The Divine Comedy by Dante ALIGHIERI · Digital Dante Edition with Commento Baroliniano · MMXV ·   Columbia University

Inferno 34


Satanic Physics and the Point of Transition

Coordinated Reading: The Undivine Comedy, Chapter 4, “Narrative and Style in Lower Hell,” pp. 97-98; Sylvia Tomasch, ‘‘Judecca, Dante’s Satan, and the Dis-placed Jew,’’ in Text and Territory: Geographical Imagination in the European Middle Ages, ed. Sylvia Tomasch and Sealy Gilles (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998), pp. 247–67.
  • the anti-spiration of un-love freezes the icy core of the universe: Lucifer as animated death
  • the most beautiful of created beings betrays his Creator
  • Dante treats Lucifer as the embodiment of transition in malo: Lucifer once held the place in the hierarchy of being that is now held by “the Seraph closest unto God” of Paradiso 4.28 (“D’i Serafin colui che più s’india”)
  • the intersection of the physical and metaphysical
  • Dante tells the story of the creation of Purgatory

The previous canti have prepared us for the arrival to the pit of Hell and to Lucifer. The giants in Inferno 31 are edging toward Lucifer in their vast and hulking brute matter. Now the giants are invoked, in Inferno 34, verses  30-31, in order to make the point that for all their bulk they are insignificant in size compared to the “emperor of the despondent kingdom”: “Lo ’mperador del doloroso regno” (Inf. 34.28).

Most of all, the giants differ from Lucifer in that they are not yet devoid of all cognition.

The previous canto ends with the declaration that the traitors of Tolomea can appear to be alive on earth, while their souls are already lost, already in Hell:

trovai di voi un tal, che per sua opra  
  in anima in Cocito già si bagna,
e in corpo par vivo ancor di sopra. (Inf. 33.155-57)

I found one of you such that, for his acts, 
in soul he bathes already in Cocytus 
and up above appears alive, in body. 

This sinner’s body “appears alive up above”, according to the last verse of Inferno 33, while his soul is in Hell: thus, we are in the presence of of animated death.

This concept of animated death seems to be what is at stake for Dante in his idea of Lucifer: a giant, hulking, masticating, but ultimately inanimate—literally soulless—creature. Lucifer masticates, but he does not speak: lack of speech signifies the lack of that spark of cognition preserved in the giant Anteo. Lucifer is “inanimate”, without soul, but he moves, bats his wings, drools, and chews. 

Lucifer as a figure of animated death marks a culmination of Dante’s meditation on animate versus inanimate, a meditation that he begins in earnest in Vita Nuova 25, but that he already begins to explore in an early sonnet like Piangete, amanti (see Dante’s Lyric Poetry, especially pp. 75-76). In Vita Nuova 25 Dante claims that a poet can talk to inanimate things and can make inanimate things talk among each other:

Dunque, se noi vedemo che li poete hanno parlato a le cose inanimate, sì come se avessero senso e ragione, e fattele parlare insieme; e non solamente cose vere, ma cose non vere. (VN 25.8)

Therefore, if we see that poets have addressed inanimate things as if they had sense and reason, and also have made them talk—and not only real things but imaginary things as well. (Frisardi trans.)

We reach the fourth zone of Cocytus, whose name is Giudecca, dwelling-place of the traitors of masters and benefactors. This name is offered only in verse 117, after the travelers have already left Cocytus in their wake. Chiavacci Leonardi comments on the word “Giudecca” thus: “‘Giudecca’ is not a word coined by Dante, like the names of the other zones of the ninth circle, but was an existing word that refers to the quarters of cities inhabited by Jews” (“nome questo non coniato da Dante come gli altri tre, ma già esistente ad indicare i quartieri delle città abitati dagli ebrei, o giudei” [Chiavacci Leonardi commentary to Inferno 34, at verse 117, my trans.]). While Chiavacci Leonardi draws out no further implications of the name “Giudecca”, besides connecting it to the presence of Judas in one of Satan’s mouths, I agree with Sylvia Tomasch, who assesses the word “Giudecca” as a negative characterization of Jews. (See the essay by Tomasch cited in Coordinated Reading.)

Here we find Lucifer, and with Lucifer the Augustinian idea that evil is the perversion, distortion, antithesis of good. Dante here gives shape to Augustine’s anti-Manichaeism, to the idea that there is no transcendent principle of evil. The presentation of Lucifer is thus an attempt to make the point that evil is simply not the good. Or rather, evil is the not-good. Hence all of Lucifer’s attributes are the negation of divine attributes, because his being is characterized only by what it is not.

Lucifer’s bat-wings blow a freezing wind of un-love. We are now at the frozen core: the frozen heart of the universe. As I have noted previously, Dante uses sparingly the conventional iconography for Hell, the biblical fire and brimstone, that we find in popular renditions. He is original in producing ice at the pit of hell. This icy cold is the absence of love and warmth and life. Hell, ultimately, is the absence of the good—of love and warmth and life.

Lucifer breathes un-love just as God breathes the warm breath of love. Dante’s Italian “spira” in verse 4 of Inferno 34 echoes the technical theological language whereby, in the theology of the Trinity, the procession from the Son to the Holy Spirit is called “spiration”. Here in the pit of Hell we encounter an “anti-spiration”: the breathing forth of hate and death in place of love and life.

In physical terms, the three cold winds blowing from Lucifer’s bat-wings freeze the lake of Cocytus at the core of the earth: “sì che tre venti si movean da ello: / quindi Cocito tutto s’aggelava” (three winds made their way out from him— / and all Cocytus froze before those winds [Inf. 34.51-52]). The core of the earth is made not of hot molten lava but of frozen death.

In spiritual terms, Lucifer is the antithesis of the Divine Trinity: Lucifer spirates death where the Trinity spirates love.

Lucifer, fantastically, has one head that possesses three faces, echoing God’s Triune but Single nature as simultaneously Father, Son, and Holy Spirit:

Oh quanto parve a me gran maraviglia
quand'io vidi tre facce a la sua testa! (Inf. 34.37-38)

I marveled when I saw that, on his head,
he had three faces

Lucifer’s three mouths chew on the three greatest traitors of human history, as Dante sees human history. Two are from Roman history (the betrayers of Caesar, namely Brutus and Cassius) and one is from biblical history (Judas, the betrayer of Christ). Once more, here at the end of Inferno, we note the interweaving of the classical with the biblical which is an absolute signature of Dante’s imaginary practice.

In Dante’s conception, Lucifer is a giant hulk of vacant, vastly un-charismatic, non-cognitive matter.

But most fascinating about Lucifer for Dante is not what he is, but how he became what he is. Lucifer is for Dante the embodiment of transition in malo, of negative conversion.

Lucifer was the most beautiful of the angels, who aspired to be greater than his maker. His sin of overweening pride led to his fall. The angels who fell with him became devils. To this account, rooted in Isaiah 14:12-15, Dante adds the idiosyncratic idea that the angels who did not choose between God and Satan, between good and evil, are found in the vestibule of Hell with the souls of those who were neither good nor bad. See the Introduction to Inferno 3 for more on Dante’s theologically implausible idea that the insufficiently evil are not allowed into Hell.

The grandeur of what Lucifer was stands in stark contrast to the monstrous vacancy of what he now is. We remember that Lucifer, “light bearer”, was the highest and greatest and most beautiful of created beings. On those occasions in Paradiso when Dante refers to the highest of created beings as the Seraph who is highest among the Seraphim (the highest of the high, for the Seraphim are the highest of angelic orders), he is referring to a position in the ladder of being that was once occupied by Lucifer.

Thus, when in Paradiso 4 Dante refers to the one “of the Seraphim who most in-Gods himself”—“D’i Serafin colui che più s’india” (the Seraph closest unto God [28])—he is thinking in terms of a category, a particular place in the hierarchy of creation, that he knows full well belonged once to Lucifer.

Dante uses a similar formulation for the highest of beings on more than one occasion in Paradiso, and it is clear that he is fascinated by the absolute nature of the fall from highest of created beings to lowest. In Inferno 34 it is this transition that Dante emphasizes. Very important in his language about Lucifer is the use of the past absolute, the tense that most underlines the absolute fissure between then and now.

In verse 18 Lucifer is called “the creature who had beauty in his appearance”—“la creatura ch’ebbe il bel sembiante”—where the emphasis is on the verb “ebbe” (the past absolute of avere). The reference is to the attribute of beauty that was once possessed, and is now utterly lost (perhaps echoing Ezekiel 28:17: “Your heart was proud because of your beauty; you corrupted your wisdom for the sake of your splendor”).

Lucifer’s irretrievably lost beauty—and the quantity of that lost beauty—provides the measure whereby we can construe his current ugliness. And his ugliness, quantified and construed as the precise inverse of his lost beauty, provides a moral compass. For if so beautiful a creature could turn pridefully against his maker (verse 35), then—Dante’s thinking proceeds here by precise steps—we can well understand how all sorrow could result from his action:

S’el fu sì bel com’elli è ora brutto,
e contra ’l suo fattore alzò le ciglia,
ben dee da lui proceder ogne lutto. 
(Inf. 34.34-36)
If he was once as handsome as he now is ugly and,
despite that, raised his brows against his Maker, one can
understand how every sorrow has its source in him! 

Dante’s argument here is based on measurement. Starting with the degree of original beauty, Dante’s discourse moves startlingly from physical to moral and metaphysical. If a being created so beautiful could turn against his creator—could, despite the degree to which he was endowed, betray his creator—then any betrayal is possible, and all sadness can be accounted for.

* * *

Abruptly, after naming the three sinners masticated in Satan’s three mouths, Virgilio announces that it is time to leave, for there is nothing left to see: “Ma la notte risurge, e oramai / è da partir, ché tutto avem veduto” (But night is come again, and it is time / for us to leave; we have seen everything [Inf. 34.68-69]). And, indeed, leaving is very much the subject of this canto.

Accordingly, I will turn now to the issue of transition itself. Verse 34 captures Lucifer in the space of irretrievable transition, the space of a becoming that is so tellingly signified in the transition from “fu” in the past absolute to “è” in the present: “S’el fu sì bel com’elli è ora brutto” (If he was once as handsome as he is now ugly).

He who was the “Son of Dawn” (Isaiah 14:12) is in the present, and for all time, only brute ugliness: “S’el fu sì bel com’elli è ora brutto” (Inf. 34.34).

Lucifer’s transition out of good and into evil is a trajectory that is crossed, in the chiasmic diegesis of Inferno 34, by Dante’s transition out of evil and into good.

Dante of course is leaving Hell. But his viewing of Lucifer provokes a fascinating response from the pilgrim. Considering Lucifer, and considering the violence of Lucifer’s transition, the pilgrim enters briefly into a liminal space that in The Undivine Comedy I call “the space between the tenses”:

Inferno 34 is a canto of transition, a canto whose narrative mode exists in the liminal space inhabited by the pilgrim: “Io non mori’ e non rimasi vivo; / pensa oggimai per te, s’hai fior d’ingegno, / qual io divenni, d’uno e d’altro privo” (I did not die and I did not remain alive; think now for yourself, if you have any wit, what I became, deprived of one and the other [Inf. 34.25-27]). “Non mori’ e non rimasi vivo”: he is between life and death, salvation and damnation, light and darkness, good and evil. He is in the space between the tenses, the past absolute and present that define Lucifer, whose essence is contained by the verse “S’el fu sì bel com’elli è ora brutto” (If he was as beautiful as now he is ugly [34]). (The Undivine Comedy, p. 97)

We remember that the pilgrim is characterized, in Inferno 16, as someone who will escape the dark precincts of Hell, and who will return to see again the beautiful stars above: “a riveder le belle stelle” (Inf. 16.83). These are the very stars that will greet him and us in the last verse of Inferno 34: “E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle” (we emerged to see—once more—the stars [Inf. 34.139]). We remember that in Inferno 16, in the very middle of his infernal experience, the pilgrim is characterized as someone who will be able to say “io fui”—“I was” in the past absolute—about having been in Hell:

se campi d’esti luoghi bui
  e torni a riveder le belle stelle,
  quando ti gioverà dicere “I’ fui” (Inf. 16.82-84)
if you can escape these lands of darkness
  and see the lovely stars on your return,
  when you repeat with pleasure, “I was there”

As we know, Dante’s departure from Hell is foreordained. But in Inferno 34 the narrator freezes time in the process of his becoming, in order to create a moment in which he imagines himself frozen (“gelato” in verse 22, where he participates in the primary lexical characteristic of Cocytus), neither dead nor alive, neither past absolute nor present, in a state of pure becoming-ness:

Io non mori’ e non rimasi vivo; 
  pensa oggimai per te, s’hai fior d’ingegno, 
  qual io divenni, d’uno e d’altro privo. (Inf. 34.25-27)

I did not die, and I was not alive; 
   think for yourself, if you have any wit, 
   what I became, deprived of life and death. 

Dante is intent on capturing pure becoming-ness in this canto about transition, as emphasized through the triple use of the verb “divenni” (“I became”):

“Com’io divenni allor gelato e fioco” (how I then became frozen and faint [22])
“qual io divenni, d’uno e d’altro privo” (what I became, deprived of one and of the other [27])
“s’io divenni allora travagliato” (if I became then confused [91])

The last of the three verses that contain divenire addresses the pilgrim’s confusion at passing the point at the center of the earth: this point was believed to be, in physical terms, “the center / to which all weight is drawn” (“lo mezzo / al quale ogne gravezza si rauna” [Inf. 32.73-74]). This concept, stated in the verses just cited from Inferno 32, is repeated in Inferno 34, where we learn that, as a result of passing through the center of gravity, the pilgrim has transited “the point / to which, from every part, all weights are drawn”: “tu passasti ’l punto / al qual si traggon d’ogne parte i pesi” (Inf. 34.110-11).

As throughout Hell, Dante uses as vehicle of his transition the very embodiment of the sin that he is witnessing. Thus, in the same way that he flew down to Circle 8 on Geryon’s back, and that Antaeus the giant lifted him from Circle 8 to Circle 9, now Dante is instructed by Virgilio to grab hold of Lucifer’s “vellute coste” (shaggy flanks [Inf. 34.73]) and then to descend “di vello in vello”—from tuft of hair to tuft of hair (Inf. 34.74).

Dante and Virgilio climb first down Lucifer and then up Lucifer and so out of Hell. They cross the earth’s center of gravity and experience the great inversion: what was upside down, physically and morally, is now turned right-side up again. No longer will they—and we—be in a realm where our interpretation is based on a principle of inversion: on the principle that “here pity lives when it is truly dead” (“qui vive la pietà quand’è ben morta” [Inf. 20.28]), or that “it was courteous to be rude to him” (“e cortesia fui lui esser villano” [Inf. 33.150]).

This is an important point of transition for us as readers and interpreters, for we will no longer have to extrapolate the proper understanding of events from their upside-down (“sottosopra” in verse 104) variant.

The transiting of this point, a transiting that is emphasized with the repeated phrase passare il punto (used in verses 110-11 and previously in verse 93: “quel punto ch’io avea passato” [that point that I had crossed]), reorients the travelers, so that Lucifer’s legs, which Dante had thought to see extending down below him back into Hell, are now viewed extending upwards:

Io levai li occhi e credetti vedere
  Lucifero com’io l’avea lasciato,
  e vidili le gambe in sù tenere;
e s’io divenni allora travagliato,
  la gente grossa il pensi, che non vede
  qual è quel punto ch’io avea passato. (Inf. 34.88-93)
I raised my eyes, believing I should see
  the half of Lucifer that I had left;
  instead I saw him with his legs turned up;
and if I then became perplexed, do let
  the ignorant be judges-those who can
  not understand what point I had just crossed.

Dante narrates Satanic physics by splicing together the abstract “scientific” language devoted to the point at the center of the earth—“’l punto / al qual si traggon d’ogne parte i pesi” (Inf. 34.110-11)—with startlingly material language devoted to the Satanic body deployed to cross that point.

In this way, Inferno 34 explores the point of intersection of the physical and the metaphysical. The crossing occurs on Satan’s body at “the point at which the thigh / revolves, just at the swelling of the hip”, where Virgilio struggles to turn himself and Dante upside down:

Quando noi fummo là dove la coscia 
  si volge, a punto in sul grosso de l’anche,  
  lo duca, con fatica e con angoscia, 
volse la testa ov’ elli avea le zanche,  
  e aggrappossi al pel com’ om che sale,  
  sì che ’n inferno i’ credea tornar anche. (Inf. 34.76-81)
When we had reached the point at which the thigh  
  revolves, just at the swelling of the hip,  
  my guide, with heavy strain and rugged work,  
reversed his head to where his legs had been  
  and grappled on the hair, as one who climbs— 
  I thought that we were going back to Hell. 

Lucifer’s physical characteristics are narrated with great precision: the colors of his three faces (for the black face, which recalls people from the Nile valley, see the Appendix on Ethiopians to Paradiso 19), the precise physical way that the three faces are joined as one head, his wings specifically without feathers, like those of a bat (“vipistrello” in verse 49), his chewing and drooling from each of his three mouths. When the time comes for the travelers to climb onto Lucifer and up his body, and thus to pass through the point at the center of earth, the narrator details their waiting for the moment when Lucifer’s wings are open enough for them to safely attach themselves to the body (as today we wait for the right moment to approach a helicopter). Subsequently, in narrating the climb, Lucifer’s corporeality is reckoned in great detail, with a catalogue of body parts.

By passing through the center of earth, and out of Hell, everything is “righted”: what was wrong is now right. The narrator makes this point in the lovely series of questions that the pilgrim puts to Virgilio:

ov’ è la ghiaccia? e questi com’ è fitto 
 sì sottosopra? e come, in sì poc’ ora,  
 da sera a mane ha fatto il sol tragitto? (Inf. 34.103-5) 

Where is the ice? And how is he so placed
head downward? Tell me, too, how has the sun
in so few hours gone from night to morning?

Here Dante lets us know that we have left the upside down world of Hell. It is now morning instead of evening, and what was once upside down—“sottosopra” (104)—is now turned right-side up, physically and morally: Lucifer now faces downward, and we are no longer in a world of which it must be said that “here pity lives when it is truly dead” (Inf. 20.28).

The pilgrim has passed that point at the center of the earth and righted himself. He has done so without remaining, like Lucifer, stuck in the eternal present of Hell. Whereas Lucifer “is still fixed as he was before”—“fitto è ancora sì come prim’era” (Inf. 34.120)—the pilgrim moves forward, able to say “io fui”: “I was in hell, I am not now”.

Dante transitions, he keeps becoming, and one could say that Lucifer stands in utter contrast to becoming-ness itself, for Lucifer is the essence of what it is to have become. We should specify that Lucifer is the essence of what it is to have become negatively: paradise too will afford the condition of having become, although the having-become of heaven is vital, never static, never “fixed”.

The essence of Lucifer is indeed the essence of Hell itself, for Hell is the place whose denizens—because they sinned and did not repent their sins—are not afforded the opportunity to continue becoming. They are fixed, as Lucifer is fixed: “fitto è ancora sì come prim’era” (Inf. 34.120). This is what Capaneo told us, when he declares in Inferno 14“Qual io fui vivo, tal son morto” (That which I was in life, I am in death [Inf. 14.51]).

The fixity of Hell gains in significance because Dante’s afterworld offers the possibility of non-fixity after death; it offers the possibility of continued becoming. The opportunity to continue becoming after death occurs in Purgatory, and it is to the story of the creation of Purgatory that Dante turns in the last section of Inferno 34.

Dante’s text actively participates in the doctrine of evil as merely the absence of good by passing on, and by devoting the last part of Inferno 34 to his account of the creation of the second realm and to the travelers’ climb up through the earth to reach Mount Purgatory. They climb along a path carved into the rock by a little stream (“ruscelletto” of verse 130) that flows down from the southern hemisphere. Chiavacci Leonardi says that this stream is Lethe, flowing down from the Earthly Paradise at the top of Mount Purgatory, carrying back down to Hell the memories of the sins of which the souls cleanse themselves in Purgatory.

Notable is Dante’s myth-making at the end of Inferno, as he explains how Lucifer’s fall creates both Hell and Purgatory. In other words, Lucifer’s fall is the sin that created Hell, but God, simultaneously, used that fall to create the remedy: Purgatory.

Lucifer fell and the earth fled him, leaving an “empty space” where it had been: “per fuggir lui lasciò loco vòto” (to flee from him it left this empty space [Inf. 34.125]). Thus Lucifer excavated the earth and created the empty cone of Hell. Having fled Lucifer, the displaced earth became Mount Purgatory, a cone of earth that rises up in the middle of the southern hemisphere. Dante is the first to conceive of Purgatory as a mountain.

The emptying out of earth to create Hell reminds us that sin is precisely that which empties us, as stipulated in Paradiso 7, the canto that recounts the history of mankind’s original sin and Christ’s redemption: “colpa vòta” (sin empties [Par. 7.83]). Where sin is emptiness—literally in the form of the Hell-hole that extends under Jerusalem to the earth’s core—Purgatory is made of the earth that fled Lucifer: earth that is now reconfigured into a place of fullness, a place that is devoted to refilling that emptiness.

The travelers wind their way up the narrow path carved by the stream to return to the world of light and to the stars: “E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle” (and so we emerged, to see—once more—the stars [Inf. 34.139]).

And Hell, teeming with apparent life as we turn its pages in awe and wonderment, is left behind us: fixed for eternity, frozen—only animated death, after all.

Recommended Citation

Barolini, Teodolinda. "Inferno 34 : Satanic Physics and the Point of Transition." Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. Center for Digital Research and Scholarship. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2015.

Coordinated Reading