The Undivine Comedy: Detheologizing Dante

Chapter 02, "Infernal Incipits: The Poetics of the New"by Teodolinda Barolini

But half a jiffy. I'm forgetting that you haven't the foggiest what all this is about. It so often pans out that way when you begin a story. You whizz off the mark all pep and ginger, like a mettle some charger going into its routine, and the next thing you know, the customers are up on their hind legs, yelling for footnotes.

(P. G. Wodehouse, The Mating Season)

The first proceeding of the historian is to select at random a series of successive events and examine them apart from others though there is and can be no beginning to any event, for one event flows without any break in continuity from another.

(Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace)


THE COMMEDIA, perhaps more than any other text ever written, consciously seeks to imitate life, the conditions of human existence. Not surprisingly, then, the narrative journey begins with the problem of beginnings. [01] Dante's beginning, "Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita" ("In the middle of the path of our life"), evokes biblical and classical precedents for not beginning at the beginning. As Frank Kermode reminds us, "Men, like poets, rush 'into the middest,' in medias res, when they are born; they also die in mediis rebus."[02] This is to say that we exist in time which, according to Aristotle, "is a kind of middle-point, uniting in itself both a beginning and an end, a beginning of future time and an end of past time."[03] It is further to say that we exist in history, a middleness that, according to Kermode, men try to mitigate by making "fictive concords with origins and ends, such as give meaning to lives and to poems." Time and history are the media Dante invokes to begin a text whose narrative journey will strive to imitate--not escape--the journey it undertakes to represent, "il cammin di nostra vita." The poet's will to make a text in which we make choices within a simulacrum of reality, rather than within a fictive concord, a text that mirrors the conditions of time and history, in which men are born and die "nel mezzo," finds immediate expression in his handling of his text's beginning, which is distended and immaterialized to the point of becoming nonlocatable, a nonevent. In other words, a good part of the narrative journey in the first part of the poem is involved with constructing a textual fabric that implicitly counters the artifice of beginning. Dante does this not by trying not to begin, which would be impossible, but by creating multiple beginnings, so that each beginning undermines the absolute status of the previous beginning. In this way the poet mimics our middleness, our existence in time, and creates a possible world that is not too sweet, that can tolerate the hard truths of the reality he represents. In this way, moreover, the text is accorded a pulse that is the pulse of life itself, in whose ceaseless temporal flow beginnings multiply, jostling one another for priority. Like the pilgrim on the path of life, the reader of the Commedia must assess reality within a context that seeks to recreate the destabilizing flux of time: as the unceasing forward motion of linear time is punctuated by the daily cycle of dawns and dusks, so the narrative line of the poem, which discloses "le vite spiritali ad una ad una" ("spiritual lives one by one" [Par. 33.24]), is punctuated by the cyclical rhythm of cantos that begin and end.

The poem's narrative journey, like the pilgrim's represented journey, is predicated on a principle of sequentiality, on encounters that occur one by one, "ad una ad una," in which each new event displaces the one that precedes it. Like all narrative (indeed like all language),[04] but more self-consciously than most, the Commedia is informed by a poetics of the new, a poetics of time, its narrative structured like a voyage in which the traveler is continually waylaid by the new things that cross his path. Life is just such a voyage: it is the "nuovo e mai non fatto cammino di questa vita" ("new and never before traveled path of this life" [Conv. 4.12.15]),[05] in which our forward progress is articulated by our successive encounters with the new. The text is also such a voyage: the equivalences life = voyage = text are implied in verses where the pilgrim's life is a "corso," and his "corso" is a "testo" ("Cio che narrate di mio corso scrivo, / e serbolo a chiosar con altro testo" ["That which you narrate of my race I write, and save it to gloss with another text" (Inf. 15.88-89)]). Therefore, if the path of life is the "nuovo e mai non fatto cammino di questa vita," so too a text may achieve, in precisely the same language, "novum aliquid atque intentatum artis" ("something new and never before tried in art" [DVE 2.13.13]). In other words, human experience is conceptualized as a linear path affording encounters with the new, a line of becoming intercepted by newness. This view of human experience--and human textuality--may be extrapolated from a passage in the Paradiso that denies the faculty of memory to angels. Because angels never turn their faces from the face of God and see all things in his eternal present, their sight is uninterrupted by new things, and they have no need of memory (which we use to store the new things once they are no longer new):[06]

Queste sustanze, poi che fur gioconde
de la faccia di Dio, non volser viso
da essa, da cui nulla si nasconde:
pero non hanno vedere interciso

These substances, since they were gladdened by the face of God, have never turned their faces from it, from which nothing is hidden; therefore their sight is not intercepted by new objects, and therefore they have no need to remember by means of divided thought....

(Par. 29.76-81)

This passage is of particular relevance to an author who, as early as theVita Nuova's "libro de la mia memoria," acknowledges the narrativity inherent in remembering, which is to say the narrativity of the human condition. The condition of angels, " [che] non hanno vedere interciso / da novo obietto," is precisely not the human condition; our condition, the "cammin di nostra vita," imitated by the cammino of the poem, is precisely "vedere interciso da novo obietto."[07] The "novo obietto," moreover, requires a mental structure that can accommodate it, and so "concetto diviso" is born; since we do not see everything all at once, but must see and remember many new things sequentially, "ad una ad una," human beings think differentiatedly, by way of divided thoughts, "per concetto diviso." In answer to the questions "does an angel know by discursive thinking" ("utrum angelus cognoscat discurrendo" [ST la.58.3] ) and "does an angel know by distinguishing and combining concepts" ("utrum angeli intelligant componendo et dividendo" [la.58.4]; "dividendo" here is analogous to Dante's "diviso"), Aquinas points out that whereas humans acquire knowledge rationally, through a discursive process ("Discursive thinking implies a sort of movement, and all movement is from a first point to a second one distinct from it" [153]), angels acquire knowledge intellectually, by intuiting first principles.[08] Likewise, "just as an angel does not understand discursively, by syllogisms, so he does not understand by combining and distinguishing . . . For he sees manifold things in a simple way" (156-57). The new ("novo obietto") comports difference ("concetto diviso"), and both are essentially human. [09] Thus, the pilgrim's eyes are happy to gaze because of their innate desire for newness ("Li occhi miei, ch'a mirare eran contenti / per veder novitadi ond'e' son vaghi" ["My eyes, which were pleased to gaze in order to see new things that they desire" (Purg. 10.103-4)]), and his path is strewn with novi obietti, with difference. For him alone, in hell, there are "novi tormenti e novi tormentati" ("new sufferings and new sufferers" [Inf. 6.4]), "nove travaglie e pene" ("new travails and pains" [7.20] ), "nova pieta, / novo tormento e novi frustatori" ("new anguish, new torment, and new scourgers" [18.22-23]). For the sinners, instead-- as for the angels, but for opposite reasons, and with opposite results--there is no difference, nothing is ever new: "regola e qualita mai non l'e nova" ("measure and quality are never new" [Inf. 6.9] ).

The pilgrim and the narrator are both committed to forward motion, to the new. [10] Analogous to the pilgrim's experience of "novi tormenti e novi tormentati" is the narrator's task to "ben manifestar le cose nove" ("manifest well the new things" [14.7]), recalled later in his statement that "Di nova pena mi conven far versi" ("Of new pain I must make verses" [20.1]). In contrast to the motion of the pilgrim who, by dint of continually "passing beyond" ("Noi passamm'' oltre" [27.133]),[11] will keep meeting new things until one day hell will be a memory, confined to the past absolute ("quando ti giovera dicere 'I' fui"' ["when it will please you to say 'I was'" (16.84)]), stand both the deathly stasis of hell and the vital quies of heaven. God is "Colui che mai non vide cosa nova" (Purg. 10.94), a periphrasis whose emphatic negation echoes the description of hell where "regola e qualita mai non l'e nova." "He who never saw a new thing" underscores the difference between divine and human artists in temporal terms, reminding us that representation is a temporal issue, a question of priority or, better, of not having priority, since, as Aquinas puts it, "semper enim quod naturalius est prius est" ("what is more natural is always first" [ST la2ae.49.2]).[12] For God, who knows all things, who sees everything before it happens, before it comes into existence and takes its historical place as new, there are no surprises in store, no new things ever on the (narrative) horizon; for us, instead, all things are new, and we require to know the newest of new things, the one most capable of leading toward relative priority in the absence of absolute priority. This is preeminently so if we are artists, dedicated to representation, the act of reinvesting an object with "originality," its original newness. In the key canzone of the Vita Nuova (a work whose title yields but one of many lexical attestations to Dante's long obsession with the new),[13] Beatrice is a "cosa nova," a new thing: "Poi la reguarda, e fra se stesso giura / che Dio ne' 'ntenda di far cosa nova" ("Then he looks at her, and swears within himself that God intended to make of her a new thing" ["Donne ch'avete intelletto d'amore," 45-46]). What is this "cosa nova"? Too frequently we move on from the primary meaning of "new," glossed by Dante himself in "nuovo e mai non fatto cammino," to an extrapolated meaning, forgetting that, in Dante's usage, nuovo's temporal resonance is always present. [14] As the creator, God is an artist who presents rather than re-presents; his is a vantage that precedes newness, that is always prius. Dante is an artist who, desiring to eliminate the artifice of the represented, of that which comes later, creates for himself a Beatrice, a "cosa nova" so new-- so miraculous and unparallelled--as to preclude any newer new thing following in her wake.

The new is at the core of the Commedia's narrative structure, and of its very rhyme scheme. Terza rima, which Dante invented for the Commedia, mimics the voyage of life by providing both unceasing forward motion and recurrent backward glances. If we consider aba/bob/ cdc, we see that in each tercet the new enters in the form of the second or middle rhyme, while the rhyme that was "new" in the previous tercet becomes "old," becomes the base onto which the newer new is added. This process, whereby an alterity, the new rhyme, becomes the identity of the subsequent tercet, imitates the genealogical flow of human history, in which the creation of each new identity requires the grafting of alterity onto a previous identity. Terza rima's imitation of our history extends to its essential middleness, its need to have beginnings and endings (in the form of the double rather than triple rhymes that appear at a canto's opening and closing; a only appears twice above, b three times) imposed onto its unbridled sequentiality.[15] Like time in Aristotle's definition, each tercet could be seen as "a kind of middlepoint, uniting in itself both a beginning and an end, a beginning of future time [the new rhyme] and an end of past time [the old rhyme]." This combining of past and future, old and new, motion progressive and regressive, is also found in the spiral, the shape that defines the pilgrim's voyage through hell and purgatory and has been proposed as the geometric analogue to terza rima.[16] If the new is fundamental to terza rima, it must be fundamental to the spiral as well, and indeed, the connection between the spiral and the new is made explicit by Vergil, who explains that because guide and pilgrim travel in spirals, without ever traversing a circle's entire perimeter, Dante need not be amazed if a new thing--a "cosa nova"--should suddenly appear:

Ed elli a me: "Tu sai che 'l loco e tondo;


non se' ancor per tutto 'l cerchio volto;

non de' addur maraviglia al tuo volto."

And he to me: "You know that the place is round, and, for all that you have come far, always to the left, dropping down to the bottom, you haven't yet turned round the whole circle; so that, if a new thing appears, it should not bring wonder to your face."

(Inf. 14.124-29)

The new functions in the economy of the spiral as the forward thrust that overrides the backward pull, that breaks with the status quo, converting what is into what was, into the old, the no longer new, and thereby pushing the soul ahead: turning it, in Benvenuto's words, "ad rem novam.[17] The new is the force of conversion, in the relative sense of all the little reconversions that shape life's spiral path; the prefix ri- in the poem's first verb, "ritrovai," echoes the form of the spiral, in which no conversion is final.[18] The new is desire, defined in the Convivio as that which we lack: "che nullo desidera quello che ha, ma quello che non ha, che e manifesto difetto" ("for no one desires what he has, but what he does not have, which is manifest lack" [Conv. 3.15.3]). Desire is defective, while the cessation of desire is happiness, beatitude, in a word perfection. Beatitude as spiritual autonomy--as emancipation from the new--is introduced as early as the Vita Nuova, where Dante learns to place his beatitudine not in Beatrice's greeting, which can be removed (thus causing him to desire, to exist defectively), but in that which cannot fail him: "quello che non mi puote venire meno" (18.4). Since nothing mortal can satisfy these conditions, we either learn from the failure of one object of desire to cease to desire mortal objects altogether, or we move forward along the path of life toward something else, something new;[19] this is the case of Dante in the Vita Nuova, for instance, who proceeds in Beatrice's absence to the donna gentile. Desire is thus the imperative of forward motion, the imperative of the new, both the void, and also the spiritual motion in which we engage to fill the void: "disire, / ch'e moto spiritale" ("desire, which is spiritual motion" [Purg. 18.31-32]). Ultimately, therefore, the new denotes time, the medium that robs all the previous new things of their ability to remain new, that confers the mortality--motion, change, absence of being[20]--that condemns us always to desire. These principles govern the temporal journey of life, the "cammin di nostra vita," and are imitated by the temporal journey of the poem by its very narrative pulse: "Omne quod movetur, movetur propter aliquid quod non habet, quod est terminus sui motus . . . Omne quod movetur est in aliquo defectu, et non habet totum suum esse simul" ("Everything that moves, moves because of what it does not have, which is the end of its motion . . . Everything that moves exists in some defect, and does not possess all its being at once" [Ep. 13.71-72]).

According to the poetics of the new, Dante handles the Commedia's beginning by accommodating time not just passively, as all texts must, but by actively working to structure time, succession, and difference into his text, with the result that the Inferno's first six cantos can be read as a graduated series of textual cose nove, novi obietti, new beginnings. The text's first beginning initiates the narrative technique whereby new beginnings are piled up so that the absolute beginning is blurred. Inferno I is structurally divisible into two halves, pre-Vergil and post-Vergil; its first half consists of a series of starts and stops, "beginnings" and "ends," that could be viewed as up and down curves on a graph, with the up curve signifying hope and the down curve despair. There are three such curves, each ending on a down note. After the preliminary twelve line sequence, there are two twenty-four line sequences, both of which begin hopefully, depict a gradual loss of ground, and conclude despairingly:

01-12: first beginning and first fall (12 lines)
13-36: second beginning and second fall (24 lines)
37-60: third beginning and third fall (24 lines)

The poem begins with a tercet whose magnificent simplicity works like a stone thrown into a pond; what follows are concentric ripples that retell its story in widening detail and scope. Thus, after enlarging the narrative field by introducing the issue of his own speech ("quanto a dir" [4], "ma per[ trattar" [8], "diro" [9], "non so ben ridir" [10]), the poet circles back to end the first sequence with "che la verace via abbandonai" ("I abandoned the true way" [12]), which echoes "che la diritta via era smaritta" ("the straight way was lost" [3]) from the opening tercet. The verse that marks the base of the first curve, "che la verace via abbandonai," yields to a new beginning in verse 13, "Ma poi ch'i' fui al pie d'un colle giunto" ("But when 1 had reached the foot of a hill"); here begins a sequence whose upward momentum encompasses the pilgrim's arrival at the sun-covered hill and the poem's first simile, that of the shipwrecked man who looks back at the dangerous waters; he has just escaped. After resting, he sets out again in line 29, "ripresi via per la piaggia diserta" ("I took up the way again along the deserted shore"), only to be interrupted by the leopard, whose appearance in line 31 triggers the second sequence's downward spiral.

The leopard's arrival occurs when the pilgrim is "quasi al cominciar de l'erta" ("almost at the beginning of the slope" [31] ). Such impediments to beginning--this is the poem's first use of cominciare--confer a stilted quality on the text (evidenced by stiff transitional markers like "Ma" [13], "Allor" [19], "Ed ecco" [31]), making the poem at this point the textual analogue to the limping pilgrim, whose awkward gait is suggested by the fact that his "pie fermo sempre era 'I piu basso" ("fimn foot was always the lower" [30]).[21] The second nadir, the second halt in the pilgrim's progress, occurs in verse 36, "ch'i'' fui per ritornar piu volte volto" ("so that more than once I was turned round to go back"), where the paronomasia underscores the feeling of impotence, of constrained return, of moving backward rather than forward. Again, the low point is followed by a new high; but, whereas the second sequence proceeds positively for eighteen of its twenty-four lines before encountering the leopard, the third sequence barely registers the pilgrim's new reasons for hope, "l'ora del tempo e la dolce stagione" ("the hour of the day and the sweet season" [43] ), before giving him, in its eighth verse, new cause for fear in the sight of the lion. From there it is all downhill: the lion is followed by the wolf. The loss that the pilgrim sustains is immediately registered--"ch'io perdei la speranza de l'altezza" ("I lost hope of the height" [54])--and then emphasized by the canto's second simile ("E qual e quei che volontieri acquista, / e giugne 'I tempo che perder lo face" ["And like one who willingly gains, when the time comes that makes him lose" (55-56)]); while the earlier simile was devoted to the pilgrim's preservation the second concentrates on his perdition (note the recurrence of perdere verses 54 and 56). As the wolf comes toward him, it pushes him slowly back whence he came: "a poco a poco / mi ripigneva la dove 'I sol tace" ("little by little, it again pushed me back where the sun is silent" [59-60]). With this last verse we reach the sunless dark of total loss, total despair, the next tercet takes the matter out of the pilgrim's hands by recounting how, through no effort of his own, upon reaching the canto's lowest point ("Mentre ch'i' rovinava in basso loco" ["While I plunged down to a low place" (61)]), salvation is offered to him in the form of Vergil. So, before the gradual uplifting brought about by Vergil in the canto's second half, we must just as gradually--"a poco a poco"--spiral downward and hit rock bottom--"basso loco"--in the canto's first half, in the same way that before the climb up purgatory we must go down to the pit of hell. [22]

The beginning of the Commedia, then, is a carefully constructed sequence of ups and downs, starts and stops; it is a beginning subject to continual new beginnings. The subversion of absolute beginning that we find within Inferno 1 occurs on a larger scale in the opening cantos as a group: only in canto 2 do we find the poet's invocation to the Muses, and only in canto 3 does the pilgrim approach the gate of hell and does the actual voyage get under way. Moreover, although the first souls we see are those in hell's vestibule, in canto 3, we do not reach the first circle, and thus the first souls of hell proper, until canto 4, and the first prolonged infernal interview does not occur until canto 5, when the pilgrim meets Francesca. This programmatic serialization of the poem's beginning, whereby a new beginning is accorded to each of these early cantos, is most dramatically evidenced by canto 2, which effectively succeeds in postponing, and at least temporarily derailing, the beginning provided by the end of canto 1. The last verse of the first canto, "Allor si mosse, e io li tenni dietro" ("Then he moved off, and I followed behind him"), initiates a journey that is called to a halt as soon as it has begun; action gives way to talk in canto 2, where the pilgrim voices his doubts and is reassured by his guide. Vergil provides as a divine warrant for the enterprise words previously uttered by Beatrice, in an encounter with the Roman poet that is described as having taken place before the events recorded in the second half of canto 1, i.e., before Vergil's appearance in the poem, in a past that is outside the scope of the Commedia's narrative action but that is invoked in the form of discursive history. Indeed, canto 2 is about the relation of the past, necessarily recalled as speech, to the events of the present, the relation of narrative to the events being narrated. Although the canto's invocation of the past through language is the bedrock for any further action, and in this sense may be viewed as a form of action itself, its immediate effect is to cause all forward motion to cease. Not only does it constitute a new beginning, an exploration of matters not dealt with in canto 1 (which is fully employed in establishing the basic semantic and narrative blueprints for the poem as a whole), but it mandates a restaging of the pilgrim's actual setting forth as represented at the end of canto 1. The result is the provision of a newer new beginning in the last verse of canto 2: "intrai per lo cammino alto e silvestro" ("I entered on the high and wooded path").[23]

While canto 1 enacts a series of beginnings, canto 2 constitutes a meditation on beginnings. The canto's status with respect to the architecture of the Commedia is unclear: if canto 1 is, as has traditionally been argued, the prologue to the poem as a whole, thus justifying the first canticle's inclusion of a thirty-fourth canto, then canto 2 is, equally traditionally, the prologue to the Inferno. [24] Canto 2 is certainly fitted for its role as prologue to the first canticle by its invocation, corresponding to the invocations found in the first cantos of Purgatorio and Paradiso, but in other respects it seems less suited than canto 3. In fact, canto 2 functions both as a beginning to the Inferno proper and, with canto 1, as part of a general beginning to the poem as a whole. It shares with canto 1 the task of setting up premises fundamental to the entire Commedia, which it develops in a more personal vein (emblematic in this regard are verses 62-64, where a host of key words from canto I--"diserta piaggia," "cammin," "volto," "paura," "smarrito"-- are transferred from the narrator to Beatrice). Although it also deals, like canto 3, with issues specific to the first canticle, the allegiance of canto 2 is more to its predecessor than to its successor; it tends to be read in concert with canto 1, with which it seems to form a proemial package, cordoned off from the rest of hell.[25] This structural ambiguity, caused by the disjunction between the role that would seem to be conferred upon canto 2 by the canticle's overall structure and the role that it actually performs, feeds into the canto's concerns with "beginningness": its interest in the historical causes of action, in the verbal wellsprings that give rise to events, is reflected in the repeated juxtaposing of speech and motion and in the use of cominciare, which appears here with singularly high frequency.[26] Most notably, cominciare appears in concert with the Commedia's first use of novo, in the image of the man who disconverts, who exemplifies backward motion by unwanting what he wanted ("E qual e quei che disvuol cio che volle" [37] ); his "novi pensier" (38) cause him to keep changing his mind and prevent him from beginning by consigning him to endless stops and starts, "si che dal cominciar tutto si tolle" ("so that from beginning he utterly desisted" [39] ) . As in canto l 's "che nel pensier rinova la paura (6), which anticipates the situation of canto 2 by coupling novo with pensier to create the image of impasse, so here the new does not move the pilgrim forward but keeps him circling upon himself, unable to break out of circular motion ink the spiral that denotes voyage: the renewal of fear leads not to motion but to stasis. A further sign of the canto's anomalous functioning is its use of a narrative flashback; by inscribing the past where we had expected the future, and thereby greatly reinforcing the nonincipience he worked to create in canto 1, the poet both dramatizes the problematic nature of all beginnings and brilliantly handles his own problems as a reluctant beginner of this text.

Only at the canto's end do we find the desire, registered by the poem's first use of "disiderio," that will move the pilgrim forward along the path, allowing the journey to continue: "Tu m'hai con disiderio il cor disposto / si al venir con le parole tue, / ch'i' son tornato nel primo proposto" ("You have so disposed my heart with desire, and your words have so inclined me to come, that I have returned to my first intentions [136-38]).[27] Here the man of verse 38, who "per novi pensier cangia proposta" ("because of new thoughts changes his intention"), returns "nel primo proposto"; by coming full circle, back to where he was at the canto's beginning, he puts himself in a position to move out of the (nonvirtuous) circularity that has governed his actions thus far. In a canto where motion is accomplished by not moving, where the new prevents action rather than initiating it, to return to the beginning, "nel primo proposto," is finally to begin. Thus, the relation between action and discourse that has obtained throughout the canto, summed up by Beatrice's "amor mi mosse, che mi fa parlare" ("love moved me, and makes me speak" [72] ), is reversed at the canto's end. [28] The canto is predicated on unrepresented motion that sets the stage for represented speech: the relation between words and deeds established by Lucy, who "si mosse" (101) and then "Disse" (103), is anticipated by the Virgin, practiced by Beatrice, and enjoined upon Vergil, who is told "Or movi, e con la tua parola ornata" ("Now move, and with your ornate speech" [67]). But while Beatrice and Vergil move in order to talk, Vergil's talk disposes the pilgrim to move: "Tu m'hai con disiderio il cor disposto / si al venir con le parole tue." The canto's last two verses, "Cosi li dissi; e poi che mosso fue, / intrai per lo cammino alto e silvestro" ("So I spoke to him, and after he had moved, I entered on the high and wooded path"), where speech is the prerequisite for action rather than the other way around, signify the end of stasis and the readiness of the narrative to recommence, to move now that it has spoken. The action that was begun and aborted at the end of canto 1 may now begin again; "intrai" in the last verse of canto 2 signals not only a recoup of the original beginning but an advance upon it, an engagement with and entrance into the new that will be the topic of canto 3.

Entrare, which will denote transition throughout the Commedia (each of the first five cantos contains at least one instance), sets the stage for a canto that is about transition. [29] If Inferno 2 is about the act of beginning, Inferno 3 is about the state that immediately follows that act, a moment we could think of as the beginning of having begun. Transition--trans-ire--going beyond, will be figured most explicitly in the crossing of the river, the trapassare that takes place at the canto's end; it is immediately present in the "si va," "si va," "si va" of the canto's first three verses (echoing "Or va" from 2.139), a verbal propulsion that culminates in the irreversibility of "Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate" ("Leave all hope, you who enter" [3.9]). The words on the gate of hell signal the newest new beginning in a form that is far from subtle: this is the entrance, this is the way forward, this is the beginning, they tell us. These verses employ one of the Commedia's basic techniques, that of imparting crucial information which the pilgrim/reader is not yet in a position to appreciate, so that they accrete greater significance with hindsight.[30] Thus, although we are duly informed that "Giustizia mosse il mio alto fattore" ("Justice moved my high maker" [4] ), this is information that we will internalize-- if at all--only after completing much of the voyage through hell, not here at the outset; nor would the poet want it otherwise. In fact, the poet counts on our not internalizing the information that he so carefully places on the record; the Inferno's power, as poetry, derives from the tension that exists between abstract verities such as these and the palpable sympathy for the damned that the poet manipulates the reader into feeling. The text's aliveness comes from this ability to work at cross purposes to itself, to create living situations rather than fictive concords: although we are told about justice by the words on the gate, we shall nonetheless be persuaded to see mistreated victims by the words in the sinners' mouths; although we are told about hell's impotence by Beatrice, who reveals that its misery cannot harm her, we shall nonetheless be persuaded to feel fear as the events of the first canticle unfold. [31] Thus, the pilgrim forgets about justice when he meets Francesca, and both guide and charge forget Beatrice's words when challenged by the devils at the gates of Dis.

Another signpost marking the new beginning of Inferno 3 is the repetition of locative adverbs we find early on, in the form of qui ("Qui si convien lasciare ogne sospetto; / ogne vilta convien che qui sia morta" ["Here it is necessary to leave all fear; here all cowardice must die" (14-15)]) or quivi, in one case linked to cominciare:[32] "Quivi sospiri, pianti, e alti guai / risonavan per l'aere sanza stelle, / per ch'io al cominciar ne lagrimai" ("There sighs, crying, and high wails resounded through the air without stars, so that I at the beginning wept at it" [22-24] ) . The reiterated locatives stress the place where we have arrived, where we are now, at the expense of previous locations; they serve to differentiate our experience of the journey thus far, to mark it off into discrete segments, distinct new experiences that must be ordered by divided thoughts, "per concetto diviso." Techniques of this kind are employed so unremittingly throughout the Commedia that we barely notice them; they function as tiny and remarkably effective subliminal contributors to a textual metaphysics that seeks to persuade us to accord it the status of reality. In Inferno 3, moreover, the idea of difference insinuated by way of the recurrent qui is a major theme of the canto as a whole, which represents a place that is the space between other places, a place for creatures who are, Vergil tells us, accepted neither in heaven nor in hell: "Caccianli i ciel per non esser men belli, / ne lo profondo Inferno li riceve" ("The heavens drive them out in order not to be less beautiful, nor does deep hell receive them" [40-41]). In these verses the words "profondo Inferno" are hallmarks of the poetics of the new, which requires a continual redefining of implicit boundaries in order to keep us moving forward: in canto 2, where what matters is the distinction between Beatrice's point of origin and her point of arrival, indeterminate place markers like "qua giuso" (83), "qua entro" (87), "qua giu" ( 112) are sufficient; in canto 3, on the other hand, our position must be distinguished not just from heaven but from the place in canto 2 and, at least grosso modo, from the rest of hell. Thus, we find the phrase "profondo Inferno," which serves the immediate purpose but will run counter to later distinctions between "lower" and "upper" hell, distinctions that in their turn will be subject to continual modification, as the pressure to mark the new escalates: Dante keeps redefining the idea of lower hell the lower in hell we get. By marking the spot to which we have come as a spot that is within the gate of hell but different from profondo inferno, the poet distinguishes and blurs simultaneously; he lets us know that this is a new and different place while leaving us retrospectively confused as to the status of this place within the whole. When, in canto 4, we learn that we are entering the first circle of hell, we are able to infer what the place in canto 3 is not. But what is it? The structural confusion that afflicts canto 2--is it the prologue to the whole poem or to the first canticle?--has resurfaced in canto 3 as a topographical and moral confusion: are these souls in hell and, if not, where are they?[33]

The place in canto 3 is transition incarnate. Its identity is conferred by what it is between: it is between the gate of hell and the river Acheron, which the pilgrim will cross at canto's end.[34] To reach that crossing, that point of commitment, that Rubicon at which transition is ratified, the pilgrim must transit the place of transitions in canto 3. It is also a place that tells us a great deal about the character and methods of our poet. Morally, this place serves as an index of engagement, dramatizing his commitment to commitment by creating a category for those who rejected both good and evil (but who are, we note, by no means positioned equally between the two). Narratologically, this place serves as a way of once more postponing the elusive beginning that seemed so definite as we faced the words on hell's gate; what was delayed in canto 2 by the pilgrim's moral cowardice, the "viltade" of which Vergil accuses him in 2.45, is delayed in canto 3 by the thematically related vilta of the first souls he sees. Moreover, Dante's invention of the theologically nonwarranted and unprecedented category of cowardly neutrals demonstrates the lengths to which he will go in his use of distinction to forge a beginning as hard to pinpoint as any in life itself. [35] The vestibule of hell, or "antehell" as it is sometimes called (a locution whose very coining betrays critical uneasiness with and rationalization of Dante's program of deliberate obfuscation), performs a function that will be performed later, on a larger scale, by a similarly motivated Dantesque invention, "antepurgatory" (a liminal area that we have baptized without sufficiently considering the significance of the label, which again insists on difference within similarity), and still later by the three earth-shadowed heavens: the function of instituting difference where otherwise there would be an undifferentiated expanse. The result of all these distinctions is to blur absolute distinction in the narrative sphere, and thus in the moral sphere as well; the reader's confusion in "placing" the souls of Inferno 3 is mirrored by later attempts to distinguish the souls of lower hell generally from the souls of upper hell, and later still by attempts to distinguish the souls of antepurgatory from those of purgatory proper, and finally by attempts to distinguish the souls in the lower heavens from those higher up.

The institutionalizing of difference throughout this text, mandated by the poetics of the new, is the source of a deep-seated confusion that has launched at least a thousand critical debates, which take the form of discussing individual souls but in fact reflect basic perplexities: Are the souls of upper hell in any way "better" than those lower down, any less damned? (Vergil suggests as much when he tells the pilgrim that "incontenenza / men Dio offende e men biasimo accatta" ["incontinence offends God less and incurs less blame" (Inf. 11.83-84)].) Are the souls in antepurgatory, and by extension those in the lower heavens, any less saved than those higher up? Ultimately, Francesca is as damned as Ugolino, Belacqua as redeemed as Forese, and Piccarda as saved as Beatrice, but Dante has created a system in which these truths compete with other truths (most problematically, as we shall see, in the Paradiso). He confronts us with absolute truths, while simultaneously rehearsing all the differentiating factors that apparently conflict with those truths. The excessive ingenuity that marks so many critical attempts to account for the collocation of this or that soul or group of souls is symptomatic of the double bind in which Dante places his reader, who must register difference while never losing sight of the larger units that subsume these differences. Dante's method tempts the reader into an absolutism not in fact displayed by the poet, into ascribing to him a dogmatism that he has in actual practice not endorsed. Vis-a-vis the uncodified second realm, in particular, Dante enjoys an ideological freedom that gives him carte blanche for the creation of difference and the consequent blurring of distinction. [36] He exploits this freedom to the hilt in the creation of antepurgatory: as an authorially invented space for which there is absolutely no constraining theological precedent, Dante's antepurgatory has generated sustained critical bewilderment, with regard, for instance, to its geographical extension (should it include the banks of the Tiber?) and its moral taxonomy (should its four types of sinners all be considered negligent?). The solitary and unplaceable figure of Sordello (scholars have debated whether he should be grouped with those who died violently or with the princes in the valley) is emblematic of the ambiguities raised by this liminal space. [37]

We are confused by Dante's love of difference, by his cultivation of the new: students must frequently be reminded that the souls of antepurgatory are indeed saved, while critics succumb to the temptation to make the distinction between antepurgatory and purgatory too hard and fast, too rigidly black and white (Peter Armour, for instance, makes too much of the "negative, waiting world of Antepurgatory," as distinct from the positive world of purgatory proper).[38] It is easy to conceive of these differences as more clearcut than Dante makes them, picking up suggestions that Dante does not fail to offer, such as Vergil's request to be directed "la dove Purgatorio ha dritto inizio" ("there where purgatory has its true beginning" [Purg. 7.39]). By the same token, much emphasis is placed on the transition from antepurgatory to purgatory: the hinges of the door resound, the angel warns the pilgrim not to look back. But all the souls in antepurgatory, without exception, will eventually pass this way, so that what we have is another instance of Dante's art of gradation: to create his newest new beginning, his newest "dritto inizio," the poet must institute difference, must draw a line between what was and what is to come--the new. And, in fact, the cantos that mark the end of antepurgatory--the end of the beginning of the purgatorial journey--demonstrate with peculiar clarity Dante's art of highlighting, institutionalizing, and exploiting transition: while Purgatorio 8 marks the end of antepurgatory, Purgatorio 9 embodies transition to purgatory, and Purgatorio 10 provides the new beginning of purgatory proper.[39] The gradations thus expressed should not be hardened into absolute moral categories; for in fact they exist less by virtue of the moral order than by virtue of the needs of the narrative, itself a kind of macro-terza rima that conjoins (almost) every new beginning with the ending/beginning that precedes it. The exception is the ending constituted by Inferno 34 and the beginning constituted by Purgatorio 1, an ending and beginning that correspond to the only absolute difference in this world: the difference between damnation and salvation. The wonder is that Dante's art of transition makes us believe in so many other differences along the way.

In each of the poem's early cantos the art of transition is particularly in evidence, as Dante works to make each new beginning the real new beginning at the expense of its predecessor, thus creating the illusion of a deferral of beginning while at the same time relaying information essential to the creation of the possible world that is, in fact, beginning to take shape. Canto 3 is no exception, and a key "first" to which the canto introduces us is the contrapasso,[40] the principle whereby the poet fashions the form that damnation (or purgation) takes by transforming the sinners' spiritual condition while alive into their literal condition after death, either making their later suffering like their earlier sin or setting up a contrast between past and present. Although contrapasso by analogy is more usual in hell, in canto 3 we find the other variety: the souls are stimulated by flies and wasps as they run after a banner symbolizing the beliefs and commitments they never embraced. Of greater significance, from the perspective of the narrative journey, is that Dante takes the opportunity to inaugurate not only the contrapasso in its simple sense but also what I think of as the "textual contrapasso," a technique whereby the text inflicts a distinct punishment of its own--with the result that it becomes an instrument of God's justice in its own right, and the poet has engineered a conflation of the "reality" the text represents with the vehicle that represents it. In the case of the neutrals, the textual contrapasso is the poet's deliberate suppression of information regarding souls whom he tells us he recognizes, especially the one of whom he says "vidi e conobbi l'ombra di colui / che fece per viltade il gran rifiuto" ("I saw and I knew the shade of him who made through cowardice the great refusal" [59-60]).[41] By withholding the soul's identity and guaranteeing the insoluble enigma that has resulted from his reticence, the poet acts on and indeed gives life--life outside the text--to Vergil's injunction, "non ragioniam di lor, ma guarda e passa" ("let us not speak of them, but look and pass on" [51]). Although Dante has not been able to prevent scholarly discussion, he has effectively ensured that all discourse regarding this figure remain hypothetical, shadowed by the text's contempt. Thus, the real and eternal anonymity of the soul "che fece per viltade il gran rifiuto" is his true contrapasso, and it is conferred not within the fiction of the poem but within the reality of the text's reception, by the poet. [42] Techniques of this sort, intended to blur our sense of the distinction between the fabricated text and the allegedly nonfabricated reality of which it tells, belong to a kind of representational mirror game first played in the opening verses of canto 3, where we encounter verses that are allegedly written by the gate of hell itself, rather than by the author of the poem. A measure of the poet's success in using such tactics is provided by the history of our response to these verses, for we have rarely stopped to consider how they invest the subjective author of the Inferno with the objective authority of the divine "author"-- i.e., maker--of hell. [43]

In the second part of canto 3, after viewing the neutrals, Dante treats the paradoxical desire of those souls who are destined for "real" hell to cross the Acheron. Twice he indicates the souls' eagerness to make the transition by pairing the verb trapassare with the adjective pronto: "e qual costume / le. fa di trapassar parer si pronte" ("what instinct makes them seem so ready to cross over" [73-74]); e pronti sono a trapassar lo rio" ("and they are ready to cross the river" [124]). Again, as with Beatrice's statement on the inability of hell or its denizens to harm her, we find passages that lay the groundwork for all of hell. The sinners' basic psychological posture as victims of anyone but themselves, subject to anything but free will, is schematically rendered in their curses: "Bestemmiavano Dio e lor parenti, l'umana spezie e 'l loco e 'l tempo e 'l seme / di lor semenza e di lor nascimenti" ("They cursed God and their parents, and the human species and the place and the time and the seed of their sowing and of their birth" [103-5] ). The violence with which the souls throw themselves one by one from the shore--"gittansi di quel lito ad una ad una" (116)--is matched by the violence of the divine justice that spurs them ("la divina giustizia li sprona" [125]), turning their fear into desire ("si che la tema si volve in disio" [126]). The fierce and mysterious dialectic between what the souls want for themselves and what God wants for them denotes the dialectic between free will and justice that underpins the entire poem: the fear that is converted to desire reminds us that fear creates a standstill, as we saw in cantos 1 and 2, while desire creates forward motion. The text thus comes back to desire as the narrative's motive force, echoing the pilgrim's "disiderio" from the end of canto 2 and anticipating the later definition of desire as "moto spiritale." The spiritual motion that hurls the souls "ad una ad una" from the banks of the Acheron confirms this canto's key role within the economy of a narrative journey that will proceed by representing such souls "ad una ad una," and will eventually, at its end, define itself as the unveiling of "le vite spiritali ad una ad una," in an exact and unique evocation of the expression first used in Inferno 3.

In the same way that the presence of an "antehell" adds a distinction to the underworld that blurs the contours of the whole, obscuring hell's boundaries and leaving us confused as to precisely where it begins and precisely whom it embraces, so Dante's handling of limbo is governed by an insistence on distinction that again confuses rather than clarifies. Canto 3 ends with an earthquake that causes the pilgrim to faint, a swoon that is the first of many instances in which Dante uses sleep as a metaphor for the problematic of transition. (In a passage in Purgatorio 32 to which we shall return, the poet wishes that he could represent the act of falling asleep; essentially, what he wishes--hardly surprising for the maker of the unbroken chain that is terza rima--is that he could represent transition, the inbetween spaces in a life or narrative.) Canto 4 begins with a thunderclap that violently awakens him, "breaking" his sleep. The emphatically non-smooth transition from canto 3 to canto 4 (signaled by canto 4's initial "Ruppemi"), and from one shore of the Acheron to the other, is not only a way of maintaining a focus on transition as the subject of canto 3 but also of marking our newest new beginning, once more made to correspond with the beginning of a new canto: it is a characteristic of these early cantos to highlight each canto as a new beginning by maintaining a rigid symmetry between the boundaries of the cantos--the legs of the narrative journey, as it were--and the boundaries or legs of the actual (represented) journey. Again we find the verbal markers of newness, the words that stress this place and this moment at the expense of the last place and the last moment. "Or discendiam qua giu nel cieco mondo" ("Now let us descend down here into the blind world" [13]), says Vergil, articulating the new both temporally ("Or) and spatially ("qua giu"). We note the repetition of "qua giu" a few verses later ("L'angoscia de le genti / che son qua giu" ["The anguish of the people who are down here" (19-20)]) and the use of "Quivi" to lead off a tercet differentiating the sounds of this new place from the place we just left: with "Quivi, secondo che per ascoltare, / non avea pianto mai che di sospiri" ("There, from what could be heard, there was no lament greater than sighs" [25-26]), the poet asserts a new reality to replace the "Quivi sospiri, pianti e alti guai" of a similarly aural tercet on the threshold of the previous canto. The methods employed for differentiating a new place from previous places now expand to include number, our most precise denoter of difference, here used for the first time (in collaboration with the by now standard intrare) to tag Limbo as the "primo cerchio": "Cosi si mise e cosi mi fe intrare / nel primo cerchio che l'abisso cigne" ("So he entered and so he made me enter the first circle that girds the abyss" [23-24]).

Locating it with numerical precision, Dante has distinguished limbo in a way that seems straightforward, clear, and not susceptible to confusion: it is the first circle of hell. And yet, master of the manipulation of narrative--i.e., textual time--to create dialectical perspectives, Dante will dedicate the rest of canto 4 to making us disbelieve this simple fact, and indeed, how many readers "forget" that limbo is hell's first circle! As I have already indicated, the technique involved is basic to the Inferno, a means of structuring tension into the discourse (which in the other canticles Dante obtains by other means), and it is based on the exploitation of the text's temporal dimension: first the poet presents a truth, a "warning" directed at the reader (e.g., hell cannot hurt us, in canto 2; hell's maker was moved by justice, in canto 3; the souls we are about to meet are carnal sinners, in canto 5); then he does everything in his power to make us disregard the warning we have received. Inferno 4 is in any case a curiously absent canto, from a narrative point of view, more than usually dependent on the textual future to reveal its subterranean tension and complexity; not a canto that most first-time readers find particularly exciting or dramatic, its drama unfolds as the story of Vergil and the virtuous pagans unfolds, and culminates in Paradiso 19's agonized questioning of the justice that condemns those deprived of the knowledge of God through no fault of their own. Since Dante has chosen to keep the larger issues of canto 4 muffled, so that they can be unfolded slowly, literally accompanying Vergil, the figure who embodies them, as he moves through the poem, topography is once more the focal point for the canto's more overt tensions: on the one hand it is established that limbo is hell, on the other hand a great deal is done to make us think of limbo as not hell, in other words to offset the clarity of "cosi mi fe intrare / nel primo cerchio che l'abisso cigne." We have already seen how, upon entering limbo, the poet notes the difference in sound: where before sighs were accompanied by more violent laments ("sospiri, pianti e alti guai" [3.22]), now there are sighs alone ("non avea pianto mai che di sospiri" [4.26] ). We have entered a place where "duol sanza martiri" ("sorrow without torments" [28] ) afflicts the "turbe, ch'eran molte e grandi, / d'infanti e di femmine e di viri" ("crowds, that were many and great, of infants, women, and men" [29-30]). The key difference, as presented by Vergil, is that these souls did not sin ("Or vo' che sappi, innanzi che piu andi, / ch'ei non peccaro" ["Now I want you to know, before you go any further, that they did not sin" (33-34)]), an anomalous condition underscored by Vergil's own anomalous aggressiveness (note his repetition of "vo' che sappi" in line 62). [44]

The most significant physical indicator of limbo's metaphysical difference is the light cast by the "foco / ch'emisperio di tenebre vincia" ("fire that conquered a hemisphere of shadows" [68-69] ), a light that contrasts sharply with the darkness of the abyss on whose edge the pilgrim finds himself at the canto's beginning. While the opening obscurity is so profound that it prevents him from discerning anything below (10-12), the light that they reach later reveals a "loco aperto, luminoso e alto, / si che veder si potien tutti quanti" ("place that was open, luminous and high, so that we could see everybody" [116-17] ). It is true that the light carved out of the shadows by the fire is reserved, like the noble castle that they enter to reach the open and luminous place in which all can be seen, for the special souls of limbo, the "honorable folk" ("orrevol gente" [72])--predominantly classical figures--whose fame has acquired them this special dispensation: "L'onrata nominanza / che di lor suona su ne la tua vita, / grazia acquista in ciel che si li avanza" ("Their honored name, which resounds up above in your life, acquires grace in heaven that accrues for them thus" [76-78] ). But the net result of the special dispensation, for all that it mandates an entrance within an entrance ("per sette porte intrai con questi savi" ["through seven gates I entered with these sages" (110)]), is less to differentiate between the souls within limbo than to differentiate all of limbo from the rest of hell, reinforcing those aspects of the first circle that are unlike what we have seen previously and what we expect to see later on. The pilgrim's query, "questi chi son c'hanno cotanta onranza, / che dal modo de li altri li diparte" ("who are these who have so much honor that it sets them apart from the way of the others" [74-75] ), aptly expresses the special status of limbo as a whole. The difference that distinguishes limbo's honored few from its unnamed crowds provides an emblem for the difference that sets the whole first circle apart from hell's other circles, che dal modo de li altri lo diparte, a difference that is stressed at the end of canto 4: "per altra via mi mena il savio duca, / fuor de la queta, ne l'aura che trema. / E vegno in parte ove non e che luca" ("by another path my wise leader leads me, out of the quiet, into the air that trembles. And I come to a part where there is nothing that shines" [149-57]). In order to express the new, i.e., the place they find upon leaving limbo, the poet rehearses those aspects of limbo that are no more, that make it forever different: now we embark on an "altra via" that takes us beyond limbo's quiet, and--most emphatically, in the canto's last verse--beyond its light, "ove non e che luca."[45]

It is the light, then, the light that no longer shines in canto 5, that gives us the feeling that we are not really in hell when we are in limbo, and that reinforces limbo's literally marginal status: limbo, like its modem derivative lembo, means border or edge. [46] Thus, when the pilgrim awakes at the beginning of canto 4 he finds himself "'n su la proda" (7)--on the edge or brink-- of the abyss. As with the place in canto 3, which is within the gate of hell but not yet beyond the Acheron, here Dante creates a first circle whose position as the first circle he undercuts by emphasizing everything that is on the edge, marginal, liminal, different about it. [47] This is an ideologically motivated topography, informed not only by the desire to destabilize the boundaries of hell but also by the poet's underlying polemic about the value of classical culture: while it is true, as scholars of the Renaissance never tire of pointing out, that Dante places Aristotle and the others in hell, it is also true, and much more relevant to Dante's contemporaries, that he places them--counter to all theological precedent--in limbo. [48] The tranquil and undramatic pace of Inferno 4 should not cause us to overlook the exceedingly dramatic nature of the canto's implied poetic choices, its suppression of unbaptized infants, mentioned only once in passing (infants for whom, if for anyone, theologians declared their sympathies) in favor of pagan poets and philosophers. Dante invents--in the same way that he invents the category and topography of an antehell for his neutrals--a special condition for the honorable folk of the noble castle. This special condition is as theologically willful as his decision to place virtuous pagans in limbo in the first place, along with the theologically orthodox unbaptized infants to whom he pays virtually no attention (a lack of attention that is underscored by the interestingly discrepant behavior of Vergil, who in his description of limbo for Sordello in Purgatorio 7 devotes a tercet each to the infants and to the virtuous pagans). The topography of the first circle perfectly adumbrates Dante's relation to classical antiquity throughout the Commedia; limbo's, "limbic" position, within hell but not of hell, figures his simultaneous damnation and exaltation of classical culture, most fully articulated in his treatment of Vergil. [49]

For our present purposes, however, the chief point is that Dante's handling of limbo constitutes another deferral of the beginning, once more conjuring in us the sensation that we have not yet reached "true" hell, a sensation that the opening of canto 5 will reinforce. The last verses of canto 4, in which Vergil leads the pilgrim "per altra via . . . fuor de la queta . . . ove non e che luca," implicitly set up the second circle as everything that the first circle is not; [50] the implication is that in canto 5 we will finally reach hell. Canto 5's first thirty-nine verses strenuously reaffirm the difference that is implied by canto 4's conclusion; affirmation of the difference between hell's first and second circles is the task of the opening tercet: "Cosi discesi del cerchio primaio / giu nel secondo, che men loco cinghia / e tanto piu dolor, che punge a guaio" ("So I descended from the first circle down into the second, which holds less space and so much more suffering that goads to lamentation"). Immediately the new beginning is marked by the downward plunge of "Cosi discesi" (underscored by "giu"), and difference is driven home by the numbers "primaio" and "secondo," whose differentiating function is strengthened by their correlation with the quantifying adverbs "piu" and "meno"; the second circle is different from the first in that it holds less space but more suffering. All this is then buttressed by the presence of Minos, the infernal judge who warns the travelers to beware the entrance ("guarda com'entri e di cui tu ti fide; / non t'inganni l'ampiezza de l'intrare!" ["watch how you enter and in whom you trust; do not be deceived by the width of the entrance!" (19-20)]) of which he is the guardian: "Stavvi Minos orribilmente, e ringhia: / essamina le colpe ne l'intrata" ("Minos stands there horribly, and snarls; he examines the sins in the entrance" [4-5]). Minos stands at the entrance of a new beginning as a sentient marker of difference, constituting a barrier between the souls who do not have to submit to his judgment and those who do, a barrier that cuts between canto 5 and all that precedes it, putting canto 5 on the wrong side of the divide, in the same way that the Acheron cuts between canto 4 and its predecessors, to the detriment of those in canto 4. Minos's differentiating function will be recalled much later by Vergil, who is all too happy to upgrade himself by reminding us that he is among the souls whom Minos does not bind, in verses that provide a retrospective gloss on the way that the beginning of Inferno 5 reinforces limbo's outsider status: "Minos me non lega; / ma son del cerchio ove son li occhi casti / di Marzia tua" ("Minos does not bind me; for I am of the circle where are the chaste eyes of your Marcia" [Purg. 1.77-79] ) . Since Minos's job institutionalizes difference by assigning each soul to its precise location, it is not surprising that the language that describes his duties anticipates the canto that will be devoted to institutionalizing difference in the Inferno as a whole, namely canto 11; in canto 5 we are first introduced to degree and gradation--the notions summed up by piu and meno--through Minos's determinations and assignments: "vede qual loco d'Inferno e da essa; / cignesi con la coda tante volte / quantunque gradi vuol che giu sia messa" ("he sees which part of hell is for it, and girds himself with his tail as many times as the grades that he wants it to be sent down" [10-12]).

Once beyond Minos, we reach the initial descriptions of the second circle, again concentrated on sound. As the "orribili favelle" ("horrible sounds" [3.25]) of the vestibule mediate between Beatrice's angelic "favella" (2.57) and the sighs of limbo, so in canto 5 change is again marked aurally, in a tercet that registers difference in the emphatically repeated particle "or" (linked to cominciare, as was quivi in a similar tercet in canto 3): "Or incomincian le dolenti note / a farmisi sentire; or son venuto / la dove molto pianto mi percuote" ("Now the sorrowful notes begin to make themselves heard; now I have come to where much weeping hits me" [25-27]). The next tercet continues to characterize the second circle as in every way different from the first, even explicitly recalling canto 4's last verse; where there was light, now there is darkness, where there was quiet, now there is roaring noise: "Io venni in loco d'ogne luce muto, / che mugghia come fa mar per tempesta" ("I came to a place mute of all light, which roars like the sea in a storm" [28-29] ) . However, after describing the souls being whipped about by the infernal storm and cursing God in a way reminiscent of the souls in canto 3, and after noting that the damned of the second circle are carnal sinners, who submit reason to desire ("enno dannati i peccator carnali, / che la ragion sommettono al talento" [38-39]), thus reminding us that this is the first circle to treat a positive sin, the tonality--and apparent morality-- of canto 5 begin to shift. With the first bird simile, the poet begins the portrayal of these souls as buffetted victims of love, tossed by their passions like starlings by the wind. Slowly his voice takes on the lyric and romance modalities that will erupt in Francesca's speeches, to leave their imprint on the pilgrim and the reader. Indeed, the infernal ambience that we find in the opening section of canto 5 is effectively dissipated by the poet's change of register, which is virtually complete by the time we reach the transitional tercet that literally romanticizes the sinners, making them "donne antiche e ' cavalieri" ("ladies of old and knights" [71]).

Once again Dante has found a way of blurring his sharply drawn distinctions. Although in the case of canto 5 he creates his chiaroscuro not topographically but poetically, the effect is the same: he manipulates the level of textual tension by endowing Francesca with beautiful, irresistible language, language that has caused generations of readers to swoon like the pilgrim at the canto's end. After Francesca has spoken, we forget the coarse brutality of Minos's tail and the harsh indictment of "peccator carnali"; the clear distinctions wrought by the canto's opening have been obscured, as once more Dante subverts the absolute in order to charge moral issues with the difficulty they possess for the living. The Inferno, which challenges us by alternating between sinners for whom we feel little or no sympathy and sinners to whom we must respond, provides in its first great individual encounter a striking instance of the poet's manipulation of the reader's affective response, which was not similarly stimulated by the abject neutrals or the stem sages. Our acceptance of the damned as damned is not overdetermined by the text, which cuts across its own grain to achieve its goal; the narrative journey engages us dialectically, with the result that readers resist Francesca's sinfulness, perhaps not correctly, but certainly abetted by the text. The history of the episode's reception testifies to Dante's willingness to sacrifice clarity of dogma to a "living" textuality: not surprisingly, the critical impasse discussed in the preceding chapter is exemplified by our handling of Francesca. She divides critics into champions of theology and defenders of poetry, a dichotomy further reflected in the poet vs. pilgrim formulation, according to which the stem moralizing poet (ironically, this "poet" is not susceptible to the charms of poetry) damns the woman for whom the pilgrim feels sympathy. Interpretation is thus fractured by the text's kinetic dimension, which programmatically undermines our ability to focus on the poem's single creator, who in the case of Inferno 5 has done (at least) two things, for both of which we must give him credit: he wrote the poetry with which Francesca seduces the pilgrim/reader, and he put her into hell.

Inferno 6 is a modest and unprepossessing canto whose new beginning is particularly forceful, benefiting from the lyrical atmosphere of the Francesca episode, its deliberate lack of attention to the sordid realities of hell, to conjure by contrast a properly hellish environment. The first canto that does not strive to further defer the beginning of hell, canto 6 begins by underscoring hell's reality. On the one hand, there is the ostentatious emphasis on the newness that barrages the pilgrim, and on the present tense in which he alone is not stuck: "novi tormenti e novi tormentati, / mi veggio intorno, come ch'io mi mova / e ch'io mi volga, e come che io guati" ("new sufferings and new sufferers I see around me, whichever way I move, and whichever way I turn, and whichever way I look" [4-6] ) . On the other, there is the static, totally adjectival verse that describes the eternally not new conditions of this circle: the "piova / etterna, maladetta, fredda e greve" ("rain eternal cursed, cold and heavy" [7-8]) whose "regola e qualita mai non l'e nova" (9). Like canto 5, canto 6 uses its first thirty-nine verses to set the stage; but unlike canto 5, canto 6 does not then proceed to graft a whole new sensibility onto that of its opening section. Rather, its poetic identity is determined by contrast to that of the preceding canto, whose mysteries it immediately recasts in its own language: "Al tornar de la mente, che si chiuse / dinanzi a la pieta d'i due cognati" ("At the return of my mind, which had closed itself before the piteousness of the two in-laws" [1-2]). Here canto 5's oft-reiterated pieta is experienced not at the plight of two amanti but at that of "due cognati," in a transfer that is symptomatic of Dante's handling of the third circle; in place of the refined Francesca, whose very name is redolent of the courtly French romances on which she models her story, we find Ciacco, whose porcine nickname encapusulates the shift in register from lyric lust to prosaic gluttony. "Io sono al terzo cerchio" ("I am in the third circle" [7]), the narrator announces, and suddenly everything has changed: while Francesca, although not a Florentine, is known to the pilgrim, who importunes her twice, the second time by name, Ciacco, a fellow Florentine, must accost the pilgrim, hoping to be recognized. But to no avail; Ciacco is forced to instruct the pilgrim that "Voi cittadini mi chiamaste Ciacco" ("You citizens called me Ciacco" [52]), thus introducing the theme of Florence, the true protagonist of canto 6 (perhaps it is not coincidental that in the canto where we "reach hell," we reach Florence as well),[51] and using the concise and stringent syntax that will characterize his speech, in contrast to Francesca's more literary diction. [52] Where his speech echoes hers, the result is to strengthen the contrast: if the words bocca and persona recall Francesca, who uses both in an erotic context, we now find, in place of the lovers' kiss on the mouth, the mouths of Cerberus, and in place of a beloved body, the insubstantial bodies of the gluttonous souls, limply prostrate beneath the pelting rain. By the same token, while in canto 5 the pilgrim falls at the end of the encounter, thus preserving Francesca's tragic dignity, in canto 6 Ciacco squints and collapses among his companions. His ignominious departure is typical of a circle that causes the pilgrim to comment of the pain he sees that "s'altra e maggio, nulla e si spiacente" ("if another is greater, none is so unpleasant" [48]). This ranking of the circle's suffering, for all that it borders on the comic, is a way of definitively enrolling it in the hierarchy of hell: we may be at the beginning, but we have arrived.

A full appreciation of canto 6's role within the economy of the narrative journey, its position as the last "infernal incipit," the last canto to function according to the rules that have governed the narrative thus far, requires a brief discussion of canto endings. There are three basic types of canto ending in the Inferno: ( 1 ) endings that denote, with respect to the journey being represented, forward motion and transition; (2) endings where transition is delayed but initiated; (3) endings that provide no transition at all. [53] Thus far, all canto endings, i.e., moments of formal transition, have been correlated with moments of thematic transition; in other words, there have been no examples of the third type of ending. The first type of ending may be further subdivided: either it denotes pure forward motion, as in canto 1 ("Allor si mosse, e io li tenni dietro"), or it denotes forward motion that has already become an entry into the new, as in canto 4 ("E vegno in parte ove non e che luca"); in the case of canto 2 we find forward motion that has been stiffened by the use of intrare ("intrai per lo cammino alto e silvestro"), but is not yet the fullfledged description of the new that we find in canto 4. The second type of ending relies on a pause that delays the transition but lays the foundation on which it takes place; although later in the canticle there will be more subtle means of achieving this effect, up to now it has been achieved by stopping the action in almost melodramatic fashion. The result is to create a situation that must be resolved in the next canto before moving forward; transition, which is implied in the canto ending, is in this way delayed beyond the first verse of the succeeding canto. Thus, the pilgrim's faint at the end of canto 3 ("e caddi come l'uom cui sonno piglia") delays transition until verse 4 of canto 4 but is also the vehicle that allows transition to occur. The same may be said for the similar faint that overcomes the pilgrim at the end of canto 5 ("E caddi come corpo morto cade"), which again delays transition until verse 4 of the subsequent canto: only after rehearsing the pity that had caused him to swoon does the action proceed with the "novi tormenti e novi tormentati" that he sees all about him.

The ending of canto 6 does not disrupt the pattern established by previous canto endings. It is of the first type; specifically, it belongs to the subset that records not just transition but transition accomplished, arrival into the new. Like canto 4's "E vegno in parte ove non e che luca," which marks departure from the first circle and entry into the second, the last verse of canto 6 registers departure from the third circle and entrance into the fourth, where the misers and spendthrifts are guarded by the god of wealth: "quivi trovammo Pluto, il gran nemico" ("there we found Plutus, the great enemy"). The ending of canto 6 also maintains the narrative status quo by conforming to the strict symmetry that has obtained thus far between canto and circle: to each formal unit, the canto, is assigned one geographical or episodic unit. Canto 7 marks a turning point, where for the first time the rigid correlation between the narrative journey and the pilgrim's journey is relaxed; it is the first canto not to confine itself to the circle that we enter at its beginning. [54] Thus, after viewing the fruits of avarice and prodigality and listening to Vergil's discourse on Fortune, transition is signaled in the language to which we are accustomed: Vergil's "Or discendiam omai a maggior pieta"[55] ("Now let us descend to greater anguish" [7.97] ) leads to "intrammo giu per una via diversa"[56] ("we entered down by a different path" [105]), which in turn leads to the description of the muddy souls who are immersed in the Styx. What is new is not the language but the "deregulated" way in which this language is deployed, occurring three-quarters of the way through canto 7 rather than at its end. In other words, a transition in the pilgrim's journey--his passage from the fourth to the fifth circle--has for the first time occurred out of synchrony with the formal transitions of canto beginnings and endings. [57] Thematic transitions are no longer tied to the transitions enacted by the form. This narrative deregulation will be allowed further scope at the end of canto 7: the apparently straightforward motion of the last verse, "Venimmo al pie d'una torre al da sezzo" ("We came finally to the foot of a tower"), will be complicated by the insertion of a flashback in the opening verses of canto 8, with the result that we are for the first time rendered retrospectively uncertain as to precisely how far forward we have moved.

With Inferno 7, then, the narrative spiral delineated by the beginnings and endings of the first six cantos, whereby each new canto comes into being by looking back and defining itself as different from what came before, becomes less visible. The process does not cease to exist; as we shall see in the next chapter, the episodes of Inferno 8-9 and 16-17 serve as prologues to new beginnings on a large scale, marking respectively transition from the upper hell that houses the sins of incontinence to the lower hell ("basso Inferno" [8.75; 12.35]) beyond the walls of Dis, and the boundary that separates the realm of fraud from all that precedes it. On a smaller scale as well, narrative progression will continue to be articulated in terms of new beginnings, following the principles established in the first six cantos of the Infemo. These principles receive their most explicit theoretical airing in Inferno 11,[58] the canto that expounds difference, clustering quantifiers in an effort to give verbal shape to the hierarchy of hell: "tre cerchietti" ("three little circles" [17]), "primo cerchio" ("first circle" [28]), "tre gironi" ("three rings" [30]), "lo giron primo" ("the first ring" [39]), "secondo/giron" ("second ring" [41-42]), "cerchio secondo" (second circle" [57]). We find as well an impressive spate of the adverbs first used in canto 5 to render difference, piu and meno: since fraud "piu spiace a Dio" ("displeases God more" [26]), the fraudulent are assailed by "piu dolor" ("more suffering" [27]); since incontinence, on the other hand, l'men Dio offende e men biasimo accatta" ("offends God less and incurs less blame" [84]), God's vengeance is "men crucciata" ("less wrathful" [89]) in smiting such sinners. We find expressions that convey difference geographically, dividing those who are below and within from those who are above and without: while the fraudulent "stan di sotto" ("are below" [26]), the incontinent are not within the city of Dis ("dentro da la citta roggia" ["inside the flaming city" (73)]) but "su di fuor" ("up outside" [87]). We find phrases like "di grado in grado" ("from grade to grade" [18] ) and "per diverse schiere" ("in different groups" [39]), and verbs that denote differentiation, such as distinguere and dipartire: the circle of violence "in tre gironi e distinto" ("is divided into three rings" [30]), and the incontinent are "dipartiti" ("divided" [89]) from the souls of lower hell. Vergil is a differentiator, his discourse an act of differentiation, which "ben distingue / questo baratro e 'l popol ch'e' possiede" ("clearly distinguishes this abyss and the people it possesses" [68-69] ) . And if it is with some impatience that Vergil expects the pilgrim to grasp his point about the incontinent ("tu vedrai ben perche da questi felli / sien dipartiti" ["you see clearly why they are divided from these felons" (88-89)]), we should remember that he has recently spoken to his charge with even greater asperity, replying to the pilgrim's question (why the souls in the first five circles are not within the city of Dis) with an unusually harsh "Perche tanto delira . . .lo 'ngegno tuo da quel che sole?" ("Why does your intelligence so deviate from its accustomed path?" [76-77]). Vergil is essentially asking Dante how he can have failed to grasp the principle that underlies all created existence, the principle of difference, the principle that the poet of the Commedia renders through his masterful use of the poetics of the new.

Inferno 11 is usually considered a boring canto. Let us conclude this chapter on Dante's art of gradatio by observing that, as codifier of difference and institutionalizer of the poetics of the new, canto 11 is in fact a safeguard against boredom: a prime bulwark against the narrative parataxis--and resulting boredom-- that afflicts earlier texts of this ilk. Visions of hell before the Inferno suffer from lack of difference: all the sinners seem the same, all the punishments merge into one sadistic blur. Although critics refer to the plastic realism that Dante brings to the genre,[59] they have paid little attention to his importation of narrative structure and order, to the advent of narrative cunning. Where parataxis reigned, both stylistically and structurally, Dante--with passages like Infemo 11--imposes hypotaxis. In so doing, he eliminates the random--and he precludes our boredom. Where, in earlier visions of hell, sins and sinners are piled one upon the other with minimal differentiation, so that the reader has no way of distinguishing the first from the second, third, or fourth, and consequently little incentive to see who comes next, in the Infemo we know the order in which sins will be encountered and the moral value that has been assigned to each. (Nor does Dante commit the opposite mistake of relaying such information too soon; he waits until he has taken us through all the circles based on the seven deadly sins, whose logic is easy enough to follow, and has begun to complicate matters in such a way that we require assistance.)[60] As a result the reader can anticipate the narrative and is thereby induced to proceed, propelled by the subliminal desire to see how cogently the author's rendering will conform to his earlier declarations, as well as by the urge to participate in a possible world that seems to make sense, or that can be challenged if it does not, because its structuring principles have been made known to us. By the same token, the contrapasso is less a theological device, as it is usually considered, than, in Dante's hands, a narrative stroke of genius: if we look at previous visions from which the contrapasso is lacking, we can see by contrast to what extent its presence anchors the narrative, working with the narrative gradatio to deflect the random, to create a sense of order and confer a persuasiveness on the text. The comparative effectiveness of Tundale's Vision, for example, derives in no small measure from its rudimentary deployment of the notion that certain punishments befit certain sinners: Which souls in particular might this punishment be for?" asks Tundale of his angel guide, thus acknowledging a curiosity that the ideology of moral decorum--the ideology of the contrapasso--succeeds in projecting onto the reader as well. This vision also displays an understanding of the need for narrative subordination in order to create differentiation (Tundale is frequently told that the newest punishment will be greater than any he has seen before); moreover, the concern to differentiate has reached the point that the author imagines categories of souls called the "not-very-bad" and the "not-very-good." [61]Such procedures, for all their crudity, lend this text a force that its predecessors lack, and remind us that not least among the secrets of Dante's greatness is his unsurpassed subtlety in deploying the not-so-simple staples of the narrator's art: hypotaxis, gradation, difference, the new, desire, time.