Besting Dante's Beasts: How Biblical Hermeneutics and the Vice of Curiosity Could Solve the Riddle of Inferno 1
Dante's Inferno opens with the unforgettable image of the poet repelled, as he struggles to leave his "dark wood" and ascend a nearby sun-topped mountain, by three fierce beasts who chase him back into the forest. What this allegorical meaning might be has eluded seven centuries of scholarship. This presentation will offer a new theory, using a once-well-known but now largely forgotten medieval interpretation of a widely quoted New Testament verse to link the three animals to a short list of preconditions or enticements to sin. That connection has consequences far beyond the interpretation of Dante, as it maps the most mysterious of the beasts (the catlike lonza) onto the mental state called curiositas, an important element in debates about the medieval/modern divide. If Dante's masterpiece begins with an attack on "curiosity," what does that suggest about the further course of the poem - and about the situation of a later age in which an overwhelming availability of information stimulates curiosity to such an extent that both mental and societal health are demonstrably endangered?
John Bugbee is Visiting Scholar in English, and simultaneously completing a second doctorate in religious studies, at the University of Virginia. His recent book God's Patients: Chaucer, Agency, and the Nature of Laws appeared from the University of Notre Dame Press in late 2018. He has published several articles on medieval literature and theology.