As I prepare this post, it’s snowing outside—cold, white flakes that put me in mind of the flaky fires of the seventh circle of Hell. Today’s post is all about such unlikely juxtapositions of image and idea and our condition of interpretation.

The Defiant Soul & the Old Man of Crete (Canto XIV)

Capaneus Tries to Keep His Head Up . . . in Hell

The third ring of the seventh circle may not contain Dante’s most baroque tortures, but I find it contains striking and poetic imaginative flourishes when you give them their due, and they illustrate again the tension of metaphor in Hell.

The fire that falls on those violent to God could have been violent and furious itself, but instead Dante describes it as “distended flakes of fire” that drift slowly like mountain snow. Look up, and the scene is almost peaceful, a snowfall glowing yellow and orange, a show of light and heat. Look down, however, and you see the souls endlessly beating and brushing the flakes off their bodies. What the pilgrim can see as beautiful the souls must experience as pain.

Capaneus’s defiance suggests one way to interpret the contrapasso: if we associate God with the sky as the Greeks did Zeus, then those who sinned directly against God are punished from the sky. Whereas their actions and attitudes were violent, their punishment at least appears peaceful, and whereas they thought they could live independent of God’s providence, as if he were absent, their punishment reminds them of the eternal presence of the divine.

I’ll admit I don’t find Virgil’s reproach of Capaneus entirely satisfying. Capaneus appears to have the self-satisfaction we hear people boast of in our own day, viz., of living by his own creed, doing it his way, as it were. It put him in Hell, but he remains defiant like Byron’s Manfred or Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein, and it’s not obviously clear that this defiance is a worse punishment than the flames. If, however, we are to make sense of Virgil’s claim, we could reflect on the Socratic doctrine that it is better to suffer evil than to commit it—precisely because the commission of evil distorts and disorders one’s soul. If there is consolation in Hell, it is in accepting the just punishment of Providence. To rage futilely against this justice is to build a Hell within oneself.

Dante Lets His Imagination Loose

Virgil tells the pilgrim that “Nothing your eyes have seen is so worth note” as the boiling, blood-red river Phlegethon (l. 72), and then goes on to offer the extravagant image of the Old Man of Crete. The statue image of course borrows from the book of Daniel, but why it and its rivers are so important are harder to discern. Esolen suggests the image works to suggest the authority of Rome, to emblematize humanity’s fall from grace, and to suggest Paul’s man of flesh who longs for renewal in Christ. That all seems plausible, and it would make the Old Man something of a focal point for the most significant themes of the Commedia. But it’s also an image that kind of makes the head spin with its grandeur, complexity, and sheer oddity, and that makes it mysterious and wonderful above its other meanings.

“See the thought as well”: Hermeneutics in Hell (Canto XVI)

I often feel like an outsider looking in, trying to interpret a situation, so I’m drawn to events that foreground interpretation or that describe the rules of a place (that said, I’m also drawn to examples of the rules working without that foregrounding). Dante’s pilgrim is perhaps an ultimate outsider, exploring spirit regions for which he has little context, so he must ask his guide at every step, and there are a few moments here and there where Dante the author comments upon the event of writing or the role of the reader. At the end of canto xvi, Virgil throws a rope down an abyss, and the pilgrim watches in expectation. “One must take care with those who have the wit,” he says, “Not only to observe the action, but see / The thought as well!” (XVI.98-104).

This is the case of the reader. Faced with a verbal act, the text, the reader attempts to discern the thought “behind it.”

Or so we used to think. Literary scholars now are more likely to think of meaning lying not “behind” a text or even in an author’s mind so much as in a social space that looks a lot like the rhetorical triangle (speaker – text – audience). Dante isn’t making a point about where meaning lies; he’s remarking that it has a context. If a demon had thrown the rope into the abyss, the pilgrim may have taken it as an attack, but since it was Virgil, he has confidence there’s a good reason. But he can’t read Virgil’s mind, only his words and deeds.

This just means that this almost casual remark entails a rather complex set of ideas about interpretation and meaning, or hermeneutics. When we try to see Dante’s thought, for instance, we become quickly aware of our need for good translators and thoughtful editors and even various reflections such as this reading journal. We arrive at understanding socially. Just as this journal aims to support a reading of Dante, Virgil helps the pilgrim understand his journey. Similarly, Paul helps us see the Gospels, the Gospel-authors help us see Christ, Christ helps us see the Father and the Prophets, and so on.

Plenty of thinkers—including some Christians—consider interpretation its own form of Hell, but God chose to use finite means to communicate with us, which suggests that it is part of the adventure of being. That we ever understand one another at all is pretty amazing, and that we can make meaningful contact with an Italian poet from the 14th century is even more amazing, and more miraculous still is that a transcendent, uncreated God who is all spirit can somehow be intelligible to imminent, created, embodied persons.