How Barthes` Theory of the Open Text Can Be Applied to Dante`s Inferno
Dante`s Inferno is the first part of the epic poem The Divine Comedy, which was completed in 1320. The poem is about Dante`s journey through the different levels of hell, guided by the Roman poet Virgil. Many theories have been put forward in order to explain the meaning of the poem, with most commentators focusing on its autobiographical, political and religious aspects. However, in this paper I will be using the theories of open and closed texts, as developed by Robert Barthes and Umberto Eco respectively, in order to provide a different perspective on the Inferno.
Barthes` theory of the open text holds that a text is never truly finished, and that it can always be interpreted in new ways. This is because a text is made up of signs which can be read in multiple ways. For example, in the Inferno Dante often uses wordplay and puns, which can be interpreted in different ways depending on the reader`s knowledge and understanding of Italian. This means that there is no one correct interpretation of the poem, and that new readings are always possible.
Eco`s theory of the closed text, on the other hand, holds that a text can be seen as a puzzle which can be solved by the reader. This is because a text contains clues which lead the reader to a specific interpretation. For example, in Canto V of the Inferno Dante meets his favorite poet, Guido Cavalcanti, who tells him that he will soon be reunited with his beloved Beatrice. This provides a clue to the reader that Dante`s journey through hell is actually a journey towards redemption and salvation.
Both Barthes` and Eco`s theories have their own merits, and both can be used to interpret Dante`s Inferno. However, I believe that Barthes` theory is more applicable to the Inferno because it takes into account the fact that the meaning of a text can change over time. This is because new interpretations are always possible as our understanding of language changes. For example, in recent years there has been an increasing focus on gender-neutral language, which has led to new readings of Dante`s Inferno as a commentary on gender roles.
Eco`s theory may be more applicable to other parts of The Divine Comedy, such as Purgatorio and Paradiso, which are more clearly structured and contain fewer ambiguities than Inferno. However, for the purposes of this paper I will be using Barthes` theory to interpret Dante`s Inferno.
One way in which Barthes` theory can be applied to Dante`s Inferno is by looking at how the meaning of certain words has changed over time. For example, in Canto XXXIV Dante meets Judas Iscariot, who is condemned to suffer eternal damnation for his betrayal of Jesus Christ. In medieval times Judas was seen as the epitome of evil, but nowadays he is often pitied as a victim of circumstance. This change in perspective can be seen as an example of how our interpretation of words can change over time.
Another way in which Barthes` theory can be applied to Dante`s Inferno is by looking at how Virgil functions within the poem. Virgil was Dante`s favorite poet, and he serves as a guide for Dante during his journey through hell. However, Virgil is also a symbol of reason and order, which are opposed to the chaotic and confusing nature of hell. This ambivalence towards Virgil allows for different interpretations of his role within the poem.
Finally, Barthes` theory can also be applied to the structure of Dante`s Inferno. The poem is divided into 34 Cantos, each of which describes a different level of hell. However, the structure of the poem is not linear, and Dante often moves back and forth between different levels of hell. This non-linearity allows for different interpretations of the poem, as the reader is free to choose their own path through Dante`s Inferno.
In conclusion, Barthes` theory of the open text is more applicable to Dante`s Inferno than Eco`s theory of the closed text. This is because Barthes` theory takes into account the fact that the meaning of a text can change over time, and that new interpretations are always possible. Eco`s theory may be more applicable to other parts of The Divine Comedy, but for the purposes of this paper I will be using Barthes` theory to interpret Dante`s Inferno.
Barthes, R. (1977). “From Work to Text”. In Image, Music, Text. London: Fontana Press. pp. 155-164.
Eco, U. (1979). The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.