By John Timpane
This Canto faces readers with an uncomfortable, inevitable irony: that many transcendent works of art are driven by murderous intentions.
Dante is world-famous for putting his enemies in perpetual hellfire. The Inferno is the perfect literary revenge tool, nothing but benefits, no downside. In this Canto, Dante encounters Filippo Argenti – hilariously, “Phil Silvers” – as he courses across the excremental mud of the Styx. Dante’s safe and dry in the boat; Phil is choking on mud and gets torn to pieces once Dante passes by, very much with the approval of Vergil, Dante’s guide.
Argenti (real name Filippo Cavicciuli degli Adimari) was a pretty famous guy, an enemy of Dante’s back in Florence. His nickname came from his love of silver, with which, according to lore, he shod his very horse. From a very powerful family and being a Black Guelph, he chose the winning side in the political cataclysm that expelled Dante from his beloved Florence. Basically, Filippo is the nasty foe who prospers. He apparently was famous for his violent temper: he appears in novella VIII of Boccaccio’s Decameron, screaming, cursing, and comically beating people up. So he sorts well with boatman Phlegyas, a figure from myth who ruins himself through wrath. (Interesting: I note that the phleg- in Phlegyas’ name is the Greek word for “flame” or “fire,” the burning intensity we see in the word phlegmatic, the fire of wrath.)
The allegory on offer here addresses the wages of wrath. The wrathful get stuck in the mud, in the marshy, crappy filter of excrescence, to choke on the mire of their self-obsessed, self-blinded passions. “Who are you,” Dante asks Phil, “who have become so foul?” The wrathful tear themselves to pieces, or get torn, over and over, because for such people, anger never ceases but invades the heart in destructive, rending waves. “No goodness decks his memory, / So his shadow is what rages.”
But we can’t get away from the fact that Dante is having vengeance on a man who, as far as I can discover, triumphed over him in all ways in life, in power, politics, success, and in cutting a figure in Florence. And there’s an acid complacency in the way Vergil rubber-stamps Filippo’s fate: “In what you wish to see, you shall be satisfied,” he says to Dante, “for what you seek is just.”
Much of the best art is powered by our worst emotions. Even the God-obsessed, worshipful Psalms, even they bring us a world obsessed with the enemy, a world in which (beloved Psalm 23) the King prepares me a table in front of my enemies, nya-nya-nya! In which (Psalm 137) Babylon is told, “How happy the one who takes your little ones and dashes them against the stones,” perhaps the single most horrifyingly vindictive sentence in our sacred literature. It’s almost as if we cannot have the concept friend without first and foremost having a lively, choleric sense of the enemy. Thinkers like Jacques Derrida have wondered aloud whether the fearful, threatening, hated notion of enemy actually structures the notion of friend.
I want to believe we don’t need enemies to have friends, but sometimes, I, too, wonder. In the case of the Psalms, the friend is God. Do I really need the raging heathen, my triumphant enemies, to build my notion of God? Does Dante really need a Phil Silvers to build his notion of Beatrice?
During Lent, I think continually about my capacity for friendship. I wish it were greater. I wish I were a more attentive friend, more considerate. I hope my friends, if any, love me and forgive my slovenly maintenance of the bonds between us. I hope that I and my friends are engaged in the blessed work of cultivating one another’s characters, of reflecting to each other all that is the best in love and companionship.
OTOH, my capacity for animosity is a lot livelier. My enemies just seem more vital, more vivid, more concrete. The people one resents, envies, objects to, they tower in sharp, eye-popping HD, while your friends sort of linger in the lobby, nice and smiley, black-and-white TV. The imperative to do something, to feel something, to take steps, to remake the world so it is rid of the gall, the millstone, the headache of having these people and their provocations around, is simply more urgent, more compelling, with enemies than with friends.
And revenge. Is anything sweeter? No! Has anything less to do with justice? No! I used to teach revenge tragedy when I was a professor, and I’d say to the students, “OK, if somebody hits you on the arm, the thing you want to do is hit them exactly on the arm, the way they hit you, right?” and everybody would laugh and say, “Of course not! If somebody hits you, you want to annihilate them!” Just so: revenge seeks not justice (a balance that does not satisfy) but the absolute erasure and triumph over the opponent. You steal my Tootsie Roll? I set fire to your family.
Not to understress the suffering, humiliation, and spiritual pain of the Israelites during the Babylonian captivity. The Psalmist of 137 makes clear that it’s justice s/he wants to see, to see Babylon “served as you served us.” More than a few of Israel’s little ones were dashed against the stones. And let no one doubt Dante suffered terribly to be expelled from Florence, the determining episode that shades Inferno. Perhaps he was justified in punishing Phil, as the Psalmist feels she is in wanting God to rain punishment on the captors and enslavers of the Israelites in Babylon.
Feeling “justified,” however, strikes me as terribly dangerous. We could, for example, always be wrong. And how often do we leverage our justified feeling, or the sense that our anger is reasonable or understandable, as a pretext to revenge? If we do that, we were never justified, never just, in the first place.
So that’s a Lenten thought: let me be better at friendship. Let me make friend the major term, enemy the minor, and not the reverse. Let me shun revenge, ignore that feelng of being justified in anger, entitled to act out of ire. Let me seek humility and peace.
Dante certainly feels justified in Canto VIII, as he watches Vergil dicker with the fallen angels over admitting Dante to the City of Dis. The angels, after all, are most futilely, pointlessly envious beings we encounter in Canto VIII. They forfeited Heaven and can’t stand seeing a tourist come through who won’t be forced to stay and share their constantly renewed horror and pain. The angels have no chance for God – Dante, and all humanity, still do, and that fact just kills the fallen.
Justified wrath, however, is still wrath, and when such verbal and imaginative beauty arises from wrath, all I can say is, it gives pause. Perhaps what is beautiful about the Inferno, what teaches us about God and salvation and right dealing, can save us from what is troubling about it, the anger and envy motivating some of the portraits of the damned, the revenge taken through poetry. In that sense, that mix-up of good and evil, Inferno is a very human poem and teaches us much about ourselves. That, in itself, in ways Dante could not have intended, is also a saving grace.