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In “Dante on Trial” (New York Review of Books, Feb. 19), Robert Pogue Harrison writes, “Dante seems to reveal that he himself had homosexual leanings, and that it was only fear of damnation that prevented him from acting on them.” This surprised me because Dante seems never to be claimed as a gay writer (Google finds no such assertions), and his denunciations of “sodomy” are rather famous. But here is the relevant passage from Canto XVI (lines 46-51), in my translation:
If I had been shielded from the fire
I’d have thrown myself down there with them
And I think the master would have let me.
But since that would have burned and baked me,
My fear overcame my good desire
That made me so greedy to embrace them.*
So says Dante when he observes the men punished for sodomy, naked and oily and trying to grasp one other under a rain of fire. His master, of course, is Virgil; and it appears that the Roman poet would have allowed [sofferto] Dante to embrace these men as he wishes.
The conventional reading is that Dante wants to embrace these men because they are his fellow Florentines. Or perhaps he commiserates because they are human beings who have been damned, just as he fainted to see Paolo and Francesca (heterosexual lovers) suffer in Canto V. It has also been claimed that sodomy is some kind of metaphor for their actual sins. But I don’t think we can ignore the possibility that Dante wants to embrace them because he wants to embrace them.
The idea that being gay is an identity is generally thought to be a modern one. Dante puts men in hell for unconfessed sexual acts, just as you would be damned as a usurer if you lent money (even once) with illegal interest. In Canto XI, when Virgil is describing the layout of hell, he uses place names as metonymies for two sins: the biblical town of Sodom for male/male sexual relations, and the French town of Cahors for usury, because it was famous for its predatory bankers. A “sodomite” is like a “usurer” (or “an adulterer”): not a way of being but rather a label for an act. Yet each particular sin poses more or less of a temptation for each person, and Dante confesses here that this is a sin he is drawn to. Loosely translated from his framework to ours, his point is that he is gay but he doesn’t have gay sex, at least not in this story, because it is forbidden.
S’i’ fossi stato dal foco coperto,
gittato mi sarei tra lor di sotto,
e credo che ‘l dottor l’avria sofferto;
ma perch’io mi sarei brusciato e cotto,
vinse paura la mia buona voglia
che di loro abbracciar mi facea ghiotto.