Archive for February 18th, 2018

Want some “alone” time? Try the Inferno, says Rachel Jacoff.

Sunday, February 18th, 2018
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Are other people hell? Artist Antonio Maria Cotti seemed to think so.

“FOR DANTE, SIN IS A VIOLATION OF COMMUNITY. THERE ARE NO SINS THAT DO NOT HAVE SOCIAL CONSEQUENCES.” – RACHEL JACOFF

Rachel Jacoff is one of the leading lights in the small, close-knit world of Dante scholarship. In this Entitled Opinions episode on The Divine Comedy, she continues her conversation on The Inferno with her former student, our Entitled Opinions host Robert Harrison, himself a major Dante scholar. (Go to the podcast at the Los Angeles Review of Books here.)

Harrison begins by quoting Homer’s Iliad:

As the generation of leaves, so is that of humanity.
The wind scatters the leaves on the ground, but the live timber
burgeons with leaves again in the season of spring returning.
So one generation of men will grow while another dies.

Virgil and Dante … together at last.

Virgil picks up this evocative metaphor in The Aeneid, but its tone is more ominous and rueful among the dead of the underworld. No surprise, then, that Dante continues the figure of speech in Canto 3, as a nod to Virgil — but with an important difference. Dante emphasizes the singularity of each of the sinners, rather than their anonymity. Each resident of Dante’s infernal world chooses, rather than simply suffers, his or her individual fate. The damned not only make choices, but they reenact those choices and their rationalizations in their soliloquies. And Dante the Pilgrim is drawn into each of their vices as he speaks to them.

Eventually, Dante and Virgil hit bottom: “You think that the climax of The Inferno is going to be encounter with Satan – especially if you come to Dante from Milton,” says Harrison. “But Dante’s Satan is really a very uninteresting encounter. There’s no dialogue. Satan is just this horrible, slobbering, three-mouthed figure. So the real terror does not come from this canto, but from the canto before, where Dante meets the figure of Ugolino.”

Jacoff and Harrison discuss how the sins of the Inferno have social consequences, and are a violation of community – hence, hell is a lonely place, even when the characters are paired. Other people are part of their torture.

This is the second of three Entitled Opinions episodes on Jacoff and Dante. (Part 1 is here. Podcast for this episode is here. And yes, you really can watch them out of sequence. It’s okay. It works.)

“AN EYE FOR AN EYE IS ONE THING, BUT AN EYE FOR AN EYE FOR ETERNITY BECOMES REALLY PROBLEMATIC. … WE WANT A WORLD OF MERCY, WE WANT A WORLD OF GRACE.”  – ROBERT HARRISON

Here are some more quotes from the episode:

“For most of the characters in the Inferno, their sins are dispositions that inform every stance they take – the way they relate to Dante, the way they relate to other sinners in their group.” – Rachel Jacoff

“Part of the reason that The Inferno is full of solitaries is that sinners have cut themselves off.” – Rachel Jacoff

“In a horrible way, people are grouped together, but they’re so alone. The presence of other people is part of the torture.” – Rachel Jacoff

“In Dante, Ulysses does not go home at all. He’s the figure of the explorer, the man who lives for knowledge. He’s a forerunner of the figure of the great age of discovery in the Renaissance, the discovery of the New World, the scientific spirit. Everything that Dante called male curiosità, bad curiosity, within a century would be exalted as one of the premiere virtues of the humanism of the Renaissance.” – Robert Harrison

“Each canticle ends on the stars. They come out of The Inferno seeing the stars again, and they come out of Purgatory ready to go to the stars. And then … The Paradiso.” – Robert Harrison