Non-Places in Hell

Non-Places in Hell


In reading John Ciardi’s translation of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, one notices peculiar spots that arise throughout the poem. They are transitory spaces, as much poetic devices as practical tools to flesh out Dante’s world building. There are three such places in the Inferno: the Vestibule of Hell, the gate of Dis, and the space between Hell and Purgatory. They not only divide the poem into three parts (a number particularly relevant to Christian tradition), they also serve to indicate tonal shifts. French anthropologist Marc Augé has written about what he calls “non-places” in contemporary urban landscapes, defined according to a diagnostic: “If a place can be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity, then a space which cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity will be a non-place.”1 The in-between spaces within the Inferno are non-places since they do not meet all of these criteria, therefore unraveling the intricate braid that constitutes anthropological place. Although Hell is, on the whole, very much an anthropological place and full of symbolism, these three spots are non-places because their being is not relevant, but Dante the pilgrim’s reasons for passing through are.

How could it be that non-places, a characteristic rampant in supermodernity, are featured in a work of medieval literature? Augé argues that the excess of space and time, along with highly individualized experiences, characterize supermodernity, but what he does not explicitly state is that these features are not unique to the age of modernity but exaggerated in comparison to earlier eras (for Augé says that we do not actually yet live in supermodern times)2. These excesses are amplified in, not exclusive to, supermodernity. Augé defines the difference between modernity and supermodernity by this shift from lesser to greater excess and there have been similar, if perhaps not as drastic, shifts between previous ages. This can be seen in the urbanization of Florence in the centuries leading up to Dante’s birth in the thirteenth century. The city’s history dates back to Roman times, as evident by the characteristic cardo and decumanus roads that unify the city, but things were beginning to change in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, as there were active efforts being made to structure the city.3 The comparative excess of space was illustrated in the city’s growth through physical expansion, since there was now both the manpower and the will to push the borders of the city outward while also structuring it.4 The rate at which Florence changed was drastic: “It is unlikely that Dante, as a young man, could have had a precise idea of how his city had looked at the time of Cacciaguida [Dante’s great-great-grandfather].”5 In the time between only four generations, Florence had been molded in such a way that it was the same city primarily by name, rather than by other qualities.

The transformation of the road in this period, both physically and symbolically, is of particular importance.“The concept of the ‘road with a backdrop,’ lined with the symbol-laden buildings of the city, emerged at this point”; it is not the road itself then that is important, but what lies beyond it.6 What, then, symbolically becomes of the road? Nothing: it is a vessel by which a traveler finds meaning, but does not inherently have meaning itself. This is why Augé calls the traveler’s space “the archetype of the non-place.”7 This definition is doubly important in the Inferno when one remembers that the purpose of the poem is to illustrate a pilgrim on his journey to salvation. The majority of the poem is concerned with Dante’s interactions with sinners, but there are points wherein both Dante and Virgil are either passing through without engaging with their surroundings, or find themselves helpless because their physical surroundings are neutral while they are hounded by hostile entities.

The first non-place Dante the pilgrim is introduced to is the Vestibule of Hell, where the Opportunists live out eternity, neither in Hell nor out of it, but punished nonetheless for their indecision. The Opportunists are named such by Ciardi, not Dante; in fact, Virgil explicitly says “Mercy and Justice deny them even a name.”8 Neither passerby engage with the Opportunists, thus leaning into another characteristic of non-places wherein the traveler becomes disoriented: 

This prevents him from perceiving it as a place, from being fully present in it, even though he may try to fill the gap with comprehensive and detailed information out of guidebooks . . . or journey narratives.9

Dante quickly pivots from observing the Opportunists to questioning Virgil about the beach of Acheron before them. Neither him nor Virgil pay much attention to the Opportunists, compared to later lengthy encounters with sinners, because there is nothing to learn from them. This is doubly true because Dante cannot glean significance from the environment, except through the “harsh inscription” before the gate.10

Non-places are “defined partly by the words and texts they offer us: their ‘instructions for use’, which may be prescriptive… prohibitive… or informative.…”11 Virgil’s purpose as a guide to Dante is to open doors, and to explain the horrors the pilgrim sees before him; thus, there is no need for textual markers, since what Virgil does not explain is generally self-explanatory. The inscription before the Vestibule of Hell stands out as an exception. The second and third stanzas of canto 3 read: 







The only significance Dante the pilgrim gleans from this space without the assistance of Virgil is through this sign. Non-places exhibit a particular characteristic wherein words are the only sufficient way to bestow a semblance of importance to a particular location, since history, relationality, and shared identity are unable to do so. 

The Vestibule (along with the gate of Dis) has an important resonance with the Bible, since Christ broke the gates of Hell during the Harrowing of Hell. This breaking was not the object of His voyage; the gate at the Vestibule was simply necessary to pass through, not because it is in and of itself significant, nor did the actual Harrowing occur in either of these locations. This historical significance would make the Vestibule seem to be an anthropological place, but, like Augé’s example of the Parthenon, its historical meaning is too archaic and removed from the traveler to have genuine, deep meaning to them. It has been denoted the status of being a place of mere memory.13 History is just a residue on the walls of a non-place. The Vestibule serves to direct both Dante and the reader from the Wood of Errors into Hell, whilst not being part of Hell itself. It is the transition from the discordant sin of the mortal world to organized retribution. In a similar way, the gate of Dis transitions us from Upper Hell and sins of Incontinence to Lower Hell and sins of Violence and Fraud, while not being a part of either.14 

The latter half of canto 8 is concerned with Dante and Virgil having to go beyond the gate, but are denied entry by devils and harpies. This is another place where Dante the pilgrim steps back into the role of the spectator, and does not engage with the devils that bar the way. Instead, he takes this moment to turn inwards and reflect, since Virgil leaves his side to attempt at negotiating, and there is nothing else to learn from the environment without directly engaging with those dark forces. “The space of non-place creates neither singular identity nor relations; only solitude, and similitude”; when Virgil leaves Dante’s side, the Florentine is left with his heart divided “to hope and fear.”15;16 This is Dante’s version of waiting in an airport security queue (albeit far more hostile): He has nothing to do besides sit with the knowledge (and therefore anxiety) that he may not have the “credentials” to pass beyond the gate. At the beginning of the Inferno, Virgil tells Dante that nothing can truly harm him in Hell since he is blessed and on a pilgrimage ordered from where “what is willed must be.”17 Yet, at the shore before the gate of Dis, those that keep watch seem to refute this decree. 

As Dante’s guide and the symbol of Human Reason, Virgil should be able to dismiss the threats of these demons, as he has previously done with Charon, Cerberus, Plutus, and Phlegyus, but he finds that he cannot. In fact, he has to send word for a divine messenger to come help them get through. Ciardi writes that in this situation, Virgil serves to symbolize the limits of Human Reason before greater sins and pure evil, however, Lloyd H. Howard’s analysis argues that the “messo”—the divine messenger—is disappointed in this shortcoming.18;19 The blessed do not “appreciate” being in Hell, as Virgil’s recounting of Beatrice’s visit explains, so it is possible the messenger’s disdain and affront is not a personal grievance with Virgil, yet the shift in respect for the Roman poet indicates otherwise.20 When Beatrice deigns to visit Limbo in order to ask for Virgil’s assistance in saving Dante’s soul, she treats him with great honor; when the “messo” intervenes, however, he does not so much as glance in Dante and Virgil’s direction.21 Dante describes how the “messo” moves right past them:

He did not speak to us,
but went his way like one preoccupied
by other presences than those before him.22 

When the “messo” arrived in Hell, he did not acknowledge them there either, however, he addresses the demons in such a way that could apply to Virgil as well, calling them “Outcasts of Heaven.”23 This entire encounter serves to reinforce the hierarchy of the Christian afterlife: Virgil is still just Virgil. An admirable master of poetry, but still an unblessed pagan who lives out eternity without the light and grace of God. Some, like Beatrice and Dante, still hold him in relatively high regard for his work and his honor, while others still like the “messo” do not hesitate to remind Virgil of the status of his soul. 

As mentioned, an aspect of the non-place is a disorientation that prevents the pilgrim from fully being in his environment. While Dante and Virgil anxiously await the messenger’s arrival on the shore, they are not fully present; both are preoccupied with the potential consequences and future of their journey if they cannot pass the gates. Virgil’s helplessness pushes him into the role of a spectator with Dante; he’s done all he can for his pupil, and now all that is left for them to do is to cower. Although physically together, their minds drift far from one another in their despair. Virgil frets:

“Yet surely we were meant to pass these tombs,”

he said aloud. “If not . . . so much was promised . . . 

Oh how time hangs and drags till our aid comes!”24 

Throughout the poem, Virgil hastens their journey because they are on a specific timetable; Dante is going through a spiritual rebirth during the days surrounding Easter. Part of his anxiety on the riverbank is because he knows Dante must keep to a strict timeline, whilst also thoroughly overcoming any pity he has regarding sin. Virgil feels this impatience, or what Augé describes as “urgency of the present moment since non-places are there to be passed through,” and the pair of travelers are kept from doing so.25 

Part of what the two endure is about purposely not seeing their surroundings; after the Furies threaten to bring out Medusa and give Dante an untimely demise, Virgil orders his pupil to cover his eyes, and then puts his own ghostly hands over Dante’s.26 However, Beatrice told Virgil (who recounts this to Dante in canto 2), “that is to fear which has the power to harm,/ and nothing else is fearful even in Hell.”27 She suggests that nothing is truly dangerous in Hell, for nothing has the power to truly harm a pair of pilgrims on a blessed voyage. Yet, Virgil perceives a genuine threat in the mere possibility of Medusa appearing. This further adds to their helplessness; they are simply pawns waiting for higher powers to make a move with them. Howard calls Virgil here “unreservedly passive” and “ever-sightless.”28 This creates a rift between the mentor and his pupil, since it becomes evident how Virgil does not and cannot know all there is to Hell. Non-places unmoor us from reality and, therefore, anything of aid or recognition. Beatrice’s reassurance is too distant to be of any comfort to the travelers on the shore. Reasonably, they should have no fear, but their voyage is at a point where mere reason is not sufficient to assuage them.

To return to the residual quality of history in these non-places of Hell, we must turn to the dialogue between Dante and Virgil while they wait. Once before, sent by “cruel Erichto,” did Virgil pass through the gate of Dis.29 Yet, even then, he was unable to do so without her supernatural assistance. The shore of Dis tests Virgil’s capability as a guide time and time again, proving that he, as both a historical and symbolic figure, is indeed fallible. This characterizes a shift wherein Dante must rely on faith more than reason, since it is the Divine that saves him (although not without substantial work on Dante’s part), not reason or even his pagan teacher. When the messo finally arrives, he reprimands the demons for their insolence and opens the gate with a casual wave. After the pair pass into Dis, Dante’s interactions with sinners are less and less forgiving, with the pilgrim even going so far as to further the suffering of the damned. 

The final non-place in Hell is preceded by a moment of great symbolism, wherein Dante rides Virgil’s back as the guide climbs down, and then “up,” Satan’s underside. This is the culmination of the first part of Dante’s journey; but even before they get to the other side, the strange law-defying qualities of the non-place intervene. Although the poem is about Dante’s journey and the way in which he overcomes sin, he is merely a passenger on Virgil’s back in this symbolic moment. He is a passive figure, for while this is happening to him, he is not the one clambering down Lucifer. After they dismount Lucifer’s body, the pilgrims find themselves in a liminal space “hollowed from rock.”30 Here, Dante corroborates Augé’s claim that “This abolition of place is also the consummation of the journey.”31 The liminal space illustrated here, however, is only the climax of the first part of Dante’s journey towards absolution. As a way of transitioning between Inferno and Purgatorio—a jolting contrast of pure evil and purification— Dante yet again makes the backdrop of his poem fade away; the pilgrims are neither here nor there. Stanzas toward the end of canto 34 read:

Down there, beginning at the further bound

of Beelzebub’s dim tomb, there is a space

not known by sight, but only by the sound…


My Guide and I crossed over and began

to mount that little known and lightless road

to ascend into the shining world again.32

Dante the poet describes this liminal space by what it is not, since he cannot define it by what it is; such would be contradictory to the nature of the non-place. He also does not go into great detail about the space because to do so would be to bestow importance to it. Again, it is not the space that is important—there is no significance here other than that it signifies the consummation of the journey. 

In describing the non-place that comes after Lucifer’s body, Dante mentions “the sound/ of a little stream,” which Ciardi interprets as a reference to the river Lethe.33 Ciardi explains that in classical mythology, Lethe was the “river of forgetfulness, from which souls drank before being born. In Dante’s symbolism it flows down from Purgatory, where it has washed away the memory of sin.”34 Returning to one of Augé’s descriptions of the non-place, he writes they are “promoted to the status of places of memory.”35 Already Dante the poet is thinking ahead to Purgatorio; already Dante the pilgrim is no longer present in the environment around him. Lethe is thus ironically pushed into being merely a place of memory, since its power is that of cleansing the soul of memories. The “history” of this river is not particularly significant to Dante at this moment for several reasons, the first being that the pilgrims do not actually see the river, and are therefore unable to engage with it. The second reason is that, because they do not engage with it, Dante the poet is signaling to readers that this section of the river is not important; already it is tainted with the memory of sin from those above in Purgatory. Its purpose of cleansing is used up already at this point. By physically removing the river from the pilgrim, the poet has effectively removed Lethe from having the same symbolic purpose as bodies of water in Hell. Previously in the Inferno, Dante had to cross the rivers and engage with different ferrymen, and their interactions symbolize how his soul conquers what they represent. For example, in canto 8, Phlegyas embodies wrath, which is why he carries souls across the swampy river that is the fifth circle where the Wrathful are punished. With Lethe, however, there is nothing to overcome; the river is meant to cleanse and purify, thus helping a soul come closer to being blessed.

Moments of great symbolism are bookended by voids in Dante’s work because the reader needs respite in order to fully take in the gravity and significance of the moment that has just passed. With moments of action, there must also be moments of rest. Dante the poet has intricately crafted a work teeming with metaphors, so there must of course be moments that are the opposite. Yet, these non-places do more than simply give the reader a break; they contribute to the whole of the allegory because they highlight the vulnerability and changes both Dante and Virgil go through. Although Dante is the person who gets the most out of this journey, Virgil also engages in self-reflection. In the vacuum that is a non-place, both pilgrims experience uncertainty and disorientation that create a shift in them only after they move past it. A contemporary individual’s experience in a non-place cannot be replicated by someone else, much less a medieval non-place, because their effect is entirely subjective. At the first two non-places within Hell, Dante is afraid because of the uncertainty and unfamiliarity he is faced with. Beyond Hell, he is no longer afraid, nor does he pity sinners; therefore the disorientation in this non-place has a different character to it. Virgil’s experiences in non-places test his worthiness and capability as a guide, for what can Reason make out of a place lacking in history, relations, or even identity? When these factors are absent, the void left in their wake gives room for change. Dante the pilgrim has changed significantly by the end of the Inferno, partially due to the time and space apart from sinners non-places gave him; detaching from reality forces one to withdraw into themselves and can lead to change in this way. Part of what makes the sinners’ punishments so agonizing is their endlessness, but Dante and Virgil have the privilege of some respite in non-places.

  1. Marc Augé, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, Translated by John Howe (Verso, 1995), 77-78.
  2. Augé, Non-Places, 40; 35.
  3. Franek Sznura, “Civic Urbanism in Medieval Florence,” in City States in Classical Antiquity and Medieval Italy, edited by Anthony Molho, Julia Emlen, and Kurt Raaflaub (University of Michigan Press, 1991), 403.
  4. Sznura, “Civic Urbanism in Medieval Florence,” 408.
  5. Sznura, “Civic Urbanism in Medieval Florence,” 408.
  6. Sznura, “Civic Urbanism in Medieval Florence,” 408.
  7. Augé, Non-Places, 86.
  8. Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy: The Inferno, the Purgatorio, and the Paradiso, translated by John Ciardi (New American Library, 2003), 3.47.
  9. Augé, Non-Places, 84-85.
  10. Dante, Inferno, 3.12
  11. Augé, Non-Places, 96.
  12. Dante, Inferno, 3.4-9.
  13. Augé, Non-Places, 78.
  14. Ciardi 66n107.
  15. Augé, Non-Places, 103.
  16. Dante, Inferno, 8.108.
  17. Dante, Inferno, 3.92.
  18. Ciardi 79nn1-15
  19. Lloyd H. Howard, Virgil the Blind Guide: Marking the Way Through the Divine Comedy (McGill-Queen’s Univiersity Press, 2010), 73.
  20. Howard, Virgil the Blind Guide, 74.
  21. Howard, Virgil the Blind Guide, 75.
  22. Dante, Inferno, 9.98-100.
  23. Dante, Inferno, 9.88.
  24. Dante, Inferno, 9.7-9.
  25. Augé, Non-Places, 104.
  26. Dante, Inferno, 9.52-54.
  27. Dante, Inferno, 2.89-90.
  28. Howard, Virgil the Blind Guide, 43; 45.
  29. Dante, Inferno, 9.20.
  30. Dante, Inferno, 34.97.
  31. Augé, Non-Places, 89.
  32. Dante, Inferno, 34.1136-1139.
  33. Ciardi 270n133.
  34. Ciardi 270n133.
  35. Augé, Non-Places, 78.
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