Canto per Canto, Inferno 14: Long(er) Version

by Joseph Nicolello

Over the past few months I’ve had a great time discussing classical literature and Dante with my friend Rafael Torre de Silva (Classics, NYU). Indeed, his vision of literature and scholarship give me great hope for the future and have been for me part of a superb well of inspiration from which to draw creative, living waters. Rafael and I recorded some material for the Dante Society’s Canto per Canto project, including a version that went over the allowed time (the formal entry into Canto per Canto should be available online soon).

I post it here because it has some extra ideas that students and fans of literature may find both prescient and intellectually stimulating in terms of scholarship, life, and letters, even life as literature. As we have been working with and through Dante for Canto per Canto, a number of mutual friends, colleagues have also inspired me, among other things, to begin a poetic supplement to St. Josemaria Escriva’s The Way, something like 71 interlinked Petrarchan sonnets with a brisk four-line coda, culminating in 999 lines, as well as the reconsideration of my monastic/Thomas Merton project, or supplement to W.H. Auden and Kierkegaard, as less an anthology in the spirit of Pryzwara now but as perhaps a second Platonic dialogue. My intention is that the spirit that has been at work in the creation of this project be shared with you. This is just the beginning of what is in store, and the prospective aesthetic fruits that have come of discussions with Rafael and related friends this year and last; and thus I hope that viewers of the video and readers of this text are able themselves to perchance the living bread of contagious insight. Let us bow to no makeshift tyrants aiming to “ban” classical literature or contemporary poetics that shed a little too much light on reality; let us in fact realize that the work is always only getting started, and move accordingly from there in a synthesis of preservation, cultivation, and aesthetic cognition.

In the spirit of keeping the conversation, I add below an excerpt from Keith Buck’s 2021 masterpiece of an English translation of Italian scholar Giuseppe Fornari’s two-volume Dionysus, Christ, and the Death of God (Michigan State University Press, 2021) which would have been another direction to take this very canto in looking at work ongoing, new directions, and other aspects of my long book that I gloss in the video. Students, professors, colleagues, friends, strangers, religious, and all beings from all walks of life: I find they increasingly are talking to me about anxiety and the mystery of the future. To this I am doing my utmost to insist that a light shines in the darkness; I believe the fusion of scholars in all stages of the process here working with Inferno 14 are a snapshot of a higher-level thinking and means of proceed that is at work, and that we all keep the conversation going. I hope you enjoy the video and also find new directions within it to take note of, my friends, wherever you are and whoever you are, on the journey of Dasein

I recommend to my readers the Vestigium Forum, the Dante Society’s Canto per Canto series, my books, and Giuseppe Fornari’s colossal two-volume work now available, and thus let Fornari speak for himself as something of an afterthought, or postscript, to the video, while wishing you all a pleasant viewing:

“We shall have other occasions to call on Dante to point the way through the infernal labyrinth of sacrificial rites and myths, and to find our way out, guaranteed to us by the figure of Virgil, the symbol of natural human knowledge, the only possible prerequisite for access to divine revelation, which consists, ultimately, in more thorough humanization. We have far to go, and the violent implications of the labyrinth myth tell us that the way will not be easy. But therein lies its necessity, its potential significance for salvation. We must pause now, though our journey has just begun, to consider an internal detail of the mythologem that can be understood without lapsing into naturalism as long as we keep it inside its strictly collective framework; this detail is the persisting linkage to the sphere of the family and sexual regeneration.

“It is interesting all Dante’s scholars, in commenting on canto XIV of Inferno, devote their efforts to the impressive allegory of the Veglio and pay little attention to the previous image of Rhea choosing Mount Ida “like something forbidden [cosa vieta]” in order to get “a safe cradle” for her baby, although this preparatory scene offers us a revealing and intentional contrast. In Dante the ancient Cretan myth becomes the potential reversal of a diabolical contiguity between violence and sexual desire to which Jupiter’s mother reacts with employing “something forbidden,” that is, by going to a forbidden place that remains the only hope for salvation in the abyss of objectual destruction. There is little doubt that this is for Dante a hidden pagan prophecy about the coming of the Christian Redeemer, represented in canto VI of Purgatorio as the ancient king of the gods crucified on earth for saving humanity (o sommo Give/che fosti in terra per noi crucifisso) [VI, 118-199; cf. XXXII, 112]. The crucifixion of Jupiter/Christ fulfils the scene on Mount Ida and illustrates the final way out of the maze and its sacrificial couplings: the divine child who knowingly accepts becoming a “cosa vieta” and being sacrificed so as to solve the human knot of violence from within.

[“In the ancient myths things are more uncertain and complicated than in the Comedy but the objectual hope for salvation is not different from Dante’s and his comparative symbolism emphasizes revealing analogies to them. The Cretan myths are always characterized by a recognizable family pattern and at the center of the labyrinth we always find a child born out of irregular sexual relations. For the community these represent the overturning of procreation as protected by the order of the family, on which the community relies for stability and permanence. The irregularity of a son conceived in violation of the rules governing the institution of the family is counterbalance by his death as an evil monster at the hands of his beneficent double (the Minotaur killed at the hands of Theseus), by his unjust murder being followed by divine rebirth (Dionysus devoured by the Titans and given a new life, reborn from his father, Zeus), and by his being protected as a divine infant whose killing is transfigured and configured in the form of an initiation ceremony (Zeus saved by the Curetes). Through these strands of evolution, we are able to make out, in the middle of the collective labyrinth, a mythical-ritual updating of the mystery of generation with its dangers and its vital importance for the life of the community, reminding us that the first object in real terms for human beings is represented by their fellow human beings with whom they have dealings, in particular those dangerous and necessary dealings that are human sexual relations.

[“All the character-types in the age-old drama of copulation, with its dangerous yet essential outcome for society’s objectual existence, are to be found variously overlaid in the winding ways of the labyrinth, and they are constantly evoked in a state of affairs still lacking the reassuring mediations that the mythical-ritual machinery takes on the task to confirm. In the Cretan mythologem, along with the collective divinity, we repeatedly see a female divinity who has the features of a mother goddess, a goddess of love, or a virgin goddess: sexual characteristics that are all cross-referential from the point of view of the sacred. The male god may appear as a divine child of the mother goddess, or as her paredros, that is, as a lover and companion subordinate to her, or as the father to her children with the full status of husband.

[“These two types, male and female, combine variously with one another and with the collective divinity (who, in turn, may be male or female) and correspond to leitmotiv of the labyrinth mythologem, indicated affirmatively or negatively by the generative function of the mother goddess Rhea, by the failed matrimonial ambitions of Ariadne, and by the married Pasiphae’s perverse mating with the divine bull that gave birth to the Minotaur: the motif of the hieros gamos, the sacred wedding, perfectly recognizable in our myths that tell of the copulation of a female divinity with Cronos or Zeus, where complete success could only be assured by the sacrifice of the participants, or of one of them, often the weakest and last on the scene, the troublesome newborn baby who in order to be accepted by society had to go through the bloody mediation of sacrifice or else find an acceptable substitute. The mythic material suggests that the sacred coupling took place inside the labyrinth and that the divine child born as a result was sacrificed to the mother goddess. This is what Hera’s fury in the Titans myth indicates. However, as Ariadne’s story shows, death could be the mother’s fate as well. The paredros of the goddess is killed in many other myths; for example, in the myth of Venus and Adonis, deriving from the story of Dumuzi/Tammuz and Inanna/Ishtar found on Cyprus and throughout the Near East. Some of the prehistoric tombs referred to earlier contain the remains of children or fetuses, pregnant women, or women with a child. In the Moravian triple burial, resulting in all likelihood from a human group sacrifice, two men and a young pregnant woman are buried in positions with clear sexual significance and red ochre covers the woman’s genital zone, which is covered by the hand of the man on her left. This area of research is likely to produce further revelations. It was no accident that Dante placed Minos at the start of the circle concerned with desire in one of its most frequent and powerful manifestations, sexual desire. This desire has to be understood as neither as the automatic manifestation of an already-formed libidinal instinct, nor as the simple consequence of indeterminate mimesis, but rather as the cultural interaction of collective mediations on the individual’s somatic and biological constitution, with the aim of reliably perpetuating the human object in its renewal from generation to generation”] (Giuseppe Fornari, Dionysius, Christ, and the Death of God, Volume I.: The Great Mediations of the Classical World, Michigan State University Press, 2021, 137-40).

A special thanks to Michigan State Univ. Press, Prof. Bob Davis, Prof. Susanna Barsella, the Dante Society of America, as well as my editors and publishers.