Uncovering Dantes Mind: Finding Psychological Structure in Dantes Inferno
Introduction to thesis:
Dantes Inferno, the first in a series of three epic poems, collectively named The Divine Comedy, is a valuable piece of literature to members of several disciplines. To the new critic, Inferno is a piece of artwork with some of the most vividly conveyed imagery in all of literature. To a historian, it is a valuable window into an Italian past, with references to specific people and clues to social context at the time. But how may the psychological critic benefit from Dantes work? A psychoanalyst does not benefit directly from the literal events in the work. It is not the words that the author chooses to use, but why the author chooses them. It is the underlying meaning that is of value; not what the writer intends to portray, but what the writer does not intend to reveal. Unbeknownst to an author, their unconscious mind is constantly at work, storing up the repressed desires of the individual. In order to maintain such a store of psychic energy, the unconscious disguises them and slips them past the border between the unconscious and the outside world (Lynn 183). It is these disguised symbols, which find their way unintentionally into creative works that are valuable to the psychoanalytical critic. Interestingly, Dante is the protagonist of his own poem. Though still a fictional character in a fictional setting, Inferno has innumerable references to the real life of Dante. In his book Between Author and Reader, Stanley Coen states that artists identify with their creations so as to enhance themselves or to fill in what they feel is missing within themselves (11). Dantes work, as a strange half-breed, life and fiction intertwined, is especially approachable to psychological criticism. In light of Coens statement, Dantes account of his spiritual journey could reasonably be viewed as an attempt at reparation. If Dantes intention is an idealistic self-portrait, then the psychoanalyst must ask, what is not intended? What desires has his subconscious hidden within the pages of the Inferno? Through the exploration of Freudian theory and applying it to Dantes work, my research seeks to identify the latent content of the Inferno, revealing that Dante unintentionally includes material that is symbolic of psychological structure.
Basics: Stating Freuds theory of personality:
As one of the earliest psychiatrists to delve into the workings of the mind, Freud is the foundation upon which most modern psychological theory is built (Lynn 184). It is important, then, for psychological criticism to begin with Freuds theories as well. Freuds earliest theories, concerned with the structure and function of individual components of the mind, separate it into two regions, the conscious and the unconscious. The conscious is the area in which thought known to the individual occurs, whereas the unconscious is a more basic, primal area whose functions are unknown to the conscious. Building on this concept, Freud theorizes further division into three parts, namely the id, ego, and superego. Freud defines the id as the part of the personality that governs the desire of the individual, and the ego and superego as the components that suppress those desires. The ego and superego are distinguished from one another, in that the superego is a subdivision of the ego. While the ego seeks to suppress desire in a way that ensures the safety of the individual, the superego acts as an extension of ones upbringing that exists far beyond separation from parental authority. The superego, rather than directing survival, pursues actions that are moral, often completely repressing desire in the process. As a result of their oppositional functions, the id and the egos are in conflict, constantly pushing and pulling desire above and below the boundary between the conscious and unconscious regions of the mind. (Outline 1-32)
In this constant tug of war, the id expresses its needs in a process of carthesis, the charging of a real-world vehicle object, with the intention of transporting these carthexes into the conscious; such objects may be anything that an individual has perceived that the id may associate with desire. The ego and superego express a countercharge to diminish or transform these desirous charges, called anti-carthexes. The ego seeks to modify carthexes in a way which will facilitate survival, while the superego seeks to suppress desires which rebel against societal norms. When the charged carthexes emerge into the conscious mind, it is known as rebellion. Inversely, when the anti-carthexes of the ego and superego succeed in negating the id, it is known as repression (Outline 1-32).
Qualifying Inferno as the subject of dream analysis :
In addition to speculation on structure, Freud also developed methods of observing these structures and their function, with the intention of developing therapy to resolve dysfunction. According to Freud, a psychoanalysts investigation of normal, stable states, in which the frontiers of the ego are safeguarded against the id by resistances (or anti-carthexes) and have held firm, and in which the superego is not distinguished from the ego because they work together harmoniously an investigation of this kind would teach us little. (Outline 46). Thus both the limitation that the ego places on the subjects desires and the social restraints implemented by the superego interfere with a study in which the subject is conscious (Outline 46-47). How then, is one expected to reveal anything besides the occasional triumph of the id or the egos? Observing the winner of the bout is hardly a complete analysis of the fight. To overcome such an obstacle, information would need to be collected while the conscious mind is not present, unable to interfere and modify the struggle between the strata of the personality; the subject must be observed in a state where the unconscious is laid bare. Such conditions exist when asleep or when engaged in a creative process. In these states, the conscious mind observes the occurrences in the unconscious. Dreams and art are thus related in that they are the translation of the raw unconscious information into a sensory experience that the conscious can process. The conflict between the carthexes and anti-carthexes can become almost anything, becoming attributes of the translated conscious product. These encrypted symbols are linked together into a stream of language understandable to the conscious region of the mind, a process of turning the unconscious abstract into sensory-friendly material such as sculpture, paintings, dreams, and in Dantes case, a narrative. Analyzing the symbols contained in cathartic works may then reveal the turbulence from which it was created. As a product of Dantes personality, the Inferno provides an environment in which we can observe conflict and rebellion, in which the material in [Dantes] unconscious id has a prospect of forcing its way into the ego and into and into the consciousness and in which the ego arms itself afresh against invasion (Outline 46). A broad initial view of the Inferno shows that such conflicts are indeed present.
Structural similarity to Freuds theory:
In Freuds Interpretation of Dreams, it is stated that every dream will reveal itself as a psychological structure, full of significance, and one which may be assigned to a specific place in the psychic activities of the waking state (3). Dantes Inferno, then, must also be open to the identification of psychological structure. Dante is vivid in his topographical depiction of hell, so much so that the reader has a very clear sense of its structure. The epic is sectioned into thirty-four cantos, or circles, each assigned a numeral that corresponds geographically to his ever-deepening conical vision of the pit. Inferno begins above the surface of the earth and ends in the very core of the earth. Dante describes hell as being an ever-narrowing cone that penetrates below the world, into the core of the earth. Sinners who are worthy neither of heaven nor purgatory are cast beneath the surface of the earth to enact their damning sins for all of eternity. Upon further examination, Dantes hell seems visually similar to Freuds topographical model of the personality. As the following diagrams illustrate, hell (A) and Freuds topographical depiction of the personality (B) share important geographic boundaries:
Each has an outside world; Dantes hell is located just below Jerusalem, and Freuds personality has a conscious region. Dantes hell penetrates deep into the earth, just as the id is buried within the subconscious. Further analysis of Dantes poem, however, reveals that the similarities extend beyond geographic coincidence.
Dantes sexual fixation:
Firstly, it is important to note that Dantes universe includes not only hell, but also the world above. The first stanza of the poem, Midway on our lifes journey, I found myself / In dark woods, the right road lost. To tell/ About these roads is hard-so tangled and rough describe the protagonist as having strayed from the world above, to one in which he is lost. His passage mirrors that of the boundary between conscious and unconscious; a transition from an environment familiar to the senses, to one that must be processed into symbolic terminology. He finds himself in the area of the unconscious where the ego still has a firm hold. Dante happens upon three beasts, a leopard, a lion, and a wolf. These are important symbols. The leopard is lithe, spotted, [and] quick of foot (3), and is also female. The leopards attractive coat and lively manner, combined with its gender, make it inherently sexual. A lion, a feline classically associated with its strength, pride, and destructive power, follows the leopard. Lastly, he encounters a wolf, whose leanness seemed to compress/ All the worlds craving(5). Sex, violence, and hunger are all desires of the id, and Dante has used these animals as the carthexes that carry his desires beyond the id-ego boundary. Dantes reference to the three beasts is an allusion to a passage in the bible: Therefore a lion from the forest shall slay them, a wolf from the desert shall destroy them; a leopard will watch over their cities. (Jer. 5. 6). Although a biblical allusion is to be expected, for Dantes entire Divine Comedy is about a biblical afterlife, it is significant in that he changes the order in which the beasts are mentioned. The passage in the bible lists them lion, wolf, and leopard; however Dante orders them leopard, lion, and wolf. Between Dantes reading of the biblical passage and his allusion to it in the Inferno, Dante is drawn to the leopard more than the others and it is subsequently the first to be included. Since the leopard is symbolic of sexual desire, it is reasonable to believe that the conflict between Dantes id and ego revolves around his sexual instinct. Upon passing these outgoing carthexes, he asks for help to avoid these dangerous beasts. Virgil answers his cries, and explains that he will help him find his way again.
Dantes respect for Virgil crosses the boundary between life and literature. In his article A Note On Dante and Virgil, author George Gifford illustrates evidence of the real-life Virgils influence on Dantes Divine Comedy. Pointing to two instances of language borrowed from Virgils Anaeid (88-90), Gifford shows us that Dante has drawn inspiration from Virgils work. Dante strives to be like Virgil, crafting his epic poems much the same as Virgil had ages ago.Virgil, as an accomplished Trojan author, represents the superego, the anti-carthex to Dantes sexual fixation. Like the superego, Virgil is the precipitate of experience (Hendrick 150), a guide endowed with the wisdom of those born before Christ, yet still doomed to live in hell, unbaptized. Dante, for the time being, is protected from sexual impulse; however as he descends into hell, Dantes sexual repression is expressed on a much larger scale.
The Oedipal Complex, Dis :
As Dante and his superego descend into hell, he witnesses various punishments given to sinners, all in a descending order of severity. Beginning with a circle whose inhabitants were unable to commit to neither virtue nor sin, and ending in those who betray others, Dantes hell is a scale of sin, whose punishments become more and more similar to the functions associated with the id. Circles one through six punish sins that seem failures of the superego. The unbaptized and the heretical do not follow the righteous religion, the gluttons do not limit themselves to their own allotment, and the wrathful and sullen do not carry themselves with the appropriate demeanor. All are against the teachings of a parental figure. When Dante and Virgil come to the gate of Dis, Virgils power as an authorative guide fails him. It is only when an angel descends and forces the gate open that they may pass. The angel is considerably more powerful, and may represent Dantes father, from whom all of the principles of his superego have stemmed. The demons inside will not let them pass, and the superego cannot force open the gate between the ego and the id without the powerful angel. When Virgil leaves to speak with the gatekeepers, Dante writes So he goes away and leaves me, the gentle father, while I remain in doubt, yeas and no vying in my head (67).
If one considers the city of Dis representative of his mothers genitalia, then Dantes statement makes all the more sense in the light of Freuds theory of psychosexual development. Dantes phallic descent into hell, the superego guides inability to penetrate the gate of Dis, and the appearance of the fatherly angel manifest an Oedipal complex. Freud states that during the Oedipal stage, males will have phantasies[sic] of carrying out some sort of activity with the mother (Outline 30). Prior to the Oedipal stage, a child yearns for all possible affection from both parents. Upon the onset of the Oedipal stage, however, a boys emotional needs for his mother shows new features (Hendrick 47). Virgil has guided Dantes penetration of the earth until this point and acted as his superego. Yet at the gate of Dis, Virgil is in fact working in tandem with the gatekeepers, enforcing the most stringent moral taboos of all mankind, taboos on incest, on phantasying(sp) incest as well as committing it (Hendrick 48). During the complex, the boy fears castration by the father for his desire for his mother. Dantes gentle father Virgil leaves, and the boys feared father, Dantes Oedipal rival, arrives and forces the gates open.
The major conflict:
Once inside the walls of Dis, Dante observes the seventh circle, a plain of fire in which the violent are punished. The desire to engage in hostile activity, which injures, pains, or kills (Hendrick 107), is clearly a function of the id. As they descend even further, the punishments become more and more primal. In the last circle, Dante sees two sinners, one of whom had clenched in his teeth the other / Where the brain meets the nape (Dante 283). At the very bottom of the pit, Satan himself eternally chews Judas, Brutus, and Cassius. Dante depicts the punishments with images of eating. In fact, at its most basic, the Id concerns itself with the desire to carry out biological functions, called the libido, which includes waste elimination, sex, and hunger (Freud 23) Thus Dantes hell corresponds very closely with Freuds rendering, with one exception. Dante integrates the hunger into the worst of his punishments, and the wastes in his punishment of the flatterers who must be submerged in excrement for eternity, yet sex is strangely absent.
In fact, the lustful are above the city of Dis, relatively close to the surface. Why is Dante so lenient in his placement of the lustful? One would think that lust would constitute a fraud against nature; that is, that the sinner has perverted the love that God has intended. Such perversion seems ill placed in Dantes vision, for the sections of hell reserved for frauds sit much lower, and the punishments are imagined in terms of id function. The lustful are among the most mildly punished sinners in hell; they are blown about by gale winds with their lover whilst other sinners are boiled, eaten, and stripped of their humanity. Dante would certainly not intend to misplace a circle of hell, and so there must be some underlying reason for Dantes discrepancy. The fact that Dante places the lustful in hell is a function of the superego, yet its placement relative to the other sins must be attributed to the id. The oppositional forces of the suppressing superego and the desirous id culminate in the circle of the lustful:
The significance of the locale, then, is that the id wants to charge a real-world object with desire, yet the superego is stopping this action due to some sort of social restraint.
The ambiguity is evident not only in a structural sense, but also by the dialogue spoken by a pair of lovers in the fifth canto. While in the circle of the lustful, Dante asks the pair to tell him why they are there. The woman replies that they were reading Lancelot, and grew closer and closer during the reading, until they had a sexual encounter. As Bergin points out in his article Lectura Danis: Inferno V, the line, <<This one who will never will be parted from me again>>, that contains the fascinating ambiguity of the canto and of the poets verdict on the lovers and their fate. Is the line spoken with proud satisfaction or deep regret? Is theeternal[sic] togetherness of the pair a joy or a punishment?. In psychological terms, Bergin asks whether the id derives pleasure from the situation, or if the superego suppresses it. He further states that such an answer cannot be derived from the text, and it is up to the reader to make such a distinction. If supplies no such answer, then he has given both possibilities equal ground, and are by contrast in conflict. Dantes allusion to the tale of Lancelot provides an interesting clue to the nature of this id-ego conflict. In Lancelot, the titular character has a love affair with King Arthurs wife, Guinevere. The allusion does serve the purpose of contributing to the sinners story, yet in the light of its placement in the center of the id-ego conflict, it is reveals that Dante had perhaps desired a sexual relationship with a woman already married. In fact, Dantes first work, Vita Nuova, tells the story of his love for Beatrice, a young woman who had married another man, Simone de' Bardi. Completed in 1294, four years after her death, Vita Nuova is testament to his love for her (Gardner). Not only does Dante repress his immoral sexual desire for Beatrice by placing the lustful in hell, but he also includes her in the Inferno as a heavenly being with a voice of angelic sound (Dante 13). When Virgil says to Dante, [I]f your ascent continues, your guide will be worthier than I- When I leave you, you will be with her (Dante 9), he reveals what may be an unresolved Oedipal conflict. As previously mentioned, Dante fears that his father may castrate him. Dantes mention of Virgil as a father lends this quote new meaning; when Dante is free of his father, and thusly the threat of castration and the superego, he may yet be able to satisfy his desire for Beatrice.
Throughout the Inferno, Dante unintentionally expresses the psychological structure of his personality. The symbolism with which he encrypts desire provides clues to the underlying conflicts. The three beasts, the structural qualities of hell, the characters, the failed entry into Dis, and Dantes placement and relative leniency on the lustful- all are evidence of unconscious activity surfacing in Dantes work. When viewed in light of Freudian theory, these interpretations paint a picture of Dante that contrasts with the self-portrait he strives to maintain in his poem. The repression of desire and subsequent rebellious surfacing in Inferno reveal Dante not as a judge dispensing literary justice to sinners of his era, but as an artist who strives to bury his own sinful impulses, unwittingly articulating conflict within the text of his epic in the process.
Alighieri, Dante. Inferno. Trans. Robert Pinsky.
New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1994.
Bergin, Thomas Goddard. Lectura Dantis: Inferno V. Lectura Dantis.
1 (1987):NP <www.brown.edu/Departments/Ital…> 23 April 2007
Coen, Stanley J. Between Author and Reader: a psychoanalytic approach to
writing. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.
Freud, Sigmund. An Outline Of Psychoanalysis. Trans. James Strachey.
New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1949.
Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation Of Dreams. Trans. Dr. A. A. Brill.
New York: Carlton House, 1931.
Gardner, Edmund G. Dante Alighieri. 2 April 2007.
Gifford, George H. A Note On Dante and Virgil. Italica. 35.2 (1958): 88-90
24 April 2007 <links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0021…>
Hendrick, Ives M.D . Facts and Theories of Psychoanalysis. 3rd ed.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967.
Holy Bible, The New King James Version.
Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982.
Lynn, Steven. Texts And Contexts: Writing About Literature with Critical
Theory. 4th ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2005.