Dante's Ulysses: Damnation and Salvation in the Commedia
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Dante’s Commedia is a Christian allegory for the soul’s journey to God. Dante depicts himself as the Christian pilgrim learning, through his journey, how to live his earthly life properly. But Dante also depicts his journey as a revelation of the world beyond; as such, he depicts himself as a prophet. The Commedia becomes Dante’s God’s word transcribed through Dante, who throughout his journey earns, in addition to spiritual salvation, the poetic/prophetic authority (“auctoritas”) to write of his vision of God. Ulysses, who in Inferno 26 describes his drowning, is key in Dante’s transformation from false prophet to true, as shown by Dante’s several references to Ulysses throughout the Commedia. Ulysses’ misuse of his intelligence and his rhetorical ability (as Dante depicts it, from his incomplete understanding of the Odysseus/Ulysses tradition in literature) parallels Dante’s misuse of his poetic talent (“ingegno”) when he composed his philosophical Convivio, which he abandoned to write the Commedia. Likewise, Ulysses’ damnation parallels Dante’s when he devoted himself to philosophy rather than to God, and which error led Dante to the despair that impelled the Commedia. Such a parallel reveals Inferno 26 as a matrix of Dante’s key themes in the Commedia, in which Dante transforms himself from false prophet to true, who is qualified to see and write of seeing God face to face.