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Beyond Time I Stand. Feraco Myth to Science Fiction 26 October 2009. Canto 1: Data File. Settings: The Dark Wood, the True Way, Mount Joy, and the Dark Wood (return) Figures: The Leopard, Lion, and She-Wolf (Three Beasts); Virgil Allusions: The Greyhound, The Aeneid

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Beyond time i stand l.jpg

Beyond Time I Stand


Myth to Science Fiction

26 October 2009

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Canto 1: Data File

  • Settings: The Dark Wood, the True Way, Mount Joy, and the Dark Wood (return)

  • Figures: The Leopard, Lion, and She-Wolf (Three Beasts); Virgil

  • Allusions: The Greyhound, The Aeneid

  • What Happens: Dante tries to move beyond confusion, but is defeated by his sins. Divine intervention sends him on a different course

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  • At this point, Dante is thirty-five, suffering from a literal midlife crisis

  • It’s not clear whether he’s lost his morals, or whether his confusion also lies in his exile from Florence

  • Raffa says the source of his disorientation could be “spiritual, physical, psychological, moral, political – [it’s] difficult to determine at this point”

  • In any case, his life isn’t unfolding the way he thought it would

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The Dark Wood: Selva oscura

  • While it’s clear that the Wood symbolizes confusion and loss, we ask ourselves: why a wood?

    • Raffa proposes that Virgil’s use of the forest as the underworld’s entrance in The Aeneid inspires it

    • There’s also a lot of medieval literary tradition to look at; knights were always getting lost in forests in legends

    • Augustine had linked sin to a “region of unlikeness” in his work

    • Dante’s also used the forest as a symbol when describing adolescent confusion in Convivo

    • Finally, there’s Plato’s idea of chaotic matter – unformed, unnamed, unknowable – which Dante’s readers would have recognized

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Mount Joy

  • When Dante returns to his True Way, he sees a little hill with sunlight shining on it and, overjoyed by the sight, rushes forward

  • Mount Joy symbolizes salvation for Dante

  • In medieval thought, abandonment of the "straight way" usually symbolized alienation from God

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Mount Joy

  • Dante also uses the path as a counterexample to the degeneration of his city

  • To leave the path and lose one’s way is to waste the divine gift, and to live a meaningless life in the process

  • Here, as in many other places, Dante’s symbols stand for multiple antecedents

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The Leopard

  • In some texts, the Leopard represents Avarice and Immoderate Desire; in Ciardi’s translation, it represents Fraud / Betrayal / Malice

  • It’s the first Beast Dante encounters on the True Way, and its associated sins are the last ones he “recognizes” on his journey through Hell

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The Leopard

  • The choice of the Leopard here is probably inspired by the Bible’s Jeremiah 5:6: “Wherefore a lion out of the wood hath slain them, a wolf in the evening hath spoiled them, a leopard watcheth for their cities: every one that shall go out thence shall be taken, because their transgressions are multiplied, their rebellions strengthened”

  • The passage refers to the impending punishment of people who refuse to repent for their wrongdoings

  • Also important to note is the leopard’s camouflaged hide, symbolizing sin’s ability to cloak itself

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The Lion

  • The Lion is a somewhat simpler figure, with origins identical to those of the Leopard (i.e., based on the Jeremiah passage)

  • He’s the second Beast Dante encounters on the Path

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The Lion

  • Unlike the Leopard and the She-Wolf, the Lion’s associated sins are consistently translated: Violence and Ambition

  • We see his sins’ “circle” when Dante reaches the seventh circle

    • The circle itself has three rounds, suggesting a complex response to the Lion’s sins

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The She-Wolf

  • Just switch up the Leopard’s commentary, and you get the She-Wolf: In some texts, she represents Fraud / Betrayal / Malice, but she embodies Avarice and Immoderate Desire here

  • She is the last Beast Dante encounters, and the one he seems to fear the most

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The She-Wolf

  • While the She-Wolf also takes her origins from the Jeremiah passage, Dante’s use of a wolf would have had special resonance for Italian readers

  • The country’s traditions descended from the Roman Empire, and the founders of Rome – the brothers Romulus and Remus – were supposedly nursed and raised in the wild by a She-Wolf

    • As a result, the She-Wolf became associated with the city

  • To see one so corrupted and ravening here is to remind readers of the perverse turn Florence has taken as it’s moved into the “modern age”

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The Greyhound

  • Dante includes a prophecy in which a Greyhound that feeds on good will destroy the She-Wolf (which sustains itself on man’s evils)

  • It’s not clear who the Greyhound represents – Ciardi suggests Cangrande della Scala, a patron Dante proved particularly fond of – but Raffa suggests Dante kept the prophecy vague for a reason

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  • Virgil was a Roman poet who lived shortly before Christ’s birth; he’s responsible for some of the greatest literature in history, including The Aeneid (which Dante repeatedly references)

  • In one of his other works (Eclogues), Virgil foretells the coming of a “wonderchild” – something medieval Christian audiences hailed as a prophecy of Christ’s birth

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  • Virgil is one of the Virtuous Pagans in this tale, yet he’s also a conduit for divine guidance

  • Without him, Dante doesn’t stand a chance of getting through Hell

  • Virgil’s presence as guide is therefore neither coincidental nor superfluous; he’s almost as important to the narrative as Dante himself

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Canto II: Data File

  • Setting: Unclear; all we know is that Dante and Virgil have traveled away from the Dark Wood

  • Figures: Beatrice, Lucia, Mary (Three Blessed Women)

  • Allusions: Aeneas, Paul

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Canto II: Data File

  • Summary: Canto II serves as a minor footnote in the overall Inferno, a short expository sequence in which Dante’s motivation is confirmed. He expresses doubt about the journey ahead, but Virgil convinces him to abandon his fear by telling him about how Beatrice directed him

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Three Blessed Women

  • Mary is the Virgin Mary, who symbolizes God’s compassion for Dante’s plight here

  • Saint Lucia, or Lucy of Syracuse, was a martyr who medieval Christians associated with vision / sight

  • Finally, Beatrice embodies Divine Love; we already know why Dante chose her

  • “I' son Beatrice che ti faccio andare”: I am Beatrice, who makes you go.

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Aeneas and Paul

  • Dante mentions both men as a way of proving via contrast that he’s unfit to journey into the afterlife

  • Raffa: “The apostle Paul claims in the Bible to have been transported to the "third heaven" (2 Corinthians 12:2), and Aeneas visits the underworld in book 6 of Virgil's Aeneid.”

  • These two otherworldly travelers are also associated with Rome, seat of both the empire and the church.

    • Raffa: “Dante, contrary to Augustine and others, believed the Roman empire in fact prepared the way for Christianity, with Rome as the divinely chosen home of the Papacy.”

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Canto III: Data File

  • Settings: The Gate of Hell, the Vestibule of Hell, and Acheron

  • Figures: Charon, Pope Celestine V (unidentified)

  • Allusions: Acheron + Charon (The Aeneid)

  • Punishable Sin: Opportunism

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Canto III: Data File

  • Summary: Dante and Virgil pass the Gate of Hell and are immediately battered by horrific cries of suffering. They witness the punishment of the Opportunists – those who refused to choose between good and evil, deciding instead to shift sides in an effort to stay on top. The travelers move past them and head to Acheron, where Charon tries to refuse them; as Virgil forces Charon to do their bidding, Dante faints, overcome with fear.

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The Gate of Hell

I am the way into the city of woe.

I am the way to a forsaken people.

I am the way into eternal sorrow.

Sacred justice moved my architect.

I was raised here by divine omnipotence,

Primordial love and ultimate intellect.

Only those elements time cannot wear

Were made before me, and beyond time I stand.

Abandon all hope ye who enter here.

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Entering the Vestibule

  • After noting the presence of the Holy Trinity as Hell’s source – the Father (Power), Son (Wisdom and Intellect), and Holy Spirit (Love) – Dante and Virgil encounter their first sinners

  • It’s from this point that Dante’s system of poetic justice becomes clear

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The Opportunists

  • The first to suffer are those who have been denied entrance to every other realm of the afterlife – the “fence-sitters, wafflers, opportunists, and neutrals” – as well as fallen angels who refused to side with God

  • This place is entirely invented by Dante, although Raffa finds some Biblical inspiration in Revelations to justify its creation: “But because thou art lukewarm and neither cold nor hot, I will begin to vomit thee out of my mouth.” (3:16)

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The Punishment

  • The sufferers chase a banner that floats just out of reach in the Vestibule’s filthy air

  • As they run in endless circles, they’re set up by wasps and hornets; the insects sting them constantly, and the blood and matter that constantly flows from their bodies feeds an endless sea of worms and maggots beneath their feet

    • Check Ciardi’s explanation of the “symbolic retribution” this area contains

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Pope Celestine V

  • The only sinner Dante recognizes – the one who makes the “Great Denial” – is never named; most assume he’s Pope Celestine V

  • Raffa: “His refusal to perform the duties required of the pope (he abdicated five months after his election in July 1294) allowed Benedetto Caetani to become Pope Boniface VIII, the man who proved to be Dante's most reviled theological, political, and personal enemy.”

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  • After moving past the Opportunists, Dante and Virgil reach Acheron, the first of Hell’s great rivers

    • Virgil used it in The Aeneid – although it should be noted that specific bodies of water weren’t as important to Virgil as they are to Dante

  • In The Inferno, Acheron serves as a border wall, a boundary separating the Opportunists from those who belong in Hell itself; Charon, Hell’s Ferryman, takes them across, and no mortals are to enter Hell

  • This would seem to pose a problem for our intrepid poet

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Getting Past Charon

  • Dante fleshes out Charon’s physical description more than Virgil did in The Aeneid, but the old man basically behaves the same way in both texts

  • In both texts, the solution is the same: The protagonist’s guide (in this case, Virgil himself) presents the “proper credentials” (divine will) in order to convince Charon to take them across

  • Unlike Aeneas, Dante panics and faints – and we, like he, wake up on the other side of Acheron

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Canto IV: Data File

  • Setting: Our first Circle! Circle One: Limbo

  • Figures: Homer, Horace, Lucan, Ovid (The Classical Poets), as well as many, many others

  • Allusions: The Harrowing of Hell

  • Punishable Sin: Paganism*

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Canto IV: Data File

  • Summary: Dante wakes up and glimpses Hell for the first time. As the poets descend into the First Circle, we’re struck by how peaceful it seems. Dante meets an overwhelming array of historical figures, and glimpses the astonishing things man can achieve alone…but then is sobered by the realization that these great achievements pale in comparison to what is possible through God

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  • While Limbo already existed within Christian thought, Dante’s is much more densely populated; it essentially houses the “Greats of the B.C. Era”

  • He includes virtuous non-Christian adults in addition to the more-traditional unbaptized infants; this even included major figures from the Hebrew Bible, which medieval Christian thought held were “liberated” by Christ during the Harrowing of Hell

  • We thus find an astonishing array of noteworthy figures here, including many of Rome’s and Greece’s great heroes, thinkers, and artists – and even some medieval non-Christians

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Harrowing of Hell

  • This refers to Christ’s post-crucifixion descent into Limbo, when he rescued and brought to heaven ("harrowing" implies a sort of violent abduction) his "ancestors" from the Hebrew Bible

  • This is only suggested in the Bible, and the story appears elsewhere in apocrypha – books related to but not included in the Bible

  • That said, it was popular enough to be declared church dogma twice (1215 and 1274)

  • Raffa: “Dante's version emphasizes the power – in both physical and psychological terms – of Christ's raid on hell.”

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Groups Within Limbo

  • Since there are far too many figures to cite and remember here, we won’t focus on all of them

    • It’s best to take a generalized approach when analyzing the fourth Canto

  • We can divide the ones we want to study into different groups: The Classical Poets, The Heroes and Heroines (Figures from Trojan/Roman Political History), and the Philosophers and Thinkers

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Heroes and Heroines

  • Electra: Daughter of Atlas and mother of Dardanus, who’d go on to found Troy

  • Hector: Led Trojans against Greeks until Achilles killed him

  • Aeneas: He’s the hero of The Aeneid, escaping Troy as it burned and journeying to Italy (where he’d begin laying the foundation for the Roman Empire). His bloodline eventually produced Julius Caesar, who Dante considered the first Roman emperor (think Washington)

  • Camilla: A virgin warrior-queen who fought against the Trojans on Italian soil

  • Latinus: The king of the forces who fought the Trojans on Italian soil, Latinus eventually gave his daughter, Lavinia, to Aeneas in marriage.

  • Saladin: He’s grouped in with these figures, but he also stands apart; he’s a distinguished Muslim military leader who was widely respected – even by foes – for his chivalry

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  • Most of the great thinkers here were men whose work largely fit within the church’s doctrinal framework; they represent the apex of human reason, Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle in particular

  • Others included Hippocrates, Euclid, and Ptolemy

  • Aristotle is the master of this domain

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  • Aristotle commanded tremendous respect in the Middle Ages, so much so that he was known simply as “the Philosopher”

    • This is why Dante has the other philosophers look up to him

  • Aristotle owed his popularity to the Latin translations of his original Greek/Arabic works

    • Others, such as Plato (Aristotle’s teacher), had only a couple or even none of their works translated

  • His works covered everything – “the physical universe, biology, politics, rhetoric, logic, natural philosophy, metaphysics, and ethics”

    • He also tutored Alexander the Great, founded his own philosophical school, and lent his moral concepts to Dante’s Hell

  • Finally, Aristotle was the most important authority for two of Dante's favorite Christian thinkers, Albert the Great and his student Thomas Aquinas

    • Both strove to validate the role of reason and to sharpen its relationship to faith

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The Classic Poets

  • We see four here: Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan

    • Virgil makes five, and Dante makes six

  • Homer leads; he wrote epic poems about the war between the Greeks and Trojans (The Iliad) and Ulysses' adventurous return voyage (The Odyssey).

    • Dante hadn’t read his work (it hadn’t been translated from Greek yet), but the poet was quite popular among the writers Dante did read, and he gained knowledge of him through a sort of osmosis

  • Horace was most famous for his poem about poetry (Ars Poetica)

  • Ovid's Metamorphoses (mythological tales of transformations, often based on relations between gods and mortals) and Lucan's Pharsalia (treating the Roman civil war between Caesar and Pompey) gave Dante many of his Comedy’s non-Virgilean characters and allusions

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Canto V: Data File

  • Setting: The Second Circle

  • Figures: Minos, Paolo, and Francesca

  • Allusions: Dido, Cleopatra, Helen, Achilles, Paris, Lancelot, Tristan, and Isolde

  • Punishable Sin: Immoderate Passion

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Canto V: Data File

  • Summary: The poets venture into the Second Circle, where they encounter Minos, the Dread Judge of all who pass through Hell. He tries to force them to go back, a la Charon, but Virgil works his magic and they pass. We then see the Lustful, those whose appetites overwhelmed their sensibilities. Dante hears the story of Paolo and Francesca, and he’s so overcome that he faints yet again.

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Love vs. Lust

  • The relationship between the two has always been somewhat difficult

  • Dante juggles “the ennobling power of attraction toward the beauty of a whole person and the destructive force of possessive sexual desire”

  • It’s striking to see those who abandoned reason so soon after those who lived for its pursuit; the contrast between the first two circles couldn’t be clearer

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Love vs. Lust

  • Dante seems to distinguish between those who feel lust and those who act on it; it may be impossible to control our hearts, but it is possible to govern our bodies

  • He shows that this line is a very fine one indeed; interestingly, his ideas echo Sternberg’s, i.e., that those who tell stories of romance and desire help corrode the sensibilities of those who read them

  • This is the first place where an unrepentented sin is punished in Hell

    • Limbo’s not really a place of punishment, whereas the Vestibule lies outside of Hell

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Love vs. Lust

  • Its location, however, is appropriately ambiguous

  • On the one hand, its placement marks it as the “least serious” sin (it’s farthest from Satan, who lies at the center)

  • On the other hand, it’s the first one we see, and therefore the first thing we associate with serious wrongdoing

  • If anything, Dante presents this wrongdoing as a war between instinct and learned behavior, a war those who end up in the Second Circle lose; some of the other sins aren’t so “lucky”

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  • Minos, like Charon before him, is a remix – a figure from classical stories who Dante infuses with new detail and characteristics

  • There were two Minoses in classical literature, both of which ruled over Greece’s Crete, but we only care about the first one

  • The older Minos, son of Zeus and Europa, was known as the “favorite of the gods” because of his wisdom and commitment to law

    • Once he died, his reputation earned him the position of supreme judge of the underworld.

    • His duty was to hear the testimony of new souls, and to make sure their accounts aligned with their destinies

  • Minos' long tail, which he wraps around his body a number of times equal to the soul's assigned Circle, is Dante's invention

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Famous Lovers

  • The stories of the lustful souls Dante identifies in Canto V share certain elements: romance, beauty, sex, and death. In all cases, passion overwhelms these figures or leads directly to their downfall.

  • Dido, for example, was the queen of Carthage until her lover – Aeneas – abandoned her in order to continue his mission (establishing a new society in Italy). She was so grief-stricken that she committed suicide

  • Cleopatra, the legendarily beautiful queen of Egypt, committed suicide in order to keep the man (Octavian) who defeated her lover (Antony) from capturing her

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Famous Lovers

  • Helen of Troy, famed as the most beautiful woman alive, played a direct role in the Trojan War’s origins; once she was abducted by Paris and dragged back to Troy, her countrymen came after her, and she betrayed the Trojans by helping the Greeks carry out their attack

  • Achilles was the most formidable Greek hero among the forces who laid siege to Troy.

  • Tristan was King Mark’s nephew, and Isolde Mark’s fiancée; the two mistakenly drank a love potion that had been intended for Mark and Isolde, and fell completely in love with one another. Enraged, Mark shot Tristan through with an arrow, and he then clutched his lover so tightly that she died in his arms as well

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Francesca and Paolo

  • Raffa: “Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta are punished together in hell for their adultery: Francesca was married to Paolo's brother, Gianciotto ("Crippled John"). Francesca's shade tells Dante that her husband is destined for punishment in Caina – the infernal realm of familial betrayal named after Cain, who killed his brother Abel – for murdering her and Paolo. Francesca was the aunt of Guido Novello da Polenta, Dante's host in Ravenna during the last years of the poet's life (1318-21). She was married for political reasons to Gianciotto of the powerful Malatesta family, rulers of Rimini. Dante may have actually met Paolo in Florence (where Paolo was capitano del popolo--a political role assigned to citizens of other cities--in 1282), not long before he and Francesca were killed by Gianciotto.”

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Francesca and Paolo

  • Raffa: “Francesca, according to Boccaccio, was blatantly tricked into marrying Gianciotto, who was disfigured and uncouth, when the handsome and elegant Paolo was sent in his brother's place to settle the nuptial contract. Angered at finding herself wed the following day to Gianciotto, Francesca made no attempt to restrain her affections for Paolo and the two in fact soon became lovers. Informed of this liaison, Gianciotto one day caught them together in Francesca's bedroom (unaware that Paolo got stuck in his attempt to escape down a ladder, she let Gianciotto in the room); when Gianciotto lunged at Paolo with a sword, Francesca stepped between the two men and was killed instead, much to the dismay of her husband, who then promptly finished off Paolo as well. Francesca and Paolo, Boccaccio concludes, were buried – accompanied by many tears – in a single tomb.

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  • Raffa: “The story of Lancelot and Guinevere, which Francesca identifies as the catalyst for her affair with Paolo, was a French romance popular both in poetry and in a prose version known as Lancelot of the Lake. According to this prose text, it is Queen Guinevere, wife of King Arthur, who kisses Lancelot, the most valiant of Arthur's Knights of the Round Table. Francesca, by giving the romantic initiative to Paolo, reverses the roles from the story. To her mind, the entire book recounting this famous love affair performs a role similar to that of the character Galahad, a friend of Lancelot who helps bring about the adulterous relationship between the queen and her husband's favorite knight.”