Understanding the Difference Between Death and Dying
The difference between death and dying can often seem minute. The dying are merely those on the way to death. Yet the intrinsic difference between the process of dying and the moment of death is one of great literary obsession, in particular in Dante’s The Inferno. Robert Pinsky’s otherwise transcendent translation makes a provocative error in translating the following line:
Overwhelmed me, and I felt myself go slack:
Swooning as in death, I fell like a dying body.
When in reality, the original Italian reads “as a dead body.” This moment of frailty, realized after the interaction with the doomed lovers Paolo and Francesca, is entirely dependent on the word choice. If Dante falls like a “dead” body, then the lovers have made him realize his own mortality. By changing the word to “dying,” Pinsky implies that Dante is less aware of his own death.
Dante realizes that he is falling like a dead body, meaning that he is not exactly one. One cannot fall like oneself, like one’s state of being. The simile is in fact a state of removal; it suggests that Dante is so unlike a dead body that to compare the two makes for a memorable analogy. Rather, to point out that he falls almost as though he is dead only points out that he is in a similar but different state, living. And what are the living but those in the process of dying? All life is but a forestalling of death, and if death is the inevitable event then dying is the inevitable process leading up to it. To be living (and thus to be dying) is to have a fixed trajectory, to assume that death is waiting in a span of an indeterminate amount of years. Virgil promises the trajectory to Dante early, and his assent is assured, just as his death is assured by his existence as a human being. To realize that he is dying is to assert the trajectory. That he will eventually become one of the dead he meets (even if he will attain eternal providence) is overwhelming to Dante (a poet convinced that his work will outlast so many others), and partly the reason for his fit of swooning.
When Dante falls “like” a dead body, he is forced to realize that he is not dead yet, which means that his death is still oncoming. His human mortality becomes more evident, and the text hammers in this realization. In the original Italian, the repeated words “morisse” and “morto” are so linguistically similar as to merely reinforce the realization that death is approaching, and thus that Dante is dying. By contrast, to say like “dying” implies that Dante is not dying, that his trajectory is still mutable, and that Dante is less aware of his path: be it ascent or near-Biblical fall.
The key difference between death and dying is one of motion, too, and reinforces Dante’s awareness of mortality. To be dead is to be in stasis; even the shades that appear to be moving lack the ability to change their position. Paolo and Francesca are merely blown about in an eternal circle, able only to drift towards the human and Dante, who by contrast follows a fixed path of ascent. Dante chooses to emphasize how their lack of movement, their being dead, only serves to emphasize that he is not dead but dying. Dante “fell,” collapsed in “swooning.” He has the capability to move, but only in one direction: descent, much like the diminishment of dying. Dante must descend into Hell to become whole, much as he must go through the process of dying to achieve death and thus (as he is promised) salvation. The lovers remind Dante that he must fall, but fall like the “dead.” He will later ascend in contrast to these dead, but the importance of his “fall” cannot be ignored. By suggesting that Dante falls like a “dying” body, Pinsky loses this awareness of the descent, because, as previously mentioned, to fall “like” dying to make clear that one is not dying, and thus unable to make the descent that Dante goes through.
We cannot forget that it is the presence of the lovers who bring out this realization, this moment of sublime cognizance of mortality. And the circle where Dante sits is not one of a sin of money or false words, but of the lustful, which ultimately conceptualizes the fact that Dante’s realization of his mortality occurs because of lust, and lovers, and eroticism. In fact, the distinction between death and dying is fundamentally one of eroticism. Death is inherently tinged with erotic overtures, ever since Dante’s beloved Greeks surmised that excessive sexual excretion of bodily fluids was the path to death, and the French invested with the phrase “la petite mort,” meaning “the little death” with symbolism of the orgasm. Dante “felt [himself] go slack,” a phrase that cannot help but conjure up the post-coital fatigue. Death is a societal fetish, in particular in Dante’s time, when the promise of plague and mortality was everywhere. The only response to this was to fetishize, to make death an object of sexual awareness. Medieval and renaissance depictions of death, in particular those connected with a Biblical representation, are often erotic in an almost inadvertent way: from Van Dyck’s 1459 depiction of St. Sebastian to the medieval danse macabre, with its emphasis on the body of death. Dante’s erotic death only further brings out his awareness of mortality, for lust is a sin of the body, which must inevitably be silenced and its urges ceased.
Thus for Dante to fall “like a dead body” he is falling with an erotic connotation. He is falling “like” one after the consummation of passion, which despite (due to the simile) distancing him from the actual process of orgasm, connotes to the reader an eroticism that is not awoken by Pinsky’s translation merely through the use of the word “dead.” This connection binds him to the openly erotic and lust-driven lovers; in fact it is the lovers who give Dante a greater self-realization. But “dying” is a state of being supremely un-eroticized. As Sontag’s observed in On Illness and Metaphor, dying is a state of removal, of descent. Thus it is the antithesis of Dante’s ascent towards heaven and the inevitably eroticized Beatrice. Dying is unerotic because it shows the inevitable and tragic fate of man: his mortality. Dying cannot be eroticized because it is such a process, a lingering and depressing malady. Death, by contrast, is a whole, a completed act. Dante’s shades look complete; they resemble human beings with human bodies, and thus have more erotic qualities. To fetishize death is somehow easier in Western society than to do the same for dying, for death is a momentary act, closer to the consummation of lust than dying. Dying is, in its own way, to death what the pursuit is to the orgasm. The pursuit and dying can easily be idealized but never sexualized, and for Dante it is the latent eroticism of death that emerges in this passage.
Be it a question of Biblical descent or nascent eroticism, one cannot deny the power of the body for Dante. Seeing the lovers awakens in him a realization, a moment of overwhelming mortality in the face of eternity. Ultimately, The Inferno cannot be undermined by this peculiar choice in translation, but rather more questions can only arise.
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