The Way Man Makes Himself Eternal: Dante, Literature, and the Seventh Circle

Steve Coogan

TONY WILSON: “Welcome to the Wheel of Fortune. There it is, the wheel that, throughout the centuries, has been used as a symbol for the vicissitudes of life. Boethius himself, in his great work, The Consolations of Philosophy, compares history to a great wheel, hoisting us up, then dropping us down again. ‘Inconsistency is my very essence,’ says the wheel. ‘Raise yourself up on my spokes if you like, but don’t complain when you’re plunged back down.’ Let’s spin the wheel.”

SHOW DIRECTOR: “What a load of bullshit. We’ll remove that in the editing. Just go straight from ‘Wheel of Fortune,’ cut to ‘spin the wheel.'”

TONY WILSON: “That guy over there, playing the director — that’s the real Tony Wilson.”
-24 Hour Party People

All philosophy is a footnote to Plato.
-Alfred North Whitehead

Margins of Philosophy
Jacques Derrida (book title)

*****

In 24 Hour Party People, when Tony Wilson quotes Boethius on Wheel of Fortune, his words are edited out. Everything else on the show is meaningless; when his words are deleted, Tony is likewise cheapened, reduced.

In the Inferno, when Dante reaches the seventh circle of Hell, he encounters his former guardian, Brunetto Latini. Latini is damned for homosexuality; the landscape is a barren, burning plain, and Dante surveys it (together with his guide, Virgil) from the safety of “the margins”:

The margins are not afire,
And make a pathway — over them, come close
Behind me: every flame is extinguished here….
Now the firm margin bears us

The plain replicates Sodom, but it is more than that. It is a blank page, criss-crossed endlessly by naked sinners. As Dante watches from the margins, Latini sets the scene:

I continued as I had
in speech with Sir Brunetto — would he tell
Which among his companions had enjoyed

Most eminence and fame in life? “It is well,”
he answered, “for me to say the names of some
but nothing of the rest. To name them all

Would demand speaking more words than we have time —
All clerics and men of letters, all renowned,
And in the world all stained by this one crime.”

Dante knew that the Greeks and Romans tolerated, and in some forms celebrated, homosexual love; the plain is filled with damned souls who have clear consciences:

This much still
I say: so long as conscience is not betrayed,
I am prepared for Fortune to do her will.

As an unanticipated punishment, the burning plain parallels Limbo, where virtuous people born before Christ are doomed to languish forever. Dante admires Homer, Virgil, Aristotle, and the rest too much to enjoy their exile from heaven. Latini, however, is indifferent to his punishment. “I live in my Tesoro,” he tells Dante, alluding to his own philosophical magnum opus. “Your judgement being won / For it, I ask no more.” Latini is no longer a single damned soul, but a shade who lives one life in his art, and another in the world. When Dante thanks Latini for showing him “the way man makes himself eternal,” he is punning. The phrase either means entering Heaven, or becoming a writer of renown; here, it means both.

Latini’s second life, of virtue, ultimately takes the place of his punishment. Verdant fields shimmer in the distance, at first:

Then the grass
Will well be kept at a distance from the goat…
Spare the shoot
(If any should grow on their heap of dung)
In which the sacred seed is living yet

Of Romans who remained when Florence went wrong.

Then those fields come closer, and the plain disappears:

And he went off,

Seeming to me like one of those who run
Competing for the green cloth in the races
Upon Verona’s field — and of them, like one

Who gains the victory, not one who loses.

For a moment, in those final lines, Hell is banished.

Before Latini runs away, Dante promises to carry the Tesoro with him, to “be glossed by a lady of good wit.” Dante imagines Beatrice as a critic, writing (like himself) from the margins of other texts, with the unexpected power of the critic to create legacies, or else destroy them. The scene is of a piece with Dante’s classicism, his attempt to champion writers like Virgil and Aristotle to his readers in Christian Europe. Dante compares Latini’s sinful loving to the passionate relation of the writer to his predecessor, and to the passion of the clergy for their God. Hence the provocative, ambiguous phrasing of “All clerics and men of letters, all renowned / And in the world all stained by this one crime.” Literally, he is describing writers with ruined reputations, but also implies that if one writer is guilty, so is everyone who admires the author’s (now) morally suspect books.

Dante will have none of it. He clearly does think homosexuality is sinful, but he also separates the author from the text, imagining them as two separated souls, twinned for all eternity. No matter who Latini may have loved, it was through him that Dante studied Boethius and the consolations of philosophy. This transcendent man of learning survives in Dante as an “image — dear, fatherly, benevolent…fixed inside my memory.” He quotes Boethius to his former mentor, reverently: “As fortune pleases let her wheel be turned / As he must let the peasant turn his spade.” The good men do lives after them; the evil is oft interred with their bones.

There are many ways of explaining the placement of the “sodomites” in the seventh circle (“Violence”), and Latini’s appearance there. Most of them are far-fetched; one critic has even claimed that Latini is “violent” because he writes in Latin instead of Italian. A better explanation is much nearer at hand. Reputation does violence to the text; works and persons of genius are buried by stupidity and intolerance. Dante came as close as he could to exonerating Latini, but he had to do it between the lines. Undoubtedly, Dante never risked committing to paper much that he wanted to say. The director who censors Tony Wilson, in 24 Hour Party People, is cast perfectly. He is played by the other Tony Wilson — the “real” one.

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