Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Inferno VIII: The one who weeps

Io dico, continuando…
I say, continuing…

A strange beginning. Or a re-beginning, according to some, after a long hiatus. The legend goes that a relative of Dante found the papers on which the poet had written the first seven cantos around the year 1301, before his exile, and had them delivered to him via another poet, Dino Frescobaldi, in the northern Tuscan region known as the Lunigiana, some years after he was chased away from Florence. Whereupon Dante supposedly decided to resume writing the Divine Comedy, and signalled it by means of that gerund, continuando. It’s a theory whose origins date back to Giovanni Boccaccio himself, one of the very first scholars of Dante, and while it’s almost certainly incorrect, it is salutary to remember that people have spent seven hundred years reading far too much into that single word. Approaching the poem as we did not as ordinary readers (whatever that means), but as students, we were also required to pay abnormal levels of attention to famous or famously ambiguous lines. Our need to make sense of the Comedy bore a direct relationship with our ability to progress in our studies.

Eugène Delacroix, Dante's boat (1822)

There is very little progress in this canto. It is mired. We are stuck – and that’s perhaps the true sense of continuando – in the fifth circle, looking at the next level of the adventure, but unable to find the actual entrance. We are still in the Styx, a shallow marsh thick with the semi-submerged bodies of the wrathful, whose pastime is tearing each other apart. Beyond the marsh but clearly visible is a walled city, and beyond the walls, is fire. Beacons are lit. First one, then another. They signal to the infernal army the presence of a living man.

To hasten their travel through the muddy waters, Dante and Virgil board the small boat of Phlegyas, a figure of classical mythology whose job in Hell is rather unclear. His boat is not a ferry, and doesn’t carry any souls. It’s not likely that he would serve as referee among the Styx-dwellers, either, since the place is kept in a self-regulating, perpetual state of chaos and violence. He seems to be just there, then, part of the décor: another vestigial demon from Virgil’s pre-Christian underworld, stripped of his powers and reduced to meaninglessness just like the old gods. Like some of the other extras encountered in previous cantos, Phlegyas barks at Dante at first, but is soon rebuked and silenced by Virgil.

Dante steps on the boat, whose prow dips: for unlike the others, he is a thing of flesh. Yet the souls aren’t exactly immaterial, either. Soon we encounter one that tries to grab him. At first Dante doesn’t recognise him. ‘Who are you, who are so disfigured?’ ‘Vedi che son un che piango.’ I am one who weeps. But this appeal doesn’t trigger one of the pilgrim’s usual displays of pity. He lashes out at him instead.

Con piangere e con lutto,
spirito maladetto, ti rimani;
ch’i’ ti conosco, ancor sie lordo tutto.

May you keep weeping and wailing, cursed soul, for I have recognised you, although you’re covered in mud.

The obligatory Doré

The passage that follows is surprising. The soul lunges at Dante, and is pushed back by Virgil, who proceeds to praise his charge for the disdain that he has shown. The pair hug and kiss, as if in joyful celebration of this sudden bout of hatred. As for Dante, he has only one wish: to see the spirit who approached the boat attuffare in questa broda, get dunked into the broth: a prelude to violent attack by the other souls. His wish is immediately granted. ‘Everyone attack Filippo Argenti!’, cry the marsh-dwellers, and even he, Argenti himself, spirito bizzarro – extravagant spirit – joins into the frenzy and starts gnawing at his own flesh.

We don’t know much about this Filippo Argenti, other than the fact that he belonged to a Florentine family that Dante had reasons to detest. Many and most likely apocryphal stories have cropped up over the centuries to justify the personal, intimate nature of this hatred, including the allegation that Argenti once slapped Dante in the face in front of other citizens: a public humiliation that may go some way towards explaining the wish that he should suffer in front of Dante’s own eyes, as if his eternal damnation wasn’t enough. But even if the stories were true, it would be an unconvincing explanation. The craven spite, ultimately, reflects badly on Dante. And maybe that’s the point: mired, unsure, made anxious by those fires that announced his proximity to the walled city, the not-yet-redeemed poet shows his weakness. We don’t know for sure if he is better than the deceased who have been condemned to rest in this place. He may yet come back, some day, minus his cloak of flesh, no longer able to weigh down the prow of Phlegyas’ boat. He is not yet saved.

To underscore the point, the travellers reach the red-hot iron walls of the city of Dis, only to find the way blocked by an army of demons raining from the sky. The demons demand to speak to Virgil, alone, and send Dante walking back to the shore of the Styx. Don’t leave me, let’s turn back, he pleads to his guide. The parlay is short, but must seem like an eternity to the suddenly dejected poet, who only minutes earlier had disdainfully wished pain on another. Finally, the doors of the city close on Virgil’s face and he turns back, downcast, le ciglia rase d’ogni baldanza – his forehead shorn of all its boldness. Thus the canto ends, with both the hero and his guide in an apparent state of crisis – as if God’s own plan could fail.

Previously: Inferno I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII.