Roomful of Mirrors
The Divine Comedy, Inferno, Canto 26 – Dante Alighieri
Dante’s Inferno is a book about sin and punishment, set within a staggeringly complex Aristotelian framework. It’s also a platform for the poet to pass judgment on his contemporaries, and he pulls no punches in choosing who to condemn – there is a special pit in the eighth circle for Popes. The twenty-sixth canto of Dante’s Inferno – Ulysses’ canto – on the other hand, is really all about what the Italian poet sees of himself in the Greek hero, or at least in his conception of the Greek hero, which is based on the Roman interpretation of Homer’s character, that is to say deceitful rather than just cunning. Ulysses is allegedly in the eight circle of hell because of a series of acts of deception committed whilst on earth, including the Trojan horse. This is not, however, the focus of the canto, which moves on from the sin of deception and looks at the events surrounding Ulysses’ death.
Here, Dante makes good use of poetic licence to kill Ulysses off in an inventive and previously unheard of manner: Ulysses reaches the end of his epic journey back from the Trojan war, concluding twenty years of war and adventure, and yet, at the moment when he should be settling down to rest on his hard-earned laurels, he baulks at the prospect and urges his men to follow him on yet another quest, this time on a voyage of exploration beyond the edge of the ancient world, demarcated by the mythical Pillars of Hercules between Spain and Africa. All of this so that he can become an “expert of the world”. Unfortunately for Ulysses this mission is abruptly cut short when he gets to the other side of the world, beyond the Pillars of Hercules, only for he and his crew to be engulfed by a whirlpool, taking the Greek hero straight down to the eighth circle of hell.
To cut to the chase, and for those of you who haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading the Inferno, Dante himself is also on a voyage, actually two voyages: a poetic journey, on the one hand, and on the other a literal journey to hell and back. Furthermore, both journeys are the culmination of a life of learning, as Dante had previously written in his main philosophical work: “all men desire to know.” This means that Dante’s encounter with Ulysses is a deliberately self-conscious one – both men had a passionate desire to know as much as possible. And yet, Ulysses languishes in hell whilst Dante is granted divine protection as he undertakes a quest in the name of spiritual enlightenment; a classic Dantean paradox, possibly even the Dantean paradox. Dante recognises that there is an insurmountable tension between his own intellectual adventure and a distinctly Christian sense of obedience and stability – it is a tension that cuts all the way back to Genesis and the Tree of Knowledge. Can it be resolved? Not really, other than to say that Dante is not quite Ulysses, he is on an epic journey, but not purely for reasons of personal illumination, he is travelling for the benefit of mankind generally, which is in itself almost a far worse transgression for the poet to make. In any case, the fact that Dante’s is a recorded journey means that he is never the only person on it – it is a perpetual, shared journey, started every time someone picks up a copy of The Divine Comedy. If Dante’s sin reflects Ulysses’, he is not the only one to be drawn in – we are all, as readers, complicit.
What relevance does this have to us in the modern world, devoid to a large extent of the burden of religious obligation? For starters, that reading is like travelling. Both are extremely personal, even selfish, experiences, often carried out for the purpose of learning, entertainment and self-reflection. Both offer a detachment and escape from the mundane reality of our lives, but both carry a risk, albeit remote, of alienation and self-absorption. It is a risk that can be tempered by self-awareness, and Inferno 26 is, if nothing else, one of the greatest exercises in literary self-awareness ever performed.