Canto 25: Dante Freak-out

I don’t recommend reading Dante just before bed. Especially this Canto.

My sleep last night, after reading Canto XXV with a warm glass of milk (well, actually…a wee dram of scotch), reminded me of the night’s sleep I got after my first R rated movie (The Omen; summer of ’76). That’s to say: freaked me out.

This is Dante at his freakiest. This is Dante as master of Horror; and Dante as poetic maestro. If poetry were figure skating, or snowboarding – this is Dante doing a quadruple axel, double toe loop; Dante doing an inverted 1080 barrel roll.

Dante basically challenges the Roman poets Lucan and Ovid, the Apollo Ohno and Shawn White of the previous era (sorry, Winter Olympics still on my mind) to a grudge match. Check it out:

…Let Lucan now attend / In silence, who has told the wretched fates / Of Nasidius and Sabellus—till he has learned / What I will let fly next. And Ovid, who writes / Of Cadmus and Arethusa, let him be still….

And, if you delve into the many many layers upon layers of poetic symbol and artistry, might we discover Dante playing on so many levels. Is he “borrowing” from his forebears here, even as he illustrates in such vivid color and detail the sin of…thievery?

And in that vein…here’s something else I find absolutely fascinating, not just about this Canto, but the whole poem. Here…try this at home: think of some abstract quality, any quality. Let’s just say that quality is…rudeness. And then, try to make a movie of it in words; a picture using rhyme. And try not to depict just the outward, obvious manifestation of it, but it’s guts, the inner clockwork that makes it tick. And do it visually, symbolically. And, moreover, do it so it messes with their brain, just by reading it.

This is what Dante does, methinks.

But, what of this here? Who would connect these things: Thievery, and human-animal transmutation? What’s the connection?

The dude makes you think. And when we start doing that, we realize that there’s a lot more going on here, a lot more at stake, (at snake? sorry…) than just pinching that magazine from the rack at the Five and Dime. What really is at stake here is no less than the opportunity for human transformation.

Let’s pick that apart a bit, shall we? Let’s start with that grudge match, the two-on-one of Lucan and Ovid vs. Dante. What does Dante have that they do not? Sure, Dante has illusions (delusions) of Fama (fame), and he is a kick-ass poet. But what Dante has that these two Roman forebears do not is this: a revelation about the true nature of transformation, one that is only possible to understand in the framework in which Dante is operating; namely, a Christian one.

What is shown here is mock transformation; transformation as transmutation. The horror of it. The insanity of it. As the previous Canto depicted: self-created Phoenix who dies and whose ashes yield nothing but…the same damn thing, over and over again, in meaningless change. Ground Hog day indeed.

But, again, what does that have to do, specifically, with thievery? Stealing?

Seems to me, what Dante’s dealing with here is the issue of belonging. What does it mean to belong? What is “belonging”? What is the true object of my “longing”, my “longing-to-be”?

Perhaps we might peel back the creative process, imagine Dante’s mind for a moment here. Maybe like this…Dante: “Hmm. Stealing. Thievery. To take one’s belonging(s). To violate what belongs to another. To blur the boundary between self other, to violate the object which is the proper longing of the self; to violate one’s own selfhood. Hmm. Let’s have some fun with that. Reminds me of that Ovid I read in high school….”

That does seem to me to be the process going on here. In talking about thievery, Dante is really exploring how it is that we violate our relationship to ourselves by appropriating what does not belong to us.

And what is the proper object of longing? The other. And to long for another (an other) requires integrity of self. A boundary between self and other. Thievery is first and foremost a violation of this boundary.

Makes me think of all those times I read Khalil Gibran in college. “Almitra, speak to us of marriage:

Aye, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God. / But let there be spaces in your togetherness, / And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.

Maybe here’s a way to think of it: all transformation happens in an encounter, an encounter between self and other. As Buber said, between an I and a Thou. And the ultimate encounter happens with he ultimate Other. The first and final Thou.

But here, in Canto XXV, there is no self, no other: all is in a state of continual transformation that creates nothing but horror; nothing but disgust and “nausea” as our Robert Pinsky has commented (his comment on this chapter – well worth checking out).

Here there is no change; people only make changes. Akin perhaps to what they call “doing a geographical” in AA: you don’t change, you just change place. Same you, different town. But in this horror, there is no “you” at all.  The whole concept of “you” has been violated, such that no selfhood at all exists. Here humans have lost their humanity, and have morphed into beasts.

The result is total confusion, complete lack of “integrity.” Perhaps that is most vividly illustrated by our rather colorful Vanni Fucci (say that fast three times), who apparently attempted to enter the sinner’s decathlon; he is purported to have committed the most sins in hell.  Double bird to God? Stealing the silver from the sacristy? Wow. It all adds up to a complete confusion of self-hood, in a place where the tormentors are themselves tormented (ala Cacus the Centaur – the plagued plaguer plaguing the plagued).

So, what does that look like here on earth? Does it not happen when we try to take from others what does not belong to us – not just possessions, but when we try to “possess” another? In couples counseling, they call it being “fused”. The attempt to possess some quality of the other that can only be gotten if it’s given, freely. To demand, to take such, is a violation.

And perhaps that is the ultimate irony in hell: it’s so damn (ahem) close to heaven. Heaven is a place where people do get what they long for, but in that experience, it’s not taken. It’s given. And it’s patterned after one who gave self away; and who invites us to “lose yourself, to find yourself.” We’ll just have to keep slogging on, through the exhaustion and nausea, if we’re ever to get to that place….

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About jeffvamos

Presbyterian Pastor. Dante Fan. See also my other blog, The Electronic Meetinghouse, at: http://pclawrenceville.blogspot.com/ View all posts by jeffvamos

2 responses to “Canto 25: Dante Freak-out

  • Bob Sinner

    “COMPLETE CONFUSION OF SELF-HOOD”

    Dear Jeff:

    This blows me away! I never read the canto in quite this light before. But, you are so on the target! “What really is at stake here is no less than the opportunity for human transformation” and “all transformation happens in an encounter, an encounter between self and other.”
    All this reminds me Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables” and the travels of Jean Valjean. Valjean’s trials, tribulations, defeats and victories are definitely connected here somehow. In the musical version of the novel, Valjean, the man of so many different identities, sings/asks “Who am I? “ He is angry, he is confused, and he has a “complete confusion of self-hood.” He constantly questions who he has wronged; who has wronged him; wonders as well why others help him. He is a petty thief, harshly punished beyond all reason. Indeed, Valjean began his road to redemption via a petty crime in which he violates his “relationship to” himself “by appropriating what does not belong to” him the loaf of bread. Later he does it again stealing the bishop’s silver.
    Valjean goes even further: he questions God and His mercy. And yet, and yet… through his encounters with God via the priest and other kind souls, he is transformed [definitely not by his own will, but by this contact with God through others] into something far greater than he ever dreamed possible.
    Valjean eventually becomes “Christ-like” himself in so many ways, including his many descents into the underground/Hell [both physically literal and metaphorical]. He was invited to “lose himself, to find himself [sic].” Ironically, he chooses to save others, but cannot save himself. Eventually he is so hounded and so ‘good’ that he confounds his nemesis, Javert, who finally must admit his own view, is a lie, and commits suicide.
    And on and on.
    Who am I? WHO AM I? Only in giving and allowing God to have his way with him does Valjean find out who he is. Indeed, Valjean discovers “Heaven is a place where people do get what they long for, but in that experience, it’s not taken. It’s given.”
    Thank you for the fantastic [and chilly] insight. Bob

  • jeffvamos

    Bob,

    Great to have you back, and responding! I was honored to read your reflections here, and I am really resonating with the subtlety introduced by Hugo and Les Miserable. I had not thought of it, but it seems so appropriate. One of my very favorite quotes is, “the greatest happiness in life is the conviction that you are loved.” Indeed, it is through this sense of being loved – and given to, despite our worthiness – that we know who we truly are; are given a true sense of self.

    As always, I’m finding this mode of reflecting and conversing so very rich.

    Thanks you again.

    JV

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