Short Report on Dante As he journeys with Virgil through hell, Dante (the character or “pilgrim”) encounters many sinners, many of whom he engages in conversation. The sinners, despite their suffering, generally want to share their stories: some hope, and even beg, that Dante will relay those stories to his earthly readers. Often the sinners not only recount their versions of what led them to the situation they are now in: they also are eager to defend themselves and rationalize their actions in life. An added, interesting dimension to these exchanges Dante has with the sinners is that many of the sinners are people who were prominent in Dante’s world, either in the century or so preceding the composition of the Commedia or even in Dante’s own lifetime. (There is even at least one very bad sinner whose soul is in Dante’s hell while his body is still alive and going about its business on earth!—see the end of Canto 33) For this short report, imagine yourself in a situation like Dante’s, in which you are suddenly given the chance to tour hell and encounter “sinners” of the recent past, including your lifetime. It is up to you to decide who might be or might have been a sinner you encounter in the hell you visit. Here’s a tip: many who have tried this assignment go for the (to some, at least) easy targets: I’ve read encounters with Ted Bundy, Osama Bin Laden, Charles Manson, Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein, O. J. Simpson, Bill and/or Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and any of the Kardashians, among many others (including me). You might want to avoid those, however, because your encounter might be more interesting if you choose to interview someone perhaps less obviously “infamous,” someone about whom we might not have preconceptions, someone you know well. Remember also that Dante reserved places in hell not for those who merely sinned but rather for those who remained unrepentant throughout their lives. Your imaginary encounter should take about two to three double-spaced pages. Before you start or complete this assignment, make sure you’ve read carefully the Class Notes for April 28. These will help you understand what typically happens in an encounter between Dante and a sinner. Focus your paper on one or two particular, striking encounters with particular sinners, much as Dante does in each canto. At a minimum, you should describe the setting of the encounter fully, describe the punishment of the sinner and then present the conversation you would have with him or her. Be as creative and probing as you can, keeping in mind that there may be sinners and types of sin you might encounter of which Dante could not have dreamed. What I will be looking for mainly in your writing will be thoughtfulness, thoroughness and clear indication that you know what Dante’s encounters with sinners are like because you’ve read a number of cantos from the Inferno. Class Notes, April 28, 2020 Dante’s Encounters Today I’d like to focus on probably the most crucial aspect of Dante’s Inferno, at least in terms of what typically happens to Dante the character as he moves through hell with Virgil and as we move from canto to canto with him. Virtually every canto in the poem can be defined, and in some cases is even built around, a memorable encounter between Dante and one of the many sinners. If you were to read all of the Inferno, or even a substantial portion of it, you would probably see what I and many other readers have seen, which is a pattern that these encounters typically follow. Before we look closely at one or two striking encounters, one near the poem’s beginning and one near its end, I’ll provide a sort of preview by listing what I’ve noticed are the key characteristics of Dante’s encounters with the damned. Here they are. • Each encounter usually is preceded by a description of the setting in which the sinner is confined. Dante gives us the “big picture” first for each region of hell he and Virgil enter. Typically these settings are described quite vividly and graphically, and sometimes they stretch our imagination. On the other hand, there are settings that closely resemble the landscape, the terrain of places in Italy that Dante’s readers would have known or heard of. • Virgil is not only Dante’s guide but his teacher (maestro). Not infrequently—maybe too frequently for Virgil!—Dante will often begin by questioning Virgil about the location or about the sinners being punished there, as a group and as individuals. Virgil typically responds with patience and understanding, though on rare occasions he can appear short-tempered. The point is that before and during an encounter with a sinner, there is usually conversation between Virgil and Dante. • In some cases, Dante may list the sinners by name before he speaks with any one of them, and that list can be long, a sort of echo of Homer’s long lists (catalogues). • Usually before speaking with any sinner, Dante will describe the punishment of sinners in that region. Here we should remember contrapasso, the idea that the punishment in some way symbolically fits the crime. Really clever readers may be able to identify the sin simply from the punishment, but I’ve usually needed help or further reading to make that connection. • Eventually Dante will speak—or in some cases, speak through Virgil—to a particular sinner or two. Note that the conversation between Dante and a sinner may begin and continue for a while without Dante’s telling us who the sinner is, though that eventually is revealed. • At this point, most frequently, the sinner begins to tell his or her story. What most of the sinners want is a sympathetic listener. In the case of Dante there is a bonus because not only does he listen attentively but he is also still alive and can take the story back to the living. This is something most sinners are “dying” for him to do, because most want to attempt to clear their name and provide their side of the story about why they’re where they are. • Denial! Almost without exception, though many of the sinners are eager to speak, all are prevented, eternally, from knowing the full truth of their situation. As they often denied responsibility for their sinful behavior in life, they continue in perpetual denial and often blindness to their own complicity in the behavior that landed them in hell. It is often easy for us as readers to see what the sinners cannot see about their sin. The dialogue that Dante has with each sinner he meets is the heart of his encounters, and in those dialogues no sinner can know his whole story. We have to read between the lines to know it. • Once the sinner has told his or her story, the dialogue ends, the punishment resumes and Dante reacts in some way. It’s important always to note the nature of his reactions to the sinners, especially because at some times it’s surprising that he would be sympathetic to a sinner, especially when he knows that it is divine power, wisdom and love that have condemned the sinner to hell. Remember, Dante’s hell is for unrepentant sinners; those who have truly repented of their sins are not in hell but in purgatory, as Dante sees things. So, as you’re wending your way through the Inferno, watch for these characteristics to appear whenever Dante approaches a sinner. You should also use them as a guide for the encounters you imagine for your short report on Dante. Encounters in Action: Cantos 5 and 33 Let’s take a close look at one of the Inferno’s most famous encounters, that between the lovers Paolo and Francesca in Canto 5 (pp. 40-47 in the purchase text). It would be a good idea for you to have your text at hand as we do this. • The canto opens with a description of Minos, the mythical king of Crete, who greets all the sinners entering hell by wrapping his long, lizard-like tail a certain number of times around his throne. The number of times determines the level of hell to which the sinner descends. After that, Dante and Virgil move into Circle Two, the region reserved for those who committed sins of lust and desire. Lines 28-51 describe the setting: the souls of the lustful are perpetually whirled in a tornado-like circle, often brushing or clashing against the region’s rocky walls, crying and wailing as they fly. To sharpen the picture for us, Dante describes the sinners in two different “bird” similes, which convey both the sinners’ motion and their plaintive cries. • In lines 50-51, we see the second characteristic of Dante’s encounters, as he asks Virgil which sinners are being punished in this region. • Virgil responds by reciting the names of some of the more famous sinners being punished there (lines 52-69). You probably will need to refer to the footnotes on pp. 354-355 of the text to determine who all these sinners are, but Virgil says enough that Dante, well-read as he is, can identify them. The sinners here include Semiramis, Dido (who fell passionately but hopelessly in love with Virgil’s epic hero, Aeneas, who rejected her), Cleopatra, Paris and Helen (you know them!), and Tristan, the unfortunate lover and hero of one of the King Arthur romances. • At this point (line 70), Dante is seized with a strong desire to speak with one of the sinners, and Virgil advises him to wait until the sinner circles round and then call out to the sinner in the name of love, which, Virgil says, the sinner will not be able to resist. Typically, even in their punishment the sinners tend to re-enact their sins. • Beginning at line 88, the sinner, whose name we do not yet know, begins to tell her story in a speech of twenty lines (lines 88-108). With the help of footnotes, we learn that the sinner is an Italian woman named Francesca da Rimini, an actual historical figure, who was married “some time after 1275 to Giannciotto Malatesta.” Though she was married to him for political reasons, she fell in love with his brother, Paolo. When Francesca’s husband discovered their adulterous love, maybe around 1285, he killed them both (and he ends up further down in hell, in a region reserved for violent murderers, Caina). As Francesca tells her story, notice that her narration contains a sort of mini-love poem (lines 100-106) that describes the supposedly unstoppable power of love; in fact, the first word of each tercet here is Amor, love. As Francesca describes it, it seems that love, “that can quickly seize the gentle heart” and “that releases no beloved from loving,” suddenly possessed Paolo at the sight of Francesca’s “fair body.” That love led both of the lovers to their death and to their being bound to each other forever. • Dante is gripped by Francesca’s tale of love and woe, but wants to know more. He tells Virgil that he is wondering how the lovers came to this “agonizing pass,” and then asks Francesca, rather surprisingly, how Love allowed her to recognize her “still uncertain longings.” In other words, Dante doesn’t first ask what Paolo and Francesca did or what justified it in their eyes, but rather how they know that what they felt was really love! (lines 109-120). • Francesca continues her story (lines 121-138), starting with one of the Inferno’s most famous expressions: Nessun maggior dolore/che ricordarsi del tempo felice/ne la miseria; e cio sa ‘l tuo dottore (“There is no greater sorrow/than thinking back upon a happy time/in misery—and this your teacher knows”). By Dante’s “teacher” Francesca means Virgil, who wrote in the Aeneid of the tragic, unfulfilled love of Dido for Aeneas. But I can assure you that anyone who has lived a long and full life, including yours truly, your very own teacher, knows the truth of what Francesca says! • Francesca then gets to the heart of her story. It appears that one day she and Paolo were reading together the story of Sir Lancelot and King Arthur’s queen, Guinevere, who could not resist falling in love with each other. (Notice that Paolo and Francesca had (1) the leisure time to read, (2) the ability to read, which was not common in the middle ages, and (3) a book, probably an richly illuminated manuscript, which they share. That shows they were aristocrats!) Francesca says that when they read of Lancelot and Guinevere’s kissing, they could not resist kissing each other; a particularly unlucky instance of life imitating art! From that moment, they read no more….you fill in the blanks. Intriguingly, however, Francesca calls the book they were reading a “Gallehault,” which was the name of the man who carried secret messages back and forth between Lancelot and Guinevere, their go-between, and then she says that the one who wrote the book was a “Gallehault” as well. In other words, who is responsible for the fact that Paolo and Francesca are in hell? Not either one of them, but the book and the writer who made them do it! This is a pretty clear case of how the lovers are in denial and blind to their own complicity in their punishment. • The last four lines of the canto (139-142) show us Dante’s reaction to Francesca’s story. Astonishingly, he says he “fainted,” “because of pity,” and fell to the ground “as a dead body falls.” Why? Has Dante forgotten that the lovers are in hell for a reason? Why is he so sympathetic with these sinners? The answer, I believe, lies in the fact that Dante was himself very familiar with the kind of love Francesca had described. It was known at that time and ever since as “courtly love,” mainly because it was a kind of love that we know developed among the nobility—who had time for it—and was often invoked and praised in the love poetry, especially the troubadour poetry, of a couple of centuries before Dante but which was celebrated also in poetry that was fashionable in Dante’s day. In fact, Dante himself had written a whole lot of romantic love poetry to his ideal love, Beatrice, who, you’ll recall, was not Dante’s wife. Read some of Dante’s love sonnets—you can find them in his autobiography, La vita nuova (The New Life)—and you’ll discover language uncannily similar to the language Francesca uses to describe love and its effects. The ideals of courtly love were powerful and appealing. For one thing, they represent perhaps the first time in Western culture that love was conceived as a special connection that can spark between two people, two soulmates, whether or not they’re married. Today, we just expect that, at least as far as the public is concerned, people marry mainly for love; at least, most of us would look down on someone who married, say, mainly for money or property. In Dante’s time, though, love and marriage did not, or at least not necessarily, go together “like a horse and carriage,” in the words of a popular song from the 1950s. Marriages were money and property transactions, even if you were poor. Especially if you were poor you would want a wife who could help you make a living and bear children, who also, in time, could help you work and carry on your work. Marriages were mainly practical matters. When poets and singers started praising a new kind of love that could arise between two “gentle hearts” really destined for each other, people began to contemplate the possibilities of a relationship based on what we would call “true” love today. Maybe Dante pities Francesca and faints at hearing her sad story because he recognizes the feelings between her and Paolo as not unlike feelings he has felt—and expressed in his earlier writings. Maybe the whole experience of Canto 5 for him is, as we say, too close to home! As we follow Dante’s encounters with sinners, we come to see, though, that his reactions to the sinners’ fates change; most notably, they change from pity, as in Canto 5, to something much harsher. I will not go over it in detail, but I’d draw your attention to an encounter toward the end of the poem, in Canto 33. Dante and Virgil are crossing a lake of ice near the very center of the earth, and Dante stumbles over the head and face of a sinner who is facing upward, frozen. The sinner is barely able to call out to Dante, but he asks him to take pity and break away some of the ice from his face so that he can weep and “release the suffering that fills my heart” (lines 113-114, p. 307). Dante responds, “If you’d have me help you,/then tell me who you are; if I don’t free you, may I go to the bottom of the ice.” It turns out that the sinner is one Fra Alberigo, a contemporary of Dante, a member of a Guelph family, who, through treachery and a betrayal of hospitality, killed a relative named Manfredo and Manfredo’s son. He is notably unrepentant, and Dante is particularly angered by Alberigo and what he did, so much so that he goes back on his promise and refuses to relieve Alberigo’s pain, because “it was courtesy to show him rudeness” (line 150). Quite a different response from that he had in Canto 5!