By Jeff Vamos
To reprise Jake’s question, in slightly different form: are we THERE yet?
Well, if hell is the destination, then we’ve definitely arrived my friends. But perhaps it’s appropriate to say that in this hell, and by its very nature, the sinners trapped there never actually do get “there”, wherever that is. Ever. For Dante, hell seems to be the place of perpetual non-arrival, eternal dis-ease, literal pointlessness – and here is no better example.
After being blasted by what Dante means to be a meaningless (advertising?) jingle on the turgid lips of Plutus (think something like, “papasexy is specialixic”), and being shouted down by Virgil (“one little word shall fell him”), we meet a group of sinners – the “spenders” and the “hoarders” – who are locked in a perpetual Sisyphean round dance. Each is involved in a kind of equal and opposite version of the the very same meaningless activity.
And in this we encounter yet another aspect of the taxonomy of hell. Dante makes a definite point in this canto (which bespeaks utter pointlessness) that sin comes in pairs – the opposite version of the same sin. Aristotelian that he is, Dante shows that one of the sinister aspects of sin is that its nature is to cloak itself by accusation of the other. To be guilty of one extreme is not the real sin; the real sin is to seek to cover oneself by showing another to be worse than you.
All this on display in this parody of economics. In this section of hell, economics is all there is. Humans have indeed become Homo economicus. Locked in an eternal free enterprise zone of competitive activity, here are the shades of those who in life lost any sense of a larger system of meaning and values in which economics – the regulation of the oikos, household – makes sense.
Wordsworth seems appropriate here:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours…
And perhaps there’s more than chance (ahem) involved that it is I to whose lot it is to comment here. Because all (did he really say all?) in the infernal circle are clergy!
What up with that?
Perhaps it has to do not only with a critique of the system of wealth acquisition that had become the church of his time – but pointing out that of all people, these folks should know better. Clergy are the ones whose very job is to point folk to such a larger system of values in which economics plays a servant role, a chauffeur, in the drama of salvation, not its main character. To lead people into an experience of a world where “nature” is the gift for which no one must compete. It’s a gift that we spurn if we hoard it, or waste it.
We might find more evidence here for such a point in the linguistic playfulness and mastery of Dante as he speaks of fortune. He’s playing with the idea of fortune, using its personification, the pagan goddess whose Christian equivalent is providence. In our own language, we’ve perverted the original meaning of the word. In our parlance, fortune refers to the material stuff; as in, “I made a fortune selling widgets, and now look at my wad, eh.” Instead, the real meaning of fortune is what’s meant by the word: fortunate. To perceive in this universe created by God a fortune, a providence, that satisfies what our grasping – our getting and spending – cannot; in fact is negated by.
I can’t resist quoting one of my Dante heroes, Gil Bailie on this point. He speaks of a friend of his who says this:
There is no good or bad weather. There’s just weather.
Happiness is what happens.
To be satisfied. To have arrived. To be there. To have enough, whatever is provided, means enjoying life based on what you don’t even have to work for: it’s free. The rest is just the means of distribution. That’s what Dante’s talking about. And here’s the opposite tragedy on display:
“…you see from this / How all the gold there is beneath the moon, / …could not relieve / One of these weary souls.” (XII.57-60)
As my friend Gil asks here: is it possible that Job’s suffering is his inability to see this “providential universe”? Were he living “there,” might he be able to call his fate – what the wheel dealt him – “fortunate”?
We end the canto with an encounter of another matched set of sinners whose sin seems to make their minds “squinty-eyed”: the angry and the sullen. I find it utterly amazing that, so many hundred years before the modern psychological insight that “depression is anger turned inward,” here it is on display in Dante’s poem. The depressed folk are literally stuck in the oozing Styx – beneath it, blowing bubbles to the surface with half-articulate sighs – while the angry are stuck in the same muck, biting each other – a different dog-eat-dog version of the same old S*** we just saw. Here too, perhaps we say: What a waste – if not of value, in this case of psychic energy.
Onward! Down is up!