Spend enough time in hell and it becomes, well…more hell. It becomes more of itself, revealing its full dimensions through the poet’s vision—its nooks, crannies, and characters—layer after layer and circle after circle. It is a vulture perched beside road kill, slowly lifting its wings until we see, bit by bit, the full span of its body and what it plans to do next. By the 18th canto, hell seems horrible and yet familiar, perhaps even horribly familiar. We have had fire, whips, excrement, rafts of sinners, and creatures resurrected from mythology (easily, as though they were strange, yet intentionally/opportunely placed) to move the sinners, and sometimes our pilgrims, along.
I opened to this canto and felt myself a tad numb, stimulated by my fellow bloggers’ insights to be sure, and yet inured to what this level of hell might hold. Perhaps that’s how Stephen Dedalus felt as “[he] sat again in the front bench of the chapel. The daylight without was already failing and, as it fell slowly through the dull red blinds, it seemed that the sun of the last day was going down and that all souls were being gathered for the judgment” (Joyce 300). As the preacher details in his sermon to Stephen and his peers, there is, in hell, physical pain, spiritual pain, and—the “last and crowning torture of all”—eternity (Joyce 304). The Inferno had successfully conjured, for me, hell’s physical pain and eternity. A place where “sodomites” run across burning sand isn’t where a gal wants to spend much time. I’d been taking it all in, but I hadn’t yet felt the pinch of spiritual pain. For whatever reason, this canto flipped that switch. Dante’s hell has room for pimps and poets, lovers and looters. And sometimes they stir our compassion while we stir their souls to recognition…
Here’s what stirred me to recognition: Dante and Virgil descend from Geryon’s back and our poet soon finds “new souls in pain,” “new torments, and new devils black as pitch” (158). I was skeptical about the “newness” at first. True, the Malebolge of this eighth circle provided a twist, and not just because there’s a sassy, Tolkien-esque map at the start of this canto in my translation. The “we’re-not-in-Kansas-anymore” shift could have easily come from the changed landscape, but I soon found the “the new” in language and in the nature of the sin that landed these “misbegotten wraiths” in this circle and their various bolgia. For instance, I’d not yet heard this in hell: “Move on,/ you pimp, there are no women here to sell” (160). Or, as Dante and his guide approach the second bolgia:
Once there, I peered down; and I saw long lines
of people in a river of excrement
that seemed the overflow of the world’s latrines.
I saw among the felons of that pit
one wraith who might or might not have been tonsured—
one could not tell, he was so smeared with shit. (161)
The abrasiveness of the language drew me to the “coarseness” of the sin. While the eighth circle is full of the “Fraudulent and Malicious” (I assume, writ large), somehow the panderers, seducers, and, to a lesser extent, the flatterers made clear that it is one thing to bring ourselves low and quite another to intentionally drag others down alongside us. The panderers and seducers, in particular, traffic in other people—be it actual beings or their emotions. In this circle, we bring others into sins they would perhaps never have designed for themselves: prostitution, slavery, the fallout of a twisted love affair; it is, at its most common and worst, the possibility of manipulation through every level of human relation. For the flatterers in hell, their false and hollow speech is shit made manifest. Alessio says, “Down to this have the flatteries I sold/ the living sunk me here among the dead” (162). There is a connection, it seems, between the soul and the substance of our sin.
As a Lenten contemplation, this canto makes me want to be very honest and to do what Chögyam Trungpa has called “no harm.” To be aware, without being neurotic, of the way in which my actions impact others. In my experience, spiritual pain is internal turmoil, often caused when I feel as though my thoughtlessness or negligence have extended beyond me to friends, loved ones, coworkers, even strangers. Do I attempt to bend situations to my will, thinking I know better for others than they know for themselves? Do I see people as some currency to get what I want? Have I spoken half-truths in the hopes that others would like or accept me? Certainly. It sounds vile, but I also know I’m in good company. I can see the way this mixture of opportunism and cowardice unfolds in everyday situations—driving to the grocery store, the kinds of purchases I make, and the list goes on. In this level of hell I imagine enduring physical pain and eternity while being tormented, most brutally, by the recognition that my selfishness and deception—whether sinister or perhaps even a bit everyday—had harmed another.
Joyce, James: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1992