Erich Auerbach, Mimesis (Princeton, 2003): pgs. 174 – 202

We’re in Chapter 8: “Farinata and Cavalcante.” Even though I don’t always understand Auerbach’s linguistic analyses (I mean, he’s bouncing back and forth between three or four languages in every chapter—much of it premodern and much of it left untranslated), I appreciate (perhaps all the more so) the attention he gives to those things I do understand: dialog, setting, action, image.

Dante’s Inferno, tenth canto. Two of hell’s inmates—Farinata and Cavalcante—vie for Dante’s attention. Farinata is a Ghibelline party leader, enemy of the Guelphs, the party of Dante’s ancestors. Farinata died just before Dante was born. Cavalcante, a Guelph, is the father of Dante’s friend (and fellow poet) Guido Cavalcante. Both have been judged political heretics for different reasons (here’s a little more background). But that’s not what interests Auerbach (to be honest, it doesn’t interest me either).

What does interest me is Auerbach’s ability to find literary realism even beyond the real world!

His reasoning is actually pretty easy to follow, once you pick out what matters from the linguistic haystack. If you think of life on earth as most monotheists think of it—that is, as a brief layover on the way to an eternity that is the REAL reality—then even hell, eternal as it is, contains more than the shadow a person’s former self. It contains the realer real self.

Or put it this way: if hell is the ultimate condemnation of the divinely-judged, then hell is simply the self taken out of his or her earthly context. Just a person completely isolated with her memories and her desires and the words that give them shape. Remove the setting, keep only the sentences, and you have yourself a good equivalent to Dante’s inferno. This, Auerbach argues, is one of the things that elevates Dante’s style, even though the poem itself is written in Italian, not Latin. Each person, in other words, can become a hell for him/herself. And in so doing, that person speaks with the elevated (even if damned) voice of that which is real forever.

The COVID quarantine makes Auerbach’s reading easier to follow than it probably ever has been.