Princeton Dante Project Moral Situation of the Reader


The Moral Situation of the Reader of Inferno
(Robert Hollander)

One of the most difficult problems for a twenty-first-century reader of the Comedy is to find a moral point of view from which to consider the actions portrayed in the poem. Doing so is not quite as problematic for readers of the last two cantiche, in which those on their way to becoming saints in heaven and those already there contribute to the establishment of a moral ground that is unmistakable. Even a non-Christian reader cannot overlook the essential moral meaning of these parts of the work. Inferno, on the other hand, at least seems to be a far less morally-defined space. Indeed, debates about how we are meant to respond to the most attractive sinners whom we meet in hell have been frequent features of nineteenth- and twentieth-century discussions of the poem. This will not be an attempt to review that debate, but only to describe its most salient features.

The rediscovery of Dante in Europe at the end of the eighteenth century brought his poem into a context that tended to reformulate its moral argument. Later Romantic readers only widened this tendency. The understanding of Dante that we eventually find in many authoritative late-nineteenth (e.g., Francesco De Sanctis) and early-twentieth-century (e.g., Benedetto Croce) critics does not, one should probably agree, conform with the text its author left us. How may we define this view of the poem? In keeping with some of the most attractive tenets of Romantic artistic values -- spontaneity of expression, vividness of portrayed emotion, gravity of subject matter, integrity of the writer's feeling -- Dante became, as it were, a contemporary of the Romantics. The core of such a view is located in the moral point of view of the critic, not in that of the poem. In a not-very-exaggerated shorthand, Francesca, one of the most beguiling of Dante's sinners, replaces the sainted Beatrice as the guarantor of the poem's (and the poet's) greatness; Dante becomes the unrivalled portraitist of Great Feeling. The debate that continues into our own day has its roots in the Romantic rediscovery of Dante, one based particularly on readings of the most moving figures in the Inferno: Francesca da Rimini (canto V), Farinata degli Uberti (canto X), Pier delle Vigne (canto XIII), Brunetto Latini (canto XV), Ulysses (canto XXVI), and Ugolino della Gherardesca (canto XXXIII), with Francesca, Ulysses, and Ugolino representing perhaps the three most beloved and discussed of Dante's Infernal characters.

It is not my purpose to argue that Dante's "sympathetic sinners" are not indeed sympathetic, but that we, as readers, are meant to avoid the trap into which the poem's protagonist himself several times falls. We should try to honor the distinction the text itself clearly draws, that between a narrator, who has had a journey through the created universe, culminating in his vision of God, and who, as a result, understands all things about as well as a human being can, and a protagonist who moves, like St. Augustine before him (in Dante's own formulation [Conv.I.ii.14]), "from not good to good, from good to better, and from better to best," when at the last he becomes the narrator ([Par I 1-36]). Dante's poem creates some of its drama from the tension that operates between the narrator's view of events (in Inferno often represented by Virgil's interpretive remarks) and that of the protagonist. What makes our task difficult is that at some pivotal moments neither the narrator nor Virgil makes clear judgmental statements of a moralizing kind. Instead, the poet uses irony to undercut the alluring words of sinners who present themselves rather as victims than as perpetrators of outrage in the eye of God. The commentary that accompanies the text of the poem will frequently analyze the subtleties of Dante's presentation of these sympathetic sinners. Here, speaking more generally, I would like to resuscitate an old gloss of Guido da Pisa (Guido.Inf.XX.28-30), who puts the matter succinctly: "Sed circa miserias damnatorum, Sacra Pagina attestante, nulla compassione movetur. Et ratio est ista: In isto enim mundo est tempus misericordie; in alio autem, est solum tempus iustitie" (But the suffering of the damned should move no one to compassion, as the Bible attests. And the reason for this is that the time for mercy is here in this world, while in the world to come it is time only for justice). If it was John Milton's task to "justify the ways of God to men" (Paradise Lost I, 26), Dante before him had taken on the responsibility of showing that all that is found in this world and in the next is measured by justice. Everything in God is just; only in the mortal world of sin and death do we find injustice. It is the mark of Cain on most human agents. And it is small wonder that Dante believes that it is only few alive in his time who will find salvation ([Par XXXII 25-27]). Words for "justice" and "just" recur frequently in the poem, the noun some thirty-five times, the adjective, some thirty-six. If one were asked to epitomize the central concern of the poem in a single word, "justice" might embody the best choice.

In the Inferno we see the justice of God insisted on from the opening lines describing hell proper, the inscription over the gate of hell: "Giustizia mosse il mio alto fattore" (Justice moved my maker on high). If God is just, it follows logically that there can be absolutely no question concerning the justness of His judgments. All who are condemned to hell are justly condemned. Thus, when we observe that the protagonist feels pity for some of the damned, we are meant to realize that it is he who is at fault. This is perhaps the most available test of us as readers. If we sympathize with the damned, we follow a bad example. In such a view, the protagonist's at times harsh reaction to various sinners, e.g., Filippo Argenti (canto VIII), Pope Nicholas III (canto XIX), Bocca degli Abati (canto XXXII), is not (even if it seems so to some contemporary readers) a sign of his falling into sinful attitudes himself, but proof of his righteous indignation as he learns to hate sin.

If some readers think that the protagonist is too zealous in his reaction to some sinners, far more are of the opinion that his sympathetic responses to others correspond to those that we ourselves may legitimately feel. To be sure, Francesca is portrayed more sympathetically than Thaïs (canto XVIII), Ulysses than Mosca dei Lamberti (canto XXVIII), etc. Yet it also seems to some readers that Dante's treatment of Francesca, Ulysses, and others asks us to put the question of damnation to one side, leaving us to admire their most pleasing human traits in a moral vacuum, as it were. I think it is better to understand that we are never authorized by the poem to embrace such a view. If we are struck by Francesca's courteous speech, we note that she is also in the habit of blaming others for her own difficulties; if we admire Farinata's magnanimity, we also note that his soul contains no room for God; if we are wrung by Pier delle Vigne's piteous narrative, we also consider that he has totally abandoned his allegiance to God for his belief in the power of his emperor; if we are moved by Brunetto Latini's devotion to his pupil, we become aware that his view of Dante's earthly mission has little of religion in it; if we are swept up in enthusiasm for the noble vigor of Ulysses, we eventually understand that he is maniacally egotistical; if we weep for Ugolino's piteous paternal feelings, we finally understand that he, too, is centrally concerned with himself.

Dante's risky technique was to trust us, his readers, with the responsibility for seizing upon the details in the narratives told by these sympathetic sinners in order to condemn them on the evidence that issues from their own mouths. It was indeed, as we can see from the many readers who fail to take note of this evidence, a perilous decision for him to have made. Yet we are given at least two totally clear indicators of the attitude that should be ours. Twice in Inferno figures from heaven descend to hell to further God's purpose in sending Dante on his mission. Virgil relates the coming of Beatrice to Limbo. She tells him, in no uncertain terms, that she feels nothing for the tribulations of the damned and cannot be harmed in any way by them or by the destructive agents of the place that contains them ([Inf II 88-93]). All she longs to do is to return to her seat in Paradise ([Inf II 71]). And when the angelic intercessor arrives to open the gates of Dis, slammed shut against Virgil, we are told that this benign presence has absolutely no interest in the situation of the damned or even of the living Dante. All he desires is to complete his mission and be done with such things ([Inf IX 88], [Inf IX 100-103]), reminding us of Beatrice's similar lack of interest in the damned.

Such indicators should point us in the right direction. It is a continuing monument to the complexity of Dante's poem and to some readers' desire to turn it into a less morally- determined text than it ultimately is that so many of us have such difficulty wrestling with its moral implications. This is not to say that the poem is less because of its complexity, but precisely the opposite. Its greatness is reflected in its rich and full realization of the complex nature of human behavior and of the difficulty of moral judgment for living mortals. It asks us to learn, as does the protagonist, as we proceed. His journey is the model for our voyage through his text.

(February 1998)


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