Monday, October 03, 2005

Inferno V

Dante's Divine Comedy, and particularly Dante's Inferno, has got to be one of the greatest works of medieval literature. I recently began reading the Inferno for myself, and I just finished Canto V. This is such a fascinating story, and Dante's style truly directs you in his journey through Hell. Dante's use of real-life characters is very interseting, as they are all quite fascinating!

As an example, I would like to discuss the scene depicted in the second half of Canto V. This is where Dante (as the pilgrim, not as the author) encounters the lost souls, or shades, who suffer eternal torment because of the sin of lust in the second circle of Hell. Among the many famous individuals present there (Helen of Troy, Achilles, Tristan), Dante spies two "lovers", which we can identify as Francesca da Ramini and Paolo. In life, the two were slain by Francesca's husband, Paolo's brother, Gianciotto, as depicted in this painting by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres:

When asked how they ended up in Hell, Francesca engages Dante with beautiful and idealistic language concerning how they were basically caught up as victims in romantic love. She engages Dante to the point where Dante can do nothing else but take pity on them in their plight. So taken is he by her words, that he actually loses all sense and faints to the ground. When I read this, I was also taken with the romantic notion that perhaps, even in the pits of Hell, the love of Francesca and Paolo survives. Turns out many others have considered this as well. But this impression is naive. Like Dante, I was duped and charmed by her words!

Francesca explains to Dante:
Love, that on gentle heart doth swiftly seize,
Seized this man for the person beautiful
That was ta'en from me, and still the mode offends me.
Love, that exempts no one beloved from loving,
Seized me with pleasure of this man so strongly,
That, as thou seest, it doth not yet desert me;
Love has conducted us unto one death;
Caina [in the lower pits of Hell] waiteth him who quenched our life!
Those of you who have read the Inferno will remember the warning of Minos, the judge, as Dante entered this area: don't let yourself be fooled! Remember that this is Hell, and, in particular, this is the level where the souls of those lost in lust suffer eternal torment. It is not that Francesca and Paolo are joined as victims by their love. In fact, Dante's description is littered with clues as to what's really going on in this scene. What Francesca and Paolo had during their earthly lives was not love, but merely bodily lust. They gave in to their lust and were murdered in their embrace. Dying in this state was definitely not romantic - it was extremely embarrassing to Francesca, as she lets on that the mode of death "still offends". Francesca's torment in Hell is precisely that she must spend eternity joined with Paolo, whom she really doesn't love at all. In the full account, he is always referred to in an impersonal form and is merely described as the one from whom she shall "never be divided". Perhaps she has no true conception of her sin, or perhaps she is unable to face it. Still, the lines she feeds Dante are contrived to encourage pity for their plight in an attempt to remove her guilt, and Dante, naive about the true nature of sin at this stage on his journey, falls for her charms... and so do we, as readers, if we are not careful!

In his article, Becoming Aeneas, Becoming Paul, Peter Leithart examines some of the central themes in The Divine Comedy and summarizes Dante's intention with this scene:
Readers of the Comedy have always been attracted to Francesca. Dante meant us to be. But he also meant for us to learn that this attraction is a symptom of our blindness. If we find her attractive, it is because we are still wandering in the dark wood, having lost the path of truth. If we pity her, it is because we have not learned the meaning of true 'pieta'. If we think that her love was genuine love, we have not learned the true nature of charity, a lesson that only Hell can teach.
Of course, this is the reason why Dante is on this journey into the pits of Hell in the first place - to comprehend the true nature of sin... and we are along with him.

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