One of the most memorable scenes in Virgil’s Aeneid is that when Aeneas travels to the Underworld to meet his dead father Anchises. When Aeneas sees him, he leaps to embrace him, but soon realises his father was but a shadow, and his clasp fails. Living bodies cannot touch the shadows of the inhabitants of Hades.
Dante Alighieri was an avid reader of the Aeneid and a front-row fan of Virgil, who is cast as the guide in Inferno and Purgatorio. In Purgatory, Dante the pilgrim watches how another Roman poet, Statius, tries to give Virgil a hug. Like Aeneas, Statius’ embrace fails for the same reason.
There are no free hugs in Hades or Purgatory.
Dante’s Comedy has many obsessional focal points, and one of them is the body. From Hell to Paradise, Dante explores what it means to have or not to have a body, and what are the implications of embodiment, one of the key existential grounds of being human.
Not only are hugs banned from Purgatory, but the shadowy figures inhabiting the mountain don’t cast shadows on the ground – as their bodies are only apparently bodily. So when Dante the trekker turns up on the first slopes of Mount Purgatory, everyone is just baffled to see the sun throw his shadow on the ground. Dante’s journey is an intrusion wherever he goes.
Writing to his friend Atticus, Cicero noted:
“I can truly assure you of this, that in the midst of supreme joy and the most gratifying congratulations, the one thing wanting to fill my cup of happiness to the brim is the sight of you, or rather your embrace.”
For the Romans, as for everyone else, the embrace is one of the deepest expressions of friendship, a coming together of minds and bodies, embodied amicitia, not merely cognition and affection, but bodily fellowship, the rejection of personal space and the welcoming of the other. All of this the classical and medieval afterlives reject, underlining the irreducibility of body to mind, or the expendability of the former.
To be human is to have an incarnate existence. We may contemplate, and even welcome, the idea of uploading our consciousness into the mainframe, the late-modern afterlife myth, but, just like in Virgil’s Hades or Dante’s Purgatory, we should expect all hugs therein to fail.