Sunday, January 23, 2005

Inferno: Canto 14 -- Circle 7, Round 3

The last round of Circle 7 is inclusive of all violence outside of physical violence against neighbor and self. This is a hard concept because our traditional definition of violence is that which causes physical and psychological damage in the cases of murder, torture, rape, suicide, and the like. There's a kind of violence against the good, though, that Dante articulates in these next four cantos, and because he spends so much time on it, we have to consider it important to his entire cosmological scheme -- the message is simple, the universe is structured toward a particular good, and those who act outside of this structured order commit violence against it. Since no good can come from acting against the design G-d has created, every false action produces nothing and is barren and wasted. The symbolism is of a barren and wasted desert, a ground upon which nothing planted may grow.

Dante the poet begins the canto still in the wood of the suicides. It is here that we see him gathering up and returning the leaves of the anonymous Florentine suicide and beginning his movement into the burning desert. He pauses a moment to describe the design of the seventh circle, that it has three rounds beginning with the river of blood that mingles with the filth from Acheron and Styx in the creating of a rivulet that falls into lower hell. It is along the path of this rivulet as it cuts across the desert sands that Dante the pilgrim and Virgil are able to walk. These infernal rivers have their origin in the world above, Virgil explains, and in response to Dante's question about why he hasn't seen them before adds that "the place is round, and though you have come deep/ into the valley through the many circles,/ always bearing left along the steep,/ you have not traveled any circle through/ its total round; hence when new things appear/ from time to time, that hardly should surprise you" (18-23). The structure of this funnel, furthermore, guides the flow of the three rivers of woe/sorrows, hate, and fire directly to the frozen river (more like a lake, then) in which we'll find Satan trapped within the ice. Dante asks about the fifth river of the Underworld, a river called Lethe, or the river of forgetfulness, and we're told that we'll see that further on. It actually flows from the top of Purgatory as it washes away the memory of sin, which trickles down the mountain until it meets with the other four so that Satan is not only the architect of all sins but must also bear their entire weight in parody to Christ, who takes away the sins of the world.

The source of these rivers is also explained here -- the island of Crete on which is a mountain within which an ancient giant stands who sheds tears for the state of the world. This Old Man of Crete is drawn from the book of Daniel, and its original is worth quoting at length:

"In your vision, O king, you saw a statue, very large and exceedingly bright, terrifying in appearance as it stood before you.
The head of the statue was pure gold, its chest and arms were silver, its belly and thighs bronze,
4 the legs iron, its feet partly iron and partly tile.
While you looked at the statue, a stone which was hewn from a mountain without a hand being put to it, struck its iron and tile feet, breaking them in pieces.
The iron, tile, bronze, silver, and gold all crumbled at once, fine as the chaff on the threshing floor in summer, and the wind blew them away without leaving a trace. But the stone that struck the statue became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.
5 "This was the dream; the interpretation we shall also give in the king's presence.
You, O king, are the king of kings; to you the God of heaven has given dominion and strength, power and glory;
men, wild beasts, and birds of the air, wherever they may dwell, he has handed over to you, making you ruler over them all; you are the head of gold.
Another kingdom shall take your place, inferior to yours, then a third kingdom, of bronze, which shall rule over the whole earth.
There shall be a fourth kingdom, strong as iron; it shall break in pieces and subdue all these others, just as iron breaks in pieces and crushes everything else.
The feet and toes you saw, partly of potter's tile and partly of iron, mean that it shall be a divided kingdom, but yet have some of the hardness of iron. As you saw the iron mixed with clay tile,
and the toes partly iron and partly tile, the kingdom shall be partly strong and partly fragile.
The iron mixed with clay tile means that they shall seal their alliances by intermarriage, but they shall not stay united, any more than iron mixes with clay.
In the lifetime of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed or delivered up to another people; rather, it shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and put an end to them, and it shall stand forever.
That is the meaning of the stone you saw hewn from the mountain without a hand being put to it, which broke in pieces the tile, iron, bronze, silver, and gold. The great God has revealed to the king what shall be in the future; this is exactly what you dreamed, and its meaning is sure."

This Old Man of Crete is Catholicized into Dante's cosmos, and Ciardi gives a strong explanation of it:

"Dante follows the details of the original closely but adds a few of his own and a totally different interpretation. In Dante each metal represents one of the ages of an, each deteriorating from the Golden Age of Innocence. The left foot, terminating the Age of Iron, is the Holy Roman Empire. The right foot, of terra cotta, is the Roman Catholic Church, a more fragile base than the left, but the one upon which the greater weight descends. The tears of the woes of man are a Dantean detail: they flow down the great fissure that defaces all but the Golden Age [another instance of Dante's medievalism that looked backward instead of forward]. Thus, starting in woe, they flow through man's decline, into the hollow of the mountain and become the waters of all Hell. Dante's other major addition is the site and position of the figure: equidistant from the three continents, the Old Man stands at a sort of center of Time, his back turned to Damietta in Egypt (here symbolizing the East, the past, the birth of religion) and fixes his gaze upon Rome (the West, the future, the Catholic Church). It is certainly the most elaborately worked single symbol in the Inferno" (118).

As the poets move toward the rill, they see three kinds of punishments, those forced to lie upon the burning sands and endure flaming brands falling upon them from above (likely lava ash from Phlegethon descending upon them), those forced to run the circumference of the circle, wildly slapping the brands off their bodies, and those forced to squat with their arms wrapped around their bodies. Each of these tortures are meant for the violent against G-d (blasphemers), violent against Nature (homosexuals), and violent against Art (usurers), respectively. While we'll discuss these other sins in greater depth over the next few cantos, we can note Capaneus here, whom Ciardi describes as "one of the seven captains who warred on Thebes. As he scaled the walls of Thebes, [he] defied Jove to protect [the citizens within]. Jove replied with a thunderbolt that killed the blasphemer with his blasphemy still on his lips" (117). Ciardi's source on this is the writer Statius's Thebiad, and we'll spend quite a bit of time with Statius in Purgatory.

There we have it, then -- the path to this round lies before us.