The Pilgrim's Journey through Hell
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...
(The entire section is 2802 words.)