DANTE IN NORTH PARK
In rain and fog I drove past a sign:
I blinked: no, it said
I imagine the bard of the Inferno —
the ambitious jutting chin,
laurel wreath upon his brow —stooped over the long counter,
folding socks and underwear.
Oh vengeful Alighieri,
in which circle of hell
do you find yourself?
Do you believe your torment
was ordained by the infinite love
that moves the Sun
and the other stars?
Or have you become so numb
from folding and picking up,
that you no longer think at all?
Oh, you were subtle as the serpent,
but never harmless as the dove.
Beyond the stench of brimstone,
the garish glow of the flames,
you created perfect, geometric pain.
Now in this laundry you know:
hell is the death of the soul.
The dryers churn concentric
circles of towels, panties, shirts,
bras flayed with static,
smelling of mortality and detergent —
while you stand and fold
other people’s bottomless laundry.
And will do so until
you remember mercy.
~ Oriana © 2015
I wrote this rather judgmental poem on Dante’s judgmentalism and sadistic vengefulness without asking myself what shapes people this way — long before I understood the consequences of a wound that never heals.
The recent article by Robert Harrison — “Dante on Trial,” in the New York Review of Books — made me all the more acutely aware that the growing lack of compassion for the sinners that Dante the Pilgrim shows in his journey through hell — his hardening of the heart being supposedly the mark of his spiritual growth — stemmed both from the cruel temper of his times and from Dante’s great personal wound. Though he saw that it was circumstances that doomed him to the infamy of exile, he never appears to understand the role of circumstances in the life the sinners. If they acted out of their unhealed wounds, that’s too bad — off with them into this or that circle of hell.
For Dante the injury of exile went deeper than the hardships of poverty, homelessness, and loss of social status, about which he complained bitterly in his letters and the works he wrote after being exiled.2 It also went deeper than the loss of citizenship, which he cherished more than any other earthly blessing (see Paradiso 8: 115–117).
What hurt Dante the most was the “infamy” of his conviction, based as it was on hearsay evidence that resulted in a permanent defamation of his character. Alluding to the way many Florentines simply assumed he was guilty as charged and unleashed a public outcry against him, Dante would later write about wandering all around Italy “displaying against my will the wound of fortune for which the wounded one is often unjustly accustomed to be held accountable.”
The shame and indignation Dante felt at being chased from his nest by his fellow citizens never diminished with time. At the end of his life the wound remained as raw in his psyche as when disaster first struck in 1301. The Divine Comedy was conceived and completed within the dark, lacerated depths of a pain that Dante transmuted into a poetic rage against the machine—the defective machine of earthly justice that had unjustly condemned him and that he believed stood in desperate need of rescue, the way his pilgrim needed rescue in the dark wood of Inferno 1. (Dante soon became convinced that only a sovereign emperor who was above partisan politics and did not share temporal power with the church could administer justice properly throughout Europe).
I like some of the sinners better than some of the Elect. In particular, I like the sweet-spoken Francesca da Rimini better than Beatrice, a dominatrix who excels at verbal humiliation. Here is the ending of the article:
“[Beatrice] foretells the damnation of Pope Clement V, who “shall make him of Alagna go deeper still.” The reference is to the mode of punishment reserved for corrupt popes in Inferno 19. In a parody of apostolic succession, they are planted upside down with burning soles in a hole in the rock of the eighth circle of Hell. Each new arrival pushes his predecessor farther down into the hole. Thus when he dies, Clement will thrust Dante’s arch-enemy Pope Boniface VIII — “him of Alagna” — deeper into the rock.
No matter how often one reads or teaches the Paradiso, these words of Beatrice — her very last words — never cease to shock. They are wholly incongruent with the poem’s ecstatic vision of the Empyrean. As the great Dante scholar Charles Singleton wrote in his commentary, with obvious exasperation: “Has the wayfarer learned no lesson of Christian charity in the long journey to God, and does he, being now so near to God, not love his fellowman, not forgive?” The answer is no.
And Beatrice is the female savior of the Commedia. Not Christ, but Beatrice. That’s Dante’s great heresy, and I bless him for that. An idealized love object can have an uplifting effect. But aside from beauty, and her willingness to save Dante’s soul, is Beatrice the kind of person anyone would want to have a lunch with? She might be the perfect date for those who want to lose weight, since being scolded for your sins would probably take away appetite.
But again we must remember that Dante lived in cruel times and most likely had a harsh childhood — that was simply normal. A childhood filled with punishment provides a rich material for imagining many kinds of infernal punishments.
Even more important, we must understand that until fairly there was little understanding of psychology. You were a sinner, not a product of genes interacting with circumstances. Notions like social conditioning didn’t exist. One feature of the Middle Ages (and several centuries beyond, alas) was the belief in free will in its worst form — you are responsible for all evil that befalls you — it’s divine punishment.
But theology is indeed subtle as the serpent. If no sin could be proved, then the misfortune was actually divine grace: “God sends suffering to those he loves.” Such suffering is then a kind of purgatory here on earth, making you more fit for heaven. This attitude survives even today, among those who claim that suffering ennobles a person.
What a gift suffering is! Indeed, given that he regarded himself as innocent, it’s somewhat strange that Dante did not express gratitude for his exile. Right there Catholic theologians could accuse him of spiritual immaturity.
As we descend deeper into Hell, the torments become greater and our modern sensibility finds it difficult not to take offense at them. The heart-breaking “forest of suicides” canto doesn’t have a single line of compassion in it, even when it mentions the circumstances that drove the damned to such a desperate deed.
And then there is this strange encounter in the Seventh Circle of the burning sand and rain of fire which punishes the “sodomites” (Canto XV).
EXPECT NO PARDON
Brunetto’s face is burned — Dante calls it
cotto, cooked; he strains to recognize
the one who stretches to him
his scorched, smoking arms.
My son, may it not displease you
if Brunetto Latino walks with you a while.
Dante begs him to sit down —
If any of us takes a moment’s rest,
he has to lie still for a hundred years,
unable to brush off the flakes of flame.
On a high ridge, Dante walks above
the plain of burning sand,
conversing with the spirit who taught
how men might become eternal —
who from that starless pit cries,
Follow your star, and you will arrive
at a glorious port. And Dante
puts him in hell. In unending
torment. The beseeching flowers
of the Tesoretto win no mercy,
nor the scholarship of scholars.
Expect no pardon for your pretty songs,
Dante warns, stumbling, spiraling down
the dim paths of hell. Not unless the Love
that moves the sun and the other stars
is a greater poet than even
Dante — and we are the poems,
to be revised until we are music.
~ Oriana © 2015
Brunetto Latini was Dante’s beloved teacher and mentor, his guardian after the death of Dante’s father. He was also married and a father of several children (though only a daughter survived to adulthood). Scholars continue to be puzzled by the lack of any evidence that he was a homosexual. Not even rumors can be traced. He was a statesman as well as a writer, and his tomb can be found near the high altar in Santa Maria Maggiore in Florence.
But suppose Dante did know something that remained hidden from the scholars. He still had the option of placing Brunetto in Purgatory rather than Hell. The cordiality of the meeting and Brunetto’s best wishes for Dante’s glory also don’t seem to fit. No other soul is Hell is honored the way Brunetto is. Dante calls him “a radiance among men,” and recalls “that sweet image, gentle and paternal, / you were to me in the world when hour by hour / you taught me how man makes himself eternal.”
In desperation, scholars have suggested that Dante is trying to say that even quite wonderful men, kind and accomplished, can be guilty of private sins such as being gay. Yet even after acknowledging that Dante was a man of his times and regarded homosexuality as a mortal sin, we can’t explain why he didn’t place Latini in the Purgatorio. I suspect the reason was esthetic: Dante needed an interesting and eminent soul to converse with in the Seventh Circle, a pattern we see throughout the Inferno.
As for causing emotional distress to Latini’s family (and Dante did assume the Commedia would be famous and widely read), well, art comes first.
COMPASSION IS A MODERN VIRTUE
We tend to forget that compassion is a recent virtue. We assume that it was born with Christianity. The innumerable examples of the cruelties committed by Christians are dismissed as “imperfect practice.”
But the problem may be deeper. My eyes were opened when I read an article, “Christianity is not about being a good person.” After all one can be a good person without being a Christian, the minister explained (this is extremely progressive thinking, as ministers go). Instead, the minister continued, Christianity is about sin and salvation. Christianity is not about being a good person; it's about seeing yourself as a bad person deserving eternal damnation, but saved from that by the "bloody ransom" paid by Jesus.
The clarity of this stunned me. All those years I've been unable to define Christianity in any concise way, to answer the question, What is the most important thing about Christianity? (my try was "forgiveness"). But there it was, using the simplest words, none of theological abstract mumbo-jumbo like kenosis. Forget kenosis! Christianity is about sin and hell and salvation. The “god of punishment” (don’t be taken in by false praises of his mercy) has to be appeased by the “bloody ransom.” A god of mercy would not need to be appeased by anyone’s suffering, much less his own son’s death under torture.
But isn’t Christian ethics about being a good person? That’s a misconception, the minister argued with impeccable logic. A Christian’s first duty is to god, not to fellow men. End of argument.
I remember the unencumbered time before my first religion lesson. Not idyllic happiness, not paradise; I think the best word is indeed “unencumbered.” I knew I wasn’t a perfect little girl, but I didn’t think of myself as a bad little girl either. Then came the story of Adam and Eve, and the phrase “the original sin” — of which we too were guilty, by virtue of being human. We were born in sin, in the clutches of Satan. The concept was elaborated in subsequent lessons until I did come to see myself as a bad little girl. I would probably end up in hell. The anguish began.
A deep, real anguish caused by something entirely imaginary. Years after leaving the church, it's difficult to comprehend that I could have ever believed such pernicious mythology. But I was a sensitive, people-pleasing child, and such children are easily intimidated. I have to forgive myself, and forgive those who saw children and others as punishment objects.
But I digress. My only excuse is to be able to quote Nietzsche again: “Religions are, at bottom, systems of cruelty.” No childhood trauma or other extenuating circumstances are admitted: humans are simply evil and deserve to be punished with utmost severity.
In earlier times, the sadism of Christianity was more open. Thus, Tertullian (c.160 - c.225) wrote that Christians should not attend gladiatorial fights in the Circus, but not to worry: they will have much better entertainment in heaven, watching the torments of those in hell.
But again I digress. Don’t waste your time on Tertullian. Read Dante, who really was a great poet, even if his moral understanding does not meet our standards.
Boticellli, Dante and Beatrice Meet in Paradise