- The relationship between Dante-pilgrim and Virgilio deepens, leading to Virgilio’s communication of new aspects of his past
- Dante-poet manipulates language and dialogue to reveal affect, subjectivity, and intimacy
- Dante-poet opens up a space of interiority in his characters — the “dentro” (“inside”) of verse 3 — unprecedented in poetry
- Inferno 9 expresses a dialectic in verse 8, between the doubt expressed by the conditional “se non” and the belief expressed by “Tal ne s’offerse” (Inf. 9.8)
- The canto unpacks the dialectic of verse 8: the first part of the canto (up to Medusa) explores the fear of what could happen; the latter part of the canto describes what does happen
- Inferno 9 is a meta-canto, like Inferno 2, featuring language itself: “parole maladette” (Inf. 8.95) → “parola tronca” (Inf. 9.14) → “parole sante” (Inf. 9.105)
- Dante-pilgrim for the first time shows a lack of confidence in his guide, and Dante-poet gives us new and troubling information about the past of his character Virgilio, who now tells of having been “conjured” to lowest hell by the Thessalian sorceress Erichtho
- The creation of a pre-history is a key technique in creating a virtual reality: Dante creates a “real” past for his characters, a past that precedes the diegesis of the poem
- Similarly, in Inferno 10, when the pilgrim commissions Farinata to give a message to Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti, the narrator has created a “future” for his characters, a narrative time that is successive to the diegesis of the poem
- As Virgilio once believed in the power of Erichtho, so now he believes in the power of Medusa
- Medusa is both counter-factual and real, hence a “real counter-factual”: an alternate reality that is made real by believing in it
- Dante’s address to those who have “intelletti sani” in Inferno 9.61–63 recalls his prior use of the expression in the canzone Le dolci rime (circa 1294)
 We pick up a story-line that began in Inferno 8, which narrates the attempt of Dante and Virgilio to gain entrance to the city of Dis. As we saw, this story is literally “suspended” at the canto’s end, thus generating narrative suspense. Inferno 8 ends in medias res, while Dante and Virgilio are still blocked from entrance to the city guarded by devils.
 With the shared story-line, there is a shared lexicon. A key little word that carries over from the last part of Inferno 8 to the opening of Inferno 9 is the indefinite pronoun “tal” (“such a one”, a shortened form of tale), which is used by Virgilio to refer to the unknown being who will come to their assistance. The pronoun is first used in Inferno 8.105 by Virgilio. In order to reassure his disciple, Virgilio refers to the transcendent force that legitimizes their journey, saying categorically that their journey cannot be hindered because of its origin: “Non temer; ché ’l nostro passo / non ci può tòrre alcun: da tal n’è dato” (Do not fear, no one can hinder our passage; One so great has granted it [Inf. 8.104-5]). Virgilio will use the pronoun “tal” again at the end of Inferno 8, now referring to the specific emissary that is already speeding through Hell to Dante’s aid: “tal che per lui ne fia la terra aperta” (the one who will open this realm for us [Inf. 8.130]).
 As we shall see, Virgilio will use the same pronoun “tal” a third time, as he fends off uncertainty at the beginning of Inferno 9, thus providing an immediate lexical link back to the end of Inferno 8.
 Inferno 9 picks up the story, emphasizing the doubt and concern that Virgilio is feeling, despite his reassuring words. The scene that follows focuses on the deepening intimacy and psychological connectedness of the two travelers. I can think of no other contemporary text that manipulates dialogue and direct discourse with such sophistication, with the goal of creating intimacy, affect, and dramatic tension. Auerbach says much the same about the next canto, Inferno 10, in his classic essay in Mimesis.
 Dante uses language and its interruption to depict interiority in a scene where two people are somewhat at cross purposes (one of them tries and fails to reassure the other), but at the same time are deeply protective of each other’s feelings. If we think back, we realize that a certain carefulness in speech has been a feature of Dante-pilgrim’s relationship to his guide: for instance, his question to Virgilio in Inferno 4 (has anyone ever exited this place for heaven, either through his own merit or someone else’s?) is labeled by the narrator “parlar coverto” (covert speech) in Inferno 4.51. By pointing to Dante-pilgrim’s indirect language, the narrator suggests the difficulty of broaching the topic of escape from Limbo to one of its eternal prisoners.
 Virgilio’s existential status will come to the fore again in this canto, whose opening gambit is worth parsing in some detail. The scene at the beginning of Inferno 9 is an example of Dante’s ability to deploy subtle linguistic cues and narrative resources in order to create dramatic art and the sense of intimate and authentic feeling.
 Inferno 9 begins with the apparently simple information that Dante and Virgilio are both distressed, albeit in somewhat different ways. But, already in the first tercet of Inferno 9, the information relayed is far from simple. Dante is afraid because he has deduced that the devils’ obstinate intransigence has discomfited Virgilio, causing his guide a loss in confidence and an increase in anger. Both emotions were noted in Inferno 8, where Virgilio comes back from his parley with the devils notably demoralized: “Li occhi a la terra e le ciglia avea rase / d’ogne baldanza” (his eyes turned to the ground, and his brows deprived of every confidence [Inf. 8.118-9]). Virgilio then instructs Dante not to become fearful on account of his having grown angry, since he will ultimately win this contest: “Tu, perch’ io m’adiri, / non sbigottir, ch’io vincerò la prova” (You — though I am vexed — must not be daunted; I shall win this contest [Inf. 8.121-2]).
 Though instructed not to become fearful, Dante-pilgrim cannot re-press the fear that he feels within. I am using hyphens to call attention to the etymological sense of “re-press” and its companion “ex-press”, which literally means “to press out”, in order to align with Dante’s own usage and emphasis on interiority versus exteriority in this passage. In the first verse of Inferno 9 Dante’s fear ex-presses itself, causing him to turn pale. He becomes pale as a result of “seeing my guide turned back”: “veggendo il duca mio tornare in volta” (Inf. 9.2). Dante’s pallor is defined as the color that externally denotes internal fear; literally, the pilgrim is suffused by “the color that fear pushed out of me”: “Quel color che viltà di fuor mi pinse” (Inf. 9.1). In other words, the pilgrim’s “viltà” of Inferno 9.1 — the same “viltà” that afflicts Dante at the outset of the journey, in Inferno 2.45 — reveals itself in the external pallor of his face.
 The pilgrim’s pallor is an external cue — one that appears on the “outside” (“di fuor”) — that in turn causes Virgilio to repress his own emotions, keeping them “inside” (“dentro”). Virgilio holds “inside” his own “new color”, caused by his emotions at being thwarted by the devils at the gate of Dis: “più tosto dentro il suo novo ristrinse” (made him more quickly restrain his own new color [Inf. 9.3]). Chiavacci Leonardi suggests that Virgilio’s “new color” is the red blush of anger.
 Dante-poet here represents these two characters interacting on a very intuitive and psychologically intense level, in an interaction whose subtlety he now intensifies: to the drama of changed aspect and color and facial expression, he now adds a discursive component.
 Having stipulated a psychological chain reaction of emotion that generates emotion in verses 1-3, in the second tercet of Inferno 9 the narrator represents Virgilio as standing alert, listening for some sign that help is on its way. Then Virgilio begins to speak, in effect thinking out loud: he is now literally ex-pressing his inner thoughts, first articulating doubt and then cutting himself off. The emotion that he re-pressed previously by not allowing it to show on his face, he now begins to ex-press. However, he immediately interrupts himself, controlling his verbal expression as before he controlled his facial expression — again because he doesn’t want to alarm Dante.
 But, in a further chain reaction, the pilgrim infers from his guide’s self-interruption that his guide is in fact worried and concerned. And therefore the self-interruption that Virgilio undertakes in order not to alarm Dante has the opposite effect.
 In these dense first tercets of Inferno 9 Dante-narrator informs us about the respective changes of Virgilio’s and Dante’s faces in order to open up a space of subjectivity, signaled by the contrasting “di fuor” (“outside”) and “dentro” (“inside”) in verses 1 and 3. The space of interiority is carved out by the interchange between the pilgrim’s fear which pushes its way out of him and Virgilio’s concern which he bottles up within. Subsequently, in the next tercet, this inside space — the space of interiority and subjectivity that the poet is working to uncover — is reflected discursively: in Virgilio’s articulation of his thoughts and especially in the unfinished clause of verse 8.
 The third tercet of Inferno 9 relates what Virgilio has been thinking and puts his thoughts into words, including his interrupted speech:
“Pur a noi converrà vincer la punga”, cominciò el, “se non ... Tal ne s’offerse. Oh quanto tarda a me ch’altri qui giunga!”. (Inf. 9.7-9)
“We have to win this battle,” he began, “if not... But one so great had offered help. How slow that someone's coming to see me!”
 In the above verses Virgilio allows himself to express doubt, first through the adversative adverb eppure (shortened as “pur”, it has the sense of “nonetheless”), with which he asserts that after all he and his comrade must win this fight: “Pur a noi converrà vincer la punga” (Surely we must be the ones to win this fight [Inf. 9.7]). This remark illuminates Virgilio’s growing insecurity, for it contrasts with his declaration on the same topic in the preceding canto, which he does not preface with the doubt-inducing “Pur”: “non sbigottir, ch’io vincerò la prova” (do not fear, for I will win this fight [Inf. 8.122]). After this opening sally, which already contains the seed of insecurity, Virgilio’s insecurity blooms, coming to the fore in the two little interrupted words “se non . . . ” (“if not . . . ”). Here Virgilio, still thinking out loud to himself, begins to articulate the possibility of a negative outcome to their enterprise. The interrupted words “se non” are the beginning of a formulation of what it would mean if help were not forthcoming.
 Virgilio at this point interrupts himself without completing the thought. The interruption itself is then thematized, for the narrator will subsequently refer to it with the tag “parola tronca”, literally a “cut off word” (Inf. 9.14). This ruptured fragment of speech is speech whose very rupturing is part of the story. The doubt of the unfinished “se non” is then countered by another little word. Inherited from Inferno 8, the word “tal” (“such a one”) has been already coded as optimistic and affirmative: “Tal ne s’offerse” (Such a one offered help [Inf. 9.8]).
 This extraordinary sequence in which inner thoughts are expressed as words not intended for others to hear concludes with a final voicing of concern, as Virgilio exclaims to himself: “Oh quanto tarda a me ch’altri qui giunga!” (How slow to me is someone’s coming! [Inf. 9.9]). As Chiavacci Leonardi rightly claims in her commentary: “Questo breve monologo, scandito in quattro tempi di alterno sentire, è un capolavoro del ‘parlato’ della Commedia” (This brief monologue, articulated as four sets of alternating feelings, is a masterpiece of the Commedia’s art of ‘speaking’ [Commentary, Inferno IX, p. 227]).
 Virgilio’s spoken thoughts in verses 7-9 proleptically outline the plot of Inferno 9 as a whole. Specifically, the plot of this canto can be extrapolated from the two statements of verse 8. Inferno 9 as a canto unpacks the dialectic of verse 8: the first half of the canto elaborates the conditionality and doubt of “se non”, while the second half of the canto elaborates the affirmative belief of “Tal ne s’offerse” (Inf. 9.8). Inferno 9 thus juxtaposes a scenario that is the equivalent of a conditional sentence to a scenario that is the equivalent of a declarative sentence.
 The plot of Inferno 9 can be outlined as two contrasting scenarios:
- The events of Inferno 9 up to and including the appearance of Medusa and Virgilio’s response to Medusa are the unfolding of the “se non” scenario: this is the negative scenario of what could happen. It is the equivalent of a conditional sentence that expresses doubt. This scenario is based on a fear that does not ultimately materialize. The fear that does not materialize thus remains as “tronca” as Virgilio’s own expression of that same fear, in what the narrator calls his “parola tronca” (cut off word [Inf. 9.14]).
- The arrival of the angel who opens the gate of Dis is the fulfillment of “Tal ne s’offerse”: this is the positive scenario of what does happen. It is the equivalent of a declarative sentence.
 One of the remarkable features of the opening sequence of Inferno 9 is the narrator’s participation in glossing the various linguistic events on which the psychological drama is built. Virgilio’s ruptured syntax itself becomes a signifier to be analyzed. It is labeled “la parola tronca” and the narrator spells out in verses 14-15 the effect of Virgilio’s interrupted speech on himself, explaining that he may well have inferred more negative content from Virgilio’s parola tronca than was warranted: “perch’ io traeva la parola tronca / forse a peggior sentenzia che non tenne” (because I drew out from his broken phrase / a meaning worse — perhaps — than he’d intended [Inf. 9.14-15]).
 Virgilio is so committed to maintaining equilibrium in front of his disciple that he engages in a literal “cover-up” of his own speech. Virgilio “covers up” (“ricoperse”) what he had started to say with what he says afterward: “I’ vidi ben sì com’ ei ricoperse / lo cominciar con l’altro che poi venne” (But I saw well enough how he had covered / his first words with the words that followed after [Inf. 9.10-11]). These discursive maneuvers alarm the pilgrim and are analyzed by the narrator, who in verse 11 details the components of Virgilio’s previous discourse: there was a “beginning” (“cominciar”: this corresponds to “se non” in verse 8) that was then covered “with the other part that came after” (“l’altro che poi venne”: this corresponds to “Tal se n’offerse” in verse 8).
 In this passage, Dante shows his investment in understanding the inner workings of human speech, to the point of considering when speech becomes a speech act. We can see from Dante’s use of linguistic meta-categories how much thought he gives to the processes of language:
I’ vidi ben sì com’ei ricoperse lo cominciar con l’altro che poi venne, che fur parole a le prime diverse; ma nondimen paura il suo dir dienne, perch’io traeva la parola tronca forse a peggior sentenzia che non tenne. (Inf. 9.10-15)
But I saw well enough how he had covered his first words with the words that followed after— so different from what he had said before; nevertheless, his speech made me afraid, because I drew out from his broken phrase a meaning worse—perhaps—than he’d intended.
 The result of the pilgrim’s scrutiny of Virgilio’s speech is to become more nervous. The pilgrim now shows, for the first time, a lack of confidence in his guide. The pilgrim’s lack of confidence is dramatized through the medium of yet more speech: he poses a question intended to ascertain whether Virgilio is indeed qualified to be his guide through Hell. In order not to pose his question too bluntly (in other words, in order not to ask his discourteous question too discourteously), Dante broadens his inquiry. He asks Virgilio not whether he himself has ever made the journey to lower Hell before, but whether anyone from Limbo has ever successfully before made this journey:
In questo fondo de la trista conca discende mai alcun del primo grado, che sol per pena ha la speranza cionca? (Inf. 9.16-18)
Does anyone from the first circle, the one whose only punishment is crippled hope, ever descend so deep in this sad hollow?
 The question as to whether anyone from Limbo has ever journeyed to lower Hell recalls a similar question in Inferno 4, as to whether any souls had ever been able to leave Limbo for Paradise: “uscicci mai alcuno, o per suo merto / o per altrui, che poi fosse beato?” (did any ever go — by his own merit / or others’ — from this place toward blessedness? [Inf. 4.49-50]). Both questions remind us of Virgilio’s precarious status as a resident of Limbo. Now Dante-pilgrim’s query allows Dante-poet to add to Virgilio’s pre-history.
 We see here the narrator’s brilliance in constructing a virtual reality, one in which we participate the more readily because he creates a “real” past for his invented characters: a past that precedes the diegesis of the poem. Similarly, in Inferno 10, when the pilgrim commissions Farinata degli Uberti to give a message to Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti, the narrator creates a “future” for his fictitious characters (they are fictitious as deployed in the diegesis of the Commedia, for all that they existed historically): a narrative time that is successive to the diegesis of the poem.
 To reconstruct Virgilio’s past we begin with the extended narrative flashback of Inferno 2: the events recounted in canto 2 are situated prior to Dante’s meeting Virgilio in Inferno 1. While Dante was lost in the dark wood, Beatrice went to Limbo to beg the Roman poet to go to the assistance of her Florentine lover. The past related in Inferno 2 is centered on Beatrice, the heavenly being who enlisted Virgilio’s aid. The past related in Inferno 9 now gives us an altogether different context, centered on a diabolic rather than a heavenly being. Dante-narrator now connects Virgilio to black magic and to the nefarious practices of the sorceress Erichtho, whose dark arts are related by the Latin poet Lucan in his epic poem Pharsalia (De Bello Civili).
 Why does Dante now choose to give his beloved guide the dark and menacing back-story that he gives him here? The answer to this question will unfold as an integral part of the Commedia’s Virgilio-narrative, a storyline in which Dante undercuts Virgilio’s authority while at the same time affirming his love for him. Dante constructs his Virgilio narrative of contradictory elements: he includes elements that connect Virgilio to the good and also elements that connect Virgilio to the not-good. In this way, he sustains the tension that he builds from the start of his poem into the foregrounded and absorbing issue of classical culture, which is featured and adored but also rejected and kept in check.
 Let us note too a general truth, which bears upon Dante’s narrative art and his cultivation of verisimilitude: the addition of conflict and ambivalence to a character’s history brings to life the complexity of that character. For we are all products of histories that include actions that are at times hard to reconcile in one neat package.
 In Inferno 9, Virgilio answers the pilgrim’s discourteous question by offering an autobiographical revelation that is intended to comfort. The revelation is in verses 22-30, cited below. In the last three verses of the below statement, Virgilio offers these sentiments to his charge: I have been down here once before; indeed, I have been further down than we are now, down to the very lowest and darkest circle of hell (the ninth circle), and to the lowest zone of that circle (the zone called Judas), and therefore I know the path very well. These statements are comforting.
 However, Virgilio also explains that he made the trip from the first circle to lowest hell because he was sent on a mission to fetch a dead soul by one of the most repugnant and powerful necromancers of antiquity. Virgilio’s admission about his past work as Erichtho’s agent is not comforting, because his language suggests that he was coerced by a force greater than his own, a force that he did not resist in any way:
Ver è ch’altra fiata qua giù fui, congiurato da quella Eritón cruda che richiamava l’ombra a’ corpi sui. Di poco era di me la carne nuda, ch’ella mi fece intrar dentr’a quel muro, per trarne un spirto del cerchio di Giuda. Quell’è ’l più basso loco e ’l più oscuro, e ’l più lontan dal ciel che tutto gira: ben so ’l cammin; però ti fa sicuro. (Inf. 9.22-30)
But I, in truth, have been here once before: that savage witch Erichtho, she who called the shades back to their bodies, summoned me. My flesh had not been long stripped off when she had me descend through all the rings of Hell, to draw a spirit back from Judas’ circle. That is the deepest and the darkest place, the farthest from the heaven that girds all: so rest assured, I know the pathway well.
 In the above passage, Virgilio tells us that he had only recently died when he was “conjured” by Erichtho: in verse 23, “congiurato da quella Eritón cruda”, the past participle “congiurato” has the sense of compelled, summoned by magic rites and spells. He goes on to tell the pilgrim that Erichtho “made him enter” Dis in order to fetch a spirit from Judas’ circle: “mi fece” in verse 26 means that she “made him” do it. Virgilio in this way acknowledges his own passivity, his susceptibility to compulsion, his failure to assert an independent will.
 We note too that Erichtho’s power, in Virgilio’s telling, is demiurgic. She conjures him to fetch a soul because she has the power to reconnect souls to their bodies, bringing the bodies back to life: “che richiamava l’ombre a’ corpi sui” (she called the souls the bodies [Inf. 9.24]). Dante seems to be considering the possibility of a classical necromancer who has powers that include the re-creation of life after death, akin to a perverse Resurrection. Erichtho’s practice also aligns with Dante’s own invention, in Inferno 33, of animate “undead” dead souls.
 Although Virgilio intends to comfort his charge with his admission, there is in fact little that is reassuring in the information that Virgilio gives about himself in this passage. In Dante’s Poets I wrote of the “long and intentional shadow” that Dante casts over Virgilio by establishing this connection between him and Erichtho:
Thus, under the pretext of allaying the pilgrim’s fears, Dante raises far greater fears regarding his guide; the astonishing invention here related, whereby the Thessalian witch from Lucan’s poem once deployed Vergil for one of her nefarious missions, casts a long and intentional shadow over the Roman poet. (Dante’s Poets, p. 205)
 On a compositional note, we should mention that, in the same way that Francesca refers to the first zone of the ninth circle by name as “Caina”, in Inferno 5, so Virgilio in this passage refers to the fourth zone of the ninth circle by periphrasis as “Judas’ circle”: “per trarne un spirto del cerchio di Giuda” (to draw a spirit back from Judas’ circle [Inf. 9.27]). The reference to the “cerchio di Giuda”, which will eventually be revealed as “Giudecca” in Inferno 34.117, like the reference to “Caina” in Inferno 5.107, suggests that Dante had prepared some kind of outline of hell that included place names, and that this outline was at least tentatively in place while he was composing the poem.
 Although “Giuda” is a biblical name, Inferno 9 on the whole reverberates with classical names: “Eritón cruda”, “le feroci Erine”, “Megera”, “Aletto”, “Tesifón”, “Medusa”, “Tesëo”, “Gorgòn”, “Stige”, “Cerbero”. These names are symptoms of the canto’s saturation in classical culture, including many of its darker elements. The early stage-setting reference to “Eritón cruda” is followed by the sighting of the Furies: “le feroci Erine” (the savage Erinyes [Inf. 9.45]). The pièce de résistance is the figure of Medusa, who turns men to stone, depriving them of forward motion, hope, life itself.
 The Furies view the pilgrim as a transgressor in their realm, as did the devils of Inferno 8, and they insist, as also did the devils, that there is no way forward, that the pilgrim has reached a dead end. If Dante persists, they say, he will be not merely sent back alone as the devils had threatened — “Sol si ritorni per la folle strada” (Let him return alone on his mad road [Inf. 8.91]) — but Medusa will come and turn him into stone. Then he will move nowhere, remaining under their dominion for all eternity. In conclusion, they call on Medusa to come and lead them in the petrifaction of the pilgrim: “Vegna Medusa: sì ’l farem di smalto” (Let Medusa come; we shall turn him into stone [Inf. 9.52]).
 Virgilio, in response to this threat, instructs the pilgrim with great care. He is to turn around and shut his eyes. Not content with instruction, Virgilio turns Dante around himself and, after Dante covers his eyes with his hands, for good measure Virgilio adds the further protection of his own hands:
“Volgiti ’n dietro e tien lo viso chiuso; ché se ’l Gorgón si mostra e tu ’l vedessi, nulla sarebbe di tornar mai suso”. Così disse ’l maestro; ed elli stessi mi volse, e non si tenne a le mie mani, che con le sue ancor non mi chiudessi. (Inf. 9.55-60)
“Turn round and keep your eyes shut fast, for should the Gorgon show herself and you behold her, never again would you return above”, my master said; and he himself turned me around and, not content with just my hands, used his as well to cover up my eyes.
 This moment is a test of belief and allegiance. And the test applies not only to the pilgrim; it applies to his guide Virgilio as well. If Dante fails to believe in the power that sent him on this voyage, he will be petrified, paralyzed with fear and despair. As for Virgilio, the above verses are a massive indictment, following hard upon the revelation of the Roman poet having served Erichtho. Virgilio believed in the power of Erichtho, and now — as is shown by the tender precautionary steps of turning the pilgrim around and adding his own hands as a further shield — he believes in the power of Medusa.
 The Furies’ threats are baseless, impotent. We should not be tempted to believe them. By the same token, we should not be tempted to believe in Medusa. In Inferno 2 Beatrice told Virgilio about hell’s inability to harm her: “Temer si dee di sole quelle cose / c’hanno potenza di fare altrui male; / de l’altre no, ché non son paurose” (One ought to be afraid of only those / things possessed of power to do us harm; / of others not, there is no cause for fear [Inf. 2.88-90]). If we believe what Beatrice tells the pilgrim about hell’s impotence, we should understand the consequences that flow from them: we should never feel fear or suspense with respect to the ability of any creature in hell to harm the pilgrim, who was sent on this journey by divine Providence.
 The “living textuality” of the Commedia is such that the text works to make us feel fear or suspense, even though technically we should know that these feelings are without merit. This is an extraordinary testament to Dante’s magisterial craft: he can write a story whose plot is completely over-determined and yet still find ways to generate suspense.
 How does all this work out at the level of plot? Immediately after the verses that describe Virgilio’s precautionary steps to protect the pilgrim from Medusa, the poet inserts a brief address to the reader, telling us to pay attention to the doctrine that is hidden under the veil of his mysterious verses. Most importantly, the poet effectively punctuates his plot and prepares the reader for a complete change of authorial focus:
O voi che avete li ’ntelletti sani, mirate la dottrina che s’asconde sotto ’l velame de li versi strani. (Inf. 9.61-63)
O you possessed of sturdy intellects, observe the teaching that is hidden here beneath the veil of verses so obscure.
 The author now shifts his gaze to the force that has been sent to assist the pilgrim, the force for which the travelers have been waiting since the devils blocked the way in the previous canto. The poet alerts us to the arrival of assistance with the little adverb già in verse 64, which picks up from the hopeful già in Virgilio’s words at the end of Inferno 8, where the guide uses the adverb to communicate that their succor is already en route: “e già di qua da lei discende l’erta . . . tal che per lui ne fia la terra aperta” (and already, on this side of that gate, descends the incline . . . the one by whom this land will be opened [Inf. 8.128, 130]). Virgilio’s già communicates the urgency of longing, while the poet’s già, in Inferno 9.64 (“E già venia su per le torbide onde”) communicates the consummated arrival of the longed-for presence.
 The poet adds even more intensity to the consummated arrival of the angel, an arrival that was doubted and conditionalized at the beginning of this canto, by describing the angel as a mighty wind that overwhelms and conquers everything in its path:
E già venia su per le torbide onde un fracasso d’un suon, pien di spavento, per cui tremavano amendue le sponde, non altrimenti fatto che d’un vento impetüoso per li avversi ardori, che fier la selva e sanz’alcun rattento li rami schianta, abbatte e porta fori; dinanzi polveroso va superbo, e fa fuggir le fiere e li pastori. (Inf. 9.64-72)
And now, across the turbid waves, there passed a reboantic fracas — horrid sound, enough to make both of the shorelines quake: a sound not other than a wind’s when, wild because it must contend with warmer currents, it strikes against the forest without let, shattering, beating down, bearing off branches, as it moves proudly, clouds of dust before it, and puts to flight both animals and shepherds.
 The simile of the wind in Inferno 9 — “un vento / impetüoso per li avversi ardori, / che fier la selva e sanz’ alcun rattento / li rami schianta, abbatte e porta fori” (a wind, wild / because it must contend with warmer currents, / it strikes against the forest without let, / shattering, beating down, bearing off branches [Inf. 9.67-70]) — reminds us of Aristotle’s wind in Nicomachean Ethics 3.1, a chapter of the Ethics that Dante knew so well and that I discuss in the commentary on Inferno 5. Having transposed Aristotle’s wind to a domain that is metaphysical and eschatological, Dante makes very clear the key Aristotelian concept: this angelic wind is a force so irresistible that it generates true and indubitable involuntary action.
 In this way a messenger from heaven arrives, described with a masculine pronoun (“elli” in verse 85, as already “lui” in Inferno 8.130) and a masculine past participle, “messo” (the past participle of the verb mettere), meaning “having been sent”, in this case “having been sent from heaven”: “da ciel messo” (Inf. 9.85). Let us brush away all the fanciful suggestions that have congealed the commentary tradition with respect to the identity of the one sent to assist the pilgrim. Of course, the assistance sent “from heaven” is a creature whose abode is heaven: an angel, the first angel whom we encounter in the Commedia.
 This angel has not “rained down from heaven”, as did the angels who were cast out with Lucifer and became the devils whom we meet in Inferno 8: those devils are described as “da ciel piovuti” (rained down from heaven [Inf. 8.83]). The angel of Inferno 9 is not “da ciel piovuto” (Inf. 8.83), but “da ciel messo” (Inf. 9.85). He was not cast out; he was sent down. The intentionality of “messo” as a past participle, not yet reified into the more static noun “messenger”, reminds us of the super-structure that guides Dante’s mission, as laid out in Inferno 2.
 The celestial agent of assistance and succor is dismissive and disdainful of the devils and the inhabitants of hell, who in their thousands disperse in front of him like frogs in front of an enemy serpent (“biscia” in verse 77). The inversion whereby a force of good is here figured as a serpent, an animal traditionally associated with the devil, is typical of Dante’s Inferno, and belongs to a program of inversions that culminates in the association of Dante himself with a devil—“diavolo”—when he pulls Bocca degli Abati’s hair in Inferno 32.108. At the same time, to confuse matters, the hair of the Furies is made of various kinds of snakes (verses 40-41).
 The cleavage between the fear-based scenario and the faith-based scenario is absolute: the angel sent from heaven taps the gate of Dis with his diminutive wand — “verghetta” in Inf. 9.89 — and opens it with the greatest ease. For the task of opening this “secret gate”, the heavenly creature does not need a full-size verga; a verghetta is sufficient. His dominion is absolute. All shakes and trembles and gives way before the ongoing impetuous force of the angelic wind; all creatures are reduced to involuntary action in his wake. And in his opening words to the infernal denizens the heavenly messenger does not stop at “da ciel piovuti”, “rained from heaven”, the phrase used by the narrator in Inferno 8.83 as a periphrasis for devils, but reminds them that they were cast out, literally “hunted out of heaven” : “O cacciati del ciel” (Inf. 9.91).
 This scene is based on the ancient story of Christ’s harrowing of hell after the Crucifixion, a tale already referred to by Virgilio in Inferno 4 and brought up again in Inferno 8. The result of the messo’s arrival is that Dante and Virgilio are able to enter the gates of Dis, “sicuri appresso le parole sante” (safely, behind his holy words [Inf. 9.105]). From Virgilio’s “cut off word” — “parola tronca” (Inf. 9.14) — we have moved over the span of Inferno 9 to the heavenly messenger’s “holy words”: “parole sante” (Inf. 9.105).
 If we consider the parole that have been deployed over the course of this episode, and whose deployment is in many ways the thematic focus of this episode, we can construct a trajectory that moves from the “parole maladette” (cursed words) of the devils, in Inferno 8.95, to the “parola tronca” (cut-off word) of Virgilio, in Inferno 9.14, finally arriving at the “parole sante” (saintly words) of the angel, in Inferno 9.105:
“parole maladette” (Inf. 8.95) → “parola tronca” (Inf. 9. 14) → “parole sante” (Inf. 9.105)
 There is a gendered component to this canto: pagan evil tends to be gendered female (though there are exceptions, like “Cerbero vostro”), starting with Erichtho and culminating in Medusa and the Furies, who “membra feminine avieno e atto” (had the limbs of women and their ways [Inf. 9.39]). And there will be an afterlife to such female perversion: in Manto, another classical sorceress who lives apart from human society, like Erichtho, and the unnamed contemporary witches of Inferno 20. In contrast, Christian good—notably, the being that is “da ciel messo”—is gendered male. That said, there are gender overlaps: Medusa is female, but is called “il Gorgón” with the masculine pronoun in verse 56.
 In conclusion, let us return to the interpretation proposed above of Dante’s Medusa: she is the paralysis that overcomes us when we cease to believe. Believe in what? Dante is writing about belief in the right: the right power that can sustain us through all difficulties and past all obstacles. Medusa is what happens when, through fear, we succumb to belief in the wrong power, and thus to paralysis. She is the fulfillment of the devils’ taunt in Inferno 8 that the pilgrim is doomed to fail. She is our imagined failure made real.
 Most fascinatingly, in Medusa Dante creates a counter-factual that is real, a “real counter-factual”: an alternate reality that is made real by believing in it. In this alternate reality the way forward was never granted, and the events of Inferno 2 never occurred. In a further cementing of the “reality” of his possible world, Dante dares to use the pilgrim’s fears as a counterpoint to the divine promises that he has inscribed into the written record of his poem.
 Virgilio’s failure in Inferno 9 is his failure to believe, or rather his failure to suspend belief in the wrong power. He erroneously affirms that Medusa has the power to stop Dante in his tracks: “se ’l Gorgòn si mostra e tu ’l vedessi, / nulla sarebbe di tornar mai suso” (should the Gorgon show herself and you behold her, / never again would you return above [Inf. 9.56-57]). This statement, albeit conditional, is absolute, laden with the absolutes “nulla” (nothing) and “mai” (never): should Dante see Medusa, his chances of returning to earth would vanish. There would be no hope, never again any possibility of returning. Virgilio now passively accepts Medusa’s power to impede the pilgrim’s mission as once he had accepted Erichtho’s power to compel him on a mission to “the circle of Judas” (Inf. 9.27).
 Fortunately for Dante, Virgilio also accepted the mission entrusted to him by Beatrice in Inferno 2. As I write in Dante’s Poets, the key to Virgilio “seems to be his passivity: he can function in malo, working for Erichtho, or in bono, working for Beatrice” (p. 221).
 Inferno 9 constitutes the poem’s first extended exploration of Virgilio’s limitations, and by extension an indictment of classical culture. When the angel rebukes the inhabitants of Dis for blocking the pilgrim’s path, reminding them of their impotence in the face of heaven’s dictates, he identifies them with Cerberus, who still bears the marks of his futile attempt to withstand Hercules: “Cerbero vostro, se ben vi ricorda, / ne porta ancor pelato il mento e ’l gozzo” (Your Cerberus, if you remember well, / for that, had both his throat and chin stripped clean [Inf. 9.98-99]). Hercules, like Theseus (whose “assault” still needs to be avenged, according to the ever-enraged Furies in verse 54), are classical figures whose plundering of Hades was appropriated by Christian exegetes. They interpreted the two mythological heroes as figurae Christi: classical forerunners of Christ, early harrowers of Hell whose actions symbolize infernal defeat.
 Dante’s address to those readers who have “intelletti sani” in Inferno 9.61-63 recalls his prior use of the expression in his youthful canzone Le dolci rime (circa 1294):
Per ch’a ’ntelletti sani è manifesto i lor diri esser vani, ed io così per falsi li ripruovo (Le dolci rime, 74-76)
Thus it is clear to every mind that's sound that what they say lacks sense, and hence I claim their words are false (Lansing trans.)
 In Le dolci rime the motif of “intelletti sani” comes precisely at the junction of the canzone where Dante moves from Christian revelation to Aristotelian exposition. In Inferno 9 the motif is used at a similar suturing point: this time, however, he is moving from pagan false reality to Christian truth.
 Inferno 9 marks a low point for classical culture in the Commedia, and the pall over antiquity continues through to the end. When the travelers move through the gate opened by the angel into the city of Dis, they find themselves in a huge cemetery, a veritable city of death. This city is compared, in the canto’s final association of classical culture with death and impotence, to the Roman necropolises of Arles in Provence and of Pola in Istria.