Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Inferno XV: Contains sexual politics

The full text of the canto in Italian/English

A strange canto in which the sin is never mentioned, and the penance – the contrappasso – is barely described. The very geography of this corner of Hell is understated. There is a sort of dam, or artificial bank, explains the poet. But it’s smaller than the ones they build in the Netherlands to keep the sea out, or near Padua to contain the rivers when the snow melts in the spring.

The bank built alongside the Phlegethon delimits the burning strip of sand on the other side, and acts like a walkaway for Dante and Virgil. One thing modern readers are liable to forget is that while Hell is built underground, it’s not a cave, it’s more like an open mine: therefore, the two poets always walk in full view of the sky, where the Sun is now rising.

Dante’s journey began only yesterday, less than twenty-four hours ago. He has now reached the bottom rung of the fifth circle, where the ‘violent against God’ reside, meaning not just blasphemers but those who sinned against God’s creation, that is to say nature. According to the prevailing theological theory, these are worse than those who inflict violence upon themselves (suicides, gamblers), who in turn are worse than those who inflict violence on others (murderers, tyrants). It’s a topsy-turvy moral world, from the point of view of secular modernity, but Dante himself might have harboured his own doubts about this hierarchy, at least judging from the relative punishments and – more to the point –the varying degrees of his own personal sympathy towards the souls he encounters.

As to the first point, you could argue that being submerged for all eternity in a pool of boiling blood (as is the case of tyrants, in the first rung of the circle) is worse than running, sitting or lying in a desert of burning sand, which is the penance in the lowest rung. As for the second, Dante’s compassion for the suicides contrasts with the indifference he showed for the ‘less guilty’ murderers.

Divine law cannot be neatly overlaid on the emotion-inflected law of humans. Not even for this staunch ambassador of the belief system of medieval Christians.

Who are the ‘violent against God’, anyway? They are – in ascending order of guilt – sodomites, usurers and blasphemers. The first are condemned to run across the desert. The second, to sit on the burning sand. The third, to lie on it, which causes maximum pain with no measure or relief.

That we are among the sodomites in this canto we can only tell by the fact that they are running. The sin is neither explicitly mentioned nor reflected upon, which makes it difficult to establish how Dante might have felt about it.

Hartmann Schedel's depiction of Lot's family leaving Sodom, minus his wife (1493)

Scholars of the poem report that the practice was very common in Florence, proverbially so – the German for sodomite at this time was ‘Florenz’. It should also be remembered that until relatively recent times, sodomy was also not primarily associated with male homosexuality, and was a very common contraceptive method. If the crime that caused the downfall of Sodom in the Bible was the citizens’ demand that Lot release his guest to them, so they may rape them, here it is merely sex for purposes other than procreation. As such, it’s hardly surprising that Dante should fail to express any great outrage. But the canto goes a step further by focusing on a very sympathetic figure for whom the poet shows great affection and even admiration.

Francesco Scaramuzza, Brunetto Latini and the Sodomites (1859)

"Siete voi qui, ser Brunetto?" The straightforward translation – ‘Are you here, ser Brunetto?’ – doesn’t tell us where we should place the emphasis. Is it ‘Are you here, ser Brunetto?’ or are ‘Are you here, ser Brunetto?’ In other words, is Dante surprised to see ser Brunetto at all, or to see him in this particular place? There seems to be no doubt that the words are spoken with tenderness, especially since Dante goes on to offer Brunetto to rest with him a while, so that he may stop running while they talk. Brunetto replies that if he were to rest even for a moment he would be condemned to the penance of the usurers – that is to say, to lie down – for a period of one hundred years. And so they walk. Dante above, on the stone bank, but crouching so that he may hear and be heard. Brunetto below, literally looking up to the person who used to look up to him metaphorically.

Notary public, prominent politician and author of a famous rhetorical compendium, Brunetto Latini was born 45 years earlier than Dante, and died when the poet was in his late twenties. The only evidence that they knew each other is to be found in the Commedia. Dante writes:

’n la mente m’è fitta, e or m’accora,
la cara e buona imagine paterna
di voi quando nel mondo ad ora ad ora
m’insegnavate come l’uom s’etterna

Paraphrasing: ‘your dear, paternal image is fixed in my mind, and fills my heart with fondness, of when in the world hour after hour you taught me how man becomes eternal’ (meaning: how a person can achieve immortality through their writings).

There is no evidence that the relationship between the two was anything other than platonic. However, seeing as the group in which Dante recognised Brunetto is made up of clerics and fellow men of letters, it seems reasonable to speculate that Brunetto adhered to the practice, common among men in such positions, of taking young male lovers among their proteges or students. Yet evidently this hasn’t moved Dante to despise him, or feel any revulsion for those whose sin – in Brunetto’s words – ‘sullies them in the eyes of the world’ (fur… al mondo lerci).

By now, the reader has had many occasions to measure the distance between the private morality of Dante ¬and the eternal judgment of his God, which sometimes appear in open contradiction. Yet it was Dante-the-poet who invented the torment of Brunetto Latini, which is found in no scripture; it was him that chose to make his old teacher immortal (come l’uom s’etterna…) because of his sexual preferences, and to show him naked and disfigured, begging for the attention of the old pupil. Therein lies the limit of his compassion.

Previously: Inferno I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII, XIII, XIV.