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Prophetic Madness: The Bible in Inferno XIX

From: MLN
Volume 110, Number 1, January 1995 (Italian Issue)
pp. 145-163 | 10.1353/mln.1995.0001

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MLN 110.1 (1995) 145-163

The Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel dined with me, and I asked them how they dared so roundly to assert that God spoke to them; and whether they did not think at the time that they would be misunderstood, & so be the cause of imposition.

Isaiah answer'd, "I saw no God, nor heard any, in a finite organical perception; but my senses discover'd the infinite in every thing, and as I was then perswaded, and remain confirm'd, that the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God, I cared not for consequences, but wrote. . . ."

--William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

In his Ruin the Sacred Truths, an attempt to view literary history as a succession of "strong" poets, Harold Bloom aligns Dante with Milton: two poets pursuing a prophetic vision in despite of orthodoxy and Christian doctrine. "Dante, like Milton," he writes, "was essentially a sect of one, not as pilgrim, but as prophetic poet. Milton was Bible-haunted and yet attempted things both in competition with and even beyond the scope of the Bible. The Comedy, for all its learning, is not deeply involved with the Bible" Bloom's argument against a strong Dantesque biblicism seeks to disjoin Dante's poem from typical theological discourse so as to redefine the Comedy as prophetic. But Bloom's disjunction of Dante's identity as prophetic poet and his use of the Bible ultimately prove false. The working out of Dante's conviction that he was called to write to an erring world, "in pro del mondo che mal vive," is thoroughly intertwined with the biblical text. Dante not only draws on the book inspired by God, who "deigned to manifest his will to us through the pens of many," he also looks to the Bible as a model of textual truth. For Dante's conviction that God makes use of his own pen does not preclude his altering the Bible even as he uses it and draws on its authority; Dante's textual truth telling depends not on unerring correspondence to the text of the Bible -- a kind of poetic fundamentalism -- but rather on a continuance and expansion of the biblical tradition, an attempt to make the biblical text new. Inferno XIX, where Dante fears being mad ("folle") not only because of his boldness in denouncing spiritually deviant popes but also because of his freedom with the biblical text, presents an exemplary case.

The Bible, it is often noted, has little place in the Inferno, probably, as Peter Hawkins has stated, because of "Dante's overt dependence on classical sources in the Inferno, as well as the rejection of God exemplified in those who have lost the 'good of the intellect.'" This observation accords well with current critical norms concerning the Comedy's first canticle, which, as Teodolinda Barolini has observed, tend to emphasize the Inferno as the realm of the problematic. As the pilgrim and his guide journey "tra la perduta gente," the Christian truths that will be expounded so fully in the later canticles, the commonplace goes, are glimpsed only intermittently and in a distorted manner -- through a glass darkly. The subtexts invoked in this lower world share the same fate; they are likewise seen incompletely, as if the damned also remembered texts by the same "mala luce" by which they are constrained to glimpse earthly history (see Inf. X, 100-02). The quintessential example of Infernal intertextuality from this standpoint is the first line of the Inferno's final canto: "Vexilla regis prodeunt inferni," in which Venanzio Fortunato's hymn, the only Latin citation of the Inferno, is transformed from a celebration of the true cross to an announcement of the appearance of hell's own king, who, as John Freccero has argued, constitutes a perversion of the true cross. Dante fills the Inferno with inversions and parodies of Christian sacraments, truths, and texts. Recently, for example, scholars have shown how Dante has his characters (Farinata, Ugolino, and Vergil are three examples) unknowingly cite scriptural passages, which, when viewed in their scriptural context, serve to condemn the characters that utter them. Thus, the Bible seems to exist in...

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