It had two claws, hairy to the armpit,
And back, chest and both sides were
Colored with circles and bows.
due branche avea pilose insin l’ascelle;
lo dosso e ‘l petto e ambedue le coste
dipinti avea di nodi e di rotelle.
(Inferno XVII, 13–15, translated by Philalethes)
The Divina Commedia was a provocation. Dante had dared to present the sacrosanct facts of faith with the “beautiful lies” of poetry. He claims that it is not enough just to know to believe. The philosophical and theological masters of discourse of his time had to feel hit. This should mean, among other things, Thomas Aquinas (“the use of images and parables is for science [von der heiligen Schrift] not appropriate ”, Sum. theol. 1,1.9). Dante gave Beatrice a damning verdict: “Your school of thought is as far removed from the divine path as the earth is from the highest heaven” (Purg. XXXIII, 85-90). Since her appearance at the end of the purgatory, she has therefore also appeared as a phrasebook: “This is how you have to address your intellect, because it can only perceive in a sensual way what then proves to be worthy of the intellect” (Par. IV, 40). And just as the hereafter opens up to him, step by step, the future poet of the commedia also reveals step by step the discreet way of speaking – which his world poem has already practiced from the beginning.
The spectacular seventeenth song, the middle of the inferno, sets the scene as an initiation: Virgil takes the belt of his robe from “Dante”, throws it into the mouth of hell and thus brings the monstrous Geryon onto the stage of the place of sin of lies and deceit (the At the start of this series on April 30, FAZ showed a picture of the trio on the front page). Nothing is accidental with Dante. For at second glance it also affects the illusion of art and its cause, the power and superiority of the imagination. Those who think with it are led to ruthlessly disregard the barriers of truth with which the intellect holds them together. But would a world beyond, divine love, heavenly bliss (and their damned flaws) have to be conveyed to this world in a credible manner without entrusting the iconoclasm of the imagination? But their sinful lust for debauchery? This dilemma is carried out on the basis of the chimerical monster.
It’s about fundamentals. Dante depicted his anthropology in “The Beast”. The poisonous tail of a scorpion alludes to the sting of the flesh, the libido. If she is let go, her desires penetrate “over mountains, through walls and tanks” and end in hubris. Icarus and Phaeton, who wanted to aim high, brought them down. The head at the other end of the monster, on the other hand, shows the face of a “righteous person” with a sympathetic appearance; human reason, on the other hand, seems by no means alien to him. Behind this is a hidden punchline: Dante recognizes the seductive passions as a part of human nature that can no longer be excluded and has to solve the problem of how their contradicting nature – Novalis will say “Dividuum” – can be cleared up in the sense of salvation.
Geryon’s appearance is based on this answer. Virgil sets the tone; he had called him. Such offspring of the imagination can evidently be allowed if they are tamed by the – ancient – artistic understanding. Yes, they are absolutely necessary for poets. Because, demonstratively, the two psychic world travelers take a seat on his back. The seating arrangement is revealing: Virgil sits down in front of the tail claw in order to protect “Dante” in front of him with his science from the dangerous attacks of an unleashed imagination. He gives him cultural support in order to direct his gaze forward, to the head of the multifaceted being, to where the imagination should take on reason and humane traits – on the condition, however, that they are overwritten by him as Christian. The placement of the two between head and tail, thinking and desire, is a signal: It is poetry that offers the means to bring creatural desire close to moral understanding. Geryon, their guided guide, underlines it in his vivid way. The aerial swimmer transfers the earthly guests from one cliff to another, thereby visually pointing to the transferred manner of speaking, the basis of the “allegoria dei poeti”. His body is, moreover, with iridescent markings (dipinti), embodies the imaginations to which the human imagination has access.
Last but not least, does Dante want to make it clear through him: Libido is the true beginning of knowledge, imagination is your way of thinking, images your language, but poetry is the love language of truth that moves the universe? Much later, the philosopher Wittgenstein will say: “One should actually only write poetry.”
Winfried Wehle is chairman of the German Dante Society.
All previous episodes our series can be found at www.faz.net/dante.