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The experience of time in Dante’s Inferno

posted by Tim Carmody   Oct 25, 2017

The Map of Hell by Sandro Botticelli.
“The Map of Hell,” by Sandro Botticelli. Wikimedia Commons.

1.

It was either shortly before or just after November 8, 2016 that I began to wonder whether I had died and gone to Hell.

This reads as a joke, and I may have originally said it as a joke. But as the days and weeks went on, I started to reconstruct the events. I had nearly died in an accident in September 2009. The events between that date and November 2016, both good and bad ones, did not always seem to have the clear and distinct feeling of reality I’d experienced beforehand. Normally, most traditional conceptions of the afterlife suggest, the soul moves from a purgatorial or threshold state to a final reward. Was it possible that I had done this in the opposite direction, and crossed from Purgatory into Hell?

America’s history of white supremacy, gender chauvinism, and reactionary counterpolitics was clearly the most likely explanation. But an individual or collective journey through Hell was a hypothesis I couldn’t completely rule out. It was a decent enough joke, but I was no longer so sure I was kidding. So I began to read.

2.
If you really want to read about Hell, you’ve got to go back to Islam and Catholicism in the Middle Ages. That was a time, a place, and a set of overlapping cultures that truly knew how to thoroughly, carefully, and beautifully discuss intellectual topics without any positive knowledge about the subject whatsoever. They turned scraps of text and groping attempts at reason into fully imagined traditions. And all of these traditions come together in the person of Dante Aligheri.

Dante draws on everything. Classical literature, obviously: his guide through Hell and Purgatory is Virgil, author of the Aeneid, whose Aeneas likewise visited the land of the dead. The best theology and philosophy available to him, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim or pagan, including knowledge of the Earth’s geography and history, and the movements of the celestial spheres. European vernacular poetry, from Italy and France to Scandinavia and the British Isles. And — while not everyone agrees — Dante seems to have borrowed heavily from Muslim narratives of the prophet Muhammed traveling from Hell to Heaven, probably via Italian and Sicilian scholars who were fluent in both traditions.

But Dante is also innovative. I’ve always been interested in the history of time travel stories and the different mechanisms writers and artists use to try to understand how it might work. (In Back to the Future, the key technologies are cars, mechanical clocks, nuclear energy, videotape, and Polaroid photographs.) Last year, I started to wonder whether you could think of the Commedia as a time travel story. Dante didn’t have a plutonium-powered DeLorean or a Newtonian conception of spacetime. He had Hell, Heaven, Purgatory, and the stories we told about them. He used the materials at hand. And even H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine involves a journey underground.

3.

It’s generally agreed that Dante was inventing all-new theology when he populated the Inferno’s antechamber Limbo with virtuous non-Christians. Before the Commedia, Limbo was reserved for unbaptized infants and Jewish kings and prophets (whom Jesus rescues after the crucifixion). But how else was Dante supposed to meet Homer, Ovid, Aristotle, and all the poets, heroes, and scholars of the classical and Muslim worlds? How else could he meet again his friends and enemies, teachers and rivals, from before his banishment in Florence? How else could meet Beatrice, who transforms into the personification of Christian love and virtue? Dante built a machine.

In Dantean time travel, you can’t change the past or the future. It has all in some sense already happened. But you can greet the dead, gain wisdom from them, know their love, and maybe redeem your soul.

Limbo, like the other circles of Dante’s Hell, is not wholly separate from time, but unmoored from it. He describes it as a place of blindness:

in the dark (where only hearing told)
there were no tears, no weeping, only sighs
that caused a trembling in the eternal air -
sighs drawn from sorrowing, although no pain.1

The souls in the Inferno suffer, but they do not experience the passage of time. Somehow, though, they remember the past, both on Earth and in Hell. Virgil can tell Dante about Jesus’s rescue of Noah, Moses, David, Rachel, and the Jewish prophets. Others can tell Dante exactly how many years, months, and days ago they died. Some offer to prophecy Dante’s future. It’s as if Hell has History, but not Time.

In a famous scene in the tenth Canto, Dante asks his fellow Florentine Farinata degli Uberti to explain this contradiction:

‘Well (may your seed find sometime true repose!)
untie the knot for me,’ I now besought,
‘so tightly twined around my searching thoughts.
You see, it seems (to judge from what I hear)
far in advance what time will bring to pass,
but otherwise in terms of present things.’
‘We see like those who suffer from ill light.
We are,’ he said, ‘aware of distant things.
Thus far He shines in us, the Lord on high.
But when a thing draws near to us, our minds
go blank. So if no other brings us news,
then nothing of your human state is known to us.
You will from this be able to deduce
that all our knowledge will be wholly dead
when all the doors of future time are closed.’

This is the feeling I cannot seem to shake, before the election and after. Like the shades of the Inferno, we suffer; and like them, we are desperate for change, for respite, for news, and for something new. Yet everything new is a calamity. The present seems further away from us than the past and future. Every day is a week, every week a month, every month a year. Our memories and our dread have a sudden clarity. But the present… the present is somewhere else. Dante, too, is in his own country, but in exile. And so are we.

4.

Erich Auerbach, my favorite Dante scholar, explains the representation of time in Hell in this way in his great book Mimesis:The Representation of Reality in Western Literature.

Farinata’s and Cavalcante’s lives on earth are over; the vicissitudes of their destinies have ceased; their state is definitive and immutable except that it will be affected by one single change, their ultimate recovery of their physical bodies at the Resurrection on the Last Day. As we find them here, then, they are souls parted from their bodies. Dante does, however, give them a sort of phantom body, so that they can be seen and can communicate and suffer (cf., in this connection, Purg., 3). Their only link to life on earth is memory. In addition they have—as Dante explains in the very canto with which we are concerned—a measure of knowledge of past and future which goes beyond the earthly norm. Their vision is hyperopic: they clearly see earthly events of the somewhat distant past or future, and hence can foretell the future, but they are blind to the earthly present. (This explains Dante’s hesitation when Cavalcante asks him whether his son is still alive; Cavalcante’s ignorance surprises him, the more so because other souls had prophesied future events to him.) Their own earthly lives, then, they still possess completely, through their memories, although those lives are ended. And although they are in a situation which differs from any imaginable situation on earth not only in practical terms (they lie in flaming tombs) but also in principle by virtue of their temporal and spatial immutability, the impression they produce is not that they are dead — though that is what they are — but alive…

[Here Auerbach gives the quote in the screenshot above.]

The reality of the appearances of Farinata and Cavalcante is perceived in the situation in which they are placed and in their utterances. In their position as inhabitants of flaming tombs is expressed God’s judgment upon the entire category of sinners to which they belong, upon heretics and infidels. But in their utterances, their individual character is manifest in all its force. This is especially striking with Farinata and Cavalcante because they are sinners of the same category and hence find themselves in the same situation. Yet as individuals of different personalities, of different lots in their former lives, and of different inclinations, they are most sharply contrasted. Their eternal and changeless fate is the same; but only in the sense that they have to suffer the same punishment, only in an objective sense. For they accept their fate in very different ways. Farinata wholly disregards his situation; Cavalcante, in his blind prison, mourns for the beauty of light; and each, in gesture and word, completely reveals the nature proper to each, which can be and is none other than that which each possessed in his life upon earth. And still more: from the fact that earthly life has ceased so that it cannot change or grow, whereas the passions and inclinations which animated it still persist without ever being released in action, there results as it were a tremendous concentration. We behold an intensified image of the essence of their being, fixed for all eternity in gigantic dimensions, behold it in a purity and distinctness which could never for one moment have been possible during their lives upon earth.

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5.

Zito Madu is a writer at SB Nation, where he heroically mixes high literary references into smart, funny, passionate stories, mostly about soccer and basketball. He’s also a former pro soccer player and a devoted reader of Dante. I asked him what he finds most noteworthy in the Inferno.

I was reading a paper called “Dante’s definition of life” when I encountered this amazing little passage about the crime of seeing the human body as merely a material thing. It explains one of my favorite things about The Inferno, which is that all the condemned souls still have their spiritual capacities. They are not reduced in death, they still maintain their self even after the great terror. Even in their eternal punishment. There’s a death of the body, but not of the soul:

“As Christain Moevs notes, sin is self-identification with the body. Inflicting two deaths upon themselves, the death of the body and the so-called death of the soul (the condemnation to hell), they have taken a terrifying slide down the great chain of being, revealing the infernal nature of seeing that chain as continuity.

“Pier delle Vigne explains: ‘L’animo mio, per disdegnoso gutso, / credendo col morir fuggir disdegno, / ingiusto fece me contra me ingiusto .’ He has understood his existence as something material that can be away with. He has divided himself, “me contra me,” in turning his soul against his body. In doing so, he has radically misunderstood the nature of his being.”

This comes after an explanation of Dante’s “Trinitarian thought” on the human soul. That the soul is a product that’s a combination of nature, the parents, and of God. “The human soul possesses components that are both meditated and unmeditated…it is a point that reveals itself eventually to be a trinity.”

To think that the soul is immediate and refined in the body at conception then is to err by conflating them. “To conflate them is to commit to a materialistic understanding of life.” And the opposite, to think of the soul only as separate from nature, is to have a dualistic vision of life. Each failing to understand the “distinction between, and union between, body and the spirit, nature and God.”

I think this is such a wonderful thing and a great way to look at human existence. The view asserts that human beings have a natural godliness. So that, if someone were at their lowest, when they have nothing at all, when they’re a Job, they are still divine. A person is never nothing. Not even the worst of us. “Easy to know that diamonds are precious. Good to learn that rubies have depth. But more to see that pebbles are miraculous.”

6.

Generally, Dante is stricken with pity at the souls he encounters in the Inferno. It’s Virgil, the symbol of reason, who explains the justification for the sufferings they undergo. He borrows from established Christian theology the notion that the saved benefit from seeing sinners suffer justly.

I don’t believe in God, Paradise, Purgatory, or Hell, or prisons and most forms of punishment, except as figures for human experience. There are times, though, when the thought that traitors, the corrupt, thieves, hypocrites, warmongers, gluttons, and those incapable of keeping themselves from inflicting their lust on others have been weighed, measured, and found wanting — that their evil is elemental, ancient, but far from eternal — is some consolation for this half-real mockery of life.

03_dante_inferno_punishments.png
Circles and Punishments in the Inferno. Via Lapham’s Quarterly.

  1. All quotations of Dante in English are from Robin Kirkpatrick’s translation of the Inferno.