Eschatological Inversions in Isaiah and Dante: From Malicious to Redemptive Violence.
Near the UN headquarters in New York City, a verse from the book of Isaiah is engraved into a monument in Ralph Bunche Park. It stands as the unofficial UN mission statement and it reads, "and they shall turn their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into sickles: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they be exercised any more to war" (Isa. 2.4). (1) In the verse immediately preceding this one in the book of Isaiah are the words, "Come and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord" (Isa. 2.3). In essence, Isaiah extends an invitation to come to the Lord's holy mountain, followed by a picture of the transmutation of tools of violence into tools of the harvest. Not only shall there be no more violence, but also on God's holy mountain those very instruments once used to inflict pain and death will now be used to sustain life.
Given the bellicose landscapes around the globe today, this mission may seem like a lofty goal for the UN: Semi-automatic guns recycled and turned into grain mills and fighter drones used for bread distribution seem like a farfetched dream. During Isaiah's lifetime, it would likely have fallen on dubious ears as well, even if modern instruments of warfare had existed. The Kingdom of Assyria in the 8th and 9th centuries B. C. used unprecedented amounts of violence and intimidation in an attempt to take over all of Palestine and Syria en route to Egypt, ultimately crushing Israel and Judah as part of its military campaign. Considered against the repeatedly violent backdrops of the Palestine, Syria and Egypt of today, it seems that energizing an impetus for hope to achieve harmonious coexistence is ever more of the essence. Notwithstanding the regions' millennia-long embitterment, Isaiah's hopeful vision of peace that emerges during the darkest times in his day has had a way of piercing even the darkest political periods in our own time and, as always, it insists on hope. The time period during which Dante's Commedia was composed is no exception. Amid the political strife and ubiquitous violence of the late Middle Ages, where landscapes were fractured and made bloody by divided allegiances to the Pope (Guelphs) on the one side and to the Holy Roman Empire (Ghibellines) on the other, readers nonetheless see hope in Dante, burgeoning through strife. This article will seek to show how Dante's hope irradiating through darkness contains more than mere traces of Isaiah's words and ideas of hope from nearly two millennia before him.
As the pilgrim Dante traverses the eschatological topographies of the Commedia, an inversion takes place in the way in which Dante the poet renders the frightening phenomenon of violence. The violence perpetrated on Christ, His redemptive sacrifice on behalf of humankind, brings about the joy of the blessed in Paradiso, and it allows the penitent souls in Purgatorio to achieve their purification. By contrast, the sinners in Inferno refused and rejected Christ's redemptive sacrifice, which, by way of the Dantean contrapasso, turns now into an eternal, parodic torture for them. Focusing on the term violenza, I will seek to illustrate the polysemous employment of the term, from Inferno to Purgatorio, and finally Paradiso.
Likewise, the book of Isaiah demonstrates a similar transference with respect to the expression of violence; what is on the one hand described as the iniquitous physical articulation of man's corruption against man is, on the other hand, re-contextualized as a mechanism in the process of divine purification of that same violent human errancy. More important, violence in Isaiah is ultimately considered against the backdrop of God's holy mountain, whereupon violence, pain and destruction are no longer operable realities. While the texts of both Dante and Isaiah are saturated with violent imagery, both are also driven by the possibility of replacing destruction with restoration and supplanting fear with hope. I would suggest that this transformation in both texts between fearsome images of condemnation and exhortations of the hope of restoration is only possible because of the crux upon which both Dante's and Isaiah's texts are rooted, allegorically in Dante and prophetically in Isaiah: the crux par excellence, the cross of Christ's crucifixion, alluded to in both texts through the presence of a holy mountain.
Authorizing Hopefulness: From Prophecy to Poetry
It has been extensively noted over the centuries of commentaries that the Commedia is like a canvas upon which Dante demonstrates to his readership his vast understanding of the Bible, not to mention classical poetry and philosophy, as he fills the pages of his poetry with dense biblical and philosophical panoramas. (2) In an especially concentrated episode in which Dante exhibits his robust biblical foundation, Dante the pilgrim masters three theological exams, under the auspices of no less than Saints Peter, James and John, all intimate with the incarnated Christ and all authors of scripture. In the second of these exams, Dante is examined by St. James on hope in Paradiso 25.
Just before Dante responds to the saint's questions, Beatrice steps in and puts in a persuasive word for Dante, explaining to James that this pilgrim has the most hope among all the living: "'La Chiesa militante alcun figliuolo / non ha con piu speranza [...]'" ("'The Church Militant has no son with more hope'" Par. 25.52-53). (3) To conclude the exam, James asks Dante, to whom he now refers as "'te che ti dilette / di lei'" ("'you who take delight in hope'"), what the goal of his hope is, "'quello che la speranza ti 'mpromette'" ("'what promise hope holds out to you?'" Par. 25.85-86, 87). Dante, interestingly, refers immediately to a verse from Isaiah: "'Dice Isaia che ciascuna vestita / ne la sua terra fia di doppia vesta:/ e la sua terra e questa dolce vita'" ("'Isaiah says that each in his own land shall be vested in a double garment, and their own land is this sweet life'" (Par. 25.91-93). Dante is referring to Isaiah 61.7: "For your double confusion and shame, they shall praise their part: therefore shall they receive double in their land, everlasting joy shall be unto them."
The goal of Dante's hope, like Isaiah's, is therefore in the power of great reversals, or inversions, away from the negative and towards the positive: instead of "shame [...] everlasting joy" (Isa. 61.7). It is evident that Dante wants to present himself as utterly imbued with hope, for he has not only Beatrice, but also James, an author of scripture, describe and name him in terms of his hope; likewise, he sees that this hope, rooted in God, is capable of replacing tragic endings with redemptive ones. Dante's allusion to the book of Isaiah as a source of his own future hope seems to make it a potent starting point for examining Dante's "holy mountain," or the Mountain of Purgatory, in light of Isaiah's holy mountain.
Engaging the Interpretations
Historically, the debates around Dante's use of the Bible have been based on several seemingly impassable points of contention. A few of the notable ones include: 1) whether or not to read Dante as a poet, a theologian, or a prophet: a fusion of the theologian-poet or a combination of all three; 2) whether Dante intended the literal level of the Commedia to be read as true; 3) whether the Epistle to Can Grande can be attributed to Dante (thus authorizing the relevance of the much relied upon interpretational key, which proposes the scandalous idea of reading Dante according to biblical exegesis); 4) the fantastic problem of allegory; 5) whether and how Beatrice fits into the theological reading of the text; and 6) whether Dante's rewriting of biblical texts is heretical or rather an act of genius. (4)
Despite the contentiousness of some of these debates, scholarship on the topic of Dante and the Bible has persisted. Among the many works, a few are especially relevant to the themes of this article, especially the writings of Peter Hawkins and Stanley Benfell, who have published comprehensive and detailed studies on the way in which Dante not only appropriates the Bible, but also inhales and exhales it as his own. Hawkins's particular genius manifests in the way he identifies Dante's "scriptural self'--a term he borrows from John Alford (Hawkins 22)--his careful examination of the poet's "biblical discourses" and "scriptural speech," the poet's "self-authorized" and "self authenticating" authority, and the way the poet boldly "reactivates" the Bible in the Commedia as well as his other works. Benfell, furthermore, understands this act of biblical appropriation as Dante's way of "revitalizing" the Bible and making it relevant, for the ultimate goal of bringing readers into a new encounter with the Holy Word. Benfell demonstrates how what is most important for Dante is that "the truths of the Bible are lived; if they do not have an existential force, he has little interest in the text's historical accuracy. He thus updates the Bible [...] rather, he seeks to brings readers back to the sacred text through a reading of his poem" (194).
Following in the wake of the large chorus of witnesses who have approached the intersection of Dante with the Bible, I will continue the investigation of the way in which Dante's text reflects the text of Isaiah, proposing an examination along comparative thematic and rhetorical lines, and beginning with inversions of the meaning of the word violenza across eschatological horizons. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, eschatology "deals with the doctrines of the last things," that is: "death, judgment, heaven and hell." Defined as such, Dante's Commedia constitutes an eschatological database (albeit fictional), with names and "addresses" for the immediate afterlives of the notable (or at times not so notable) literary and historical persons before Dante. Dante scholars have shown that such eschatological horizons not only beg us to embrace new (and at times, inverse) definitions of time, 5 and order, 6 but they also invite us to pay close attention to the transforming significance of words. 7
The Motif of Inversion
Whether semantic, linguistic, thematic or structural levels, inversions are not uncommon devices in Dante's poetics. The very essence of the contrapasso in Inferno illustrates the presence of inversions at the thematic level, as all readers of the Commedia know full well. Thus, for instance, those that fueled the storms of their lust get tossed around in violent storms (Inf. 5); those who perverted the church find themselves upturned in baptismal fonts with their feet forever on fire (Inf. 19); and so on. Inverting meanings and objects is a common motif in Dante's infernal cavern. There are literal physical inversions, as with feet upturned, inverting the physical form in the most literal and physical of ways. There are also metaphorical or teleological inversions, such as baptism, which was intended to bring about new life used inversely to bring about endlessly new deaths. Additionally, there are examples of inversion in which the subject becomes the object, as with the punishment of lust and gluttony. We see inversions on the structural level: Inferno itself is the physical inverse of the Mountain of Purgatory. We see it again in Purgatorio in the form of metaphorical inversions, for the physical states of the penitent souls appear as the inverse of their sin: the once boasting prideful are now humbly bent over with the reified weight of pride on their backs (Purg. 10.136-37), and so on. It remains now to be seen how the meaning and use of the word violenza is seemingly inverted, creating a polysemy between the word violenza, as it is contextualized and defined in Inferno and as it is contextualized and expressed in Paradiso. Its remarkable absence in Purgatorio plays a further role in suggesting an overall shift in the signification of the word violenza and in its role throughout the Commedia.
Polysemy: Serendipity or Expressive Design?
Violence sets the tone that dominates Dante's Inferno. The very purpose of its countless distorted and deformed inhabitants is either to inflict some variety of violent punishment on one another, or to be the recipient of it for eternity. Not only does the entire seventh circle of Inferno detail the specifics of violence--whether it is violence against God, nature, man or the self--but the imagery of the damned throughout all of the infernal landscape is violent in and of itself. (8)
Furthermore, in discussions about the Commedia, it is common to find scholarship that refers to "the violent" natures of souls or to the "violent" nature of their punishments, to the perpetual "violence" demonstrated in their interactions, or to the "violence" that they committed on Earth. Examples are too numerous to list; employed as such a generic term, the term "violence" (violenza) does not appear to necessitate further inquiry. What is noteworthy, however, is that upon a closer look, this seemingly standard term, in fact, appears to be used quite intentionally and only in specific episodes in the Commedia.
Surprisingly, in the entire Commedia, a text of some 111,000 words, the word violenza occurs five times only, while its cognate violento (as a noun and also an adjective) appears three additional times for a total of eight occurrences. Violenza and its cognates appear a total of four times in Inferno, the same frequency with which they also appear in Paradiso, and not once do they appear in Purgatorio. Therefore, notwithstanding the fact that souls throughout Inferno and Purgatorio do suffer violently (eternally in Inferno and temporarily in Purgatorio), and notwithstanding the fact that the concept of violence is so comprehensively embodied through the torturous fires, deformations and scenes of carnage in the Inferno, what we are concerned with is the poet's careful selection and limitation of the word violenza to specific instances.
It is important to note first that the consideration of specific meanings of words denoting violence in the Commedia is neither unprecedented nor uncomplicated. In the eleventh canto of Inferno, the pilgrim himself asks Virgil a question regarding the varying placements and punishments of the violent souls, to which an unimpressed Virgil replies with condescension:
Ed elli a me "Perche tanto delira", disse, "lo 'ngegno tuo da quel che sole? o ver la mente dove altrove mira? Non ti rimembra di quelle parole con le quai la tua Etica pertratta le tre disposizion che 'l ciel non vole, incontinenza, malizia e la matta bestialitade? E come incontinenza men Dio offende e men biasimo accatta?" (Inf. 11.76-84)
(And he: "Not often do your wits stray far afield, as they do now--or is your mind bent on pursuing other thoughts? Do you not recall the words your Ethics uses to expound the three dispositions Heaven opposes, incontinence, malice and mad brutishness, and how incontinence offends God less and incurs a lesser blame?")
Though Virgil subsequently explains the different classifications of violence ("incontinenza, malizia e la matta bestialitade"), modern scholarship nonetheless grappled for some time with the mechanics of how to define clearly and separate such subcategories in the context of Dante's usage. Though Virgil is explicit about Aristotles's Ethics as the obvious source of these categorizations, various scholars have discussed at some length how to clarify the less than obvious differences among these terms in the Commedia. (9) While existing scholarship thus far has dealt with the semantic and categorical nuances of the subcategories, I will examine here the shifting meaning of the word violenza.
It is critical to note, also, that in all three canticles additional terms--such as forza (force), percuotere (strike), or molesto (torment or molest), to select but a few--denote violent concepts. Surely in a text whose dominant themes revolve around the violence that has pervaded history and is so central to the Christian afterlife, one would expect a trove of words signifying violence. What remains interesting is how the word violenza seems to manifest different meanings in the three different canticles, unlike the relatively consistent use of its related synonyms across the poem. (10) Arguably, Dante the poet intentionally differentiated his uses of violenza with respect to the canticles, and thus the issue invites us readers to explore the word's differing significance in each of the otherworldly loci.
Establishing the Definition
The poet explicitly chooses the word violenza in Inferno to furnish a broad definition per se of what is considered violence. As such the word is given a status apart from its synonyms. The first four instances of the word, occurring in Inferno, appear in what one might term the standard definition of violence. According to the Dante Encyclopedia, violence is defined along with fraud:
Malizia (malice), which has ingiuria (injustice) for an end: this is an end that affects another (altrui contrista) or, more broadly, maltreats or destroys the person or goods of someone else or oneself. The means adopted--of force by the violent and guile by the fraudulent--is what differentiates the two forms of malice (Inf. 11.22-27).
The word violenza appears four times in Inferno and it describes: 1) the general category of all the violent souls who dwell in the seventh circle (Inf. 11.28); 2) the general category of sinners who use the violence of their own hand against their own life (Inf. 11.40); 3) the general category of those who inflict violence upon others (Inf. 12.48); and 4) the episode of the violent and unavenged death of Dante's father's cousin, Geri del Bello, whom Dante the Pilgrim seems to notice in the ninth bolgia (Inf. 29.31). (11) The first three episodes are general descriptive categories as explained by Virgil to Dante as they pass through the seventh circle, while only one of them applies to a specific episode. (12) The word violenza here (in both its adjectival and noun forms) is nonetheless used in such a straightforward way as not to merit further inquiry.
What does stand out, however, is that the poet chooses to use a different word, forza, in the very same tercet to describe the three subcategories of sinners who direct their "violence" against God, against the self and against one's neighbor: "'A Dio, a se, al prossimo si pone / far forza [...]'" ("'Violence may be aimed at God, oneself, or at one's neighbor'" Inf. 11.31-32). Later in the same canto this use of the word "forza" appears again to detail the subcategory of the three kinds of "violence" that can be done to one's neighbor: "Morte per forza e ferute dogliose / nel prossimo si danno, e nel suo avere / ruine, incendi e tollette dannose" ("Violent death and grievous wounds may be inflicted upon a neighbor or, upon his goods, pillage, arson, and violent death" Inf. 11.34-36). So it appears that when "violence" is a general category, Dante uses the word violenza, or its cognates, but when it is used to introduce the subcategories, he chooses the word forza. (13)
Beyond its dis legomenon (two appearances) in Inferno 11, and its hapax legomenon (single appearance) in Inferno 12 and 29, the word violenza seems to have exhausted its impact as a word to denote general categories of malice and injustice, since, hereafter in the Commedia, violenza will not appear again until Paradiso, when it takes on a whole new significance.
Before we leave our examination of Inferno, however, it is vital to note that, where these violent sinners dwell in the seventh circle of Inferno, stand physical reminders of the violence done to Christ: the shattered stones resulting from the harrowing of Hell at Christ's death, the very same violence, the denial of which has condemned the sinners eternally to this realm. All the violent pains of Inferno have issued from the sinners' refusal to accept Christ's sacrifice--the highest form of sacred violence on earth. Their eternal and unredemptive violence is the result of this denial.
Inverse Landscapes and Inverse Hearts
Just as Purgatorio was created through the physical inversion of hollowed out Earth protracted upwards, 14 the souls that dwell in Purgatorio reflect emotionally and spiritually inverse responses to their punishments compared to the souls in Inferno. Both sets of souls are assigned painful lots and their punishments are similar: the avaricious and prodigals in Inferno are condemned to push heavy weights against one another (Inf. 7.26-33), while the prideful in Purgatorio must walk bent over with weights on their backs (Purg.10.136-39, 11.26). And yet, the responses of the souls are opposite: the penitent souls recite prayers and pray for others (Purg. 11.25) while the souls in Inferno shout curses (Inf. 7.26). These souls refuse and reject their punishment, which is in fact a true torment, whereas the souls in Purgatorio fully accept, even welcome, their purifying penance, which they view not as a punishment but rather as a necessary part of their desired and hopeful journey toward the vision of God.
One might argue that the penance endured by the souls in Purgatorio is of a violent nature; however, according to the definition of violence just mentioned, it becomes clear that, while painful, the process of purgation is rooted in God's loving discipline, not in malice, that the end is justice, not injustice, and that the souls fully accept their purifying sufferings. Therefore, there is no violenza in Purgatorio, for in fact every punishment constitutes the process of transformation into the image of God by the power of His love and the souls' full acceptance and participation.
All the same, Purgatorio is home to words that reflect pain. Episodes abound in which the topic discussed with the penitent souls refers to previous times of cruelty (crudele, Purg. 20.91), malice (malizia, Purg. 16.60), and evil (mal, Purg. 20.43), or to the nefarious physical expressions of those sentiments, ranging from the general term for striking (percuotere, Purg. 9.6), to the more detailed and grisly descriptions of slaying (ancise, Purg. 20.115) and torment (tormento, Purg. 10.116), just to mention a few. There is no doubt that Purgatorio is a place where memories and discussions of pain still chafe the minds of the souls. However, no violence, according to Dante's description of it in Inferno, is performed in Purgatorio. The fact that the word "violence" has been omitted, while all of the other words denoting violence have remained, draws our attention. Whether or not the poet intentionally omitted the word violenza, the absence of the word that has thus far been used in Inferno to denote the general category of violence per se, is no longer relevant for signifying.
As one considers that Mount Purgatory has no need for the word violenza to describe general categories of the state of the souls, another mountain comes to mind where there is no violence despite a similar context of destruction and chastisement.
Those familiar with the book of Isaiah know that the most recent scholarship considers the book to be divided into two parts, the first of which details prophetic warnings of God's eventual punishment together with the promise of consequent rehabilitation (Sweeney 78-79; Peterson 47-48). The tone is censorious and the language is direct and harsh: Israel's persistently godless mindset and selfish behavior will be punished through the violent siege of foreign armies as well as through endless types of affliction (Isa. 24.1-4). Interspersed between these severe admonitions, however, are visions of hopeful restoration that will take place on God's holy mountain. Once the people have been punished and purified, God will allow a remnant to live and thrive again, to be restored and rebuilt and protected by God on Mount Zion. In the second part of Isaiah, the period of punishment has already been realized, the besieging armies have come and gone, and the exiles are returning to their homeland, whereupon the rebuilding is underway. Among the hope-filled promises of restoration that were pronounced before the period of persecution and exile is the following poetic vision in which Isaiah says:
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb: and the leopard shall lie down with the kid: the calf and the lion, and the sheep shall abide together, and a little child shall lead them. The calf and the bear shall feed: their young ones shall rest together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp: and the weaned child shall thrust his hand into the den of the basilisk. They shall not hurt, nor shall they kill in all my holy mountain.
This theme is repeated several times in the first part of the book of Isaiah. Another such verse appears in Isaiah 25.8-9:
He shall cast death down headlong forever: and the Lord God shall wipe away tears from every face, and the reproach of his people he shall take away from off the whole earth: for the Lord hath spoken it. And they shall say in that day: Lo, this is our God, we have waited for him, and he will save us: this is the Lord, we have patiently waited for him, we shall rejoice and be joyful in his salvation.
The last verse we will consider is the one with which we opened this essay, also belonging to the first half of the book of Isaiah:
And in the last days the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be prepared on the top of mountains, and it shall be exalted above the hills, and all nations shall flow unto it. And many people shall go, and say: Come and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, and to the house of the God of Jacob, and he will teach us his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for the law shall come forth from Sion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. And he shall judge the Gentiles, and rebuke many people: and they shall turn their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into sickles: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they be exercised any more to war.
To say that the most basic thematic structure of Dante's Commedia--warnings of punishment for the unrepentant violent sinners on the one hand and promises of restoration for the repentant on the other hand--echoes the most fundamental themes in Isaiah would be quite commonplace, if not an oversimplification of both texts. To suggest, though, that there is something significant about the presence of a holy, Christ-centered mountain of transformation at the center of both texts, upon which there is overt signaling of the absence of violenza, would suggest a more direct influence of the Isaiah text on Dante.
Dante would have been well acquainted not only with Isaiah, but also with the tradition of medieval commentators who read these passages. The commentators understood the "mountain of the Lord" in these passages in a variety of surprising ways. In his commentary on Isaiah, Cyril of Alexandria, the 5th-century patriarch and an influential theologian, says that the mountain "is referring not to the actual city but to a spiritual building, the Church which is likened to a mountain. For the Church is indeed lifted up and conspicuous and known by all peoples throughout the world" (Wilken 34). In his commentary on Isaiah, John Chrysostom, the 4th-century priest in Antioch and bishop in Constantinople, argues that the mountain refers to "the invincible strength of the Church's teachings" (Wilken 35). Then St. Augustine explains in a sermon the mountain as it originates in the book of Daniel: "This mountain was a small stone that grew till it filled the world, as Daniel said" (Dan. 2.34). Augustine also exhorts, "Approach the mountain, climb up the mountain, and when you climb it, don't go down. There you will be safe, there you will be protected; Christ is your mountain of refuge" (Wilken 38). Lastly, Gregory the Great, the 6th-century bishop of Rome, in his commentary to 1 Kings, continues to add to the interpretations of the mountain in Isaiah. Referring to the Virgin Mary, he says, "This mountain was made the highest because Mary shone above all the saints. And as a mountain implies height, so house signifies a dwelling place. Therefore, she is called mountain and house, because she, illuminated by incomparable merits, prepared a holy womb for God's only begotten Son to dwell in" (Wilken 39).
Clearly, there was not a single interpretation agreed upon by all of patristic Christendom, but it is interesting to see how nearly all of these early biblical commentaries could have contributed to Dante's own rendering of his holy mountain. Surely Dante's mountain is a reflection of the church--as Cyril of Alexandria argued about Isaiah's mountain--for we can see clearly that Dante's mountain is inhabited by the penitent church body. In addition, Dante's mountain is dense with doctrine, as John Chrysostom says about Isaiah's mountain. Whether it is in the doctrine of the end times, as illustrated by the Earthly Paradise, or the doctrine that is breathed into Dante's rewriting of the Beatitudes, or the doctrine of the Trinity, (15) countless scholars have written scores of commentaries on the Christian doctrine spilling forth from the pages of Purgatorio.
We know that Augustine glosses Isaiah's mountain as the Kingdom of the Lord. It is, furthermore, easy to deduce God's presence among the penitent souls from the very Beatitudes themselves, which Dante has the souls invoke in Purgatorio 11:7-9, and from the supplications of the penitent souls, precisely as they pray: "'Vegna ver' noi la pace del tuo regno,/ che noi ad essa non potem da noi,/ s'ella non vien, con tutto nostro ingegno'" ("'May the peace of your kingdom come to us, for we cannot attain it of ourselves if it come not, for all our striving'"). Thus the Spirit of the Kingdom of God dwells in the penitent souls and the Kingdom is among them. Finally, as Gregory sees that Isaiah's holy mountain is especially Marian in its essence, we see reflected in Dante's Purgatorio an equally Marian influence in that each terrace is adorned with some episode from the life of Mary: the Annunciation, the Wedding at Cana, Finding Jesus in the Temple, the Visitation, Birth of Christ, and so on (Purg. 10, 13, 15, 18, 20).
Even more relevant is the Christological nature of both Dante's and Isaiah's holy mountains. As the patristic scholars noted, whether Isaiah's mountain is an embodiment of the church, its doctrine, the Kingdom of the Lord, the Lord himself, or Mary, it is nonetheless and unarguably Christ-centered at its core. The same, in parallel, can be said about Dante's Purgatorio.
That Dante absorbed these commentaries on Isaiah's holy mountain and integrated them into the depictions of his own holy mountain seems to be more than a great coincidence but rather a viable influence. Regardless of whether the poet intentionally modeled his holy mountain upon Isaiah's, the motif of the mountain is nonetheless resonant on many chords, and thus I suggest that Isaiah is a conceivable influence and reason for which the word violenza does not appear in all of Purgatorio. For on Dante's holy mountain, as on Isaiah's, "They shall not hurt, nor shall they kill" (Isa. 11.9) and "they shall turn their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into sickles" (Isa. 2.4).
In more recent scholarship, Carol Kaske has noted the biblical foundation of Dante's mountain. She argues that Mount Purgatory embodies the "New Law" of grace in contrast to the "Old," unfulfillable law, described by Paul in Romans 7, defined by many of the early commentators as the "natural law." Supported by Singleton's famous essay, "In exitu Israel de Aegypto," Caske sets the context for reading Purgatorio in the framework of Exodus and thus identifies the mountain of Dante's "Exodus" as Mt. Sinai.
It is a commonplace to mention how Dante scholars over the centuries have identified the Exodus story as essentially the figure, or type, or Scriptural allegory, if you will, for the rest of the Bible. (16) In the same way that the Israelites were brought out of Egypt into the Promised Land, sinners are brought out of bondage and into redemption, the lost find their way home, and the godless find their way to God through the love and sacrifice of Christ. As such, it follows that if Dante's Mount Purgatory were indeed a type of Mt. Sinai, as Caske argues, then it would build an even stronger case for Dante's Mount Purgatory to be concurrently--by virtue of the figure, or type, or Scriptural allegory--Isaiah's holy mountain, not to mention the mountain of Jesus's famous sermon. (17) What is important and essential to all of these mountains is that they are places of holy transformation, of renunciations of violence and beginnings of peace, of submissions to God's perfect will and abandonments of one's own will, of deaths to self so that souls can be made new in God's promise. All of this is only possible through the presence of Christ, as Dante so explicitly shows us, and Isaiah so distinctively alludes to.
Powerful Hope and Compulsion to Love
In Paradiso, we see striking new contexts for the word violenza, uttered by Beatrice for the first three instances at the beginning of Paradiso in canto 4. The last instance of the word in canto 20 comes not even from a mouth, but rather from the eye of the Eagle, comprised of souls that appear as stars in the Heaven of Jupiter. No longer does the word issue forth from the pagan Virgil, who has left the Pilgrim on the top of Mount Purgatory, or from the inquisitive pilgrim, but it now has new, more beatific sources.
In the first three instances in Par. 4, the word is used as a part of Beatrice's disapproval of violence, which, as Singleton, among others, has pointed out, is grounded in Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics, a source that dominates the doctrine of much of this canto (Commentary to Paradise 4.73-74, 76-78, 100-102, 103-05). More specifically, in this canto Beatrice is answering Dante's queries regarding the nature of the will, distinguishing between the absolute and conditional will, and when the will to do good is influenced by the compulsion of violence.
Beatrice's first use of the word is in her reiteration of Dante's question:
"Tu argomenti: 'Se 'l buon voler dura, la violenza altrui per qual ragione di meritar mi scema la misura?'"
("You reason: 'If the will does not even waver in devotion to the good, how can the violence of another reduce my measure of reward?'")
The second instance is in her response:
"Se violenza e quando quel che pate niente conferisce a quel che sforza, non fuor quest'alme per essa scusate."
("Even if the violence is done when the one who bears it in no way consents to the one who deals it out, these souls were not excused on that account.")
The essence of her response, as glossed by Hollander is that "Beatrice is brutally clear: Since the will by its very nature always seeks the good, any capitulation to external force is a violation of God's love" (Commentary to Paradise 4.73-81). Essentially what Beatrice is saying, via the definition of "compulsory" from the Ethics, is that laying down one's life in the face of violence is the only option that reflects God's love and God's will. (18) Beatrice's elaboration of the idea shows, however, that it is not a simple surrender at all. Rather, the laying down of one's life is at the same time the surging up of one's will, as she says in the last of the three verses:
"[...] che volonta, se non vuol, non s'ammorza, ma fa come natura face in foco, se mille volte violenza il torza."
("For the will, except by its own willing, is not spent, but does as by its nature fire does in flame, though violence may force it down one thousand times.")
What stands out in this discussion of violence and the will is the radically different place that violence takes with respect to life and death. In Inferno, the word violenza defines major categories of injury and injustice that lead to death. In this canto of Paradiso, however, though the violence in question may lead to the death, for instance, of an innocent martyr, it does not have the last word; rather, the power of the will, when in accord with God's will, continues to burn, unable to be squelched by violenza. The will of God, and in God, is the victor over violence, and is triumphant, like the flaming of an unquenchable fire, over death.
By contrast to the souls in Inferno, for whom the result of denying Christ's sacred violence is their eternal and unredemptive violence, the souls in Paradiso embrace the power of the divine violence done to Christ, and, as a result, experience a redefined type of violenza. It is as if the act of accepting the violence to Christ has enabled the inversion of the expression and experience of violenza for the souls in Paradiso.
We see this inversion clearly in the heaven of Jupiter; when the pilgrim sees souls dazzling in the form of an Eagle, the word violenza issues forth from the eye of the Eagle. In this scene, violenza no longer depicts a malice that ends in death, or even the death of a martyr; rather, in this last appearance, the word carries a positive and eternally life-giving meaning:
"Regnum celorum violenza pate, da caldo amore e da viva speranza, che vince la divina volontate [...]."
(Regnum celorum suffers violence from fervent love and living hope. These conquer the very will of God.)
As is widely noted, the phrase regnum celorum violenza pate is a reference to the book of Matthew: "The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away" (11.12). The Rev. H. F. Tozer notes in his commentary to this passage in Paradiso that
Our Lord is there speaking of believers pressing into His kingdom; here, in like manner, the reference is to the breaking down of the barriers, which would exclude from Heaven the persons spoken of. In the case of Trajan this was effected by the hope (viva speranza) which animated St. Gregory; in that of Ripheus by his own love (caldo amore.)
Violence in this scripture, and in Paradiso, refers to a living hope to enter heaven. The word violenza no longer appears in the context of injury or injustice leading to death, but rather in the context of the faith and hope that lead to life, and life everlasting. In Paradiso violenza thus denotes a desire that animates living creatures on earth to suffer earthly violence in order to avoid Inferno's eternal violence and enter God's eternal life-giving kingdom, generated by faith, love, and hope through the redeeming sacrifice of Christ. The meaning of the word violenza is hereby transformed, released from its dark connotations, and made to express the forceful passion that animates all the blessed for eternity in selflessness and submission in love, in and through God. It carries the total and complete inversion of its infernal meaning and, at the same time, it bursts forth with echoes to eschatological inversions that we see on Isaiah's holy mountain.
"A Crown for Ashes"
In the same chapter of Isaiah from which, as I have argued, Dante draws to prove to James the nature of his hope, there appears a list of wonderful inversions in the context of what would have been a future time (for Isaiah) of the Lord's coming to comfort all those on his holy mountain (Mount Zion). Isaiah (and later Jesus) says:
The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord hath anointed me: he hath sent me to preach to the meek, to heal the contrite of heart, and to preach a release to the captives, and deliverance to them that are shut up. To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, and the day of vengeance of our God: to comfort all that mourn: To appoint to the mourners of Sion, and to give them a crown for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, a garment of praise for the spirit of grief: and they shall be called in it the mighty ones of justice, the planting of the Lord to glorify him. And they shall build the places that have been waste from of old, and shall raise up ancient ruins, and shall repair the desolate cities, that were destroyed for generation and generation.
This promised Isaiahan ascent that takes souls from grieving states of mourning upwards to completely renewed states wherein the oil of joy pours freely and souls rejoice bearing garments of praise is unmistakably prefigured in the Exodus imagery that begins Purgatorio with the verses "In Exitu Israel," sung by the penitent souls arriving on the shores of Purgatorio. Furthermore, Isaiah's prophetic vision of rehabilitation and reconstruction is obviously realized and depicted by the stories of ascent of each soul in Purgatorio, wherein, totally overcoming earthly violence, prideful souls become humble, envious ones become compassionate, anger yields to self-control, greed surrenders to generosity and lust gives way to chastity. Dante's Mount Purgatory, like Isaiah's mountain, is a place where the work of restoration is achieved, where the promise of Exodus is realized, and where the fruit of reparation yields healing and healthful transformation. Thus, what was at one time absorbed in the grief of violence and ruin is now exuberant with the joy of renovation. Furthermore, in both Isaiah and Dante, all of this healing and transfiguration is attributed to the mission of the Christ, "la gloria di colui che tutto move" (Par. 1:1).
If any symbol has ever had the power to invoke the idea of transformation from violence to hope, it is the cross, as we read in Isaiah, "the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and by his bruises we are healed" (53.5). Christ endured the utmost violence at the hand of men, a sacred violence totally dissimilar from the type designed for sinners in Dante's Inferno and even in Purgatorio. For Christ was sinless and allowed to be subjected to death on the cross to redeem all human beings. And yet, in the act of violence perpetrated upon Jesus, even though it was done through human injustice, divine justice nonetheless becomes the fruit, as Beatrice explains to Dante in Paradiso 7. Furthermore, even though malice drove the hearts of those who demanded his crucifixion, it was from an infinite act of love that God allowed it to be done. Therefore, in the very midst of the act of crucifying, God took what was enacted out of hate and transformed it into an inheritance of redemptive hope, whose ultimate manifestation is love. The historical cross became the turning point on which humanity's violence was rendered ultimately powerless and, simultaneously, the point at which the hopeful and love-filled violenza, captured by Dante's reiteration of Matthew's words in Paradiso 20.94-96, came into existence. It certainly is not the case that after the crucifixion human beings stopped inflicting violence upon one another, but rather that death in light of the cross is redefined.
In Isaiah life is redeemed and restored through images of animosity transcended and peacefulness surpassing conflict in every fiber of the natural world. In Dante's Paradiso, life after death is redefined in tones so ethereal and lovely as to make it begin to be desirable. Through both, we see a lineage of hope, grounded in love more powerful than all the world's violenza.
Ellie Emslie Stevens
Alighieri, Dante. La Commedia secondo l'antica vulgata. Ed. Giorgio Petrocchi. Milano: Mondadori, 1966-67.
--. Inferno. Trans. Robert & Jean Hollander. Intro and notes by Robert Hollander. New York: Doubleday, 2000.
--. Paradiso. Trans. Robert & Jean Hollander. Intro and notes by Robert Hollander. New York: Doubleday, 2007.
--. Purgatorio. Trans. Robert & Jean Hollander. Intro and notes by Robert Hollander. New York: Doubleday, 2003.
Auerbach, Erich. Dante: Poet of the Secular World. Trans. Ralph Manheim. New York: New York Review Books, 2007.
Barolini, Teodolinda. Dante's Poets: Textuality and Truth in the Comedy. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1984.
--. Undivine Comedy: Detheologizing Dante. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1992.
Benfell, V. Stanley. The Biblical Dante. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2011.
Bloom, Harold. Ruin the Sacred Truths: Poetry and Belief from the Bible to the Present. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1989.
--. The Western Canon: The Books and the School of the Ages. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1994.
Brown, Francis, C. Briggs, and S.R. Driver. The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew English Lexicon. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishing, 1996.
Brownlee, Kevin. "Dante and the Classical Poets." The Cambridge Companion to Dante. Ed. Rachel Jacoff. Cambridge: U of Cambridge P, 1993. 100-119.
Catholic Encyclopedia. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05528b.htm
Colilli, Paul. "Harold Bloom and the Post-theological Dante." Annali d'italianistica 8 (1990): 132-43.
Croce, Benedetto. La poesia di Dante. Roma: Laterza, 1921.
Grandgent, Charles H., ed. La divina commedia. 1909. Boston: D. C. Heath, 1913.
Hawkins, Peter. Dante's Testaments: Essays in Scriptural Imagination. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1999.
Hollander, Robert. Allegory in Dante's Commedia. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1969.
--."Theologus-Poeta." Dante Studies 118 (2000): 261-302. The Holy Bible. Douay/Rheims Version. Baltimore: John Murphy, 1899.
Iannucci, Amilcare, ed. Dante. Contemporary Perspectives. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1997.
Kaske, Carol. "Mount Sinai and Dante's Mount Purgatory." Dante Studies 89 (1971): 118.
Kleinhenz, Christopher. "Dante and the Bible: Biblical Citation in the Divine Comedy." Iannucci 74-93.
Lansing, Richard. "Dante's Concept of Violence and the Chain of Being." Dante Studies 99 (1981): 67-87.
Lectura Dantis Neapolitana. Ed. P. Giannantonio. Napoli: Loffredo, 1985.
Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth, trans. The Divine Comedy. Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1867.
Mazzoni, Francesco. "Canto XI dell'Inferno." Lectura Dantis Neapolitana 25-45.
Nardi, Bruno. "Dante profeta." Dante e la cultura medievale. Roma: Laterza, 1949.
Pequigney, Joseph. "Violence." The Dante Encyclopedia. Ed. Richard Lansing. New York: Routledge, 2000.
Petersen, David. L. The Prophetic Literature: An Introduction. Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002.
Picone, Michaelangelo. "Dante and the Classics." Iannucci 51-73. Singleton, Charles. Commedia: Elements of Structure. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1954.
--. "In exitu Israel de Aegypto." Ed. John Freccero. Dante: Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1965. 102-21.
--. "The Irreducible Dove." Comparative Literature 9 (1957): 129-35.
--, ed. and trans. Paradise. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1975.
Smith, William. Smith's Bible Dictionary. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishing, 1993.
Strong, James. Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, updated ed. KJV. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishing, 2009.
Sweeney, Marvin A. "The Latter Prophets." The Hebrew Bible Today: An Introduction to Critical Issues. Ed. Steven L. McKenzie and Matt Patrick Graham. Louiville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998. 69-94.
Tozer, Rev. H. F., ed. and trans. La divina commedia. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1901.
Wilken, Robert, ed. and trans. Isaiah Interpreted by Early Christian and Medieval Commentators. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2007.
(1) All quotes from the Bible in this essay will come from the Douay-Rheims translation. The quote as it is inscribed in Ralph Bunche Park, however, is taken from the King James Version, which reads, "They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more" (Isa. 2:4).
(2) On the question of the classical and biblical foundations in Dante's works, see Brownlee; Hawkins, esp. chapters 1-9; Picone; and Benfell, esp. the introduction.
(3) All quotes from Dante's Commedia in Italian come from the Giorgio Petrocchi edition. All quotes in English come from the translations furnished by Robert and Jean Hollander.
(4) Concerning the commentary tradition on this topic, I intend to highlight but a few of the most significant voices that have shaped the discussion--some more and some less controversial--starting with Croce, who in many ways prompted the subsequent debates with his question nearly a hundred years ago of whether Dante's claims to authorial sanctity render his poetry superior to others (Croce 169). A generation later, Auerbach declared new theories for understanding not only the structuring of Dante's opus, i.e., figural and biblical typology, but also theories related to the way in which Dante manages to give birth to concrete realities despite the densely philosophical nature of his work. Following in his wake, Singleton published the famous assertions that "the fiction of the Divine Comedy is that it is not fiction" ("The Irreducible Dove" 129) and that "Dante imitates God's way of writing" (Commedia 15-16). These pronouncements have undergirded readings of Dante since then, inviting readers to play by the rules of Dante's own exegetical guidelines, considering the "make-believe" narrative device of framing his fiction as non-fiction, while nonetheless understanding that the text is purely fictional. In roughly the same generation Nardi very provocatively asserted to the contrary that "chi considera la visione dantesca e il rapimento del poeta al cielo come finzioni letterarie, travisa il senso" ("anyone who considers Dante's vision and his rapture into heaven as literary fiction is missing the point" (Nardi 392; my trans.). Yet a generation later, and appearing robustly in the line of provocateurs, Bloom wrote Ruin the Sacred Truths, which presents Dante as audacious and heretical. He argued that "Dante was a ruthless visionary, passionately ambitious and desperately willful," and his poem, "for all its learning, is not deeply involved in the Bible" (46, 47). Then Barolini, perhaps the most provocative of all, famously took the approach of "detheologizing" Dante, an approach which is her way of keeping the form engaged with the content, thereby capturing the ideology within; in essence, taking the control back from Dante in order to allow for a reading free from author-imposed guidelines. She stated, "it is precisely in the ideology of the form that we can perceive the means through which Dante controls his readers and shapes their readings" (Undivine Comedy 17.) Barolini sought to reveal Dante's strategies and uncover the traces of his intentional (and albeit fictionalizing) non-fictionalizing of his biblical landscapes.
(5) In Singleton's commentary to Par. 27.67-72, he highlights the existence of an "inverted snowstorm" in Paradise as well as corresponding imagery of "inverted rain" described by Dante in the Vita nuova 23.25. For Singleton, this presence of the inverted "snowstorm" in Paradiso "contributes to an experience which the reader will undergo as he passes, with the pilgrim Dante, from time to eternity, from the universe with the earth at the center to a universe that has God as its center: a complete change in gravitation, from the material to the spiritual."
(6) Both Longfellow and Grandgent in their commentaries to Par. 2.23 detail the phenomenon of inverse movements in Paradiso by explaining how Dante describes the flight of an arrow in inverse order, "the arrival, the ascent, the departure;--the striking of the shaft, the flight, the discharge from the bow-string" (Longfellow).
(7) For a discussion of the inverse way in which Dante has the Siren name herself, "'Io son', cantava, 'io son dolce serena'" (Purg. 19.19), and the way in which Dante has Beatrice name herself, "'ben son, ben son Beatrice'" (Purg. 30.73), see Hollander, Allegory (144n)
(8) For a thorough examination and interpretation of violence in the seventh circle of Inferno--in particular the re-defining of violence as it is not synonymous with bestialitade--see Lansing's excellent article on violence and the chain of being.
(9) In his commentary to Inferno 11.76-90, Hollander provides a sketch of the debate, referring to Mazzoni's essay on Inferno 11 (Lectura Dantis Neapolitana) and other scholars for a more detailed analysis.
(10) In Purgatorio, for example, the word percuotere is used once to denote the violent act of striking men with a tail--"che con la coda percuote la gente" (Purg. 9.6)--and again in a naturalistic, non-violent sense to denote the temporary blinding of the eyes by the sun, "occhi pur teste dal sol percossi" (Purg. 32.11). Furthermore in Paradiso, the word percuotere is used not only to indicate the abstract concept of reaching the goal of one's purpose--"lo stral di mia intenzione percuote" (Par. 13.105)--but it is also used to express the absolutely physical sense of striking one's chest in an act of bewailing sin, "mie peccata e 'l petto mi percuoto" (Par. 22.108).
(11) In Inferno the contexts for the four instances of the words violenza (once), violenta (twice), and violenti (once) are: "Di violenti il primo cerchio e tutto" (Inf. 11.28); "Puote omo avere in se man violenta" (Inf. 11.40); "O duca mio, la violenta morte" (Inf. 29.31); "qual che per violenza in altrui noccia" (Inf. 12.48).
(12) Although the word violenza in Inferno 29 does not directly contribute to the initial and general categorization of the sinners as explained by Virgil, might it possibly reflect that, for Dante, there is another general, though entirely personal, category of violence, that is, violence done to a member of Dante's own family?
(13) It is interesting, though peripheral, to note that in this section of Inferno, while Dante uses violenza for main categories, he uses forza instead for subcategories of three. There are three subcategories for the direction of violence: toward God, toward oneself and toward one's neighbor, and three subcategories for violence against one's neighbor or their goods: pillage, arson and violent death. The division of three, of course, evokes the Trinity, and does so in a way that is classically infernal: it inverts what (in the Trinity) is meant for good and renders it an instrument of evil.
(14) This explanation is, of course, provided by Virgil as he and the pilgrim prepare to exit the infernal cavern (Inf. 34.123-26).
(15) See, e.g., Longfellow's commentary to Pur. 29.83; Benfell's work for an exposition of themes concerning the Beatitudes; Tozer's commentary to Purg 3.35-36.
(16) In Biblical Dante, Benfell makes the astute comment, "Some scholars, however, have made a determined effort to separate Auerbach's figura, also called typology, out from allegory, and so to spare it the opprobrium often directed towards the latter term [...]. But for Augustine and other patristic and medieval exegetes, we look in vain for a terminological consistency that makes this distinction. As de Lubac and Pepin have shown, what we often call 'typology' was most frequently termed 'allegory' in the Latin patristic tradition. In fact, the terms 'type,' 'allegory,' and 'figura' are frequently interchangeable" (29).
(17) In general the meaning of the non-specific word har in Hebrew and oros in Greek used to denote mountains in the Bible, whether referring to singular places or to entire ranges of mountains, does not carry ubiquitous connotations. In some instances, the harim, often translated as the "high places," are the mountains upon which the illicit worship of false gods took place by pagan communities and the Israelites alike (Isa. 65:7; Jer. 3:6). In others places, however, it was used to indicate a hiding place or a place of refuge by the Israelites (Judg. 6:2, Ps.11:1). Interestingly, the word har as a figural noun refers to both encountering hopeless calamities (Jer.13:16) as well as to its opposite, of overcoming its foes (Isa. 41:15). The word har is also used in the most neutral, purely geographical sense to indicate the space of hill countries and mountain regions, places where one finds gazelles, leopards, partridges and lost sheep (1 Chron.12:8, Song of Sol. 4:8, 1 Sam. 26:20 and Nah. 3:18, Jer. 50:6). Only in some instances does it refer to places made holy and set apart by God, and in these instances the word mountain does not appear without a proper noun modifier, such as with Mount Sinai (upon which the Mosaic law is issued, Exod. 19-24), Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal (the mountains upon which blessings and curses were bestowed, as in Deut. 27:11-13), Mount Carmel (where God reveals his power, invalidating the prophets of Baal: 1 Kings:18), Mount of Transfiguration (where Christ is pronounced by God as his son: Matt. 17:1-13), Mount of Olives (upon which Jesus and disciples prophesy, pray and weep over Jerusalem: Matt. 24:3-26:2; Mark 13:3-7; Luke 21:7-38), to name the most obvious. (For more examples, consult Brown-Driver-Briggs Bible Dictionary, Smith's Bible Dictionary, and Strong's Exhaustive Concordance.)
(18) Singleton, Commentary to Paradise 4.73-74: "Eth. Nicom. III, 1, 1109b-1110a (see Aquinas, Opera omnia, vol. XXI, 70, or R. Spiazzi, 1964, 111): "Videntur autem involuntaria esse, quae violenta vel propter ignorantiam facta. Violentum autem est cuius principium extra tale existens in quo nihil confert operans vel patiens. Puta si spiritus tulerit aliquo, vel homines domini existentes.'" (Involuntary actions seem to be those that arise either from violence or from ignorance. The compulsory action [violentum] is one whose principle is from outside and to which the person involved or the recipient contributes nothing, for example, if he is driven somewhere by the wind, or if he is in the power of other men.)
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|Author:||Stevens, Ellie Emslie|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2017|
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