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Hungry are the Not Damned: Hunger as Divine in Dante’s

Commedia/ART MAIN

Dante's Heaven Spiral Dante-Divine Comedy Dante's Divine Comedy
Heaven Spiral - Illustration to Dante's Divina Commedia by William Blake (1814/27)

Dante Alighieri, La divina commedia. Padova, 1822.

Dante, Commedia. 14. Jh., Italien. Codex Altonensis, folio 48r  

Hunger exists in the afterlife of Dante’s Commedia, at least in Purgatory.  However, a seemingly parallel desire, lust, whose excess is associated with sin in the same manner as hunger, is nowhere to be found. Lust exists in the stories of characters Dante meets, but there is no actual real-time presence of lust. Both hunger and lust are desires of the human body for some kind of physical satisfaction, and both serve as ways for those in the afterlife to redefine material pleasure as something intellectual, which, as we see in Purgatory, proves to be what is necessary in order to progress into Paradise. I believe that Dante is saying that these sorts of physical desires are good—divine, even, because they provide us with an opportunity to prove our own worthiness to be with God. Even so, lust must be stricken almost completely from Dante’s vision of the afterlife because the Commedia is still, in essence, a love poem, and lust, anything that detracts from the praise of his love Beatrice as an utterly divine entity, cannot be in the poem.  Interestingly, the poet does not remove bodily desire entirely from the capacity of shades, but instead makes the absence of lust even more conspicuous by comparison, leaving other modes of fleshly desire—specifically hunger— as possibilities.

A distinction exists between this sort of desire and a shade’s simple response to bodily pain. The souls who suffer from their various torments in both Hell and Purgatory frequently respond to their tortures as though they still possessed a body.  The fact that these souls experience some kind of pain is never in doubt, especially after Virgil explains the physical nature of the shades in Purgatorio III.  After Dante reacts with alarm to the fact that he casts a shadow while Virgil does not, Virgil claims that light passes through the shades with as little interference as it experiences while passing through other light. A shade’s capacity for feeling, however, does not seem to measure up with this apparent removal from the physical realm: “A sofferir tormenti, caldi e geli/ simili corpi la Virtù dispone/ che, come fa, non vuol ch’a noi si sveli.” [“The Power has disposed such bodiless/ bodies to suffer torments, heat and cold;/ how this is done, He would not have us know”]. In order for the soul to experience a proper form of punishment, it seems that some kind of sensory perception, at least the specific sense of touch, is required.  In Purgatorio XXV, Statius further clarifies that a shade is capable of experiencing all five senses, because in the moment in which a soul reaches its determined shore in the afterlife, the air that forms a shade’s physical shape around the soul includes the composition of sensory organs (or at least “airy” versions of these organs, which function for all intents and purposes in exactly the same manner as their solid counterparts).  While Statius does state in no uncertain terms the soul’s ability to see and hear as well as laugh and cry, the limits of what a shade can actually feel with his or her sense of touch are never enumerated. This implies that there is no limit, which in turn seemingly allows for the experience of the same pleasures in the “airy” organs that can be felt with a body’s organs on earth, including sexual pleasure with the sexual organs and the pleasure of tasting and ingesting food.  Even so, the ability to partake in these pleasures remains present precisely for the reason that they should not be enjoyed. The reification of these pleasures is the basis of the purgatorial process, and because of this the body, or at least its capacity to feel, retains a prominent place in the afterlife. Through bodily punishment, the soul itself is improved. Sensual experiences are corrected as something to be experienced intellectually.

This sort of reconditioning can be seen most easily in the purgatorial punishment of the sin of gluttony in Purgatorio XXIII.  Those souls who have exhibited this sin are forced to walk round and round in a circle, continually passing a fragrant, fruit-bearing tree and water running down a rock.  When Dante sees these shades, he is taken aback by their emaciated forms, and it is his questioning of the nature of their hunger and worn bodies that eventually prompts Statius to explain the metaphysics of all shades.  The fact that these shades are clearly suffering from a feeling and look of starvation, even though food may not actually be required to sustain them, begs the question of whether or not the shades always experience hunger.  Seemingly, the hunger of these shades is made more pronounced by the temptation they must undergo.  Their passing of the tree and the water intensifies their longing; interestingly enough, it also produces the actual physical effects of their apparent starvation.  Gluttony is the sixth sin to be punished in Purgatory, leaving only lust to follow it.  When Dante encounters the souls wrapped in flames undergoing purgation of this final sin, he never remarks on any of the souls still appearing starved and emaciated.  In fact, it appears likely that those souls who are punished for both gluttony and lust leave their outward appearances of starvation behind on the Sixth Terrace.  It seems unlikely that a soul would receive any sort of nourishment once its purgation of gluttony has been completed. After all, on the Sixth Terrace, the gluttons endure a kind of “spiritual hunger.”

To allow them to eat after they have endured this punishment would destroy any purgation that took place.  It seems much more plausible that the outward effects of starvation only manifest themselves in response to the presence of objects of temptation, specifically represented in this case by the water and the fruit of the tree.  The souls, once free of these temptations, return to a state of ‘normalcy,’ and, since they have now been purged of gluttony, we can presume that their freedom from hunger afterwards remains even in the presence of the forbidden fruit of the tree in the Earthly Paradise. 

The fact that the desire of hunger only appears in response to temptation is strengthened by an examination of the gluttons in the Inferno.  The gluttons in the Third Circle of Inferno VI do not actually experience hunger themselves.  Instead, they are tormented by the presence of freezing cold, filthy rain, a miserable downpour which seems to be an extension of the winds that buffet the lustful souls of Canto V.  The three-headed hound Cerberus stands guard over these souls, and, oddly enough, he seems to be the only real glutton on the scene.  Dante specifically points out Cerberus’s “three throats,” and in order to allow Dante and himself to pass by the beast, Virgil throws a clod of mud at Cerberus, causing the three mouths of the hound to greedily stuff themselves.  It may be interesting in itself that the gluttons are themselves punished by a glutton, but the contrapasso does not include a literal ingestion of the actual sinners.  One might expect Cerberus to actually bite them as they once bit too eagerly, but no such action occurs.  Rather, Cerberus appears to function simply as a guard who makes sure that the gluttons do not leave their assigned circle, leaving the actual punishment to the wind, rain, and snow.  These elements, however, do cover up the sinners in a manner which could be called analogous to the act of swallowing.  Even so, the souls themselves show no evidence of a desire for food that would parallel the punishment of their counterparts in Purgatory.  Dante, in fact, never comments on the physical appearance of these shades, remarking only on their misery at the hands of the elements.  He does fail to recognize Ciacco, who asks Dante whether he remembers him, but Dante attributes this not to any physical change, but rather to an emotional one:  L’angoscia che tu hai/ forse ti tira fuor de la mia mente” [“It is perhaps your anguish/ that snatches you out of my memory”]. Clearly, the gluttons are not starving.  Ciacco says nothing of food, and the only reason he even mentions gluttony to Dante at all is to name the sin for which he and the members of his circle are punished.  Because there is no object for the souls to fix their desire on, no forbidden fruit on a tree or water rolling down a rock, the souls never feel that desire. 

The removal of this desire from the damned may at first seem to be a favor, but Dante may be trying to show that bodily desire is indeed a positive thing.  Dante frequently makes it apparent that the resurrected body will serve a function in the afterlife.  In fact, it is among the gluttons that Dante hears his first words concerning the resurrection of the body upon the Last Judgment, a theme that will remain important throughout the entire Commedia.  Virgil tells his protégé that the souls in Hell will be reunited with their bodies, and Dante responds by asking whether this will intensify or decrease the torments the souls feel in their punishments.  Virgil’s answer implies that the soul in Hell, united with its body, will only experience a greater sensitivity concerning what it already feels:  Ritorna a tua scïenza,/ che vuol, quanto la cosa è più perfetta,/ più senta il bene, e così la doglienza” [“Remember now your science,/ which says that when a thing has more perfection,/ so much the greater is its pain or pleasure”].

Obviously, since the shades in Hell are already being tortured, unification with the body will hardly be an act of joy, considering their torments will be felt to an increased degree.  Yet Virgil does refer to this act of reunification as “perfection,” perverted though the perfection may be in the case of the damned.  However physically discomforting this act will prove, Canto XIII implies that the fate awaiting the suicides at the Second Coming deserves even more sympathy.  The suicides, whose souls are trapped forever in trees, are the only souls in Hell, Purgatory, or Paradise who will be forbidden to recombine with their bodies.  The link between body and soul that represents the human self has, through suicide, forever been replaced by a combination of soul and nature. It is not as though the suicides will never see these bodies again. On the contrary, they will be placed in such a manner that the souls can never forget them. When the trumpet of the Second Coming sounds, we learn, the souls of suicides will leave their trees and return above to retrieve their bodies, dragging them down to Hell and hanging them on the branches of the trees that will encapsulate the souls once more, this time for all eternity. In this scenario, there will be an intensification of pain similar to what those in the other circles will experience upon the resurrection of the body, but that pain will not be a physical one.  In the case of the suicides, the absence of bodily desire is being mocked by instilling in the souls a desire for body.  Once again, the principle of desire requiring a present object comes into play. The souls will only be able to properly yearn for their bodies once they are able to see them; the hanging of these bodies on the branches will serve as a constant reminder to these souls of the mistake they made in casting off the physical form given to them by their Creator. The longing and disappointment that they will feel demonstrates that the body has some function, even in death, and even in Hell. The properties of the body—its capacity to feel, to taste, to see, and, most importantly, to desire, are to be valued. It may well be that once the gluttons of the Third Circle are united with their bodies, they will experience the hunger that seems so curiously absent from then now. Although this addition of new physical hardships scarcely seems like a lighter load from our point of view, what this hunger would in fact do for the gluttons is move them closer to God. Their bodies, after all, were God-given, and while they will wear them in shame and torment, at the very least they can take solace in their own humanity - something the suicides in the trees will forever be prevented from doing.

Bodily desire, specifically represented in hunger, would not only move the souls closer to both their human and divine natures, but would also link them with Dante himself.  Writing in exile, the poet would have been no stranger to the desire for food, although certainly not to the extent of the penitents on the Terrace of Gluttony. It is important to remember, though, that only when Dante was a sporadic guest of the wealthy over the first decade of his exile would he have truly satisfied his hunger.  More often, in the words of Harriet Rubin, “his stomach was only washed with water and bean or squash soup poured over dried bread.” Of course, hunger was not the sole property of Dante. He was writing on a continent where hunger was becoming a greater and greater problem, increasingly being figured as a sign of the times.  Dante’s contemporaries would almost certainly have identified hunger as a key marker of humanity.  Famine was approaching Europe in Dante’s time.  The tragedy and horror of the Plague would be partially fueled by mass starvation in the 1320’s.  The Commedia is a product of a time during which bakers and millers became symbols of distrust.  In the deepest pit of Hell, in fact, Dante first sees Lucifer as a windmill. Here, the greatest sinner of all is depicted as completely removed from the desire that marks humanity.  The three mouths of Lucifer forever grind their teeth on the poet’s triumvirate of treason: Judas, Brutus, and Cassius.  Each of these three unfortunate individuals has his head and upper body enclosed in a mouth, leaving only their legs free to be thrown about in agony (as in the case of Judas and Cassius) or display the stoic acceptance of their pain (as does Brutus).  Dante observers that these three sinners are being torn apart by Lucifer: “Da ogne bocca dirompea co’ denti/ un peccatore, a guisa di maciulla [“Within each mouth - he used it like a grinder - / with gnashing teeth he tore to bits a sinner”].  The fact that these souls are being torn “to bits” suggests they are certainly being transformed into pieces small enough to swallow—but Judas, Brutus, and Cassius must not be swallowed, or the punishment that has been assigned to them will disappear (or at least be transformed into something entirely different, although not necessarily less unpleasant).  A multitude of reasons could be given as explanations for why the mouths of Lucifer do not swallow these sinners, from the humorous—as individuals stained by treason, they may be associated with an unpleasant taste—to the practical—as shades, they might not offer any sort of sustenance when swallowed.  However, the point to bear in mind is that Lucifer was, and still is, an angel.  As an angel, he would be given a mouth (or mouths, in this case) to speak, and almost certainly to sing, but it seems unlikely that the mouth and throat of an angel, a creature never requiring any sort of sustenance, would even be capable of swallowing.  Here, by putting this inability on display, Dante is emphasizing the literal inhumanity of Hell’s most prominent inhabitant.  The absence of any desire to swallow Judas, Brutus, or Cassius marks Lucifer as a true outsider while simultaneously highlighting the positive connotation of bodily hunger.

The importance of this bodily hunger, as is the case with all desire in the Commedia, has less to do with its associations with humanity, though, than with its ability to be restrained, controlled, and redefined. This is, of course, the reason that Hell is populated by a great number of it inhabitants;  they were unable to become master of their own desires, instead conversely letting their desires master them. Dante stresses that bodily desire is necessary, but only because the reification of that desire is the marker of the individual’s purity and worthiness to join God in Paradise. Intellectualization becomes the key to this process, as we can see in Purgatorio. This intellectualisation can be employed by allegory, which Dante specifically demonstrates concerning gluttony. Purgatorio Canto XXIV highlights the relationship Dante postulates between gluttony and poetic creativity.  According to Marianne Shapiro, what Dante learns from the penitents who sing a song on the Terrace of Gluttony literally having to do with singing itself is that the praise of God should be “unmediated.”  Matter that comes between the object of poetry and poetry itself is intrusive and therefore must be condemned. By confining this sin to the realm of intellect, Dante becomes the controller of it.  He cannot prove himself as guiltless of gluttony, for, unlike the penitent souls who surround him, he must continue to eat.  However, once the excess of gluttony has been allegorized as offending material in poetry, Dante is free to declare himself innocent of it, for his own poetry provides the evidence.  Although he is unable to purge himself from the desire of gluttony in the same way as the other souls, he does offer an allegorical substitute that allows him to go on to the next terrace.

In the end, hunger as a desire proves to be something positive, something that allows for a link with God, a link with Dante himself, and a way for a soul to prove his or her mastery over their own senses.  It does exist merely as something to be conquered, but the opportunity to do so, and the opportunity to feel a physical longing, is something divine.  Without this longing, Dante shows us, without the God-given need to experience the suffering associated with a need for food and drink--we are truly damned.

Kevin Drzakowski




www.nifeislife.com