Posts Tagged ‘The Divine Comedy’
April 21, 2014 | by Alexander Aciman
Wrapped in a shroud of fire, sputtering words from the tip of the flickering flame—this is how Ulysses appears to us in canto 26. As Dante approaches the eighth pouch of the eighth circle of hell, he sees sinners in flames; he knows he’ll find Ulysses among these “fireflies that glimmer in the valley.” The man is tied up in a flame with Diomed, both of them being punished for their ruse at Troy. Dante begs Virgil to let Ulysses speak.
When we finally put down the Inferno, Ulysses is one of the sinners we remember best. Not because he’s well known or the architect of one of the greatest schemes in history, but because, like Pier or Francesca, there’s charm, tenderness, and beauty in the way he speaks. On this point, I disagree with Robert Hollander, whose annotations explain that these aforementioned sinners are not meant to be entirely sympathetic—they’re actually self-righteous, Hollander writes, and they’re unable to see the gravity of their sins. By allowing them to speak in a manner that almost absolves them, Dante is even poking fun at them. Read More »
April 14, 2014 | by Alexander Aciman
Canto 25 is known for having the least dialogue of any canto in the Inferno. It seems like a minor feat, but when you remember how many questions Dante likes to ask, and how long Virgil will typically spend explaining things, and how sinners really like to chat it up with the living, canto 25 begins to seem remarkable. In fact, Virgil hardly has the chance to explain anything at all here.
It begins with Vanni, the sinner from canto 24 who, in a fit of shame and spiteful anger, revealed to Dante the sad fate of the White Guelph party in Florence. Vanni makes an obscene gesture into the air, and curses God. And although we do not know exactly what “Making the figs with both his thumbs” means, we can guess that it is the centuries old Italian way of flipping God the bird. Dante wants to get away, and the snakes from the previous canto attack Vanni, hog-tying him and wrapping themselves around his neck to silence him. Read More »
April 7, 2014 | by Alexander Aciman
Let’s begin by addressing the fact that these similes are getting out of hand. In the early parts of his poem, Dante’s similes were often only three lines long. Now—just as he did in the beginning of canto 22, when he describes battlefield scenes while traveling with the demons—he presents us with a long, roving simile about a peasant who sees the snow melt and knows it is time to herd his sheep again.
At the end of canto 23, Virgil realized there was no longer a way to pass from the realm of the lead-cloaked sinners to the next ditch—the bridge is out. This is one of the few indications (like the sinner crucified to the ground in 23) that the geography of hell changes over time. But soon, seeing that Dante is anxious and scared, Virgil devises a plan to get them over to the next area by scaling a few boulders. Dante, daunted and exhausted, admits that “were it not that on this side of the dike the slope were shorter—I cannot speak for him—I would have given up.” This is the sort of phrase that translators and scholars will laugh at, because it’s an example of Dante’s subtle, ironic sense of humor: he announces that he cannot speak for Virgil, and yet has done so for the entire length of the poem so far. Read More »
March 31, 2014 | by Alexander Aciman
Canto 23 opens like the thematic climax of a slasher flick. Virgil and Dante—picture a cinematic hero and his love interest—have taken the opportunity to escape the methodical watch of the serial killer. Or killers, in this case: our travelers have fled from a pair of the murderous Malebranche, whose naturally violent tempers have been exacerbated by the loss of their human plaything and two of their fellow demons. Dante and Virgil are trying to calculate their next move. Their cell phones don’t work (hell doesn’t get great reception), they cannot fight back, and so Dante, whose scalp is “taut with fear,” asks Virgil to find them an out.
As the demons begin to descend upon our travelers, Virgil grabs hold of Dante as a mother does her infant, and the two slide down a rock to hide. Dante says, “Never did water … rush down … more swiftly than my master down that bank”; and if you suspend disbelief just a bit, you can imagine that it is a coy way of saying, “Virgil acted so quickly, I didn’t even have time to piss myself from fear.”
Though the two are unable to elude detection, they have made it to the next ditch, where the Malebranche’s jurisdiction ends, and where they are therefore safe from the billhooks and the claws. It seems like a bit of a cop-out—after all, if the demons were willing to disobey the divine law that protected Dante and Virgil, why weren’t they weren’t willing to disobey the divine law that determines the territories of hell? Read More »
March 24, 2014 | by Alexander Aciman
The opening lines of canto 22 have a two-sided brilliance to them. First, there’s the way Dante—who is, along with Virgil, now in the company of demons—breathlessly describes the movements of a cavalry unit, the way soldiers will tousle hand-to-hand on the battlefield with war horns sounding through the air. It’s a nice lyrical passage that sounds like a nineteenth-century Romantic poet trying to modernize Homer’s battlefield passages. But then, absurdly, Dante juxtaposes those battle scenes with this “savage” band of demons; “as they say,” Dante writes, “in church with the saints, with guzzlers in the taverns.” It’s his polite way of saying that one must behave differently in the presence of demons who make farting sounds with their mouths and gather to the less-than-noble sounds of an anus trumpet. (See canto 21.)
As in the last canto, Dante is spellbound by a pool of pitch, where, now and then, he will see a sinner expose his back above the boiling liquid to relieve his suffering for a brief moment before diving back down. If the sinner stays above the surface for too long, a demon swoops down and tears him apart. Suddenly, Dante sees an overzealous sinner who has taken an irresponsibly long coffee break above the surface. Almost instantly, one of the demons grabs a billhook and prepares his talons so he can swoop down and shred the sinner to pieces. Dante has Virgil stop the massacre in order to learn a bit more about the sinner—he is from Navarre and accepted bribes when he worked for the king. Just as the sinner is about to be attacked, Virgil asks if there are any other Italians in the pitch. And who are we kidding? Of course there are going to be a ton of Italians in a place reserved for barrators. The sinner announces that he was just hanging out under the pitch with another Italian. Read More »
March 17, 2014 | by Alexander Aciman
As Dante enters the next ditch, he addresses his reader, saying he and Virgil have encountered things about which his “Comedy does not care to sing.” One has to wonder what Dante is seeing that makes him so overwhelmed. Upon reading the notes in the back of the book, a reader can discover that this area of hell is reserved for those who committed barratry, which, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, is “sale or purchase of positions in the state.” Because this sin is so similar to simony, which was punished in a recent canto, we can understand that Dante means for the reader to undergo a sequential experience—as our thoughts move from simony to barratry—and that the theme of this canto is motion. Following this theme, we can also see Dante go from a state of confusion and horror as the canto begins, and then to a state of fear as he encounters demons, and finally to a feeling of faith as he learns to trust the demons.
Dante spends a lot of time describing a vile lake that surrounds him and Virgil. It is made of boiling pitch—similar to modern-day tar—in which the sinners are forced to swim. The great detail he uses to describe this lake of boiling pitch (nine lines are dedicated to a small story telling the reader how it reminds Dante of Venetian ship makers) shows that he is clearly both captivated and terrified by it. Eventually, Dante sees a demon that further moves him into a mindset of absolute fear. He warns Virgil, who is less concerned. Dante then describes the way the beasts chase down a sinner who has come to the surface of the pitch, and how they rip him apart, because the sinners are supposed to stay below the surface. Already Dante has gone from a foggy notion of his surroundings to a very concrete sense of fear. Read More »