31 December 2007

E Quindi Uscimmo a Riveder le Stelle

I’ve only dabbled in Dante, in my “visions of Hell” Italian paper at university (Dante, Primo Levi, Italo Svevo… cheerful stuff), and even then, it was, of course, only Inferno and not Purgatorio or Paradiso. This suited me fine: Paradiso just waffled on about a golden river of light that symbolised the incredible, pure love Dante felt for his beloved Beatrice, and Purgatorio seemed like Hell-lite.

Inferno, by contrast, was the place to be for drama. It opens in a dark wood with Dante, the pilgrim and protagonist, having a big-time mid-life crisis only to bump into Virgil (the poet not the pilot of Thunderbird 2), who offers to lead him back to the righteous path by giving him a tour of all the sinners (as judged by Dante the poet, who has a habit of holding grudges, particularly against anyone from Florence, his hometown, after his exile from the city). You have your “abandon every hope, all ye who enter here” plastered on the gates of Hell. You have your Popes with their heads stuck in graves and their feet dangling in the air as a punishment for their hypocrisy. You even have Satan, right at the bottom, like a mutant Hound of the Baskervilles; the bottom of Hell is like Antarctica, rather than the traditional fiery pit.

Dante’s system of punishment for the sinners in Inferno is based on Thomas Aquinas’s idea of the contrapasso, or the punishment fitting the crime. This does not mean that the sinners are deprived of the sinful pleasure in which they indulged – quite the opposite, in fact, as the sin they committed is twisted to become a corrupted, perverted form of its original self, thus providing the punishment. The gluttons in Canto VI, then, are forced to spend eternity with faeces, vomit and waste – the very products of their own crimes – raining down upon them. People who died by suicide become Ents in Inferno's Canto XIII. Well, they would have been if J.R.R. Tolkien had got there first; instead, they are just trees that bleed sap and cry out in pain when meddlesome Dante breaks off a branch.

One of the most famous and charismatic characters of the whole Divina Commedia is Francesca da Rimini, the lovelorn lass of Canto V, whose only crime was to take too much inspiration from reading the tale of Guinevere and Lancelot when love overcame her (“Noi leggiavamo un giorno per diletto / di Lancialotto come amor lo strinse”) when it came to her relationship with her brother-in-law, Paolo. Francesca was tricked into marrying Paolo’s disabled brother when the boy's parents sent Paolo to the wedding instead of his brother. Francesca and Paolo couldn’t contain their love/lust for each other and the tales of Camelot served as an aphrodisiac, so of course they couldn’t help themselves. Sadly, all did not end well, as Paolo's brother tried to stab him, only for love-struck Francesca to jump in the way, and both lovers died.

In Canto V, Francesca and Paolo are bound together as a single body, unable to escape from each other, for all eternity. Dante criticises the lustful for their excess feelings and emotions and as such, they are doomed to be battered about through the air by the “bufera infernal” and to be struck by lightning (and not in a good way). Francesca even seduces Dante with her beautiful story of sadness, flattering him and then unleashing these wonderfully rhythmic lines about love, so much so that he faints with all the emo-ness of the occasion:

Amor, ch’al cor gentil ratto s’apprende, prese costui de la bella persona che mi fu tolta; e ‘l modo ancor m’offende. Amor, ch’a nullo amato amar perdona, Mi prese del costui piacer sì forte, Che, come vedi, ancor non m’abbandona.

(Roughly: "Oh noes! Love haz trapped my hottie lover and me and will never release us, nor allow us to release each other, thanks to my lover’s brother who murdered us." The fourth line is the most beautiful of all though: “Love, that releases no beloved from loving” – check those ms in the original Italian; note Dante's use of all those labial sounds to make the reader think of lips?).

Francesca goes on a bit, for sure; these days, she would definitely have had a LiveJournal. Understandably, this isn’t a popular canto with feminists as Dante takes down Semìrasus who got the better of the Sultan, of “wanton Cleopatra” and Helen “for whose sake so many years / of evil had to pass” (Paris, Tristan and Achilles are here too but it clearly wasn’t their fault).

Despite all this, the lustful ladies and their hapless male accomplices are all punished pretty high up in Dante’s Hell (higher up being "less severe" in Dante's hell); better be lustful than treacherous, according to Dante.

There is also a section for the lustful in Purgatorio, which I’ve started browsing in my illustrated edition. In Purgatorio, though, the sinners get to do their time on a terrace on the Mountain of Purgatory, which sounds quite pleasant, in the grand scheme of things (beats being flung around in the sky, anyway). But perhaps it's not quite so pleasant, as, if the people in Terrace VII want to get to Paradiso and the River of Awesomeness, they must first purge their sins and here, the sins must be purged in a wall of fire. 

The difference between these folks and Francesca and her femmes fatales, apparently, is that their love was pure and proper but their lust was intervening, which meant that god’s love was being misdirected. None of the historical or literary characters Dante meets has even a smidgen of the charisma of Francesca; is it really any wonder that everyone likes the gory details of Inferno, where there is no way out for these bad people, so much better than the mediocre of Purgatorio?

For some reason, A-level French teachers insist on foisting the works of French existentialist philosophers onto their students. I rather liked Sartre the writer, if not the philosopher. I thought Les Jeux Sont Faits (from which M. Night Shyamalan clearly stole the plot for The Sixth Sense) was rather interesting – poor old Pierre and Eve who die unhappy deaths and then fall in love in the afterlife, only to get a second chance to come back to life and be together. Only, it turns out that les jeux sont faits (“the die is cast”) and that on ne peut pas reprendre son coup (“you can’t replay your hand”), and it doesn’t work out for them.

More pertinent here is Sartre’s play Huis Clos (literally “Closed Doors” but more often translated as “No Exit”) in which three bad people are stuck in a room with trashy 18th century furniture. You have Joseph, a WWII deserter; Inèz, a lesbian postal worker who comes between a woman and her husband; and Estelle, a haughty blonde, who marries for money and then cheats on her husband with a younger man. They all die brutal deaths and their punishment, it turns out, is to spend the rest of eternity with one another in that room and discover that…l’enfer, c’est les autres. Estelle and Joseph want to hook up to make themselves feel better about what they have done but Inèz won’t let this happen because she knows their attempts to atone are fake and don’t count to the purging of their sins. Instead, they must wait and go, “man, this is pretty funny, this eternal damnation business” and, “ah, well, we might as well get on with it.”

That seems more like purgatory to me: waiting and waiting with no sense of happiness and without any knowledge of if or when the punishment will end. It’s hardly living at all, really, but rather, just going through the motions. At least in Hell, you know there’s no escape, no exit, no hope and that, in itself is some comfort against the uncertainties and constant hope of purgatory.

And yet, Dante the pilgrim leaves Inferno with hope: “E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle” (“and then we emerged and saw the stars again”). The same stars continue to haunt him throughout Purgatorio until he's reunited with Beatrice in Paradiso...

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