Canto XVI isn’t the place to go for action. There are fireworks—alas!—but not in the big-scene, heavy-drama sense. The fireworks in this section of the seventh circle are grotesquely ho-hum. They are emblematic of the oh-by-the-way, this-is-just-what-we-do-here ruthlessness with which Hell tortures its inmates, with which it visits miseries innumerable and unrelenting on the pitiable—but determinedly unpitied—souls condemned there. And that, at least to me, is why and how the canto matters. It’s not a thriller. It doesn’t make the trailer when Inferno: The Movie gets a Hollywood marketing push. Canto xvi (“Suite 16,” as I’ve come to think of it) is one of those interstitial spaces in which, for just a second or two, when the cars have stopped squealing and the guns have quieted, one gets to think a little bit about what’s happened so far, and what it means.
What’s happened here, though modest, has significant implications.
WHAT HAS happened here? First, Dante has shared an encounter with Guidoguerra, Tegghiaio Aldobrandi and Jacopo Rusticucci, all stars in the political-social firmament of thirteenth-century Florence. Then, afterward, Dante gives up to his “master” the cord securing his clothes and watches as Virgil drops it “into the depth of the abyss” (l. 98).
Though GG, TA and JR have been sentenced for heinous crimes to one of the grimmest precincts of Hell, Dante responds to them with an interesting combination of deference, sympathy and patriotic fellow-feeling. Dante et al talk about how they love Florence but wish their dear city hadn’t been degraded by such degenerate interlopers as Guglielmo Borsiere, who, ostensibly, has coarsened the culture of the place with an undue emphasis on money.
But, of course, Dante’s interlocutors are not blameless. They are in the seventh circle for “sodomy,” for various perversions of humane living. Guidoguerra and Tegghiaio, for example, have put tremendous energy into fomenting among their Guelph partisans a war against their Ghibeline fellow Florentines.
In a way, Dante’s reaching out to these Florentine shades is understandable, even commendable. He isn’t above extending himself to these sorrowful souls. Then again, he IS NOT ABOVE extending himself in a way that constitutes chummy intercourse with hardened characters who look past their own scheming and murdering to lay blame for the compromised ethos of their society at others’ feet. The mental coordinates from which Dante talks with these figures suggest that his moral-ethical framework is too Earth-bound, too world-shaped—in fact, that he’s not working from a moral-ethical framework at all but from, fundamentally, a social-political one instead. (Just like me. Just like so many of us. Except that in my case the frame of the moment is more social-familial, as opposed to social-humanitarian. I’m in Vail, skiing. Great fun. But in a way I’m forced to reckon with what it means to indulge in “a vacation.” I’m hanging with my people. Making runs down the mountain. Sharing chats with Guidoguerra and Jacopo Rusticucci. I’m not in Haiti. I have left that possibility—that necessity—vacant.)
So, it’s a good thing that Virgil has dropped Dante’s cord into the abyss. Who will drop mine—and lay me (and my habits and priorities) bare? Time to go deeper. Onward. Further into Hell. My own Hell. And yours. In search of salvation.