- orientalism mediated by classical erudition: the sand of this desert is like the Libyan sand trod by Cato during the Roman Civil War detailed by Lucan (Inf. 14. 15); the flames falling on this desert are like those experienced in India by Alexander the Great and his battalions (Inf. 14.31-33)
- Inferno 14 is again suffused with classical mythology and classical references, like Inferno 9 and 12; rhetorically, it hews to a erudite and classically-infused stylistic register
- classical antiquity (here the Theban cycle) is the lens through which Dante focuses on blasphemy; he treats blasphemy against Zeus/Jove as equivalent to blasphemy against the Christian deity
- it is interesting that Dante avoids the opportunity offered by blasphemy to engage in any pious partisan politics against fellow Christians
- “Qual io fui vivo, tal son morto” (Inf. 14.51): this verse enunciates the principle that being eternally oneself, unrepentant and unameliorated for all eternity, is the true punishment of Hell
- this is the principle that we are our own Hell
- by the same token, the rivers of Hell are composed of our human tears, the distillate of human suffering: again, we are our own Hell
- the voyage of life as a journey in which we are destined to encounter continual “cose nove” along the path
Inferno 14 begins with a backward glance at the anonymous Florentine suicide whose tale concludes Inferno 13. Moved by “la carità del natio loco” (love of our native city [Inf. 14.1]), the pilgrim, a fellow Florentine, gathers up the boughs and leaves that were scattered by the fleeing wastrel and the rampaging hounds: “raunai le fronde sparte / e rende’ le a colui” (I gathered up the scattered boughs / and gave them back to him [Inf. 14.2-3]). In a final homage to the body that the suicide cast off before it was a tree, the pilgrim makes restitution of its scattered boughs.
The travelers pass “the boundary that divides / the second from the third ring” (“fine ove si parte / lo secondo giron dal terzo” [Inf. 14.4-5]) and see before them a witness to “the horrible art of justice”: “di giustizia orribil arte” (a dread work that justice had devised [Inf. 14.6]). The third ring of the seventh circle is devoted to violence against God, in His person and in His possessions, and it is therefore particularly apt that this bitter landscape—an arid plain tormented by falling flakes of fire—should be caracterized as the “the horrible art of justice”. We remember that God is the ultimate artist of His universe, and that indeed (as we learned at the end of Inferno 11) nature imitates His handiwork while human artists and artisans imitate nature.
The violent against God who inhabit this burning desert are divided into three distinct groups, each of which is governed by a “diversa legge” (different decree [Inf. 14.21]). One group lies supine on the ground, one sits huddled, and one consists of souls who are in constant motion:
Supin giacea in terra alcuna gente, alcuna si sedea tutta raccolta, e altra andava continüamente. (Inf. 14.22-24)
Some lay upon the ground, flat on their backs; some huddled in a crouch, and there they sat; and others moved about incessantly.
These three groups of sinners are guilty of the three kinds of violence against God discussed in Inferno 11. Those who lie flat on their backs, directly pelted by the raining fire, are the blasphemers, the violent against God in His person. Violence against God in His possessions, we remember, can take two different forms: violence against nature is sodomy and violence against human art is usury. Those who move about continually are the sodomites (Inferno 15 and 16), and those who are seated in a huddled crouch are the usurers (Inferno 17).
The blasphemer who dominates the first half of Inferno 14 is Capaneus, one of the Seven Against Thebes. This is the title of the play by the Greek tragedian Aeschylus, who recounts the war between the two sons of Oedipus, king of Thebes. Oedipus’ two sons, Polynices and Eteocles, came to strife over which of them should rule Thebes after their father blinds himself and relinquishes the throne (which he does upon learning that he had married his mother and fathered his half-siblings). While Eteocles ruled Thebes, Polynices gathered together a great army led by the Seven Against Thebes to attack the city and oust his brother. The two brothers end up killing each other, fulfilling the curse of Oedipus.
Thebes captures Dante’s imagination—as it had captured the imaginations of classical authors long before—as the quintessentially cursed human society. Thebes is the city whose leaders break all the laws of both gods and men and that comes to represent human society at its worse.
One of the Seven against Thebes is Capaneus, whom Dante found featured as a king in the epic poem Thebaid by Statius. Statius, who lived circa 45 CE – circa 96 CE, wrote his Thebaid on the Theban cycle in open imitation of Vergil’s Aeneid. The Thebaid, like the Aeneid, is a Latin epic in 12 books written in dactylic hexameter, the standard meter of Greco-Roman epic. Although the Thebaid’s frenzied horrors are a far cry from the sophisticated heart-rending pathos of the Aeneid, Statius (like Lucan) was a Latin author held in high esteem for centuries and his poems read and reverenced.
The Thebaid is Dante’s source for his Theban material, for Dante did not know the Greek sources (like the play by Aeschylus that I cite above). In the same way that Dante’s knowledge of Odysseus comes through Vergil and Cicero and Statius and Horace, so his knowledge of Thebes comes from Statius and other Latins.
Like Inferno 9 and Inferno 12, Inferno 14 is saturated with classical figures and motifs. Like canti 9 and 12, Inferno 14 is a canto that tests the erudition of its readers. The desert of the third ring is compared to the African deserts trod by Roman Cato (verse 15), and Alexander the Great is evoked as having experienced in India a similar rain of fire (verses 31-33). Virgilio describes Capaneus using a classical reference, calling him “un d’i sette regi / ch’assiser Tebe” (one of seven kings / who besieged Thebes [Inf. 14.68-69]). Capaneus too, when he speaks in verses 51-60, will adopt an erudite rhetoric studded with classical references.
It is an interesting thought-experiment to consider reading the Commedia without a commentary: a canto like Inferno 14 would be particularly difficult. The early commentators faced the far from trivial task of sourcing the references of a canto like Inferno 14, references that are now provided to us.
Dante’s ability to synthesize classical and Christian culture is also on display in Inferno 14, although perhaps what he does here might better be called a wholesale appropriation of classical culture. Capaneus’ blasphemy was originally directed at the king of the gods in classical mythology: Zeus in the original Greek texts, Jove in Statius and the other Latin poets. In Inferno 14 Capaneus specifically refers to “Giove” or Jove (verse 52) as the target of his rebellious rage.
And yet, as we can see, this blasphemous pagan is in Christian hell and his rebellion against Jove has been channeled into blasphemy against the Christian deity, according to a logic by which all human history is enfolded into the Providential history of Christianity. In Purgatorio 6, Dante-poet will boldly use the term “Giove” in his own challenging apostrophe to the Christian divinity.
The strong presence of classical culture in Inferno 14 prepares us, too, for the reprise of the Virgilio-narrative. The limitations that we have witnessed with respect to Virgilio’s knowledge and consequent authority are brought up, less than tactfully, by the pilgrim, who addresses his guide as “you who can overcome all things but not the devils at the gate”:
Maestro, tu che vinci tutte le cose, fuor che ’ demon duri ch’a l’intrar de la porta incontra uscinci (Inf. 14.43-5)
Master, you who can defeat all things except for those tenacious demons who tried to block us at the entryway
This grammatically unnecessary periphrasis for Virgilio takes the reader back to the events at the gate of Dis (Inferno 8 and 9), the events in which Virgilio’s limitations were first made starkly visible. Why does the pilgrim go out of his way to point out his guide’s failures? Perhaps he craves reassurance. Whatever his motive, these words testify to an intimacy that allows Dante-pilgrim to be much more direct in indicating his concerns. Most of all, the periphrasis of verses 43-45 testifies to Dante-narrator’s commitment to continuing to remind the reader of the limitations of Virgilio as a guide.
A searchlight continues to shine on classical culture: its contributions, its limitations.
Dante’s Capaneus is reduced from the heroic proportions that were his in the Thebaid. Most of all, Dante’s Capaneus is not a sympathetic or a charismatic figure, and as a result he is an excellent vehicle for articulating certain baseline truths about Dante’s Hell.
Capaneus’ boast—“Qual io fui vivo, tal son morto” (That which I was in life, I am in death [Inf. 14.51])—is a quintessential example of one of these baseline truths. It is nothing less than a declaration of how Dante’s Hell functions overall: Hell is a condition in which the soul is permanently oneself as one was on earth—unrepentant and unameliorated, with no hope of change or growth.
The soul that did not repent of its sins while alive, that did not find a way to change its fundamental aspect toward itself and divinity while still on earth, is fixed for eternity with its sins. It is stuck with its self. As such a soul was while alive, so is it in death: “Qual io fui vivo, tal son morto” (That which I was in life, I am in death [Inf. 14.51]).
Capaneus boasts that he is unchanged, as though that lack of change were something to be proud of. But, in “reality” (the reality of Dante’s Hell), as Virgilio tells him, his undiminished pride is in fact his most appropriate punishment:
O Capaneo, in ciò che non s’ammorza la tua superbia, se’ tu più punito; nullo martiro, fuor che la tua rabbia, sarebbe al tuo furor dolor compito. (Inf. 14.63-6)
O Capaneus, for your arrogance that is not quenched, you’re punished all the more: no torture other than your own madness could offer pain enough to match your wrath.
If Capaneus’ greatest punishment is his own arrogance, then in effect Capaneus creates his own Hell. If the motto of the sinners here is that they are now what they always were, then in effect these sinners create their own Hell.
Farinata alludes to this bedrock principle of Hell in Inferno 10 when he says that the information that Dante gives him about his family torments him more than his infernal resting place: “ciò mi tormenta più che questo letto” (that is more torment to me than this bed [Inf. 10.78]).
But this kind of information is best absorbed vis-à-vis a character like Capaneus, a character whom Dante does not seek to make sympathetic and in whom the reader does not become emotionally invested. Dante has perhaps calculated that certain truths about his Hell can best be communicated when they can be absorbed by the reader without the moral hazard and confusion generated by the charismatic sinners like Francesca or Farinata.
In effect, all the sinners of Dante’s Inferno perform the sin for which they are damned. Thus, Farinata experiences again the pain caused by Florentine political affiliation and Francesca demonstrates the (for her) compelling nature of passion as causation. Over and over, the sinner performs the spiritual condition that led him or her to Hell. Over and over we learn that we are our own Hell.
* * *
The second half of Inferno 14 is devoted to the presentation of the Veglio di Creta or Old Man of Crete. Here Dante devises a parable through which to restate the guiding principle of the canto, that we are our own Hell.
In the first half of Inferno 14, Capaneo performs the principle that we are our own Hell, boasting that he is now and for all eternity exactly what he used to be. In the second half of Inferno 14, the parable of the Old Man of Crete illuminates the same principle, by showing us that human history is decadence and by teaching us that the rivers of Hell are made of human tears.
The Old Man of Crete is a statue that stands in a cave within Mount Ida on the island of Crete. Crete is not just the home of the Minotaur, “l’infamia di Creti” (infamy of Crete) of Inferno 12.12. Crete was ruled by Saturn in the Golden Age, when the world was chaste and good: “sotto ’l cui rege fu già ’l mondo casto” (Under its king the world once lived chastely [Inf. 14.96]). In classical mythology, Mount Ida was chosen by Rea, Saturn’s wife, as the birthplace of their son Jove, as Virgilio reminds the pilgrim in verses 97-102.
But all this has changed in time. The statue that stands within Mount Ida is a material representation of the decadence of human history (Inf. 14.94-120).
From its golden head to its iron base, the Old Man of Crete literally de-grades: following the downward trend of human history as sung by the classical poets, from gold to silver to bronze to iron, the statue becomes ever more debased. In the same way, our human history is a story of “decadence” (the root of the word “decadence” is cadere, to fall): a story of our falling from brilliant origins in our “Golden Age” into ever more debased and morally debauched conditions.
The Old Man of Crete is composed on a template that is a typically Dantean hybrid of classical and Christian: it is imagined as a composite of biblical motifs (Nebuchadnezzar’s dream) that are mixed with classical themes (the fall from the Golden Age to the Silver Age to the Bronze Age and so forth is recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses).
The most remarkable and original feature of Dante’s Veglio di Creta is the statue’s tears, which run down from its eyes and enter the earth through a fissure and form the rivers of Hell. Again, the point is that we are our own Hell. Dante here comes up with a way to make the idea that we are our own Hell literally true: his genial way of communicating that we humans make Hell—that Hell is not imposed upon us from outside, but is our own creation—is to come up with the idea that the rivers of Hell are made of human tears.
The rivers of Hell are made of our tears: our human history—the tears that are the distillation of human suffering through time—become the rivers of Hell. The rivers of Hell are thus the distillate of human suffering.
When I think of Dante’s invention of the Old Man of Crete and his tears, I think of Vergil’s beautiful phrase from the Aeneid, where he sums up the tragedy of human life and history with these words: “sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt” [Aeneid 1.462]). Perhaps Dante had Vergil’s words in mind as he composed the parable of the Veglio di Creta.
In the Aeneid, these words belong to a scene in Book 1 that describes Aeneas: the hero weeps while perusing a mural in a Carthaginian temple that depicts battles of the Trojan War and the deaths of his friends and countrymen. Gazing at his own past, Aeneas says “sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt”: literally, “These are the tears of things and mortal things touch the mind”. As he looks at representations of sufferings he witnessed, Aeneas is overcome by the futility and waste of human life. A less literal translation by the classicist Robert Fagles renders the verse as: “The world is a world of tears, and the burdens of mortality touch the heart”.
In Dante’s use, the tears of things are not as poignant as in the Aeneid; they are not generically melancholy. Rather, Dante uses the statue’s tears to pen another indictment of our human corruption and our fall. The “lagrime” that make a fissure that runs down the Old Man of Crete (verse 113) do not simply and poignantly testify to our suffering, as do Vergil’s lacrimae rerum. Rather they become part of the reified landscape of moral failure.
The Vergilian melancholy of sunt lacrimae rerum becomes in Dante’s hands much more pointed and ethical.
* * *
Toward the end of this canto Virgilio explains that because they travel in spirals, without ever traversing a circle’s entire perimeter, Dante should not be amazed if a “new thing”—a cosa nova (Inf. 14.128)—should suddenly appear. In other words, the travelers’ spiraling trajectory offers a continual opportunity for amazement, for they do not take in all of the reality of Hell around them. Consequently something amazing and wonderful that they had not seen before, a cosa nova, can always plausibly appear: “per che, se cosa n’apparisce nova, / non de’ addur maraviglia al tuo volto” (so that, if something new appears to us, / it need not bring such wonder to your face [Inf. 14.128-9]).
Here Dante gives dramatic life to the reality of his afterlife, a reality that embraces more than his poem narrates (this is a principle that he explicitly declares at the beginning of Inferno 21).
Most important, this passage on the cosa nova that will always appear along the path and produce wonderment correlates to the Convivio’s definition of human life as the “nuovo e mai non fatto cammino di questa vita” (the new and never before traveled path of this life [Conv. 4.12.15]). Because the path of life is never experienced until the very moment in which it is experienced—because it is mai non fatto—it is by definition always nuovo. Because each life is a new and never before experienced journey, we who live will experience wonderment along the way.
Here Dante illuminates what in The Undivine Comedy I call his “poetics of the new”: the principle whereby human life—and therefore in imitation human art—beats to the rhythm of the line of becoming along which we travel. God is by definition “Colui che mai non vide cosa nova”: “He who never saw a new thing” (Purg. 10.94). God never saw a new thing because God sees all things simuiltaneously in His eternal present. Humans by contrast journey along the line of becoming encountering continual cose nove along the path.
For more on these fundamental principles of the Commedia, I refer the reader to The Undivine Comedy.
Picking up from the revelation that the tears of the Old Man of Crete form the rivers of Hell, Inferno 14 ends with a discussion of the various rivers of Dante’s afterlife (Inf. 14.121-142). Following his standard narrative practice, the poet has the pilgrim ask a question that requires further clarification:
E io ancor: «Maestro, ove si trova Flegetonta e Letè? ché de l’un taci, e l’altro di’ che si fa d’esta piova». (Inf. 14.130-32)
And I again: “Master, where’s Phlegethon and where is Lethe? You omit the second and say this rain of tears has formed the first.”
This question, which includes the pilgrim’s mistaken assumption that Lethe, the classical river of forgetfulness, may be found in Hell, offers Dante-poet another opportunity to have Virgilio correct his own Aeneid. The pilgrim here shows that he believes his classical sources. He believes what he learned from Vergil and the other classical poets, who place Lethe in the underworld (as in Book 6 of the Aeneid). However, it turns out that the pilgrim’s reliance on classical knowledge leads him astray, for Lethe is not in Dante’s Hell.
The poet places the river of forgetfulness on Mount Purgatory, in the Earthly Paradise.
From this passage we learn that by the time he wrote Inferno 14 Dante had planned his Purgatory at least to the degree of situating Lethe within the second realm, indicating too that he had clarified the idea that a soul should be granted the gift of forgetting its sins before rising to Paradise:
Letè vedrai, ma fuor di questa fossa, là dove vanno l’anime a lavarsi quando la colpa pentuta è rimossa. (Inf. 14.136-38)
You shall see Lethe, but past this abyss, there where the spirits go to cleanse themselves when their repented guilt is set aside.
This canto of classical erudition thus concludes by correcting the great tradition from which it imbibes. In the same way that Dante repurposes Capaneus’ blasphemy and resituates it within a Christian cosmos, so he appropriates the idea and tradition of Lethe and makes it his own.