ITAL 310: Dante in Translation

Lecture 5

 - Inferno IX, X, XI


In this lecture, Professor Mazzotta discusses Inferno IX-XI. An impasse at the entrance to the City of Dis marks Virgil’s first failure in his role as guide (Inferno IX). The invocation of Medusa by the harpies that descend while they wait for divine aid elicits Dante’s first address to the reader. The question of literary mediation, posed in the previous lecture in the context of Inferno V, is explored further, and the distinction Dante draws between the “allegory of poets” and the “allegory of theologians” is introduced. Inferno X is read with a view to the uniqueness of the sin it deals with - heresy. The philosophical errors of the shades encountered here, Farinata and Cavalcante, are tied to the political turmoil they prophecy for Florence. From the disorder of the earthly city, Dante moves on to the order on its infernal counterpart, mapped by Virgil in Inferno XI. The moral system of Dante’s Hell is then discussed with a view to its classical antecedents.

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Dante in Translation

ITAL 310 - Lecture 5 - Inferno IX, X, XI

Chapter 1. Introduction to Cantos IX-XI [00:00:00]

Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Today we are going to look at three cantos. They are connected in a number of interesting ways: Cantos IX, X, and XI. They describe — they focus on the pilgrim and the guide, Virgil, being — approaching the city of Dis. So we are moving — they are moving and we with them, away from the area of incontinence, which is the section of Inferno we read through from Canto V to Canto VIII.

They are approaching the gates of the city of Dis in Canto IX and the pilgrim experiences a serious impediment, an impasse, we will call it. He cannot go any further. The guidance of Virgil fails him and we are going to examine why it fails him and what is the problem that the pilgrim will have to solve. Once he is in canto — within the city of Dis, the first sinners he meets are the so-called heretics, heresiarchs, among whom — chief among whom is really Epicurus, the Epicureans, and in many ways you understand already that link between the city and these philosophers.

Let me just add one thing so you have — the idea is a bit clearer: Dante acknowledges in this philosophical text that he writes called the Banquet three schools of philosophy. The so-called academics or Aristotelians, then the Stoics, and the third Epicureans; now he handles — he just examines who these Epicureans are and for him they appear as those who are guilty of some form of pride, if you wish, intellectual pride, since heresy is a question of intellect and not of will, we’ll talk about that. They deny the immortality of the soul, and in fact, it’s really a problem to figure out why should Dante think of them as sinners at all.

In antiquity they were viewed as one more school of opinion, a philosophical opinion: my mind does not convince me, my reason does not find it convincing the belief in the immorality of the soul. Why should I be punished? It’s intellect, since the logic of Dante’s own idea of sinfulness is that the will has to be involved, the will is at the center of the habit to sin.

We’ll talk about this, then in Canto XI, there really is no great action. Dante goes on explaining the so-called topography of evil, goes on explaining the arrangement of sins. What is the principle of construction of Inferno? There now he turns to Aristotle, we’ll turn to Aristotle’s Ethics first of all as the plan, as the model to — for the arrangement of sins and then also we shall see in a very interesting way he will turn to — he will allude to his Physics.

You see he goes on talking about — from a personal problem which we have to understand in Canto IX, the crisis of, then the questions of the intellect and its relationship to the will; and then in Canto XI this idea of what are the dispositions to sinfulness and we shall see — and the turn to Aristotle.

Chapter 2. Canto IX: The Three Furies and Medusa; Address to the Reader [00:03:52]

Let me go back to — now looking at exactly the crisis of Canto IX, Dante’s progressing in this journey. He reaches the gate of Dis and now — this is around lines 40 and following. Three Furies, the so-called three Erinyes of Greek mythology: Alecto, Tesiphone, and Megaera. They appear and they stop him. They say you cannot go into the city, a city described very much as a medieval city. In fact, it’s a kind of swamp for reasons that we — having nothing to do with really ecology but the idea that medieval cities were built near swamps because the land was always more malleable and there was water clearly in the — that’s not the reason for Dante but the reason for the certain ways of understanding medieval cities.

The three Furies, Alecto, Tisiphone, and Megaera will stop and they call on Medusa who doesn’t come, but they summon Medusa. That’s why they say, “let Medusa come.” They threaten the pilgrim, with the sight of the Medusa, “let Medusa come,” she isn’t here, I repeat. This is — if you had to translate it into let’s say from English into Italian you would use a subjunctive, “may she come, I wish she came, we wish she came, let her come and we will turn him to stone.” That’s the threat.

A threat of petrifaction, because according to the myth, and if you don’t know all of it for instance, you may have seen a movie about the Medusa, if you look at the — if you gaze at the face of the Medusa, one who gazes at the head of the Medusa who was a great virginal beauty, a vestal in the Temple of Neptune, according to the myth. It was violated by Neptune and Minerva takes revenge on her by metamorphosing her into this ugly repulsive figure with her hair turned into snakes and yet she has this power, this magic power of turning all the onlookers into stone. That’s the threat. “Let Medusa come and we will turn him to stone they all cried looking down. We avenged ill, the assault of Theseus,” Theseus who also violated the boundaries of Hell to free the Eurytus, another little story that there were — Theseus was successful in the liberation of Eurytus.

The drama involving the pilgrim directly, this is a menace on him. “Turn thy back,” this is Virgil who intervenes, “and keep thine eyes shut, for should the Gorgon” the Medusa, “show herself and thou see her there would be no returning above.” And now that’s the turn. Listen to this: “My Master said this, and himself turned me round and, not trusting to my own hands, covered my face with his own also.”

The poet interrupts the narrative and talks to us as a poet. This is the first so-called address to the reader. I will talk about this little technical detail. That is to say, this is no longer part of the action, now it’s no longer the pilgrim, the story of the pilgrim, but the poet who is sitting in his study and who says, “you who are of good understanding,” the Italian says, “you who have healthy intellect, who you have a good an understanding, note the teaching that is hidden under the veil of the strange lines.” The poet assuming authority turns to us readers, and in a sense, he needs readers so that his authority can be constituted and he warns us. He admonishes us, to engage in what clearly appears is as an allegorical operation. We have to read, and the language is the language of allegory. We have to know how to read underneath the veil of language, there’s something hidden underneath this. What is the allegory about?

Let me just give you more about the story of the myth of the Medusa, so you will see the relevance maybe of that myth and the — what I left out of the myth to this scene. As you know, the Medusa will be conquered, will be defeated. She will be defeated by the poet, by Perseus who — it’s the origin of Pegasus, the horse of poetry. Pegasus — I’m sorry, Perseus who, using the shield of Minerva — the shield Minerva had given him — and by looking not at Medusa directly, at her face directly, but at a reflected image in this shield, in a mirror, the shield of Minerva, manages to see her and will kill, he will slay the Medusa in the story. Within the Ovidian narrative, this is clearly a means to evoke for us the need for a kind of — not a direct vision but a mediated vision. That is to say, through the mediation of poetry for us, for the mediation of — I’ll come back to the scene in a moment, but through the mediation of the shield can Perseus really take flight, kill and then take flight on the back of Pegasus.

For us, the shield of Minerva is the text, because at this point there is a sort of direct — let’s say, divergence between what the pilgrim is enjoined to do. Virgil says to him, “don’t look, shut your eyes,” and not trusting the pilgrim, either his quickness, he must have been awed by this situation — such a situation he doesn’t understand. He covers, Virgil covers, the pilgrim’s own eyes.

In turn, the poet addresses us and tells us to open our eyes. You open your eyes and look. You can because you have the shield of Minerva. You have this textual mediation that will allow you to escape the direct threat and glance of Medusa. So you do know that the story Mercury, who is the messenger, that clearly — the figure of the interpreter. That’s what the messenger means, the bearer of messages, the bearer of words. He comes and manages to make a breach within the wall of the city and the pilgrim and the guide can continue their descent. This is really the story.

Chapter 3. An Allegory at Work [00:11:01]

What is happening? What — how do I — can we explain? What is this allegory? Let me say a few things so that you can understand the whole technique of allegories. Whenever you read the Divine Comedy, probably much more than I would ever do, other scholars will tell you that the Divine Comedy is a vision, which it is, and that it’s allegorical which at times it is, and the allegory is supposed to explain everything that the pilgrim finds himself lost in the woods. That’s not the woods — to me it’s the woods, but they say it’s a state of sin in a way and there he meets three beasts that stand for pride, and wrath, and what not; they’re three beasts and they may stand for other things.

The significance of that initial landscape, as you may recall when we talked about that scene is not all that clear and that’s part of the problem. That’s what I call the land of unlikeness within which the pilgrim will find himself. The inability to join together signs and their significations, the awareness that there are no signs which are so self-transparent as to be understood or de-codified in a particular way. What is this idea of allegory? Dante here is clearly asking — telling us that it is an allegory at work. ‘You readers have good understanding of healthy minds look, open your eyes and look underneath the veil of the strange verse.’ Why are they so strange? What’s so strange? What is the story? What’s going on here?

What is allegory first of all? Allegory, as you know, the word means to speak otherwise. It’s a figure but it related — but not quite, to enigmas within the manuals, the primers of — rhetorical primers from medieval and classical times. Enigmas, irony, when you say one thing and you mean another, but to say this, is to say very little because Dante has been very thoughtful. He has been probing this issue very deeply, and in a couple of places in his works. In the Letter to Cangrande that he writes, about which I will talk later — it’s a letter that he sends as an introduction to the first ten cantos of Paradise, Cangrande being the lord of Verona where Dante had lived for awhile. And also in the Banquet, this philosophical text where he explores the idea of what — how a meaning can be arrived at. I have a statement. How can I go on drawing a particular significance, or more than one significance out of a statement?

He distinguishes two types of allegory. And there is a so-called allegory of poets and allegory of theologians. How does he distinguish them? How would he ask us to distinguish between them? The allegory of poets is an allegory where the literal in which, the literal sense is a fable, is a fiction. To say, that’s the example he gives, Orpheus by the power of his language moved stones, that’s an allegory of poets. It really means that the power of the voice of the poet manages maybe to edify cities, whether we need poetic myths for the edification of a city. That’s understandable. Or to say Orpheus, that by the power of his words, tamed lions. It’s to say that whatever ferociousness we may have inside us can partly be tamed by the music, the song, the poetry, and so forth. That’s the allegory of poets. The literal sense is a fiction.

To say that it’s an allegory of theologians is completely different. The example that Dante gives is taken — sends us to Exodus, the biblical story of Exodus. You all know, I take, what the biblical story is, so once again movies help. The biblical story of Exodus, the story where the Jews abandon, leave the bondage, the slavery of Egypt, go through the desert and reach the Promised Land. This is happening historically, it’s true. This is not a fiction, this is — the Red Sea did open up and the Jews could pass through the Red Sea, could cross the Red Sea that way. This is history and in the allegory of theologians, the literal level must be historical. It must be an event. So this is the distinction.

Of course, the question is what kind of allegories are used here? We’ll come to that in a moment, but keep that in mind. This is — I hope — it’s more than of archaeological interest. Within the allegory of theologians, they distinguish four levels of exegesis, exegesis being a word meaning interpretation. Four levels: the literal, the moral… An allegory is telling you what to do, teaching you. It has an ethics involved: that you read and there is an ethics when you are reading. You have more or less a text. It’s time to direct your will or tell you what you should be doing. A tropological telling you what — tropological meaning what does it mean in terms of your whole life, not just an action in a particular case. And then the so-called analogical or eschatological. So that the story of the Jews crossing the wilderness and going to the Jerusalem means having a kind of a spiritual conversion, moral conversion, means that this is really the way that life ought to go. You go from sin to glory or the peace of the city, and then anagogically, this is the story of the soul. It prefigures what the soul ought to be.

In the case of the allegory of poets you only have two levels, the literal and the moral. There are a lot of difficulties with this way of distinguishing between the two types of allegory because both the allegory of theologians and the allegory of poets, even if the allegory of theologians refers to events, it’s still words that we are reading. There is a way in which Dante seems to at one point dodge the whole thing of how can you really distinguish between the two modes — the rhetorical modes — independently one from the other. And actually he goes on saying, really, the difference is in how you take the literal sense. In the kind of act of faith that you may have, that the literal sense — that the Bible is the word of God, then you are reading it theologically. But if you decide, and one might, to say that the Bible is really a collection of extraordinary poetic stories, then you are reading according to the allegory of poets.

How is Dante circumventing this whole issue? He’s circumventing the whole issue by saying, my story may well be taken as a story of allegory of poets, but it’s also an allegory of theologians because the literal sense is ‘I.’ The historical sense is in me. I am the historical cipher moving through these experiences, and therefore, it is my life that they will give a particular sense, a particular truth value, to whatever poetic fable I may be relating.

Chapter 4. Understanding the Threat of Petrifaction [00:18:30]

We only have taken care of one little problem here, very external to the story, the allegory of poets or allegory of theologians. It’s time to decide that this is what is going on here, but, how are we to understand this threat of petrification. And you cannot really understand it, but I’m here to tell you. You cannot really understand it on your own, so you have to trust my words. The fact is that Dante had written in his youth a number of poems for a so-called Lady Stone. In Italian, it’s not as bad as that, though ‘stone’ could be a good word in English, Donna Petrapetra meaning stone, and the passion — it’s a description of a love that was unrequited, but a passion for this woman was such that he felt that his intellect would be petrified, that he could be — in other words he was unable to go anywhere. It’s a statement of despair, if you wish, whenever you have this sense of a death that is going to take over and you are going to be paralyzed in your will, then this is a petrification. This is what I think is happening here. Dante is engaged in retrospection, to an experience of his past, and that experience of his past is now ahead of him threatening him once again.

He has to cleanse himself, he has to move beyond it, but to explain better this idea of the closing of the eyes — this is why Medusa, though he talks of Medusa there and this lady Petra is a kind of Medusa. Let me give you — read a little scene from — that I think really explains what’s going on and prepare us to move forward to the next canto, Canto X. It’s a little scene from the Confessions of Augustine. As you know, a book that Dante knew very well. Dante even goes on quoting it at very strategic places, so there’s not issue of bringing it in gratuitously to explain this scene. It’s actually direct — it could be viewed — forgive the reversal, but this would be viewed as a gloss on what Dante will go on writing.

The Confessions is written with — it’s an intellectual autobiography: the story of a young man who will go on being fascinated by various schools of philosophy. He’s a Manichean, and then he will turn into a neo-Platonist, goes on — is very flattered by a skeptical, rhetorical way. He’s a professor of rhetoric — a rhetorical way of dealing with values and the world around him. And then in Book IX, he’ll go on telling the story in the garden of Milan, the famous story under the fig tree, very emblematic. We could talk about these things, about why the fig tree in Milan, which leads many scholars to go on wondering, were there fig trees in Milan? Isn’t the climate too cold? You need really the southern climes for that kind of thing, forgetting that the fig tree is always in the Bible. It appears as the tree under which the prophets go and rest in the mistaken belief that everything is over and that somehow a time for complacency may come. They’re denouncing it of course. This is all done in a mode denunciation, and that’s exactly where Augustine puts himself, under the fig tree and there he goes on experiencing a particular drama by reading St. Paul, etc.

Throughout this text, though this is about neo-Platonists and Manicheans. As you know Augustine — as you probably know, Augustine goes on reflecting about his love of shows, the biggest one of them, at the beginning of Book III, is his love of theatre and his critique of the theatre. Now, why do I go to the theatre and how do I explain the fact that there may be some well-meaning young man who sees the maid in distress and jumps on the scene to free her. And he goes on talking about how can I be a spectator, what does it mean to be a spectator? What does it mean to be involved?

And then there is another little scene. A friend of his, Alypius — Alypius is a Greek intellectual in the best sense of the word. A man who believes in self-mastery, in intellectual self-mastery, a young man who witnesses Augustine’s own experiences. In narratives you always have Sancho accompany Don Quixote; there’s always the other, more or less skeptical, who gives authenticity and who exactly will go on making claims for the truth value of what the narrator or the protagonist will go on experiencing. His name is Alypius. Alypius will eventually rejoin him. He’s in Carthage. They grew up together. Augustine and he grew up together.

Augustine goes to Rome. Alypius will rejoin him in Rome, and they go on from there, eventually going to Milan. When in Rome, Alypius does what nobody — we would all do, first thing he wants to do is to go and watch the games played at the amphitheatre, at the Colosseum and the games are horrifying games to Augustine. He says, how can an intellectual such as you, want to go to the games where actually human beings are being thrown, for the delight of the crowds, are being thrown to beasts, to lions. Alypius, of course, he tries to justify himself. I really want to go, but exactly because, he’ll say, but I really do, because I’ll read you the whole passage: ‘I will go but because I’m an intellectual, I promise that at the crucial moment when the sign is given for the animal to devour the human being lying there I will not watch. I will — I’m going to turn my eyes away and I will shut my eyes.’ Let’s see what happens. This is from Book VI, Chapter VIII.

It’s a great little story. By the way, a scholar of romance philology who used to teach here many years ago by the name of Eric Auerbach, a great Dante scholar and he wrote this book called, Mimesis, he reflects on this scene, not connecting it with Dante, but it doesn’t matter. I read it first in his book and says, this is really — it’s a little scene that marks the end of Hellenic rationalism. Let’s read this; it’s interesting just because of that, and then we’ll see how we could apply it to Dante. I think it’s very clear.

“He had gone to Rome to study law,” this is Alypius, “and there he was carried away incredibly with an incredible eagerness after the shows of gladiators. For being utterly adverse to and detesting such spectacles, he was one day by chance met by diverse of his acquaintances and fellow students coming from dinner and they with a familiar violence, hailed him vehemently refusing and resisting into the amphitheatre during this cruel and deadly shows. He thus protesting, ‘Though you hail my body to that place,’ this is Alypius, “And there set me, can you force me also to turn my mind or my eyes to those shows? I shall then be absent while present and so shall overcome both you and them. They, hearing this, led him on, nevertheless, desirous per chance to try that very thing, whether he could do as he said.”

“When they will come thither and had taken their places as they could, the whole place kindled with that savage pastime, but he,” Alypius, “closing the passage of his eyes, forbade his mind to range abroad of such evil, and would he had stopped his ears also. For in the fight when one fell, a mighty cry of the whole people striking him, strongly overcome by curiosity and as prepared to despise and be superior to it, whatever it were, even when seen, he opened his eyes and was stricken with a deeper wound in his soul, than the other whom he desired to behold was in his body. And he fell more miserably than he upon whose fall that mighty noise was raised, which entered through his ears and unlocked his eyes to make way for the striking and beating down of a soul. Bold rather than resolute, and the weaker in that it had presumed on itself which ought to have relied on Thee for so soon the — ” the whole confession is addressed to God, for it’s a confession, a witnessing to God so in case you are confused about the references.

“For so soon as he saw that blood, he therewith drank down savageness, not turned away, but fixed his eye drinking in frenzy, unawares and was delighted with that guilty fight and intoxicated with bloody pastime. Nor was he now the man he came, but one of the throng he came unto. Yea, a true associate of theirs that brought him thither. Why say more? He beheld, shouted, kindled, carried thence with him, the madness which should goad him to return not only with them who first drew him thither, but also before them, yea and to join others. Yet, thence it did start with a most strong, a most merciful hand, pluck him and taught him to have confidence not in himself but in Thee. But this was after,” and that’s really the story.

What is the meaning of this story? In the Confessions, I think that Augustine is very clear: the failure of the mind to master its own will. It’s about the crisis. It’s about the weakness of the will to begin with, but it’s also the pride: the belief that one can rise above the contingency of temptations and be in control of oneself. And yet, it’s a story of a temptation which he, Alypius, cannot quite resist. I think that this is exactly what’s happening in Canto IX. Dante’s dramatizing not only the failure of the intellect; he’s already been talking about the early part of the canto, the failure of Virgil to guide him. He’s discussing now the failure of his will, at least seen in — as an event of the past but clearly is seen as something that can happen to him again.

Chapter 5. Canto X: The Heretics [00:29:53]

The passage to the city can take place after this scene and now he enters into the City of Dis and against the walls of the city, he finds the Epicureans — again, those who do not believe in the mortality of the soul. Let me just read in Canto X some passages. By the way, each Canto X of the Divine Comedy, they’re really are all cantos intimately related with each other. So if you were looking for a paper you want to connect Canto X of Inferno, Canto X of Purgatorio, and Canto X of Paradise, I would encourage you to do so. Let me just read a few lines.

Dante asks who these souls are and the answer he gets is this line 12, “All will be shut in when they return from Jehoshaphat,” which is the valley in Jerusalem; in the valley, into the valley of Jerusalem where, according to the law, the resurrection of the dead will take place. That’s where they would be meeting. It’s interesting then, that there is this contrast in the canto between the so-called Epicureans, who do not believe in their immortality of the soul, and clearly, this view, this opposition as one could call it, between Athens, very classical, Athens, and Jerusalem.

You may have heard of this, the city of Athens by the way, the word itself means immortality, the immortality of athanatos, the immortality of wisdom. Wisdom survives, but not the people. There is a kind of — the kind of contrast between the two cities, very old, very ancient contrast. And now we have in this part, Epicurus and all his followers, what we call the Epicureans. Let me just gloss the Epicureans a little bit further from — than I did before. There are two types — in the mythography of the Epicureans, there are two types of Epicureans. Whenever we think about the Epicureans, we think about those, the vulgar Epicureans, those who think about — worship their stomach, the pleasures of food, an Epicurean in that sense.

I think that Dante has dramatized that kind of Epicurean in Canto VI when he meets, remember Ciacco, whose name means “pig.” In fact we talked about the hogs of Epicurus, the herd of Epicurus. But then there is the noble version of the Epicureans, the canto here, in Canto X those who are interested in intellectual pleasures, the pleasures of conversations, the pleasures of friendship, the pleasures of meditation. And they are those who do not — who remove themselves to the garden, do not seem to really care much about what happens around them, because in the belief that they should really take — cultivate their soul and cultivate their own pursuits, take care of their own pursuits. That’s what we are having here. These are the noble, philosophical Epicureans, not the vulgar sort that believe in the supremacy of bodily pleasures.

Nonetheless, pleasure is the aim of an Epicurean ethics, my pleasure. This continues, “in this part Epicurus and all his followers, who make the soul die with the body have their burial place.” How fitting, how fitting is the punishment for this crime, this sin. It’s perfect because these people never really believed in the immortality of the soul and they are condemned to be dead. That’s what they think and they dwell literally in sarcophagus, in sarcophagi, entombed. That’s how they appear. There is another little detail I have given you — sometimes we may wonder about the appropriateness of a sin, of a punishment for a particular sin, but here we have no reason to really be surprised at all by this kind of destiny reserved for the Epicureans.

“But for thy question to me, thou shalt soon have satisfaction from within there, and for the desire too about which thou art silent.” Then they’re interrupted. All of a sudden, now Dante’s once again involved, and what’s here primarily is no longer the question of immorality of souls, but how the political aspect, the political implications of this kind of belief, of believing in immorality of the soul, how is this refracted onto the political scene as it were? Again, therefore, this is almost a Platonic conceit, the relationship now between no longer bodies and cities, as we saw in Inferno VI, but here soul and city. Is this a soulless city? What happens? How do we experience it? How livable? Which is — I mean it is also a pun, how livable is this kind of city? What happens and what is the — what are the relationship — what is the relationship between various figures?

Dante singles out two people, one a Guelf and one a Ghibelline. We are in the middle of the civil war of Florence once again. It’s going to be Farinata, a Ghibelline and Cavalcanti, the father, the old man, who is a Guelf. By the way, they’re also related to each other because Cavalcanti’s son, Dante’s best friend — you remember he dedicates his Vita nuova to him, he calls him ‘my first friend Guido Cavalcanti’ — had married the daughter of Farinata. They stand there in their tombs ignoring each other and each ignoring the pangs, worries, and perplexities of the other. It’s a little picture of what we call “any city.”

This is the city in the beyond where everybody’s squabbling. Nobody’s paying attention to anybody else, and everybody believes that one’s own passion, one’s own concern is really paramount and foremost. There’s nothing that can come near to it, so it’s all — it’s a canto that interestingly enough is marked by interruptions: one is speaking, the other says forget it, I got to talk now it’s my turn. And so it is the — it is a little vignette of Florence in the year 1300 probably, or later but 1300 is a good date for us.

So, he’s interrupted, Virgil and Dante are interrupted by someone who says, “ ‘O Tuscan who makest thy way alive through the city of fire and speakest so modestly, may it please thee to stop at this point: thy tongue shows thee native of that noble fatherland to which I was perhaps too harsh.’ Suddenly this sound issued from one of the chests,” and so on. So they go on, “Turn round, what ails thee?” — says Virgil — “See there Farinata who has risen erect; from the middle up thou shalt see his full height.” He appears from the navel up in the tomb.

Now, a little historical detail. There used to be in Rome, a church is still there, but it was already there in the year 1300, when Dante went on an embassy to Rome: the church so-called of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem which, according to the legend, was built with material, with stones from Jerusalem that had been brought to Rome by Constantine’s mother, Helena.

In the basement of that church, which would be opened only once a year around the Easter season, there would be a mosaic showing — and you can say it would only — on Good Friday that the — that basement would be open. And that mosaic, it’s no longer there so I cannot — I’m not encouraging tourism; it’s just I’m giving you a little detail. There used to be a mosaic of the rising Christ from — shown from the navel up and it’s clear here that the representation of Farinata showing himself from the navel up is meant as a caricature of the belief in the Resurrection. There are two — this is the really — of the story of a man who doesn’t believe in the Resurrection, and iconographically Dante will go on focusing, insisting on this — on the counter. This man doesn’t believe in the Resurrection. That is another possibility of looking at it so there is a — the description is clearly meant to evoke all of that.

There is a great exchange between them: who defeated whom, the continuous battles between Guelfs and Ghibellines and Dante claims that his own family managed to take good revenge when the time came. And clearly the implication is that more revenge, since Dante has been, will be necessary. They’re interrupted by the sight of — by the old man Cavalcanti.

Look at what the story of the canto is: Farinata worries about his ancestors; Cavalcanti worries about his son. So these are the Epicureans who have a sense of continuity somehow, a sense of dynastic continuity: all within the immanence of personal concerns and family. So they go — they move beyond the fragmentations of self from the others. They seem to have a kind of extended idea of themselves, in spite of themselves, in spite of their beliefs.

This is what happens, an extraordinary scene: “Then rose to sight,” line 55 and following, “beside him a shade showing as far as the chin; I think he had lifted himself on his knees. He looked round about me as if he had a desire to see whether someone was with me, but when his expectation was all quenched he said, weeping: ‘If thou goest through this blind prison by height of genius, where is my son? Why is he not with thee?”

The reference clearly is to Dante’s best friend, to Guido, whose name also means that he should be guiding him. Maybe the old man — the old father was hoping that the son, according to his name, could really be leading the younger poet, as he had led him in his early poetic experiments in Florence. And then he answers, he’s disappointed, and Dante answers, I answered him, “I come not of myself, he,” doesn’t even mention him, meaning Virgil, “he that waits yonder is leading me,” so this is the pun on “guido” — “through here perhaps to…” That’s very unclear. The text here, my translation is “to her” and so does yours, but many other translations probably say something different. I would say “to one, your Guido held in disdain.”

It’s unclear because the “her” would mean he’s leading me, Virgil leads me to Beatrice, whom Guido held in disdain. Why would Guido hold Beatrice in disdain? Is this really the story of the Vita nuova? The antagonism between Guido and Beatrice? There’s nothing that really suggests all of that. “To one” would be to God or to some aim that Guido held in disdain, we’ll see what that means. “His words, and the nature of his punishment had already told me his name, so that I replied thus fully. Suddenly erect, he cried, ‘How saidst thou ‘he held’?” That’s — Dante uses the past preterite, “he held.” The old man, infers because of the use of the past preterite, that his son is already dead: a mistake, an equivocation. “He held? Lives he not still? Strikes not the sweet light on his eyes?’ When he perceived that I made some delay before replying he fell back again and was seen no more.”

Farinata is unconcerned. He goes on saying, well yeah you drove us back but we drove you back, brings the subject to the political — strictly to the war between Guelfs and Ghibellines so that we really have to ask — Dante goes on saying, please before leaving, reassure the old man that his son is still alive, because by the year of the journey Dante — Guido was supposed to be alive. Though he will die very quickly afterwards.

What is this story of political disarray of Florence? And the story of the memory of Dante’s friend with whom he had just — the friendship was just — had finished. The friendship was over. Dante, for those of you who are interested in the biography of the poet — one of the early and toughest decisions he had to make was to banish Guido Cavalcanti from the city because he thought that Guido was the cause of some unrest within the city. Guido went into exile and never made it back. He died three months later in the swamps of near — of Liguria, a little bit north of Tuscany. Dante lives in many ways with a kind of guilt, personal guilt, I suppose. He won’t talk about it openly about the — what had been happening between them.

What is — how are we trying to understand this scene? Let me just give you some details about — some other details about this canto. “If you go through this blind prison by height of genius…” There’s a little bit of irony there. Cavalcanti clearly does not understand, nor can he understand, that Dante’s journey in the beyond is not due to height of genius, but these are the philosophers and he has a kind of philosophical idea about how certain experiences are going to be possible. “Why is not my son with you?” Etc. “I come not of myself; he that … to one whom your Guido held in disdain.” Well, what has happened here? Who is Guido really?

Guido is what we call an Averroist. Did you ever hear the term, Averroist? Probably not. Averroes, Dante actually mentions him in Limbo. He was an Arab philosopher and a famous commentator of Aristotle. And of all the texts, he commented just as now, in the Middle Ages they would be reading the great classics of philosophy, especially very difficult text such as the — On the Soul of Aristotle with — following the commentators. Averroes was known as the “Great Commentator.” He was the great commentator of Aristotle’s On the Soul.

And he argues that Aristotle does not believe in the immortality of the soul. That’s the argument that he’s going to be challenged by Aquinas and by many others, but that’s the primary — Guido Cavalcanti follows Averroes’ understanding about the soul. The one who is here, a heretic so to speak, is not just the old man, but also Guido Cavalcanti himself.

At this point, before I go any further telling you more about the who is an Averroist, what does it mean to be an Averroist, I really have to raise a point with you. What does heresy mean? Because I did indicate that in antiquity it was never really thought of as a sin because it’s a question of mind. The word comes from the Greek haeresis, meaning “to choose.” One who is a heretic is someone who makes a particular intellectual choice. To be viewed as a sinner, you have to also indicate some kind, an element of pride behind a particular belief and so Guido is held responsible for spreading, disseminating this idea of Averroism.

What is then Averroism? Well one of the ideas that Averroes says is that we — in the commentary On the Soul — that we human beings are not even capable, intrinsically capable of thinking. That we are made — remember the famous structure? The diagram about the soul? That we are a concupiscent entities and sensitive entities. We’re also rational entities, but rationality occurs to us intermittently. Thoughts, we even say that in English, ‘a thought came to me.’ That reminds me the best way of understanding Averroism: we don’t think all the time, occasionally thought comes to us, and there’s no way that really. And when we think we are really existing in a sort of break, a discontinuity from the world of feeling. So there’s a fairly tragic understanding, making human beings the object of thought, not subjects of thought. We are not agents capable of producing thoughts, thoughts come to us and also tragic because it sort of presents a break between the sensitive part of our experiences and the rational part of experiences.

We live like animals more often than not: we eat, we drink, we sleep and so on. Then occasionally we manage to disengage ourselves from all of this and capable of contemplative thoughts. At that point we no longer really live we are just — we are abstracted from ourselves, we are removed from ourselves. Not only Guido believed in these ideas, these ideas shape one of the most beautiful poems written at the time of Dante by Guido Cavalcanti himself, and the poem is called, A Lady Asks Me.

I want to tell you what the poem is about. It’s a poem where there’s a fiction: the poet Guido Cavalcanti imagines that a woman, which may have been the case, asks him to define love. You poets are always talking about love, and I don’t understand what you mean by love, and nor do I understand what the effects of love. And he writes a song, this long song, saying that love — a lady asks me to talk about the nature of love, the function of love, and the effects of love. And he goes on almost scholastically, taking one case after the other.

He begins by saying, in the exposition, that love is a passion that comes from Mars, not from Venus. That is to say, the nature of love is always to be one of conflict and one of war and chaos, not one of an order, the benevolent Venus. He goes on too saying that it’s — it induces death and it’s characterized by deliriums of the mind. It’s a very clearly, grim idea of love.

What Dante’s doing in this Canto X is connecting Guido’s ideas of love and the politics of civil war. He finds that there is a strict necessary connection, a necessary correlation between the thinking about love of Guido Cavalcanti, whom Dante opposes. As you know from the Vita nuova, he believes that Beatrice can indeed be someone who can lead him to God and to the knowledge of God, in the persuasion that it is not by truth that you come to the knowledge of God. If you cannot come to the knowledge of God by truth, then how do you come to the knowledge of God? By love, by thinking about love: that’s the way of the ascent.

On the other hand, Dante will have this idea that the political — that the order of civil — that this disorder, the civil disorder, the civil war is nothing else than the phenomenon of a theory put forth by the Averroist, by Guido Cavalcanti. This is really what I think the double focus of this canto: love and politics and the connection between them. A connection which, by the way, the Averroists whom Dante links with the Epicureans, deny. But he’s making this connection, imaginatively, a connection denied by the philosophers themselves.

Chapter 6. Canto XI: The Sins of Fraud [00:51:49]

With Canto XI and — Dante will go on. We have a few minutes and I can talk about this. Dante, as I said, explains the order of — on the face of it, the juxtaposition is clear. To the disorder of the city, we are now going to have a reflection, a rational reflection on the order that sustains the City of Hell. If there is any disordered place, it is as if there’s a logic even to the disorder of evil. And the idea is that there is a tripartite division to Hell, the plan of Hell. All of the sins are divided into three parts, sins of incontinence that we saw from Canto III, IV, V, actually to Canto IX. The middle area which is called the area of violence and then the third area, the sins of fraud. And Dante calls fraud the sin peculiar to human beings because it’s not just a sin of the will, but there is also the premeditation of the mind, the complicity of the mind, the sense of fraud which is also a sense of treachery. Dante sees the conjunction of will and, at the same time, the order of reason in the performance of that evil.

The canto comes to — ends with a question. Dante says that this is all from the Ethics of Aristotle and then Dante wonders, look, he’ll say, lines 90: “Oh Sun that healest all troubled sight, so dost thou satisfy me with a resolving of my doubts that it is no less grateful to me to question than to know. Turn back again a little’, I said,’ to the point.” You know he’s been explaining everything; actually he didn’t explain everything. He never explained heresy, which we took some time to talk about and he never really explains — Dante tells him, you never really say anything about usury. The point that’s, “the usury offends Divine Goodness, and loose that knot.”

Why is usury — what is usury exactly? The question is why does Dante ask this question of usury? How does he answer it? We can understand why he asks about it. How does he answer what usury is? Let me just read this passage lines 98 and following: “ ‘Philosophy, for one who understands,’ he said to me, ‘notes, not in one place only, how nature takes her course from the divine mind and its art, and if thou note well thy Physics,” another text of Aristotle, the Ethics is mentioned for us, now the Physics, “thou wilt find not many pages on, that your art, as far as it can, follows nature as the pupil the master, so that your art is to God, as it were, a grandchild. By these two, if you recall to mind Genesis, near the beginning,” the biblical book of Genesis, “it behoves mankind to gain their livelihood and their advancement, and because the usurer takes another way he despises nature, both in herself and in her follower, setting his hope elsewhere. But now follow me, for I would go; the Fishes are quivering on the horizon and all the Wain lies over Caurus and farther on there is the descent of the cliff.’”

To explain the sin of usury, Dante puts forth a theory of art. That’s what’s happening, as if usury were a violation of art. How does he understand art? Art, what is art? He understands art as work, that’s the best way to explain it. Talking about the beginning of Genesis when a human being — when Adam was thrown out of the Garden of Eden and was told that in order to recover, retrieve the garden, he had to go back to work, that work becomes an ascetic — not a punishment. Here Dante doesn’t see work as a punishment, but an ascetic exercise whereby one can regain or transform the wilderness into paradise.

That’s really the idea, but I think there is more that is happening here in this connection. This is the general thrust of the canto. What is art in the Middle Ages? You may want to know because first of all, I did say that there is a general coherence. You remember those were my initial words when I started today’s class from Canto IX to Canto XI? Art is understood by the Scholastics as a virtue of the practical intellect, in the order of making, a virtue of the practical intellect.

You may go, what is this practical intellect? How many intellects do we have? Well there’s a speculative intellect. When Dante talks about the immortality of the soul and those who do not believe in the immortality of the soul, that’s a question of the speculative intellect. If I went on thinking about God, suppose that I had this weakness of mine to think about justice, for instance, an abstract of idea, justice, not particular cases of justice, then I’m involved in an exercise of the speculative intellect. He ends the canto with the practical intellect, an emphasis on the practical intellect is the mind that worries about doing or making, and they are not the same thing.

What is the difference? To say that there is a practice intellect in the order of doing would be to worry about when you talk about prudence: a virtue of doing, because it’s not the artisan’s work. To say that it’s a virtue of practical intellect in the order of making, it means that the work of art is a thing that one elaborates.

From this point of view, the issue is never really one of — does it tell the truth about whatever. It has its own thingness; it’s a thing, the work of art is something made and therefore as made, it has its own reality; it has its own laws; it has its own rigor. That’s one thing. It’s work, but look at all the images that Dante is using to reflect on this problem.

“Philosophy, for one who understands,’ he said to me, ‘notes, not in one place only, how nature takes a course from the divine mind and its art. And if thou know well thy Physics,” which is it’s a theory of nature really, it’s a theory of motion, it’s a theory of how things grow, how things are born, grow, and perish, “thou will find not many pages on, that your art as far it can, follows nature as the pupil the master, so your art is to God as it were a grandchild.”

I just want to talk about these metaphors here to make you understand what Dante — how Dante understands art. On the face of it, he’s saying that art must be an imitation of nature. You have followed nature. Does Dante then have a mimetic idea of art? Not at all, not at all, because look at the metaphors he’s using: two metaphors.

“Your art, as far as it can, follows nature as the pupil the master, so that your art is to God as it were a grandchild” because art follows nature, nature is the child of God, so art is a grandchild, but it’s an image of fecundity and fertility. You can understand why Dante opposes art, finally, to usury. Usury is viewed as the activity that is sterile, an activity that produces what’s symbolic, money out of money. So it’s a symbolic kind of operation; as opposed to it, Dante — opposes to it, Dante casts the virtue of art as work, but one of production, one of generation: the “grandchild” of God. Art is the grandchild of God.

Then there is this other metaphor, “as the pupil follows the master,” which is not a gratuitous metaphor, because after all within the context, here Dante has Virgil who is teaching him, so there is almost a kind of flattery, if you wish. One little detail, he’s flattering the relationship. He acknowledges his discipleship to Virgil, which he does all the time, but it implies the educational aspect of art, in the most etymological sense of the term. Art educates, in the sense that it leads us out of a particular state of barbarity, ignorance, darkness, etc. So it has an educational and a non-mimetic role, because art imitates the productive rhythms of the natural world. Dante views an art that is open to beginnings, to life.

This is the meaning of Genesis, the idea of Genesis, an art that always — that is original, but not in a romantic sense of originality, but an art that leads us back to the thought of origins. The thought of how things come into being because only then, do we understand how — what the ends are. To understand the ends, we got to know something about the beginnings, about the seeds that make us whatever it is that we think we are.

We have gone then from Canto IX to Canto XI, from concerns about the pride of the mind, which we could even call the wound of the intellect and the weakness of the will, to the view that really is no distinction between an Epicurean thinking about oneself and the state and distinct from some kind of theorizing. Dante sees a connection between them, to finally an idea of art.

And I think that this idea of art is also for Dante remedial for the evils that — to which we are prone. Dante thinks that should we apply to ourselves the same kind of care and rigor with which an artist produces the work of art, then what we call the cultivation of the soul may indeed begin to take place. Art — Dante’s attention to art is part of this ascetic exercise.

Chapter 7. Question and Answer [01:03:08]

Let me finish here and we’ll give another few minutes — I touched on a number of issues and I’m anxious to hear your perplexities, questions, comments, suggestions, whatever. Yes?

Student: With the heretics, he makes it so clear that they sin, because it’s both intellect and will. It’s because — with the heretics he makes it clear that they sin both because of intellect and will, it’s not just because they’re thinking something false.

Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: The question is, with the heretics that we are not really dealing only with the question of thought, or it’s a freedom of thought, but it deals with the fact the heretics are engaged in act of — acts of intellect which are supported or shaped by also acts of the will; that was exactly what I maintained.

Student: Then that makes sense, but then does he ever really try and explain to them — I mean everyone wonders about the virtuous paintings and why they’re there, and it seems that theirs is just a failure of intellect and there’s really no failure of will.

Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: For the — for Dante you mean?

Student: Yes.

Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: The question is about the pagans, does Dante think that theirs is not just the failure — if I understood the question, the failure of the intellect but also the failure of the will. Yes, I think that this is the case. We shall see a number of pagans where probably we can highlight — we can see highlighted some of these concerns that he has. Concerns — you will read Ulysses who is represented as engaged in a flight of the mind, the wings of the intellect. You know they are wings of desire, Platonic wings of desire. And then Francesca, Canto V, remember she is like a dove, etc., called by desire, the open wings, clearly the wings of desire. And then in the case of Ulysses, you’re going to have the wings of the intellect, the mind that tries to reach, the flight of the mind.

He too, appears as a rhetorician. That is to say, it would seem that we like to believe that there is a distinction between let’s say, a metaphysical, it’s a little bit physics, as a kind of metaphysical intellectual flight and Dante’s always saying, look, is always trying to probe the presence of passions, the rhetorical aspect of the claims to reach the truth, or the plain of truth. Yes, am I answering your question?

Student: Yes, I mean it’s also just they were put there because they did — Christ hadn’t come yet, which is why they were still in Hell, why Virgil came to Hell? I’m just wondering is that like —

Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Okay, good. I have been missing the mark in answering and the question really is how — are the pagans in Hell because Christ had not yet come and in what way did they violate —

Student: That just seems the failure of intellect rather than —

Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: The failure of intellect? No, the answer is no. Let me give you a general idea of why it’s no, and then a particular idea. First of all, generally, if Dante were to judge and he does, judge the world, the culture of let’s say Greek — the classical world. He puts most of it in Limbo. That’s a judgment, saying you’re really marginal, you’re really liminal to my story. That’s what he’s saying, though in Paradise he will go out of the way to reclaim Plato, Aristotle, and all the possible Aristotelians. If he were to do that from a perspective which is outside, he really would be a boring poet, in my view. You don’t believe in the immortality of the soul, as if he were saying to Epicurus. I do, you are a fool and therefore I am saved and you — I put you in Hell. That’s really not worthy of a great mind, because one can imagine Epicurus saying, well you are the fool and you think you are saved, I know what I have been doing. You can take sides. Dante never does that, what he does do is take the perspective of the sinners themselves. Let them talk and gives them a rope with which they hang themselves. That’s really what’s happening, that’s the best way to present this argument.

He’s not judging the pagans, now I’m coming straight to your question, he’s not judging the pagans from a Christian standpoint alone that is outside of it. For a number of reasons, because he believes actually that whatever — that the pagans are adumbrations of the Christian view, the Christian vision. They are not just “other” to be rejected, on the contrary. And then in particular I can say, that Dante will go on praising some pagans among the saved. He even praises one figure the so-called Ripheus, who was only mentioned once, and we know nothing about him, a Roman who was a sailor in — with Aeneas, and only because Virgil refers to him as justus Ripheus, the just Ripheus, which is, to me, a way which Dante says, not just the kings but every simple, humble worker can also be saved, Trajan, the emperor Trajan and so on and a number of other cases.

In the case of Virgil, I’m not going to go there because I’m going to be on TV for the next six months I don’t know, because reams of books have been written by people who wish to see him saved. I mean that’s such a good guy throughout Inferno and Purgatorio and the people who go on arguing that he might — he may be saved. One thing we know is that he comes as far as the Garden of Eden and just as Beatrice is going to arrive then the pilgrim, the lover now, Dante trembles at the idea that here she is, the destination of his journey, and he needs the help of Virgil. He turns around and his eyes will never see him again. He had vanished, so we know that, there is a kind — that seems to be the limitation of how far he can go.

To say this is really to say very little, because within Dante’s cosmos, Dante has an idea of the curvature of space. This is the sphere. A redemption means that all things will go back to the beginning, that’s what happens, so only from that point of view, we don’t have a lot of thematic reflections about this aspect, who is going to be saved at the end of that, who knows. The whole question is the unfathomable quality of God’s justice. Dante wonders though, we’re talking about Christ and Christ, and what about the in — those living in — near the banks of the Hindus? They never heard the name of Christ? Are they going to be saved? They are just, can they be condemned? These are questions that he will not answer. He raises these questions in Paradise.

You’re a little bit impatient I say but that’s — I think that from the point of view of eschatology, he must have an idea of — otherwise Redemption has failed. If some people are damned then there is no Redemption, you see what I’m saying? The measure in which evil — if you get into this metaphysical framework, if there is going to be residues of sin, then there is also residue of injustice. I don’t know that I answered your question. I think I did but — Yes?

Student: Thinking about the Medusa, I understand the idea of Medusa as an allegory for the mediation of poetry, but is it also a connection between the figure of the woman and the act of petrification? Thinking about the Donna Petra, I’m wondering if Dante’s also saying something about the dangers of love or the dangers of misplaced love.

Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Thank you. The question is about the story of the Medusa and the part about the mediation of poetry to conquer Medusa is clear, but the question also wonders whether this has to do with, first of all, the fact that the Medusa is a woman, and also that petrification is the petrification of misplaced love. Is that an accurate paraphrase?

Student: [inaudible]

Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Okay, the answer is that’s a great question. I sense there your awareness of the Freudian reading of the myth of the Medusa as castration, as indeed a kind of literalization of the threat, at least, not castration but the threat of castration on the male from the point of view of Medusa. I will take the second part of your remark to explain also the first part. I think that this is a question of misdirected love, but what Dante has seen — I would urge you to go and read the poems about this lady Petra, the lady of stone — because they are poems where Dante literally engages in fantasies of violence against her. If I could get my hands on her with a passion, unrequited makes him — it’s almost like a sort of sadistic coloring about it. I think it’s clearly misdirected love. What he understands though is the kind of death that that sort of desperate love has brought to him. You call that — you can view that death as the fear of castration. I think it’s an extreme version of that, so I would agree with what I hear is behind your question. Yes?

Student: So why does he draw us into that allegory of Medusa and petrified love?

Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Well he — I — you mean if it’s — the question is why does he draw us into that allegory if it’s about petrified love? Right, this is the question and I presume — I don’t want to explain your question, I have to answer your question, but I presume that your question stems from your — this kind of concern you have. If it’s such a private story, why us? In what way are we involved in that? This is his story, right? The answer that I could give is yes, this is — can be seen as Dante’s own confession and the confession and that’s why I read the passage from Augustine, from Augustine’s own Confessions: a confession that can also be exemplary to us. And because he thinks, I think, that there are no experiences that are irreducibly private and therefore unshareable. It’s part of the concern of this writing — of this writer, that anything that will happen to him we are — I have to say this.

We are going to find moments when he tells us its night dreams, pretty heavy night dreams, but treated with an extraordinary, I think, care. We are going to have his — we are going to enter into his psyche, why part of — way of entering into his psyche? Because he has to understand not only how shareable his experience is, but also, what is the root of the way we make decisions? Do — can we really be ever all the time vigilant? This is in the case of the dream. Am I responsible if I perceive the world in a certain way? Am I responsible if dreams come to me in a certain way? Then, am I accountable for this kind of dreams? The concern is always that of trying to delimit an area where there is some common ground between his experiences and ours, and that’s the transaction of allegory. Yes?

Student: At the end of Canto IX, I don’t know if it’s significant, but Dante turns to the right as he enters the City of Dis, did you find that significant just going back to what we talked about last time?

Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Of course, this is fantastic. The question is I have been talking about the fact that in Inferno Dante goes to the left, seems to — which I also said though that that is really very difficult to visualize, so we say counter-clockwise or clockwise, that his descent is clockwise in Inferno. And yet, I’m so grateful to you for noticing this. Here in Inferno IX, Dante actually goes out of the way to say that he turned to the right and the — I don’t have a position of my own on this but there will also be — well this is to emphasize that heresy is primarily the disease of the intellect.

You remember that I specified that there is the will and the intellect, and the will is always the left and the intellect is the right. I think that Dante is — this is the point where Dante is sleeping. It happened to Homer occasionally to fall asleep and this is the only time that you have caught him dozing off. Thank you so much we’ll see you next time.

[end of transcript]

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