Monthly Archives: March 2010

Canto 24: Thieves in the Temple

Adrienne Perry

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church sits on the corner of 19th and Central in Cheyenne, Wyoming. A “pioneer” church, St. Mark’s history dates back to the town’s early heyday, just a few years after the end of the Civil War when Cheyenne was probably little more than a prairie outpost. Raised in the church, I was an acolyte and attended youth group meetings. My mother, on the other hand, became more than a participant. I have watched, particularly after my father’s passing, her devotion and sense of belonging to the church flourish. She has served as the church accountant, on the vestry, is part of ECW (Episcopal Church Women), and contributes to the life of the church in energetic and sustained ways. I can always count on our weekly conversations turning to some matter of church business, whether she updates me about the lives of people I’ve known since my childhood, something noteworthy (or funny) in the bulletin, or the Taize style service she’s just attended.

Over the last few years, the church has struggled with whether or not to leave the sanctuary open—and thereby unattended—during the day. Philosophically, most embrace the idea of leaving the church open to worshippers or those seeking a moment of quiet respite and meditation. The church is historic and, in its physical structure, simply lovely, with stained glass renditions of the Stations of the Cross, an impressive organ, and a sanctuary and altar somehow both humble and glorious in their subtle detail—brass railings, the cloverleaf pattern on the choir pews, the marble floors and cherry stained wood leading up to the altar. Unfortunately, theft has kept the congregation and church leadership hesitant to leave St. Mark’s open. Even with the crosses and candlesticks locked safely away by the altar guild, items have still gone missing—sometimes even baffling items from baffling places. While the parishioners are eager to share their church with others and often appreciate that the theft may stem from deeper social ills, it ends up leaving a sour taste of confusion, anger, and disappointment on the tongue.

At the end of Canto 24, Dante and Virgil encounter Vanni Fucci, a “beast” who stole treasure from the sacristy in Pistoia. “A mule among men,” Vanni Fucci “chose the bestial life above the human” and that choice has delivered him to the seventh bolgia in hell’s eighth circle (21). As far as levels of hell and bolgia to avoid, this one is high on the list. Here the sinners swarmed “naked and without hope,” they were “terrified,” and, worse still, “Their hands were bound behind by coils of serpents/ which thrust their heads and tails between the loins/ and bunched in front, a mass of knotted torments” (209). There is a cruel and intentional irony in these thieves having their hands—the most likely vehicle of their crimes—tied by vipers behind their backs. And these are particularly creepy snakes, mind you. Just moments before arriving at the bolgia, as our heroes neared the “the next chasm’s darkness,” Dante heard in the snakes a sound akin to a wrathful speaker somehow unable to form words (208). The depth from which that tormented voice sought to rise appeared bottomless, and so, not knowing what ill might have met them there, Dante and Virgil agreed to slightly alter their route. Even before we know what’s coming, we can feel, almost immediately, that this was a good move. All together it makes for a dark and eerie scene.

Snakes play such a powerful role in myth and imagination, with negative connotations from jump in Genesis, to the positive connotations associated with Kundalini (the “coiled one,” represented as a snake) in yogic traditions. Located at the base of the spine, coiled Kundalini is the power of a seeker’s latent consciousness. Once roused, Kundalini unravels, extending up through the chakras and ushering the seeker through higher and higher levels of consciousness and spiritual awakening. But these aren’t the kind of snakes Dante’s talking about. The very memory of the snakes in bolgia seven made Dante’s “blood run cold,” and so should ours in this seething pit of high drama. The snakes bite the sinners, dissolving them “into a heap/ upon the ground,” whereupon they turn to ash, they rise and sigh, already in anticipation of the agony’s repetition. Sorry love: it’s a Groundhog Day that will never, despite the perpetual resurrection, lead to redemption:

(Digression: Insert blues riff. Let’s say, 4/4 time: “I’m in bolgia seven and I got the blues/ thieves to my left and thieves to my right/ can’t tell whether it is day or night/ tied up by snakes that bite me on the neck/ I fall to ashes and say, ‘Hey man, what the heck?’/ I got them bolgia seven blues/ been a long time baby since we had good news…)

There are several turns in this canto, moments in which I felt as though Dante winked at me—from his almost bucolic rendering of a vernal scene at the canto’s start to Virgil’s admonition of Dante to tighten his belt: “The man who lies asleep/ will never waken fame…”(207). I don’t have the pluck to take up all of these moments here. It is enough, it seems to me, to contemplate the nature of thievery. As anyone who has had material possessions stolen can testify, we experience theft as a deep violation, not merely of our personal possessions but of our selves. The emotional range of our reactions can be profound—from disillusionment, disgust, and questions of personal safety to a nagging sense of disappointment in our fellow man. (And all of that before we even begin to deal with the fallout of what we’ve lost.) Theft ravages. So, sure, Fucci is a “beast” simply because he stole, but his beastliness is certainly made worse because he stole from a church. Dante makes clear that stealing what is sacred is diabolical; in pilfering from a church we rob God and those seeking to worship or know God. That’s low.

About the nuances of this kind of transgression there’s much more to say, though I don’t think I can elegantly unpack it all here. In my experience, theft doesn’t simply trample the golden rule or cross an established boundary. Whatever the reason behind the theft—be it hunger, malevolence, a still developing frontal lobe—, taking what isn’t ours undermines our sense of community. It blasts a hole through our social fabric—even “minor” theft. (Little moths still nibble away at the linens.) It bites us, reduces us, and, when we have the strength to rise again, we do so with a sigh.

Part of theft’s deeper, more lasting damage arises from our (understandably) kneejerk reactions and need for self-preservation. If we can, we want to patch the fabric and put it away so that nothing ever molests it again. We jam the cycle of giving’s gears, removing from circulation and creation many of the things we hold precious. It’s a response that makes sense, even though I’m not sure it’s always healthy. We can feel such a need to protect what’s ours that we neglect those around us, their needs, and the compassion that might grow in us if we were to extend ourselves enough to experience another’s reality. Thieves will do what they will. We, on the other hand, close down our houses, our sanctuaries, our hearts, imagining those around us as potential vipers, slithering about what we have and they hope to get.

canto 23: painted people

Jake Willard-Crist

Hypocrisy is originally a dramatic term.  It contains the Greek ύπό (hypo), which means ‘under’, and the verb κρίνειη (krinein), to judge, decide, determine, etc.  A hupokrites was a character who spoke out from under a homogenous chorus, and the word gradually came to refer in general to one who plays a part.  Under the guise of another, so to speak, one makes his/her judgments and decisions.  Hypocrites are actors, connoisseurs of pretense:  they are una genta dipinta, in Dante’s words, a painted people.  In canto 23 the contrapasso is spot on.  Those who put the most weight on their exterior are now overburdened by it.  I picture an underdeveloped interior dangling pitifully under the two-ton cowl like the clapper of a bell.

We identify hypocrisy most readily in politics and religion.  Our political leaders and people of faith have chosen to don a mantle of moral rectitude, and it’s easy to find the areas where their unwieldy bodies slip out of the tight costume.  Our preachers and public orators exhort us to follow higher paths, and we are quick to fling our epithets of hypocrisy at them, when they’ve been paparazzied on the lower streets.  However, hypocrisy cannot be boiled down to a simple failure to consistently practice what you preach.  Though the cross weighs a ton, and they drop it as much as we do, our preachers should not stop urging us to bear it.  Our leaders should not give up their clarions to charity and compassion, though they stumble.  Hypocrisy, rather, is deliberate pretense.  It is moral cosmetics.  It is about maintaining power—not just in the Machiavellian (that other famous Florentine) sense of using princely pretense to negotiate the demands of various political interests, but also in the more down-to-earth sense of the political power of standing out in the crowd, like the old Greek hupokrites on stage, separate from the chorus.

The saddled hypocrites in Hell are locked in an eternal procession.  Just as their ceremony has been distended into eternity, their ceremonious vestments are gilded lead.  In the words of Christ from the Sermon on the Mount, “they have their reward.”  Their desire was to be recognized by their outward appearance and act, and now that pretense is their defining characteristic.  The word hypocrite, it is worth noting, is used several times in Matthew 6.  Here Jesus is counseling his audience against ostentatious displays of piety—trumpeting one’s almsgiving, distorting one’s features while fasting, praying in the open streets and sanctuaries.  In short, Jesus exhorts, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:1).  In these verses, public displays of piety are for purposes of self-promotion, of exerting influence over the crowds; but Christ champions a piety of secrecy, one more attuned to the interior than the exterior, to the eschatological reward more than the immediate reward.

Hypocrisy is a political sin.  It is always perpetrated in crowds, in networks of relationships.  It is a sin of thinness, veneer, of lightness.  It is the satin or silk of sins.  In baptism, according to Paul in Galatians, one ‘puts on Christ’.  The water seeps into our skin, and we become Christ-saturated.  But when our bodies are greased with the Christ-mask we’ve painted ourselves, the water beads and remains on the service.  Divine justice, in the Infernal law, says “the surface is all.”  The stole that one wore so lightly on earth is now a leaden horseshoe.  In Paradise, one imagines, the ones who bore la grave stola of the cross (and didn’t, in self-interest and political expediency, like Caiaphas, pawn it off to another) are floating in wonderful lightness, unmoored by the interiors they filled in secret with the Spirit.  There, then, is the true hupokrites, set apart from the crowd, a pure holy drifting.

Canto 22: Mala-Coda

Pier Kooistra

Dante at this point is not just writing about blasts (such as the ass-trumpeting through which at the end of Canto XXI Malacoda mock-heralds the action to come). Clearly, at this point, he’s having one himself. He can’t contain the fun he’s having conjuring Hell.

Dante opens Canto XXII with a sort of epic grandeur:

I have seen horsemen moving camp before,

And when they muster, and when an assault begins,

And beating a retreat when they retire;

I have seen coursers, too, O Aretines,

Over your lands, and raiders setting out,

And openings of jousts and tourneys (ll. 1-6)—

…only to upend such pomp and circumstance with something more George Carlin than Sir Edward Elgar. For, whereas the canto has opened with the aforequoted martial tableau, continuing with the evocation of “bell and trumpet and drum, and signals set / On castles by native and foreign signalry” (ll. 7-8), in line 9 Dante shifts—to the but(t):

But I never saw so strange a flageolet

Send foot or horsemen forth, nor ship at sea

Guided by land or star! (ll. 9-11)

Hold it. What is a flageolet?  Furthermore, what is this “member of the fipple flute family” doing here in Canto XXII? Aha! It is the trumpet Malacoda made of his ass at the close of the last canto, for, “We journeyed now / With the ten demons” (ll. 11-2). In other words, there’s not just something comparative going on here; there’s something causal: The lesser Malebranche have received a signal to get moving.

As I said, Dante is having fun. Earlier I thought nothing more of the name Malacoda than “Evil Tail.” But now the name suggests both “Bad Ass” (as in big, bad leader) and “Foul End” or “Smelly Butt.” Moreover, the name seems to encode what happens here at the beginning of Canto XXII: We have a mal(odorous) coda, in  a musical sense, that reprises what happened at the end of Canto XXI. (And it seems likely to me that Mr. Pinsky may be in on the fun, too. Sure, flageolet provides a rhyme with “signals set” that fulfills the terms of the rhyme scheme articulated by Mr. Pinsky in his “Translator’s Note” at the beginning of our text. But trumpet, at least in a slant-rhyme-y way, would do the same thing…but without the intimation/slant-echoing of flatulate.)

So much of what happens here in Canto XXII, while Dante and Virgil encounter frauds (the barrator of “good King Thibaut’s household,” p. 179; Fra Gomita, p. 181, who as chancellor in the court of Nino Visconti of Gallura appeared to serve his lord faithfully while, in fact, taking bribes whose payment resulted in the clandestine freeing of some of Nino’s prisoners) constitutes a sort of “mala-coda.”

On the canto’s opening page Dante identifies the sinners who suffer in this “pouch” of Malebolge with dolphins…only to specify that, in fact, the likeness here is perverted. Whereas in rising to the ocean’s surface and arching their backs dolphins do themselves no automatic harm in signaling to sailors to save their vessels, here in Malebolge the sinners who rise to the surface do, of course, signal to Dante not to make the same terrible errors that they have—but at the cost of hideous suffering.

Whereas frogs in nature save themselves by disappearing from a pond’s surface to take refuge in the depths below, the sinners who, frog-like, disappear into the liquid misery of Malebolge do avoid , at least for a moment, one kind of agony (attack by the Malebranche)…but only to experience the equally miserable torment of boiling.

Again and again, in this canto that focuses on the torment of frauds, the details operate as frauds do: They appear at first in one light, only to reveal, later on, other intentions, other outcomes. They present themselves initially with one face, only to turn somewhat later and conclude with a “foul end” or “evil tail.”

And so: A canto that began with mock seriousness, that then horsed (and “Wild Hog”ged and “Nasty Dragon”ned) around quite playfully for a good long while, turns into a cruel fight at the end. In a way, this is gladiatorial entertainment that amounts to comic relief; things continue to be fun. But in a way—a very real way—the fun is a fraud—a foul ending, a mala-coda.

Canto 21: Oddly Satisfying

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.

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.

Canto 19: Holey Fathers

[Editor’s note: be sure to check out Jake Willard-Crist’s post for Canto 17, which has also been posted today…]

By Jeffrey Vamos

I can’t help but marvel at the strange fortune that places at my feet…this canto. And have I been the one commenting on all the religious professionals in hell? What gives, Dante?

This canto was a real strike on home turf. It did make me consider, by putting myself in front of the Dantean camera (thanks, John): in what ways is the issue that Dante explores in this canto – Simony – an issue for me? It made me think of why I went into the ministry in the first place. It certainly was not for the money. No, this was why:  by the power of grace, to love folks. To roughly (sometimes very roughly) approximate and model and point to that love that we know by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and the spirit he breathed on us. And money should not be an issue here.

But if we’re honest, ’tis. It colors things in my line of work; it certainly can: how you see people, how you treat people.

For example, in my congregation, I do not know who gives what; that information is kept scrupulously secret by our two pledge accountants. I’ve often joked about the fact that for most of us Protestants, it’s way easier  to talk about sex, than about money. And whether this is a good practice (keeping our giving secret from each other) is not debated here. But, while I’m at it…need to say that there’s a part of me that rails against the privacy with which we guard our generosity – or lack thereof. We ought to celebrate each other’s giving – and challenge each other. But ah, that – a topic for another sermon.

But here’s at least one good argument for keeping secret such info from the shepherd of the congregation. Because, let’s just be honest here: even though it’s secret, one does know who gives, generally. One does know whose pledge would sting worst if it were missing, those few at the top on whose giving so much of the church budget exercise depends.

And perhaps it starts subtly enough. You think one of the top guys is a banker, and so you skip the part of the sermon you were going to do about how our banking system has stacked the deck against the poor. And maybe then you wonder, when pastoral care time gets divvied out: are you doing more for this person, that family… because they are of means? Because you know that their yearly chit means more than others? I try not to, I certainly do. But sometimes, I do feel that pressure. I try not to bow to it, but I feel it; and sometimes wonder if it does make a difference, in subtle ways.

When they are paying your salary, after all. Their money is paying for your digs, and your kid’s braces.

Well, just a small snapshot into my world – and OK, that’s a somewhat pale comparison to what Dante is talking about here. Dante is talking about people who abused the power of their office – made of it a mockery and a fraud, and used it for their own gain. But the trajectory is there – whenever we use the office that is sacred in order to curry favor, to use that power to personal advantage, or to avoid the hits you sometimes have to take, because this is the biz you’re in; that IS what Dante’s talking about. Failing to understand and live out the implications that holiness places on a person, whether religious professional or not.

A friend of mine pointed out the transition we’ve just made here, now that we’ve passed from sins of violence, to sins of fraud; in the latter place, people (like usurers) treat cheap things as if they were holy; here they treat holy things, as if they are cheap. This is clear in the scene in Canto 18: the flatters who treat the truth as cheap – they are literally swimming in their own bullshit.

Now, before we get into that further – a brief interlude here, to comment on Dante’s poetry – which is so very beautiful and subtle and multilayered.

Here’s something. And perhaps I’m just getting a bit flip, and loose, as we are now past the hump in this endeavor. Taking Adrienne’s tack, notice the topography of hell here; it’s HOLEY. A mockery of what holy should be. Now I highly doubt that such wordplay is going on in the Italian, but I think Dante would be pleased with it. The poetic point is this: people are using what ought to be treated with reverence and respect – symbolized here via the sacrament of baptism – and defaming it, abusing it. The whole (hole) place is shot through with abuse and fraud. The holes that are meant to serve as the portals to eternal life – those holes where people are to be baptized into it – have become clogged…with popes! The holiest of holy people! And their contrapasso is for their feet to be tortured by the very pentecostal flames that they ought to have called upon to transform the lives under their care. Dante talks to one (Nicolas the III) who, in a neat poetic trick, is expecting the very Pope who was alive at the time the poem was taking place – Dante’s archvillain, Bonaface the VIII.

Then notice also the beginning of this Canto. Dante makes a big deal about some baptismal font he once smashed, in his home church in San Giovanni. He says that he did it to save a life – the life of a young boy. Now, notice what he’s doing here? See how subtle a move that is? He’s saying here: I’m going to tell you about people who, by their actions, abused and destroyed this practice (baptism). But what I’m trying to do is “save” lives – and so I myself am going to have to do some smashing here, just like I did in that church, for that boy. I’m going to have to smash some holy things here, only in this case, I’m smashing (metaphorically) the reputation of a couple popes.

AND also, Dante, all with one fell swoop of a few lines, then settles the score on that whole San Giovanni incident – one where people accused him of losing his temper, being a hothead, and impetuously smashing the baptismal font. He sets the record straight on that too. Brilliant or what?

There’s so much going on in this canto that touches on the stuff that I do. Did you also notice the very first reference here, to Simon Magus?

Simon Magus was a magician (hence the name “Magus”) we meet in Acts 8, who wanted to “buy” the gospel, in order to use it for his own purposes. Is that not reflective of so many religious professionals today too? Who use religion – and the magic of charismatic speech – to attain power and to manipulate people? And what of the reference at the end of the canto to the ambivalent “gift of Constantine.” Dante is not referring to his conversion per se, but his conferral of land and wealth upon church, whose identity had heretofore been known in Christ’s suffering. This first Christian emperor, who made Christianity legal, is the same one who wrecked it, by bestowing upon it temporal power. Dante basically speaks to how religion had become (continues to be) a chaplain to culture.

Reminds me too of those who lament the lost power of the church in our era – how we used to speak with much more authority than we do now. In some ways, I wonder if Dante might cheer that. I think of Kierkegaard here: truth is always with the minority. When the church gets mucked up with money and power, and currying favor with the (usually wealthy) majority – it ceases to be what it’s meant to be. What is holy becomes coin, becomes currency, and then loses its very essence.

Boy. Glad I’m not mucked up with any of that business.

Canto 18: No Harm

Adrienne Perry

Spend enough time in hell and it becomes, well…more hell. It becomes more of itself, revealing its full dimensions through the poet’s vision—its nooks, crannies, and characters—layer after layer and circle after circle. It is a vulture perched beside road kill, slowly lifting its wings until we see, bit by bit, the full span of its body and what it plans to do next. By the 18th canto, hell seems horrible and yet familiar, perhaps even horribly familiar. We have had fire, whips, excrement, rafts of sinners, and creatures resurrected from mythology (easily, as though they were strange, yet intentionally/opportunely placed) to move the sinners, and sometimes our pilgrims, along.

I opened to this canto and felt myself a tad numb, stimulated by my fellow bloggers’ insights to be sure, and yet inured to what this level of hell might hold. Perhaps that’s how Stephen Dedalus felt as “[he] sat again in the front bench of the chapel. The daylight without was already failing and, as it fell slowly through the dull red blinds, it seemed that the sun of the last day was going down and that all souls were being gathered for the judgment” (Joyce 300). As the preacher details in his sermon to Stephen and his peers, there is, in hell, physical pain, spiritual pain, and—the “last and crowning torture of all”—eternity (Joyce 304). The Inferno had successfully conjured, for me, hell’s physical pain and eternity. A place where “sodomites” run across burning sand isn’t where a gal wants to spend much time. I’d been taking it all in, but I hadn’t yet felt the pinch of spiritual pain. For whatever reason, this canto flipped that switch. Dante’s hell has room for pimps and poets, lovers and looters. And sometimes they stir our compassion while we stir their souls to recognition…

Here’s what stirred me to recognition: Dante and Virgil descend from Geryon’s back and our poet soon finds “new souls in pain,” “new torments, and new devils black as pitch” (158). I was skeptical about the “newness” at first. True, the Malebolge of this eighth circle provided a twist, and not just because there’s a sassy, Tolkien-esque map at the start of this canto in my translation. The “we’re-not-in-Kansas-anymore” shift could have easily come from the changed landscape, but I soon found the “the new” in language and in the nature of the sin that landed these “misbegotten wraiths” in this circle and their various bolgia. For instance, I’d not yet heard this in hell: “Move on,/ you pimp, there are no women here to sell” (160). Or, as Dante and his guide approach the second bolgia:

Once there, I peered down; and I saw long lines
of people in a river of excrement
that seemed the overflow of the world’s latrines.

I saw among the felons of that pit
one wraith who might or might not have been tonsured—
one could not tell, he was so smeared with shit. (161)

The abrasiveness of the language drew me to the “coarseness” of the sin. While the eighth circle is full of the “Fraudulent and Malicious” (I assume, writ large), somehow the panderers, seducers, and, to a lesser extent, the flatterers made clear that it is one thing to bring ourselves low and quite another to intentionally drag others down alongside us. The panderers and seducers, in particular, traffic in other people—be it actual beings or their emotions. In this circle, we bring others into sins they would perhaps never have designed for themselves: prostitution, slavery, the fallout of a twisted love affair; it is, at its most common and worst, the possibility of manipulation through every level of human relation. For the flatterers in hell, their false and hollow speech is shit made manifest. Alessio says, “Down to this have the flatteries I sold/ the living sunk me here among the dead” (162). There is a connection, it seems, between the soul and the substance of our sin.

As a Lenten contemplation, this canto makes me want to be very honest and to do what Chögyam Trungpa has called “no harm.” To be aware, without being neurotic, of the way in which my actions impact others. In my experience, spiritual pain is internal turmoil, often caused when I feel as though my thoughtlessness or negligence have extended beyond me to friends, loved ones, coworkers, even strangers. Do I attempt to bend situations to my will, thinking I know better for others than they know for themselves? Do I see people as some currency to get what I want? Have I spoken half-truths in the hopes that others would like or accept me? Certainly. It sounds vile, but I also know I’m in good company. I can see the way this mixture of opportunism and cowardice unfolds in everyday situations—driving to the grocery store, the kinds of purchases I make, and the list goes on. In this level of hell I imagine enduring physical pain and eternity while being tormented, most brutally, by the recognition that my selfishness and deception—whether sinister or perhaps even a bit everyday—had harmed another.

Joyce, James: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1992