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?