Friday, April 24, 2015

Blogging through Hell (pt 5) - Into the City of the Damned

Last time, we had left Dante and Virgil waiting to continue their God-ordained journey on the outside of the gates of the City of the Damned - Dis (taken from an ancient Roman name for the god of the dead - Pluto, not to be confused with Plutus, who we met earlier). Dante notes the fearsome quality of this perversion of human cities, centers of learning and culture in our poets day,
"Master, already I can see
the clear how of its mosques above the valley,
burning bright red, as though just forged, and left 
to smolder. (VIII:70-71, Musa)
Yes, one of the most predominant features of lower Hell, and one important for the next group of sinners we will meet, is its fiery red, burning Mosques. Hell, thus conceived, is an infernal Islamic city, one in which God isn't know as love and certainly not as "abba" ("Father"), but only as a powerful master, the Creator to us creatures. God's power and justice are known to the sinners of Dis, and all of Hell, just as they are known in Islam, but His tender, parental love, His self-sacrificial love, is entirely alien. God may be feared, but He isn't loved here.

After a brief run-in with three demons who seek to turn our pilgrim into stone by calling on Medusa, Dante and Virgil's hoped for Heavenly aide arrives. The damned in the River Styx dive out of the way of the Heavenly messenger who walks dry-shod over the marshy waters, in a scene that brings the Israelites passage out of slavery, dry-shod, through the Red Sea or Christ's walking on the storm tossed seas in Galilee to mind. This latter image out to be especially striking as the Angel here represents the "first advent of Christ," i.e. His incarnation as Savior of mankind in a still hostile, indeed Satan-ruled, Earth. St. Bernard of Clairvaux describes this "first advent" as,
We know that there are three comings of the Lord... In the first coming he was seen on earth, dwelling among men; he himself testifies that they saw him and hated him... In his first coming our Lord came in our flesh...1
In a similar manner, the Angel here comes and the reaction of the damned is hatred. In the Purgatorio  we'll need to keep our eyes open for the other two advents of Christ.

The Angel, again representing Our Lord and sent by Him, has no problem battering down the defenses of Dis, as once Christ Himself destroyed the gate on the entrance to Hell, the gate that once stood underneath the "cruel" words we read in the third canto. In fact, the mere touch of a "little rod" swings open the gates and allows our journey to continue.

He reached the gate, and with a little rod
He opened it, for there was no resistance. (IX:89-90)
Once inside that fearsome city, Dante is struck by the proliferation of tombs, in-between which fires rage. Virgil explains,
"Here are the Heresiarchs,
With their disciples of all sects, and much
More than thous thickest laden are the tombs. 
Here like together with its like is buried;
And more and less the monuments are heated." (IX:127-131)
As Dante and Virgil make their way past the tombs, they converse with one another. Hearing Dante's Florentine dialect, one sinner rises up from the tomb,
"O Tuscan, thou who through the city of fire
Goest alive, thus speaking modestly,
Be pleased to stay thy footsteps in this place. 
Thy mode of speaking makes thee manifest
A native of that noble fatherland,
To which perhaps I too molestful was." (X:22-27)
It is the shade of Farinata of the degli Uberti family, one of the noblest in Florence. Farinata's first question gives us a hint at his personality,
As soon as I was at the foot of his tomb,
Somewhat he eyed me, and, as if disdainful,
Then asked of me, "Who were thine ancestors?" (X:40-42)
Farinata knows the likelihood of any fellow Florentine rising to the eminence of his own family is next to none. His question, then, isn't asked so much out of interest in the family of the living man walking past his eternal tomb, but rather is a way for Farinata to lord over Dante with his superior lineage. Farina's extreme pride in life lead him to even reject the revealed truth of the Catholic Faith. Buried here, with the Epicurean heretics, who rejected the truth of the immortality of the soul. It is interesting to note that Epicurus is buried here, in Dis, as a heretic even though he was a pagan philosopher. His philosophy, which denial of the immortality of the soul, is a heresy because it denied a religious truth which the pagans had access to.

And he uprose erect with breast and front
E'en as if Hell he had in great despite. (X:35-36)
Farinata's pride in his, and his family's, Earthly fame is one consequence of his embrace of the Epicurean heresy which emphasized the importance of temporal happiness. Another consequence is represented in Cavalcante de' Cavalcanti who, raising himself on his knees to Farina's waist, seethes with envy that Dante has been chosen to journey through the underworld instead of his son, Guido. Cavalcante assumes, wrongly as we know, that Dante's great poetic genius is what has brought him on his travels and wonders why his son, Guido, another poet and Dante's "first friend" according to La Vita Nuova, wasn't chosen to accompany Dante. Dante uses the past tense to refer to Guido, which prompts Cavalcante to ask if his beloved son is dead. Dante, pondering why the damned have knowledge of the future, but not of the present, delays in answering, which Cavalcante takes as a confirmation of his son's death. Before Dante can correct him, Cavalcante collapses back into the tomb. Farinata, too proud to even notice Cavalcante's interruption, continues on discussing Florentine politics with Dante as if nothing happened, eventually giving Dante another prediction of his impending exile, which Virgil commands the pilgrim to well remember as they leave the Epicureans behind.

1. Sermo 5, In Adventu Domini, 1-3: Opera Omnia, Edit. Cisterc. 4 {1966} 

1 comment:

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