WHAT IS CLASSIC REMARKS?
Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.
HOW CAN I PARTICIPATE?
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THIS WEEK’S PROMPT:
How do you interpret Dante’s Ulysses? Is he a heroic figure or something else?
In Canto XXVI of the Inferno, Dante and Virgil meet the shade of Ulysses, sentenced to eternal torment in the circle of the Deceivers. Ulysses tells how, as an old man, he set sail with a number of his faithful crew, desirous “to know the world and have experience/ of all men’s vices, of all human worth” (Inf. XXVI.98-99). When they reached the Pillars of Hercules, which marked the end of the known world, beyond which no man was allowed to go, Ulysses urged his crew forward with an inspiring speech:
“Consider what you came from: you are Greeks!
You were not born to live like mindless brutes
but to follow paths of knowledge and excellence” (Inf. XXVI.118-120)The Portable Dante, trans. by Mark Musa
The crew sailed for days, until they saw a mountain in the distance. Then a storm appeared, which took the crew to their deaths.
Dante’s Ulysses is a remarkable figure. His quest for knowledge and adventure is truly inspiring. His words make his story come alive, with himself as the compelling hero of a journey into the unknown. And his desire is one that many readers will recognize in themselves: a thirst to know more, to test the limits of human understanding, to find out the secrets of the universe. As an intellectual, Dante very likely saw himself in Ulysses.
Interestingly, however, Dante has placed Ulysses in hell. He is implicitly condemning Ulysses for attempting to seek out knowledge that was not his to take. The mountain Ulysses saw in the distance before his death is the Mountain of Purgatory, suggesting that somehow Ulysses and his men were unworthy to approach it. Though Ulysses’ account of his final voyage is inspirational, readers must remember that he is in the circle of Deceivers. What Ulysses tells us–and how he tells it– cannot necessarily be trusted.
But Ulysses’ placement in hell does raise an interesting point. Since he is being punished for deception, does that mean that he is actually not in hell as a result of his quest for knowledge? Could the real sin be his deception of his men? He tells Dante and Virgil:
“not sweetness of a son, not reverence
for an aging father, not the debt of love
I owed Penelope to make her happy” (Inf. XXVI.94-6)The Portable Dante, trans. by Mark Musa
could keep him home. This suggests that his last voyage is not quite as noble as Ulysses makes us feel it to be. It was not just a trip for knowledge. It was also a betrayal of familial ties.
I cannot be sure precisely why Dante placed Ulysses in his hell. Maybe he is condemning the search for unnatural knowledge along with Ulysses’ deception and his desertion of his family. I do know, however, that I can never fail to be moved by Ulysses’ speech. Whether he is right or wrong, his words lift me up, inspiring me to want to be greater than myself. His words echo across the ages, reminding readers: “You were not born to live like mindless brutes/ but to follow paths of excellence and knowledge” (Inf. XXVI.119-120).
All quotes from:
Musa, Mark translator. The Portable Dante. By Dante Alighieri, Penguin, 1995.