By Gordon S. Mikoski, Princeton Theological Seminary
I have to admit that I found this canto oddly satisfying. Maybe I should have said “perversely satisfying.” Confusion about what is going on in this canto gave way, eventually, to insight and, finally, perverse enjoyment. Here’s why.
When I first read the canto, I had no idea what was really going on – beyond the obvious encounter with demons. A little internet research taught me the meaning of a new word: barratry. For some reason, this was a new word for me. According to the online Miriam- Webster’s Dictionary it means: “1. the purchase or sale of office or preferment in church or state
2 : an unlawful act or fraudulent breach of duty by a master of a ship or by the mariners to the injury of the owner of the ship or cargo 3 : the persistent incitement of litigation.” In other words, barratry is a fancy word for the corruption of officials in church or state. In the case of Canto XXI, Dante uses it to refer to corrupt politicians. All of a sudden, the scene began to make sense to me.
This is the place in hell (pretty far down, I might add) where corrupt politicians go. Before death, they perverted justice and the good of the state. For a price, they could be bought and sold. As Dante said, “…and given cash they can contrive a yes from any no.” That has an all too familiar ring to it. Sounds like the U.S. Congress to me! Now that I know this new word – barratry – you can bet that I am going to throw it around as often as I can when referring to our federal lawmakers – pretty much all of whom are on the take.
As I reflect on what is wrong with American democracy today, I keep coming to the conclusion that the flow of lobbyist money into the pockets of Democrats and Republicans alike is the root of the problem. As I see it, both sides of the aisle are corrupted by major financial interests like the petroleum, armaments, and pharmaceutical industries – to name of few of the most prominent suspects. Even though there are occasional calls for campaign finance reform and measures that would put some sort of buffer between lobbyists with deep pockets and our elected officials, these generally come to nothing. My deepest concern about the American political system is that it cannot right itself. The buying and selling of Congress by special interests is too pervasive and too deep. In my humble opinion, this – more than anything else – is eroding the great American experiment.
You can see why I took some perverse pleasure in seeing corrupt politicians getting shoved down into the black, stultifying tar of this level of hell. There is something comically ironic about money grubbing politicians (whose hands are sticky for money) being mired in sticky filth from which they cannot extricate themselves. At least somewhere and at some point (even if in literary imagination!), corrupt politicians finally get what is coming to them for the terrible destruction to the society that they have caused.
The second source of my perverse pleasure in this canto comes from the devils themselves. Look, I know they are devils; but they provide some pretty funny comic relief in the midst of all the darkness and the horror of hell. Even though Dante and Virgil are granted safe passage by virtue of divine decree, one of the devils says to his buddies as Dante walks past, “Should I just touch him on the rump [with his hook]?” Even though it is not allowed, the others gleefully nod in approval, “Yes – go on and give him a cut.” This just cracked me up. Who knew that devils could be so funny. Then, at the end of the canto, as Dante and Virgil head off with an escort of devils who will get them to the point of a functioning bridge, the rest of the devils hail their leader by making grimaces with tongues against their teeth (a Bronx cheer in hell?). The piece de resistance, though, comes in the last line of the canto when the leader of this cohort of demons salutes his troops with a royal blast. In Dante’s more colorful and direct words, “…the leader made a trumpet of his ass.” Even though the politicians didn’t know how to act in a manner becoming to their office, the devils (qua devils) know how to act appropriately for their station in hell. Hilarious, poignant, and bawdy all at the same time.
So far, this is my favorite canto.