Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Moral Situation of the Reader of Inferno

The Moral Situation of the Reader of Inferno

By Robert Hollander

"One of the most difficult problems for a twenty-first-century reader of the Comedy is to find a moral point of view from which to consider the actions portrayed in the poem. Doing so is not quite as problematic for readers of the last two cantiche, in which those on their way to becoming saints in heaven and those already there contribute to the establishment of a moral ground that is unmistakable.

Inferno, on the other hand, at least seems to be a far less morally-defined space. Indeed, debates about how one is meant to respond to the most attractive sinners whom one meets in Hell have been frequent features of nineteenth- and twentieth-century discussions of the poem.

The re-discovery of Dante in Europe at the end of the eighteenth century brought his poem into a context that tended to reformulate its moral argument. Later Romantic readers only widened this tendency.

The understanding of Dante that one eventually finds in many authoritative late-nineteenth (e.g., Francesco De Sanctis) and early-twentieth-century (e.g., Benedetto Croce) critics does not, one should probably agree, conform with the text. How may one define this view of the poem? In keeping with some of the most attractive tenets of Romantic artistic values -- spontaneity of expression, vividness of portrayed emotion, gravity of subject matter, integrity of the writer's feeling -- Dante became, as it were, a contemporary of the Romantics. The core of such a view is located in the moral point of view of the critic, not in that of the poem.

In a not-very-exaggerated shorthand, Francesca, one of the most beguiling of Dante's sinners, replaces the sainted Beatrice as the guarantor of the poem's (and the poet's) greatness; Dante becomes the unrivalled portraitist of Great Feeling. The debate that continues into our own day has its roots in the Romantic rediscovery of Dante, one based particularly on readings of the most moving figures in the Inferno: Francesca da Rimini (canto V), Farinata degli Uberti (canto X), Pier delle Vigne (canto XIII), Brunetto Latini (canto XV), Ulysses (canto XXVI), and Ugolino della Gherardesca (canto XXXIII), with Francesca, Ulysses, and Ugolino representing perhaps the three most beloved and discussed of Dante's Infernal characters

One should try to honour the distinction the text itself clearly draws, that between a narrator, who has had a journey through the created universe, culminating in his vision of God, and who, as a result, understands all things about as well as a human being can, and a protagonist who moves, like St. Augustine before him (in Dante's own formulation "from not good to good, from good to better, and from better to best," when at the last he becomes the narrator ([Par I 1-36]).

Dante's poem creates some of its drama from the tension that operates between the narrator's view of events (in Inferno often represented by Virgil's interpretive remarks) and that of the protagonist. What makes one`s task difficult is that at some pivotal moments neither the narrator nor Virgil makes clear judgmental statements of a moralising kind. Instead, the poet uses irony to undercut the alluring words of sinners who present themselves rather as victims than as perpetrators of outrage in the eye of God."

Full article here