Inferno Canto 4: How Low Can Ya Go?

By Pier Kooistra

To this Dante neophyte,* Inferno’s Canto IV is both a lark and a nightmare.

On the lark side, what fun to imagine sidling up, at a sort of netherworld cocktail party, to some of the superpeople—actually former persons, now shades—whom Dante encounters in Limbo. So long as the down-under visitor were well versed in ancient languages (and these shades convivial), s/he should be able to conjure up rich conversation. Even if the netherworld sojourner could only manage a little medieval Arabic and some classic Greek, how fascinating to be able to launch into tete-a-tete’s with openers like these:

-“A pleasure to meet you, Saladin. I’m curious: Having ruled over both Egypt and Syria, you at all surprised at the old U.A.R.’s having come apart, or would you have expected it to fracture? Whose regime do you think is worse—Mubarak’s or Assad’s? What would be your road map to Middle-East peace?”

-“Ptolemy. THE Claudius Ptolemy? Wow! Bad enough that you were relegated to this place. Cruel, on top (bottom?) of that, that you’ve been consigned to the historical margin of science. Have you had a chance to read Copernicus and Galileo? Whaddayathink? Hey, wait a second while I pull up something cool on my iPhone. Check out these nebulae as photographed by Hubble.”

-“A great privilege to meet you, Hippocrates. I can’t resist asking: If forced to choose just one, which of these technologies would you prefer to have at your disposal for doctoring—the simple blood-pressure cuff or arthroscopy? Why?”

But, on the dark side, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” These, of course, are the words of Martin King, penned in the Birmingham city jail, in Alabama, in April of 1963. They’re King’s words, but the idea has a long history. Moreover, it has lived long outside history, in innumerable hearts and minds whose flickerings and broodings have never been recorded. The consignment to Limbo of such luminaries as Ptolemy and Hippocrates, not to mention Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Euclid (all of whom Dante encounters in this canto), was a searing moral problem for many Renaissance Christians; they couldn’t help but react to this situation as an acute injustice.

As he enters the first circle of Hell and discovers the presence there of so many heroic contributors to human civilization, Dante is deeply troubled, especially when his guide, Virgil, acknowledges that the inmates of Limbo “did not sin” (Canto IV, l. 25). Their status is not a result of their having done anything wrong. The issue, Virgil continues, is that their “merit…can’t suffice without / Baptism” (ll. 25-6) to secure their entry into Heaven. “Knowing how many souls endured / Suspension in that Limbo” (ll. 34-5), Dante asks Virgil whether any have been released, and Virgil explains that, yes, Christ, “A Mighty One who descended here, arrayed / With a crown of victory…re-called / Back from this place the shade of our first parent [Adam], / And his son Abel, and other shades who dwelled / In Limbo” (ll. 42-6). These Christian forebears—including also Noah, Moses, Abraham, King David, Israel/Jacob, Rachel—have been saved. Virgil says of Christ’s intervention in Hell, “His / Coming here made them blessed, and rescued them” (ll. 50-1).

But to what degree have the souls in Limbo, in general, been rescued? Virgil is still there. Inasmuch as Dante’s pilgrimage through Hell begins in the year 1300 (on the day before Good Friday), and Virgil died in 19 BCE, the poet of the Aeneid and the Eclogues, for all his contributions to humanity (not to mention his taking care of Dante in this harrowing place), has wallowed in Limbo for thirteen centuries, so far. The duration of his punishment is perhaps numerologically apt; he is profoundly unfortunate. But it seems far from right. Though Dante is quite particular about telling us that the denizens of Limbo express only “shadowy sadnesses, not agonies” (l. 22) and, moreover, that the virtuous but un-Christian heroes there speak in “courtly voices” (l. 99, suggesting a courtly atmosphere) and inhabit a stately “enameled green” (l. 102), nonetheless these good and generally socially constructive people are kept apart, denied the fullest salvation, only because they “lived before the Christian faith, so that / They did not worship God aright” (ll. 29-30). Here we are in only the first circle of Hell. If fundamentally good people are suspended in Limbo, then it seems clear that we need to ask a question that the term Limbo (in one of its other iterations) suggests: HOW LOW CAN YA GO? No doubt, far lower. This really is gonna be Hell.

*(Regarding my participation in this little Inferno blogging group, I can’t resist saying what delighted amusement I felt, while reading Canto IV, in coming across lines 86-7: “I made a sixth / Amid such store of wisdom.” I don’t compare to my co-bloggers nearly as favorably as Dante does to Virgil, Homer, Horace, Ovid and Lucan, the ancient literati in whose company he finds himself in Limbo. My companions in this e-space far surpass me in erudition, insight and prior experience of this text, which I’m diving into for the first time. I cast a smaller shadow—and also less light. But what fun. With the line, “How low can ya go?” echoing in my mind’s ear, I find myself thinking happily, “Deeper. Just give me time.” Till next Saturday, and Canto X. –Pier)

4 responses to “Inferno Canto 4: How Low Can Ya Go?

  • jeffvamos

    Pilgrim Pier: an erudite delight (ah, OK, no Dante am I). What a crack-up. AND I just want to say that you are being WAY too humble; you must know that.

    The issues you raise here cut right to a soft-core Calvinist’s heart. Why does it not always make sense where one is assigned in the geography of Ultimate Destiny? How great if we could construct some push-me, pull-you moral strategem that would make sense.

    And to make things more confusing the first person you meet in Purgatory – Cato – is also a pagan, and a suicide. Go figure. Who makes the rules ’round here anyway?

  • jakewillardcrist

    It’s worth noting that there is another sort of limbic space opened up within Dante’s conception of Limbo in this canto: the realm of sighs between theology and poetry. Many commentators have called attention to Dante’s theological fluidity in this section, his daring play with the revered scholastic doctrines of Limbo, throwing in some adults with the children (rather than adhering to the divide between the Limbo of the Fathers and the Limbo of the Children), his collation of secular sources with theology (description inspired by Virgil’s own vision of the underworld in the Aeneid, book). Dante is definitely using established theology toward his own artistic end– which, in this canto, more than anything seems to be to highlight the tragic situation of Virgil, this Moses figure who witnesses Christ’s harrowing of hell (its own ‘commedia’), yet came up just a tad too short of getting into that delivered club. As a reader, I’m genuinely taken up with the pilgrim’s grief (iv.33) at hearing Virgil’s words, how it gestures toward the poet’s fidelity to the theological doctrine of his day; and then I want to high-five him as a poet, exercising his limitless benevolence as a maker to throw in a noble castle, and a handsome stream, and a green meadow, and Limbo’s own, and Hell’s only, sun.

  • Marquerite Yaftali

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