Monthly Archives: March 2010

Canto 31: How Do You Get a Giant to Kneel?

By Jeff Vamos

I want to pick up where Adrienne left off in her lovely riff on the wisdom of Virgil, so needed in the hallways of Central High—or the halls of name-your-Presbyterian-church, or the halls of Congress or the inner chambers of Wall Street.

Virgil functions in Dante’s poem as the embodiment of Reason–at least, this is the traditional interpretation. Remember who protected Dante from the poison tail of Geryon, as he hitched a ride on the very monster of fraud? That’s right: the V-man. Reason personified.

But there’s something interesting going on here, between Cantos 30 and 31. Beyond the prophylactic qualities of Reason (i.e. Virgil), so needed to prevent Dante from getting sucked into the wiles of Hell, here we see something different on display: grace. Here are the lines that follow Virgil’s rebuke of Dante’s voyeurism, and Dante’s consequent shame:

That same tongue made me feel its sting, / tinting one cheek and the other, then supplied / Balm….

He goes on to compare Virgil’s tongue – his speech - to Achilles’ lance, thought to both wound and heal. This is what grace does! The curious nature of grace is that it both wounds and heals, in a process that leads one toward new life (cf. what Dante just saw in Canto 28, in the healing-only-to-wound contrapasso of the schismatics).

I’m reminded of one of the many echoes we find in Eliot:

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
 / That questions the distempered part; / 
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel / 
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
 / Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

Our only health is the disease / 
If we obey the dying nurse
 / Whose constant care is not to please / 
But to remind us of our, and Adam’s curse,
 / And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse. (East Coker, IV)

And what is the necessary quality for grace to work, to give life, to heal? One word: humility. A realization of our human condition, best experienced close to the earth, the humus. It’s humility that Dante displays in the transition between Cantos here. And as in most every Canto, this is a hermeneutic key toward understanding what’s going on symbolically in what follows.

Where we are now is a liminal place—a place of transition between one level of Hell (the Malebolge), and the very bottom, the frozen lake called Cocytus. And what guards the boundary? Those huge creatures that nature rejected called Giants. Let’s take a moment to think once again, shall we, as to what Dante is up to, symbolically, by placing such beings on the boundary between here and the Very Bottom.

Beyond the interpretive clue of Dante’s display of humility, we have this interesting allegorical bit: a reference to the funky noise these beasts make, “blowing their own horns”, to call attention to themselves in a vain attempt at communication. Dante compares this sound to the horn blast of one Roland, famously described in the French epic poem the Chanson de Roland, the rear-guard of Charlemagne during his march home through the Pyrenees after being at war. When Roland was under attack he was too proud to blow his horn, whereas just before he died he let out a wail loud enough for Charlemagne to hear seven miles up ahead.

Perhaps this is what Dante is up to: here we see symbolized the ultimate death, via the ultimate sin: pride. Pride, which is the root of it all in this landscape: fraud, betrayal, the gateway to all of those failings that degrade not just individuals, but human community itself.

In that light, Giants and Titans seem the perfect allegory: those who stand proud of the surface of hell, towers of irrational hubris. (I’m thankful to my woodworking hobby for teaching me one of the variegated meanings of this word; in that craft, “to be proud” is to stick up from the surface. Interesting).

The first giant we meet is Nimrod, thought to be the Babylonian architect of the Tower of Babel, the ultimate monument to creaturely arrogance. And we see here, when we get up close, the consequence of such a condition: confusion. This is the place where society itself breaks down, symbolized by the confusion of that very thing that enables communion, community, communication: human language.

Perhaps this is so dangerous too, because Hell is the only place that accepts nature’s rejects. Nature refused these creatures, because they were too dangerous to—forget about human society—to the gods themselves, since their power was out of proportion to their ability to…reason.

Perhaps this foreshadows too what we are about to see: those who possessed great power, and used it for evil, even irrational purposes, thus destroying the very basis for our intended form of human civilization. (Speaking of which—that’s what Dante thinks he sees as he approaches all this: in the funky not-quite-day, not-quite-night fuzziness, he sees the illusion of a city, a faux city that stands in opposition to the real destination, the Heavenly City).

And, this canto ends with the ultimate irony, doesn’t it? How do you get such a creature to bow (the posture of humility), so he can take you to the next level? You appeal to his pride. Neat, huh?


Canto 30: Guilt by Association

Adrienne Perry

My high school Spanish teacher preferred not to use a syllabus. When we weren’t watching “Destinos,” a protracted telenovela designed to teach Spanish to non-native speakers, we were listening to him rant about current events, though rant is probably too harsh a word. Astute and worldly, Señor Redler was a spectacular linguist in Spanish and a gifted grammarian in his mother tongue. He relished words and a good verbal joust, yet he could smell his retirement as plainly as a cochon rooting for truffles. By the time we landed in his class, he’d hit the stage in his teaching career when he could have taught the subjunctive or railed about Latin American politics even if he were stone drunk. Instead, he used his encyclopedic knowledge to both intimidate and hold captive his audience. He drew a boy or two to near tears.

Day to day the majority of kids in class nodded off and checked-out, though a small cohort listened; Mr. Redler could say provocative things. He was appalled, for instance, by a meeting designed to rally faculty around ways to stem the fights breaking out in the halls. “Do you know what they told us to do?” No one said anything; we had learned what a rhetorical question was the hard way. “They told us, when we see a fight, to take a ten dollar bill out of our wallets, work our way in, and ask, ‘Did anyone drop this ten dollar bill?’” He punctuated this with a demonstration, drawing out his wallet and extracting a Hamilton. He wagged it a little and rolled his eyes a little. No question: the suggestion that this gesture could disperse a crowd of restless teens eager to see a beat down was a glaring symbol of the administration’s incompetence.

What the hallways of Central High really needed was Virgil. With a quick cut of the eye, he could have reinforced that our desire to see (or hear) “such baseness is degrading” (255). Towards the end of Canto 30, we see Dante become a different kind of rubbernecker. Not like he hasn’t been interested in spectating through hell before—certainly he takes an active interest in certain sinners—but this time we get a sense that he’s enjoying (a little too much) the spectacle of watching Master Adam and Sinon exchange physical jabs and a bolgia ten version of “yo mamma” barbs. Like someone settling in for the guilty pleasure of a ½ hour of Jerry Springer or WWE, Dante can’t take his eyes off this grotesque and ridiculous scene. Or, at least he can’t until Virgil raises his voice, “Now keep on looking/ a little longer and I quarrel with you” (254). Or, as I’ve heard it from my loved ones, “Mind your business.”

Dante’s spiritual guide has brought him back to his right mind before, and this time Virgil chases that good deed with an absolution. Dante need not feel lasting embarrassment: “my shame to ask his pardon; while my shame/ already won more pardon than I knew// ‘Less shame,’ my Guide said, ever just and kind,/ ‘would wash away a greater fault than yours’” (254). That’s nice Virgil, but it’s hard not to continue to feel the residue of shame, once we realize how magnetic violence is and how we can be both compelled and repelled by it simultaneously. We know we shouldn’t watch the fight in the hallway, and yet we don’t want to miss anything, not even for ten bucks. It’s no surprise to me now that Mr. Redler and his colleagues were advised to take out money in an effort to redirect and reinvest the mob. We weren’t mere spectators; active players, we might not have had lines, but we had a part.

This struck me as the critical Lenten lesson for me to extract from this canto. Since my last posting, I feel as though I’ve watched a literary horror flick unfold tercet after tercet. Canto 30 is salt on the proverbial wound, with its continuation of “The Falsifiers,” those sinners who have assumed false identities, counterfeited money, and born false witness. Master Adam says “Inflexible Justice” has “forked and spread” his “soul like hay” (252). He’s also without legs, has a “distended belly,” and the wretches beside him “reek so strongly” (253). Like our gluttons in Canto 6 (oh so long ago!), these sinners are equally incontinent. Except, instead of food, they can’t control themselves or what they put into circulation. They stamp images on money, lie, and presume to be other people. They sound like junkies, train wrecks, thirsty souls with bad tempers made worse by hell. And yet, no matter their sin or suffering, it cannot be for our amusement. These cantos teach that, yes, there is guilt by association—meaning ours. When the temptation arises to watch “petty wrangling and upbraiding,” ’tis better to, as Issac Hayes sings, “walk on by.”


Canto 29: Vulgar Alchemy

Jake Willard-Crist

Two hundred years after Dante wrote canto 29, the Venetian cardinal and literary scholar Pietro Bembo effectively banned the low style of vulgar imagery and sound adopted by Dante in cantos like this one, which teems with festering scabs and scraping claws.  In his most famous work, Prose della volar lingua, Bembo writes:

It would have been far more praiseworthy if he [Dante] had set out to write about a less lofty and wide-ranging subject matter, and kept to its appropriate middle ground; having chosen, however, to range wide and high, he could not help demeaning himself by writing very often about the most base and vulgar things.

(Prose della volgar lingua II, xx, 178)*

Bembo’s criticism reminds us how Dante’s style mirrors his journey’s structure:  the poet must descend into the guttural depths of his language, and do so with technical mastery, in order to ascend to the heights of his project, his “lofty and wide-ranging subject matter.”  To make a work of lasting imprint, Dante cannot dwell only at the Parnassian summits of mythology and theology (with more invocations of Ovid), but must stoop down to earth to the stable and the dock.  The pair of alchemists who are punished here with leprous sores are likened to stableboys, their scratching fingers to the metal teeth of the grooming comb; they are compared also to knives slicing the scales off a carp.  Pinsky’s translation retains some of the consonantal harshness.  Hear the some of the English:  Scabs, scales, skin, scratching, rake, slake, snagging, dragging; and now some of the Italian:  l’unghie, scabbia, scardova, scaglie, dismaglie, talvota tanaglie.  Those g’s and c’s, sounds of cankering clinics and gangrenous sickbeds, are far from the angelic, pillowy Petrarchan melodies that Bembo elevates.

Did anyone else find it amusing that this far into Hell, having just passed through a valley of sinners sliced open, dismembered, and decapitated, that we encounter this jocular moment of the pilgrim and these two scabrous alchemists taking jabs at the Siennese?  “Has there ever been another people as vain as the Siennese?” the pilgrim asks Virgil.  There’s an uncanny sense of relaxation here.  And it’s funny.  It makes we wonder if the usual town gossip and chatter didn’t transpire at the Last Supper?  After the words of institution perhaps, did Christ and a few of the disciples wink on about the buffoonery of the village down the street?

It’s fitting that this canto comes into our reading schedule near Palm Sunday.  On this day, the church celebrates the union of the kingly and the common.  The new Cyrus, the messiah-king, comes riding into town on the colt of an ass.  Moreover, he comes riding to the inverse throne of the cross.  We might call this vulgarized triumph a successful bit of alchemy.  The incarnation (of which Phillipians 3 speaks) is a tale of gold turned to lead so that lead might be gold.  Leaden God, golden man.  Suffering Servant, King of Kings.

*I found this quoted in Lino Pertile’s chapter on this canto in Lectura Dantis (University of California Press, 1998.)


Canto 28: Giving Up Giving Up

Pier Kooistra

Those who suffer in the ninth circle of Hell are the most repugnant scum. They are sowers of discord, souls who in life turned people against one another, by design. Having fomented division, having incited social cleavages, they themselves have been cleft, their outsides split open from guggle to zatch, their skins forever suppurating and enflamed, their bowels exposed. As they move around the ninth circle these agents of cruelty are subjected, as retribution, to something even worse than the entropy and agony they have engendered; they are forced after the flaying of their skins to experience a degree of healing (a healing that is slow and improper, of course, but that approaches closure)…so that their hideous, dagger-rent, scar-strewn hides can be torn open again to maximize torment. No doubt, Quentin Tarrantino would love conjure this infernal scene on film, raping our ears with a chorus of wails, forcing us to luxuriate in stench and despair.

I’m not Tarrantino. I don’t want to linger in this place. But I have to admit that when I first read about the ninth circle, my mind called up—instantly!—people who I thought should be consigned there. In other words, this canto rent my skin and revealed my stinking viscera and their ugly gut instincts. “I know sowers of discord,” thought I. “And I know exactly where they belong.” The first to come to mind was John McCain, he who claimed this week, shortly after the healthcare bill passed over his party’s wishes, that there would be no more cooperation this year from the GOP—with the president and his agenda. (Had there ever been any?)

In Newtonian terms, my inclination to recriminate would be described as “an equal and opposite reaction.” But the reality is worse. My reaction isn’t opposite at all; it’s equally stupid…and in the same horrible direction, sinking further into a cycle of antagonism. I may be justified in pointing a condemning finger at Senator McCain for his destructive childishness, but I’m unjust unless I point the same finger at myself. I may not, strictly speaking, be a sower of discord in calling out such idiocy, but I’m certainly a stoker, an amplifier, if all I do is cluck and wag. Well then, how to heal so that my ugly viscera are tucked away again, facilitating the emergence of the better angels of my nature?

Such better angels were, of course, invoked by Abraham Lincoln as he attempted, in his first inaugural address, to forestall the sowers of discord, the fomentors of civil war. His purpose was to preserve and promote Union. Well, it was more complicated than that, of course, but this is a blog posting, and I’m shooting for at least some degree of brevity. The essential point here is this: In speaking to his antagonists, Lincoln said quite deliberately, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.” He asserted the same imperative of interconnectedness, of mutual belonging, that Bellamy, Upham et al would enshrine in America’s most widely declared pledge: “I pledge allegiance…to the republic for which [the flag] stands, one nation…indivisible.”

Well, if we are to be a nation indivisible, if we are to be friends rather than enemies, then we must—not just during Lent but always—give up giving up on one another. I think it’s fair sometimes to get after one another, to get on one another. The John McCain of 2010 is, after all, a sorry reduction of the courageous, national-consensus-seeking presidential candidate of 2000. He is now—alas!—“Palin comparison” to his prior iteration as a would-be American chief. Anyway, John McCain’s not really being John McCain anymore serves my purposes perfectly, since this paragraph isn’t really about John McCain. It’s about sowers of discord. The senator who suggested last week that he would do nothing to propel his party into productive engagement with the Dem in the White House and the Dems across the Senate aisle showed a dismaying lack of commitment to collective enterprise, at least for the moment. But if, as a result of doltish obstructionism, I—and others—decide to do nothing with him but to make him an object of scorn, then we condemn ourselves to being stoking and amplifying discord. Others may attack us. If so, we may defend ourselves, but defense isn’t tantamount to attacking in turn. “We must not be enemies.” There are cheeks—not to mention wheels of the mind, dynamics, paradigms—to turn.


Canto 27: On living in integrity with the Gospel

By Gordon S. Mikoski, Princeton Theological Seminary

In Canto 27, Dante invokes the memory of Guido da Montefeltro – a former warrior turned Franciscan who advised Pope Boniface VIII on the way to triumph militarily over a city in a papal war. In order to obtain Guido’s effective military counsel, the pope gave him blanket absolution for all of his sins. The warrior-turned-Franciscan urged the pope to make a promise to the inhabitants of the besieged city of Palestrina and then to break it as soon as the gates of the city were opened. Rather than pardon and clemency, the pope brought wholesale slaughter on the inhabitants of Palestrina. As a result, Guido da Montefeltro found himself in one of the deepest places of hell because “he counseled fraud.”

The case of Guido da Montefeltro’s counsel of fraud raises important issues for Christians of any age. Is it ever appropriate to draw from the habits and mentality of one’s sinful past in order to further the cause of the church? How important is it for Christians to have integrity with their words and promises? Should the core symbols and values of the church be used as a pretext for secular or military purpose? Do pragmatic ends ever justify the use of immoral or fraudulent means – particularly in relation to the church?

It seems right that assigned Guido da Montefeltro a very low place in hell. By doing so, Dante protests against the profanation of the church and the message of forgiveness and new life in Christ by corrupt political interests. No matter the circumstances or the potential advantage to be gained, the church must always act in a manner consistent with the  Gospel of Jesus Christ. It cannot prostitute itself to the logic of violence or to political agendas. The church and its leaders are called to fidelity to the way of love, the keeping of promises, and living by the integrity of words spoken (even to enemies).

This canto calls to mind a key element of the moral vision of Immanuel Kant. He argued that human beings should never be treated as a means to some end; they should always be treated as ends in and of themselves. For Kant, the end can never justify the means. One must always act in accord with that which is morally right – regardless of circumstances or consequences. Kant’s moral vision would seem to be deeply resonant with that of Dante in this canto. The corrupt Franciscan and the pope in question here are judged because they failed to live according to the core precepts of the Gospel and allowed themselves to engage in consequentialist calculations of a highly corrupt character.

As we journey with Dante  through hell on the way toward cross and the empty tomb during this Lenten season, we are invited to reflect upon the lessons he would teach us. In this canto, he would seem to have us reflect on the relationship between the Gospel and the way in which we conduct our lives in the midst of a morally messy and often violent world. He would seem to call us to as Christians to see that our means matter as much as our ends. He also seems to call us to a deeper integrity between our words and our actions.


Canto 26: Sailing off the Edge

By John Timpane

Going too far.

Canto XXVI literally is about that. Its “star” is a character far-famed for going too far, literally, traveling the known world, trespassing in the realms of the gods, pushing his luck time and again. He should be destroyed, time and again, but time and again he gets out of it with some trick or other. There’s a tragic side to him, of course, engraved in his name, Odysseus (“one who suffers, one who is a grief to many,” etc.): he suffers a long war, he wanders the world, he longs for home (never extremely hard). But there’s an affirmative, comic side, too. Odysseus/Ulysses is the polutropon of line 1 of The Odyssey, “the one of many twists and turns,” “the man of many tricks.” Ingenuity, resourcefulness, wordsmithing (Odysseus is very persuasive), technology (he’s a great sailor of ships) — Odysseus is an avatar of Everyperson. He’s the grandson of a thief (Autolykos, “he who fools people by with his self”) and the great-grandson of the god of thieves, Hermes. Ya gotta love him. He lies when he wants to, resorts to trickery and thievery when it’s expedient, and has the integrity of a man who’s never too punctilious in observing the rules of others, whether gods or men.

Ulysees is more like us than us.

He’s the guy who toys with Kirke, who has his men bind him to the mast so he can hear the Sirens, who puts the Kyklops’ eye out and then toys with him, calling himself Nobody. He toys with destruction and pollution and always seems to pull it out.

Lent is, among many other things, a time of restraint. We are called on to adopt moderation, to rein in on our usual pleasures and habits, to curb ourselves. Each time we feel the impulse to indulge (we hope), we’ll remember, remember what was done in our name, what was sacrificed, what suffered.

So it’s a time of wanting things, forgetting we are supposed to be giving up. Lent thus brings us face to face with our excesses, with all the places we cross the line, trespass, go where we shouldn’t.

The Ulysees we see in this Canto is the tragic side of the trickster. Dante imagines his story past the end of the Odyssey. Much as with Tennyson 550-plus years later, Dante just can’t imagine this wild, strong man could even stop moving, stay in one place, get old and indolent, domesticated, pudgy. Tennsyon sees some of the tragic aspect, but for him Ulysees is far and away a noble, grand myth of the man of indomitable resolve, who wants to keep going ever on, “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

But that’s simply a measure of the difference between Tennyson and Dante.

Dante sees Ulysees as a great and noble human specimen, all right, one of the greats of the past. So great, in fact, that only another great such as Virgil, whose poetry matched that of the story of Ulysees, can speak to him, not a guy who speaks plain old Tuscan.

But this Ulysees is all, all utterly tragic. He is another image of Icarus, of Prometheus, of Adam, of all the figures who, through the overgreatness of the human mind and will, go too far and are destroyed, staying noble and great throughout, the best fallen man can be, even as he descends to his inevitable punishment in perpetuity.

And so Ulysees has become only one horn in a two-horned flame, punished for the atrocities made possible by his trick of the Trojan Horse, punished for sailing past the Gates of Hercules in search of the ends of the earth. He finds them, all right, and descends into his permanent fire.

So much here. Once again, as in the episode of Paolo and Francesca, we see a poet warning against the blandishments of poetry, using the pleasures of poetry to warn against the pleasures of poetry. If we get the message, it means we’ve given in and haven’t gotten it. But the only way to learn, in the way only poetry can teach us, IS to give in. It’s the inescapable irony of poetry: to win is to lose. Here, we see Ulysees exhorting his men, in beautiful rhetoric, to follow him into the punishment of a God he does not know. Once again, at his tiptop bravest and best, he has counseled wrong.

Technology is also involved. Ulysees is a maker and a technician, a sailor and general and king. He has the singularly human gift of turning what’s around him into tools and tricks and expedients. We’re looking, on Dante’s terms, at a metaphor for knowledge, for science, for what’s implicit in any striking-forth of the mind.

At our very, very best, at the apex, the limit of what’s imaginable . . . well . . . SEE WHAT HAPPENS? It’s in our nature to quest, to push, to transgress. To be human is to go too far. Each of us is our own built-in Ulysees. The tragedy of sin is how intimate it is, how close to the core, how bound up in self-deception, self-assertion. We may think we’re doing our best, our utmost, when we are really eating the wrong dang fruit. And really loving it.

Lent: being mindful. Taking it down to the elements and being *with* them. Being open to what we find. Working hard to edit out the noise. Hoping we can be both like Ulysees in his energy and resolve and unlike him, getting to the Spring and avoiding the sea closing permnently over out heads.


Canto 25: Dante Freak-out

I don’t recommend reading Dante just before bed. Especially this Canto.

My sleep last night, after reading Canto XXV with a warm glass of milk (well, actually…a wee dram of scotch), reminded me of the night’s sleep I got after my first R rated movie (The Omen; summer of ’76). That’s to say: freaked me out.

This is Dante at his freakiest. This is Dante as master of Horror; and Dante as poetic maestro. If poetry were figure skating, or snowboarding – this is Dante doing a quadruple axel, double toe loop; Dante doing an inverted 1080 barrel roll.

Dante basically challenges the Roman poets Lucan and Ovid, the Apollo Ohno and Shawn White of the previous era (sorry, Winter Olympics still on my mind) to a grudge match. Check it out:

…Let Lucan now attend / In silence, who has told the wretched fates / Of Nasidius and Sabellus—till he has learned / What I will let fly next. And Ovid, who writes / Of Cadmus and Arethusa, let him be still….

And, if you delve into the many many layers upon layers of poetic symbol and artistry, might we discover Dante playing on so many levels. Is he “borrowing” from his forebears here, even as he illustrates in such vivid color and detail the sin of…thievery?

And in that vein…here’s something else I find absolutely fascinating, not just about this Canto, but the whole poem. Here…try this at home: think of some abstract quality, any quality. Let’s just say that quality is…rudeness. And then, try to make a movie of it in words; a picture using rhyme. And try not to depict just the outward, obvious manifestation of it, but it’s guts, the inner clockwork that makes it tick. And do it visually, symbolically. And, moreover, do it so it messes with their brain, just by reading it.

This is what Dante does, methinks.

But, what of this here? Who would connect these things: Thievery, and human-animal transmutation? What’s the connection?

The dude makes you think. And when we start doing that, we realize that there’s a lot more going on here, a lot more at stake, (at snake? sorry…) than just pinching that magazine from the rack at the Five and Dime. What really is at stake here is no less than the opportunity for human transformation.

Let’s pick that apart a bit, shall we? Let’s start with that grudge match, the two-on-one of Lucan and Ovid vs. Dante. What does Dante have that they do not? Sure, Dante has illusions (delusions) of Fama (fame), and he is a kick-ass poet. But what Dante has that these two Roman forebears do not is this: a revelation about the true nature of transformation, one that is only possible to understand in the framework in which Dante is operating; namely, a Christian one.

What is shown here is mock transformation; transformation as transmutation. The horror of it. The insanity of it. As the previous Canto depicted: self-created Phoenix who dies and whose ashes yield nothing but…the same damn thing, over and over again, in meaningless change. Ground Hog day indeed.

But, again, what does that have to do, specifically, with thievery? Stealing?

Seems to me, what Dante’s dealing with here is the issue of belonging. What does it mean to belong? What is “belonging”? What is the true object of my “longing”, my “longing-to-be”?

Perhaps we might peel back the creative process, imagine Dante’s mind for a moment here. Maybe like this…Dante: “Hmm. Stealing. Thievery. To take one’s belonging(s). To violate what belongs to another. To blur the boundary between self other, to violate the object which is the proper longing of the self; to violate one’s own selfhood. Hmm. Let’s have some fun with that. Reminds me of that Ovid I read in high school….”

That does seem to me to be the process going on here. In talking about thievery, Dante is really exploring how it is that we violate our relationship to ourselves by appropriating what does not belong to us.

And what is the proper object of longing? The other. And to long for another (an other) requires integrity of self. A boundary between self and other. Thievery is first and foremost a violation of this boundary.

Makes me think of all those times I read Khalil Gibran in college. “Almitra, speak to us of marriage:

Aye, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God. / But let there be spaces in your togetherness, / And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.

Maybe here’s a way to think of it: all transformation happens in an encounter, an encounter between self and other. As Buber said, between an I and a Thou. And the ultimate encounter happens with he ultimate Other. The first and final Thou.

But here, in Canto XXV, there is no self, no other: all is in a state of continual transformation that creates nothing but horror; nothing but disgust and “nausea” as our Robert Pinsky has commented (his comment on this chapter – well worth checking out).

Here there is no change; people only make changes. Akin perhaps to what they call “doing a geographical” in AA: you don’t change, you just change place. Same you, different town. But in this horror, there is no “you” at all.  The whole concept of “you” has been violated, such that no selfhood at all exists. Here humans have lost their humanity, and have morphed into beasts.

The result is total confusion, complete lack of “integrity.” Perhaps that is most vividly illustrated by our rather colorful Vanni Fucci (say that fast three times), who apparently attempted to enter the sinner’s decathlon; he is purported to have committed the most sins in hell.  Double bird to God? Stealing the silver from the sacristy? Wow. It all adds up to a complete confusion of self-hood, in a place where the tormentors are themselves tormented (ala Cacus the Centaur – the plagued plaguer plaguing the plagued).

So, what does that look like here on earth? Does it not happen when we try to take from others what does not belong to us – not just possessions, but when we try to “possess” another? In couples counseling, they call it being “fused”. The attempt to possess some quality of the other that can only be gotten if it’s given, freely. To demand, to take such, is a violation.

And perhaps that is the ultimate irony in hell: it’s so damn (ahem) close to heaven. Heaven is a place where people do get what they long for, but in that experience, it’s not taken. It’s given. And it’s patterned after one who gave self away; and who invites us to “lose yourself, to find yourself.” We’ll just have to keep slogging on, through the exhaustion and nausea, if we’re ever to get to that place….