Dante’s Psychological Comedy

July 7, 2019   •   By D. M. Black

DANTE’S COMEDY — he never called it “Divine” — is above all of great psychological interest. Dante was able, by locating himself in the “afterlife,” to encounter a huge variety of people, all of whom, having died, were now in a position to survey their lives on earth and comment on how they had lived. The poem is an extraordinary contrivance, without obvious parallels.

It’s enormously long and is divided into three parts, or “canticles,” entitled Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Each location is elaborately subdivided according to the sins or virtues of its occupants, so that from one angle the Comedy can be viewed as a sort of gigantic encyclopedia of human motives, classified according to understandable ethical criteria. My own background is in psychoanalysis, and I have recently translated the Purgatorio in an attempt to get as close as possible to the actual movement of Dante’s thought. It is “a psychology” in a certain sense, but not a precursor of the modern science. It differs from what we think of as science in at least two respects — first, because the ethical criteria used are derived from religion, and second, and perhaps more fundamentally, because the world Dante describes is not one of objects to be studied dispassionately, but one of subjects, each with their own point of view, and all seeking happiness and succeeding or, devastatingly, failing to achieve it. This “world of subjects” is what is meant by saying “allegory.” Dante in the poem is not testing out the truth of some hypothesis; he is discovering, with sympathy, distress, joy, or outrage, how life works out for actual, various people. (Almost all the people he meets are actual historical figures, very often people he has known personally.)

And as he learns, he himself changes. This is another difference from science as we usually think of it, where the scientist remains detached and above the battle. Dante is absolutely not above the battle. At the start of the poem, he is lost in the dark wood, in a state of terror; as he is guided through Hell and Purgatory, he learns about the appetites and longings that mislead the human heart, often catastrophically, and have misled his own. When finally he re-meets Beatrice, at the very top of Purgatory, it is the meeting at last with his own deepest love, his “salvation,” which has been derailed (or to which he has lost access) in the course of the losses and temptations of earthly life.

So this is no cool, objective appraisal of human motives; it is a passionately concerned recognition of the terrible or wonderful consequences that flow from our emotional choices, and from our ability or our failure to retain or recover our integrity. Dante for a while was a major figure in the political life of Florence, at a time of civil war and vicious partisan infighting: he had seen firsthand how the consequences of individual psychology include such huge matters as war and peace, social chaos or social harmony, as well as personal grief or happiness. The psychological, the personal, the political, and the religious were not, for him, separate categories: they were closely interrelated, and “sin” was the corrupting element in all of them.

A single episode from the Purgatorio will suffice to illustrate this. Purgatory is of particular interest to psychological thinkers because in it all the “souls” are in different sorts of mental conflict. In Hell, they are hopelessly stuck in their self-destructive motivations: they are there for eternity; nothing will change. And in Paradise too the essential motive, the joy and love of the divine, is a constant.

But in Purgatory there is conflict — a conflict between the “sinful” motive and the divine love that has been glimpsed and cannot now be forgotten. Repentance, which may take a very long time, is the struggle between the continuing lure of the sin and the higher vision, which the soul now at some level “knows” to be true but cannot yet release itself to be wholly governed by. Repentance takes place on the seven terraces of the Mountain of Purgatory, each representing one of the seven deadly sins recognized by medieval theology.

My example is from the second terrace, that of Envy. Envy for Dante means the evil eye: it’s the motive that looks at others and enjoys seeing their suffering. There is only one worse sin, and that is pride, the foundation of all sinfulness, which is repented on the lowest terrace of all. On the terrace of Pride, the souls go crushed down to earth by heavy rocks tied to their backs. Their punishment is the inverse of their sin: the proud look so loftily that they don’t notice the suffering they cause beneath their feet; their punishment is to see nothing except the ground they tread on. Dante, a consciously proud man, is very sympathetic to their suffering.

His reaction on the terrace of Envy is rather different. As the sin of the envious is the “evil eye,” their punishment is to be made unable to see:

And as the sun is useless to the blind,

so too upon those souls of whom I speak

the light of heaven could not be bestowed,

for each one’s eyelids had been pierced and sewn

with an iron wire, as we blind sparrow-hawks

that are taken from the wild and won’t obey us. (XIII, 67–72)

The souls Dante meets are all weeping, and their tears force their way through “those horrible sutures” (line 83). Dante is moved by their suffering — he says: “I think no man who walks the earth could be / so hard of heart compassion would not strike him / to see the sight I saw as I approached them” (lines 52–54) — but he seems curiously complacent about his own danger of suffering their fate. He comments to one of the souls: “My eyes may yet be taken from me / here, but it will not be for long, for they’ve / not much offended by giving envious looks.” (XIII, 133–135)

He feels much greater fear, he says, when he thinks of the torments of the proud, which he has recently seen and can’t get out of his mind. He is acknowledging that the sin of pride is one he has committed, but is claiming that envy has never been a major problem for him.

This is the one time in Purgatory that Dante explicitly disclaims or minimizes his own involvement in a sin, and such a disclaimer is bound to interest the psychoanalyst. As Freud commented, a negation always contains within itself an affirmation, and if a patient says, “She isn’t like my mother,” clearly the thought has occurred to him that she might be like his mother. It’s certainly notable that despite Dante’s apparent distance from envy, the soul he meets who embodies envy, an elderly Sienese woman named Sapia, gives us one of the most vivid pictures of a sin in the entire Comedy.

Here is how Sapia tells her story:

I was not wise, though I was named Sapia;

to me the suffering of others gave

more joy than I found in my own good fortune.

And therefore don’t imagine I’m deceiving you

if you hear me describe myself as mad

when my life’s arc had gone far past its mid-point.

My countrymen were on the battlefield

at Colle fighting with the enemy,

and I prayed to God to treat them as he pleased!

There they were routed and they turned their steps

to the bitter path of flight, and watching them

hunted, I felt a joy above all joys,

so much so that I turned my bold face upward

and shouted at God: “Henceforth I do not fear you!’”

like the blackbird who sang in winter’s brightness. (XIII, 109–123)

(The blackbird in the story mistook a moment of winter sunshine for spring.) But Sapia is right: her joy at seeing her fellow citizens routed and killed seems a truly psychotic moment; even God could not spoil her delight. It’s a wonderful and appalling description of the madness of what we would probably now call Schadenfreude, and a salutary reminder of the danger of unbound human emotion. And it seems especially remarkable that Dante should have created it, given his disclaimer of his own involvement with the sin it exemplifies. It is hard to think that anyone who had little experience of envy could have imagined that scene so convincingly and with such concision. Of course, it may well be that Dante the poet was aware of this, and that by setting Sapia’s story alongside the complacent comment by Dante the protagonist he wanted to show how he too could be like the deluded blackbird.

As Sapia continues, she remains in Dante’s description scrupulously true to her character. She explains first how she came, despite the psychotic intensity of her envy, to be in Purgatory and not in Hell:

I longed to make my peace with God when age

brought me to extremity, and even then

would not have seen my debt reduced by penance

had not the hermit, Peter the Comb-seller,

included me in his blessed prayers, and

had pity on me in his charity … (XIII, 124–129)

(The importance of praying for others is a recurrent theme in Purgatorio.) But then, finally, as Sapia and Dante say goodbye to each other, she asks him when he returns to earth to awaken good memories of her in her kinsfolk. (Her references here are to an unsuccessful attempt by the Sienese to build a seaport at Talamone, and also to another failed project, to tap an underground stream called the Diana.) She goes on, speaking of her kinsfolk:

You’ll find them there among the foolish people

who, hoping to buy Talamone, lose

more hope than those who dug for the Diana;

and the commanders will lose more than hope. (XIII, 151–154)

(The commanders presumably would be put to death for their failure.) It’s hard not to read those final lines as expressing, yet again, her envious relish in other people’s failure and despair. We are reminded that Purgatory is a realm, not simply of repentance, but of conflict, and that it can be a very long job indeed to change a motive that is deeply rooted in character.

I said at the beginning that Dante never called his poem the “Divine” Comedy. That adjective was attached by Boccaccio, and it has stuck. But in some ways, as many people have pointed out, it “colors” the poem in a way that can be misleading. Dante spoke of his poem as the Comedy; to call it “Divine” encourages the reader to approach it as if it were Holy Writ, sacrosanct, when in fact it is a very human production — an attempt by a man wrestling with hugely powerful experiences and emotions to get them in order. Religiously, of course, it also includes the longing to be “saved,” to be governed finally by the love that meant most to the poet, or that he wanted to mean most to him. And it is “comedy” not in the modern sense — there are few jokes, though there is some humor — but in the medieval sense: a story that, despite its wholehearted seriousness, ends happily.


D. M. Black is a Scottish writer. He has authored several poetry collections, most recently The Arrow-maker (Arc, 2017). Some of his essays on psychoanalytic topics are published under the title Why Things Matter: The Place of Values in Science, Psychoanalysis, and Religion (Routledge, 2011). His website is dmblack.net.