Posts Tagged ‘Virgil’
November 25, 2013 | by Alexander Aciman
Canto 8 is perhaps the most exciting we have encountered so far. The story alone is a harrowing prelude to a great adventure: it’s like the first few minutes of a Bond movie, right before the theme song and titles start rolling. Canto 8 ends just as Dante and Virgil arrive at the edge of the Styx, where the wrathful are punished. Dante spots two towers (not to be confused with those from Lord of the Rings). These towers appear to be communicating with one another—as one launches a flame into the air, the other responds. A curious Dante asks Virgil what this signifies, and Virgil doesn’t really address his question. By now Dante has learned not to press such an issue, and knows that if he allows himself to get derailed by a mystery like two flaming towers, he’ll never get anywhere.
Phlegyas, who operates the little stygian skiff, arrives at the bank of the river. As noted in canto 7, the wrathful sinners are here hurled into the muddy Styx and are left to bob there as punishment; indeed, the Hollanders point out that Phlegyas’s job probably isn’t to carry sinners from one side to the other—like Charon—but rather to keep the sinners in the mud. As he arrives and greets Dante and Virgil, Phlegyas seems thrilled to have a fresh pair of sinners to toy with, but Virgil takes particular pleasure in announcing that he and Dante are, in fact, on a quest and as such are exempt from the punishments of hell. Phlegyas is as disappointed as “one who learns of a deceitful plot.” Read More »
October 28, 2013 | by Alexander Aciman
Full disclosure: canto 4, despite the ominous nature of canto 3’s ending and the fact that 4 is meant to open in hell, is not that scary. There is a distinct shortage of zombie/ghost-chase/door-gag montage scenes in this segment, and almost no haunted houses. So, we are probably meant to assume that Dante decided to take this holiday episode in a slightly more cerebral direction—he’s skipped right over the cheap scares, and has decided to hit us with a sort of theological horror show. Indeed, as Dante awakens from his spell, and walks beside Virgil, he notices that his guide’s face is stricken with a fearful pallor. When Dante inquires, Virgil informs him that it is not fear, but pity, that has altered his expression; the pair are entering limbo, where those who might have been able to enter paradise, had they lived in the time of Christ, are instead forever confined. Which is to say, no matter how saintly you are, if you had the misfortune of being born during one of the richest cultural eras in human history (like Virgil himself), you’re still out of luck, if not in hell proper.
Dante asks Virgil if anyone has ever made it out, and in the slightly embittered tone of someone who has watched countless coworkers get promoted above him, Virgil tells Dante of Moses, Noah, and a few others who were “plucked” from limbo and taken upward by some mysterious stranger. (Jesus, obviously, but how could Virgil know that?)
At this point, Dante and Virgil come across a band of poets—Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan. The poets join our travelers to help them solve the mystery of how two unvaccinated poets are going to make it safely through hell. The poets also make Dante part of their poets club. It’s probably no coincidence that seeing these great writers animated lends them a sense of immortality (both in body and in their work), and that anyone who should join them may also be graced with a similar literary significance; after all, Dante writes that “their honorable fame … echoes” in his life on earth. It’s also difficult to tell whether Dante is nerding out and imagining what it would be like to hang out with his heroes, or if he’s pulling some sort of lyrical power move and trying to assert himself as one of the greatest poets of history (again, only time will tell).
Dante briefly describes their conversation by saying that they spoke “of things that here are best unsaid, just as there it was fitting to express them.” This can be interpreted more or less as “We were talking about poet stuff … you wouldn’t probably get it.”
As the band of six approaches a haunted castle (ruh roh) with a giant river, they walk across the water without difficulty. A clue! It looks like the river is meant to keep the less than great or those who aren’t poets or philosophers or the out of this beautiful pastoral scene in Limbo. Time to investigate.
Dante names the shades he sees inside—Socrates, Plato, Diogenes, Cicero, Seneca, and, roaming all alone, Saladin. (Hollander points out that the moderns in limbo, though Dante considered them infidels, are “representatives of … Islamic culture”). But there’s one shade that Dante does not call by a name, and refers to only as the “master.” It’s old man Aristotle!
But Dante and Virgil, having come this far escorted by the four poets, must go on alone. Dante writes “The company of six falls off to two,” which we all know really just means he’s really just saying “Let’s split up, gang!” Poet stuff.
October 21, 2013 | by Alexander Aciman
I am writing this from the lobby of the Ace Hotel in New York; as I ascend from the basement with Dante under my arm, I see the following text printed on the stairs: EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT. This inscription offers an appropriate contrast to the opening of the third canto, which gives us the famous line written above the gates of hell, a line so famous that many know it well without knowing exactly who wrote it: ABANDON ALL HOPE, YOU WHO ENTER HERE. And just like the inscription in hell, these words too are written in the hotel’s neo-Victorian “dark hue.” But whether or not Dante knows it, he and I are essentially reading the same sentence—as chilling as the inscription is, the words in canto 3 ultimately do not apply to the man who travels beside Virgil.
Canto 3 is our first real contact with hell. As Dante approaches, he is accosted by the sounds of sinners waiting to cross the Acheron—the river that acts as a sort of foyer to the inferno. Charon, the ferryman, refuses at first to take Dante across. Virgil insists, and offers Dante little comfort or advice as they cross over. Read More »
October 14, 2013 | by Alexander Aciman
It’s called a remix. That’s how this segment begins. It’s a living pastiche, a breathing exercise in allusion and homage. Every scholar seems to agree that the opening lines of this canto are Virgilian, but none know exactly which passage Dante is imitating. And that’s probably because Dante isn’t imitating a particular passage, but is simply borrowing his style; it’s Virgil re-invented—Virgil’s flow, but freestyle and on the fly, and in a completely different language. The simple fact that Dante can invoke Virgil so effortlessly not only points to a certain aptitude for getting into Virgil’s bones, but even suggests that Dante knows Virgil’s poetry better than Virgil probably knew it himself.
This canto is all about due diligence. Dante uses it to make sure that any leftover confusion from the first is settled. Virgil still has a lot of explaining to do, and so while nothing really happens to advance the story, it’s an important episode for the benefit of the story. We learn about Dante’s apprehensions about going through Hell (Won’t it be really, really scary? Will there be monsters?), and we are explained what the hell exactly Virgil (who died basically like a bajillion years before this story is set) is doing in the same forest as Dante. In this passage, you also get a crash course in Aeneas’s family tree, and realize that if you’ve ever read Joyce before Dante, you were very unprepared. Read More »
August 23, 2013 | by Sadie Stein