Monday, July 02, 2007

Poem of the Week 7/2/2007: Dante's Inferno, from Canto VI

from Canto VI, Dante's Inferno

We were passing over shades sprawled
under heavy rain, setting our feet
upon their emptiness, which seems real bodies.

All of them were lying on the ground,
except for one who sat bolt upright
when he saw us pass before him.

'O you who come escorted through this hell,'
he said, 'if you can, bring me back to mind.
You were made before I was undone.'

And I to him: 'The punishment you suffer
may be blotting you from memory:
it doesn't seem to me I've ever seen you.

'But tell me who you are to have been put
into this misery with such a penalty
that none, though harsher, is more loathsome.'

And he to me: 'Your city,* so full of envy
that now the sack spills over,
held me in its confines in the sunlit life.

'You and my townsmen called me Ciacco.
For the pernicious fault of gluttony,
as you can see, I'm prostrate in this rain.

'And in my misery I am not alone.
All those here share a single penalty
for the same fault.' He said no more.

I answered him: 'Ciacco, your distress so weighs
on me it bids me weep.

ll. 59-84: Dante and Ciacco discuss the future of Florence. Dante asks of the afterlife of five townsmen. Ciacco responds:

And he: 'They are among the blacker souls.
Different vices weigh them toward the bottom,
as you shall see if you descend that far.

'But when you have returned to the sweet world
I pray you bring me to men's memory.
I say no more nor answer you again.'

With that his clear eyes lost their focus.
He gazed at me until his head dropped down.
Then he fell back among his blind companions.

Dante Alighieri, translated by Robert and Jean Hollander


I offer this filled out reading in hopes that you will all forgive my having neglected the PotW last week and the close-reads for some time now!

To read this selection of the Inferno, it will help, I think, to give background on the poem and its events for those who have not read it. Dante, the character, begins on a journey through hell after losing his way on the path of truth. Virgil, the poet, appears as a guide, and the two have so far moved through the circles of apathetic individuals, limbo (virtuous heathens and unbaptized babes), and lust. In that of lust, we witnessed Dante's encounter with Francesca, a woman who tells her story of giving into romantic love, which causes Dante to faint from pity. At the beginning of this excerpt, we are in the middle of the third circle of Hell: that of Gluttony.

As with every level of hell, we must ask ourselves, what are the conditions of the punishment? For gluttony, punishment seems to be absolute nothingness--no humanity, no pain, no change in the weather, and no physical form (one then wonders what Dante and Virgil see, and upon what they are walking). All memory of its inhabitants is effaced from "the sunlit world." In this case, those punished are denied their humanity even in the shadows of memory. Physically, we get the feeling that they are merged with their landscape, for Virgil and Dante step over them as if they were the ground. Little wonder Dante calls this penalty "the most loathsome," for they are less-than-human, capable of nothing. In his comment, we recieve a value judgment about the beauty of our own lives: that we are given so much. One question to ask yourself might be: why is nothingness an apt punishment for gluttony?

Which brings us to another question. If the state here is one of nothingness, then how is it possible that Ciacco recognized Dante? This moment is striking, for among so much barrenness, to be suddenly seen, to be picked out by a sinner, associates Dante with the sin. The suddenness of Ciacco's waking acts out what it would be to see sin for oneself. However, there is no way of logically explaining why Ciacco wakes up. Perhaps it is to teach Dante about the sin, and so has a positive outcome. The poem's Christian framework would suggest that the waking up is given by God to help Dante on his way. And so Ciacco's sin is perhaps somewhat redeemed?

The question of "what is good" in this encounter also arises after reading this section. After all, if Ciacco is allowed to enter consciousness for Dante, and this will help, it seems basically positive. Moreover, he is a sympathetic character--not only does he respect Dante's questions, answering them fully, my notes tell me that he is one of the best sinners in Hell. In history, he was engaged in improving Florence. Moreover, he is honest about his sins, not begging them to be excused or claiming his innocence to a human, which would betray a lack of remorse, egoism and blasphemy. Finally, his plea to be remembered is difficult to remain cold to, perhaps because it expresses the innate human impulse of loving one's life, one's place in the world. He wants simply to exist. Ciacco tries to, implores Dante...

And yet he is damned. Confusing, because it goes against our innate reaction. But, no matter what qualites we may admire, there is no doubt that they were not enough to excuse him from his sin, for God sent him there, and God's judgment would be infalliable.

Dante thus gives us a problem that reveals tension in ourselves. There are three levels here: sin (gluttony), sympathy (for Ciacco), and true morality (the implicit, objective judgment of God). By (most likely) aligning the reader's response in the middle of two visible sides, Dante helps us see what we are. Reading the Inferno is an experience, one that brings us back to ourselves, and this, perhaps, is one aspect of his writing that makes him so great.

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