Perception of Sin

While Dante’s poem is called a “comedy,” and there are places of some apparent humor—for instance, the irreverent demons tending the pool of boiling pitch in Cantos 21-22, including the “trumpet blast” their leader, Barbariccia, makes with his, uh, behind, at the close of Canto 21. But Dante’s intent is clearly not comedic in encouraging light enjoyment and laughter in his readers. In Dante’s time, the word comedy described not just works of humorous intent, but more precisely literary works “marked by a happy ending and a less exalted style than that in tragedy. Dante’s Divine Comedy, for example, was named a comedy by its author because of its ‘prosperous, pleasant, and desirable’ conclusion and because it was written not in Latin but in the vernacular” (Holman and Harmon 95-96). It is important to remember that we are reading not the entire Divine Comedy, but only its first third, Inferno. So, alas, we don’t get to the “happy ending” portion of the poem in Paradiso.
Definition: symbolism
A symbol, as we noted in the “literary terminology” pages earlier in the course, is something in a literary work represented on the concrete, literal level of meaning in a text that also has significant meaning on a higher plane of interpretation—beyond the literal level of the text. For instance, in a story about a man on his deathbed, the chiming of a clock may be on the literal level a descriptive detail of scene—the author’s reporting of an actual sound the characters hear—but on a higher interpretive level, the chiming of the clock might symbolize the inevitable passing of time carrying the man to his death. The chiming could also symbolize the ringing of funeral bells. . . . For a non-literary example, consider the symbolism inherent in a black cat. Literally, a black cat is a feline quadruped prone to carrying fleas in its coat and ripping up furniture with its claws. On the symbolic level, though, black cats are thought to represent bad luck.
In Inferno, many of the punishments are clearly symbolic: they operate on the literal level as the actual punishments various sinners Dante encounters are forced to endure for eternity. But these punishments are also symbolic of divine justice in various ways—sometimes in very complex ways that require our intense pondering to understand them. Think of the symbolic import of suicides being tree-trunks in our last reading, for instance: they considered their bodies as less than sacred in life, so they have “lesser” bodies in hell—they do not deserve “real” human bodies. Among the more obvious instances of symbolism in the punishment of the damned is the condemnation of murderers to swimming in blood up to their necks in Canto 12. The punishment “fits the crime,” as we noted in discussion: since they spilt the blood of others, it’s symbolically appropriate that they swim in blood forevermore in hell. For a more complex instance from our last reading, consider the punishment of the lustful in Canto 5: as a couple of you noted in discussion, just as in life the adulterous lovers were unable to exercise restraint and keep their lust in check, so are they symbolically “unrestrained” in their punishment in hell by being constantly buffeted about by gusty winds. They were “blown about” and led astray in life by their lust, and in hell their being literally blown about, unmoored and forever in the arms of their lovers, is symbolically appropriate because the punishment suits the crime. In each of the different punishments of sinners in the different circles of hell, there is poetic justice in the punishment symbolically fitting the crime.
As the Norton editors point out, the three heads of Satan symbolize his unholy reflection of the holy trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), there is symbolism in the numbers of cantos (one is introductory, then there are 33 each in Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso—33 is the number of years Jesus is believed to have lived); note also the number of lines within stanzas, and, basically, know that symbolism is rampant in Inferno. For each of the punishments you read of in Cantos 17-34, ponder as deeply as you can how the punishment is symbolically appropriate for the sin in question. Figuring the appropriateness of the punishment to fit the crime is not always so easy: think critically as you read . . . think hard about the possible significance in what Dante describes in each new place he visits in hell.
Levels of sin:
Not to lead you too much in matters we’re covering in discussion, but it’s worth noting that in general, the sins of those in the first few circles of hell are matters of faults or excesses that harm only the sinners (at least in the eyes of Dante’s conception of God), but the graver sins of those in the later circles of hell bring harm not just to the sinners themselves but to others.
Also on the gradations of various sins—many Christians today commonly believe that “all sins are equally sinful” and “hell is hell”—i.e. without different classifications for different punishments. While the specific ranking of sins in degrees is ultimately Dante’s own imagining (down to the ten “pouches” in the Eighth Circle), you should know that the Catholic church of Dante’s time and our own distinguishes between “venial sins,” or relatively minor offenses that make us less respectful of God and less worthy of Him, often being sins not committed intentionally or with conscious forethought, on the one hand, and “mortal sins,” or “deadly sins” on the other, serious offenses against the laws of God that are consciously understood by the sinner and committed willfully. The seven deadly sins are “mortal” in that if we commit them and do not sincerely repent (and confess to a priest, in the Catholic view), our souls are punished with damnation. In different ways all the specific sins Dante elucidates in Inferno are either mortal sins or have as their root cause one of the “seven deadlies”: pride, avarice, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth.
Note that Dante’s imaginings are clearly mythological, and we won’t find such punishments in scripture. But they do often reflect the beliefs of the time and, indeed, Dante’s depictions were believed as true by some. Even the most advanced intellectuals in Dante’s day would generally accept the punishments as keeping with their perceptions of hell. You may see such depictions in medieval and Renaissance art: Last Judgment depictions are particularly interesting in this regard. But note also that these punishments fit the medievals’ beliefs in justice: separation from God was not enough of a punishment in itself. Also note that the sinners do condemn themselves by their worldly actions, and that they died unrepentant. This is key: Dante believed in God’s forgiveness of sins (portrayed in Purgatorio and Paradiso in The Divine Comedy), but only in those who sincerely repented for their sins before they died.
There is no doubt that Dante presents modern readers with problems. For one thing, we do not see men and women punished “justly” in the town square by whippings, branding, mutilations, and disemboweling, as people of Dante’s age did. Real justice is not front and center in most people’s lives anymore, and the justice that we do see in the U.S., if only occasionally and often from a great distance, is nowhere near as brutal and harsh as it was in the Middle Ages. Nor do most today tend to think of such things as horrible diseases like the black plague as God’s just punishment of evil humans (though some extremists did see AIDS in this light when it was first diagnosed in the 1980s). Dante, however, did live in this harsher and more primitive time, and he wished to reaffirm the moral absolutes of his day. The suicide, Pier della Vigna in Canto XIII, for example, known by Dante and his contemporary readers to be suffering horrible tortures, day in and day out, and who had already had his eyes put out by his torturers before directing violence against himself. His suffering and the fact that he was being tortured to death did not mitigate his sin. Because of his suicide, he is condemned, and, being defined by his crime, can only express himself as he bleeds. Suicide is an absolute and under no circumstances can one take his or her own life, insists Dante. It is worth noting that to this day the Roman Catholic Church takes a harsher view of such matters as birth control, e.g., than do many Protestant faiths.
Some of the punishment, though, might reflect Dante’s attitudes more than medieval Christians in general. Take, for example, the punishment of Pope Celestine V, who resigned his office fearing his involvement in worldly things (Canto III). Celestine sought to save his soul by living a monkish life. Perhaps medieval Christians would agree with Dante that this was damnable, but, in a culture in which many seeking salvation did the same thing as Celestine and were thought of as holy, it seems questionable. Dante’s stress is, of course, on the sins that Celestine allowed to occur by his being followed by a corrupt Pope.

Consider how specific punishments are especially appropriate for the different sins Dante describes in this week’s reading (see chart in the Dante headnote for a list of different sins in the eighth and ninth circles).

• Discuss how some might view the sins of those in the eighth and especially the ninth circles as more grievous or serious matters than those in the first four or five circles.

• More specifically, explain why some might see the sins of the eighth circle as worse even than violence against others or violence against God (in Circle VII).

• Also more specifically, explain why some might see the sins of the ninth circle as more serious or grievous than sins of all eight preceding circles. Why might treachery seem to some so much worse a sin than all the others? Hint: consider the different “treacheries” of specific occupants of the ninth circle.

• Discuss the manner in which Satan is portrayed. Though he probably differs from your own conception of Satan (if any), how is his depiction effective or consistent with Dante’s portrayal of hell more generally?



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