On this, the terrace of Lust, Dante stands outside the wall of fire, talking to souls within it, when suddenly he spots another group of souls within the fire, approaching the first group. They exchange chaste kisses of greeting, then shout out events signifying the nature of their Lust. One group — the homosexuals — yells, “Sodom, Gomorrah!” The other group — heterosexuals — recounts the story from classical mythology of Pasiphaë, who engaged in bestiality. They shout this penitentially, condemning themselves.
This requires unpacking. First, we should bear in mind that for Dante, the thing that makes is human is the ability to resist acting on instinct. To yield uncontrollably to our desires is to be animalistic. Our humanity is precisely measured by our ability to master our desires. To be clear, it is not to exterminate desire within us, or to cease to act ever on desire, but rather to make our desires subject to our reason. Love — that is, desire — makes the world go around, in a literal sense. That is, all actions are motivated by love. The original act of creation came out of God’s own love. We humans, we may love the wrong thing, or love the right thing in the wrong way, or love rightly. But love we do. If you read the Inferno, you’ll remember that the passionless — those who didn’t love at all — exist in torment on the outskirts of Hell, considered too lowly even to merit the Inferno. The point is, to fulfill our destiny is to perfect ourselves in love, which is to say, to love as God loves, and teaches us to love.
This is a difficult concept when it comes to sexual desire and expression. It was in Dante’s day, and it is in ours too. Seven hundred years separate us from Dante’s era, but we are much closer to the medieval Tuscans in how we view romantic love than you might think. As a young poet, Dante was part of the courtly love poetic tradition that emerged from Provençal troubadour ballads. Broadly speaking, the troubadours praised passion for its own sake, and depicted love as an overwhelming desire that could not be resisted. In the fifth canto of Inferno, Dante meets Francesca and Paolo, two lovers whose passion was stoked into a consuming fire by reading love poetry — including young Dante’s. Their passion overwhelmed them, and they yielded to each other; they were murdered by Francesca’s husband, the brother of Paolo, who discovered their affair. At the end of that episode, Dante faints — in part out of compassion for their suffering (after all, he has just begun his journey, and doesn’t know what horrors await him), but also, one surmises, because he recognizes his complicity in their damnation, through his verses praising a false ideal of Love.
Here on the terrace of Lust, penitent sinners are having the disposition to disordered sexual desire burned away. It’s important to note that Dante has the heterosexuals represented by the Pasiphaë myth because he wishes to symbolize that unbridled lust makes one bestial. Still, there’s no getting around his condemnation of homosexual desire as intrinsically disordered. That is, for Dante, and for the Church, disordered heterosexual desire becomes bestial, but homosexual desire is disordered in its essence. Dante scholar Prue Shaw writes in her new book:
If the lustful in hell are represented by Francesca, a reader of poetry, the lustful in purgatory are represented by writers of it. In purgatory we find the lustful in two categories: homosexuals and heterosexuals. In hell the homosexuals had a subcircle to themselves, for there homosexuality was classified as a sin against nature, not a sin of incontinence or weakness of will like lust. While modern readers may find this abhorrent, we can note the extraordinary lack of prurience in Dante’s depiction of the homosexuals — to the point, as we have seen, that some scholars have argued that Brunetto Latini’s sin against nature is not sodomy at all. The three noble Florentine leaders of an earlier generation who share Brunetto’s circle (and whose homosexuality is not in doubt) so arouse Dante’s admiration and gratitude for their contribution to civic life that he tells us he would have leapt down to embrace them had Virgil allowed it. Readers can make of this avowal what they will.
In his translation notes, Robert Hollander points out that Dante’s depiction of the sodomites and the lustful heterosexuals greeting each other with a kiss is a rare medieval portrayal of friendship between homosexuals and heterosexuals. Clearly Dante has a more complex view of human sexuality and its moral meaning than one may think at first glance.
A shade approaches Dante, who stands on the other side of the wall of flame, and begins talking to him. This is Guido Guinizelli, a great Tuscan poet who was one of Dante’s predecessors. The pilgrim is startled by this. He describes the older poet as “the father of me, and father of my betters, all who wrote a sweet and graceful poetry of love.” Dante offers to serve him in whatever way he can. Guido asks only that Dante say an Our Father for him when he gets to Paradise. And Guido points away from himself in the realm of fire to a poet that he considers an even greater “craftsman” than himself: Arnaut Daniel, a Provençal troubadour, who wrote what translator Mark Musa calls “some of the most pornographic poetry in Provençal literature.”
Arnaut speaks to Dante in Provençal verse — Alighieri is such a showoff! — telling him that his is “singing through my tears,” that he regrets his past “follies,” and asking the pilgrim to pray for him.
It’s interesting to contemplate that two of the greatest love poets of the Middle Ages, men who dedicated their verses to praise sexual passion, here ask Dante only to use his gift for language to pray for them, in their pain. They are being purified of the sins that made their poetry, for all its superior craftsmanship, fall critically short of the truth.
It takes some contemplation for the significance of this canto to sink in. In it, Dante, the author of the Commedia, is renouncing his earlier poetic self, and repenting of dedicating his art to a false ideal of love. It’s as if one of the greatest rock stars of our time said that he’d gotten it all wrong about love. It’s not that Dante thinks love poetry is corrupt — he’s not like Al Green, who gave up secular music for a time to become a gospel singer — but rather he’s saying that true love poetry cannot be written without a Christian understanding of what love is. Love is not the same thing as lust, Dante says here; the romantic poets of the High Middle Ages, including his young self, confused the concepts, and helped lead people to damnation (Francesca and Paolo), and earned themselves a season in the fires of Purgatory. Dante himself must pass through the fire too, and will in the next canto.
Many of us moderns laugh at the word “lust,” seeing in it something old-fashioned and uptight. But think of all the pain, suffering, and chaos in the world today caused by yielding to it, by giving full rein to desire, thinking that doing so brings us liberation. Forty, fifty years ago, our culture underwent a Sexual Revolution, one that’s still unfolding around us. In it, we declared that sexual desire needed no justification, and that yielding to our passion would make us freer, happier, more virtuous people. For the past half century, popular art has catechized our culture in this principle. Look around you to see if this is paradise, or if the poet Philip Larkin had a more truthful take on what we’ve achieved by exalting sexual desire. Larkin’s poem is a bitter one, in which he looks beyond the empty promises of the Sexual Revolution, and its throwing-off of God (a God in whom Larkin did not believe) and of the Christian ideal of sexuality, and sees … nihilism. Its final stanza:
Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.
The Larkin poem has been a favorite of mine since it jolted me in college. Re-reading it tonight, in light of the Commedia, I think I finally understood the phrase “the sun-comprehending glass.” The “high windows” of the poem’s title are church windows, which must be stained glass. The stained glass window stands as a barrier between us and the light, and emptiness. The church window refracts the pure light, and makes it comprehensible: orders it, gives it form and meaning. This is what religious faith once did to our sexual desire, and what religion does to all our desires. As Larkin said in “Church Going,” a poem about the loss of faith, church is where “all our compulsions meet/Are recognized, and robed as destinies.”
As you will see in Paradiso, Dante believes that each of us is destined to be a pane in a vast stained-glass window, through which the divine light shines, and is refracted through our individuality. Our task in life is to purify ourselves so that we may comprehend the Light, and it may pass through us to illuminate Creation. More prosaically, in light (sorry) of Larkin, we may understand Dante to be saying here that sexual passion can only have meaning, beauty, and sublimity if it is subjected to religious understanding. Otherwise, it’s transcendentalized nihilism at best (the last verse of “High Windows”), and sheer animality at worst (the poem’s first verse).
Myself, I had to walk through a wall of fire to purify myself of this disordered inclination before I could truly have either God or a woman’s love. There was no other way; believe me, I tried to find every other way. Yet if I had not taken that hard, necessary path, I am certain — certain — that I would not have found the joy that was waiting for me on the other side. I’ll tell of that tomorrow, when we walk with the pilgrim through the flames.
Say, if you haven’t yet listened to the BBC’s one-hour radio play of the Inferno, you have the rest of the week to do so. Really, you should. It’s something special.