Tag Archives: Dante’s Inferno

Canto 34: Judecca – A Few Musings

By Pier Kooistra

Until now, Dante’s Hell has been a kinetic place, erupting, seething, its denizens trapped but moving (albeit mostly while making futile efforts to limit their suffering or, like the Malebranche, while multiplying the misery of their fellow hellions). How strange, then, to encounter, at long last, the King of Hell and to find him largely inert, frozen in place. Satan here bears little resemblance to Satan as we’ve seen or imagined (at least, as I’ve seen or imagined) him outside this realm constructed by Dante. Sure, some of the basic components of his situation are the same. For example, as usual he’s been expelled from Heaven for having dared to challenge the primacy of God. But this Satan has been not only cast out but cast down. In fact, to a striking degree he’s been casted—surrounded, incapacitated—in addition to having been hurled from his previously dizzying height to a nearly annihilating depth. This is not a Darth Vader/Emperor character, a dark lord capable of projecting power to any corner of the universe. This is not a Bond-film villain, skilled to the Nth degree in a million forms of malefaction, elegant in his brutality, as polished as his deadly hidden weapons. This guy isn’t really the King of Hell; he’s a mock-king. He’s huge but ungainly, not a wicked Zeus but a bumbling grotesque, a Cyclops, stuck—and, worse, attacked, humiliated—in his own cave. He bosses no henchmen. He convenes no cabals. One can’t call where he is a dominion, as he rules over nothing. And, therefore, one can’t really call this figure Satan or Lucifer, in the sense that those names usually connote. More properly, this is Dis. Or, rather, Dissed. And his Hell has nothing to do with Pandemonium, that sprawling, autonomous hideaway of all the devils in the cosmos, a place that, generally, I’ve envisioned as every bit as rowdy and humming with action as the greenwood of Robin and his merry men, if taken up with the hatching, rather than the foiling, of nefarious plots. There is nothing majestic about this figure we see in Canto 34. He makes no choices of his own. To be sure, he is heinous, chewing ad infinitum on the head of Judas and the legs of Brutus and Cassius. But there is no malevolence here, no whiff of the evil genius licking his lips with relish, the torchlit hallways of his lair echoing with cackles of excitement about the loosing of his next horrible scheme. Once the arch-machinator, this guy has been reduced to a machine, an instrument of someone else’s justice. Having dared to prosecute the ultimate act of insubordination, he has been, as recompense, completely subordinated, stripped of all initiative, all volition, hurled to the absolute bottom of a territory that functions as a wholly owned subsidiary of Heaven.  Huge and hideous but defanged, Dissed has been put on display in a sort of Underworld’s Fair, the chief exhibit in the No-No Pavilion. For Heaven’s sake (literally), the erstwhile master of malignancy has been so utterly tamed, in fact rendered so impotent, that a couple of lilliputian (if literarily gigantic) poets can clamber right past his midsection and not be totally fucked. There is no wrath, no vengeful fury for them to contend with. Virgil and Dante can gawk instructively, seriously up close and personal, at the tethered former fiend, and, so long as they’re willing to put in a good walk, just saunter home. This is a devil that is decidedly separate from God—and not equal. That’s the first thing about this canto that strikes me.

The second is who else, along with Satan, has been consigned to this infernal stratum reserved for the lowest of the low. I can see, of course, how the most notorious acts of Judas, on the one hand, and Brutus and Cassius, on the other (turning Jesus over to the authorities, assassinating Caesar) constitute more than peccadilloes. But if Judas’s crime was instrumental to the redemption-through-Crucifixion project, and if Brutus and Cassius were motivated even just in part by an impulse to curb tyranny, it’s hard for me to see these characters as the lowest of the low. My twenty-first-century-liberal mind, if charged with assembling a list of malignancies meriting cutting-away from human society and searing in retributive flames, would gravitate toward the murderous-despot crowd, the fomentors of genocide, such as Leopold of Belgium, Hitler and Pol Pot, not to mention thugs like Milosevic and Karadzic and the demon-leaders of Akazu. Nicole Pinsky says in her notes that those cast into “the final division of Cocytus and the innermost part of Hell” are “those who betrayed their benefactors.” How about those who have betrayed their putative beneficiaries—who, in fact, have turned on their own peoples, such as Stalin and Mao and other wielders of homicidal state power like Ceausescu and Pahlavi, al-Bashir and Amin, Mugabe and Pinochet? Surely there must be a roster of Herods from the ancient world with whom to fill the Wholly Unholies.

If, by some unlikely chain of circumstances, these underconsidered jottings of mine were to be canonized (rather than cannonized) and scrutinized by some poor soul seven centuries hence, I’ve got to believe that such a far-off reader would notice in my brief catalog of especially hellacious human beings a dearth of North Americans. We all have our biases. Mine notwithstanding—in fact, likely as a result of mine—I am struck by the possibility that what to Dante are crimes explicitly constituting the betrayal of benefactors (for, surely, Jesus did minister lovingly, generously unto Judas, and Caesar did in significant ways champion Brutus and make him a protégé, and these actions in both cases appear to merit a high degree of loyalty and special consideration) may also amount to violations of the expected social order. Dante inhabited a world of clearer and more keenly delineated castes and classes. He lived under podestas e principi (and under their edicts and bans). His, far more than ours, was a world of clergy and laypeople, masters and apprentices, superiors and servants. Perhaps that heavily hierarchical social context helps to explain why his Cassius and Brutus are highlighted as the most abject of lowlifes and why his Judas, the unfaithful, if unintentionally helpful, disciple qualifies for such flagrant opprobrium. In other words, is it possible that B, C and J come in for such stark punishment as much for having done offenses to factors (big movers and shakers) as for having violated benefactors (doers of good)? They are, after all, thrown in with (in fact, into) the ultimate upstart, Satan. For what it’s worth, if consigned to Hell myself, while I wouldn’t be psyched about serving as a stick of the arch-fiend’s eternal chewing gum, I’d rather cast my lot with the denizens of Judecca than with the terrors of the modern world whom I’ve named above.

Except for one thing: Judecca—that name troubles me. I know it’s supposed to denote the particularly ruinous, ruined condition to which Judas has been condemned for betraying the Christian savior. But does it also suggest a more general collecting place for traitors to the body politic and/or mainstream culture—or “Jews” in the slipperiest, most denigrating sense (denigrating, that is, to labeler and labeled alike? Nicole Pinsky says in her notes on Canto 34, regarding Brutus and Cassius, “Their crime was seen in the Middle Ages as an offense not only to the murderers’ great benefactor, but to the progress and history of the Roman Empire and the Church.” Is Dante suggesting that Brutus and Cassius are not only Judases but “Judahs,” followers of a corrupt agenda, flouters of Roman Christendom’s hegemonic march? Maybe I, the loving husband of a Jewish wife, the adoring father of Jewish sons, am prone to suspecting anti-Semitic ugliness where it isn’t. But as Virgil and Dante emerge from Hell to see the stars, I can’t help but wonder how their transit through the infernal depths may influence the way in which they interpret the signs above them—may prompt them to assemble constellations of thought predisposing us to steer a troubled course. The journey began “In dark woods, the right road lost” (Canto I, l. 2). To what degree have climbing over the devils’ crotch, hiking through the runnel-tunnel and emerging from that “round aperture” (Canto XXXIV, l. 138) set our guides, and ourselves, on a trajectory uncomplicated by mis- (or mal-) perception?

Your thoughts, companions?


Canto 33: Anti-Eucharist

By Gordon S. Mikoski, Princeton Theological Seminary

Surprisingly, the lowest level of hell is icy cold. Those who have committed the worst sins of all – the treacherous – must suffer in bitter, barren cold for eternity. Who knew that there is something worse than unquenchable fires?

In the midst of this canto Dante and Virgil encounter Ugolin0 della Gherardesca. He pauses from chewing on the head and brains of his archenemy Archbishop Ruggieri  in order to share with the visitors the account of his death and that of his children (and grandchildren, actually). Ironically, Ugolino spends more time describing the horrible circumstances of his death than in owning up to his own treachery and double dealings. Is there anything worse than a victimizer who portrays himself as a victim?

Ugolino relates how he and his younger family members were shut up in a tower and left to starve to death. His children offer their very own flesh and blood to him as a way to sustain his less than meritorious life. At first, he refused to engage in cannibalism of his own children. Eventually, he succumbed to the power of hunger and ate the flesh and blood of his own progeny. Now, in hell he perpetually cannibalizes the brain of his enemy.

When reading about Ugolin0’s ugly end, it is hard not to think of Jesus’ teaching about the Eucharist in John 6. There, Jesus spoke of giving of his very own life to sustain the life and faith of his disciples. He went so far as to say that his followers would have to eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to have eternal life. Jesus Christ, the meritorious one, willingly gave his embodied life for the lives of others. On the very first Maundy Thursday (during the institution of the Eucharist), Jesus connected the broken bread with his broken body and the common cup with his shed blood. The powerful pours himself out for the weak and vulnerable. This feasting on another shows forth and concretely communicates life-giving love born of integrity, uprightness, and commitment to the truth. What a contrast to the circumstances of Ugolino and his horrible tale.

I find it fascinating that Dante entered hell by passing through the waters of a river and at the final destination of his journey he encounters one who eats the flesh of another. It seems fitting, somehow, that the journey to hell ends up being a counter-narrative to Christian initiation through participation in baptism and the Eucharist. Whereas baptism is the entrance into the church and Eucharistic participation is proleptic fulfillment of the eschatological messianic banquet in warm fellowship, hell is the exact inverse of this pattern (passing through water leads to the death of all hope and the end of the journey involves savagely devouring both one’s loved ones and one’s enemies in icy barrenness).

Zooming out a theological level or two, we can see in the Inferno a profound insight first articulated by St. Augustine: evil is the privation or corruption of the good. Far from having independent existence, evil (and hell) are parasitic upon the good, the true, and the beautiful. We can only really conceive of hell in terms of the inverse of the Reign of God. Inasmuch as this is the case, even hell itself points – obliquely, to be sure – to the goodness and mercy of God.


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.


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.