Dante – The Beastly and Absurd

It has been a while since I have read Dante’s Divine Comedy, but I was looking at some of my old papers and I came across this response I had to write for a course. I thought I’d share…

            No matter how much of Dante I read, I am constantly moved by the use of the beastliest animals and creatures to identify with sin. To be human is to be made in the image of God.  To be a beastly is to deny or infringe upon the image of God.  What makes Dante’s Hell so hellish is how he describes the beastliness and monstrous nature of the souls that he meets there.   The souls are so grotesque that they border on the ridiculous, such as the diviners with their heads on backwards.  The scene is horrific and yet comical.  The thieves morphing into snakes are vile.  But simultaneously the description of the arms disappearing and the legs fusing together is so absurd.

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            The grotesque and the preposterous nature of the punishment of the sins are like sin itself.  Sin denies the image of God; it is to go against our natures and our God give gift.  The image of God, as Dante the author describes it, is divine intellect. The intellect reveals sins’ absurdity.  Unfortunately, Dante the character does not understand this.  He cries when he sees the diviners in their cruel state.  He cries out of pity, when he should be crying for the joy of perfect justice.  The diviners looked too far into the future.  Now with their heads on backwards, they can only look behind.  Their punishment is a beastly distortion of their true nature because of what their sin has done to their souls.  The same thing has happened to the thieves. They stole and therefore, their bodies are stolen from them.  They are constantly changing from snake to man and back again.  The wood of suicides is an interesting twist on the beastliness of sin.  Here the suicides are deprived of even beastly vestures.  Their sin was to deprive themselves of their bodies and so their souls do not even have the privilege of taking on a human form.  The suicides are condemned to trees and shrubs.

Sin ruins the image of God.  The scriptures use the beastly form to indicate the sinfulness of man.  Nebakanezer is a classic example. Taking the form of a man and distorting it is a beastly representation of a man’s soul consumed by sin.  What was once good is now corrupt.  The further Dante descends into Hell the more grotesque and ridiculous the images; for the deep the sin, the uglier the punishment. Yet for reasons I have not quiet comprehended, the uglier the punishment the more ridiculous it appears.  Part of me wants to say that this is because sin is on one level completely absurd.  It goes against God and nature and that by definition is absurd.  Another part of me thinks that this images Dante describes appear to be preposterous because I do not want them to be real.  They are too grotesque to be real and their reality is too appalling for me to actually understand, so I laugh at them.  A third part wonders at the fact that these other views are not mutually exclusive. Sin is both gross and incongruous; its punishment is both real and horrible.

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About LizzyBeth

There is a Story inside of me that I must give a voice. I write so that imagination can take me to Faerie and I can catch a glimpse of the Otherworld and hopefully so will you.

Posted on May 17, 2013, in Authors, Christianity, Demons, Literary Criticism, Rachel Burkholder and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. “He cries out of pity, when he should be crying for the joy of perfect justice.” …I don’t think God Himself, the only perfect judge, feels “joy” at the meeting out of perfect justice. It is a sad thing when His creation persists in marring itself instead of turning back to its maker to be fixed. Pity is, perhaps, not a right response because they brought their punishment on themselves, and justice is a good thing, but better pity than joy. I would be horrified if Dante cried for joy at such a time.

    Otherwise I like your post and agree with it. I was reading The Four Loves by C. S. Lewis the other day and was struck by this quote: http://jubilare.wordpress.com/2013/04/30/roaring-farce/
    Evil really would be comical if it were not also horrific.

    • Jubilare,
      Perhaps “joy” was not the right word. I still am not sure I know what is the right word but I know that the notion of joy hearkens back to the quote above the gates of hell, “Through me the way to the suffering city; Through me the everlasting pain; Through me the way that runs among the Lost. Justice urged on my exalted Creator: Divine Power made me, The Supreme Wisdom and the Primal Love. Nothing was made before me but eternal things And I endure eternally. Abandon all hope – You Who Enter Here.” The idea of Supreme Wisdom and Primal Love…I cannot be but happy when I think of those two aspects of God – happy and terrified.

      Ah, the Four Loves. Love that book!

      • Words are unreliable things, unfortunately. Often as not, they seem to get in the way of communication. :/
        Awe (which can contain “happy and terrified,” I think) and respect for the wisdom and love of God, even humble pleasure that unrepentant evil meets with justice, are all emotions that make sense to me in the context of Dante’s Inferno. But not joy. The very fact that justice is necessary excludes joy from the situation for me. Someone rejecting Christ to their own destruction is a grim thing for them, for Christ who died for them, and for us because we have lost potential brothers and sisters to the Enemy.
        How much this relies on the differences in our definitions of “joy,” though, I can’t be sure. Chances are it has more to do with semantics than theology. At any rate, I hope what I’ve said makes sense.

        I read it for the first time, recently, and now I love it too!

        • It makes good sense. “Awe” is an apt word. It holds all the elements of the positive vibe I was trying to get at with the word joy, for I am convinced that God’s justice is a good thing. It also holds that element of overwhemlingness that comes from seeing the Hand of God, particularly in the face of exacting justice. Indeed, there is sadness at the loss of a potential brother or sister in Christ.
          I have appreciated your insight.

          • I agree that God’s Justice is a very good thing. Not all good things are happy things, I think, but they are still good. 🙂
            You made me do some serious thinking, and I appreciate that. Thank you.

          • I was preparing to make a similar point to jubilare and now find my doing so superfluous. Words are path-markers — often they lead to understanding and misunderstanding simultaneously.

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