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. )