The VIth Canto – how apt. Historically the Lenten season has not been met, in my life, with much meditative reflection. As a child, I looked forward most to Shrove Tuesday, to gorging myself on a pancake supper at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. We sat at a table for children and teens, our plates loaded with pancakes drenched in imitation maple syrup and accompanied by a thick slab of ham. We ate ravenously, as though we’d been locked in solitary confinement, as though we’d gone without hot food or good company for the entire winter. It was a gastronomical and social highlight of an otherwise bleak time.
Knowing now the soulfulness and earnest devotion the people manning the griddles and pouring hot coffee have either shared or exhibited, I’m sure many at those pancake suppers returned home eager to turn inward – perhaps with a bottle of Tums – and make space in their lives and hearts for a time of penitence and contemplation. Not so with me. I wondered how long we had to wait before the crosses were unveiled. Later on, Lent became a self-centered gimmick to embrace the cause self-improvement; it was an opportunity to abandon guilty pleasures or parts of my life over which I felt out of control: baked goods, lying, gossiping, candy, Taco Bell. A rash of acne and my interpersonal relationships made my failure to “rein it in” all too apparent. I had (have) a knack for missing the Lenten boat.
Maybe reading the Inferno is like taking Psych 101. We thumb through the diagnoses and somehow find ourselves described through the shorthand for each condition or disorder. Our phobias and neuroses are both confirmed and laid bare. We are suddenly agoraphobics with wacky Oedipus complexes. The way Dante describes it, Hell might just have a seat for me, particularly the third level we enter in Canto VI.
This may get me booted from the blog, but I have to say, I laughed at the beginning of this canto. Dante makes the scene sound utterly wretched—something akin to diving into a freezing privy in the dead of night while being chased by wolves. What out of this putrid and restless morass could prompt a chuckle? Virgil. He’s the comic and he’s the relief. Virgil is keeping it so real, perhaps even gangsta. He has, as one hip hop artist put it, “diplomatic immunity in every ghetto community.” I’ve never heard of someone facing down so many ravenous multiple-headed beasts, and in this canto he does so simply by throwing down Cerberus’ “gullet” a “clod of the stinking dirt that festered there.” Next thing we know, Cerberus’ heads have “choked on their putrid sops and stopped their fuss.” And then Dante and Virgil are on their way, like Dorothy and the scarecrow down a road paved with bodies, which their footfalls push through to “emptiness.”
The emptiness inherent in gluttony has no apparent bottom; there is no sating the insatiable, after all. Cerberus has three heads, plenty to eat, and he’s still barking, bearing his teeth as much out of habit as real need. No wonder he would shut his trap after Virgil threw him a handful of offal. This canto warns that gluttony transforms a human being into a garbage can, numbing the senses that were once used to taste until there is no possibility for moderation. That first pancake goes down smooth—buttery, spongy, sweet. The tenth pancake is intestinal caulk. Gluttony doesn’t live far away; it’s not across the railroad tracks. More likely, it’s in the living room or, at best, next door in the Lazy Boy eating Cheetos and waiting for some company. It’s just too easy to get too much of a good thing, except perhaps, spiritual nourishment. It’s hard to imagine Ciacco in this level of Hell if he had turned his hunger inward, used that longing as a vehicle for coming closer to the divine.
“The Hog” is part of the second chuckle. I like the way he calls to Dante, as though they’re in the final throws of an office holiday party. “Oy, Dante, remember me?” “Hmmmm. Let me see. Your face looks familiar, but now that you’re ‘rotting like a swollen log,’ it’s hard to place you. . .” Soon, however, they are past introductions and onto the essential conversation: what of Florence? Well, though I don’t think I’m picking up all of what Dante’s putting down, the phrase “political incontinence” comes to mind. Any vice powerful enough can take multiple forms, and so with gluttony, as “Black shall ride on White for many years,/ loading it down with burdens and oppressions/…There,/ pride, avarice, and envy are the tongues/ men know and heed, a Babel of despair.” There is no shortage of political rapacity today, heaven knows. And I find myself asking about our “Florence,” with all of its inhabitants and leaders’ insatiable desires: the accumulation of wealth or power or nuclear arms or natural resources—a hoarding (a gluttony) without sense. There’s an even lower level of Hell for the worst of those gluttonous for power, I would guess. That is what I will contemplate as Dante and Virgil walk away from the scene “speaking of pain and joy.”