Did Dante go mad in his hell?

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Virgil says don't listen

Did Dante lose it altogether? Hmmmm…

The Book Haven always enjoys Robert Harrison‘s reflections on Dantehere and here and here. There’s more of them this week over at the New York Review of Books website. Some will find it a controversial p.o.v. – I’ve studied Dante with Robert, as well as John Freccero (and Jeffrey Schnapp), so it’s less unfamiliar territory for me.

Robert has a slightly Girardian take on the Inferno – that is, adopting some of the perspective of the late, great French theorist René Girard – with his emphasis on reciprocal and escalating violence. You hit me, I hit you back, only harder. It’s the ruling principle of the Inferno. 

In a nutshell: Girard argued that we copy our desires from each other, and hence we long for the same object, honor, recognition, friendships as others do. Envy is one of our most underestimated vices. This “mimetic desire” leads to rivalry and competition, and sometimes violence and war. However, Robert brings genocide into the mix, with his eloquent and passionate argument.

Here’s a provocative excerpt from Robert’s essay, “Dante: He Went Mad in His Hell”:

If revenge and reciprocal violence are the essence of God’s justice, Dante’s Inferno despairs of God. It is impossible, at least for this reviewer, to read the cantos that bring Inferno to a close and not come to the conclusion that “Dieu n’est pas là,” as a French nun said of Bosnia-Herzegovina when it tore itself apart with civil war in the 1990s. The extravagance of the punishments in lower Hell suggests that in those cantos, if not in the canticle as a whole, an infernal rather than divine justice is on display.

When violence enters its cycles of reciprocity, when it spreads like a contagion out of all proportion, it turns into a form of mimetic insanity, drawing everyone, including God, into its vortex. Because Dante scholars operate on the assumption that their author is always in full control of his poem, they tend to blind themselves to all the indications that Dante—the author as well as his character—is starting to lose his mind at the end of Inferno.

rene-girard

We miss you, René.

In Inferno 28 the mimetic contagion is such that the pilgrim abuses a sinner with the words, “And death to your clan!” In canto 33, after Ugolino recounts how he cannibalized his children in the Tower of Hunger, Dante the author succumbs to wild murderous impulses. In his animus against the city of Pisa he bids the Arno River to overflow “so that it may drown every person in you!” Later in the same canto, Dante turns his rage against the city of Genoa: “Ah, men of Genoa, foreign to every decent usage, full of every vice, why have you not been driven from the world?” This is not the character but the author speaking. It is astounding, but true, that even the most acute commentators of The Divine Comedy pass over in silence these genocidal fantasies at the end of Inferno.

Read the whole thing here.


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