Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Inferno IX: God is late

God is late. And because of the lateness of God, the poet and his guide are left outside the walls of the city of Dis, stranded and worried that the divine help will never come.

Remember, the army of demons that guards the iron-walled city had closed its doors on Virgil’s face. Up to this point, whenever they encountered a roadblock, all he had to say was Vuolsi così colà…, a formula roughly equivalent to ‘We’re on a mission from God’, and the ways would part before them. But not this time. And if Dante is afraid, which is common, so too does Virgil hesitate, which is not. ‘Still we should win this fight,’ he declares. Se non…

Dante calls it a parola rotta, literally a 'broken word', less literally a truncated phrase. Either way, there is a world of sense in those two words, and even more so in the ellipsis. Se non. If not. Or else. Or else… The ellipsis dilates time. How long does the doubt last? Long enough for Dante to question not only his own fortitude, but the wisdom of his guide. He asks, almost innocently: Say, did you ever come down here before, you who live in the first circle, among those whose only sentence is to have no hope of ever seeing God? By which he means: Are you sure you know the way? To which Virgil replies that yes, he travelled the full depth of Hell once, not long after his death, having been sent by the witch Erichtho to collect the soul of a dead soldier who resided in the ninth circle – the circle of Judas.

Lots of questions here. The literary reference is to the De Bello Civili (‘Concerning the Civil War’), an epic poem by Lucan which covers the events of the civil war between Julius Caesar and the army led by Pompey. In the episode of the summoning, Lucan makes no reference to Virgil or anybody else venturing through the underworld to pluck the soul of the dead soldier. More to the point: Virgil was still very much alive. Even more to the point: Judas wasn’t even born at the time. The Hell that Dante alludes to here was still in its primitive state, waiting to be remodelled following the death of Christ. So for Virgil to claim that he knows that way makes little sense. However, let’s just assume that Dante simply got a bit confused here – although it’s hard to fathom how he wouldn’t know that Virgil died more than two decades after Caesar, hence the events depicted by Lucan. There is still the question of why Virgil obeyed the command of an evil sorceress, and what power she may have held over his not-quite-dead-yet soul.

The hasty and somewhat incongruous digression is interrupted when – in very modern fashion – Dante-the-narrator tells us he can’t quite recall what Virgil said next because a horrific sight distracted him. They are the Furies, rapidly advancing. Their female-shaped bodies stained with blood, with serpents for hair, tearing at their own bodies with claws and beating them with the palms of their hands. Megaera, Alecto and Tisiphone, plus, not far away, their absent cousin, the Gorgon known as Medusa.

As painted much later by Caravaggio

The threat of the possible arrival of Medusa makes Virgil warn Dante to quickly cover his eyes – lest he be turned to stone at the sight – and then, in a rather beautiful and tender image, wrap himself around him and put his own hands over Dante’s, for extra safety.

There is something zombie-like in the way that all these souls appear to be attracted by the scent of Dante’s living body, is there not?

So on one side we have the Furies, behaving as women in ancient times did at funerals – including professional mourners, which in some countries (including mine) existed as late as one hundred years ago. On the other, Dante and Virgil united in a fearful embrace, awaiting the coming of a fourth, more dangerous monster.

And then God arrives.

This is the ‘problem’ with the Divine Comedy: that it literally takes place inside Deus’ own machina, so every threat to the safety of the travellers – no matter how theatrically elaborate – can never be truly suspenseful. The only way Dante will be lost is if he strays from the path. The appearance of danger, then, can only exist within occasional moments of (self-)doubt, in which to condense both the horror of the hero’s surroundings and the fear for his life. Such is the predestined nature of the pilgrim’s progress.

When God arrives, it is in the form of an angel that strides imperiously over the Styx while fending and fanning with his left hand the air made thick and greasy by the presence of so many condemned souls. Having reached the iron, red-hot doors of Dis, he opens them with the slightest touch of the reed he carries in his right hand. Then, after briefly haranguing the demons – off stage, as it were, since they fled the scene – and without deigning either Dante or Virgil of so much as a glance, he leaves again.

This particular God is like a cheat sheet for one of the videogames I played with my friends at the time we did Dante at school, in the mid to late eighties, and we got stuck on a level, either because we couldn’t solve a riddle or defeat a particular monster. Its function is to make it possible to advance. And, like the next level of the videogame after the enemies have been cheated out existence, the city of Dis appears at first empty. Una campagna, a countryside, like a walled city turned inside out. But, really, upon further inspection, a graveyard, its open tombs brimming with fire, each containing not just one corpse – souls of souls, people twice dead – but a whole army. Of whom and why, we’ll have to get into next time.

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