Dante's Divine Comedy is a poetical paradox, a brilliant failure. How can one of the great works of Western literature—one of the most innovative, profound and, in many ways, unsurpassed poems of the Middle Ages—be a failure? Put simply, neither Dante nor any poet before or after him was capable of accomplishing this impossible task—to use the imperfect medium of language to represent convincingly and accurately his journey to Paradise and, even more problematic, to write God, to represent the unrepresentable. Dante himself was aware of the impossibility of his undertaking, of course, and this drove him even harder, pushed him to lead his reader to that final, stunning vision of God. Most astonishingly, he very nearly succeeded.
As the Pilgrim travels toward God, the poet's task becomes increasingly difficult. The closer Dante moved his Pilgrim to his goal, the more regularly his language failed him, until he had to admit that his descriptive "wings were not sufficient for that," that his "power failed lofty phantasy" (Paradise 33, ll. 139, 142). In order to leave his reader with the essence of the moment when his "mind was smitten by a flash wherein its wish [to know the mind of God] came to it" (Paradise 33, ll. 141-42), Dante had to rely upon metaphor. This kind of figurative language is perhaps the most potent tool for image-making and asserts that A=B, that, for example, poem=journey. We know that Dante's poem is not a literal journey, but it is a figurative one, a metaphorical one. Seeing it in this way allows the reader to cross from A and B, to consider for him or herself how and why this poetic pilgrimage is relevant to the road of life we all travel.
Dante's poem is fundamentally didactic, that is, instructive. In order to accommodate our low-level understanding of the poem's theological, philosophical and historical components, it guides its armchair pilgrims carefully through a plethora of unfamiliar images and mystical paradoxes. Dante managed this by constructing his world's three spaces in a logical order that is still unprecedented. As the Pilgrim experiences Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, he really re-experiences events Dante the poet claims to have had in this life. Thus, the reader follows the Pilgrim through spaces that present the poet's memories. As Frances A. Yates writes in his classic study, The Art of Memory,
If one thinks of the poem as based on the orders of places in Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, and as a cosmic order of places in which spheres of Hell are the spheres of Heaven in reverse, it begins to appear as a summa [a full collection] of similitudes and exempla, ranged in order and set out upon the universe. (p 95)
Taken together, then, Dante's remembrances, presented as striking poetic images, produce the world of the Divine Comedy and thus reproduce his supposed journey to Heaven.
The Pilgrim receives these images via his sight, which functions on three levels, the ocular or physical, the spiritual, and the intellectual. These levels derive from the writings of St. Augustine (354-430), which were a major influence on Dante's thought, and which correspond to stages of understanding and to cantiche, or what we might call books, of the Divine Comedy: ocular in Inferno, spiritual in Purgatory and intellectual in Paradise. The lowest level, the ocular, includes sensual experiences of things terrestrial and celestial. It therefore corresponds to the physical nature of Inferno and its closing view of "the beautiful things that heaven bears" (34, ll. 137-38). Level two, spiritual vision, and Purgatory mesh in the same way. In this second canticle, the Pilgrim's spiritual vision makes possible the encounters with the angels and the dreams he has. Finally, the Pilgrim's visions of the Earthly Paradise, Christ, and God in Paradise conform to Augustine's description of the third and highest level of vision, the intellectual.
The Pilgrim and reader take in images, store them in their memories, convert them to knowledge—to what Hugh of St.-Victor called "history"—and graduate to the next level of understanding. As the Pilgrim (and the reader following him) progresses from one spherical realm to the next, Dante's fictional faculty materialize, quiz and instruct him about what he has learned. Along with this instruction, Dante's unique metaphors accommodate the Pilgrim's and reader's weak understanding by converting difficult concepts into visual images that they can more easily decipher and more easily store in memory for later retrieval. These images accumulate as knowledge of sin and salvation, which Pilgrim and reader process into divine wisdom, all of which prepare them for the final vision of God in Paradise.
After graduating from each training level, the Pilgrim is ready to see with his mind, to link to the mind of God in the most profound way possible. The fact that the reader and the Pilgrim achieve one of these levels of vision in each of the three books, suggests that Dante saw them as plottable points upon an ascending scale that moves from potential damnation to certain illumination. The following three sections use this upward itinerary to demonstrate in small how wisdom is attained by focusing on one vibrant image from each canticle.
There are a number of places in the poem where one could begin to chart this progression, but the appearance of Geryon in Inferno 16 is the first instance of the truly outlandish. As such, it works nicely as an example of a visual image processed by the lowest level of vision, which is then firmly imprinted on the reader's memory. In this section, the Pilgrim and Virgil find themselves at the rim of the Great Barrier and in need of a way down to lower hell, the last of the three infernal regions, where sinners are punished for ever more serious levels of fraud. The travelers stand at "the verge" (Inferno 17, 1. 32) that separates these regions. Virgil, the Pilgrim's guide and teacher, tosses his student's belt over the edge, causing the Pilgrim to wonder: "'Surely'…, 'something strange will answer this signal that my master follows so with his eye'" (Inferno 17, ll. 115-16). True to form, the strangest vehicle in the Divine Comedy swims into view, Geryon.
This bizarre image of fraud is a patchwork of man and painted serpent: "His face was the face of a man, so complaisant was its outward appearance, and all of the rest of his trunk serpentine; he had two paws which were hairy to his armpits; his back and chest and both sides were painted with knots and small wheels" (Inferno 17, ll. 10-15). Faced with this incredible apparition, the poet asks the reader to trust...
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In the De vulgari eloquentia Dante reveals the high importance he attaches to human speech—it is the gift which distinguishes man from other creatures. Angels, with direct intuition, and animals, with natural instinct, have no use for it. Only man needs words to reveal his thoughts to others because only man has perceptions which differ from his fellow's and which, taken together, may add up to wisdom. By nature a social animal, man must draw on this wisdom in order to live in society. To have a workable government, he must be able to communicate effectively, hence speech is his most important tool.
Speech is a gift of God, like life itself, bestowed on man so that he can share in the joy of existence and the pleasure of expressing that joy. Although, as Dante points out, God knew what Adam would say, He wanted him to know the happiness of saying it. But because speech is the outward expression of man's reason, it is vulnerable to the same weaknesses of human nature—it is corruptible, always changing. As language moves further and further from its divine source, branching into various tongues and dialects, communication among men becomes increasingly difficult. This opens the way to war among nations, to strife within cities and families.
The connection between speech and sin is of ancient tradition. The confusion of tongues was visited on man at the tower of Babel as divine punishment for his pride. Echoes of this attitude towards language are to be found in the Fathers and in secular writers throughout the Middle Ages. Dante, however, is the first to use a man's speech dramatically as the symbol and betrayer of his sinfulness. I should like to suggest that in Dante's use of direct discourse can be seen a conscious artistic pattern which is based on the philosophic view of language expressed in the De vulgari eloquentia.
In Hell, the realm of sin from which the "ben dell'intelletto," God, and truth are absent, speech has lost the power to communicate in a normal way; men who have denied or abused the use of reason cannot control the outward expression of reason, speech. Either they make sounds without meaning or their words convey a meaning they did not intend. Conversely, in Purgatory, communication is facilitated by an apparent unification of language. When Dante finds himself beyond the human experience in Paradise, words fail him and he begins to create new ones to describe mystical concepts, "s'india," "intrea," "s'inluia," etc. Thus we have the failure of language as a mode of communication in Hell, the unification of language in Purgatory, and the creation of language in Paradise.
The positive function of language to teach virtue and truth is seen particularly in the Purgatorio and Paradiso The negative effects are found in the Inferno: the tongue as a harmful weapon, language as a means of deception, either consciously to harm or delude the hearer, or unconsciously to betray the speaker himself; we see the danger of too many words, the fear aroused by unintelligible sounds. As speech is what distinguishes man from other animals, the discourse of each sinner in Hell is what distinguishes him and his sin.
Hell itself is a great mouth, "l'ampia gola d'Inferno," as Dante calls it in the Purgatorio (XXI, 31-32). It is filled with horrid sounds, but its core is the terrible silence of Lucifer, parodying the perfect silence of the Trinity, in Dante's vision (Par. XXXIII). As we progress through Hell, we are assailed by disharmonies, wails, screams, curses, barking, hissing, but at the center, completely void of God, truth, good, there is no sound at all. Antithetically, in heaven, after the passage through realms of harmonious sound, which is increasingly difficult for the ear to apprehend, we reach perfect harmony in the utter quiet of the final vision.
The God Dante sees in Paradiso XXXIII is light, a light which in Hell is "silent'' (Inf. I, 60; V, 28). What Dante hears instead as he enters Hell is a Babelic confusion of tongues and sounds: "Sospiri, pianti e alti guai … diverse lingue, orribili favelle, parole di dolore, accenti d'ira, voci alte e fioche, e suon di man" (III. 22-27). The sounds come from those who have lost "il ben dell'intelletto," without which language cannot function properly. The disintegration of communication is shown in various stages: it is total in the gibberish of Plutus and Nimrod, in the garbled sounds of the submerged, and in the animal noises of the monsters. Some souls can express only laments, some have lost the use of speech altogether, some, whose bodies are hidden in tombs or trees or flames, have nothing but speech left of their humanity and that speech betrays them, belieing the impression they wish to give; others seem normal in appearance and speech, but the very banality of their style reveals their state.
Since effective communication is essential to the proper working of any society, it is not surprising that Dante uses the most blatant examples of non-communication, the gibberish of Plutus and Nimrod, to enclose the sins that threaten the social order (Circles 4 to 8). Outside these circles lie sinners who behaved like animals rather than men. Above Plutus' circle, there is only lust and gluttony, sins in which men surrendered to their animal instincts; beyond Nimrod are the traitors, men who, by consciously denying all human bonds to family, state, guest, benefactor, chose to be no better than animals. Plutus guards the circle of avarice, where men are punished for misusing material wealth. It is fitting that his incomprehensible invocation to Satan should introduce this circle, for coins, like words, are a basic medium of exchange in a civilized state—the misuse of either can disrupt the social order. Indeed, Dante often associates sinners with words and sinners with coins:...
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The ideal way of reading The Divine Comedy would be to start at the first line and go straight through to the end, surrendering to the vigour of the storytelling and the swift movement of the verse, and not bothering about any historical allusions or theological explanations which do not occur in the text itself. That is how Dante himself tackles his subject. His opening words plunge us abruptly into the middle of a situation:
Midway this way of life we're bound upon
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
Where the right road was wholly lost and gone.
From that moment the pace of...
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