Despite the high-sounding title, my blog is meant to be both serious and light-hearted, full of sadness and mirth, and reflecting the human condition. Join in the pilgrimmage and be surprised and maybe even astonished and humbled.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Dante's "Inferno": Evil and Death, and the Masculine and Feminine as Face to Face Inspiration (2)

Accompanying this post is the painting by Marc Chagall titled, "Adam and Eve." It speaks in modern terms about the joys and the dangers of being face to face with the "other" and, not only a product of inspiration, it speaks to the reality of inspiration as found in Dante's Commedia. Gregorian's version of the Roberta Flack classic, "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," echoes the face to face theme.

English translations of Dante's Commedia commonly divide it into three more manageable parts--"Inferno," "Purgatorio," and "Paradiso." "Inferno" is more generally studied in high school or undergraduate settings because it is deemed more "interesting," more captivating. Why is that so? And does it suggest that evil and death is more "interesting" than life and beauty and goodness?

I believe that such "interest" comes from the "safe" imaginative encounter with the forbidden, with taboo, with terror, with evil, with death--in contrast to an actual encounter with evil. It is why "horror movies" entertain even though they trigger fear and a rush of adrenaline. It underlies the proverbial "moth drawn to the flame" imagery.

A little evil in imaginative form, death made larger than life with metaphor and symbol and personification, is a psychological and social anodyne. It is a kind of vaccination against the actual fear, suffering, disruption, and chaos caused by evil and death. Imaginative forms, symbols, totems, rituals, stories, song, imagery--in short, art and artifice--shield us. They are a kind of curtain protecting us from existential fear and trembling as we face suffering, the abyss and death.

Personal and social repetition, feedback, and looping of the symbols and metaphors maintain the warp and woof of the curtain. Nietzsche means precisely this when he says, "We have art in order not to perish from truth." With repetition and looping, such forms grow old and tired and lose their effectiveness and meaning in the face of new and incredible terrors, new avenues to fear, pain, and death. Bluntly put, they freeze up and die as in the deepest part of Dante's Hell. In the largest sense, when that happens, as Nietzsche has more famously stated, "God is dead." After that, according to Nietzsche, we must become our own god and develop our own means of protection against fear and trembling before a Godless universe. But is God dead and are we naked, exiled, and dead? Not so with Dante.

What is it, then, that creates and inspires new language, metaphor, vision, taboo, and ritual? Dante's Commedia is instructive. A masculine poet and guide, Virgil, leads Dante through Hell and out and on in to Purgatory. But the feminine Beatrice inspires Dante and brings him out of Purgatory and on into Paradise. Dante encountered Virgil through Virgil's poetry, specifically his epic, The Aeneid. It is chiefly an epic born out of violence and war and telling of anger and violence as Aeneas goes on to establish Rome through violence.

But Dante first encountered Beatrice in Florence face to face when he was almost nine years old (1274) and she was barely eight. She was dressed in soft crimson and wore a girdle about her waist. Dante fell in love with his vision of her which he later believed was divine. He sought her out, hoping to meet her and to speak with her, but she never spoke to him until nine years later. Then one afternoon (1283) he saw her dressed in white, walking down a street in Florence. Accompanied by two older women, Beatrice greeted him. Overwhelmed, he later had a dream that "inspired" the first sonnet in his "La Vita Nuova" ("The New Life"), a marvelous poem of romantic love. In "Purgatorio," XXX, Dante encounters Beatrice in Eden “with a white veil and a wreath of olive” and is directed by her toward the bright ecstasy and beauty of Paradise.

Heroic tales of battles won and lost and exalted visions of beauty and joy, male and female polarities in language, society, and biology, the light and darkness of our universe--things looped and repeated and intertwined--all provide the stuff of both inspiration for life and of protection against boredom, dread, death, and loss of God.

So the questions for me are these: How is life and language possible without both male and female perspectives, actions, and creations? How is humanity fully possible without its uniquely masculine and feminine qualities? Indeed, how is God possible without Adam and Eve?


SteveA said...

Is life possible without polarity? Right and Left. Male and Female. Positive and Negative. Yin and Yang. No. As it says in the Gospel of Philip, verse 9: "The light with the darkness, life with death, the right with the left are brothers one to another. It is not possible for them to be separated from one another."

George Cooper said...


Thanks for checking in. I had not seen the Gospel of Philip reference before. It seems to me that all too often polarities are dealt with far too abstractly merely in terms of either/or. Seems to me that experience is a mix, a massive roiling variety, a montage of inter- and intra- acting, shading, twineing, coupling, and repelling--very much alive and constantly giving birth to creation. Like a song that can get stuck in your head and then go away after it changes you in some way.



SteveA said...

You said: "(The)Inferno is more generally studied in high school or undergraduate settings because it is deemed more "interesting," more captivating. Why is that so? "

This caused me to recall something I'd read in The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology by Joseph Campbell. He discusses and quotes from a Zoroastrian work titled the Vision of Arda Viraf. A work written between 226-641 AD. It describes all manner of horrors that await souls in hell. The punishment matches in some way the sin of the victim. Some of the transgressions correspond to ours, like adultery etc and others do not. He says

"there were men and women, variously gnawed, who, in the world had walked without shoes, gone without proper clothing, or had urinated standing; one whose tongue was out upon his jaw, being consumed by noxious creatures, who, in the world had been a slanderer; then a miser, stretched upon a rack, upon whose whole body a thousand brutal demons trampled, smiting him with violence; women digging into hills with their breasts, who had denied milk to their infants; others, gashing their breasts with iron combs, who had been untrue to their husbands; one who continually licked a hot stove with her tongue, who, in the world had been abusive to her lord; many who hung by one leg, through all the apertures of whose bodies frogs, scorpions, snakes, ants, flies, worms, and other noxious creatures went and came ..."

later he says

"There is unpleasant food for thought in the consideration that both in this vision of Arda Viraf and in Dante's Divine Comedy the agonies of hell are far more vividly described, with infinitely more imagination, than the bliss of paradise, where all that we ever see are various amplitudes of light, and mild companies, sitting, standing, or strolling, very beautifully clothed. The really horrible chronicle of torment continues for pages; ..."

This has always bothered me: why Hell and Torment arrest our attention so. And, related to this, for some reason, looking back, it seems the happiest times in my life are the times that I remember the least well.

Richard Beck said...

As you know, there are two different creation stories in Genesis, the first in Chapter 1 and the second in Chapter 2. The account from Chapter 1 resonates deeply with the questions you pose at the end of your post:

Genesis 1: 27 (NRSV)
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

Two observations:

First, the Imago Dei is plural. The word "them" is used for God's Image and echoes the communal nature of God in Genesis 1:26: "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness."

Second, the Imago Dei is male AND female. Only together is the full image of God revealed.

Anonymous said...

If indeed "only together is the full image of God revealed," as Richard observes, then it seems we are created partial and incomplete at least in embodied form, if not as spiritual beings, and that the fullness lies only with God, and that therefore though we may yearn for the Other in human relationships, only the divine pleroma or fullness can satisfy. The male leads us outward to experience, the female leads us inward. But in my experience we are male and female individually as well, experiencing both of these in ourselves, and insofar as we do, we know God.

George Cooper said...

Steve, Richard, Eng,

You might want to look at the New Yorker review of the Hollander translation of Paradiso. Interesting comments to be found about "modernist" readings. the url is:



roxanne said...

Interesting post George. I have a lot to study about this topic. I dont' know a whole lot about it, but I do agree that God has masculinity and femininity characteristics. I agree with what Richard said. On top of that though, we are told that in our new bodies at the resurrection we will niether be male or female. I like that Genesis account where He says He made man in his image, he made man: female and male. Sounds like man is both male and female. At least that is my take on it.

BTW: thanks for commenting on my post. I will try to keep connecting, its hard but I will try. I posted a new post you might enjoy. Check it out if you want.

God Bless You.

SteveA said...


Thanks for the link to the article. I'm working on it.


roxanne said...

I was born and raised in Taos. I gratuated in 96 from Taos High School. Next time your there maybe I can arrange for a private tour. I know of some great places where there are waterfalls. I know that town very well. I still go there to visit my grandma and my parents, so arranging a tour won't be a big deal. Talk to you later...

Lyrics to "Dante's Prayer"


When the dark wood fell before me
And all the paths were overgrown
When the priests of pride say there is no other way
I tilled the sorrows of stone
I did not believe because I could not see
Though you came to me in the night
When the dawn seemed forever lost
You showed me your love in the light of the stars
Cast your eyes on the ocean
Cast your soul to the sea
When the dark night seems endless
Please remember me
Then the mountain rose before me
By the deep well of desire
From the fountain of forgiveness
Beyond the ice and the fire
Cast your eyes on the ocean
Cast your soul to the sea
When the dark night seems endless
Please remember me
Though we share this humble path, alone
How fragile is the heart
Oh give these clay feet wings to fly
To touch the face of the stars
Breathe life into this feeble heart
Lift this mortal veil of fear
Take these crumbled hopes, etched with tears
We'll rise above these earthly cares
Cast your eyes on the ocean
Cast your soul to the sea
When the dark night seems endless
Please remember me
Please remember me
Please remember me . . . .

-Loreena McKennitt

The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face

The first time ever I saw your face
I thought the sun rose in your eyes
And the moon and stars were the gifts you gave
To the dark and the empty skies, my love,
To the dark and the empty skies.

The first time ever I kissed your mouth
And felt your heart beat close to mine
Like the trembling heart of a captive bird
That was there at my command, my love
That was there at my command.

And the first time ever I lay with you
I felt your heart so close to mine
And I knew our joy would fill the earth
And last till the end of time my love
It would last till the end of time my love

The first time ever I saw your face,
your face, your face, your face

Roberta Flack