My high school Spanish teacher preferred not to use a syllabus. When we weren’t watching “Destinos,” a protracted telenovela designed to teach Spanish to non-native speakers, we were listening to him rant about current events, though rant is probably too harsh a word. Astute and worldly, Señor Redler was a spectacular linguist in Spanish and a gifted grammarian in his mother tongue. He relished words and a good verbal joust, yet he could smell his retirement as plainly as a cochon rooting for truffles. By the time we landed in his class, he’d hit the stage in his teaching career when he could have taught the subjunctive or railed about Latin American politics even if he were stone drunk. Instead, he used his encyclopedic knowledge to both intimidate and hold captive his audience. He drew a boy or two to near tears.
Day to day the majority of kids in class nodded off and checked-out, though a small cohort listened; Mr. Redler could say provocative things. He was appalled, for instance, by a meeting designed to rally faculty around ways to stem the fights breaking out in the halls. “Do you know what they told us to do?” No one said anything; we had learned what a rhetorical question was the hard way. “They told us, when we see a fight, to take a ten dollar bill out of our wallets, work our way in, and ask, ‘Did anyone drop this ten dollar bill?’” He punctuated this with a demonstration, drawing out his wallet and extracting a Hamilton. He wagged it a little and rolled his eyes a little. No question: the suggestion that this gesture could disperse a crowd of restless teens eager to see a beat down was a glaring symbol of the administration’s incompetence.
What the hallways of Central High really needed was Virgil. With a quick cut of the eye, he could have reinforced that our desire to see (or hear) “such baseness is degrading” (255). Towards the end of Canto 30, we see Dante become a different kind of rubbernecker. Not like he hasn’t been interested in spectating through hell before—certainly he takes an active interest in certain sinners—but this time we get a sense that he’s enjoying (a little too much) the spectacle of watching Master Adam and Sinon exchange physical jabs and a bolgia ten version of “yo mamma” barbs. Like someone settling in for the guilty pleasure of a ½ hour of Jerry Springer or WWE, Dante can’t take his eyes off this grotesque and ridiculous scene. Or, at least he can’t until Virgil raises his voice, “Now keep on looking/ a little longer and I quarrel with you” (254). Or, as I’ve heard it from my loved ones, “Mind your business.”
Dante’s spiritual guide has brought him back to his right mind before, and this time Virgil chases that good deed with an absolution. Dante need not feel lasting embarrassment: “my shame to ask his pardon; while my shame/ already won more pardon than I knew// ‘Less shame,’ my Guide said, ever just and kind,/ ‘would wash away a greater fault than yours’” (254). That’s nice Virgil, but it’s hard not to continue to feel the residue of shame, once we realize how magnetic violence is and how we can be both compelled and repelled by it simultaneously. We know we shouldn’t watch the fight in the hallway, and yet we don’t want to miss anything, not even for ten bucks. It’s no surprise to me now that Mr. Redler and his colleagues were advised to take out money in an effort to redirect and reinvest the mob. We weren’t mere spectators; active players, we might not have had lines, but we had a part.
This struck me as the critical Lenten lesson for me to extract from this canto. Since my last posting, I feel as though I’ve watched a literary horror flick unfold tercet after tercet. Canto 30 is salt on the proverbial wound, with its continuation of “The Falsifiers,” those sinners who have assumed false identities, counterfeited money, and born false witness. Master Adam says “Inflexible Justice” has “forked and spread” his “soul like hay” (252). He’s also without legs, has a “distended belly,” and the wretches beside him “reek so strongly” (253). Like our gluttons in Canto 6 (oh so long ago!), these sinners are equally incontinent. Except, instead of food, they can’t control themselves or what they put into circulation. They stamp images on money, lie, and presume to be other people. They sound like junkies, train wrecks, thirsty souls with bad tempers made worse by hell. And yet, no matter their sin or suffering, it cannot be for our amusement. These cantos teach that, yes, there is guilt by association—meaning ours. When the temptation arises to watch “petty wrangling and upbraiding,” ’tis better to, as Issac Hayes sings, “walk on by.”