Skip to main content

Des âmes argueilleuses parcourent un des cercles du purgatoire, accablées sous un poids énorme

CAT 94 crop.png

CAT 94. Etienne Achille Réveil after John Flaxman. Des âmes argueilleuses parcourent un des cercles du purgatoire, accablées sous un poids énorme. Plate 15 (from canto 11) in Purgatoire du Dante. Paris: Audot, 1833. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

Contrasting with the kneeling form of the Virgin bent in submission are the bent figures of The Proud, still crushed low by the haughty weight of their former sin. When Dante and Virgil looked down upon them at the end of canto 10, it was hard to “disentangle” these laboring men from the stones they bore, so “crumpled” were the knees of each in relation to the breast above which “his back was laden” (10.108, 122-26). As Dante hears these figures pray a version of the Lord’s Prayer in canto 11, he sees them laboring “beneath a weight like that / We sometimes feel in dreams” (11.26-27), but Virgil makes clear that Dante himself “bears yet / The charge of fleshly raiment Adam left him,” and must himself be purged (11.44-46). This truth is underscored by Dante’s need to “stoop / My visage to the ground” in order to speak with Omberto, whose “arrogant neck” is heavily “hinder’d by the rock” (11.52-54). 

Flaxman memorably depicts the condition Dante imagined for those heavily burdened by pride, the sin of which Dante was himself most susceptible as a writer, and which plays a major role in Melville’s Pierre, a book whose explicit allusions to “Flaxman’s Dante” are accompanied by others much more subtle. Thinking of Flaxman’s souls staggering under the rocks of pride, one recalls that the protagonist’s name, Pierre, means a small stone or rock in French. Young Pierre has an existential crisis under the overwhelming memnon stone before he leaves the lovely valley in which he was raised, and of which his pampered soul had been groomed to become a ruler. Later in the novel his frightening daydream of Encedalus, locked rockbound in the Mount of the Titans, objectifies his intense psychological anguish. Ironically, the novel itself is dedicated to the “Majesty of Mount Greylock” (the real-life referent of the Mount of the Titans) in a gesture of authorial pride. One passage directly relating Dante the man with Dante the author addresses the relation of invective to pride: “The man Dante Alighieri received unforgivable affronts and insults from the world; and the poet Dante Alighieri bequeathed his immortal curse of it, in the sublime malediction of the Inferno” (NN P 168-69). Purging the sin of having done so in pride as well as anger is one form of penance Dante is undergoing in Purgatory.

Some of the strongest invective in Melville’s career comes in the two chapters of Pierre (17, 18) that savagely attack the New York literary establishment that had encouraged Melville’s earlier career but failed to understand Moby-Dick. But young Pierre also comes to understand some of his own sins as a young writer, among them his having relied too much on second-hand inspiration from other authors, resulting in the Flaxman-like image in chapter 21 in which he imagines having tried to “climb Parnassus with a pile of folios on his back” (NN P 283).