Canto 11: Smoke Break

By Jake Willard-Crist

Lucky me—assigned to comment on the Inferno’s expository interlude.  I recently, and unfortunately, saw Angels & Demons, the movie based on the Dan Brown novel.  My wife Keri and I snickered each time Tom Hanks, playing the erudite Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, made good use of the actionless intervals to educate his co-stars and viewers with the intricacies of papal history and occultist lore relevant to the plot.  Dante and Vergil engage in something similar here, resting behind the upturned lid of a heretical pope’s sepulcher, under the pretenses of inuring themselves to the noxious fumes.  “While we’re waiting, Vergil, why not elucidate for us the moral architecture of Hell?” Dante asks.  I sense something like an editorial contingency here (perhaps you might agree, John):  the author needs to pause and lay it out for us, at least to appease all those readers with a cartographic penchant.

Though this canto is, arguably, necessary, I found it to be less exciting reading compared to what we’ve encountered so far.  It wore its contrivance too thick.  Perhaps this is due to my general allergy to taxonomy (which, on a side note, is why I tend to abstain from orthodoxy/heresy conversations)—Aristotle and Aquinas give me hives.  I think my ears perked up twice in my reading: first, the reference to Dis as the “red city”; and second, the closing temporal reference: “above us in the skies the Fish are quivering at the horizon’s edge.”  It’s the perennial tension between the poetry and its undergirding theory, and the manner in which the latter pokes its head out into the former.  How many of us have spaced out when the Exodus narrative breaks into legislation?

I will say that the canto sparked some reflection on the messy science of human morality.  Dante picks here from Aristotle, Cicero, Genesis, and Aquinas to construct his infernal scaffolding, and still he seems to forget about the heretics he just encountered, as well as the souls in Limbo.  This kind of moral anatomizing does not lend itself to exactitude, especially when it involves assumptions about the divine moral imagination.  When lawmakers have pretensions to retributive precision, they seem to get dangerously close to barbarism.  Teeth and eyes for teeth and eyes is not difficult arithmetic; however, when we begin to get into that metaphorical dental and optic territory, then we collapse into subtle casuistries.

I’d be interested to hear from someone more versed in U.S. legal history, who might offer a short-list of influences apparent in our own penal system.  Why doll out 5 to 10 years to one, only 5 years to another, or life to another?  Are modern penitentiaries (note the obvious etymology of that word) adumbrations of hell’s stratifications?  Incidentally, though Pinsky translates stipa in XI.3 as “pen”, many translators have felt that “prison” is the most appropriate English rendering.  All the damned souls in their niches–I wonder how far we’ve come from the infernal hive and the logic that bolsters it…(I mean it when I say “I wonder”–I really don’t know, and would welcome any feedback, even to tell me the association is way off base. )

9 responses to “Canto 11: Smoke Break

  • Robert Pinsky

    I’m glad to find this live, insightful conversation going on — and based in my home state! Wonders of the Web.

    I’m out of the country, away from books, but will risk displaying my ignorance by commenting on my use of “pen” for “stipa”: I associate the cruel, bad-smelling scene with the verb “stipare” to cram or overcrowd or pack. I think (it’s been a long while) I must have had in mind the image of animal overcrowding, something de-humanizing. Or for, Dante/Virgil, an empahsis on scorn or suffering rather than legal process, maybe?

    (When the actors and I did a semi-staged reading from the translation in ML King Jr’s Birmingham church, the present pastor in giving me a tour pointed out that we were quite near the site of a “slave-pen,” a chilling term I hadn’t heard before. I failed to associate the word with this passage . . . “)

    With appreciation of the intelligent attention,
    Robert Pinsky

    • pkooistra

      And I’d thought it rich, thanks to Dante’s imagination, to run into Socrates et al in Limbo.
      Now this encounter in the ether, thanks to Jake’s attention to your text and your attention in turn to his musings, Mr. Pinsky.
      Fascinating. The pen may be mite-ier than the ward, but both your explanation of “stipare” suggesting cramming and/or overcrowding, as well as the present pastor’s pointing out the “slave-pen” in Dr. King’s Birmingham church, confer on the image considerable power–power that I am now far better equipped to perceive.
      Many, many thanks, both Jake and Mr. Pinsky, for the (varnish-removing) gloss.

    • jakewillardcrist

      How invigorating to return to the blog and find a reply from Mr. Pinsky. Thank you for your participation. I wonder, having that added information on the Italian “stipare”, if we could still draw a parallel with the modern penitentiary. The issue of overcrowding is certainly an urgent political issue, and I wonder how one might reflect on canto xi and the “de-humanizing” effects of the crammed prison. There is, of course, no restoration for those in the infernal pen–what about the modern pen?

      On a more jocose note: I just now thought of that verb “stipare” in our English “constipation” (I assume there’s also an Italian “constipare”). And, knowing a bit about Inferno’s notorious exit…well…just another corporeal nuance to associate with the crammed damned…

  • jeffvamos

    What an honor for you to follow our conversation! And to pull back the screen of translatorial intent on this brief scene…. Challenging in English to be sure, and translating just one word from the Italian bespeaks so much.

    Onward, and thanks.


  • Anne

    I have to say that I am thoroughly enjoying this descent into Hell and the comments that have ensued. What prodded me into putting in a couple of cents worth was to say that I always find this Canto a refreshing break, and a chance to look behind at where we have been as well as expound on where we are going. In my mind’s eye I have also always had the image of the “pen” as being an overcrowded, smelly pack that Mr. Pinsky referred to, although isn’t this entire experience a “penitentiary”, where souls are paying penance for their sins?
    One other thought is how Virgil tells time passing by knowing how the stars have moved above them. With the fish (Pisces)on the horizon he knows that dawn is coming. This has always confused me – How is it that Virgil can see the movement of the stars while they are underground?
    Anyway, one thing I really wanted to do was thank Jake for including the map of the different levels of Hell. It is helpful to be able to visualize the journey as the story unfolds.

  • jeffvamos

    Welcome Anne!

    And a few other thoughts that strike me about this canto – and looking to the next….

    Jake, in service to your dislike of the orderly taxonomy with which Dante seems to depict hell (and elsewhere), I was reading ahead today to Canto 12 (Monday clergy day off, you know), and was surprised by a line I’d never noticed (elucidated by our textual addendum in Mr. Pinsky’s translation). Canto 12:35ff. The context is to Christ’s Harrowing of Hell and attendant “shake up”. At this, Virgil feels “love: the force that has brought chaos back / many times over, say some philosophers.” The reference is to Empedocles who taught…that when love is supreme, chaos reigns. Such an interesting thought – Dante’s own self critique? I’d never noticed that – find it fascinating.

    Jake, do I sense an ode to Empedocles brewing in your poetic breast?

    But, in defense of Dante’s ordering – as much as I resist trying to relate the strange medieval context to our own (and risk mangling its meaning) – I can’t resist commenting on how it relates to the modern debate we are now having in the church – namely our preoccupation with certain (sexual/behavioral) sins, and the church’s relative silence on those truly harmful and destructive ones that land folk further down. The lustful get the least harsh spot in Dante’s hell – and even Brunetto Latini is much higher in the pecking order than those truly destructive ones below….

    I guess what goes through my mind: is Dante’s invitation to us to compare sins theologically helpful?

    Perhaps not, if I consider where I would put those most uncharitable folk I know who are so wrapped up in Ecclesial debates about “sexual sin”.


    • Bob Sinner

      I join Anne in thanking Jake for his inclusion of the illustrations. I am a highly visual learning, and they helped a great deal.

      I also join the group in thanking Mr Pinsky for his clarification of the ‘stipa’ usage and the information about the slave pens.

      As a bit of an aside, I might it add, that tomorrow a group of us from PCOL [Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville] will be visiting what bodes to be an “infernal experience,” at an American-created ‘pen’. We will visit The Elizabeth Detention Facility, a US Government installation which is, according to its official site: ” a temporary detention center for individuals who are waiting for their immigration status to be determined or who are awaiting repatriation. Corrections Corporation of America administers the operations of this facility.” Quotation at site: . Hopefully it is not as bad as the one in Canto XI or as dehumanizing as its reputation has it. Brief comparative clarification to follow. [see website for IRATE and/or First Friends: for info see

      One last point, the tomb behind which Virgil and Dante rest belongs to Pope Anastasius II (d 498), the pope considered responsible by many for the first big step in the RC/ Eastern Orthodox schism. He thus the sinner responsible for the first Great Divide in the church. Contributed to division and ‘heresy’!


      • jeffvamos

        And, regarding Anastasius – does his name perhaps also ring of some irony – perhaps also relating to the previous Canto (the “false rising” Farinata and Cavalcante): Anastasis = “resurrection”….

        Bob – thanks too for reminding us of your journey tomorrow – I had forgotten. Our prayers go with you!

  • Bob Sinner

    Our journey to Elizabeth Detention Center [holding place (prison) for “illegal immigrants”] last night was a sad, but enlightening one, which draws forth anger at (seeming?) injustice.
    I would place EDC partly in Purgatory [for those who are lucky and have help] and partly in hell [for those who have some hope but no luck, and for those who have lost all hope].
    I met with Aziz, a young man in his twenties from Tajikistan, whose visa ran out and was picked up by immigration within a few days. He has been kept in a room for 45 males [pretty much the norm there] for 4 months now. He did not openly complain, but was obviously dejected. His hearing is April 5.
    Two others in the group met with Ebeneezer [yes, real name] from Ghana, a very cheerful young man who has made a couple of previous attempts to gain sanctuary in the USA [he comes by cargo ship]. He was cheerful and exuded hope [but then, he has been at the center for three days now].
    Which circle would they be in? Hard to say – what circle is designed for those who enter or stay in country without proper credentials?
    Which circle did it seem like? Well it was crowded and dehumanizing. Not sure. Sorry to go off main topic, but [unfortunately] it just seemed to fit in. Bob

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