Walking with Dante/11. The boredom of Satan, capable only of being a parody of good

Lucifer in a fifteenth-century illustration of the Divine Comedy

Lucifer in a fifteenth-century illustration of the Divine Comedy

«Vexilla regis prodeunt inferni»: the beginning of canto XXXIV and last of the Inferno is solemn and heraldic: «Advance the banners of the king of hell», reversal in parodic echo of a hymn by Venantius Fortunatus, sung on Good Friday on the cross of sacrifice: «Vexilla regis prodeunt,/ fulget crucis mysterium,/ quo carne carnis conditor/ suspensus est patibulo» [«Avanzano i vessilli regali / rifulge il mistero della croce, / al cui patibolo il creatore della carne / con la propria carne fu elevato»].

It is a memorable incipit, of great theological force: evil can only be the degrading parody of good; and of profound metaphorical iconicity. No one better than Ignatius of Loyola knew how to rewrite it, in his own Spiritual exercises: “Fourth day. Meditation on two flags, one of Christ, our high captain and Lord, the other of Lucifer, mortal enemy of our human nature. […] The second prelude is the composition seeing the place: here it will be seen a large field in the region of Jerusalem, where Christ our Lord is the supreme ruler of the good, and another field in the region of Babylon, where Lucifer is the leader of the adversaries. […] I imagine in the vast field of Babylon the leader of the adversaries, who sits on a great seat of fire and smoke, horrible and frightening in appearance”. A “seat of fire and smoke”: how can we not think of Dante’s poem: “As when a thick fog blows” (XXXIV, 4)?

Although Lucifer has fallen, his abject metamorphosis, Satan, is always in the field: Dante remembers him, in the wake of the Pater Noster: « et ne nos inducas in temptationem»: “don’t submit us to the test”, to the ordeal with the Evil One, «that is, don’t allow us to commit such a fault that we should deservedly fall into hell» (Honorio d’Autun, ecclesial speculum, PL, 172, 822C). In Dante’s figuration, in only one line, the memory of the angelic figure that was Lucifer glimmers: «the creature who had a beautiful semblance» (v. 18); the sudden transformation of that fatal instant is an acute torment for the poet: «If he was so beautiful as he is now ugly, / and against his factor he raised his eyelashes, / all mourning should well proceed from him» ( vv. 34-36).

The appearance of the lord of Dis leaves Dante as if in a state of paralysis: «How I became allor gelato e fioco / do not ask, reader, I’m not writing it, / […] / I did not die and I did not remain alive» (vv. 22-25), not unlike the fainting that seizes Dante in front of the drama of Paolo and Francesca: the extreme love and the extreme abjection of the human. Only in the dramatic poem by Vladimir Holan (Prague 1905-1980), A night with Hamlet, the dilemma returns with equal intensity: «it receives the light, yet it does not shine».

A counterfeit of the plenitude of the Trinity, by now Satan, gripped in the grip of ice, has “three faces on his head”, under which from each “two great wings issued, / […] / They had no feathers, but of vispistrello / it was their way; and those fluttered, / so that three winds moved from him: / then Cocytus all froze» (vv. 46-52). The huge blind bat of evil moves those wings / blades that perpetually feed and consolidate the ice of which he is a prisoner: first Héautontimoroumenos (Baudelaire) of himself and of humanity: «I am the wound and the knife! / I am the slap and the cheek! / They are the limbs and the wheel, / the victim and the executioner! / I am the vampire of my heart».

As the Trinity, loving each other, pours out throughout creation, filling it with its own peace: «What you saw was because it is not an excuse / to open the heart to the waters of peace / which are spread from the eternal source» (Purg XV, 130-132), thus – in symmetrical contrapposto – «The ‘mperador of the painful kingdom» (XXXIV, 28) brings to himself and devours the bodies he has subjugated: «From every mouth burst forth with teeth / a sinner, a like a maciulla, / yes that three made them so sad» (vv. 55-57). Dante’s scheme will return in the most memorable underworld representations, as in book X of lost paradise of Milton: «around the walls / of Pandemonium, city and palace / of Lucifer, so called by mistake, / by the fulgium of the star to which Satan was compared. / There the legions were in arms…» (X, 423-427), or in the Visions by William Blake, right from his own Milton (1804-1808): «The Eyes, fearing that the firm bones did not become a crust of ice on everything, looked at the Abyss» and again, from Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “One part of being is the Prolific, the other the Devouring. It may seem to the devourer that he keeps the producer in his chains, but that is not the case at all; he grasps only fragments of existence, and it seems to him the whole» (both passages in the translation by Giuseppe Ungaretti, from Visions by William Blake).

The Manichean antinomy of Good and Evil, which lasts from Dante to Blake, will be confirmed again by Baudelaire: «There are in every man, at every moment, two simultaneous yearnings, one for God, the other for Satan . Invocation to God, or spirituality, is a desire to rise; that to Satan, or animality, is the pleasure of lowering oneself » (Mon coeur mis à nu, XI); bad Fleurs du Mal however, they sanctioned the tragic awareness of the advance of evil: «Every day we go down one step towards Hell / Without horror, crossing fetid darkness» (dedication To the reader).

Of that century, the most acute meditation is perhaps the one that Michail Yur’evic Lermontov (1814-1841) left us in his poem The Demon, where he contemplates, for all of us, the nausea of ​​Satan in having no adversaries here, the invincible boredom of a squalid triumph: «On our wretched earth / The Demon exercises his arts. / Wherever his spirit predominates / evil extends … but nowhere / having found resistance, / is his power wearisome »( The Demon, 183841, part I, II). And yet in Dante there is only an instant of disgust for the «vermo reo» (v. 108), then the journey continues, towards the light – finally!: «we went up, el primo e io secondo, / so much that ‘I’ saw of the beautiful things / which heaven brings, through a round hole. / And then we went out to see the stars again» (vv. 136-139).

The eponymous triplets

With six eyes he cried, and for three chins

dripped tears and bloody drool.

From every mouth it burst with teeth

a sinner, like a maul,

so that three made them so sorry.

Hell XXXIV, 53-57​

Walking with Dante/11. The boredom of Satan, capable only of being a parody of good