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Not Bisexual

To the Editors:

In his review of W.S. Merwin’s translation of Dante’s Purgatorio [NYR, September 21, 2000], Bernard Knox implies that the shade of the great Bolognese poet and inaugurator of the dolce stil nuovo, Guido Guinizzelli, is admitting to bisexuality by characterizing the sin he is expiating as “ermafrodito—’performance as both sexes.’” I don’t know whether Mr. Knox’s paraphrase of Dante’s word (Purgatorio, 26.82) is Merwin’s or his own, but the imputation of bisexuality is entirely unfounded.

Dante is contrasting two groups of sinners who are purging themselves of lust by circling around a terrace of Purgatory while enveloped in flames. When the groups meet, each penitentially recriminates itself by shouting out an example of its particular brand of lustfulness—the homosexuals with “Sodom and Gomorrah,” and the overardent heterosexuals, like Guinizzelli and the “miglior fabbro,” the Provençal poet Arnaut Daniel, with the words “Pasiphaë enters into the cow,/So that the bull can hasten to her lust” (26.40–42). Though Guinizzelli refers to his sin as ermafrodito, he means “bisexual” only in the sense that both sexes, not just one, were involved in his lovemaking. After referring to the homosexual nature of the other group’s lust, he glosses his own as follows: “Our sin was hermaphrodite;/ But because we did not observe human law,/Following like beasts our appetite,/To our shame we utter,/When we part from them, the name of her/Who bestialized herself in the beast-shaped planks” (26.82–87).

Guinizzelli is saying, “Though our sin, that of male with female, was, in contradistinction to that of the homosexuals, according to natural law, yet we were as excessive in our lust as Pasiphaë, the wife of King Minos and mother of the Minotaur, who, because of her uncontrollable passion for a bull, had a wooden cow constructed, into which she entered so that the bull might mount her.”

This understanding of the passage is supported by Charles S. Singleton’s commentary in his translation of the Purgatorio (Princeton University Press, 1973). Long before him, Giuseppe Vandelli had also offered this interpretation in his edition of the Commedia, claiming, “Il peccato… fu commesso tra maschio e femmina” (“the sin…was committed between male and female”), and so had Attilio Momigliano in his edition of Dante’s poem. In his translation of the Purgatorio (Oxford University Press, 1939), John D. Sinclair misleadingly footnotes ermafrodito simply as “bisexual,” but then explains in his essay on the canto that “the two classes of sexual sinners are those, the less guilty, that have sinned by excess of natural passion and those that have sinned against nature itself….”

Dante’s use of the ambiguous word ermafrodito in rhyming position may have been a forced rhyme suggested either by the previous rhyme, udito (heard), or, much likelier, the following one, appetito, which he may have placed in emphatic rhyming position (before finding his two other rhymes) to highlight the main point of the passage—the dangers of “following like beasts our appetite.”

Even if the linguistic and textual evidence were unconvincing, it is improbable that Dante would have peopled the circle of lust in his Purgatory with only homosexuals and bisexuals. In addition, he would have found no evidence of bisexuality in the love poems or biographical traditions of Guinizzelli or Arnaut.

The original hermaphrodite was a son of Hermes and Aphrodite whom the nymph Salmacis attempted to ravish. At her request, the gods conjoined them in one body (Ovid, Metamorphoses, 4.274–388). The hermeneutic ambiguity in this Dantean passage revolves around our tendency to think of Hermaphroditus’ eclectic sexual activities after he was joined with Salmacis, whereas Dante was thinking of the attempted heterosexual rape that triggered his gender morphing.

Peter D’Epiro
Ridgewood, New Jersey

Bernard Knox replies:

The phrase “performance as two sexes” used as a translation of Dante’s word ermafrodito is Merwin’s, not mine. I had intended to comment on it in the review, but desisted when I found that the matter demanded more space than seemed desirable in a piece that was already long. I had for a long time been puzzled by the whole passage and had often toyed with an interpretation along the same lines as Merwin. I was of course familiar with the explanation offered by Charles Singleton in his invaluable commentary—that in this context, and especially because it is followed by the word ma, an emphatic “but,” it must refer to normal sexual relations between men and women because the speaker goes on (still in Merwin’s version), “because we did not uphold human law,/pursuing appetite like animals….”

This reading makes sense of the passage, but the use of the word ermafrodito to describe love that is “heterosexual and therefore natural” is astounding. The story of Hermaphroditus, son of Hermes and Aphrodite, is told at length in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which was almost certainly Dante’s source. He was a handsome young man with whom the water nymph Salmacis fell in love; when he rejected her advances, she watched his movements until one day he stripped off his clothes and dived into the pool which was her home. She dived after him, seized and embraced him, wrapping her limbs around his—as a serpent, Ovid says, caught up by an eagle, wraps its folds around the bird’s head, tail, and wings, as the ivy covers the tree trunks, as the octopus holds its enemy in its tentacles. She prays to the gods that she will never be separated from him nor he from her; the gods consent and Hermaphroditus emerges from the pool both man and woman. But Ovid describes Hermaphroditus after the transformation as semivirum (halfman); his limbs are softened (mollita) and his voice is now not virile (iam non voce virili). And ever since, any man that bathes in the pool loses his virility. Small wonder that the word hermaphroditus appears in many medieval Latin texts with the meaning “eunuch.”

Furthermore, why should the sin of these people who pursued heterosexual pleasure lustfully and irrationally be symbolized by the name Pasiphaë, which they sing out to answer the “Sodom and Gomorrah” of the sinners circling in the opposite direction? Pasiphaë fell in love with a bull, and had Daedalus, the fabulous artificer, construct for her a wooden cow shape in which she could have intercourse with the bull; the child of this union was half man, half bull, the Minotaur who lived at the center of the Labyrinth in Crete. True, the sinners acted, as Dante says, like beasts, but Pasiphaë commits the worst of the three sins mentioned by Thomas Aquinas—actual bestiality, in which “use of the due species is not observed.” Next in line comes sodomy, in which “use of the right sex is not observed.” Surely the fault of these sinners should have been signalized not by the name of one who committed the worst sin of all but of one guilty of their sin—the empress Messalina, for example, or Phryne, the Athenian courtesan who made so much money at her trade that she offered to rebuild the walls of Thebes, which had been destroyed by Alexander. All this seems to suggest that the sin for which they walk in fire is something much worse than irrational lust, that Merwin is right and that ermafrodito means “performance as both sexes”—as a man with a woman and as a woman with a man.

This does not however solve the problem of that “but.” And it is true, as Mr. D’Epiro points out, that there is no evidence for bisexuality in the poems or the lives of the two poets. Toward the end of his letter he proposes an ingenious solution of the problem posed by the word ermafrodito—that whereas we tend to think of Hermaphrodi-tus’ “eclectic sexual activities after he was joined with Salmacis,” Dante “was thinking of the attempted heterosexual rape that triggered his gender morphing.” But this reading would put heterosexual rape in the category of “natural” sexual intercourse which the sinners practiced to bestial excess. There seems to be no convincing explanation that resolves the contradictions; we have to accept the fact that Dante, unlike the rest of the world, saw in the double sexuality of Hermaphroditus a metaphor for normal sexual relations between men and women.

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