By John Timpane
Most of Inferno is inhuman and inhuman in some way. In this epic that suckles on the breast of revenge, Dante is withholding nothing. Evil, the evil he has suffered, the evil people he has known and suffered from, and the types of those people and their actions, absorb a storm of abuse, in horrible, ingenious images of torture and agony that present us with a tableau without equal this side of Hiernoymus Bosch, Dante’s painterly counterpart. In Bosch, too, there is a will to violence, an impulse to torture, a grasp at mercilessness. And in Bosch, too, in The Garden of Earthly Delights, there is tenderness, pity in the images of unlovely, vulnerable, naked human beings subjected to exquisite, bizarre tortures. Their defenseless, anonymous hopelessness grates against the vividness of their grief.
In Canto XX occurs the most heartless moment in the entire poem. It follows perhaps its most horrific single image. Dante is in XX, and he sees the damned who have used necromancy and magic to see into the future. They walk with their heads horribly twisted, to face backward. It’s not only a petrifying image of blindness and mutilation – this is the mutilation, enforced backwardness, perpetual perversion in the sense of “turning away,” guaranteed blindness, a negation of the forward-facing, clearsighted mind as a metaphor for the Creator. Dante says he is in “a deep canyon watered by tears of anguish.” And now he sees what tears they are, and he weeps for the weepers:
“Reader – God grant you benefit from your reading – now think for yourself how I could keep a dry face, when nearby I saw our image wrenched so, that the tears of their eyes bathed their hind parts at the cleft.”
These are bodies outraged, in a posture that’s all wrong. It’s the human body compelled to humiliate itself in the act of grief. But Dante’s tears only get Virgil mad:
“My guide said to me, “Are you like the other fools, too? Here, pity lives when it is good and dead. Who is more impious that those who feel compassion at the divine judgment?”
Virgil has no time for Dante’s foolish, misplaced humanity. God has shut His heart to these, and therefore it’s wrong to pity them. Pity would imply that God is unjust.
The rest of the Canto is fascinating, full of characters from history, and a very odd retelling of the history of the town Mantua, purported birthplace of Virgil himself. But I’ll skip all that and come back to the Boschian image and the forbidding of pity. It’s a central moment in the poem, and one of the most frightening in a poem that often frightens.
Pity dies at the gates of Inferno. Nor is this a failure of the Divine, a limit to the reach of God. This is the keeping of a promise, the fulfillment of damnation. Instead of LASCIATE OGNE SPERANZA, VOI CH’INTRATE, the lintel above the entrance could well read SEE WHAT HAPPENS? What happens is Judgment, and Judgment is equal to Justice. If you landed in Inferno, that’s because you should land there. And indeed, the legend above the gate to Inferno (Canto III) does say, “JUSTICE MOVED MY HIGH MAKER; I WAS SHAPED BY DIVINE POWER, THE SUMMIT OF WISDOM, AND PRIMAL LOVE.” Justice, Power, and Love. When Love is spurned, Justice creates Inferno via irresistible Power. SEE WHAT HAPPENS?
Evil happens. And so does death.
We don’t believe in evil.
Evil in ourselves, that is. We don’t really believe, when you rip skin off flesh, that we ever could be authentically bad. Other people? Oh, yeah, that’s clear enough. Of course. Easy to see. All around us, every day. But we . . . somehow we’re exempt. We don’t do anything that’s really evil.
Our denial of evil in ourselves is on par with our denial of death. Other people? Yeah, they die. Poor saps. But we . . . somehow we’re exempt. We’ll get out of it somehow.
To read Canto XX, and to endure Virgil’s bracing, cold rebuke to Dante’s understandable tears, his angry prohibition of compassion, is to face what we try never to face: the fact that we are inherently, congenitally unable to accept evil in ourselves or death. We can totally accept them in other folks. We can look on with Dante and see the horror of the inhabitants of the Fourth Ditch of the Eighth Circle.
But when Dante does something humane – weeping out of sheer ruth, out of sheer, hopeless pain at seeing others suffer – he is rebuked by his guide. We feel the border, the cold frontier of judgment beyond the human. Dante, making an earthly assumption, default-thinks that if a person suffers, s/he deserves compassion. Compassion, however, “gives” the object of compassion “a pass,” as we say. It makes an exemption. It declares that “to understand all is to forgive all.” He did this, yes, but I understand why. He did this, yes, but in the circumstances, who wouldn’t? Compassion means forgiveness. And the poet has wrought this episode cunningly. The speaker feels compassion out of a Christian reflex, almost — and we follow him out of the same reflex. (I certainly do, every time I read this Canto, at the image of those poor, twisted figures.) But there has been a mistake. On his part and on ours. He has forgotten that past a certain point, no one is exempt from the absence of pity, as no one is exempt from death or personal evil.
Always we assume we’re exempt. We’ll get out of it. We understand ourselves and our motives and ends so well that we assume the world will, too. And beyond the world. When Virgil forbids tears for the damned, however, he’s telling us that, actually, no, you won’t be taken at your own estimate. You won’t be heard. There will be no tears except your own. The leaden certainty, the utter fall of judgment beyond recourse, beyond appeal, falls on the pilgrim and on us.
If we could accept (and I’m saying we can’t) such a finality, one that exists apart from us and our world of excuses, clarity would ensue. We’d be forced to take the most critical of stances with regard to ourselves. We could accept that we fall short, that we are sometimes blind, sometimes bad, and that sometimes it really is our fault and the finger does not point elsewhere. Such a moment of ecstatic despair would give ourselves no choice but to own what we are and what we do. That’d make a pretty good Lent.
So when Virgil prohibits pity, he forces on us all an existential moment, an episode determinante (if we choose to accept it). We are incapable, I fear, of ever really reconciling our sense of personal exemption with the fact of personal shortcoming and personal death. When Virgil says no to tears in hell, he’s letting us know: you won’t get out of it.