- Dante’s Deconstruction and Reconstruction of Prophetic Voice and Vision in the Malebolge (Inferno XVIII–XXIII)
In the Malebolge especially, we see Dante subjecting himself to scathing self-critique and even becoming a comic figure. As the protagonist climbs deeper into the pit, the poem itself descends a declining scale of genres and stylistic registers, all the way to the crude realism and burlesque of Cantos XXI and XXII. Here, Dante’s epic poem sinks to the level of Latin New Comedy, perhaps alluded to in Dante’s phrase “nuovo ludo” (XXII. 118), replete with lewd displays, comic gags, and sadistic games.1 It resorts especially to cooking imagery and proverbial wisecracks, such as, “In church with saints and in the taverns with drunkards” (XXII. 14–15). Prophecy itself, insofar as it is the invention of a human poet, must be subjected to ridicule and affronts to its dignity. We see, in the Malebolge, a relentless critique of the prophetic voice to the extent that it represents the presumption of a human poet. This is necessary to categorically distinguish prophecy as divine revelation from every merely human counterfeit made of persuasive and perhaps deceiving rhetoric.2
The authentic language of prophecy cannot be any proud and self-confident Ciceronian rhetoric, but only a sermo humilis, such as is forged in the Bible, eminently by Christ himself—for example, in the words to his disciples spoken in parables drawn from common experience and quotidian life. Paralleling Augustine’s progression from the language of “presumption,” which is characteristic of philosophy and classical literary models, to acceptance of the humble language of Scripture, Dante [End Page 111] dramatizes his own coming into such a language by representing himself as undergoing a series of humiliations that force him to relinquish all of his own human resources, including his personal pride and self-reliance. Dante’s existential descent into the self enacts a destitution of his own self-sufficiency and self-centeredness, his being grounded in himself, and it issues in an unconditional openness toward a transcendent or divine ground for his existence. Only by such self-ironic exposure of the inevitable deceptions of literary language and self-representation can Dante’s all-too-human poem actually attain to the transcendent heights of authentic prophecy.
Precisely, this may be the deeper sense of “comedía” as the generic description Dante adopts for his poem in Inferno XVI. 128 and again in XXI. 2. Indeed, only as “comedy” can it become “divine.” The best that any human effort can do, finally, is to confess its own insufficiency. A poem can, furthermore, unmask the false pretensions of more purportedly solemn attempts to prophesy that, without comic qualifiers, take themselves absolutely seriously, as if they were gospel. This is seen by Dante to be the case even with the prophetic claims of the Aeneid. Virgil’s “high tragedy” (XX. 113) lacks the self-ironizing capacity of comedy that alone can allow human literature to become truly divine revelation. Of course, modern readings of the Aeneid go a long way toward discovering an ironic current, already in Virgil’s text, running counter to its own presumable program. The triumphal story of Rome’s founding through glorious martial victory yields to a tragic tale of irreparable human loss, of becoming embroiled in a war of conquest and eventually in bloody civil war. Yet just such self-undermining serves, in Dante’s text, not only to render the poem ambivalent, but also to spark a higher realization of truth. By programmatically undermining his own autonomous pretensions to communicate the truth, Dante’s comic irony catalyzes a conversion to a divine Truth that can emerge from beyond the lie of artifice inherent in the literary.
Only as comedy in this sense can literature attain ultimate truth. The Commedia’s comedy, deeply considered, is its irony, its exposure of literature as dissimulation. The insinuation of tragedy in Virgil’s ostensibly optimistic epic—communicating a tragic truth only by way of its irony—may well be among the essential lessons that Dante learned from the Aeneid. However, as “high tragedy,” Virgil’s epic remains essentially a dissimulation of its...