Tuesday, June 02, 2015

The imagination of lust in Inferno 5

Amor, ch’al cor gentil ratto s’apprende,
    prese costui de la bella persona
    che mi fu tolta; e ’l modo ancor m’offende.
Amor, ch’a nullo amato amar perdona,
    mi prese del costui piacer sì forte,
    che, come vedi, ancor non m’abbandona.
Amor condusse noi ad una morte.
    Caina attende chi a vita ci spense».
    Queste parole da lor ci fuor porte.
Love, which quickly kindles in noble hearts,        100
    Seized him for that fair body which from me
    Was torn—what grief the manner still imparts!
Love, which makes each loved one pay love’s fee,
    So seized me with the beauty of my friend
    That yet it does not leave me, as you see.
Love led us both to one death in the end.
    Caïna waits for him who quenched our lives above.”
    Thus did these words from them to us descend.*

In Inferno 5, Francesca speaks of Amor as if ironclad rules - like those of courtly love - applied at all times. That is, Amor is not merely a human experience, but it has the force of law, of science, of a system. Her fate is the inevitable result of an inescapable logic before which one -- especially one of the refined sort -- helpless.

The crowds of lovers Dante sees as he enters the circle of Lust are compared to starlings driven by a hurricane:

That hellish tempest roars incessantly;
    It grasps and draws the spirits in its train,
    Spinning and thrashing souls in agony.
As these victims of Love are carried past the ruina - the place where the structure of Limbo was broken by the advent of Christ, they curse:
Each time that they whirl past the ruined terrain,
    Loud shrieks and moans and lamentations spill
    From them—it’s there they curse God’s might in vain.
Quando giungon davanti a la ruina,
    quivi le strida, il compianto, il lamento;
    bestemmian quivi la virtù divina.
Now it's one thing to be "carried away" by an overpowering force; it's another to choose, at a certain moment, to curse divine power. Yes, it's a repetitive process - they utter their imprecations every time they pass the ruina - but to curse requires an act of speech, a decision, a judgment and act of will, quite unlike what it takes for a human body to be propelled by cyclonic winds.

What's more, they are cursing the evidence of a power greater than the forces of nature - a power that liberated certain souls from nature and endless desire, in fact from death. These lovers are cursing the traces of a Love strong enough to break the ultimate rule, the final law, a Love that might have saved them had they not bowed to an ideology that defines mortals as the slaves and playthings of inescapable Love.

One can easily multiply examples of this, irony, this comical disjunction. Essentially the ideology of inescapable Love relies on a model of mechanics. All is determined by measurable forces that cause predictable effects. The very first lines of the canto summon a mathematical relation:
From the first circle I thus went below
    Into the second, which girds a smaller round
   And so much greater grief that stings to woe.
This might well be the most uninspired opening of any canto in the poem - so obviously so that it's best to assume it was deliberate. Numbering, inverse proportionality, going from up to down, it's a dull way to introduce the realm of love and lust. It's mechanical, and the mechanicality gets cruder right away as we encounter the judge:
There horrid Minos makes a snarling sound,
    Examines the offenders that come in,
    Then dooms and sends them as his tail is wound.
I mean, the soul of evil origin,
    Approaching him, confesses all its past;
    And that discerner of the grades of sin
Determines where in Hell it should be classed,          10
    Then wraps his tail around himself to show
    How many circles down he wants it cast.
As a parody of confession, the scene is rich enough - instead of leading to absolution, the Confessor listens, gets an interesting sort of erection, which in turn produces a number indicating where the soul is to be thrown.

Dante and Virgil have just left some of the greatest judges and minds of all time - supple intellects who would have listened, judged with nuance, and invoked insightful reason in the service of justice. But no such luck after Limbo: every soul beyond this point - including Francesca - got treated to the same robotic reflex, the same absence of meditation, the same catapult.

Canto 5 is rich in exempla of a sort of Hobbesian world in which desire simply rules. There is no stopping it, as the souls there know - because for them, desire demands instant capitulation. There is no suspension of cause and effect that would allow understanding, will, and resolve to enter in.

The imagination of Lust will be turned on its head on the Mount of Purgatory -- no time to get into that here. But it's worth a quick look. Compare the lovers buffeted by the whirlwind of Inferno 5 with the newborn soul described in Purgatorio 25 -- the Terrace, not by chance, of the Lustful who are regaining their freedom.

We find a circling there, but one not driven by any natural force outside itself. Statius describes for Dante the new soul, which has just been breathed joyously into life:
                      . . . un alma sola,
che vive e sente e se in se rigira.            74-75
                                 . . . a single soul
that lives and feels and itself revolves upon itself.

However one ultimately chooses to see this model of the psyche, it is not going to be found in Hobbes. Comedy in Dante derives in part from the ironies it finds and probes within the fallen world. As the voyage progresses, it springs more from the delights that come with leaving that world behind.

*All tranlations from Inferno are from an unpublished version by Peter D'Epiro. Purgatorio is from John D. Sinclair's prose edition.

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