Canto 14: Money, Sex, Language, Oh My!

By John Timpane

Warning: The author of the following piece has a very dirty mouth and mind. He is perhaps the last person who should be writing such high-minded things.

Each of us and all of us are in a relation to God – whether we like it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not, whether we are attentive to it or not. Being itself is a relationship, and we who exist change our beings, and our relationship to God, by what we do. When we speak, we speak out of and within our relation to God. Same when we use money, when we invest it, when we hope our investments prosper. Same when we are physically close to our beloved, around and within our beloved, welcoming our beloved with all senses, literally with everything we’ve got. As the neoplatonists believed, that is when we are next to God.

In Canto XIV, Dante beholds one of the most horrible set-pieces yet, as he sets eyes on the Third Ring of the Seventh Circle. It’s a panorama of pain played out on an arid desert plain, with flames falling from on high on the suffering damned. Blasphemers lie supine (so they suffer on both sides at once), usurers sit on the sand, and sodomites wander ceaselessly. We are told this circle is reserved for those who have been violent toward God.

Medieval categories can strike us (as ours would strike them) as inconsistent and arbitrary. What do usurers share with sodomites? And what does either category of sinner have in common with blasphemers? How are these sins violence toward God?

Usury violence against God? Well, isn’t it? Ten percent of Americans, more or less, are unemployed at the moment and probably will be for an average time of six months. The percentage swells to 17 if we count the underemployed and those not even searching for work. And, as Dante would be the first to say, much of this is chickens come home to roost in our way of making money out of money. I won’t go into the relative moral standing of derivatives and hedge funds, even if I understood them, and I don’t – but I do know that our intention with money is deeply sick and deeply culpable. We act as if riches are what we’re here for. We regard as fools anyone who lives as if money isn’t the main or most important thing, and we celebrate as geniuses anyone who manages to compile the biggest pile.

It’s not wealth itself. You do have to make a living, and it is not always evil to have prospered. (Not always.) But in our unconscious celebration of the ways money pollutes, we are all usurers. Usurers place money between themselves and God. And that is violence supreme.

We perhaps will be most uncomfortable with the sodomites being in the Seventh Circle. Their restlessness lets us know that, in Dante’s world, sodomy was always wrong (and, by the way, the term had a very expansive meaning – it included homosexual and pederastic acts but could also include what used to be called “perversions” in general), that practitioners of these acts had lost their way and had forfeited spiritual rest.

I am profoundly uneasy with any viewpoint that condemns homosexuality per se as always, inevitably damnable. I speak only for myself (and that’s how everyone should speak of these things), but I cannot find the moral ground from which I could ever make a judgment like that. The point is not the gender you choose to be intimate with – it’s how you treat people within intimacy.

But Dante’s vision strikes home when we accept that each of us is a pervert, in the darkest sense. Perhaps we are largely conventional in our conduct in the realm of intimacy – yet what is more morally sensitive, what more challenging to our patience, our compassion, our ability to show love, than intimacy? Anyone who says, “I have never failed in my intimate life” is saying something not even they will believe. And intimacy is so momentous, so deific, and so damaging when it collapses, that when any of us fail, that’s a moment of perversion (“turning away”). In the sense that the loved one is our ultimate home, our mirror of God, our chance to be our best and do our best, when we turn away, lose patience, withhold gentleness, suppress compassion, when we do not see our beloved (as in the Na’vi sense of I see you), when we fail to be home for our beloved, to take him/her in, shelter him/her, lead our guests to the table of the Lord in our intimacy – then, truly, we have lost our home and wander an arid life ceaselessly. We have shown utmost violence against the God in our beloved, and the God in us.

During Lent, there might be nothing that haunts me so much as the many perversions littering my path.

Violence against God is easy to see with blasphemers, who employ language to abuse the deity. Our age does not take cursing or blasphemy seriously – in fact, our age, maybe because it is awash in words, saturated with an engulfing onrush of language, doesn’t take language seriously. Cursing is a way to be accepted, to show you’re modern, with it, to fit in with various crowds. It’s how men show other men they’re tough. It’s how teens show other teens they’re willful, rebellious, and cool.

Let’s take a mild case. That sucks, once a thing you’d never hear in public, is almost invisible today because it has become so common. It is, of course, entirely coarse and insulting; its broad acceptance as an expression of exasperation, judgment, or sympathy suggests to some people that we have become desensitized.

That sucks insults an intimate act. Behind the slang use of suck is the notion that certain sex acts are dirty, and those who perform them (women, mostly) are degraded thereby. Strangely, and ironically, many of us enjoy being sucked – yet much of our common language assumes that sucking is bad and suckers polluted and inferior. If a Martian came down from Mars and observed our swearing habits, they’d be perplexed.

Fuck you is a subjunctive or optative statement meaning May someone have sexual intercourse with you. “Oh, what a nice custom, to wish such a pleasant fate on somebody else,” say the Martians. They would not be able to hear the toxic overtones in the verb fuck, which (although often used as a catchall term for intercourse – and that’s toxic in itself) is freighted with overtones of degradation, submission, and even violence. May someone have sexual intercourse with you – and may it ruin you.

I remember the first Lent I ever tried to give up swearing. It was sixth grade, and I’d only gotten started. Hell and damn exclusively – I wonder if I even knew any others. I didn’t make it. What was hard about keeping the resolution was this: I did it without thinking. The horse was out of the barn, galloping over the hill, and eating daisies in the neighbor’s farm, way before I was aware. I even woke up one morning remembering a stray hell the day before.

I try to exercise all sorts of disciplines during Lent, and I do try to watch my mouth. To me, words and our use of words, our second-to-second choice of what to say and how to say it, is the closest, most continual gauge of the self who does the choosing. Word choice is moral choice. It has to be.

Now allow me to contradict myself. I want to make clear that at some level, a certain degree of freedom and coarseness with language is meant not to be taken seriously. And if we take it too seriously, we assume a moral position it’s impossible to maintain. If we have no sense of humor, well, for me, that’s acedia. If we allow no sense of play, even coarse play, with language, we set ourselves up as tiny gods.

What’s bad is when we use words as weapons, when we say Go to hell and mean it, Fuck you and mean it, whore or ho and mean it, when we imagine the person before us as shit, as garbage, as worthless. When we do such things, we do violence, literally, to the target person, and thus to God. And we do worst violence to ourselves, and thus to God.

As my sixth-grade experiment shows, we can’t actually watch every word we speak. Language is too liquid, too quick, too mercurial. And we shouldn’t be like the naïve sixth-grader me, worried he was polluted because he said hell yesterday.

What I need, this and every Lent, to think of is my general ways with language, the values that flow out of my mouth and pen and keyboard. Am I building up or tearing down? Am I having playful fun, toying with openness and abandon in creative ways, or am I just being a pottymouth and pottyhead? Do I ever, when I open my lips, sacred portals created by the deity, dirty those portals with words as weapons?

And if I deny this ever happens, aren’t I like Capaneus, the type of the toxically proud man? He declared he was so great he couldn’t be beaten – and then he got smoked by a higher authority. Our usury, our perversion, our violent words all speak loud and clear, all the way to Good Friday. Humility. Humility.

About jtimpane

Media Editor/Writer at The Philadelphia Inquirer. View all posts by jtimpane

6 responses to “Canto 14: Money, Sex, Language, Oh My!

  • jeffvamos


    Reading your rather delightful reflections (and F-bombs – seem indeed strangely appropriate for this Lenten fete of sin) – you make me think about how hell is a place where what is really of worth becomes cheap. I find it helpful how you make clear that this is the strand that connects all this.

    The usurer folk who cheapened the value of money by trying to make something from nothing with it – such behavior fails to measure its intrinsic value and worth. Ser Brunetto (whom we meet in the next canto) who is consigned to an eternal cruise scene, using his sexuality in way that cheapen its real purpose; and we indeed must see its broader meaning beyond the medieval view of homosexuality. Using words in a way that demeans their value cheapens language itself. All of this value that is really *free*; given; bestowed by the divine. To fail to value it is indeed a form of violence. Such actions make sterile what should be fruitful.

    Is it possible that hell is the place where what has been given an inherent (divine) worth, is made cheap through our failure to value it appropriately? And as you so aptly point out – does that mean that in so many ways, in so many places, that’s exactly where we’re living?

    • John Timpane

      Dear Jeff:

      A very powerful way to imagine hell. When we underestimate or disregard our God-given value, or that of others, we do direct violence to the source of that value, the laboring, suffering creator. When we let money get between us and that God, when we let words get between us and that God, when we (for whatever reason) turn away through perversion from recognizing that God in our beloveds, we do direct violence to the Giver and what is given. We cheapen God.

      That reminds me of something I wish I’d said in my original post.

      Often we read Inferno this way: “Oh, look at that, Dante’s putting all these folks in hell, all these enemies, these individuals, these types of evil behavior.” But that’s dangerous because it misses the point. Inferno studies not just the *types* of evil behavior *others* do and have done — it faces *us* with what *we* do. We’re seeing ourselves laid bare. If we don’t read this poem assuming a deep, continual personal connection to each figure in torment, we are willfully ignoring the point, engaging in that charming self-delusion for which human beings are famous.

      We’re tuned to do so, of course. No one believes they can be bad. No one thinks they’re going to die. We just watched *Doctor Faustus* by Christopher Marlowe, a brilliant study of the self-deluding, self-destroying human being who dares all and flies into the arms of perdition.

      It’s not so much that Inferno is a “lesson” — it’s an exploration, a call to experience. Easy enough to read it at arm’s length . . . but it becomes wholly another thing if the reader assumes responsibility and, rather than reading this great poem as if watching a movie, moves in front of the camera.



  • Bob Sinner

    Oh, so very well said John.

    For me, at least, you have hit the ‘so very dangerous’ nail smack on the head. I find myself moving back and forth, from behind the camera to dead-center in front of the lens [“rather than reading this great poem as if watching a movie, moves in front of the camera.”], and indulging in “that charming self-delusion for which human beings are famous.”

    It is so easy, especially if one is trained to ‘be a scholar’ (as indeed, Dr. Faustus was; as I have been) to examine, analyze, point out, share “the ‘types’ of evil behavior ‘others’ do and have done.” Not so easy or desirable to note “it faces ‘us* with what ‘we’ do.”
    Thank you for noting that point. Bob

  • jeffvamos

    And, would you say, that in ever-so ironic ways, Dante puts himself in front of the poetic camera? Struggling with his own lust, and pride, and self-justification? Struggling (as we shall see in the next few cantos, if implicitly) even with the “fraud” of poetry? The very thing that he’s used to make a name for himself, used to put his enemies (and friends, ironically) down there in a world of his own creation?

    I find that part speaks to me so very profoundly, the humbling business of using one’s words to convey the ultimate, while also benefitting from it personally. Is this not what Dante also examines (among other things) in himself? As he examines his own fame, his own ego, his own desires?

    Here’s a personal digression about my being in front of the camera: the “fraud” of preaching? The analog of Dante’s poetry. (Going out on a limb here). The feeble attempt to get at the heart of human meaning using one’s mere words, which crack and strain under the weight–all the while looking like one who knows stuff? Is this not also what Dante’s doing here (in the poem as a whole)? Is this not what the “monster of fraud” we will encounter in just a bit represents? (OK, I’m guilty of looking ahead here, but it applies to your question, John). You are so right that this is a huge prayer wheel meant to read US, meant to put us in front of the poetic camera. And ultimately not for the purpose of punishing us (if we haven’t lost “the good of the intellect”), but of redemption….

    Such a great discussion…. I have to admit. I’m struggling with the sin of distraction!

    • Bob Sinner

      Jeff and John:

      I feel that “1 Corinthians 13” speaks loudly and clearly to all of this, including, Jeff the position behind/before the camera in writing poetry and preaching. While normally I would turn to the Revised Standard Version, I love the ringing poetry of the King James Version, and for our purposes here, I find most useful.

      1. Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.

      2. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.
      3. though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.
      – 1 Corinthians 13 (King James Version)

      I see emphasis on sincerity, true intent and relationship to God. It is and has always been a debased, upside-down world indeed. Have things really changed all that much since Christ’s time on earth? Or, even since Dante’s time? I personally think not.

      So, yes, we all are debasers, sodomites, userers, and, particularly blasphemers. Thank The Lord for his gift of his son and for his Grace.

      Amen. Bob

  • Amy Andrews

    I, too, am thankful to John for reminding us to see ourselves in front of Dante’s camera. We are so accustomed to spectacle, to watching from the outside, touring in exotic places and gathering our snapshots to take home. I am thinking in particular of the lure of the TV reality show (an occasional guilty pleasure, I confess), or the evening news (the more respectable form of spectacle), the way we are invited to locate ourselves outside of the drama, to watch from the safety of our living rooms, refreshments in hand. And, while I agree with Jeff that Dante subtley makes himself his own subject at times, we are also constantly reminded, in almost every canto, that Dante is not “of” this place, does not belong, is passing through thank-you-very-much. And somehow I picture Virgil, at times, like one of those tour guides in an art museum, holding his umbrella high over his head, inviting the spectators to follow him this-way-please to the next scene, the next spectacle. One wonders if there will be a gift shop after we finish 33.

    I was thinking of this, too, several cantos back, when Jeff raised the issue of pity, and how we’re constantly being asked to pity the suffering souls. Pity, too, offered by the outsider, the one who does not see himself in the other.

    Such a difficult stance to maintain, seeing oneself in front of the camera. In front of the camera that is our gaze, too, at all times, our window on the world. Such a challenge to see the self in the other, especially when the other seems so terribly flawed, broken, grotesque. So hard to move through, beyond, pity.

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