murder

Responsibility in the Moral Imagination

francesca_paola_1280

We read of the smile, desired of lips long-thwarted,

        Such smile, by such a lover kissed away,

        He that may never more from me be parted

Trembling all over, kissed my mouth. I say

        That book was Galleot, Galleot the complying

        Ribald who wrote; we read no more that day.”

Dante Alighieri, Inferno, V, ll. 73-142

In Dante’s Inferno, we are greeted with a vignette as familiar to the English writer as Romeo and Juliet – predating it by centuries, the tale of Francesca and Paola. Based on actual events, these are two souls trapped in the depths of hell because of the sin of lust. While the interpretations of Dante regarding hell don’t match wholly those of the Orthodox, the Inferno is often less about theological questions (which are the framework for the series of vignettes) and more about the meaning behind the scenes it permits to be disclosed.

The significance of this scene, like all of those in hell, is less about whether such persons would be condemned (we actually do not know the answer in most cases) but the fact that something gravely wrong, judged by almost any standard conceivable, occurred. Being trapped in hell gives Dante the chance to meet those responsible and ask what error brought them there. In a framework where these tragedies and errors were rendered meaningless or immediately forgotten, there would be no basis for remembering them and letting them stand as witnesses against such behavior. Consider that though the Buddhist would be trying not to be caught up in such things either, would the man reincarnated as a cockroach remember to tell of how he became something worthy of being trodden underfoot?

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