In Chapter 3 of The Infinite Beauty of the World Mr. Baxter treats of an interesting detail: the sense of sight. He says “In the Middle Ages sight was the privileged sense, considered the most objective, the most far-reaching, the most ‘rational’ of the senses. Aquinas neatly summed up fifteen centuries of thought on the matter: ‘Now, the sight…is the most spiritual, the most perfect, and the most universal of all the senses. After this comes the hearing and then the smell…’. While in the Twentieth Century vision was often described as an objectifying, distancing, and subjugating gaze, in the Middle Ages it was praised as the opposite, as a power which reaches out and establishes intimate contact with the object beheld.” (p. 77)

He then leads the reader through Dante’s Inferno, showing how in one scene after another lack of clear vision is a characteristic of hell. Despite Dante’s detailed map of hell the pilgrim (and through him the reader) experiences confusion, incomprehension, and literal lack of seeing. Baxter writes: “[The pilgrim’s] experience of hell is a series of fragmented angles and failures of vision, a series of moments in which Virgil’s mental map fails to explain completely what actually stands before him. In this way, the narration’s insistent and self-conscious identification of where the pilgrim’s gaze is, how it is resettled, refocused, or readjusted foregrounds those moments where sight fails.” (p. 79) In some cases the pilgrim’s sight is literally obscured and frightening sounds dominate his senses. In other cases he can’t recognize people he knew when they were alive. And those in hell also suffer failures of sight: “Just as often we read of the failed vision of the sinners of hell: Ciacco’s eyes roll back up into his head; the violent are up to their eyebrows in blood; the eyes of the sullen are blinded by mud…” (p. 80)

He continues: “In other words, hell is a world of broken vision…” This despite the elaborate mapping, and indeed Baxter suggests this tension between the detailed mapping and the failure of sight is an intentional point, in part for the unnerving experience that it creates in the reader.

Painting representing hell in the Church of Debra Berhan Selassie, Gondar, Ethiopia
Bernard Gagnon, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons