Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Inferno X: The circle of me

In 1985, just as I enrolled at high school, the new law on the teaching of religion came into effect. Instruction in the history and practice of Catholicism had been part of the compulsory state curriculum since the Lateran Treaty signed by Mussolini and Pope Pius XI in 1929. Now as before, every state school would have to offer an hour per week of the stuff, under the supervision of a teacher nominated by the local dioceses. However, the process of opting out had been simplified. During our first year, in my class of 33, only two students chose to sit it out, of which I was one. That number may have risen by one or two units – if that – by the time we entered the third year, when we began studying the Divine Comedy. The alternative to the teaching of religion was… nothing. By law, schools were not allowed to dismiss students early or let them start late, so we had to remain in the building. But there were no replacement activities or teachings. We just spent an hour in an empty classroom.

Picture the breakfast club, but for atheists.

Individual reasons for not opting out of what we called ‘the hour of religion’ might have been complex, so one shouldn’t read too much into those numbers: I suspect social anxiety played as big a part in the decision as the strength of a family’s Christian faith. All the same, when it came to Dante, our teacher could rely on the fact that he was presenting the poem to a class that by a very large majority identified as Catholic. Albeit Catholics of a different era.

The sixth circle of Hell is where the heretics dwell. They were introduced at the end of the ninth canto as a vast population of souls twice dead, sentenced – that is – to spend eternity in a cemetery of open graves – some of which, though not all, are on fire. And since this cemetery is encircled by walls, like a city, Dante told us specifically to think of contemporary examples, such as the still surviving cemetery of Arles. The famous Alyscamps, pictured above.

The scene, then, is that of a necropolis, or city of the dead. But the contrappasso only makes sense for a specific subset of heretics: namely, atheists. The taxonomy is somewhat questionable, seeing as members of different contemporary religions don’t count for Dante as either unbelievers or heretics (remember how he placed a number of famous Muslims as well as ancient Pagans in a rather heaven-like region of limbo?). But the atheists are here, including Epicurus – who lived three centuries before Christ, hence could have been grouped with Pagans and more specifically with the eminent Greek philosophers of limbo – because those who l’anima col corpo morta fanno, ie believe that the soul perishes at the same time as the body, commit an actual sin. And a mortal one at that.

Thus the contrappasso of atheists is to ‘live’ (to exist, to think, to feel) forever as dead people. Or at least until Judgment Day, when the open tombs will be sealed, presumably with their regained bodies inside, but – also presumably – there to continue to suffer in the knowledge that others would enjoy eternal life in the timeless post-apocalyptic universe.

Back to our room (nearly) full of sixteen year old Catholics, where I was being taught these lines, it occurs to me now that had we believed those scenarios to be literal – as some young men and women of Dante’s age would have, or might have – then the vast majority of the class could have pointed its collective finger at the three or four of us who opted out of the weekly religion hour and declared: ‘There. This is where you’ll end up.’ And maybe I did think it, something along the lines of: this is my circle. The circle of me.

But my friends and I were not written into the canto. Frederick II was – he, who my mother venerated precisely because he had tried to make knowledge, and not religion, the business of the state; he who built, among many other things, the incomparable Castel del Monte.

Here is also a Cardinal, Ottaviano degli Ubaldini, because making open professions of atheism didn’t disqualify one from highest ranks of the Catholic hierarchy at a time when the power wielded by Cardinals was above all temporal and political. Here is also – and I mean quite literally, all these souls and a thousand others are crammed into a single grave – Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti, father of Guido, a great poet and great friend of Dante, who feverishly asks the pilgrim if his son still lives. For that is the second part of the punishment: the souls of the atheists, along with some others in the great prison system of the Inferno, can see some way into the future, but not the present, like old people whose sight and whose memory can only focus on distant things. They, the Epicureans, who when they lived, lived only for the present moment.

However, the tenth canto is above all the canto of Farinata degli Uberti, the great Florentine Ghibelline (to simplify: supporter of the Holy Roman Emperor, that is to say first Frederick II, then his illegitimate son Manfred, King of Sicily, as he vied for the succession), who triumphed at Montaperti against the Guelphs of Florence and, at the great council of Empoli, cast the deciding vote against those who wanted to destroy the city; and who yet, after Manfred’s death and the rise of the Guelphs, was exhumed from the grave where he had spent the previous two decades and summarily thrown into the Arno, while two of his living sons were beheaded in the public square (a macabre feast to which Dante would have been a spectator, as a young man, long before his own disgrace and exile), and three more were burned at the stake, along with his widow Adaletta. His family’s palace, then destroyed, lies under the paving stones of what is now Piazza della Signoria.

Dante and Farinata, members of feuding families – though the Ubertis were of far higher rank and importance than the Alighieris – engage in this canto in one of literature’s great dialogues. Farinata, who is disdainful of Hell and of his fate, is still somehow defiant, yet humbles himself to ask why the Florentines of Dante’s generation hate his family with such ferocity. Dante, who is desperate to hear a prophecy of his own future, is also moved by compassion for the fallen enemy and his butchered progeny. It’s a great dramatic conversation, a piece of theatre. But, as always, it must end swiftly. And, as if to undercut the parole conte – the high, ornate words thatVirgil counselled Dante to use when addressing Farinata – the two proceed to the edge of the next circle, and are immediately overcome by its stench.

So there’s something to look forward to for next time.

Previously: Inferno I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX.