the rather more extravagant ideas of Aristotle.


The Aristotelean-Ptolemaic model of the universe, with the Earth at its centre and a series of celestial planes rotating around it like clockwork, furnished Christians with the perfect symbolic representation of God’s creation. But it wasn’t without its upheavals. Before the creation of Adam and Eve and their subsequent fall, there was the far more spectacular – as well as literal – fall of Lucifer out of Heaven and onto Earth. It wasn’t the impact that produced the crater that was to become Hell: it was rather the ground which retreated before him, to avoid coming into contact with the beast. The displaced ground traversed the Earth and appeared at the antipodes in the form of a mountain island, which was to become the Garden of Eden first, then later Mount Purgatory.

So: the Earth for Dante comprised two hemispheres. The Boreal one, which included all of the land (save for Mount Purgatory), delimited by the Pillar of Hercules at one end and the Ganges at the other; and the Austral one, featuring the world’s only ocean. At the top of this sphere – Dante of course had no concept of North or South – was Jerusalem: the centre of the centre of the universe. And while Hell as a concrete, real, existing place would have to be situated somewhere in the Boreal hemisphere, nonetheless its location was also highly symbolic and necessarily indeterminate: for the forest in which Dante gets lost is primarily a moral condition.

This is what I’m trying to get to: geography for us moderns is a discipline that allows to trace routes between two or more destinations in a precise and replicable fashion. For the ancients, as well as for Dante, it was secondary to a belief system. Therefore their maps were criss-crossed not just by roads but also – and far more importantly – by stories, including the story of how the world itself came to be.

Bernhard Gillessen, Gli ignavi

Beyond the gates there is only darkness, pierced with sounds.
Quivi sospiri, pianti e alti guai
risonavan per l’aere sanza stelle,
per ch’io al cominciar ne lagrimai.

Diverse lingue, orribili favelle,
parole di dolore, accenti d’ira,
voci alte e fioche, e suon di man con elle
Longfellow translates, losing the rhymes and the syncopated, discordant rhythm of the original:
There sighs, complaints, and ululations loud
Resounded through the air without a star,
Whence I, at the beginning, wept thereat.

Languages diverse, horrible dialects,
Accents of anger, words of agony,
And voices high and hoarse, with sound of hands
Just like the words appeared before the architrave that bore them, so too do the damned make themselves known before Hell has become visible to the poet. Gradually he starts to see: the immense multitude before him is running in a vast circle, chasing a tattered flag blown by the wind. They are the ignavi, that is to say the uncommitted, or the indifferent: those who went through life without ever picking a side, and whom not only Heaven but Hell itself abhors. This is why they are condemned to wander in its huge vestibule, chasing a flag that represents nothing, while envying those who suffer far greater pains in the circles below. They are an endless train of people, ch’i’ non averei creduto che morte tanta n’avesse disfatta – ‘more than ever I’d have thought that death could have undone’. Bitterly, then, the journey into Hell begins with an indictment that seems to encompass most of humanity.

Dante wrote the Divine Comedy in exile, as a result of having picked the losing side in the political affairs of Florence. His contempt for those who refused to take part is therefore that much more understandable, and finds an echo – in times of similar if not greater turmoil – in the words of the young Antonio Gramsci.

So wretched are these souls, that they are not even deserving of a moment of contemplative reflection. Says Virgil: Non ragioniam di lor, ma guarda e passa. ‘Let us not speak of them, but glance and move right on.’ There is no shade like Virgilian shade.

What follows is another object lesson in mythical geography, for Dante and Virgil come to a river that soon acquires a familiar name, Acheron, just like the old, towering figure of the ferryman carrying the damned across turns out to be none other than Charon. The practice of enlisting the demons of Greek mythology to staff the Christian Hell wasn’t invented by Dante, but is nonetheless instructive, as is the reference to the ‘real’ river which flows in Greece, but that must not be taken as being the same literal river. Just like the Pagan gods were certainly not real (remember? Virgil lived ai tempi degli dei falsi e bugiardi, ‘in the era of the false and lying gods’) but who knows maybe some of their demons were, so too Hades cannot have been real – for it wasn’t created by the one true God – but the real Hell can resemble Hades to a degree that goes far beyond the literary homage to the sixth book of Dante’s beloved Aeneid. It’s a cultural paradox, embodied in the Comedy by the figure of Virgil, whom as well as a guide to the lower levels of the Christian cosmology acts as the ferryman between the ancient world and the middle age.


We’re nearly done. ‘Charon the demon, with eyes like burning furnaces’ (Caron dimonio, con occhi di bragia) calls out to the souls converging from the entire world to the shores of the Acheron, and hurries them onto his barge, beating with his oar the ones who hesitate. But few do, ché la divina giustizia li sprona,/sì che la tema si volve in disio: for divine justice has turned their fear into desire (to reach the place of their eternal damnation). The image has barely had time to register when an earthquake shakes the shore, and a powerful wind rises from the bowels of the earth. Whereupon Dante immediately collapses, ‘like a man who falls to sudden sleep’, and so the canto ends, as cinematically as it began, fading to black.



Previously: Canto I, Canto II

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