Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Who Have Not Rebellious Been, Nor Faithful Were To God...

A favorite part of mine from the Comedy, I think I may have shared it before long ago in an altogether different context:
There sighs, complaints, and ululations loud
Resounded through the air without a star,
Whence I, at the beginning, wept thereat.
Languages diverse, horrible dialects,
Accents of anger, words of agony,
And voices high and hoarse, with sound of hands,
Made up a tumult that goes whirling on
For ever in that air for ever black,
Even as the sand doth, when the whirlwind breathes.
And I, who had my head with horror bound,
Said: "Master, what is this which now I hear?
What folk is this, which seems by pain so vanquished?"
And he to me: "This miserable mode
Maintain the melancholy souls of those
Who lived withouten infamy or praise.
Commingled are they with that caitiff choir
Of Angels, who have not rebellious been,
Nor faithful were to God, but were for self.
The heavens expelled them, not to be less fair;
Nor them the nethermore abyss receives,
For glory none the damned would have from them."
And I: "O Master, what so grievous is
To these, that maketh them lament so sore?"
He answered: "I will tell thee very briefly.
These have no longer any hope of death;
And this blind life of theirs is so debased,
They envious are of every other fate.
No fame of them the world permits to be;
Misericord and Justice both disdain them.
Let us not speak of them, but look, and pass."
And I, who looked again, beheld a banner,
Which, whirling round, ran on so rapidly,
That of all pause it seemed to me indignant;
And after it there came so long a train
Of people, that I ne'er would have believed
That ever Death so many had undone.
When some among them I had recognised,
I looked, and I beheld the shade of him
Who made through cowardice the great refusal.
Forthwith I comprehended, and was certain,
That this the sect was of the caitiff wretches
Hateful to God and to his enemies.
These miscreants, who never were alive,
Were naked, and were stung exceedingly
By gadflies and by hornets that were there.
These did their faces irrigate with blood,
Which, with their tears commingled, at their feet
By the disgusting worms was gathered up.
He who made "the great refusal" is interpreted to be either Pontius Pilate or Pope Celestine V, who could have been a great reformer (he was holy enough) but resigned under the weight of the responsibility, something Dante greatly resented.

Neither figure appears elsewhere in the Comedy. These are rather glaring omissions, given that just about every other important Biblical and mythological figure, and contemporary political or ecclesiastical personages, got shout-outs. Pilate especially seems like a conspicuous absence to me. It is thought likely that Dante left this figure here deliberately ambiguous or multivalanced as to whether it was either Pilate or Celestine or neither.

This was wise. The fate of these two figures was greatly disputed (for Pilate, I suppose, it still is). Celestine was actually later canonized a Saint, for his personal holiness, so it is lucky that Dante did not stain his epic by putting him explicitly in the Inferno. And Pontius Pilate, of course, has numerous attitudes expressed towards him in the tradition, some of which would make him a horrible sinner for his role in Christ's passion (though never as bad as the Jews!), others of which are cautiously sympathetic, and even others which tell of his repentance and becoming a Saint.

For these reasons, not including these two men explicitly in either hell, purgatory, or heaven...was a very tactful move on Dante's part. And yet, in the figure of the one making the great refusal, Dante still hints at their existence and importance (they are in this way, really, present by their absence) and even implies his own private opinion about their fate (especially, apparently, about Celestine), yet without making it official in the canonical narrative. A very clever move when faced with walking this tight-rope, Dante! A delicate authorial operation performed with just the sort of subtlety of distinction needed.

Of course, the fate of Pontius Pilate does not so much effect us one way or the other. We'll find out at the End, and until then what we really need to worry about is that we do not become like these Neutrals, these Waverers, these Lukewarm, whom Dante imagines even Hell finds too contemptuous and cowardly to admit, who spend eternity chasing a meaningless banner for their lack of firm commitment one way or the other.

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