In honor of re-reading Dante’s Inferno this quarantine with a friend and then moving on to (finally) read Purgatorio & Paradiso I went back looking at all essays I wrote and fell in love with my badass 20 year old self. 🙂 So in search of written material ready for the blog I present to you a series of 4 essays on Dante’s Inferno written by yours truly many years ago while studying in Florence, Italy for 6 weeks. I had the wonderful pleasure to also visit Dante’s home in Florence and his burial place in Ravenna, I think that makes me a groupie! 🙂
Each of the sinners in Hell is punished according to their misdeeds on Earth; they must spend an eternity being constantly reminded of their major faults while alive. I believe this constant reminder is more the punishment than the pain and filth that they must sit in. The inversion of their human weaknesses mocks them for all eternity and would seem to be the greater punishment in the long run. Circle 2, the circle of the lustful, is the largest circle of Hell because it is the sin that the most people commit. Their true sin was being unsatisfied with a moderate amount of love. Lust is a form of gluttony; these dead are being punished for their insatiable appetite for God’s highest creation: the human body. Each of the sinners is now thrown about helplessly through a powerful wind tunnel, forever without control over their bodies and future destination. This punishment is a perfect inversion of their sins because the wind tunnel they are in signifies the excessive passion they exercised on Earth. They directed their lives away from God’s pure purpose for love, creation of life and unity between one man and woman. Instead, the sinners used this love in a purely carnal context, simply for the momentary satisfaction of the body. To pay for this perversion of love, they must now bend to the will of God, creator of Hell, and wail about in directionless wind.
Virgil points out a few of the sinners; interestingly, most of them named were famous heroes and royalty of ancient times. Each from different empires and time periods, but they all share in their crime on Earth and punishment in Hell. Dante only speaks to one sinner, Francesca da Rimini. She is seen as a type for Eve, the first femme fatale. Both women used their charm and power over their men to “force” him into an act that they would not have fallen into if not for their evil mistresses. This is the story that medieval persons, like Dante, fully believed. Eve, like Pandora from mythology, brought evil into the world. All women who came after her are also to blame for their misdeeds and the faults of their masculine partners. Francesca is blamed for seducing Paolo, her husband’s brother, for the kiss that began their incestuous relationship, just like Eve seduced Adam into eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, thus beginning the Fall of Man from God’s Grace. Woman were seen as the “daughters of Eve,” instigators of sin and evil upon righteous men.
Although the truth is that Francesca is to blame for their adulterous relationship, she tells her story differently to put herself in a better light to Dante. Francesca spins her story to make Paolo seem like the instigator but it is a lie. She uses one of the most famous stories of adultery in history, Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, to provide false justification for her overwhelming love for Paolo. Francesca’s story is an obvious lie to anyone who has read Lancelot and Guinevere’s story. In the true tale, Guinevere is the one to kiss the shy Lancelot first. Francesca alludes in her story, and the one of the knight and queen, that the man kisses the female first. She changes the female’s roles as instigator of lust to simply the receiver of the sinful kiss. Although Francesca has obviously lied to Dante and all the evidence points to the fact that she clearly belongs in this circle of Hell, he is still moved to pity her and he faints.
Dante the Pilgrim’s pity juxtaposes Dante the Poet’s apparent belief that they belong in Hell because Dante the Poet placed them there for the Pilgrim to encounter. To some, it may seem that Dante the Pilgrim’s pity is confusing, but I do not believe that his pity is misplaced at all. Dante the Poet has the tool of hindsight. He has already learned his lesson about sin and its eternal punishment, but the Pilgrim and the reader still has a few more circles to descend before we can gain this knowledge and hopefully satisfaction with Dante the Poet’s punishments and placements. Dante the Poet is using logic to place sinners in their particular locations; he can systematically place his characters in their respective circles of Hell because the Church dictates that they obviously belong there. On the other hand, Dante the Pilgrim is encountering these people firsthand and he is witnessing their misery and pain in Hell. It is easier for the Pilgrim to become overwhelmed with these sights and lose his Reason for compassion. When Dante the Pilgrim feels pity for the sinners, I do not see it as a weakness of character.I see his pity simply as a human reaction when faced with unpleasant circumstances.
Perhaps Dante feels this overwhelming pity because, as a human, he can understand their temporary loss of control over their bodies that resulted in their fall into lust. Dante the Pilgrim can “put himself in their shoes,” as I believe we all can. Lust is the largest circle of sin; it is the one the most people fall prey to. Dante the Pilgrim sees that this sin unfortunately captures many souls and he may feel sorry that these souls strayed from the path of heavenly love into sinful lust. We all struggle with this battle. Even the righteous still have to make an effort to place their mind’s reason over their body’s wants. Many of the souls trapped in the winds of lust probably felt that at the time of their sin that they were acting upon righteous love, rather than evil lust. Their appetite is not always for just sex and satisfaction. Some of these lustful relationships grew out of unhappy partnerships with the person, according to the contemporary social standard, they “belonged” with. Marriage is a contract between two families with public obligations and responsibilities, but love is not a social contract, it encompasses blind passion and intense emotion. I believe that Dante felt compassion for those people who fell into lust by falling in love.
If Dante’s Inferno were to be reinterpreted by a modern writer we would see another depiction of Hell with different sins and punishments. I believe that the circle of lust would be completely reinterpreted. Francesca and Paolo may no longer be in the circle of the lustful, or even in Hell at all. Today, we explain away adulterous relationships with the excuse of the search for true love, and we justify it with divorce. Modern day society constructs love and marriage in a completely different light. We are no longer are obligated to a contract that binds our soul to a complete stranger. The current emphasis is on “soulmates” and true, everlasting love (although this idea is almost never achieved, almost everyone strives for it). For the 21st century, adultery is seen as proof that the marriage contract can no longer be honored because love is no longer involved. Divorce is applauded as a way out of a faulty relationship. Cleopatra, Francesca, Tristan, Paris, Helen and many more are now seen as heroes fighting against the chains of obligation their societies imposed on their lives, quite different from the medieval image that colored them as incestuous, adulterous sinners.
Similarly, premarital sex (if decided on by the general populace, not the church) would also no longer appear in Hell. Our acceptance of this perversion of the “true” nature of sex is in part due to the media’s larger promotion of the primal nature of man as opposed to reason and logic. A measurable increase in violence and sex in our media encourages consumers to “give in” to their beastly nature, and allow themselves to “let go” of the pompous ceremony of our Victorian predecessors. Francesca supports the argument that she was thrown into lust and thus man’s beastly nature, without Reason:
“Love, that kindles quick in the gentle heart, this one for the beauty of my body…”
Dante’s Inferno, Canto V, Line 100-101
Premarital sex has always existed, it is not an invention of the hippies, but society’s widespread acceptance of it is new. If premarital sex were still seen as a serious sin, this circle of Hell would need to grow tremendously.
When asking if this acceptance of previous carnal sins is due to the media or the audience, we should use the riddle “what came first, the chicken or the egg?” as our guide. You cannot separate one from the other. Did the consumers ask for more risqué scenes first or did the media push for them first? One did not evolve in a vacuum from the other. Stories of love, sex, and rock & roll have intrigued audiences for ages yet most of the fictional character’s actions were not socially accepted. Law abiding citizens read these bawdy stories, but they were not supposed to act in similar ways. If someone did then it was kept to the utmost secrecy and never discussed in polite circles. The difference between their society and ours is not our actions, but our public acceptance of them. Today, we not only talk about our vices, but we brag about them.
Canto V was bittersweet, because although many of the sinners in this circle of Hell committed crimes against society, I cannot blame most of them for it. The reason why I felt this compassion for them is because I am a product of my society. Even though Francesca lied to Dante, my heart still goes out for her. In addition to Francesca and Paolo’s love, I also felt sorry for Helen, Paris, and Tristan. Growing up in the 21st century, we hear heroic battle epics and romantic love stories about these mythical characters. There are numerous movies, books, TV shows, and comics reinterpreting their ancient stories to reinvent them for audiences of this century. We no longer see cheating as a pure evil, and the writers spin their ancient tales so that we learn to feel compassion for those trapped in political marriages. Although, as a Catholic, I am taught to see lust as an evil, as a human it is not always easy. Circle 2 is a perfect example of medieval theology and philosophy, and how we have evolved from their world of black and white.