Dante – The Beastly and Absurd
Posted by LizzyBeth
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.
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.