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Paradoxical prophecy: Dante's strategy of self-subversion in the inferno.

I. Writing and (Anti-) Revelation (Inferno XXIV-XXV)

The general breakdown of all human interpretive means, signally language, in the Inferno is analyzed particularly with regard to writing as a medium in cantos XXIV and XXV. Canto XXIV opens with an image of the frost's ephemeral writing on the earth and its fading soon away: "but not for long does its pen's sharpness last" ("ma poco dura a la sua penna tempra," 6). (1) Tellingly, the canto closes with images of black and white that clearly refer to the vicissitudes of contemporary Black and White Guelf politics: Pistoia will first grow thin of Blacks ("Pistoia in pria d'i Neri si dimagra," 143), but then Mars will bring turgid clouds and tempest and suddenly disperse the mist "so that every White will be wounded" ("si ch'ogne Bianco ne sara feruto," 150). Yet these images also suggest black ink on white paper, and as such they are woven into the metaphorical fabric of allusions to phenomena of writing that runs through these cantos.

Writing is in theory an instrument of stability, but here it becomes an emblem of turmoil and transience. Writing had traditionally been relied on as the means of stabilizing and fixing an indelible memory of oneself, as witness, for example, the epigraphs on ancient tombstones. But in cantos XXIV and XXV of the Inferno Dante reveals writing to be an eminently erasable trace of a human, mortal reality that is quintessentially vanishing. Particularly poets endeavor to achieve immortal fame by their writings. Dante's own aspirations for his writing are patent, for example, where he boasts of his outdoing Lucan and Ovid by his virtuoso description of metamorphoses of thieves into snakes and vice versa (XXV.94-102). Such a claim for writerly rank with or even above the Latin classics, however, is ironically undercut by being placed in the midst of a demonstration of how impermanent all human identity is, particularly insofar as it depends on effaceable written tokens or inscriptions.

The central action of Canto XXIV is the instantaneous reduction to ashes, in order to be restored and start over again, like the phoenix, of Vanni Fucci, whose very name rings with vain fugacity (vanitas) and the fact that he was here (ci fu). This act of perpetual disintegration is perceived through a metaphor of writing construed as an impersonal act described by a reflexive verb ("si scrisse"). The instability and volatility connoted by writing are linked with dissolution of personal identity in the way io, the word for "I," breaks down into the subsemantic particles of its component letters: o and i.
   Ne o si tosto mai ne i si scrisse,
      com' el s'accese e arse, e cener tutto
      convenne che cascando divenisse....

   (Neither o nor i ever was so quickly written,
      as he ignited and burned, and was turned all
      to ashes at the same time as he fell.)

In the same vein, the metamorphoses of the thieves into snakes and vice versa, robbing them of personal identity, in the next canto is consummated metaphorically as the dying of the whiteness of paper turned black by the heat of the flames (XXV.63-66).
      ne l'un ne l'altro gia parea quel ch'era:
   come procede innanzi da l'ardore,
      per lo papiro suso, un color bruno
      che non e nero ancora e '1 bianco more

      (already neither appeared as he was before:
   as a brown color proceeds
      before the heat when paper burns,
      it is not yet black, while the heat dies.)

This is a subtle reminder of the impotence of writing in the face of physical dynamism. It comes just as Dante boasts his unprecedented writerly mastery of metamorphosis, with his defiant challenge to classical poets, whom he claims to have bested: "Taccia Lucano ... Taccia di Cadmo e d'Aretusa Ovidio, ... io non lo 'invido" ("Be silent Lucan ... Be silent Ovid concerning Cadmus and Arethusa ... I have nothing to envy," XXV.94-99). The volatility of writing undercuts the interpretive art that is Dante's own vehicle, sending up in smoke even his own illusion of establishing a permanent identity through such a work as the Inferno.

If the work is to have enduring value, this cannot derive simply from any virtuosity of Dante's own, for his writing is unmasked as another merely mortal expression of a perishable self. Truly lasting value can be given rather only by a transcendent source. As the property of its author, the Inferno, too, is condemned by the dissolution of all supposedly stable identities, the ineluctable obliteration of all merely human form. Dante's writing outstrips Ovid's by entering more deeply into the mystery of metamorphosis that writing cannot describe without fixing (and thereby falsifying) it in static signs. Writing in this way reverses its usual connotation of permanence and becomes emblematic of the instability of unredeemed, mortal human identity.

Dante, moreover, incorporates into his text the dimension of reading as what inevitably makes the meaning of the written internally unstable and open to shifting interpretations* His own writing is continually opened to new appropriations of meaning through the poem's solicitations of its reader. This is a crucial way in which Dante relinquishes and even undermines his control as author, in order to let loose a power transcending his own and allow it to penetrate into his text. Ultimately only relation to an absolute Other--a transcendent God-can create stable, substantial, and inviolable identity for the human person. Creation of an enduring identity can be catalyzed, but cannot be contained or controlled, by human acts and means such as writing. (2) Indeed within a few lines of the arrogant boast relegating Lucan and Ovid to silence (XXV.97-102) in the face of Dante's matchless virtuosity, these cantos conclude with Dante's confession that he is not in command of his own pen and a consequent appeal for pardon:
        ... e qui mi scusi
   la novita se fior la penna abborra

   (  ... and here may the strange novelty
   excuse me, if my pen at times is errant.)

This sudden shift typifies Dante's oscillation between bursts of self-confident pride marked by prophetic pronouncements and moments of humiliation and retrenchment, in which he (as protagonist) is often reduced to silence.

II. Discursive Traps: False Transcendence and Bad Faith (Inferno XXVI-XXVII)

Writing is one of the means that human beings seize upon in order to attempt to establish their identity and confer eternity upon themselves--in fact, to steal it, Dante suggests in the cantos on the punishment of the thieves--from the one Author who alone can truly confer life and immortality. In his Inferno, in contrast, this connotation of permanence is reversed, and writing turns into a revelation of the collapse of human identity and its pretended stability. So far from standing for things eternal, writing is made to serve as an emblem of the ephemeral. Dante's demolition of writing in its pretentions to permanence becomes part of a strategy of indicating the way towards the true transcendence that only God can grant. This reversal belongs to a series of ruthless exposures of false transcendence sought by sinners through human works and means such as words. In crucial ways, this series climaxes in the encounter with Ulysses. The series runs through Francesca, with her deceptive poetic rhetoric (canto V), Pier de la Vigna, who is also duped by his own linguistic dexterity (canto XIII), and Brunetto Latini, whose teaching "how man makes himself immortal" ("come l'uom s'etterna," XV.85) through his own work in words-his literary Tesoro--is emblematic of false transcendence that ignores the one true Lord of life in attempting to achieve immortality by one's own efforts.

Canto XXVI represents the height of Dante's examination of the dangers of hubris inherent in his own rhetorical project. Ulysses, the great voyager and rhetorician of antiquity, is an alter-ego in which Dante beholds the image of his own near-damnation. In the presence and proximity of the legendary Greek hero, Dante registers his sense of peril about his own audacious voyage. It is a little too like Ulysses's "mad flight" (his "folle volo," 125), which echoes Inferno II.35, where Dante feared that his own journey might be rash or "folle." Here Dante says that he has to reign in his genius, as he depicts himself gripping a rock tightly, without which he would be precipitated down to his own destruction (XXVI.43-45). He is, in fact, in his keen empathy and eagerness to converse with Ulysses, bent with desire toward the tongue of flame flickering in damnation ("vedi che del disio ver' lei mi piego!" 69).

Ulysses is a chief and, in crucial ways, a culminating symbol of the attempt to establish human identity autonomously. He minds none of the markers put in place by others, but follows only his own unprecedented audacity. He travels out beyond the limits of language and its domestications into the Nameless. Navigating the world prior to its being charted with names, he reaches Gaeta before Aeneas names it for his nurse-maid, and in fact before anyone else living he comes into sight of Mount Purgatory in the southern hemisphere. He ventures past all the limits set for human nature, embarking at an already advanced age, when he is old and slow (106), trespassing beyond the columns of Hercules (108-109) into the unpeopled world ("mondo sanza gente," 117) behind the sun.

Ulysses's mad flight turns his ship's oars into wings ("de' remi facemmo ali al folle volo," 125)--a kind of category mistake reminiscent of Geryon's aviation described as navigation that violates and defrauds the natural order of things (XVII.7). More precisely, here it is a question of artifacts, specifically oars: they are produced by human art for a rational purpose which, however, is perverted in exceeding their natural use, as they are made metaphorically into wings for a reckless "flight." Indeed, throughout the Malebolge, it is perversions of reason that are punished. Whereas, from Dante's theological viewpoint, human identity can be secured only through a relationship with the divine source and Creator of all, Ulysses's fully autonomous search for himself, relying entirely on artifacts of his own making, leads him, heedless of his mortal limits, into the Unknown, where he cannot possibly belong. Dante's own unprecedented journey comes perilously close to retracing this wild course, particularly in his ultimate adventure transcending the limits of language into the ineffable, the unspeakable sublimity of Paradise. It is entirely fitting, therefore, that in Paradiso XXVII.82-83, as Dante crosses the threshold of the fixed stars, moving beyond the planetary universe, he should again recall "the mad passage" ("varco / folle') of Ulysses. That Ulysses's brave new rationality should be exposed as the height of unreason uncannily anticipates the "dialectic of enlightenment" as analyzed by Adorno and Horkheimer. (3)

The voyage of Ulysses is mad and foolish because he attempts, not unlike the humanist Brunetto Latini, a false transcendence based on human faculties, specifically "virtue and knowledge" ("virtute e canoscenza," 120). In his unguided journey, he is oblivious not only to the divine Other but also to all others, including his wife and son, his father, and even his companion in arms, Diomedes, whom he does not so much as acknowledge, even though they are eternally bound together in the same punishing tongue of fire. He himself tells us that no natural bonds to others were able to conquer his lust for experience of the world and of human values:
   ne dolcezza di figlio, ne la pieta
      del vecchio padre, ne 'l debito amore
      lo qual dovea Penelope far lieta,
   vincer potero dentro a me l'ardore
      ch'i' ebbi a divenir del mondo esperto
      e de li vizi umani e del valore

   (neither tenderness for a son, nor pity
      for an old father, nor the love owed
      Penelope, to make her glad,
   could conquer in me the ardor
     I had to become experienced in the world,
     both of human vices and of valor.)

Experience is for Ulysses the highest value Cesperto ... del valor," 98-99), whether it is the immanent, all too finite experience of the senses or rather experience following the cyclical eternity of the sun ("I'esperienza / di retro al sol," 116-17). In either case, experience is for its own sake and therefore a type of knowledge that remains within an enclosed circuit. Even in overstepping all the boundaries that he encounters along his horizontal trajectory over the ocean, Ulysses falls far short of true vertical transcendence towards the God above: only in this direction, moreover, could he transcend the pagan time of cyclical repetition--traced in the circlings of his ship as it goes down into the sea--towards the radically new time of the absolute Other inaugurated by the Christian Incarnation. In the end, he sees that his destiny is directed by the will of an Other--"com'altrui piacque" ("as pleased another," 141)--from beyond the horizon of his own experience. This final recognition (agnitio) qualifies him as a tragic hero, but his fate is nevertheless sealed.

The human power of self-reliance that Ulysses chooses over anything or anyone else transcending him is manifest most immediately in his language. Yet it becomes for him a trap of self-enclosure. In his own speech, he consigns himself and his companions eternally to the immanent sphere of human life and his own subjective consciousness--"this so tiny vigil of what remains for our senses" ("questa tanto picciola / vigilia d'i nostri sensi ch'6 del rimanente," XXVI.114-15). The world of his experience circumscribes his ultimate concern, and he will acknowledge no boundary beyond or above himself.

Ulysses's language, his rhetorical prowess exercised for purposes of deception, metaphorically robs him of himself ("e ogni fiamma un peccator invola," 42) and wraps him eternally in an ancient flame ("fiamma antica') that shakes "as if it were the tongue that spoke" ("come fosse la lingua che parlasse," 85-89). These are not (except in parody) the flaming tongues of the Holy Spirit that descended upon the disciples' heads at Pentecost (Acts 2), but rather the vain tongues of false counselors that burn eternally in Hell. This threat of damnation for whoever becomes wrapped up in his own rhetoric--to the forgetting and exclusion of the one and only transcendent ground of all eloquence and truth--is a great threat for Dante also as he is himself engaged upon the all-too-willful act of creating his sublime poem.

Countering this risk, a glance along a vertical axis upward towards this transcendent ground can be glimpsed in the allusion to Elijah's chariot, with its horses rearing up straight to heaven ("quando i cavalli al cielo erti levorsi," XXVI.35-36). The allusion is more directly to Elijah's disciple, Elisha, watching his master's chariot ascend. This brings onto the scene, from biblical as opposed to classical tradition, a model of transmission of prophetic revelation to a younger generation, and as such it contrasts with Ulysses's neglect of his son. Dante himself hopes for such sons from among his literary progeny; he describes them as bursting eventually into the "great flame" that he hopes his words will spark (Paradiso 1.34). But Ulysses endeavors to transcend all limits himself, leaving nothing for those who, following after, would transcend him.

The sublime speech Ulysses delivers is larded with topoi of modesty, signally with the recurrent adjective "picciol" ("small"), but this is more strategic than sincere, as the results--his damnation for false counsel--suffice to suggest. In keeping with the classical prescription for a tragic hero, Ulysses comes to consciousness of his flaw after he has fallen: this happens at the canto's end in the peripeteia of joy turning to sorrow ("Noi ci allegrammo, e tosto torne in pianto," XXVI.136). Ulysses's tragic greatness is unmistakable in his attempt to transgress all limits, emblematically the limits of the humanly navigable world. His mistake is to attempt it on his own power rather than in acknowledgment of the divine Other whose good-pleasure is in reality the master of his human fate. This is what makes all the difference between his fate and Dante's. The risks of transgression and prideful impurity inherent in Dante's undertaking are registered all through the Inferno. However, Dante's journey transcending mortal limits is based on a vocation accepted in response to the summons of a wholly other God rather than on the quasi-Romantic overreaching of a self-absorbed hero who acknowledges no limits and submits himself to no Other or others.

In the first canto of the Purgatorio, Dante will look back over the sea that Ulysses failed to cross, the sea from which he himself had narrowly escaped as a metaphorical shipwreck in Inferno 1.22-27. He will recall, in a thinly veiled allusion to Ulysses, that no man was experienced or expert ("esperto") enough to cross it without losing himself:
   Venimmo poi in sul lito diserto,
      che mai non vide navicar sue acque
      omo, che di tornar sia poscia esperto.
   Quivi mi cinse si com' altrui piacque....
            (Purgatorio 1.130-33)

   (We came then to the deserted shore,
      which never saw its waters navigated
      by any man expert enough to return.
   There he girded me even as pleased Another....)

The last line reiterates verbatim the phrase "as pleased another" ("com'altrui piacque') from the end of Inferno XXVI, where Ulysses finally recognizes, too late, the sovereignty of a divine Will. Dante's journey, by contrast, is divinely sanctioned, not just self-willed, as canto II.52-114 explains through the account of a relay of three blessed ladies summoning Virgil to Dante's rescue. This is signaled again in Purgatorio I, when Dante is girded with the reed of humility at the foot of the purgatorial mountain. He is guided by an Other--with and through the mediation of others like Virgil and Beatrice---rather than being a self-elected explorer with no transcendent purpose or limits to orient and contain him. For all his perilous proximity to Ulysses, this makes the dramatic difference between his salvation and Ulysses's damnation.

In contrast to Ulysses, who is the archetypal ancient hero, Guido da Montefeltro, "coming a little late" ("perch' io sia giunto forse alquanto tardo," XXVII .22), epitomizes the modern anti-hero. Unlike Ulysses, he does not boldly pursue his destiny to infinity without looking back, heedless of the consequences. Guido, in characteristically self-conscious, modern fashion, calculates the consequences. When he is near death, at the time of life when it is more astute to be pious than ruthless, he turns repentant and confesses. In this respect also, he contrasts with Ulysses, who sets off on his mad flight at that time of life when other men are trimming their sails. Guido believes that he can manipulate his fate in the same way that he attempts to manipulate his own conscience---by making himself believe what he wants to believe--and so win heaven, too. And he really believes, he says, that this would have worked to save his soul, had it not been for the hypocrisy of the pope, that "prince of the new Pharisees" (85):
   Quando mi vidi giunto in quella parte
      di mia etade ove ciascun dovrebbe
      calar le vele e raccoglier le sarte,
   cio che pria mi piacea allor m'increbbe,
      e pentuto e confesso mi rendei;
      ahi miser lasso! e giovato sarebbe

   (When I saw myself come to that part
      of my life where everyone should
      lower the sails and gather in the cords,
   that which pleased me before I regretted,
      and I made myself penitent and confessed;
      Oh miserable wretch! And it would have worked.)

Turning Franciscan after his exploits as a captain in arms, he believes he can make amends for his sins. His bad faith, however--his awareness that he does not really believe what he tries to make himself believe---is betrayed in the fact that he describes this conversion as a mere change of costume from captain to monk. It is no more than a crafty maneuver, a trick calculated to bring him salvation by hook or by crook:
   Io fui uom d'armi, e poi cordigliero,
      credendomi, si cinto, fare ammenda;
      e certo il creder mio venia intero ...

   (I was a man of arms, and then a friar,
      believing that, so girded, I made amends;
      and certainly my belief would have been fulfilled....)

Guido avails himself of a similar device at the climax of his story. He tries to make himself believe that the pope can assure him of absolution for a sin even before he has committed it. Counting on his ability to manage his own conscience, he tricks himself into believing that he needs only to formally repent, ignoring the fraudulence of such a sentiment summoned at will and at the most opportune moment for purely strategic purposes. Such perverse mental meddling turns against him and is mocked by the devil, who comes to vie for his soul, arguing irrefutably against Saint Francis that it is logically impossible to will the sin and repent for it at the same time. Like the artisan of evil who perishes in his own death machine--the "Sicilian bull" evoked at the outset of the canto (XXVII.7-12)---Guido is trapped by his own devious construction of a belief that he does not himself really believe. He finds himself unable to evade the necessary consequences of his beliefs as actions whose implications he cannot simply control at will. In attempting thus to manipulate his own beliefs, in the end he is trapped by them.

This sort of dishonest management of one's own beliefs has been analyzed as "bad faith" by existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, (4) and it has been represented in poetry by T. S. Eliot, particularly in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." This work, too, is about the cripplingly over-acute self-consciousness of the modern protagonist, the anti-hero whose capacity for whole-hearted belief and sincere commitment has been undermined by excessive self-reflectiveness and self-doubt. Such convoluted consciousness expresses itself tellingly in Guido's opening lines, those chosen by Eliot for the epigraph of his poem (5):
   S'i' credesse che mia risposta fosse
      a persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
      questa fiamma staria sanza piu scosse;
   ma pero che gia mai di questo fondo,
      non torno vivo alcun, s'i' odo il vero,
      sanza tema d'infamia ti rispondo

   (If I believed that my response was
      to a person who would ever return to the world,
      this flame would remain stock-still;
   but since never from this bottom
      has any one returned alive, if I hear truth,
      without fear of infamy I answer.)

The irony here is that Guido, the fox, for all his renowned cleverness, does not see, as most all other souls in hell do, that Dante is alive and destined to return to the world. Arguably, he fools himself by design, since what he really wants is to relate his story ("e come e quare, voglio che m'intenda," 72). In this way, he is caught actually reenacting in the text the bad faith intrinsic to the false counsel for which he is damned. Bad faith--making oneself believe what one really does not believe--is diagnosed here as a characteristically modern syndrome already by Dante. With the emergence of a modern, acutely reflexive self-consciousness come specific unprecedented pitfalls that Dante is quick to register and reveal in his examination of the human psyche and its vulnerability to sin. He is all the more anxious about this particular case, since self-reflexiveness is so crucial to his own so highly reflective artistic project--and so potentially vitiating of it. In general, I submit, Dante's infernal scenes of sin apply recursively to his own acts of representation as sensual, violent, fraudulent, and treacherous. The problematic nature of Dante's own language in the poem is brought to thematic focus with ever increasing intensity in the Malebolge.

III. Dante's Deconstruction of Prophetic Voice and Vision in the Malebolge (Inferno XVIII-XXIII and XXVIII-XXX)

In the Malebolge especially, we see Dante subjecting himself to scathing self-critique and even becoming a comic figure. As the protagonist climbs down deeper into the pit, the poem itself descends a declining scale of genres and stylistic registers all the way to the crude realism and burlesque of cantos XXI and XXII. Here Dante's epic poem sinks to the level of Latin New Comedy, perhaps alluded to in Dante's phrase "nuovo ludo" (XXII.118), replete with lewd displays, comic gags, and sadistic games (cf. Baranski). It resorts especially to cooking imagery and proverbial wisecracks such as, "In church with saints and in the taverns with drunkards" (XXII.14-15). Prophecy itself, insofar as it is the invention of a human poet, must be subjected to ridicule and affronts to its dignity. We see in the Malebolge a relentless critique of the prophetic voice, to the extent that it represents the presumption of a human poet. This is necessary to categorically distinguish prophecy as divine revelation from every merely human counterfeit made of persuasive and perhaps deceiving rhetoric.

The authentic language of prophecy cannot be any proud, self-confident Ciceronian rhetoric but only a sermo humilis, such as is forged in the Bible, eminently by Christ himself, for example, in the words to his disciples spoken in parables drawn from common experience of quotidian life. Paralleling Augustine's progression from the language of "presumption," which is characteristic of philosophy and classical literary models, to acceptance of the humble language of Scripture, Dante dramatizes his own coming into such a language by representing himself as undergoing a series of humiliations that force him to relinquish all of his own human resources, including his personal pride and self-reliance. Dante's existential descent into the self enacts a destruction of his own self-sufficiency and self-centeredness, his being grounded in himself, and it issues in an unconditional openness towards a transcendent or divine ground for his existence. Only by such self-ironic exposure of the inevitable deceptions of literary language and self-representation can Dante's all-too-human poem actually attain to transcendent heights of authentic prophecy.

Such self-irony may be the deeper sense of "comedia" as the generic description Dante adopts for his poem in XVI.128 and again in XXI.2. Indeed, only as "comedy" can it become "divine." The best that any human effort can do, finally, is to confess its own insufficiency. A poem can, furthermore, unmask the false pretensions of more purportedly solemn attempts to prophesy that, without comic qualifiers, take themselves absolutely seriously, as if they were gospel. This is seen by Dante to include even the prophetic pretensions of the Aeneid. Virgil's "high tragedy" (XX.113) lacks the self-ironizing capacity of comedy that alone can allow human literature to become truly divine revelation. Of course, modern readings of the Aeneid go a long way towards discovering already in Virgil's text an ironic current running against its official ideology (Kennedy, 26-58). The triumphalistic story of Rome's founding through glorious martial victory yields to a tragic tale of irreparable human loss, of becoming embroiled in a war of conquest and eventually in bloody civil war (Franke). Yet precisely such self-undermining serves in Dante's text not just to render the poem ambivalent but to spark a higher realization of truth. By programmatically undermining his own autonomous pretensions to communicate the truth, Dante's comic irony catalyzes a conversion to a divine Truth that can emerge from beyond the lie of artifice inherent in the literary.

Only as comedy in this sense can literature attain ultimate truth. The Commedia's comedy, deeply considered, is its irony, its exposure of literature as dissimulation. The insinuation of tragedy in Virgil's ostensibly optimistic epic--its communicating a tragic truth only by way of its irony--may be among the essential lessons that Dante learned from the Aeneid. However, as "high tragedy" Virgil's epic remains essentially a dissimulation of its own ironic truth. Dante, in contrast, discovers in comedy the self-ironic mode necessary to let a truth break through what otherwise would remain human mendaciousness and fraud disguised behind the face of a just man (XVII.7-12). By ironic exposure of its own inherent fraud as a literary fiction, Dante's poem overcomes or at least neutralizes this fraud in order to become "the truth that has the face of a lie" ("quel ver c'ha faccia di menzogna," XVI.124). (6)

This strategy of self-subversion in the Commedia is carried out particularly through its demolition of language. The development of the poem through the Malebolge, starting from Canto XVIII, demonstrates the devastating breakdown of language, rhetoric, prophetic pronouncement, authorial integrity, etc. Here "ornate speech" ("parole ornate," XVIII.91) becomes an instrument of perdition in the mouths of seducers like Jason. This ironizes Virgil's supposedly saving "parola ornata" (II.67), called on for Dante's rescue at the outset of the poem. In fact, here the power of Dante's speech is in its being not ornate but clear ("la tua chiara favella," XVIII.53), and his eyes become more potent than any eloquence. Pimp Venedico Caccianemico finds that he cannot hide from Dante's gaze (XVIII.45-46), and Alessio Interminei da Lucca cries out in protest over being eyed more than the other flatterers (XVIII.118-119).

At this stage, it is the dialectic between seeing and saying that becomes most revealing. Canto XVIII presents the sin of pandering in the act of being performed, as if it were to capture the culprit precisely at the moment of saying "yes"--just as the word operates in the execution of this sin. Dante uses "sipa," the affirmative in Bolognese dialect (XVIII.58-61), for local coloration of this linguistically characterized sin. Similarly, barrators or grafters are identified in the dialect of Lucca as changing "no" to "yes" for money ("del no, per li denar, vi si fa ita," XXI.42).

This sort of crystallization of a sin by its linguistic expression can be found almost everywhere in the Inferno. In XXIII.7, two words in different dialects for "now," mo and issa, are used to point up a difference in the sensible signs used as signifiers, even where the signified meaning remains the same. Such arbitrary interchangeability of linguistic signifiers is intimately bound up with fraud, here specifically in the form of hypocrisy. Sin is inextricable from language right from Eve's being beguiled by the serpent's deceptive discourse in the Garden. The sins' linguisticality also renders them susceptible of bleeding into Dante's text, of participating in the poem itself as a linguistic act. Sin is manifest in and is realized as self-interpretation in language. As a writer, Dante inevitably presents all sins and sinners through linguistic constructions and representation, even when he does not explicitly make language his theme. Of course, language and its negation is the most apt expression of this privileged theme in the Inferno.

Canto XXVIII begins with a meta-narratological reflection declaring the extreme difficulty of telling what has been seen, serving notice that the poem has arrived very near the limits of discursive powers:
   Chi poria pur con parole sciolte
      dicer del sangue e de le piaghe a pieno
      ch'i' ora vidi, per narrar piu volte?
   Ogne lingua per certo verria meno
      per lo nostro sermone e per la mente
      c'hanno a tanto comprender poco seno

   (Who could even in unrhyming words
      and with repeated narration tell
      the blood and wounds galore that I now saw?
   Every tongue would surely fail
      because of our discourse and mind
      that are not apt to comprehend so much.)

This opening announces the obliteration of speech by vision that is then directly realized by the canto's intensive focus on limbs cut off, that is, on isolated and static components of formerly organic bodies. The canto moves from Mohammed to Bertran de Born and Ahitophel, sowers of discord, thrusting into view graphic images of mutilated and truncated body parts that interrupt the narrative perhaps more violently than ever before up to this point. The word is arrested by startling visual tableaux, such as Mohammed's being ripped wide open in a laceration from chin to bowels, or Bertran de Born's carrying his head swinging alongside him like a lantern. A similar effect is achieved by Pier da Medicina's cloven throat, chopped off nose, and single ear ("una orecchia sola"), by Mosca dei Lamberti's handless stumps ("moncherin") raised in the air, and by Curio's slit tongue. The tongue that split Rome and fomented civil war in the body politic, by urging Caesar to cross the Rubicon, has now become literally and visibly the division of a body against itself.

The images of division and mutilation are mirrored in Dante's own narration, with its augmented complexity, its overlappings and fragmentation. The narrative is constantly interrupted and its fabric ripped apart. The poetry itself, moreover, partakes of the human form's violability and volatility among the thieves. It is torn asunder, just as Bertran's condition ruptures the unity of the person made in the image of God who is One, producing an unholy "two in one and one in two" ("eran due in uno e uno in due," XXVIII.124). (7) Characters and their successive episodes bleed into and contaminate one another, corrupting the integrity of the individual scenes. Images of amalgamation and adulteration abound--signally with the falsifiers and counterfeiters. This messiness is itself a manifestation of infernal unholiness and unwholeness, in which Dante's own poetry fully participates.

Dante is severely scolded by Virgil at the beginning of Canto XXIX for having become too absorbed in the chaotic visual spectacle offered by the disseminators of discord:
   Ma Virgilio mi disse: "Che pur guate?
      perche la vista tua pur si soffolge
      la giu tra l'ombre triste smozzicate?"
   (But Virgil told me: "What are you gawking at?
      why is your gaze fixated down there
      on the sad mutilated souls?")

The same sort of reproach is leveled at the end of Canto XXX, when Dante is threatened by Virgil for looking too intently, as if mesmerized, upon the scuffle between Simon Greco and Mastro Adamo: "Now go ahead and ogle, / I could almost fight with you myself!" ("Or pur mira, / che per poco che teco non mi risso!" XXX.131-32). Language, for all its deceptive pitfalls, is nevertheless necessary in order to maintain a certain distance from the fray and mayhem that is displayed before the open gaze of the pilgrim. Thus discourse and sight have at least a negative function of checking one another reciprocally. If sight has been privileged against discourse as revealer of a more immediate truth throughout the Malebolge, at the end of the eighth circle its own risks and inadequacies are brought out, leaving us in a state of epistemological incertitude, without any secure channel for ascertaining truth. The world of the Inferno proves rather the unattainability of truth for fallen human nature and its fallen faculties.

Moreover, at the bottom of the Malebolge a certain trivialization becomes rampant and makes a travesty of truth, whatever the means by which it may be disclosed, whether visual or discursive. The striking thing about most of the falsifiers of metals and of persons punished in the last of the ten bolge is the frivolousness of their characters. We have come rapidly down from the ancient and modern tragic modes of Ulysses and Guido da Montefeltro respectively to stories of ridiculous frauds from contemporary anecdote. Gianni Schicchi's disguising himself as Buoso Donati on his death-bed in order to change this deceased man's last will and testament proved to be perfect material for opera buffa in the hands of Giacomo Puccini. The scuffle between Mastro Adamo, a contemporary counterfeiter, and Simon Greco, mixing up the ancient with the modern, also stoops to new depths of indignity: it transgresses the sense of decorum separating the ancient from the modern that has been invoked as recently as in Virgil's insisting that he alone should speak with Ulysses and Diomedes ("Lascia parlar a me"), since as Greeks they might well balk at Dante's speech (XXVI.73-75).

On a purely physical and visual plane, Mastro Adamo illustrates a further assault upon the dignity of the human form. Deformed into a shape like that of a lute by his dropsy, he has become a satiric representation of harmony perverted and disturbed. The music of the universe--based on the Pythagorean proportions that hold all things together in unison--is distorted by the counterfeiter's action. Since by counterfeiting he interferes with the flow of currency in the body politic, the circulation within his own body is now deranged. As an individual, Mastro Adamo is a representation of the base and abject condition to which fallen man falls, in spite of--and belying--his idyllic discourse on the pure waters coursing uncontaminated through Casentino (XXX.64ff). As suggested also by his name, he is an archetype of the fallen human condition.

All this cannot help but reflect on Dante's poetic discourse, which must accept showing up as itself base and trivial, if any higher purpose is to be accomplished through it. Indeed Griffolino d'Arezzo's story of a flying man is embarrassingly close to Dante's own unbelievable tale of descending alive into hell, as Virgil summarizes it in XXIX.94-96. Dante has to debase and discredit and in every way demean his literary means, along with his very humanity, in order that they may be redeemed from above and beyond his own creation and control. Only so can he be reached by a true transcendence that he is as powerless as Ulysses is to reach all by himself.

IV. Pitfalls of Prophecy (Inferno XIX-XXIII)

In Canto XIX, Dante claims a prophetic authority for himself surpassing the priestly authority of the popes, but at the same time he begins to become a comic figure in his own poem. Standing over the popes, who are rammed upside down into the ground, he is ironically on the high ground vis-a-vis these high priests: he is in the position of the confessor with whom a condemned criminal was allowed to communicate just before the earth was filled in from above so as to cause death by suffocation. Yet Dante himself may also be seen to be undermined in this exchange: in reprimanding the writhing feet, he cannot but come off as a little ludicrous. The poem oscillates subtly, but continually, between affirmations of prestige and acceptance of ridicule with respect to its protagonist. (8)

Here it becomes crucial to see how what happens to the pilgrim inevitably reflects also on the poet: they are both, after all, "Dante," this personality that is essentially created by the poem. The savant artistry of the Commedia exploits this ambiguity between Dante as protagonist and as poet to its own immense advantage rather than dissembling it as a secret condition which, if exposed, would invalidate the fiction. Dante writes fiction and makes the reality of this very act of writing into an underlying theme of the poem. The self-reflective act of the imagination as opening another world, a glimpse into eternity, has perhaps been implicit in poetic prophecy all through ancient and medieval tradition, but it becomes fully self-conscious and identified with the act of writing only with Dante.

In setting up this scene of his preaching to the popes, Dante as narrator refers to an episode in his own life in which he claims to have broken a baptismal basin in San Giovanni, the baptistery in Florence, in order to save the life of someone who was drowning (XIX.16-21). This odd allusion may well be concerned with justifying Dante's apparent usurping of priestly authority in this canto attacking the popes. In fact, Dante's whole poem constitutes an assertion of his prophetic authority in his role as poet over and against the official, sacramental authority of the clergy, who are criticized scathingly throughout the work. And yet the canto depicts Dante being reduced from the self-confidence manifest in the opening denunciation of Simon Magus ("O Simon mago ...") to a state of helpless insecurity. For he himself has no authority to stand on. When Pope Nicholas III mistakes him for Boniface VIII, his successor in office and in sin, Dante's identity is so shaken that he is incapable of responding until Virgil feeds him a response that he meekly repeats, stuttering: "I am not he, I am not he whom you think" ("Non son colui, non son colui che credi," XIX.62)--a response that is purely negative and defensive.

After hearing the pope's story, however, Dante again preaches against the greed of simony that so provokes him. In presuming to denounce the Church's official heads, Dante is, by his own admission, perhaps again too temerarious, "troppo folle" (XIX.88). He uses the word folle that elsewhere describes the rash venture of Ulysses (XXVI.125), as well as his own perhaps rash entry into the underworld (II. 35). But this time he also cleaves to the word of Scripture, with references to 2 Maccabees 4:7-8, which concerns the buying of priestly offices from the emperor, Acts 1:26, relating the selection by lot rather than for money of Matthias to replace Judas, and Revelation 17:1-5, about the great whore of Babylon. And this reliance on Scripture seems to make the essential difference. In accusing the popes of making gold and silver their gods, Dante is repeating the characteristic denunciation of idolatry leveled by the Old Testament prophets against religious authorities. In particular, he is echoing Hosea 8:4: "of their silver and their gold have they made them idols."

It is no longer a foolish self-confidence of his own on which Dante relies in reprimanding the popes, but rather the language of Holy Writ. This allows the voice of the divine Other to break into his text, and this voice alone is able to make Dante's poem truly prophetic. For all that is said in his own voice is the work of a man, a rhetorician; it is an instrumentalization of language for interested, egotistical purposes, and it is therefore subject to damnation, as is illustrated eminently by the eloquence of Francesca, Pier, Brunetto, and Ulysses. Scripture breaks in, with its magnificently unrhetorical, yet commanding and irresistible authority in a phrase like "Follow me" ("Viemmi retro"), or again in the inverted echoes of the Magnificat (Luke 1:52): "calcando i buoni e sollevando i pravi" ("treading under the good and exalting the wicked," 105). This echoing of God's Word enables Dante to transcend his own human limits in making his poem the mouthpiece of a moral authority beyond his own confessedly sinful self. (9) By this means, the "sound of words truly expressed" ("lo suon de le parole vere espresse," XIX. 123) reverberates through his text, which thereby becomes genuinely prophetic. For Dante, in effect, admits his own inadequacy and the inadequacy of his own poetic rhetoric to be a vehicle of the divine vision. But he suggests that in exposing its inadequacy, in retracting its own claim to truth, the poem can be instrumental to allowing another more adequate, truer Voice to be heard.

V. Virgil, Dante, and the Vulnerability of Human Prophecy (Inferno XX-XXIII)

As language is revealed in the depths of its fraudulence, the guidance lent to Dante by Virgil relies more and more on his physical and emotional presence and less on the rhetorical style ("bello stilo," I. 87) that initially stood out in forming the relationship between the two poets. Virgil carries Dante on his hip down to the perforated turf in which the popes are plunged (XIX. 43-5, as promised in 34), and at the end of XIX, to bring him into the fourth division of the Malebolge, Virgil takes Dante into his arms and lifts him onto his breast ("Pero con ambo le braccia mi prese; / e poi che tutto su mi s'ebbe al petto ...," 124-25). In XXIII. 7, Virgil will clutch Dante like a mother escaping with her infant from a house afire.

Canto XX is ostensibly an encomium of Virgil, who is presumably Dante's guide and model as prophetic poet. But actually the canto pursues further the interrogation and indictment of claims to prophecy on the part of human poets specifically in relation to Virgil. Virgil waxes loquacious in his story of the founding of Mantua by Manto, begging indulgence as he sets out on what he perhaps half realizes is a too lengthy disquisition ("onde un poco mi piace che m'ascolte," XX. 57). Nevertheless, Dante assents unconditionally to his authority, when Virgil enjoins him to believe no other account of his home town's origins, in order that "no lie be allowed to dafraud the truth" ("la verita nulla menzogna frodi," 99). The irony here is that Virgil, in his story of the founding of Mantua on the bones of Tiresias's "virgin" daughter, Manto, has contradicted his own account in Aeneid X. 198-201. The Aeneid makes Mantuans descendents from a son of Manto, Ocnus, perhaps in accordance with Manto's divination. Is Virgil's account as poet of the Aeneid then a fraud? The word "defraud" ("frodi") renders irrepressible this possibility. Prophetic authority here demonstrates its susceptibility to contradicting itself. Indeed the ambiguities of this type of authority are the central issue of this canto and the bolgia that it covers.

All the sinners punished here, including figures like Amphiaraus, Tiresias, Aruns, and Eurypylus, have been self-proclaimed prophets, but false ones, in their various ways. All were "seers." What distinguishes Virgil, nevertheless, from the soothsayers, augurs, astrologers, haruspices or omen readers, mantics, and divines in this circle is that his prophesying is an interpretation of history. The false kinds of prophesying that are punished here consist in foretelling facts by presumably magical means rather than in rationally interpreting the significance of things as revealed in history. Virgil's account of the founding of Mantua after Manto's death is based on the natural ecological and strategic advantages of the site chosen rather than on any supposed divination or omens. Virgil, in effect, interprets natural history, bringing out what would make this place an ideal site for a fortress city. This sort of use of interpretive intelligence, unlike mechanical and superstitious techniques of fortune telling, is the basis for an authentic exercise of prophetic faculties.

Nonetheless, by virtue of its intensive discursivity, Virgil's own brand of prophecy also risks falling into error. That is what becomes conspicuous in this so intensely visual area of hell: as one index, the word "vedi!" ("see!") is constantly repeated throughout the canto. Virgil's idyllic interpretations, loaded with blessings and picturesque charm and names bespeaking benevolence ("Benaco"), gloss over the harsher realities written into the deceptive landscape that are also inadvertently exposed--rivalry between bishops, a garrison set for war that is aestheticized as a "beautiful and strong fortress" ("bello e forte arnese," 70). Even more subtle is a mutation of the river's name, as it begins moving into the real world, to "Menacio" (XX. 74), connoting loss (meno, less) and badness (-accio) and threat (minaccia). Upon investigation, Virgil's serene words turn out to be mined with hints of violence and treachery; they are even liable to becoming fraudulent. Presumably all merely human, rhetorical claims to prophecy are thereby likewise placed under a shadow of suspicion.

The visual immediacy of Dante's Hell is at a maximum in the Malebolge, and particularly in cantos XXI and XXII, involving the barrators boiled in pitch and the escape of Ciampola, the corrupt official from Navarra. Immediate action completely absorbs all attention with an at least momentary loss of any further dimension of significance. The opaqueness of the pitch perfectly reflects the lack of penetrability, the occulting of interpretive depth in this part of hell. Even the Discensus Christi is here reduced to a brute fact of dates: 1266 years less five hours ago (XXI. 112). Ironically, we receive this vital information from Malacoda, who lies concerning the ridge that he says remained intact and would allow Dante and Virgil to cross over to the next bolgia (XXIII. 136). Alas, as is pointed out by the jovial friars, the devil is a proverbial liar and father of lies (XXIII. 139-44). In this way, the poem again flags its own complicity--as a work of fiction--in fraud.

The whole of the narrative is full of implicit questionings of the veracity of Dante's deed in narrating. This apparently problematizes his claim to prophetic authority, and worry about such a claim is reflected into the narrative itself: it is felt again in the way Dante's confidence also as protagonist is destroyed. After having adopted a prophetic tone in denouncing the popes and in his clear speech Cchiara favella") exposing the procurers, he is portrayed here as ludicrous and himself a butt of the farce. He is told by Virgil to crouch down behind a crag out of sight (XXI. 58-60). A little later, he is told that it is all right for him to come out now:
   "O tu che siedi
   tra li scheggion del ponte quatto quatto,
   sicuramente omai a me ti riedi"
           (XXI. 88-89)

   ("O you who sit squatting
   among the jutting rocks of the bridge,
   in safety now you can come out.")

This seems much like the familiar ploys of low comedy and farce with its quickly improvised makeshifts. As literature, Dante's work at this point belongs inextricably together with low comedy of the most raw and unedifying sort. The slapstick slams and blows dealt by the demons menace also an extremely vulnerable Dante: "Let him have it in the rump!" ("in sul groppone," XXI. 101). In this manner, language can suddenly plummet to the vernacular profanity of street slang and sarcasm. Indeed, "Here is no place for the Sacred Face!" ("Qui non ha loco il Santo Volto!" 48). The allusion is to an ebony icon in "Santa Zita" ("Holy Hush," 38), a church in the city of graft and corruption, Lucca, where mum is the word. Nether "cheeks" blackened and bobbing up to the surface of the pitch here blasphemously evoke this icon of the Sacred Face.

The mixture of styles and even of stylistic registers is seasoned, furthermore, with a generous dose of cooking imagery ("Non altrimenti i cuoci ..." 55), and this, too, is part of Dante's strategy to make mockery of the prophetic pretences of his own poem, to ironize its solemn tone and high seriousness. Such sudden sinkings from the sublime to the scarcely decent and grotesque are among the indirect ways in which Dante exposes the vulnerability of his poetic project--its potential for collapsing into mere presumption and even to become demonically deceptive. If its exalted purpose is to be fulfilled, its artifices, even those of the lowest sort, must be exposed and seen through, just as the literal meaning of the narrative must be transcended. But that is exactly what Dante has trouble doing here, as he looks into the boiling pitch: "I saw it, but I did not see into it" ("I' vedea lei, ma non vedea in essa," XXI. 19).

Ultimately the penetration of the meaning of all history is possible only thanks to Christ. Underlining Virgil's hermeneutic limitations once again, the next canto brings out precisely Virgil's inability to understand the Christ event and its significance. This absolutely unique event cannot be comprehended by any pagan discourses constructed on however perfect rhetorical principles, for language and rhetoric are inherently general and universal. Every word is made to be reiterated in an unlimited variety of situations. Before the sight of "one, crucified" ("un, crucifisso"), Virgil is at a loss for words. Dante sees him perplexed and uncomprehending:
   Allor vid' io maravigliar Virgilio
      sovra colui ch'era disteso in croce
      tanto vilmente ne l'etterno essilio.
                   (XXIII. 124-26)
   (Then I saw Virgil marveling
      over him who was stretched in a cross
      so vilely in eternal exile.)

But it is not just Virgil's limitations that are in question here. Dante, too, is tested, and his own poetic-prophetic pretensions are in danger of showing up as blatant presumptuousness by the test of Christ's uniqueness and the incomparable, singular event of the Crucifixion. Specifically at this juncture, there is a hint that perhaps he is implicated in hypocrisy through his fiction posing as prophecy. The possibility that he is an impostor seems to invade his consciousness subliminally and to check him as he begins to excoriate the frati godenti (jovial friars) for their hypocrisy. His speech is called up short by the sight of Caiaphas, the "one, crucified" on the ground in front of him and Virgil:
   Io cominciai: 'O frati, i vostri mali ...';
      ma piu non dissi, ch'a l'occhio mi corse
      un, crucifisso in terra con tre pall.
                     (XXIII. 109-11)
   (I began: 'O brothers, your ills ...';
      but I said no more, because my eye was struck by
      one, crucified in the earth with three stakes.)

Throughout the Malebolge, Dante's (like Virgil's) repeated resort to prophetic elocution and its presumed authority is punctured and deflated by the immediacy of sight. Here the uniqueness of the fact of an individual in front of Dante--an individual alluding to the individual and unique event at the center of all history--asserts its absoluteness against the inherent generality of all discourse. This immediate presence gestures towards the revelation of a truth external to the digressive weavings and mediations of Dante's text, a truth that no human discourse can possibly comprehend.

All this points up the ingeniously indirect strategy by which Dante's poem asserts its prophetic authority: it does so through undermining all of its own merely human pretensions to precisely such authority. By exposing itself as fiction, it becomes true. Its self-deconstruction of its own assertion of authority enables it to be informed from beyond itself by an authority not just its own. It thereby opens the way for divine grace to work the revelation of truth within the reader's heart and intellect trained on the doctrine hiding beneath the veil of the strange verses (IX. 60-63). Its truth may thus be discerned by individual readers aided by divine action of grace working in and through interpretation carried out in the light of Christ--in whose tracks Dante follows on his own descent into Hell. The apex (or nadir) of infernal irony is that Dante's Inferno becomes prophetic revelation of truth by undermining its own merely human claim to be capable of delivering just such a revelation.

Acknowledgment: This article adapts some material from "Dante's Deconstruction and Reconstruction of Prophetic Voice and Vision in the Malebolge (Inferno XVIII-XXV)," Philosophy and Literature 36/1 (2012): 111-121 by permission of the Johns Hopkins University Press.


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Vanderbilt University and University of Macao


(1) Dante's Italian text is quoted with my own translations. Any informed interpretation of Dante cannot help but be influenced in more ways than it knows by the vast commentary tradition assembled, for example, in the Dartmouth Dante Project ( The present treatment largely bypasses the philological archeology determining exactly where what idea may first have came from in order to refract certain aspects of Dante's vision into a philosophical outlook that belongs to our own time. Excellent criticism referring to current scholarship on each canto of the Inferno can be consulted in Mandelbaum, Oldcorn, and Ross.

(2) A subtle reading of the role of writing in these cantos is Chiampi's. Medieval conceptions of metamorphosis as a form of nonbeing are explored in relation to these cantos by Ginsberg, 115-59.

(3) Dialektik der Aufklarung, Excursus I, Odysseus oder Mythos und Aufklarung, pp. 58-83.

(4) Jean-Paul Sartre, L'Etre et le neant, part I, chapter II: "La mauvaise foi," 85-114.

(5) Harrison starts from this Prufrock citation to draw a contrast between Ulysses and Guido as representative of ancient (tragic) heroism and modern bad faith respectively. The parallels between Ulysses and Guido are explored also by Ryan.

(6) Verdicchio, chapter 5, insightfully analyzes the Comedy's comedy as its use of irony to expose acts of deceit, though he does not see this as enabling the poem ironically to surpass even its own merely human assertions and lay claim to a truth beyond what it can itself authenticate.

(7) Raffa explores this imagery as signaling parody and perversion of the Incarnation--the divine paradigm of unifying of two natures in one.

(8) Kirkpatrick, 253, develops this line of interpretation in exquisite detail. Throughout this section and the next, my reading is indebted to Kirkpatrick's in general and specific ways. Another treatment that adroitly shows how the checks and setbacks of the protagonist inevitably reflect on the progress or peril of the poet is that of Ledda. See particularly chapter VI: "Scacchi e indicibilita infernali" (177-210).

(9) Kirkpatrick elaborates on the way Dante allows the "authority of his text to be broken through by urgent simplicity of scriptural voices" (424). See, further, Benfell.
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