Kilian Kroell '01

The Burdens of Hell: Dalí Meets Dante


"You see, my son, the short-lived mockery
of all the wealth that is in Fortune keep,
over which the human race is bickering;
For all the gold that is or ever was
beneath the moon wont buy a moment's rest
for even one among these weary souls." 


Salvador Dalí's visual depiction of The Greedy and the Lavish from Canto VII in Dante' Inferno represents the indistinguishable souls in the fourth abyss of hell, who must suffer the fate of rolling enormous weights around in a semi-circle as a punishment for abusing their wealth. Fortune's "short-lived mockery" is for these souls to rotate back and forth around a quasi-Wheel-of-Fortune, which, in their life on Earth, they intended to escape by either hoarding or wasting their riches. The prodigal and the miserly are actually divided into two groups, each pacing their own half of the circle until one clashes with the other, at which point both groups turn around and walk the other way. This cycle continues infinitely.

The irony of this punishment is apparent: the ones attempting to lighten their earthly burdens with material goods, now carry (quite literally) the heaviest weights in hell. The heavy rock is the most obvious symbol Dalí wishes to incorporate into his composition of two of these miserly souls traveling on the semi-circle. It represents material wealth itself, which now (in hell) acts as the largest burden of all. The accumulation of evil metaphorically rests on the sinner's back, pushing him down, and breaking him. Even though the man seems muscular enough to handle this burden, his flesh is torn, his limbs are broken, and he is beginning to look ancient. It is not clear from the image, whether the rock is carried by someone greedy or lavish, but either way it symbolizes the same punishment. Whether wealth was wasted or hoarded, the desired effect of personal enlightenment is punished with the opposite. In fact, it almost seems like Fortune melted together all the gold, which was spent or hoarded in the soul's lifetime, to form this clump of a rock, making the irony even more direct: what was once used to oppress others now oppresses the (intentional or unintentional) oppressor himself.

Dalí incorporates Virgil's explanation of the unrecognizable souls in the composition of his painting: "Their undistinguished life that made them foul/ now makes it harder to distinguish them." In fact, the two subjects in the painting seem like one big clump on the page, highlighted by the lack of background scenery. The two penises, and perhaps the two sets of legs, distinguish these subject as two separate male entities, while their heads seem melted together and their arms just messed up. In other words, their sexual organs reveal their sex, but their individuality is hidden particularly by the lack of facial expressions and the realistic representation of other body parts. The limbs look muscular and fleshy at first glance, but they also appear wood-like and worn down. Particularly the two limbs in the right-hand foreground look like roots of an old oak tree, emphasizing the ancient or eternal aspect of the damned soul's activity in hell. In addition, the bone sticking out of the top bent arm highlights the erosion of the subject's bodies.

The clump of bodies and rock is actually not as decomposed and mushed together as it may seem at first. In fact, Dalí arranges the melted heads as the central knot of the painting, with limbs, assumably of the subject in the foreground, extended diagonally to all four corners of the canvas. In addition, there are horizontal lines along the shoulders of both subjects and as a background divider, as well as vertical lines along the back subject's legs and arm. There is a certain symmetry to the clump, which is upheld even with the heavy weight of the rock pushing down on it. Perhaps it is this symmetry which actually holds up the rock, making it able for the subjects to carry on with their task forever. In Dalí's painting the subjects do not appear to be moving forward at any particular speed, but the spatial dynamics are activated by the stretch of the limbs to all directions, including the depth of the alluded three-dimensional space.

The emotional effect of the painting is somewhat disturbing. The bodily connectedness of the two souls is a frightening image, particularly, if the person one is melting together with has a bone sticking out of his arm, while his hand rots away on the enormous rock he must carry. Also, some of the skeleton-like hands and legs strike that fresh-out-of-the-tomb horror movie nerve in the viewer, which arouses a distinct feeling of disgust. In addition, amidst the bodily horrors, which are most likely subject of any hell-scene, Dalí creates a certain erotic tension between his subjects: the mere presence of two distinct penises on two quite muscular bodies, positioned as if in a sex-act, emphasizes the ever present sexuality and sexual desire, which evidently does not cease once reduced to an damned soul in hell. This erotic tension, which now seems inevitable, creates even further disgust in combination with rotting flesh, decay, and hopeless misery. The burden these souls have to carry is way heavier than the enlarged gold nugget on their backs; in fact, the burden of having to be in each other's bodily and erotic presence might be the heaviest of all.

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