Daily Archives: April 1, 2010

Canto 32: This Is How Low You Can Go

By John Timpane

So at the bottom of the bottom, “where all heaviness convenes,” all rocks press down together, what do we find? Whom does God punish most harshly? Among the damned, all of whom are hopeless, who have the most humiliating, most painful burden of hopelessness?

Dante is pretty specific. This final, lowest circle of hell, which will end in the buried body of Satan (the ultimate fraud, ultimate traitor, ultimate treacher) himself, is devoted to frauds. But not just any frauds. Fraud, after all, is involved in almost every permutation of perversion and sin seen in Inferno – pretending to be what one is not; ignoring the truth and acting as though it were not true; lying to oneself or others; doing to others as one should not do; trying, on all levels, in all ways, to get away with it.

These are those who work hard to impose their fraud on others. They betray. They get you to trust them – they even hold high office of trust for powerful regimes – and leverage that to terrible ends.

When trust is betrayed, most of the time, it’s all gone. We are taught to forgive, but a breach of trust is hard. Many people, for example, can’t find the strength it takes to forgive a wayward spouse, even though sexual infidelity (the kind of betrayal most often in question) doesn’t necessarily ruin the structure of the relationship. Spouses often forgive financial breaches, breaches of habit (I say I won’t gamble any more, and then I do), failures to live up to the implied equality of duties within a marriage (you never cook, or do the dishes, or care enough about the kids, or fix the house) – all of these, in practical terms, are potentially far more harmful than a breach of sexual trust.

But that breach stands for all others. Many feel that if that is breached, all others are threatened – perhaps destroyed.

In intimacy, we come to the trusted one literally without dressing, with all guard, all defenses, far away. Intimacy, the embrace of another person, whole-body, whole-self, is the very idea of trust. And when that is betrayed — when it is treated like garbage, or like just another option, nothing special, or when it is discounted or taken for granted — it stands for all betrayal. This has much to do with Christ, actually.

When writing this entry, I asked myself why, when betrayed, we feel such a rush of wounded, vicious fury. It’s obvious why: in extending trust to one we now see has betrayed us, we laid ourselves open, rendered ourselves vulnerable. We came to the other as children and were used.

The thought arises: surely God never did this. But then again: Christ. Who else is the very metaphor for vulnerability, the ultimate in laying oneself open, the great teacher of childlikeness, sacrificial love, turning the cheek 490 times, not worrying about what you shall eat or what you shall wear? In setting the all-time standard for taking on all pain, all human suffering, Christ was also the great teacher of the necessity of trust. Trust in God, and therefore trust in one another.

Once we realize our betrayal, often we see our former, trusting selves as naive, as childlike. “How *could* I have been such a fool?” is a common question. You get a lot of pop songs based on this idea . . . leading to the time-honored genre of “never again” songs, as in that old Bacharach/David chestnut, “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.” Once trust has been abused, we’re wary of ever extending it again. Many of us learn, literally, to trust no one if we will survive.

Then again: Christ never did this. He is disappointed in people. He sees his betrayal coming, first Judas in major, then Peter in minor. But Christ never quite washes his hands, never refuses forgiveness, asks God to forgive human beings closed to their own sinfulness.

And this is the central point of Lent. This laying open of self to suffering, this spectacular, tragic embrace of sacrificial love in our names, each name and the name of all, comes to mind at each specious sacrifice we make during Lent. This is one of the trickiest things to explain to friends who do not observe Lent but want to know “why you give stuff up.” Sure, there’s an instrinsic value in changing habits, avoiding excess, disciplining body in the name of concentrating on our faults, finitude, fallibility. But the real reason we give things up during Lent is as a spur to remembrance.

We do without and we remember. We do something for someone else, and we remember what was done for us. The cosmic betrayals that summoned this sacrifice . . . Judas, yes, but also Cain, also Clay (Adam) and Breath (Eve), also the betrayal of Heaven by the Angels . . . these are images of our own continual, small, characteristic betrayals. Sadness is appropriate, is necessary. As the marvelous poet (and pal of Shakespeare) Ben Jonson once wrote of his relation to God, “A broken heart/Is my best part.” Our capacity to feel pain, sadness, suffering, in light of our betrayals, image of these terrific and terrifying betrayals of God, is one of the best, most glorious things about us.

In “To Heaven,” Jonson writes, “Good and great God, can I not think of thee / But it must straight my melancholy be?” Sometimes, yes, and as that poem makes so clear — it’s a very Lenten poem, actually, one of the best — when we think in clear-eyed honesty about ourselves and what we really are, about how our motives are often pretty corrupt, then a degree of melancholy is appropriate. We’re close, however, in Canto XXXII to the end of Inferno, literally the lowest of all low points, and, as I’m sure somebody will point out in Canto XXXIV, a turnaround is about to happen. Which, after all, is what we’re hoping for, with all this work, all this meditation, all this trust.

But in this canto, once again, Dante is definite. There’s an end. It’s not that the angry God of the Old Testament bursts into a rage and starts destroying His enemies. It’s simply that once time ends for us, if we have defrauded others, we risk sinking as low as you can go, freezing in the consequences, gnawing bone.

The conundrum is that we cannot survive without trust. We could not get through a single day if we did not assume that the people all around us would perform roles that allowed us a place in the world. Moment to moment, we present ourselves each to another. We cannot but do so. And that furnishes an opening to all who would betray, first and foremost the busiest and most vigilant of all Betrayers, he whose body is the axis between hemispheres.

Dante’s Inferno is a museum of betrayal, of fraud, descending, level by level, from terrible to even worse, to unimaginable. He settles old scores, smacks political rivals and enemies who threw him (through treachery, so he implies) out of his Florence, gives us a detailed taxonomy of transgression and punishment. Inferno is the creation of a God who cannot forget because God exists outside time, in an eternal Now in which all transgression happens in an instant alongside its consequences. No forgetting can exist in a timeless now, and thus . . . what of forgiveness?

We are taught that, when furious or hurt or disappointed in someone, we “give it time” before acting on our feelings. No time with God. No before, no after. It’s instantaneous. Sin, always, on some level, is fraud against the God Who cannot be fooled. All the other things sin is – self-delusion, self-betrayal, hubris, blindness, perversion – fan out from this root. Sin begins and ends in betrayal. Whether we’re stealing pies off the windowsill, boffing the wife next door, or selling U.S. nuclear secrets to Iran, we start by ignoring the trust we have created with others and asked from God. That first step seals it, and whether the betrayal is small, and therefore lands us, say, in Purgatorio, to suffer for centuries until we’re Elysium-ready, or in Inferno, another timeless Now, the first step carries the sinner beyond mercy and toward punishment.

. . . and because this is one of the most trenchant analyses of politics in all poetry, it’s important to stop and consider how we feel toward those who have betrayed our country. Since Watergate, and since new ethics laws were instituted, sneaky, sly politicians have found a way to use those higher standards to create a continual train of indictments of their enemies. The problem is that many of those whose careers were ruined richly deserved it, and a few of those whose careers were not (Bill Clinton, maybe?) also did. Public service is a promise, and a huge promise, since it is taken in the name of so many, who have little choice but to trust that the people who pass laws and spend funds in their names do so for the good of all. And when that doesn’t happen, again the furious resentment. Dante has made such fury a theme through this poem: the fall of Florence, the double-dealing that dealt him right out of his beloved city, the corruption of Lucca, the diseased fraud of Pisa. As a political man, Dante challenges us to see the rotten body politic for what it is, the way, he believes, God sees it.

Ugolino, icelocked (and this might be the most gelid of all poetic passages . . . I love that part in which Dante writes that shivers always come back on him “whenever I see icy ponds”), frozen to the body of Ruggieri, his co-betrayer, each gnawing the other’s skull . . . how much lower can you go? Not too much. Beyond this lie only Brutus, Judas, and Satan.

Since I am a male, I want to point out how intimate, how central the sense of fraud is to the male psyche, if any. It’s often said that men never grow into security . . . I tend to think no one does, actually. I know only that many men are raised to be insecure. You can’t ever be as big as Daddy, ever strong enough or smart enough or perfect enough. Maleness plunges us into a life in which maleness is constantly questioned and attacked. Even the best among us is constantly looking over his shoulder, constantly worried that some day, the veil will fall, and the world will discover what a fraud we really, truly are. I assume women have their own versions.

However fraud pervades our lives and characters, somehow we get where we get in spite of what we truly are. Some of that is grace, thank God. . . . in fact, all of it is. Grace is what gets us forward.

And that’s the only comforting thing. God, in Milton’s formulation, gave us enough grace to do the dang deal. We are “sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.” Yet there is not a one who does not fall somewhere, somehow. The key is not to fall this low, to let in the kind of fraud that undoes everything, even grace itself. This Lent, I’ve been praying hard that I never let my genius for fraud overtake absolutely everything else.

What is frightening is that each of us, man and woman, chooses repeatedly to play traitor, ignore the grace and trust we are shown, by all those around us, and by the source of grace and trust. We don’t really believe in the end of time, the end of life, the end of chances “to get out of it,” the end of mercy. Dante manifestly does, or manifestly hopes for it. He hopes for a place in which living souls will be locked in ice and gnaw each other for all time. Weeping and gnashing of teeth.