Saturday, June 06, 2015

The figure of reading in the Inferno

It would be a sign of something about our attention to close reading if we did not at least acknowledge how the Inferno early on foregrounds the act of reading.

There is, of course, the gate of hell in Canto 3: a gaping mouth whose inscription we meet and read precisely as Dante and Virgil do. The gate states that it is the first text, marking the moment that mutability, temporality and death entered Creation:
Dinanzi a me non fuor cose create
     Se non etterne, ed io etterna duro.
A further irony (also noted here) is built into this threshold for those condemned to cross it: For them, time and change, development and movement toward salvation, now come to an end -- the damned are fixed, frozen for all time in the contrapassi of their perdition. The gate is a grave marker; for lost souls, it's the terminus ad quem of the temporal order of which it also was the initial instance, thanks to the villainy of the original lost soul.

Reading is also implicit in the structure of the Inferno from the beginning.

Palace of Minos

Here's Minos in book 6 of the Aeneid:

Nor far from these,
The throng of dead by unjust judgment slain.
Not without judge or law these realms abide:
Wise Minos there the urn of justice moves,
And holds assembly of the silent shades,
Hearing the stories of their lives and deeds.
hos iuxta falso damnati crimine mortis. 430
Nec vero hae sine sorte datae, sine iudice, sedes:
quaesitor Minos urnam movet; ille silentum
conciliumque vocat vitasque et crimina discit.

Here's Minos in canto 5 of the Inferno:

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,
Then wraps his tail around himself to show
How many circles down he wants it cast.

Minos by Dore

When Dante the pilgrim encounters Virgil in canto 1, he meets a classical author whom he has read. That Virgil comes to him at all is an interesting result of Dante's having friends, including Beatrice, in high places. But to make the guide to the Christian afterlife a Roman pagan poet -- one whose text is both a model of classical epic and a work whose many pagan errors undergo heavy editorial correction in the Commedia -- is to construct a narrative that both is about reading Classical works and about critical discernment of their virtues and their errors.

In the Commedia, Virgil is both the literal Roman poet of history and literature, and the figure of Dante's reading of that poet's works. True to the archaic notion of allegory -- alienum eloquium -- the Roman poet is his literal text even as that text undergoes revision by something alien to it: a reading rooted in the authority of the Scriptural Word has caused that text to bear another, allegorical dimension.

Dante exhibits admiration for Virgil even as the Roman poet's text is radically transformed by Dante's own text, as the two Minoses make clear. The commanding power of ancient classical texts -- their auctoritas -- is essential to Christian education for Dante: it is the peak of human attainment sans Revelation. But Virgil and all classical works are also errant texts, which need a third eye, as it were, to gloss their purported truth with the truth revealed in Scripture.

From the beginning, then, Dante's dark wood is even more obscure than it seemed. The selva oscura of canto 1 returns in Canto 4 as the selva . . .di spiriti spessi -- a wood thick with the noble spirits of Limbo, including Virgil. These spirits are wise and useful, yet remain a selva in which one can lose oneself.

Dante makes the act of reading both explicitly and implicitly central to his poem. This is dramatized even more in Canto 5, where reading a romance leads lovers astray. Reading has consequences. We'll look at Francesca's scene in another post.

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