A couple of days back, I posted the first of my thoughts about Dante’s Divine Comedy. With the 700th anniversary of the work approaching, its impact seems greater than ever, and we have to ask why. My own answer appeared first in a different, longer piece in Southwest Review, and my thanks to them. Now, the question takes us underground.
Extravagant as the Comedy is, more extreme than anything in Jackson or Tolkien, Dante nonetheless puts the period to each of his journeys-within-a-journey by means of something small and ordinary. The word that concludes each canticle is stelle, stars: a glimmering diminuendo, in which the sound softens from fricative to glottal to mere breath. But of course this closer contains considerable power as well; it takes us towards immeasurable unknowns.
Throughout the Comedy, then, what guides Dante’s Pilgrim towards God often finds fragile embodiment, fragile as starlight. Indeed, the contrary holds true. Infernal landmarks are notable for their size, the devils and damned saddled with grotesque protuberance; the same proportions apply to the trials of the purgatorial mountain. Hence the dramatic problem of Paradise, the challenge of creating story tension in a place of infinite harmony, extends to the problem of creating images: what shape can enlightenment take, when any natural form derives from the Fall? Dante’s best-known solution is the Celestial Rose, an ingenious depiction of highest Empyrean that begins in Canto XXX:
And if the lowest tier alone can hold
so great a brilliance, then how vast the space
of this Rose to its outer petals’ reach!
The translation, by the way, is Mark Musa’s. His blank-verse tercets in American English serve my purpose: my investigation of a dialogue across the epic, among three canticle-closing images that, like the Rose, couch the infinite in the everyday. The first two images occur at the pit of Hell and the peak of Purgatory, and together with the stream of light alongside the Celestial Rose, they present a marvelous paradox. They embody the opposite of what you would expect, moving from ostensible power to ostensible weakness.
The first of the climactic visions looms in Inferno XXXI. On a plateau above the traitors locked in the bottom ice (above Lucifer, that is), what the Pilgrim sees elicits a confused comparison to a metropolis:
made out what seemed to be high, clustered towers.
‘Master,’ I said, ‘what city lies ahead?’
Even after Virgil has corrected his Pilgrim, explaining that the uprights ahead are the half-buried giants who rebelled against Jupiter, the urban analogy continues. Dante makes reference to both the fortress of Montereggioni and the immense bronze pine cone, 1st Century, that still wows tourists in Rome.
These references join with other allusions made during the descent into Hell, and so suggest that primordial figure of overreach, the Tower of Babel. We are reminded that Nimrod, the biggest of the trapped giants, commanded the Tower be built; we sense, without being told, the claustrophobia of Lower Hell, a sub-basement to the City of Dis. The Pilgrim’s very word for the skyscraper-giants, “what city…?” uses not città, but the more complicated terra, suggestive of an entire “terra”-tory or city-state.
Nonetheless Musa, Singleton, Allen Mandelbaum and others translate the word as “city. ” Most note the reiteration from Canto VIII, when Dante first approaches Dis; outside its walls, too, he uses the broader terra.
Therefore the Pilgrim stumbles through the same dread city now, in the lowest circles — just as down here, the Sodom that most often comes to his mind is Florence. Pilgrim Dante may be approaching the Devil himself, but the question he asks he more mundane, the same as must’ve often occurred to exile Dante. Catching sight of a new hilltop stronghold: che terra è questa?
Now Lucifer, in the final canto, presents a tower still more frightening. Virgil however introduces him as the city we already know: “This is he, this is Dis…” (XXXIV). Also the Lord of the Abyss is first taken for a windmill, another down-to-earth association. But whatever we call this three-headed fiend, the first of such giants seen up close, Nimrod in Canto XXXI, presents a foreshadowing.
Like the monster below him, Nimrod stands immense yet locked down, and Virgil calls attention to the hunter’s horn and its strap, suggestive of Satan’s leathery wings. More significantly, both creatures remain oblivious to their visitors. Nimrod’s outburst “Raphèl maì amècche zabì almi” remains impenetrable (Singleton makes a summary of the attempts at analysis, two pages long), and the exclamation should defy understanding, given the giant’s connection to Babel. But the gibberish unnerves us most with its near-intelligibility, like the jabber of a psychotic in an alley. It chills us with sympathy, even as it anticipates Satan’s blind self-absorption.
In the twinned towers of Nimrod and Lucifer, the threat of entrapment is heightened, just as the repeated open a in the giant’s nonsense suggests a cry of attack. But these slum landmarks represent the worst of God’s universe as much for their self-inflicted solitary confinement as for any freakish externals. And we very nearly get under their skin; Pilgrim and poet crawl through the fur on Satan’s haunch, in order to escape.