David Bruce: Dante’s INFERNO: A Discussion Guide — “Canto 15: Brunetto Latini”

“Canto 15: Brunetto Latini”

  • What is the definition of sodomy?

The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition, defines Sodomy in this way:

Sexual intercourse that is not the union of the genital organs of a man and a woman. The term is most frequently applied to anal intercourse between two men or to sexual relations between people and animals.

After I show my students at Ohio University this definition on a transparency, I ask them this: “How many of you are going to telephone your mother tonight and say, ‘Hey, Mom, guess what I learned in school today?’”

  • This canto is about violence against God, or against nature, or against art. This canto is about taking something that should be fertile and making it infertile.

Dante the Pilgrim, of course, is in the Inferno to learn things that will keep him out of the Inferno. He apparently did not have homosexual feelings, yet he writes a canto especially devoted to the part of the Inferno that is devoted to punishing Sodomites.

What Dante the Pilgrim needs to learn here is to not take something that should be fertile and make it infertile. This, of course, is what the Sodomites do. No amount of homosexual intercourse will result in the birth of a baby from that union.

Dante the Pilgrim will later be engaged in what should be a fertile act: the writing of The Divine Comedy. He, of course, succeeded in creating a work of art that has been fertile in engaging the minds of Humankind. Reading this book has rewarded many, many people. It has lasted for over 700 years and is likely to last as long as people read Great Books.

What could make the act of writing The Divine Comedyinfertile? If Dante were to write in order to become famous instead of writing in order to say the truth, The Divine Comedywould not be the fertile work of art we know today.

  • What does it mean to be violent against God?

God is not a physical person (except in the case of the Incarnation), so how can one be violent against God?

Blasphemers are violent against God directly. They curse God directly.

The Greedy Moneylenders and the Sodomites are violent against God indirectly. The Greedy Moneylenders take advantage of the poor, although God has several commandments saying to take care of the poor, not harm them. The Sodomites are against God in that they are going against the commandment to “Be fruitful and multiply.”

I think that polluters do violence against God. In the Garden of Eden myth, we are commanded to take care of the earth. Polluters don’t do that. (By the way, myths can be true.)

  • What is the importance of the walls built around the burning desert?

We read that the walls built around the burning desert are like the walls that people in countries below sea level build to keep back the sea so that they can live and grow things there:

Even as the Flemings, ’twixt Cadsand and Bruges,

Fearing the flood that tow’rds them hurls itself,

Their bulwarks build to put the sea to flight;

And as the Paduans along the Brenta,

To guard their villas and their villages,

Or ever Chiarentana feel the heat;

In such similitude had those been made,

(Longfellow 15.4-10)

Of course, in the burning desert nothing can grow, so the walls here are ironic. An image that on Earth is fruitful is here in the Inferno barren. Of course, these sinners were violent against nature. Nature is now violent against these sinners, who have flakes of fire falling on them.

  • Why is the punishment given to the Sodomites fitting, and why is the environment of the Sodomites fitting?

In contrast to the Greedy Moneylenders, the Sodomites take something that ought to be fertile and make it infertile. Instead of having sex with women and raising families with children, the Sodomites had sex with other men, a form of sex from which no children can be result. Thus, they are punished in this infertile field. They continuously run, perhaps because they continually ran after men when they were alive. If the Sodomites stop running, they are punished by having to lie on the desert ground for 100 years while being unable to brush off the falling flakes of fire from their body (Musa, Inferno15.37-39).

  • Dante recognizes Ser Brunetto Latini. Does Dante the Poet put only his enemies in Hell?

No, Ser Brunetto Latini is a friend of Dante. Dante treats him very well indeed and with a lot of respect.

Dante is being eyed by the homosexuals when suddenly he is recognized by one of them:

Thus scrutinized by such a family,

By some one I was recognized, who seized

My garment’s hem, and cried out, “What a marvel!”

And I, when he stretched forth his arm to me,

On his baked aspect fastened so mine eyes,

That the scorched countenance prevented not

His recognition by my intellect;

And bowing down my face unto his own,

I made reply, “Are you here, Ser Brunetto?”

(Longfellow 15.22-30)

Italian is a language that has respectful and familiar forms of addressing someone else. Here Dante uses the respectful form of youwhen he asks, “Is this really you, here, Ser Brunetto?” (Musa, Inferno15.30).

  • Who was Brunetto Latini?

Brunetto Latini is not known much today except as a character who appears in Dante’s Infernoand as someone who was a mentor to Dante in real life. He was, however, a Guelf and a scholar. He was famous for having written the Trésor, which recounts much encyclopedic knowledge of the day. After the Battle of Montaperti in 1260, he was exiled from Florence.

  • Why is Brunetto calling Dante “O my son” (Musa, Inferno15.31) ironic?

As a homosexual, Brunetto, of course, is unlikely to have biological sons. And, of course, Dante was not his biological son.

Many teachers, by the way, regard their students as their children.

  • How does Dante respond when Brunetto asks why he is here?

Brunetto asks, “What fortune or what destiny / leads you down before your final hour?” (Musa, Inferno15.46-47).

Dante’s reply is important because this is the first time he answers the question correctly. Apparently, he really has been learning something in the Inferno:

“Up there above us in the life serene,”

I answered him, “I lost me in a valley,

Or ever yet my age had been completed.

But yestermorn I turned my back upon it;

This one appeared to me, returning thither,

And homeward leadeth me along this road.”

(Longfellow 15.49-54)

  • What kind of respect does Brunetto have for Dante?

Brunetto really does have a lot of respect for Dante: “He said to me: ‘Follow your constellation / and you cannot fail to reach your port of glory’” (Musa, Inferno15.55-56).

Basically, Brunetto is telling Dante that he is going to be famous. He heaps praise on Dante and tells him that his name is going to be in lights.

  • What could be a reason why Brunetto is so interested in Dante’s potential for becoming a great poet?

Brunetto himself had some fame, although it was not long lasting — the way that Dante’s fame is.

Brunetto may very well be interested in his own fame. If Brunetto is remembered as Dante’s teacher, Brunetto’s fame will at least last longer.

Some college professors are interviewed on TV about famous pupils they have taught.

  • What could happen to Dante if he concentrated on becoming famous?

Dante tells Brunetto that “you taught me how man makes himself eternal” (Musa, Inferno15.85). This is a reference to becoming famous on Earth through literature.

Yet Brunetto is in Hell for all eternity. Brunetto did not teach Dante about the right kind of “eternal.” Brunetto was all about gaining eternal fame on Earth, not eternal life in Heaven.

If Dante were to concentrate on becoming famous rather than telling the truth in The Divine Comedy,he might end up like Brunetto, with fame that is not long lasting on Earth and with punishment that is eternal in the Inferno.

If Dante were to concentrate on becoming famous rather than telling the truth in The Divine Comedy,he might not put Popes in Hell, but instead flatter them so that he could be their guests and drop their names to other people.

If Dante were to concentrate on becoming famous rather than telling the truth in The Divine Comedy,he might not put any of his friends in his Inferno, but instead he might put only his enemies in his Inferno.

As we know, Dante achieved eternity in Paradise, and all indications are that he will continue to enjoy fame as a poet on Earth. I personally rank Dante with Homer, Virgil, and Shakespeare.

  • What does Brunetto show a keen interest in (besides homosexuality)? Is showing a keen interest in that a sin?

Brunetto truly has a keen interest in fame. At the end of the canto, he tells Dante, “Remember my Trésor, where I live on, / this is the only thing I ask of you” (Musa, Inferno15.119-120).

Compromising your artistic vision for fame is a sin. If you don’t tell the truth in your art, your art will not live on.

Ironically, if you do tell the truth in your art, it can live on, and your fame will be greater than if you had compromised your vision. Dante is remembered today as one of the greatest poets who ever lived. Brunetto is a footnote in scholarly volumes. If you read the Trésor today, you will read it only in the hope that you will learn more about Dante.

Books should be fertile; books written only to make the writer famous are infertile.

  • What works did Brunetto Latini write?

Brunetto Latini mentions his Trésor(Musa, Inferno15.119). The full title isLivre dou Trésor, and the title of this work of prose can be translated as The Book of the Treasure. Brunetto Latini also wrote an allegorical, poetic work titled Tesoretta, or The Little Treasure.

  • Which prophecy does Brunetto Latini make concerning Dante?

Brunetto Latini prophesies hard times for Dante. He says,

“But that ungrateful and malignant people,

Which of old time from Fesole descended,

And smacks still of the mountain and the granite,

Will make itself, for thy good deeds, thy foe;”

(Longfellow 15.61-64)

This prophecy states that both political parties will regard Dante as an enemy. Fiesole is the town where Catiline was besieged. (Cicero exposed Catiline’s plot to overthrow the Roman Republic in 63 B.C.E.) The survivors of the siege founded Florence.

  • What is Dante’s reaction to Brunetto Latini’s prophecy?

Dante, of course, has heard other prophecies, both from Ciacco (Canto 6) and from Farinata (Canto 10). He tells Brunetto Latini that he will “write down what you tell me of my future” (Musa, Inferno15.88) and will have it interpreted by Beatrice, although actually it is his ancestor Cacciaguida who will interpret the prophecies for Dante.

Dante also says that he is ready for what lies ahead for him. He will not waver from his course. We can interpret this, of course, as also applying to his writing The Divine Comedy. Dante will tell the truth; he will not write simply in order to become famous.

Dante tells Brunetto Latini:

“Provided that my conscience do not chide me,

For whatsoever Fortune I am ready.

Such handsel is not new unto mine ears;

Therefore let Fortune turn her wheel around

As it may please her, and the churl his mattock.”

(Longfellow 15.92-96)

Virgil is very happy with what Dante says about remembering the prophecies he has heard and tells him, “He listens well who notes well what he hears” (Inferno15.99).

  • Who are some Sodomites with Brunetto Latini?

Brunetto Latini mentions a few other Sodomites with him:

Francesco d’Accorso: A lawyer from Florence who also taught law at the University of Bologna.

Andrea de’ Mozzi: From 1287 to 1295, he was Bishop of Florence.

Brunetto Latini also says that there are many clerics and many men of letters in his group.

  • Do you know of any famous Sodomites?

Sodomites are common in the arts. Many famous dancers have been Sodomites. Rudolf Nureyev is one such dancer. At an awards ceremony he attended, a naked man streaked across the stage. Mr. Nureyev was delighted.

Here are a few other anecdotes about gay men:

Tim Gill is a gay business executive of the company that manufactures Quark XPress. He found coming out very difficult. While attending college in Boulder, Colorado, he walked into the Boulder Gay Liberation office, said “Hi,” then “Hello,” then he “just shook for ten minutes.” Fortunately, the man in the office managed to calm him down. Like many other gay men of the time, Mr. Gill saw a psychiatrist. At this time, 1972, homosexuality was no longer considered aberrant, so the psychiatrist told him, “Well, if you want to change, I will help you. Otherwise, we just have to work on your parents.”(Source: Michael Thomas Ford, Outspoken, pp. 193ff.)

Celebrated effeminate homosexual wit Quentin Crisp was more or less accepted by his family, although they sometimes sent him letters with this salutation: “Dear Sir or Madam — cross out which does not apply.” Something similar happened in a law court when the clerk sneered at him and said, “You are a male person, I presume.” (Source: Paul Bailey, editor, The Stately Homo: A Celebration of the Life of Quentin Crisp, pp. 60, 226.)

Gay author Joel Perry recommends being out of the closet so gays and lesbians can fight for their rights. Of course, he realizes that being out means possibly being targeted for abuse, but even that can be an opportunity for activism. For example, if a bigot calls him a queer, he corrects the bigot by saying that he is a “fantastic queer.” (Source: Joel Perry, Funny That Way: Adventures in Fabulousness, p. 86.)

Bill Serpe of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, came out when he was 24 years old, although he had realized that he was gay at age 19. For five years, he led a double life, talking at his day job as a shoe salesman about dating women although at night he was really dating men. One day, his boss asked him what he had done the evening before, and Mr. Serpe replied that he had been on a date. That’s when he realized that he couldn’t keep lying, that he had to be open about his sexuality. When his boss asked what her name was, Mr. Serpe replied, “His name was John.” His father was in denial about Mr. Serpe’s sexuality, and although they discussed it once, they didn’t discuss it further for a very long time. When Mr. Serpe was 29 years old, at Thanksgiving he visited his family, then left to see his partner. His father asked, “Why don’t you pick her up and bring her back here?” Mr. Serpe replied, “It’s not a her.” Hearing this, his stepmother asked, “Then why don’t you bring him back here?” That’s when Mr. Serpe came out to the rest of his family. He says, “It was difficult at first, but we worked through it. I’ve been a very lucky gay man.” (Source: Lisa Kaiser, “‘It’s the Most Liberating Thing’: Six Milwaukeeans tell their coming-out stories.” The Shepherd Express. 7 June 2007 <http://tinyurl.com/q9t4dpu&gt;.

As a gay teenager, Paul Guilbert showed little fear. Whenever someone called him “faggot,” he would reply, “That’s right, honey.” (And whenever someone hit him, he hit back.) Mr. Guilbert was Aaron Frick’s date at his high school prom, which Mr. Fricke writes about in Reflections of a Rock Lobster: A Story About Growing Up Gay. (Source: Aaron Fricke, Reflections of a Rock Lobster: A Story About Growing Up Gay, p. 44.)

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