5 March 2010
Cities, Bodies, and Sins:
Dante’s Interpretation of Hell as a Body
Dante Alighieri constructs the City of Dis in Inferno with hopes of organizing the lower part of Hell into a structured map that categorizes every circle with a particular punishment. To illustrate the many circles, structures, and sins of Hell, Dante uses a metaphor, paying close attention to word choice for specific regions. Readers envision themselves climbing up to watchtowers, crossing a river, stepping into the gates of Dis, and encountering citizens along boroughs of the city, which become symbiotic to citizens’ sins. Robert M. Durling captures the relationship that readers share with the city of Dis and how we may find it to be a metaphor for the disgustingness of all that is Hell. To explain this relationship Durling states that body and sin are parallel, though I must disagree that this is the only relationship at hand. As readers we dive into the depths of Hell, and watch sins become more serious, while the city depicts this with its atrocities and disgusting scenes. But just like any city can be ugly, so can the body politic. Hale emphasizes the ideas of the body politic coincidently in his book “The Body Politic.” Ultimately, Dante creates a complex world when he draws out the structure of Inferno, so it is only fair to pick apart what is apparent: the city, and model that into a larger idea: the body politic.
In Durling’s notes, “The Body Analogy, 1” he elaborates on how Dante constructs a Hell of organized patterns in which sin and body of the spirit go hand in hand. I agree with Durling’s point, according to Aristotelian ideology, that a body part may be analogous to the sin, but I think there is more symbolism towards the actual construction of Hell and the wrath of the sin. An example Durling provides is “The walls of Dis mark the entrance to what corresponds to the human breast…Note the emphasis on Farinata’s posture” (Alighieri 552). Durling ties in the upright posture of Farinata, which evokes the breast, and the walls of Dis. Here we can embrace the symbols that surround structures encompassing Hell, which supports Durling’s ideas. According to biblical language, the sins of violence are depicted by the bodily image of the breast. Another indication of Durling’s argument is the many examples that arise, in Dante’s poem, to these images that denote political imagery. As readers we can easily note that Farinata is a figure of respect and pride due to his posture, so we immediately give attention to this character. Just like other sinners, we can find ourselves pointing at their characteristics and sins and assign them to a body part.
The body politic is derived from the analogous view of the body and different parts of the government. Durling points out “the head of the body politic is the king, the heart is the senate and nobility, the stomach and intestines are the tax gatherers and treasurers” and this symbolism can be related to the text in terms of the city and important characters. I also feel that the sinners Dante Alighieri uses are representative of imagery that readers can piece together with body and sin. Durling uses many examples such as Francesca, sin of lust, and the eyes. The sin of lust comes early in The Inferno so the illustration of bodily image is not as graphic as in later cantos. With this in mind, readers can correlate the extent of the sin with the disgustingness of the bodily parts and the city’s structure.
In one aspect we have the body politic in a church perspective and on the other hand we have the body politic as a government view. These two distinctions are played around with characters such as Pope Boniface and the clerics versus Cavilcanti and Farinata. In note “13. The Body Analogy, 2: The Metaphorics of God” the idea of the stomach symbolizing fraud arises and is depicted in many of the cantos of the Malebolge through the sins. Durling carefully suggests the digestive analogies of the sins to patterns alluding to the stomach with the following examples: In canto 18 the sinners are covered in shit and in cantos 21 and 22 the barrators are cooked in pitch. Pope Boniface in canto 19 is under the sin of simoniacs whom are being burned in flames, which seems like a roast in my eyes. Specifically in lines 56 and 57 does the author speak of the sin in a way that relates the church to a body, “You did not fear to marry the lovely lady fraudulently, and then to tear her apart?” where Pope Boniface is revealed (Alighieri 19). We are now pretty deep into Hell and have reached the stomach of the body in which we see much fluid imagery to portray the digestive tract. As readers, we may pick up on this as disgusting seeing as how in Canto 18 people were covered in shit. Politics are another matter than can easily be in conjunction with fraud, but as we see all of fraud to be in the malebolge that takes up most of Hell readers also may realize that this is the “belly” of the Inferno.
David Hale sums up great detail in the description of the body politic in accordance with Durling’s ideas. Hale proposes that there are two kinds of analogies that include the body politic. I can only agree on one. He “considers the bodies natural and political to be composed of parts which are in certain structural and functionally relationships to each other” (Hale 15). In the case of Inferno main characters depict such body parts in order from head to feet. Hale also mentions this idea of hierarchical structure that emphasizes Durling’s claim. The main claim that I would like to reiterate in the case of the body politic is Hale’s simplification in which “a head which rules and a body which obeys” (Hale 15). David insists that even though the body politic is a complex idea, it can be generalized in order to be used in every day language. Dante Alighieri, on the other hand, does not simplify this idea in his writing, but rather hides it in the nooks and crannies of his city of Dis.
Inferno presents an array of complex ideologies from contrapasso, the relationship between sin and punishment to allusions from the bible. It is to no surprise that scholars try to pick apart how and why Dante Alighieri sets up his Hell the way he does. On one side we discover that Durling believes in the body and sin relationship. With Durling, Hale provides much feedback on the idea of this, but fails to find the connection in Dante’s built city. Why would Dante even bother creating a city if he didn’t purposely want everything to be interconnected? From the Gates of Dis, readers encounter the structures, but also the citizens who make up that city. The inhabitants of the city are what make up the population and what each person stands for is what makes that place unique, hence Dante’s other poems: Purgatory and Paradiso. Durling and Hale create claims that may bring about the symbol Dante creates, but I feel that he puts more emphasis on his vision of Hell so that his message of the body politic is read and his imagination, revealed.
Alighieri, Dante. Inferno. Trans. Robert M. Durling. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Hale, David George. The Body Politic: A Political Metaphor in Renaissance English Literature. The Netherlands: Mouton & Co., Printers, The Hague, 1971.