McKeen Research Paper
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On the (Trans-)Formation of Souls: A Parallel Reading of Inferno and Purgatorio XXIV-XXV As part of his structural program in the Commedia, Dante frequently parallels cantos of the same number in each of the three canticles that make up the poem. Thus, for example, canto IX of each section of the poem involves a liminal space: the Walls of Dis, the Gates of Purgatory, and the Sphere of Venus, the last heavenly realm under the Earth’s shadow. At times, such thematic repetition works primarily as a structuring device; after all, a major theme of Dante’s poem is the perfect order established in the universe by God, and the Commedia reflects this same interest in structure. Often, however, and especially in the more subtle cases, reading cantos in parallel allows the two to mutually inform one another, leading to a deeper reading. In this paper, I will conduct such a parallel reading of cantos XXIV and XXV of both the Inferno and the Purgatorio. In the Inferno, these cantos contain Dante the Pilgrim’s encounter with the deceptive thieves as the sinners continually transform into reptilian beasts and attack one another. In Purgatorio, on the other hand, we have the Pilgrim’s encounter with the shade of the poet Bonagiunta on the terrace of gluttony, followed by Statius’s discourse on the origins of human souls. On the level of surface narrative, the co-numeral cantos in each canticle seem to have little in common. As I will show, however, both sets of cantos center on questions surrounding the relationship of bodies to souls, and of textuality and corporeality. In this paper, I will explore the implications of these thematic parallels, showing ultimately that the scenes in Purgatorio act as the redemptive counterpart to those in these cantos of the Inferno, as Dante lets “death’s poetry arise to life” (Purg. I, 7). Flesh and sin are closely linked for Dante, and indeed in much of the Christian tradition. And yet, as medievalist Jacques Le Goff writes: Medieval man was compelled, not only by his existential experience but also by the teaching of the Church, to live as if body and souls were united. Every part of the body, every mark on the flesh was a symbol referring to the soul. Salvation or damnation was brought about [. . .] through the body. (Qtd. In De Angelis 97) For Dante, the solution to this apparent paradox comes through the doctrine of Christ’s incarnation. As both God and man, He exists as the perfect example of the redeemed body. Those in Hell suffer bodily pains that remove them from Christ’s example. Those in Purgatory, however, work towards becoming more like Him. As Vittorio Montemaggi writes, these souls must “read their embodied existence in Christological terms,” so that each may become a figura Christi and a symbol of flesh redeemed (178). Cantos XXIV-XXV of the Inferno and Purgatorio show Dante presenting humankind as imitators of Christ— twisted and parodied in the former, redeemed in the latter. Destabilized Bodies in Dante and Medieval Theology Inferno XXV opens with Vanni Fucci’s vulgar and blasphemous gesture towards God as he “shaped his fists into figs and raised them high” (Inf. XXV, 2). His gesture carries sexual connotations and thus serves as a fit opening for a canto dominated by perverse sexual imagery, what Marianne Shapiro characterizes as a “scene of mock copulation” (50). Indeed, Dante shows particular attention to the sexual qualities of the two transformations that dominate the canto; first Agnèl’s body merges with that of his reptilian assailant, who “stuck its tail between the sinner’s legs, / and up against his back the tail slid stiff” (Inf. XXV, 56-7). Later, in describing Buoso as the thief exchanges forms with the serpentine Guerico, Dante relates how “the beast’s hind feet then twisted round each other / and turned into the member man conceals, / while from the wretch’s member grew two legs” (Inf. XXV, 115-17). In this canto, the human form becomes both unstable and highly sexualized. Sexuality here accompanies violence and bestiality, and is thus depraved and debased. This sort of sexual language connects the scene in inferno with Statius’s discourse on the formation of fetuses and souls in Purgatorio XXV. In particular, Dante’s manner of talking around the male genitals reemerges as he describes the ‘purified blood’ entering “the part best left unmentioned” (Purg. XXV, 44). Furthermore, Dante has Guerico strike Buoso “right where the embryo receives its food,” calling to mind the prenatal existence described by Statius in Purgatorio XXV (Inf. XXV, 86). More than giving a twisted parody of sexual relations Inferno XXV prefigures Statius’s discourse on human generation, showing it in hellish, twisted form. To understand the full meaning of this imagery, then, we must read Dante the Poet’s account of the pit of thieves in light of his understanding of procreation as given in Purgatorio. In constructing Statius’s speech on procreation, Dante draws from philosophical and theological issues fiercely debated in the thirteenth century. A number of scholars have noted that thirteenth-century theology demonstrates a changing emphasis from the soul’s condition at the end of time to its state between death and the Last Judgment (see, for example, De Angelis 97). This new interest centered on the relationship between the body and the soul, for both in life and after resurrection the two remain united. It is only in the between-time—not accidentally the time during which Dante the Pilgrim makes his journey through the realms of the dead—that the two become separated. The relationship between these two parts of the individual thus came under intense theological investigation. Dante’s account, through Statius, agrees largely with that given by Thomas Aquinas, who argued that the “intellectual” soul, created directly by God, enters the fully developed fetus in the last stage of gestation and absorbs the qualities of the “vegetative” and “sensitive” principles already present in the body (Gragnolati, “From Plurality” 197). As Dante puts it, the intellectual soul has “power / to assimilate what it finds active there, / so that one single soul is formed complete” (Purg. XXV, 72-4). These theological discussions thus significantly situate the essence of human form in the immaterial soul. For if, as proponents of this unified view of human nature argued, the immortal soul retained all the qualities of the person, then any matter the soul inhabited could take the form of the person (Gragnolati, “From Plurality” 195). The soul, then, acts as the guarantor of stability and continuity, while matter and the body are mutable. Given Dante’s philosophical predispositions, however, he shows a startling interest in the instability of many of the shades that the Pilgrim meets. The chaotic transformations of Inferno XXV challenge the soul’s contiguity with its bodily form as presented in the parallel canto of Purgatorio. Rachel Jacoff has noted that, despite occasional allusions to the emptiness of the shades in Inferno, that canticle typically elides this in favor of “corporealizing effects” and that “Punishments in Hell are imaged over and over again as violations of the body” (124). While I agree that in the Inferno Dante emphasizes the shades’ bodily qualities, I believe it a mistake to overlook the fact that the poet works these violations on spiritual bodies and that the distortions and corruptions of bodies the Pilgrim witnesses actually involve incorporeal souls. Instead, I propose that the deformed souls should be read as an inverted parody of the generative process described in Purgartorio. To begin, the mutating forms of the thieves in Inferno seem to reverse the development of the soul in the womb. Statius describes the final entry of the intellectual soul into the fetus as the moment when “from the animal, this thing becomes / a child” (Purg. XXV, 61-2). The serpentine Guercio, in striking the naval of Buoso and thereby transferring his essence—a highly sexually charged image—initiates a de-evolution in the latter, turning him from human to animal. This bestial ‘essence’ is carried by the smoke issuing from the Guercio’s mouth in a parody of how God “breathes / a spirit into it [the fetus], new, and with power / to assimilate what it finds active there” (Purg. XXV, 71-3). Guercio’s bestial ‘soul’ in the form of the smoke, too, assimilates Buoso’s shade. Dante’s presentation of the attack, read against Statius’s discourse, works as an exchange, not of physical bodies, but of souls. These transformations violate spiritual integrity, reducing the condition of souls to displaying lesser physical qualities such as instability. Understanding this transformation as a reversal of human embryological development helps to explain Dante’s apparent inconsistency in giving the souls in hell highly physical qualities. Statius describes the completed soul as that which “lives and feels and contemplates itself” (Purg. XXV, 75). Each verb here corresponds to the primary quality of each ‘souls’ ultimately absorbed by the intellectual soul: the living vegetative form, the sensually aware animal, and the intellectual’s own rational capabilities. Notably, the first two forms describe essentially the bodily characteristics of a person. Thus, as the thieves’ souls return to bestial forms, they also take on more bodily characteristics. At the same time they lose their more intellectual characteristics, most particularly, speech. Language, Poetry, and the Word of God Deprivation of intelligible speech forms a central part of the thieves’ punishment in Inferno. Dante the Poet’s initial remark about the bolgia tells us that there “came a voice from the depths of the next chasm, / a voice unable to articulate” (Inf. XXIV, 65-6). Similarly, Dante the Pilgrim tells Virgil “I hear sounds I cannot understand, / and I look down but cannot see a thing” (Inf. XXIV, 74-5). At the end of this episode, the transformation of Guerico and Buoso makes clear that this unintelligibility derives from the sinners’ bestial forms. Dante writes of Buoso, as he takes the form of a snake, that “The tongue, / that once had been one piece and capable / of forming words, divides into a fork” (Inf. XXV, 132-34). Not only do these sinners lose their human form—the image of God— but also lose as a result their human speech. In Dante’s poem, of course, language often symbolizes divinity, with Christ as the “Word of God” (Par. XXIII, 73). In removing the power of speech from these sinners, then, Dante also distances them from God. Once again, the scene in Hell acts as a twisted parody; not only do the mutating thieves invert human generation as described in Purgatory, but more specifically, they parody the incarnation of Christ. While the incarnation stands as the moment when the Word takes on flesh, Inferno XXIV-XXV describes bodies losing the Word. The merging bodies of Cianfa and Agnèl present the most overtly incarnational imagery in the cantos, and indeed possibly in the entire Inferno. This becomes particularly clear from the outburst of one of Agnèl’s companions, who calls out “O Agnèl! If you could see how you are changing! / You’re not yourself, and you’re not both of you!” (Inf. XXV, 689). Such language recalls theological discussions of the dual nature of Christ, who miraculously became both fully human and fully divine, losing no part of either; Agnèl, however, loses his own human form, becoming entirely subsumed into Cianfa’s reptilian body (Raffa 42). Similarly, Vanni Fucci, arising literally from his ashes, parodies the resurrection, literally arising out of the dust (Gilson 27). In both these cases—incarnation and resurrection—Dante alludes to significant moments in the gospels that center upon the relationship of the divine Christ to His human body, the two moments when He takes on flesh. In this way, the transformations of both Vanni Fucci and Agnèl give demonic, inverted form to the same theological issue of such interest to thirteenth-century churchmen. The two become representations of Christ—figurae Christi—shown in malo. Dante takes up these same themes in Purgatorio XXIV-XXV, exploring them, significantly, through his description of his own verse. In canto XXIV, Dante the Pilgrim meets Bonagiunta Orbicciani, a poetic predecessor of his. In this encounter, Dante—that is, the actual poet of the Commedia—brings to the fore a number of issues involving language that parallel those addressed in the Inferno cantos. However, his altered presentation of these themes constitutes a redemption of language and its connection to the body, which the thieves had perverted in their bolgia. Dante the Pilgrim’s first observation regarding Bonagiunta, like his first regarding the thieves of the eighth circle, describes a failing in language. He tells us how the deceased poet “mumbled something—something like ‘Gentucca’ / I heard come from his lips, where he felt most / emaciating Justice strip him bare” (Purg. XXIV, 37-9). As among the thieves, Dante presents this inability to speak as integral to the punishment the souls must endure. The Pilgrim meets Bonagiunta on the terrace of gluttony, a sin closely associated with the mouth; because of this, the poet’s purging pain centers here, hindering his speech. Despite these similarities between the experiences of a category of sinners in Inferno and Purgatorio, however, Dante distinguishes between the two by the purposes of the punishments. Manuele Gragnolati outlines the difference between the conditions of souls in Hell and Purgatory in his discussion of the role of pain in these two realms: Dante insists on the productivity of suffering in purgatory, categorically contrasting it with the sterility of suffering in hell. . . . The sterility of the contrapasso in the Inferno is reflected in the fact that it is often both a fitting punishment for sin and a continual manifestation of evil. (Experiencing 115) Whereas those in hell suffer as a result of their unalterable state of sin, those in purgatory suffer as a means of changing their sinfulness. Dante allegorically presents this eschatological concept by means of the souls’ mutable aerial bodies. For the thieves, their transformation into bestial forms and their accompanying loss of intelligible speech results from the depraved nature of their souls. As shown above, Dante, drawing from contemporary theological discourses, presents the intellectual human soul as having absorbed the more bodily qualities of the vegetative and sensitive souls that preceded it. This allows it to form an ersatz body out of the air that surrounds it after death. He describes this process through Statius in Purgatorio XXV: “just so, the air enveloping the soul / where it has fallen must assume the form / imprinted on it by the soul’s own powers” (94-6). That the thieves in the Malebolge take on reptilian forms shows that their souls produce just such an imprint on the surrounding air. Their deceitful nature causes them produce snakelike bodies whose forked tongues mimic their duplicitous language and prevent them from speaking. Their punishment both makes their sin manifest and counteracts it, halting their continued misuse of language. The shades in Purgatory, too, alter their forms as a part of their punishment. Dante the Pilgrim’s purgation, for example, involves the sequential removal of each of the seven Ps—for peccatum or sin—inscribed on his forehead. His flesh itself bears the marks of his sin, and in order to reach the earthly paradise his flesh must once again become clean. However, the most obvious case of souls visibly transformed by their purgation takes place on the terrace of gluttony in cantos XXII through XXIV, and particularly in canto XXIII.1 Here, Dante the Poet notes how emaciated the shades here have become, so much so that the Pilgrim cannot recognize his old friend Forese Donati (Purg. XXIII, 43-5). He describes their deformed appearances: their eyes, dark-shadowed, sunken in their heads, their faces pale, their bodies worn so thin that every bone was molded to their skin. ......................................... The sockets of their eyes were gemless rings; one who reads omo in the face of men could easily have recognized the m. (Purg. XXIII, 22-4, 31-3) Like the thieves, the shades on this terrace have dramatically altered their forms. Unlike those in Hell, however, these souls suffer a painful transformation that is temporary and meant to draw them to God. Robert Durling describes the experience of Dante’s Purgatory, writing “Perfection of virtue requires—is—the perfection of the relation of soul to body” (189). Whereas the thieves must continually suffer by their sins—having their human form continually stolen by other sufferers—the gluttonous on Purgatory suffer instead as a 1 Although this canto lies outside the range I am examining in this paper, it does in fact correspond to Inferno XXIV when one compensates for the additional introductory canto of Inferno. Furthermore, because Purgatorio XXIII and XXIV run together so closely, with Dante the Poet only remarking that “Talking did not slow down our walk, nor did walking our talk,” I find canto XXIII worth consideration as part of the vertical reading (Purg. XXIV, 1-2). corrective for their sin. By learning to “hunger after righteousness,” as their angelic beatitude states, the bodies of these individuals become more in line with the desires of their souls (Purg. XXV, 154). Moreover, both Dante and the shades on the sixth terrace have altered their bodies in such a way as to mark them with language. This suggests that the “perfection of the relation of soul to body” as Durling describes it involves centrally a perfection of the relation of individuals to their language. By becoming word made flesh, these souls make themselves like Christ and their sufferings imitate His. This brings us back to Dante the Pilgrim’s encounter with Bonagiunta in canto XXIV. After the Pilgrim encourages this shade, he asks “do I not see standing here / him who brought forth the new poems that begin: / ‘Ladies who have intelligence of Love,’” to which the Pilgrim replies “I am one who, when Love / inspires me, takes careful note and then, / gives form to what he dictates in my heart” (Purg. XXIV, 49-51, 52-4). This, then, is Dante’s definition of the ‘sweet new style’ of his poetry. Significantly, his use of the word ‘inspire’ is the same as that used by Statius to describe the entry of the intellectual soul into the unborn child; God “breathes / a spirit into it” (Purg. XXV, 71-2). Dante’s poetry, in imitating God’s creative act, becomes a purified form of language. Indeed, the ‘Love’ that inspires him may stand in for the pure love of the Holy Ghost (Tambling 97). As such, it stands as a redeemed form of the erotic love suggested by the poetry. Moreover, such ‘inspiration’ turns Dante from a poet to a prophet, a connection Dante would likely make thanks to his familiarity with the Vulgate, which shows the Latin word for poet, vates, also meaning prophet. Additionally, the Old Testament prophetic writings often describe prophecy using sexual imagery or sexuallycharged language (Sowell 462-3). The entire episode from Dante’s encounter with Bonagiunta through Statius’s explanation of human generation transforms his earlier poetry from erotic love songs into theological texts. His texts, like the souls in Purgatory, must be transformed and redeemed before entering the celestial spheres, where the theologically-oriented sexual imagery will increase tenfold. Furthermore, Dante’s Statius describes the creation of the individual very close to the original creation of Adam: “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Gen. 2:7). Indeed, the entire sixth terrace imitates the biblical narrative of Adam and Eve in the Garden, as the souls here are kept from eating forbidden fruits. Marked by the word ‘man’ on their faces, these souls must purge themselves of the original human sin in preparation for entering the Garden of Eden. In effect, they must each become a ‘new Adam,’ just as Christ did. While the transmutations of the thieves in Hell remove them from the similitude of God, losing both their human form and the word, those of the souls in Purgatory work to make them become figurae Christi. In this way, Purgatorio, and in particular cantos XXIVXXV, redeems the parallel themes of Inferno. Conclusion Cantos XXIV and XXV of both Inferno and Purgatorio center on issues relating to the body, the soul, and language. These same concerns constitute some of the basic theological questions regarding the incarnation. Dante’s devotional poem imagines him as a figura Christi, an imitator of Christ who descends below all things and rises to the highest heaven in order to bring to earth a message that may help others achieve salvation. However, the figura Christi is more than just a trope for Dante; it is the model by which all individuals must be judged. 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