Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Inferno IV: Alt-Heaven


This one begins between a lightning and its thunder. One burst out of the ground underneath Dante’s feet at the end of the last canto, causing him to faint on the spot. (Something of a standard reaction, as we shall see.) The other awakens him from l’alto sonno – his deep sleep – at the beginning of this one. But now he’s on the other side of the Acheron.

How did he get there, since no living soul could set foot on Charon’s boat? How long was he unconscious for? We don’t know. There is no time for questions, either, as the urgency to both explore il cieco mondo (the blind – read: dark – world) into which he’s venturing, and to hasten the narration to leave room to what is to follow, counsel the poet to move right along.

The architecture of Hell is not yet clear. We haven’t been told, for instance, that each of the concentric circles will harbour fewer souls, guilty of greater crimes. Recall how, in the vestibule, Dante encountered more people than he ever imagined to have died in all of human history. These in theory were guilty of the least serious sin of all – refusing to take sides. But you got the sense that Dante despised them most of all. Hell, then, while based on a palimpsest of popular and literary accounts passed on through centuries – some originating before the Christian myths themselves – and steeped into the prevailing theological theories about the hierarchy of sins and the forms of punishment, is nonetheless also a mirror of Dante’s own peculiar ideas about human affair and ethics.

This is especially true of this circle. We are in Limbo, although nobody – not even the Pope – seems quite sure if the place even exists. The most updated judgment, made as recently as 2007, claims that it’s a ‘plausible theological hypothesis’. So, it probably exists, if only to fill a gap in the scriptures and not damn to Hell proper unbaptised children, or everyone who was born before the birth of Christ. It’s not a holiday camp, mind, as the occupants of limbo are said to be consumed by perpetual longing for the salvation they were never given a chance to attain. Baptism, says Virgil, is porta de la fede che tu credi , ‘the gateway to your faith’. But it was never open to them.

Limbo, by the way, literally means edge, deriving as it does from the Latin word lembus, meaning ‘hem’.


This is a 15th century miniature by Priamo della Quercia that illustrates the canto in an edition held at the British Library. I haven’t found a detailed caption, but Dante seems to appear twice: as the sleeping figure bottom left (before the thunder wakes him), and the one directly above, talking to the man in the pink tunic. That’s Virgil. Next to him, brandishing the sword, is the Greek poet Homer. Next to him, in no discernible order (at least not by me), the three Roman poets Horace, Ovid and Lucan, whom Dante also meets on his way to the walled city on the right. Notice though how dark-skinned everyone but Dante is, and resembling Middle Eastern men. It’s a feature that links (albeit accidentally) with a peculiarity of Dante’s Limbo, namely the inclusion of three named Muslim men, therefore by extension of righteous people of that entire religion.

It was a remarkable concession that has no documented precedents in the beliefs of the time nor a clear explanation. One thing is to place in Limbo people like Homer or Virgil, who were born before Christ. Another to create a walled citadel with an entirely tolerable (after)lifestyle, and fill it not just with scientists, writers and heroes, but also with practitioners of a faith with which Christians had gone to holy war.

Ibn Sīnā, the great 10 century scholar, whom Dante knew as Avicenna; Ibn Rushd, the 12th century philosopher who gave medieval Europe access to the works of Aristotle, and whom Dante knew as Averroè; and Salah ad-Din himself, the scourge of the crusaders. All of these Dante not only refused to damn, but deemed worthy of spending eternity in conversation with his beloved Virgil and with other great ancients, thus suggesting a continuity between classical Greek and Roman culture and the Islamic world.

The fact that Priamo Della Quercia depicts Greek and Roman poets using the same ethnic tropes – even the Mantuan Virgil – suggests that nearly two centuries after Dante’s death there were still some who viewed all non-Christians as racially other, and alike.

Yet the citadel with seven walls – this urbane sanctuary for unbelievers, or people of the wrong faith – is like a Heaven within Hell. Ask me if I’d rather spend eternity frolicking in Dante’s prato di fresca verdura (‘meadow of fresh verdure’, per Longfellow) with ancients poets and warriors – men and women – or rather become part of the clockwork bliss machine described in the Paradiso, and I, a modern, would have little hesitation. But Limbo exists only as part of the metaphysical penal system of the medieval Christian mind: that is to say, it can only be thought of as a lesser place, whose supplice lies in the knowledge that there is happiness of an entirely different order, elsewhere.

For now, the holiday is over, and Dante and Virgil take their leave. The canto ends. E vegno in parte ove non è che luca. ‘And to a place I come where nothing shines.’




Previously: Inferno I, Inferno II, Inferno III.

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