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Dante and the Origins of Italian Literary Culture$

Teodolinda Barolini

Print publication date: 2006

Print ISBN-13: 9780823227037

Published to Fordham Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.5422/fordham/9780823227037.001.0001

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Q: Does Dante Hope for Vergil's Salvation? a: Why Do We Care? For the Very Reason We Should Not Ask the Question

Q: Does Dante Hope for Vergil's Salvation? a: Why Do We Care? For the Very Reason We Should Not Ask the Question

(p.151) Chapter 7 Q: Does Dante Hope for Vergil's Salvation? A: Why Do We Care? For the Very Reason We Should Not Ask the Question
Dante and the Origins of Italian Literary Culture

Teodolinda Barolini

Fordham University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The overarching plot requirements of the Commedia undergird Vergil's damnation and suggest that to think in terms of his salvation is to opt for the lectio facilior, in the sense of the reading that is easier for us emotionally. Why does the critical literature ask only whether Dante hopes for Vergil's salvation? Does no one else's matter? Why do we care only about Vergil? The answers, to this way of thinking, are: no, no one else's salvation does matter, because the problem is less intellectual than emotional, and the response has been dictated by the text.

Keywords:   Commedia, damnation, Dante, Vergil, salvation

The Commedia makes narrative believers of us all. By this I mean that we accept the possible world (as logicians call it) that Dante has invented; we do not question its premises or assumptions except on its own terms. We read the Commedia as fundamentalists read the Bible, as though it were true, and the fact that we do this is not connected to our religious beliefs; for, on a narrative level, we believe the Commedia without knowing that we do so. Whatever else Dante mayhave had in mind, this fact constitutes his essential “allegory of theologians”; indeed, it is possible that rather than continuing to attempt to ascertain Dante's mode of signifying in the abstract, we should begin with what the poem actually does, and how it accomplishes what it does, and extrapolate backward to its theoretical mode of signifying.

The history of the Commedia's reception offers a sustained demonstration of our narrative credulity, our readerly incapacity to suspend our suspension of disbelief in front of the poet-creator's masterful deployment of what are essentially techniques of verisimilitude, or (as Morton Bloomfield puts it) authenticating devices.1 Thus, the poet manages our scandalized reaction to encountering his beloved teacher among the sodomites by staging his own—“Siete voi qui, ser Brunetto?”—so creating a complicity between reader and pilgrim that masks the artifice always present in what is, after all, a text. Spontaneous lived experience replaces the artifice of representation. By the same token, we have rarely stopped to consider that the writer of the words on hell's gate is Dante, that the maker of the “divine art” on the terrace of pride is also Dante, that Beatrice is employed by this same Dante to tell the pilgrim that the souls only appear in the various heavens for his sake because he (the poet) both requires the heavens as narrative differentiators and wishes to pretend that they are not (p.152) there—that heaven is undifferentiated unity. All of this and much more: for these examples are culled from a text whose fundamental strategy is that it has no strategy, that everything is described as it was “seen” (here Dante's analogy between himself and biblical visionaries like the author of the Apocalypse enters, with the whole question of the Commedia's allegory), a text that propels critics to pose their questions and situate their debates within the very presuppositions of the fiction they are seeking to understand. Thus we find the common defensive move we could call the “collocation fallacy,” whereby a critic argues that reading x is not tenable with regard to soul x because, if it were operative, soul x would be located elsewhere (for example, Ulysses cannot be guilty of fraudulent discourse, because then he would be with Sinon among the falsifiers of words).2 But why should collocation be elevated to a heuristic device? Only because we approach the poem through the lens of its own fiction treated as dogma.

How is all this connected to Vergil? One of Dante's key strategies for achieving our narrative assent involves his handling of other poets: he consistently formulates the difference between his poetry and that of his predecessors as the difference between truth and (with various shadings) falsehood.3 In other words, the entire question of the Commedia's intertextuality can be placed under the rubric of its truthclaims: one of the ways that Dante secures the credibility of his text is by constructing situations designed to reveal the incredibility of his precursors' texts. I use the terms “credibility” and “incredibility” advisedly; I am echoing Dante's own “cosa incredibile” from the Pier della Vigna episode, where the “incredible thing” is Piero himself, a tree-man, the fact that a man has become a tree. In this episode Vergil is put into the position of apologizing to Piero for having induced the pilgrim to pluck his branch; he would not have had to make this cruel suggestion had the pilgrim been able to believe, on the basis of his reading of the Aeneid, in the possibility of a tree-man: “ ‘S'elli avesse potuto creder prima,’ / rispuose 'l savio mio, ‘anima lesa, / ciò c'ha veduto pur con la mia rima’ ” (“If he could have believed first,” replied my sage, “O wounded soul, what he has seen only in my rhymes”) (Inf. 13.46–48). But the “cosa incredibile”—the thing's inherent incredibility—is such that Vergil cannot rely on the pilgrim's knowledge of the Polydorus episode in the Aeneid; only direct experience can (p.153) impart so incredible a reality—“ma la cosa incredibile mi fece / in-durlo ad ovra ch'a me stesso pesa” (but the incredible thing made me induce him to do what pains me as well) (Inf. 13.50–51).

What is remarkable in this passage is how it succeeds in making us associate the Aeneid with the incredible—the nonbelievable textual world of fiction and make-believe in which men can be transformed into trees—and the Commedia by contrast with a reality in which the incredible is credible because it really is. Cacciaguida is the only other character in the poem to use the word incredibile; in the language of his ancestor, Dante transforms the Aeneid's pagan incredibilitas into a blazon of the Commedia's divinely sanctioned claim to credibility against all odds: “Io dirò cosa incredibile e vera” (I will say something incredible and true) (Par. 16.124).4 The pilgrim is not expected to believe the Aeneid, so he must resort to action—to what takes place in the Commedia. He must substitute direct lived experience for the Aeneid's artificial representation of experience, and that direct lived experience is—we are induced almost subliminally to believe—Dante's poem.

But Vergil is subjected to a dialectical treatment in the Commedia: he is undermined as a source of truth, but not as an object of devotion.5 Instead, the pilgrim's love for his guide becomes ever greater; indeed, it becomes more felt and more nuanced with the passage of (textual) time, precisely as emotions develop with the passage of time on earth. This love provides Mowbray Allan a pillar on which to rest his belief that the Vergil of the Commedia may be destined for salvation: “My strongest evidence is the warm advocacy of generations of readers and the pain their belief in Virgil's permanent damnation has caused them. One need only assume that such reactions are entirely consistent with the pilgrim's own feelings and, furthermore, with the poet's intentions.”6 Moving to a discussion of the heaven of justice and its saved pagans, Trajan and Ripheus, Allan reminds us that caldo amore and viva speranza are said to be able to overcome the divinewill, and notes that the saved do not yet know all their brethren: “ché noi, che Dio vedemo, / non conosciamo ancor tutti li eletti” (for we, who see God, do not yet know all the chosen) (Par. 20.134–35). He concludes: “There has long been ‘caldo amore’ on behalf of Virgil; I see no reason why there should not be ‘viva speranza’ as well” (“Does Dante Hope … ,” 204).7

To the extent that we choose to grant the possible world depicted by the Commedia the status of an ontological reality with an extension (p.154) into the future, there is no reason why we should not hope for Vergil's salvation. As Allan points out, “presumably Trajan was hopeless, too, until Gregory supplied hope” (“Does Dante Hope … ,” 194). Therefore, in the same way that we may wonder about the future of Maggie and the Prince after the conclusion of The Golden Bowl, we may wonder about Vergil's salvation; in both cases, we wonder because the author has created fictive characters so “real,” so compelling that we invest them with our emotional concern. But whereas such speculation would not be entertained as legitimate scholarly enquiry vis-à-vis James's novel, because of its status as fiction, we are persuaded by the Commedia that it is legitimate to speculate about Vergil's future. Andso we do: Vergil's salvation has been debated by Dante scholars always in terms of its theological plausibility (as Allan now frames the question), never in terms of the legitimacy of the question itself. In other words, the issue is discussed as though it belonged to the real world, rather than to a text whose fictive powers have generated our concern; we do not worry about the fate of virtuous pagans as a group, as Dante did, but about the fate of one fictive construct. We care about Vergil because Dante makes us care, which is why there is no point to speculating about his future: he exists only in Dante's mind, in the text.

The overarching plot requirements of the Commedia undergird Vergil's damnation and suggest that to think in terms of his salvation is to opt for the lectio facilior, in the sense of the reading that is easier for us emotionally. Why does the critical literature ask only whether Dante hopes for Vergil's salvation? Does no one else's matter? Why do we care only about Vergil? The answers, to my way of thinking, are: no, no one else's salvation does matter to us, because for us the problem is less intellectual than emotional, and our response has been dictated by the text.

Dante, like the heavenly eagle, was obsessively concerned with the justice of damning those who did not know God (the eagle formulates in geographical terms, using the example of the man born on the banks of the Indus, the condition that the virtuous pagans exemplify in chronological terms). He incarnates his concern in the figure of Vergil. We, instead, are concerned not with the group, the concept of virtuous pagans, but with the single, singular, unique, and irreplaceable fictive construct: Virgilio. (Another way of saying this is that Dante tries to generate his intellectual passion for justice in his readers through his handling of the figure of Vergil.) Had Allan referred to (p.155) any other soul in limbo, had he asked “Does Dante hope for Horace's salvation?” or even “Does Dante hope for Aristotle's salvation?”, I would not have written my reply. I would have been convinced that he was reacting to the logic of the eagle's implications, and not to the affective manipulations of the text.

The very fact that we pose such questions is an indication that in some way the Commedia does succeed, more than most texts, in constructing a literal sense that we accept—at an almost subconscious level—as true (and thus in constructing an “allegory of theologians”). The question “Does Dante hope for Vergil's salvation?” is based on a suspension of disbelief, on an implicit accordance to the text of a status beyond that of text. It is a question that, like the collocation fallacy, situates itself entirely within the world created by the text, rather than stepping outside and viewing that world as artifice. Yes, Dante knows that the salvation of pagans is theologically possible (if not a topic that the theologians pursued with much vigor);8 yes, he could save Vergil. That is precisely why it is important that he does not, that instead he gives us ample reason to believe that Vergil will return to dwell eternally in the place from which Beatrice summons him, the first circle of hell. Instead of choosing to announce the salvation of Vergil, Dante chooses to return him to limbo and to highlight the fact that, from a theological perspective, pagans can be saved—which he does by saving, with much fanfare, Cato, Trajan, and Ripheus. Allan would say that he may yet intend Vergil to be saved, that he has merely omitted to tell us what he has planned.9 My point is that what Dante tells us is what is—because the Commedia is not a world, but a text, and all weknow about the possible world represented by the text is what the text chooses to tell us.

As a text, the Commedia is made of a series of choices, none of which had to be. We can look at our topic in terms of the fundamental authorial choices involved, choices that may well have preceded the casting of particular figures for these roles. Dante chose to choose a guide whom he would invest with the pathos of the human condition: a condition in which we love not wisely—which would involve loving only the infallible, incorruptible, and divine—but too well. He chose to choose a guide whom he would cause us to love and then to lose, thus forcing us to participate in the hard exchange of that which can be touched with our hands (as the Prince of Lampedusa memorably puts it) for that which cannot fail us.10 He also chose to invest this (p.156) problematic with a historical dimension, so that what must be sublimated is not just the guide but the culture that the guide represents: the classical culture Dante simultaneously adores and distrusts. He further chose to make this representative a fellow poet, the better to charge the dramatization with questions of poetic authority. And he chose to make the loss we suffer (we being the pilgrim and the reader whose complicity with the pilgrim has long been assured) more painful by showing us that the possibility of salvation for the likes of his guide does exist: we would prefer to think of the guide's damnation as inevitable, as in no way tied to a defect of character, but Dante chooses not to allow us so comfortable a solution.11

So, Dante chooses to structure his text around the pivot of a major protagonist whom the text's other major protagonist will come to love and lose: in narrative terms, a move of genius. Why? Because the Commedia, as plot, is severely overdetermined, a problem of which Danteis well aware and against which he mounts a remarkably successful campaign, causing us to feel suspense, for instance, on occasions when—from a theological perspective—there can be only certainty (think of the devils' attempts to obstruct the voyagers' passage). In hell Dante counters his plot by granting stature, linguistic and otherwise, to the sinners, in paradise by inducing anxiety about the problem of differential grace, whereby God's light penetrates the universe “in una parte più e meno altrove” (in one part more and in another less) (Par. 1.3). Throughout the poem, although most striking in the second realm, runs the current of loss, of melancholy leave-taking, of that “desire for dead bodies” (disio ďi corpi morti [Par. 14.63]) that makes the souls clamor “Amen” at the thought of their resurrection. The figure of Vergil is the author's most charismatic emblem for this current, his greatest tool in his battle against complacent textuality, against the saccharine and the undramatic: how impossible the figure of Beatrice would be if the poet could not conjure the chiasmic drama of her arrival conjoined to Vergil's departure, if he could not make us resent her presence, linking it to the loss of the dolcissimo patre, and thereby work against the grain of the sweetly smiling aura of angelic beneficence that we expect!

Dante was not obliged to coordinate the pilgrim's realization of Vergil's absence with his realization of Beatrice's presence. Vergil's absence is noticed when it is in order to create a node of surpassing textual tension, one that teaches us that all forward motion is bought at a price. Moreover, with supreme artistry, Dante registers Vergil's (p.157) absence by way of the words the pilgrim would have addressed to him had he been there to hear them: the pilgrim turns to speak to his guide (“volsimi … per dicere a Virgilio” [I turned … to say to Vergil] [Purg. 30.43, 46]), and the words that he would have uttered are transcribed as direct discourse: “Men che dramma / di sangue m'è rimaso che non tremi: / conosco i segni de ľantica fiamma” (Less than a dram of blood is left me that is not trembling: I recognize the signs of the ancient flame) (Purg. 30.46–48). Only after reading them do we learn that they are hypothetical, when the narrator abruptly intervenes with the information that Vergil is not there: “Ma Virgilio n'avea lasciati scemi / di sé” (But Vergil had left us deprived of himself) (Purg. 30.49–50).

Dante thus inscribes his sweet father indelibly into the very syntax that tells us he is gone. Because of its will to force us to live its lesson of loss, to experience the shock of bereavement for ourselves, to feel it as the death of a beloved parent whose presence is still palpable, the text works at cross-purposes to itself, achieving the same kind of dialectical “living” textuality that, for instance, confounds us by both celebrating Ulysses and damning him. In this case, while the content denotes an absence, the form works to make a presence—with the words that are addressed to one who cannot hear them, with the appropriation of Dido's verse from the Aeneid, and with the incantatory invocations of a repeated name: “Ma Virgilio n'avea lasciati scemi / di sé, Virgilio dolcissimo patre, / Virgilio a cui per mia salute die'mi” (But Vergil had left us deprived of himself, Vergil, most sweet father, Vergil, to whom I gave myself for my salvation) (Purg. 30.49–51; my italics).

The pilgrim may hope for Vergil's salvation, but the poet wills otherwise; not because he is the reductively stern moralist of so much Dante criticism, but because Vergil provides the edge, the tension, the pain and irresolution out of which the poet can make effective poetry. My point is not that there is no morality in the Commedia, but that the work's dialectical texture prevents it from functioning in a reductively schematic fashion. It is, therefore, from a textual point of view, spurious to speculate about Vergil's salvation: an essential condition of Vergil's existence in the poem that Dante chose to make is that he cease to exist.12 We can make another text in which he is saved—but it will be precisely that, another text.


(1.) See Morton Bloomfield, “Authenticating Realism and the Realism of Chaucer,” Thought 39 (1964): 335–58.

(2.) Discussion of the collocation fallacy and other theoretical issues at stake in reading the Commedia may be found in my The Undivine Comedy, chapter 1.

(3.) For exploration of this principle in both the lyric and epic spheres, see my Dante's Poets.

(4.) The Commedia's three usages of incredibile suggest the text's alignment of itself with truth and of its classical precursor with falsehood: used alone by Vergil in Inferno 13, with reference to the Aeneid, incredibile is paired with vera by Cacciaguida in Paradiso 16, who employs it again in Paradiso 17, with reference to Cangrande's exploits. See my Dante's Poets, 281, where Cacciaguida's “cosa incredibile e vera” is linked to the unbelievable truths—“mira vera”—of Dante's second eclogue.

(5.) In chapter 3 of Dante's Poets, I document “how the Vergilian paradox operates at the level of narrative, resulting in two distinct but tightly coordinated storylines: as one maps the progressive undermining of Vergiľs authority, i.e., of his appeal to the intellect, the other records the simultaneous growth in the pilgrim's love for him, i.e., in his appeal to the will” (200–201).

(p.405) (6.) Allan, “Does Dante Hope for Virgiľs Salvation?”, 195. (I have followed Gilbert Highet in using “Vergil” rather than “Virgil”; for explanation, see my Dante's Poets, 207n25.)

(7.) The words of the eagle in Paradiso 20 are Allan's key text, since he takes them as providing hope, in the future, to those presently excluded from salvation. I take the eagle's words as ultimately paradoxical, embracing both a divine obscurantism and a gleam of possibility (the pertugio through which Ugolino cannot pass, but that opens to the pilgrim in Inferno's penultimate verse).

(8.) Although there was a doctrine of implicit grace, according to Kenelm Foster it tended to be ignored by theologians: “Catholic theory by and large did not much concern itself with the ultimate destiny, in God's sight, of the pagan world whether before or since the coming of Christ. … The concept itself of fides implicita was not lacking … but it was hardly a central preoccupation of theologians, nor, in particular, do its implications for an assessment of the spiritual state of the world outside Christendom seem to have been taken very seriously” (The Two Dantes and Other Studies [Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1977], 171–72). It is against this background of neglect that the radical import of Dante's “prehumanistic” concern can best be measured; it is important to actively remember, for instance, that there is no theological precedent for the presence of virtuous pagans in limbo.

(9.) Karla Taylor provides a less tenable nuancing of the same suggestion when she argues that, in Paradiso, Dante has learned a new humility that prevents him from judging absolutely, with the result that the presence of Ripheus reflects, vis-à-vis Vergil, “the poet's final reluctance to judge as firmly and surely as only God can” (“From superbo Ilïòn to umile Italia: The Acrostic of Paradiso 19,” Stanford Italian Review 7 [1987]: 47–65; quotation at 64). Taylor's argument is based not on what Dante has done (put Vergil in limbo), but on what she thinks he should do (show enough humility to refuse to judge Vergil absolutely). Keeping our eyes firmly focused on what the poet has actually done, we can compare his refusal to locate Guido Cavalcanti in his afterworld (a case where Dante's textual actions support the thesis of an authentic reluctance to judge) with his explicit collocation of Vergil in the first circle of hell. More generally, the weakness of Taylor's argument is that it is premised on a newfound authorial humility that Dante allegedly acquires in the Paradiso, a humility for which one can find support in the Commedia's content (think of St. Thomas' strictures against judging) but not in its form; the judgments and distributions of the third realm are in no way more tentative than those of the earlier realms. Taylor's procedure, frequent in Dante studies, is an example of extrapolating from the content—the need to be humble in paradise—to a conclusion for which there is no textual basis, namely that Dante-as-poet actually is more humble in writing Paradiso. Moreso even than with respect to hell and purgatory, because of the ineffable nature of the vision, the only real way to have practiced humility in writing Paradiso would have been not to write it.

(p.406) (10.) “Potremo magari preoccuparci per i nostri figli, forse per i nipotini; ma al di là di quanto possiamo sperare di accarezzare con queste mani non abbiamo obblighi” (Tomasi di Lampedusa, Il Gattopardo). That which cannot fail is what the protagonist of the Vita nuova learns to love, as a result of the failure of Beatrice's greeting: “Ma poi che le piacque di negarlo a me, lo mio segnore Amore, la sua merzede, ha posto tutta la mia beatitudine in quello che non mi puote venire meno” (18.4).

(11.) “But the presence of Ripheus is not a salutary one for Vergil, since it implies that Vergiľs exile is not simply the result of an impartial dogma. Dante could have reduced the tension surrounding Vergil by tacitly excluding all pagans from heaven, or at least by including only those whose salvation, like Trajan's, was buttressed by medieval legend” (Dante's Poets, 254).

(12.) I hope with this essay to have better explained the principles that caused me to observe that it is “not so much theologically vain as poetically unrealistic to speculate about Vergiľs possible salvation, since it is an essential condition of his existence in the poem that he shall also cease to exist: his presence is predicated on his talent for absence” (Dante's Poets, 200).