Dante’s Inferno

For a moralist, Dante’s Inferno is a museum where a punctilious bureaucrat Dante, being guided by certain regulations, classified sins by their severity. Dante’s Inferno is not premised on the traditional religious notion of the hell as a place, where those punished by God atone for the sins and wrongdoings committed during their earthly lifetime. In lieu of this, Dante provides an intricate psychological illustration of how a certain law of human essential nature operates inside the bodies of human beings. This law looms large in their lives.

Dante’s narrations of Inferno teach people the law of contrapasso, which represents an idea similar to the oriental concept of karma, biblical “one must reap as one has sown”, scientific concept of the cause-and-effect relations (each action brings about a counteraction), as well as a contemporary concept of “what goes around, comes around”. Enlightening his readers to this law, Dante adduced a simple formula “Every thought has its own energy” (Pinsky 1996). If one veers his thoughts to the negative state of avidity or envy, he is bound to suffer from the wishful, dissatisfied energy, which is peculiar to life in this state. From the point of view of the traditional religion, people assert that God will mete out a punishment for greed on them in the afterlife (because they contravene “You shall not covet your neighbor's property” commandment), but the truth is that they suffer right away, for parsimony and enmity are already a sufficient chastisement for them (Pinsky 1996). Thus, the law of contrapasso puts them into a moral quandary, which is not hopeless though. Dante incites people to be responsible for the way they exploit their intellectual sinews and the things on which they concentrate their consciousness.

A contrapasso is a punishment that befits the crime. In Dante’s Inferno, sinners either duplicate the lot of their victims, experiencing the same ordeals as they made others to experience, or suffer from the opposite to their sins torments. The notion of contrapasso can be illustrated by resorting to the fate that befell Paolo and Francesca, Chai, Count Ugolino and Brunetto Latini. Chai was a prostitute that adulated her customers insincerely and servilely in order to win their favor. Typically, she would praise their masculinity, appearance, and dexterity, which was nothing but outrageous lie. Having been sent to Inferno, she was forced to have sexual intercourse with slime and mud, and still she kept on flattering it. 

Paolo and Francesca

Paolo and Francesca became victims of the lewdness and carnality during their earthly lifetime. They coveted each other’s bodies despite the fact they were prohibited from copulating. Their punishment in Inferno was the mirror image of their sin on Earth. Their bodies were conjoined in an intimate position for all eternity. They were doomed to stick together sexually without deriving any satisfaction or having a rest. The malicious irony of this example is that all they wanted on Earth was to be together, and now they would eagerly be separated.

The seventh circle of Inferno lied under the lee of mountains (see Figure 1). The wayfarers (Dante and Virgil) have spotted a bloody seething torrent, where tyrants and plunders were boiled. Centaurs would shoot at them with their great bows. Centaur Ness volunteered to accompany the wanderers and helped them to find a ford over the river. They were surrounded by the thorny thickets. It turned out these were souls of the felons-de-se. Harpies pecked them, dead men tramped them down, which could not but inflict excruciating pain on them. Souls of new sinners advanced towards them. Dante recognized his teacher Brunetto Latini among the souls. When the latter was alive, Dante regarded him as a father figure. Conventional wisdom has it that he was accused of a penchant for sodomy. However, there is not even a gentle hint at the homosexuality of Brunetto Latini in Dante’s Inferno. At his death, it was his knowledge and guilt of the great usury he had practiced, rather than sodomy that troubled him. He had relied on his military and political status in order to gain financially. Latini was involved in secret diplomacy in plotting uprising against Charles of Anjou into the bargain.

Brunetto

Brunetto and his brethren were convened in the seventh circle of inferno along regular usurers because the latter made fertile the thing which was meant to be sterile (gold for instance). On the contrary, homosexuals made sterile that which was meant to be fertile – sexual attraction. Their punishment manifested itself in the milieu in which they existed. It had been pouring with fire rains, which kindled the sand under their feet to the unbearable temperature. The sinners could not extinguish the fire on their bodies. They were running promiscuously in circles and around each other throughout the fiery sands beneath the rain of fire. While in the previous cases connection of contrapasso with the sin in question is pronounced, in this case it is more oblique. However, the sarcastic power of Dante reaches an apogee when one contrives to determine the subtle interconnection between the sin and a punishment that the poet specified for it. Dante adroitly managed to milk the irony by juxtaposing this chaotic and unproductive running to the infecundity of homosexuals.

The deeper Dante descends into Inferno, the more real and rough his style becomes. The poet is not afraid to call a spade by its rightful name and depicts even the most abominable objects. However, the ninth circle of Inferno is lapsed into silence – it is ice-bound and bristles with benumbed sinners. It is a circle of treachery, where all those who shared special bonds of love and trust and gave up these bonds later are castigated. Political traitors constitute another group of sinners who subsume under the category eligible for the ninth circle. Dante considers unfaithfulness to be the most detestable and loathsome sin. The poet does not feel any compassion for traitors. He abhors these double-faced betrayers and stamps them under his feet.

However, even here, in the scoured ice fields, where all sentiments seem to have dissipated, the poetic elements that abounded in the first circles of Inferno awake once again. It is impossible not to be affected by the extraordinary peace of the scene with Count Ugolino, though it is a climax of horror at the same time. Count Ugolino, once an august and powerful podestà (political head) of Pisa who handed the Castro fortress to the enemies on a silver platter, suffered a punishment commensurate to his treason. Thanks to archbishop Ruggieri, he and his sons were taken prisoners and held captive in the Gualandi tower. Dante sees him as the most effective example of contrapasso (law of retribution).

In the icy bowels of the ninth circle of Inferno, Ugolino wipes the bloodstained mouth with the hair of his traitor. Having raised his mouth (not face!) from the terrible viand, he tells that archbishop Ruggieri betrayed and shut him and his sons up in a tower. Through a narrow chink in the wall, he saw a moon go up and down many times, up to the night when he had a dream that Ruggieri hunted a wolf with wolf-cubs on the side of the mountain. Despite the frenzied screams of the prisoners, who fell back on the last-ditch attempt to cry quarter, Ruggieri ordered to “consign” the key from the cell to the Arno river.

Tormented by grief, Ugolino bit his hands. Having decided that their father suffered from hunger, the sons suggested that he appease it with their flesh, which he sired.  “Father our pain” they said/ will lessen if you eat us/ you are the one who clothed us with this wretched flesh/ we plead for you to be the one who strips it away” (Canto XXXIII, lines 56-59). After a few days passed, Ugolino saw his children die gradually. He became blind and started speaking to his dead children, cried and groped for their bodies. After a few days of incarceration, “hunger proved more powerful than grief”. To some extent, the law of contrapasso has overtaken him there, in the cell, during his lifetime. Ugolino lied prostrated in the cell trying to justify his previous felonious meal. 

When in Inferno, Count Ugolino satisfies his unfathomable rage by means of thrusting his teeth into the archbishop’s brain. “Saw two shades frozen in a single hole/ packed so close, one head hooded the other one/ the way the starving devour their bread/ the soul above had clenched the other with his teeth/ where the brain meets the nape” (Canto XXXII, lines 124 -129). Upon the request of Dante he narrates his story, once again prompted by desire of revenge. This narration makes it clear that a tender paternal affection for his sons, outraged bestially, impelled him to take vengeance on Ruggieri. The essence of such a depiction of Ugolino who cannot stop nibbling the skull of his nemesis is that there is a gruesome image of the starved Ugolino circulating incessantly in the head of archbishop. That means that Ruggieri started feeling sharp twinges of conscience, but Count Ugolino saw only the shadow of his traitor and entertained the feelings of vengeance and hatred.     

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Count Ugolino’s monologue is impressive because he does not try to exonerate himself of the crime for which he was condemned to eternal damnation. He instead attempts to elicit sympathy from Dante by means of leveling charges at his enemy, who brutally killed his children.

One can become a better reader of Dante’s Inferno by learning how to draw a parallel between his/her actions in the earthly lifetime and the repercussions these actions might have in their afterlife. People must understand that even if their actions do not result in retribution immediately, they are pregnant with consequences. Dante fell back on sarcasm and irony to make this point clear.

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