And then that his hand to mine
with a happy face, from which I comforted myself,
put me into secret things.
He laid that I might receive consolation from him,
With a serene look on my hand, his
And instructed me in the secret things.
(Inferno III, 19–21)
The spotted cheetah and lion are overcome, and Virgil was able to distract the greedy wolf. Now the master stands in front of his protégé. The good women sent him; Beatrice came down from heaven especially to give him the task of accompanying the young poet, the lover, through the necessary depths and leading him to purification. Virgil reveals himself to the stray, and he agrees to come with him. But then he is again in doubt, but can, like a flower that opens in the sun, gain new confidence through Virgil’s words.
So now you are standing in front of the gates of hell. And the martial sentences above the portal frighten the insecure self. It hesitates again. This is that existential moment of fear that is stronger than any reason. Virgil warns the young colleague against renewed anxiety and faint heartedness. You have to go through this gate into hell. And what happens now? Almost nothing happens. The experienced poet friend lays his hand on the younger man’s hand; he smiles at him. And only this, the gesture of the hand that lies on top of the hand, and the friendly look comfort the fear. He gains confidence and dares to venture through the world of the damned and tormented.
Virgil did not persuade Dante, he did not pull him on by the sleeve and shower him with assurances. No. He just quietly put his hand on his hand with a cheerful face. The melody of the terzines conveys that this gesture was gentle. Regardless of the meaning of the words, their sound is comforting, encouraging, a sound gesture. What Virgil’s meaningful language was no longer able to achieve, his sensual attention succeeds. His look, his light touch. With these almost incidental physical signs, the great walk begins into the “segrete cose”, the journey through the terrible secrets of hell, the hidden happenings in purgatory, where Beatrice finally takes over the escort with the thirtieth song.
Dante was a master of such hints and tips that help where the language, even of a poet like Virgil, may not be enough. When the sea monster Gorgon tries to show himself in the ninth song, Virgil warns his friend not to look under any circumstances, otherwise he will be lost. And he helps the inexperienced to turn away and, to be on the safe side, covers his eyes with his hands.
If you want, you can often discover small still lifes in paintings. He can look at a detail and enjoy it without worrying about the context in which it stands. What a literary scholar is not allowed to do, a creative reader is allowed to do: to take lines individually. These terzines can be solved from the large tableau of the “Commedia” and read independently of their function in the third song of the Inferno. In Italian it is not fixed on a gender. A man could put his hand on a woman’s hand, a woman her hand on a man’s; a mother could lay her hand on a child, a woman on a woman.
Even “lieto volto”, the cheerful face, is not linked to any gender. Depending on the situation, the “segrete cose”, between love and death, would always have to be understood differently. This inconspicuous terzine is not only a particularly beautiful and central point in the “Commedia”, a gestural language gate that Dante only opens hell. It also encompasses a basic situation of human existence, which is often reflected in literature. It can be found in Anna Magdalena Bach’s music book as “Are you with me”; Holderlin spoke of her in a different way: “It is good to hold on to others, because no one bears life alone.” Trust in having you by your side is comforting. From this consolation the courage can grow to venture into the unpredictable, the “segrete cose”. And it may be, it is often a small gesture that guarantees this wordless trust.
Angelika Overath is a writer.
All previous episodes our series can be found at www.faz.net/dante.