Canto 20: Tear-Falling Pity Lives Not in This Eye

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.

About jtimpane

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

5 responses to “Canto 20: Tear-Falling Pity Lives Not in This Eye

  • jeffvamos

    Wow. I so admire not only your writing, but your insight, John. And I do not make such a statement lightly, given that we’ve just crossed over those flatters, mired in their own bullshit. None here, I can assure you.

    I love how you have struggled with this – as we all have: why no pity in hell? Cuts against the core impulses of this good liberal. (Oops. Forgot that that’s now a dirty word.)

    I just finished a paper for my Doctor of Ministry program, part of which is a reflection on Flannery O’Connor’s fiction. Looked at the short story, “The Lame Shall Enter First.” I find it interesting that the main character of this story, a “good liberal” named Shepherd, aims his pity at a poor, club-footed African American boy, Rufus Johnson. Pity in this story is really about power – power over. Pity makes you superior, better-than; it sucks you into that liberal trap of making you the morally-superior “savior” of the poor sap who needs your tears, your help. When it’s all a kind of demonic ploy to do exactly what you speak of here: to be above it, insulated from it – unable to connect with the true meaning of compassion, which requires us to be vulnerable to the “legitimate suffering” life throws at us. If we embrace that, we come to know the suffering that actually binds us to each other, the kind of suffering we see on the cross, “love willing to suffer and die” for the other.

    This is indeed such a brilliant poetic and theological stroke: the very thing that gets us saved (our compassion, our tears for the other), in this place gets us stuck in it; if we fall prey to that insidious trap, there is indeed no getting out. So aptly said.

    That brings up the final thing I think of here: where we are has so much to do with whether pity is appropriate. We’re in hell, where there is no change – no spiritual progress is possible, because people have chosen their own stuckness; again, have “lost the good of the intellect”. Pity is inappropriate to such a state. It reminds me of the whole cycle that folk in Al-Anon speak of when they speak of the cycle that keeps onlookers and “enablers” (those who pity) intimately tied in with the dysfunction of the other, the Identified Patient. Pity is the glue, pity keeps you stuck to the offense; it is what masquerades as compassion, when it gets us stuck to the very sickness he or she is trying to “fix” and take pity on. It is indeed an odd thing – and I wonder how those folks (i.e. in Al-anon) would react to Virgil’s “no tears in hell” stance. I think they would be right with him….

  • Anne

    I have to say that this is one of the cantos that I find the most difficult for me. While I agree with what you are saying, John, the Christian in me can’t help but wonder where is the God that is compassionate and forgiving? We all have some evil in us, whether a thought or a deed. I know that every week when we are in the midst of confession, there has never been a time that I thought “nope, I have nothing to confess today!!”. How wonderful that simply by confessing our sins God forgives us. These souls in Hell, especially these ones that Dante feels compassion for – are none of them capable of seeing the wrong in what they did and having honest regret? Perhaps that is what Dante is trying to say, that by the time you have had judgement passed upon you, you are incapable of redemption?
    I feel very conflicted every time I read this canto. Are there really truly EVIL people out there, or misguided souls and mentally ill individuals who could someday benefit from guidance or therapy? Are we all inherently good or inherently evil? How will we measure up when our time of judgement comes?

    • John Timpane

      Dear Anne:

      I would hate anyone to think I’d pretend to know the answers here.

      But this canto does imply an answer of sorts.

      If the question is “where is the merciful God?”, the answer is “anywhere but Inferno.”

      The implied advice: Don’t go there.

      The way you get there is by proving yourself incapable of redemption. You earn yourself entre into a place where hope ends, where love ends, and where faith ends. Faith ends because when you land in Inferno, everything is certain, most of all your perpetual sequestration from the sight of God.

      Believe me, I share your feelings. Everything in me refuses to acknowledge an end to mercy. I don’t want to think there could ever be an end. I want to think the chances go on forever. OTOH, I know that life ends, that our time ends. I also know that each of us gives ourselves a pass forever. And I suspect that isn’t right.

      As for the existence of human evil, the poem seems to assume that it is a central given in our lives. It also assumes a definite and final end to mercy, a thought that scares me. I literally cannot think about it.

      We who can discuss this poem still live in the world of faith, hope, and love. We still live in time and space, under the watchful eye of the source of time and space. The pilgrim in Canto XX still lives there, too, and he is being shown what happens. (As Virgil tells him, “I know how things work here.”) Dante gets things wrong because he can keep hoping, empathizing, having faith in the future. Virgil is past all that, and he knows none of it applies in Inferno.

      It’s horrible, it’s just horrible, and no comfort is being extended. Except that right here and now, as we live, there is still hope, faith, and love, all of which will stand for us when the final call comes.

      Thanks for a lovely note.

  • Dekker

    While I don’t agree with your views on our inability to see and judge the evil and death in ourselves, I agree on everything else. I’m just reading the Inferno for the first time and happened to be reading a rendition that is too preachy, so most of it goes laughably over my head. I’m grateful for such a clear explanation for this scene; as I was reading the quote about the death of pity I was thinking: I don’t understand what this means, but I know it’s important. So thanks for the clarity.

    • jeffvamos

      We’re glad you found it useful – and hope you continue to use this as a resource to support your reading. Please do comment as you are so inspired, to let us know how things strike you.


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