Ulysses' Last Voyage

Feres Lourenço Khoury (Reviews Journal)


Translation and commentary on Ulysses' speech in Canto XXVI of Dante's Inferno. With PS about Bolsonaro.

Dante arrives at the eighth circle of Hell, where fraudsters, liars, seducers, cheaters, counselors in bad faith, etc. In one of the chasms there, he comes across convicts who are trapped inside flames that burn them. In one of them there are two characters: Ulysses and Diomedes, remnants of the Trojan War, where they practiced various fraudulent deeds, including the famous Horse. But this will not be the main focus of the traveling poet, guided by Virgílio.

Dante wants to know why they're there. Virgil, who knows ancient Greek, discourages Dante from speaking, because the prisoners inside might annoy the “strange” speech of the Florentine poet, and interrogates the flame himself. Ulysses responds, clarifying his final destination. Dante takes poetic liberty, as he denies that Ulysses has returned to Ithaca, contrary to what ancient tradition had established. Instead, in the poem, Ulysses gathers his remaining companions and heads west, wanting to know what lies beyond the columns of Hercules, a medieval theme. Your trip is doomed to failure in advance.

Allegorically, he is condemned because he decides to undertake the adventure of knowledge with reason alone, without the help of faith. This is the difference between him and Dante. Ulysses goes through the surface of the sea, while the poet goes through the underground of Evil (Hell), knowing its diverse nature, therefore. Both will arrive at the same destination: the foot of the mountain of Purgatory. Dante will undertake the climb that will take him to Paradise and from there to Heaven until the vision of the Divine Light. On the contrary, Ulysses succumbs, dragging his traveling companions along, and plunges into the depths of the kingdom of Lucifer, the fallen and fallen angel.

Upon reaching the bottom of the Pit, Dante must descend through the body of Lucifer Tricephalus to reach the rock on the other side, which will allow him to find the way out. In this dangerous downward crossing, Virgil and Dante must cling to the hairs of Lucifer, whose three heads chew, separately, three great traitors of humanity: Brutus and Cassius, assassins of Caesar, and Judas, who betrayed Christ. Lucifer is trapped in the rock. Only their jaws move to punish that trio, and their wings, generating an icy wind that produces the ice of Cocytus, the frozen lake of the last infernal circle. He, the Demon, is the image of the “movement that does not move”, a metaphor for the last secret of Hell: the impossibility of the transcendent and redemptive step. Infernal souls are forever trapped in their earthly selves, condemned to eternally be what they were in life. Thus the seducer and trickster Ulysses will forever be the seducer and cheater Ulysses, that is, Ulysses eternally consumed by Ulysses, the present and the future eternally tied to the past. Hell is not other people, hell is yourself, forever.

In Dante's poem there is, however, more freedom than just poetics. It also involves theological freedom. When the poet began to write his Comedy, at the beginning of the fourteenth century, the canonical version of Hell had already been consolidated, consecrated by Thomas Aquinas, who had not yet received the title of saint, when Dante was still a boy: the former died when the latter turned eleven years old. In this version of Christian orthodoxy, Hell was a place of absolute darkness and eternal silence. For Thomas Aquinas the only light in Hell came from the fire that burned the damned within and made their eyes shine as they wept a tearless cry and sobbed sobbing without a sound. Inside too, the worm of remorse gnawed at their entrails.

Were Dante to write a theological treatise, it would probably be banned, for not only do he and Virgil dialogue with the condemned, but the Florentine promises that, when he returns to the world of the living, he will tell them what he heard from them. But since Dante was a poet, he could take liberties that in other genres of writing would be forbidden. Among the freedoms, that of language: Dante wrote his long poem – considered epic – in Tuscan dialect, instead of in Latin, as would be more appropriate. And by “giving voice” to the damned of Inferno Dante also gave them, in many cases, a majestic and solemn dignity. This was the case with Ulysses.

If we take the passage simply at the foot of the letter, we will be killing the poetry of the poem, which is to put in counterpoint the still dominant vigor of the European medieval framework, but which is already leaning towards its autumn (today we can see it), and the new rigor of the emerging rationality, still submerged, but already driving a journey of no return. And a journey in many ways.

In 1291 two Genoese merchants, the brothers Vandino and Ugolino de Vivaldi, embarked on a journey with two ships, crossing the Pillars of Hercules or the Strait of Gibraltar, a name derived from the Arabic expression, Jabal-al-Tariq, Mountain of Tariq, in honor of Berber commander who landed there in 711 AD to begin the conquest of the Iberian Peninsula. The Vivaldi brothers headed south, looking for a sea route to reach the Indies.

The trip had commercial purposes, side by side with religious ones, as two friars were on board to evangelize the Gentiles. There is news of their endeavor until they reached the point that the Portuguese, a century and a half later, would baptize as “Cabo Não”, in the south of Morocco. Then they disappeared. Some expeditions were organized in the following century to find their traces, without success, although they provoked a lot of speculation about how far they would have gone and about their fate. There are versions that say they reached the Senegal River, between the country of that name and Mauritania to the north, being imprisoned by local rulers. Did the Vivaldi expedition inspire Dante? I am not an exegete of his work to affirm or deny. I leave the question.

Other trips were in progress. One of them, as already noted, was that of Dante himself, writing a “Poema Maior”, whose classification is of poetic genre, not of aesthetic value, in his native language. The touch materializes in the dialogue that precedes Ulysses’ speech, when Virgil asks Dante to let him speak in a classical language with the flame, as the Greek warrior might not understand or refuse to respond to that “language that was foreign to him”. , the Tuscan “barbarian”.

The greatest beauty of this passage and of the poem emanates from the fact that Dante preserves the mental architecture of the Middle Ages that begins to fade along the edges of thought that will implode it, without destroying its foundations, on the contrary, renewing them.

The speech Ulysses makes to encourage his traveling companions is a revolutionary libel. The medieval framework placed Earth at the center of the universe and Man at the center of Creation. However, Ulysses puts human reason at the center of everything: reason animates man's humanity and the world watches him, that is, it waits for him, man and his reason, he tells his companions, inciting them to face the unknown, despite age. I don't think even I could resist such an incandescent call.

Following the line of identities as condemnation, Ulysses was never as Ulysses as he was at the moment when he evoked his speech, even more than at the instance in which he pronounced it, according to his narrative. For in this evocation it already lives its pain, and even so renews it, with all the great human courage that it contains and at the same time reveals. It recalls the interpretation of Sophocles' tragedy in which Oedipus says that whatever the Sphinx's question was, his answer would be “Man”, because Man's answer before the Gods is always Man himself. He promised he wouldn't do better.

One last libertarian boldness. I came across several translations of the Ulysses passage. I am referring to poetics, leaving aside those in prose. After all, Dante is not Balzac. All with his merits, but none satisfied me. Why? Because they were all very concerned about preserving the unparalleled erudition of Dante's text, which seeks to combine the communicability of his contemporary Tuscan with the twists of the ancient classical world. Very meritorious. However, the end result is usually not very poetic in our language. They lack momentum. They subject the Portuguese language to veritable syntactic and semantic torticollis. So, like Ulysses, barely comparing, I decided to undertake the crossing, hoping not to sink, even though I risked doing so. Although I recognize that in my version it is possible that I was more faithful to the spirit of the Greek warrior than to that of the poet who evoked him.

Virgil goes to the flame and asks what it means:

The greater tip of the ancient flame / Tossed, with a burning voice, / Like that which in the wind vibrates. / And as if it were a moving tongue / Articulating a voice without bridle / He spoke something coming from his womb: / “When I left Circe on a new journey, / After a year there, / Before Eneas came to have her there, No I turn to the burning love / Of the Son, of the Father, of whomever there was, / Not even Penelope, the most loving. / There was nothing in me that could overcome / The indomitable will of the traveler, / Once again breaking his impasse, / Leaving himself across the ocean ahead. / So I saw myself in the wood that sailed / Again the open and undulating sea / Without anyone from the voyage deserting / Among the faithful accompanying guard. / And we left, passing by the island of Sarda, / Then flanking the coast of Spain, / Facing Morocco, which the sun protects, / To the sea that you don't know what bathes it. / We were those in which time is slow, / Old men, in whom life is shy. / And we arrive at the strait where / The curse of Hercules, who catches / The ban on passing there, is bitter, / Whoever does, the curse of old / Of death, which awaits there. / We had already passed Seville, on the right, / And on the left Ceuta was looking at us. / It was when I had this clear speech: / “Brothers, who came breaking the barrier / Of age, do not refuse to undertake such an undertaking: / You are not brutes, reason has animated you / Since always, and the world has been watching you. / With the secrets that this sea kept”. / Thus the journey into the unknown was accepted / With the firm courage that reigned / In the hearts of fellow people. / Turning our stern towards the rising sun / Leaving the wide wake behind / The oars turned towards the west. / We wanted to explore the adventurous route / The world that they said had no people. / We began to see the southern stars / While those in the north suddenly fell. / Five times the moon showed itself at the threshold / Following our insistent step. / Behold, a spectral mountain appeared, / Tall, such as had never been seen before. / We were happy to see land at last, / But we were soon overcome with a piercing cry / From the mountain came a terrible gale / And the ship hit hard in front; / Three times it spun in a spiral. / Soon the stern leaped upward / While the bow, to our misfortune, / Into those waters plunged forever.

The greatest freedom, I confess, that I took, is in the rhymes. Instead of Dante's preferred scheme aba/bcb/cdc, etc., I went for a simplified ab/ab with imperfect variations and rhymes. What to do? Is life.

Another reflection: this endeavor is inseparable from the times we live in. Isolation leads to daydreams. On the other hand, we live in a time when the defense of reason becomes an urgent, revolutionary necessity. Including medieval reason. I have read accusations that the thinking of the Bolsonaro government is “medieval”. What enormous nonsense! For example: Dante's planet is spherical. In fact, not only the planet, but the entire universe. Lucifer fell from the upper spheres (where Dante wants to reach through his complicated path) and entered the bowels of the Earth, some say through the Dead Sea, others say through what would be the South Pole. This would explain, for example, why there is a greater concentration of land in the northern hemisphere.

The planet's matter, repulsing the presence of Evil, moved away and remodeled Creation, concentrating lands on the pole or opposite side of the arrival. This also explains why many medieval maps put the southern hemisphere at the top and the north at the bottom. Another important detail: in the center of the Earth, today, in our real imaginary occupied by a furnace, in Dante's world this center was occupied by the Devil's pubis. Interpretations are free and welcome: “free thinking is just thinking”, said Millor. Just don't tell me that the intellectual world of the European Middle Ages was a sea of ​​darkness.

Dante's arrival at the bottom of Hell reminded me of another background (allow me the heresy): that of the ministerial meeting on April 22nd. who reads A Divine Comedy he realizes that, alongside the original demons, the creation of this space required the presence of functional little devils, to keep the machinery in action: the furnaces, the sharpened pitchforks, the torture of the prisoners, these things. They are second-rate little devils, without any greatness, subservient. That's what was seen there: insolent, vain devils, but capable of doing a lot of harm, recording for posterity their wanton devilments before their three-headed leader, chewing Reason, Decorum in their sulphurous mouth, and at the center the Brazilian People.

May the spirit of Ulysses and Dante, together, help us.

* Flavio Aguiar is a writer, retired professor of Brazilian literature at USP and author, among other books, of Chronicles of the World Upside Down (Boitempo).


The professor of Italian at FFLCH/USP, Maria Cecília Casini, kindly invited me to participate in a reading session of excerpts from The divine Comedy from Dante. The session is open for readings of the original and for translations into several languages. My companion Zinka Ziebell read the episode of Paolo and Francesca (Canto V of the Inferno) in a German translation. On my side, I went to one of my favorite passages, also from the Inferno, that of the account of the last journey of Ulysses.

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