Monthly Archives: March 2010

Canto 12: Violent Against Neighbors

Adrienne Perry

Even the terrain in hell can change.

As Dante and Virgil head into the first round of hell’s seventh circle, they stand on the edge of a devastating and treacherous pit. No accidental tourist, Virgil has passed through “this dark way to the depths of Hell” before; yet he notes that the topography, on this journey, has changed dramatically (112). Dante describes it as a “ruin” similar to “the result of an earthquake/or of some massive fault in the escarpment—” (111). Given the photographs of downed houses, upturned roads, and piles of rubble from Haiti, Chile, or eastern Turkey, it isn’t hard to imagine the “broken cleft” our poet and his guide saw. Without warning, earth and hell rip open and then seal off their wounds like a boxer’s bloody mouth opening and closing.

My Uncle Richie was a pugilist and a Jehovah’s Witness; he would have seen no accident—indeed, only continued portent—in the physical, human, and spiritual upheavals of the last few months. Virgil looks at his “hellscape” and also sees the hand of God at play. After all, it was in the coming of Christ, as he “took/ the souls from Limbo, that all Hell was shaken…” (112). Virgil goes on to say that, in that eventful moment, he “thought the universe felt love/ and all its elements moved toward harmony,” though we see more convincing evidence in this canto of “ancient rock…stricken and broke open” (112). To my ear the poetry in these lines and in this canto soar, even though they do so, like a bird flying down a mineshaft, in hell’s ever darkening, deepening, shape-shifting landscape. (Mi dispiace, Dante, for not unpacking more of it here and by so doing seeking to revel in those moments of exquisite poetry.)

The river of blood proves to be the most obscene and disturbing part of this scene. The Minotaur didn’t have it easy above ground, and in hell he’s as dodgy as the path Dante and Virgil must navigate to pass him. The centaurs, with their bows and arrows at the ready, have a “shoot first, ask questions later” attitude. Split between man and beast, their very physical being makes them possessors of a (potentially) terrible, unpredictable power. (Just like animals; just like us.) And yet, outside of the few moments when their arrows are turned toward this creature who “moves what he touches,” their attentions remain trained on the souls cooking, at various depths, in the river (113). Somehow, I expected the river of blood to be red, but it is instead a “scalding purple” in my translation. A gruesome reduction.

In hell, I’m beginning to realize, all of a river’s good—indeed much of nature’s good—appears turned on its ear. True, earthly rivers cause destruction and wreak havoc, yet they also make life possible. They replenish the land as they flow seaward. They transport us and our “goods,” literally and metaphorically, up and down river. Crossing the Mississippi or flying above the Colorado makes easy a sense of wonder. Rivers baptize us, they heal us, they usher us from one shore of our existence to the next. They don’t turn into the burning Cuyahoga River, in other words, without some sin. Nor do we get, without some sin, a river of blood that feeds into itself, in a loop with depths both profound enough to cover a man and shallow enough for some critters to barely wet their hooves.

As children we used to prick our fingers and become blood brothers/sisters with the other kids in our neighborhood. Someone always had the needle if someone else had the will. We might not all have been born of the same family, from the same blood, yet by combining our red sap we could become kin to one another and symbolically unite our family trees. We went around saying that we were brothers and sisters to one another, not only because of this ritual, but because someone had heard at church that we were all brothers and sisters in the eyes of God. For a few weeks, this neighborly, embracing notion of “blood” relations took off like a match to dried grasses.

Everyone hanging out in the river of blood either ignored or forsook that basic notion of brotherhood, even though their sins appear to be on a sliding scale—a hierarchy which leaves Dionysius and Alexander up to their eyelashes and a bunch of cats, whom Dante recognizes, free from the waist up. Though of a similar type, not all of these sins are created equal. Is Eichmann covered over, Ted Bundy bare from the shoulders up, and woman who poisoned her neighbor wading up to her kneecaps? The centaurs may be ready to shoot them back down when they get “uppity,” but these questions invite questions about the nature of sin and hell and justice.

Nessus guides Dante and Virgil expertly past the river to “deeper Hell,” explaining the various figures and their sins along the way. At one telling moment, Virgil raises his hand to hush Dante, “Let him be the teacher now, and I will listen” (114). I wondered what Nessus was thinking, whether this was all in a day’s work for a centaur and a soldier of sorts. After he carries them across the river, he goes back across the ford without fanfare. There is work. There is hell. There is the reality of blood. Much like, when we as girls asked my father about Vietnam, “Have you ever killed anyone?” All of the blood in him froze. He didn’t answer. He walked upstairs, back to his work, without saying a word.


Canto 11: Smoke Break

By Jake Willard-Crist

Lucky me—assigned to comment on the Inferno’s expository interlude.  I recently, and unfortunately, saw Angels & Demons, the movie based on the Dan Brown novel.  My wife Keri and I snickered each time Tom Hanks, playing the erudite Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, made good use of the actionless intervals to educate his co-stars and viewers with the intricacies of papal history and occultist lore relevant to the plot.  Dante and Vergil engage in something similar here, resting behind the upturned lid of a heretical pope’s sepulcher, under the pretenses of inuring themselves to the noxious fumes.  “While we’re waiting, Vergil, why not elucidate for us the moral architecture of Hell?” Dante asks.  I sense something like an editorial contingency here (perhaps you might agree, John):  the author needs to pause and lay it out for us, at least to appease all those readers with a cartographic penchant.

Though this canto is, arguably, necessary, I found it to be less exciting reading compared to what we’ve encountered so far.  It wore its contrivance too thick.  Perhaps this is due to my general allergy to taxonomy (which, on a side note, is why I tend to abstain from orthodoxy/heresy conversations)—Aristotle and Aquinas give me hives.  I think my ears perked up twice in my reading: first, the reference to Dis as the “red city”; and second, the closing temporal reference: “above us in the skies the Fish are quivering at the horizon’s edge.”  It’s the perennial tension between the poetry and its undergirding theory, and the manner in which the latter pokes its head out into the former.  How many of us have spaced out when the Exodus narrative breaks into legislation?

I will say that the canto sparked some reflection on the messy science of human morality.  Dante picks here from Aristotle, Cicero, Genesis, and Aquinas to construct his infernal scaffolding, and still he seems to forget about the heretics he just encountered, as well as the souls in Limbo.  This kind of moral anatomizing does not lend itself to exactitude, especially when it involves assumptions about the divine moral imagination.  When lawmakers have pretensions to retributive precision, they seem to get dangerously close to barbarism.  Teeth and eyes for teeth and eyes is not difficult arithmetic; however, when we begin to get into that metaphorical dental and optic territory, then we collapse into subtle casuistries.

I’d be interested to hear from someone more versed in U.S. legal history, who might offer a short-list of influences apparent in our own penal system.  Why doll out 5 to 10 years to one, only 5 years to another, or life to another?  Are modern penitentiaries (note the obvious etymology of that word) adumbrations of hell’s stratifications?  Incidentally, though Pinsky translates stipa in XI.3 as “pen”, many translators have felt that “prison” is the most appropriate English rendering.  All the damned souls in their niches–I wonder how far we’ve come from the infernal hive and the logic that bolsters it…(I mean it when I say “I wonder”–I really don’t know, and would welcome any feedback, even to tell me the association is way off base. )


canto 10: Coffers of Stone

Pier Kooistra

Canto X—“Here Epicurus lies / With all his followers” (ll. 11-12).

As in Canto IX, Dante is in the sixth circle of hell, but now with an emphasis on the fact that in this place Epicurean heretics—those who in life declared disbelief in an afterlife, asserting that the soul dies with the body—“are shut / Ensepulchered within…coffers of stone / Making…sounds of anguish from inside” (ll. 111-3, Canto IX). According to Dante’s cosmography, clearly, there IS an afterlife, and for these souls—surprise!—their earlier wayward belief has resulted in a present lot that is especially—vengefully—cruel and grim.

I’m going to bypass most of the details from Dante’s exchanges with Farinata and Cavalcante—about Guido, about the war between the Ghibelines and Guelphs—to join Gordon in addressing heresy.

In the circle of the world that our little crew of bloggers inhabits, the word heresy doesn’t get used much. It’s essentially a shibboleth that, when uttered seriously, signals an incursion by an outsider, someone who hasn’t learned, or hasn’t accepted, that when we (hmmm, how to categorize us?) New York Times readers / NPR listeners hear the word heresy, we pretty much automatically think, “Oh oh, here’s a moron of the burning-infidels-at-the-stake type.” So I very much appreciate Gordon’s post on Canto IX, not only for its willingness to take on heretical stupidities (such as the idea of natural disasters being wrathful acts of God) but also for Gordon’s insistence that we consider heresy, nonetheless, as a real danger for all of us—in other words, not just as the muck of gross oversimplification in which the patently ridiculous Pat Robertsons get stuck. Who would challenge Gordon’s assertion that “wrong or distorted beliefs can and do still lead to various kinds of human wreckage”? Who would dismiss his contention that “right belief and the actions that follow from it can mean the difference for us between (spiritual) life and death”?

I make innumerable mistakes every day, often resulting in regrettable costs. I would like to avoid such mistakes.

I have no interest in, nor cause for, arguing against Gordon. What I’d like to do, instead, is argue WITH his commentary on heresy—in a both/and, rather than either/or, way. I see the tremendous importance of laboring to avoid heresy, if what we mean by the term, as Gordon proposes, is “wrong or distorted beliefs.” But I also believe fervently in the necessity of practicing heresy, on purpose, in order to overturn harmful orthodoxy.

Last week, in response to Canto IV, I quoted Martin King’s famous line about how injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. One might say, similarly, that misunderstanding anywhere is a threat to everyone’s capacity to live lives built on truth.

In Canto X, as Dante makes his way among the heretics imprisoned in infernal sarcophagi, the doomed Cavalcante says to him at one point, “’Preserve in memory what you have heard / Against yourself…And I pray / You, listen’” (ll. 119-21). Remember what you have heard against yourself. And listen! What a striking command. It’s not easy to hold onto critical feedback, especially if it doesn’t square with the narratives and conceptions that we receive and construct about ourselves. The same is true, of course, regarding the narratives and conceptions we receive and construct about the cosmos in and from which we draw life. We’re not free perceivers and thinkers. At least, it’s not easy for us to be. We have predilections of personality and ideology that that thwart and pervert our autonomy, that predispose us to certain perceptions and ideas. I find (as indeed I’m inclined to do, in that I’m working now in a certain mindframe) this basic fact of human behavior exemplified in what Dante says to Virgil at the very beginning of this canto: “Speak to me with the answers that I crave” (l. 5). Dante doesn’t say just, Give me the answers. He says, in effect, Tell me what I want to hear. (At least, that’s one way of reading the line.)

Cavalcante’s injunction—again, “’Preserve in memory what you have heard / Against yourself…And I pray / You, listen’” (ll. 119-21)—is an important antidote to the strong human inclination to believe what we want to believe and to avoid what we don’t want to know. Clearly, ‘tis nobler in (and for) the mind (and, moreover, the whole self and, by extension, the whole society, the whole body politic) to suffer the slings and arrows of unwelcome revelation than to take arms (and at their ends the hands with which we can block our ears) against a sea (or hearing) of troubling discoveries and by ignoring end them. When such revelations pertain to the larger world of which we’re a part, when they are unwelcome but true, or at least not yet proved untrue, we must publish them in order to consider them. Thus, we must practice heresy. When such revelations pertain to us, when they challenge our ways of (mis)understanding ourselves, again, we must consider them. We must be willing to engage in apostasy—must be willing to walk away from prior belief systems in order to construct new ones that better equip us for living as rightly as possible instead of ensepulchering ourselves in bad ideas or habits.

And I say that as a certain stripe of Epicurean heretic. One might say a Feuerbachean heretic, too. Nothing in my experience, my heart, my spirit or conscience has suggested the existence of life after death. I’m one of those people for whom praying that God’s “will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven” means that we must do all in our power to realize in the material world what with our spirits we perceive as the way things should be. That means doing all we can to emancipate ourselves from coffers of stone, both physical and metaphysical.


Canto 9: Heretics

Rev. Dr. Gordon S. Mikoski, Princeton Theological Seminary

In the sixth circle of hell, Dante inquires about the flaming sepulchers he encounters. His guide informs him that those making “sounds of woe so great” as a result of “horrible pain” are the heretics and their followers. They are not named by Dante, but we know their names: Simon Magus, Marcion,  Valentinus, Arius, Donatus, Montanus, Eunomius, Mani, Nestorius, Pelagius, Sabellus,  Eutyches, Photinius, Novatus, Apollinaris, Macedonius, the Bogomils, and the Cathars. And these are only some of the most famous of the heresiarchs from the periods of the early church and the middle ages.  These heretical teachers undermined orthodox biblical teaching about the doctrine of God, christology, salvation, the authority of Scripture, and the character of the Christian life.

I find it interesting that Dante places these figures much lower in the order of hell than great Greco-Roman pagan philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Seneca. The pagan philosophers get off relatively easily in Dante’s vision: they only lack (evangelical) hope. By contrast, the heretics are found much deeper in the bowls of hell. Perhaps the reason for the differences in location have to do with Dante’s Christian humanism. While we find a basically positive view of the great pagan philosophers of antiquity, those who distorted or corrupted the core teachings of the Church are treated with severity and disdain. Perhaps this difference in Dante’s appraisal arose from the dual conviction that the best of the ancient pagans obliquely pointed toward and, in some cases, actually paved the way for belief in the holy Trinity, while the heretics ultimately turned people away from or even contributed to the destruction of authentic Christian faith. Presumably, the heretics had known the truth of the Gospel and  yet willfully distorted it to serve their own selfish interests – and brought untold thousands with them on the way to fiery destruction.

Heresy still matters today – despite the liberal mainline emphasis on toleration and inclusivism. Corrupt teaching in the name of Christ can still lead people to disaster. Think of the wingnuts in the media who preach the  “prosperity Gospel,”  solicit funds for faith healings, or who explain unbelievable human suffering through natural disasters as the wrath of God. I also think of those who make arguments for the use of torture in the name of God and country. Or how about the creeping Islamicization of Christianity among the liberal Protestants (i.e. Jesus was merely a prophet who pointed us to the transcendent One)? Of course, this is not to mention the countless unconscious adherents in every pew of every church that I have known or served: Macionites (those who hold the view that the God of the Old Testament is angry and evil and that the Father of Jesus Christ in parts of the New Testament is loving and forgiving), Adoptionists (those who hold the view that Jesus the human being was so good that he received a metaphysical promotion), Arians (those who hold the view of “trickle down divinity” in which the Father is really God, the Son is the first thing that “God” created, and the Holy Spirit who comes in a distant third place), and Pelagians (those who hold the view that we can choose God by “making a decision for Christ” or that we can somehow earn God’s favor).  Make no mistake, the heresies from the early church and medieval periods of church history are much more than historical oddities; they are alive and well today.

Why do heresies matter today, though? Aren’t these just so many theological head games akin to arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? I would argue that corrupt or erroneous beliefs about God, Jesus Christ, the way to salvation, the status of the Bible, or the character of the Christian life matter existentially and spiritually. Wrong or distorted beliefs can and do still lead to various kinds of human wreckage. Puts most starkly: bad theology can kill. It can also lead to the killing of others.

Conversely, I believe that right beliefs (rooted in Scripture and defined by the church through the ages) contributes significantly to Christian health and growth. It matters, for instance, whether we believe that the one who died on the cross for us was both fully God as well as fully human. It matters whether we believe that we are saved from our sins by God’s gracious choice and not by our own tragi-comic efforts or actions. Like an expert doctor’s diagnosis and prescription, right belief and the actions that follow from it can mean the difference for us between (spiritual) life and death.


Canto 8: Of enemies and friends

By John Timpane

This Canto faces readers with an uncomfortable, inevitable irony: that many transcendent works of art are driven by murderous intentions.

Dante is world-famous for putting his enemies in perpetual hellfire. The Inferno is the perfect literary revenge tool, nothing but benefits, no downside. In this Canto, Dante encounters Filippo Argenti – hilariously, “Phil Silvers” – as he courses across the excremental mud of the Styx. Dante’s safe and dry in the boat; Phil is choking on mud and gets torn to pieces once Dante passes by, very much with the approval of Vergil, Dante’s guide.

Argenti (real name Filippo Cavicciuli degli Adimari) was a pretty famous guy, an enemy of Dante’s back in Florence. His nickname came from his love of silver, with which, according to lore, he shod his very horse. From a very powerful family and being a Black Guelph, he chose the winning side in the political cataclysm that expelled Dante from his beloved Florence. Basically, Filippo is the nasty foe who prospers. He apparently was famous for his violent temper: he appears in novella VIII of Boccaccio’s Decameron, screaming, cursing, and comically beating people up. So he sorts well with boatman Phlegyas, a figure from myth who ruins himself through wrath. (Interesting: I note that the phleg- in Phlegyas’ name is the Greek word for “flame” or “fire,” the burning intensity we see in the word phlegmatic, the fire of wrath.)

The allegory on offer here addresses the wages of wrath. The wrathful get stuck in the mud, in the marshy, crappy filter of excrescence, to choke on the mire of their self-obsessed, self-blinded passions. “Who are you,” Dante asks Phil, “who have become so foul?” The wrathful tear themselves to pieces, or get torn, over and over, because for such people, anger never ceases but invades the heart in destructive, rending waves. “No goodness decks his memory, / So his shadow is what rages.”

But we can’t get away from the fact that Dante is having vengeance on a man who, as far as I can discover, triumphed over him in all ways in life, in power, politics, success, and in cutting a figure in Florence. And there’s an acid complacency in the way Vergil rubber-stamps Filippo’s fate: “In what you wish to see, you shall be satisfied,” he says to Dante, “for what you seek is just.”

Much of the best art is powered by our worst emotions. Even the God-obsessed, worshipful Psalms, even they bring us a world obsessed with the enemy, a world in which (beloved Psalm 23) the King prepares me a table in front of my enemies, nya-nya-nya! In which (Psalm 137) Babylon is told, “How happy the one who takes your little ones and dashes them against the stones,” perhaps the single most horrifyingly vindictive sentence in our sacred literature. It’s almost as if we cannot have the concept friend without first and foremost having a lively, choleric sense of the enemy. Thinkers like Jacques Derrida have wondered aloud whether the fearful, threatening, hated notion of enemy actually structures the notion of friend.

I want to believe we don’t need enemies to have friends, but sometimes, I, too, wonder. In the case of the Psalms, the friend is God. Do I really need the raging heathen, my triumphant enemies, to build my notion of God? Does Dante really need a Phil Silvers to build his notion of Beatrice?

During Lent, I think continually about my capacity for friendship. I wish it were greater. I wish I were a more attentive friend, more considerate. I hope my friends, if any, love me and forgive my slovenly maintenance of the bonds between us. I hope that I and my friends are engaged in the blessed work of cultivating one another’s characters, of reflecting to each other all that is the best in love and companionship.

OTOH, my capacity for animosity is a lot livelier. My enemies just seem more vital, more vivid, more concrete. The people one resents, envies, objects to, they tower in sharp, eye-popping HD, while your friends sort of linger in the lobby, nice and smiley, black-and-white TV. The imperative to do something, to feel something, to take steps, to remake the world so it is rid of the gall, the millstone, the headache of having these people and their provocations around, is simply more urgent, more compelling, with enemies than with friends.

And revenge. Is anything sweeter? No! Has anything less to do with justice? No! I used to teach revenge tragedy when I was a professor, and I’d say to the students, “OK, if somebody hits you on the arm, the thing you want to do is hit them exactly on the arm, the way they hit you, right?” and everybody would laugh and say, “Of course not! If somebody hits you, you want to annihilate them!” Just so: revenge seeks not justice (a balance that does not satisfy) but the absolute erasure and triumph over the opponent. You steal my Tootsie Roll? I set fire to your family.

Not to understress the suffering, humiliation, and spiritual pain of the Israelites during the Babylonian captivity. The Psalmist of 137 makes clear that it’s justice s/he wants to see, to see Babylon “served as you served us.” More than a few of Israel’s little ones were dashed against the stones. And let no one doubt Dante suffered terribly to be expelled from Florence, the determining episode that shades Inferno. Perhaps he was justified in punishing Phil, as the Psalmist feels she is in wanting God to rain punishment on the captors and enslavers of the Israelites in Babylon.

Feeling “justified,” however, strikes me as terribly dangerous. We could, for example, always be wrong. And how often do we leverage our justified feeling, or the sense that our anger is reasonable or understandable, as a pretext to revenge? If we do that, we were never justified, never just, in the first place.

So that’s a Lenten thought: let me be better at friendship. Let me make friend the major term, enemy the minor, and not the reverse. Let me shun revenge, ignore that feelng of being justified in anger, entitled to act out of ire. Let me seek humility and peace.

Dante certainly feels justified in Canto VIII, as he watches Vergil dicker with the fallen angels over admitting Dante to the City of Dis. The angels, after all, are most futilely, pointlessly envious beings we encounter in Canto VIII. They forfeited Heaven and can’t stand seeing a tourist come through who won’t be forced to stay and share their constantly renewed horror and pain. The angels have no chance for God – Dante, and all humanity, still do, and that fact just kills the fallen.

Justified wrath, however, is still wrath, and when such verbal and imaginative beauty arises from wrath, all I can say is, it gives pause. Perhaps what is beautiful about the Inferno, what teaches us about God and salvation and right dealing, can save us from what is troubling about it, the anger and envy motivating some of the portraits of the damned, the revenge taken through poetry. In that sense, that mix-up of good and evil, Inferno is a very human poem and teaches us much about ourselves. That, in itself, in ways Dante could not have intended, is also a saving grace.


Canto 7: Homo Economicus

By Jeff Vamos

To reprise Jake’s question, in slightly different form: are we THERE yet?

Well, if hell is the destination, then we’ve definitely arrived my friends. But perhaps it’s appropriate to say that in this hell, and by its very nature, the sinners trapped there never actually do get “there”, wherever that is. Ever. For Dante, hell seems to be the place of perpetual non-arrival, eternal dis-ease, literal pointlessness – and here is no better example.

The Hoarders and the Wasters

Dore's Spenders and Hoarders

After being blasted by what Dante means to be a meaningless (advertising?) jingle on the turgid lips of Plutus (think something like, “papasexy is specialixic”), and being shouted down by Virgil (“one little word shall fell him”), we meet a group of sinners – the “spenders” and the “hoarders” – who are locked in a perpetual Sisyphean round dance. Each is involved in a kind of equal and opposite version of the the very same meaningless activity.

And in this we encounter yet another aspect of the taxonomy of hell. Dante makes a definite point in this canto (which bespeaks utter pointlessness) that sin comes in pairs – the opposite version of the same sin. Aristotelian that he is, Dante shows that one of the sinister aspects of sin is that its nature is to cloak itself by accusation of the other. To be guilty of one extreme is not the real sin; the real sin is to seek to cover oneself by showing another to be worse than you.

All this on display in this parody of economics. In this section of hell, economics is all there is. Humans have indeed become Homo economicus. Locked in an eternal free enterprise zone of competitive activity, here are the shades of those who in life lost any sense of a larger system of meaning and values in which economics – the regulation of the oikos, household – makes sense.

Wordsworth seems appropriate here:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours…

And perhaps there’s more than chance (ahem) involved that it is I to whose lot it is to comment here. Because all (did he really say all?) in the infernal circle are clergy!

What up with that?

Perhaps it has to do not only with a critique of the system of wealth acquisition that had become the church of his time – but pointing out that of all people, these folks should know better. Clergy are the ones whose very job is to point folk to such a larger system of values in which economics plays a servant role, a chauffeur, in the drama of salvation, not its main character. To lead people into an experience of a world where “nature” is the gift for which no one must compete. It’s a gift that we spurn if we hoard it, or waste it.

We might find more evidence here for such a point in the linguistic playfulness and mastery of Dante as he speaks of fortune. He’s playing with the idea of fortune, using its personification, the pagan goddess whose Christian equivalent is providence. In our own language, we’ve perverted the original meaning of the word. In our parlance, fortune refers to the material stuff; as in, “I made a fortune selling widgets, and now look at my wad, eh.” Instead, the real meaning of fortune is what’s meant by the word: fortunate. To perceive in this universe created by God a fortune, a providence, that satisfies what our grasping – our getting and spending – cannot; in fact is negated by.

I can’t resist quoting one of my Dante heroes, Gil Bailie on this point. He speaks of a friend of his who says this:

There is no good or bad weather. There’s just weather.

Happiness is what happens.

To be satisfied. To have arrived. To be there. To have enough, whatever is provided, means enjoying life based on what you don’t even have to work for: it’s free. The rest is just the means of distribution. That’s what Dante’s talking about. And here’s the opposite tragedy on display:

“…you see from this / How all the gold there is beneath the moon, / …could not relieve / One of these weary souls.” (XII.57-60)

As my friend Gil asks here: is it possible that Job’s suffering is his inability to see this “providential universe”? Were he living “there,” might he be able to call his fate – what the wheel dealt him – “fortunate”?

We end the canto with an encounter of another matched set of sinners whose sin seems to make their minds “squinty-eyed”: the angry and the sullen. I find it utterly amazing that, so many hundred years before the modern psychological insight that “depression is anger turned inward,” here it is on display in Dante’s poem. The depressed folk are literally stuck in the oozing Styx – beneath it, blowing bubbles to the surface with half-articulate sighs – while the angry are stuck in the same muck, biting each other – a different dog-eat-dog version of the same old S*** we just saw. Here too, perhaps we say: What a waste – if not of value, in this case of psychic energy.

Onward! Down is up!


Canto 6: The Gluttons

The VIth Canto – how apt. Historically the Lenten season has not been met, in my life, with much meditative reflection. As a child, I looked forward most to Shrove Tuesday, to gorging myself on a pancake supper at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. We sat at a table for children and teens, our plates loaded with pancakes drenched in imitation maple syrup and accompanied by a thick slab of ham. We ate ravenously, as though we’d been locked in solitary confinement, as though we’d gone without hot food or good company for the entire winter. It was a gastronomical and social highlight of an otherwise bleak time.

Knowing now the soulfulness and earnest devotion the people manning the griddles and pouring hot coffee have either shared or exhibited, I’m sure many at those pancake suppers returned home eager to turn inward – perhaps with a bottle of Tums – and make space in their lives and hearts for a time of penitence and contemplation. Not so with me. I wondered how long we had to wait before the crosses were unveiled. Later on, Lent became a self-centered gimmick to embrace the cause self-improvement; it was an opportunity to abandon guilty pleasures or parts of my life over which I felt out of control: baked goods, lying, gossiping, candy, Taco Bell. A rash of acne and my interpersonal relationships made my failure to “rein it in” all too apparent. I had (have) a knack for missing the Lenten boat.

Maybe reading the Inferno is like taking Psych 101. We thumb through the diagnoses and somehow find ourselves described through the shorthand for each condition or disorder. Our phobias and neuroses are both confirmed and laid bare. We are suddenly agoraphobics with wacky Oedipus complexes. The way Dante describes it, Hell might just have a seat for me, particularly the third level we enter in Canto VI.

This may get me booted from the blog, but I have to say, I laughed at the beginning of this canto. Dante makes the scene sound utterly wretched—something akin to diving into a freezing privy in the dead of night while being chased by wolves. What out of this putrid and restless morass could prompt a chuckle? Virgil. He’s the comic and he’s the relief. Virgil is keeping it so real, perhaps even gangsta. He has, as one hip hop artist put it, “diplomatic immunity in every ghetto community.” I’ve never heard of someone facing down so many ravenous multiple-headed beasts, and in this canto he does so simply by throwing down Cerberus’ “gullet” a “clod of the stinking dirt that festered there.” Next thing we know, Cerberus’ heads have “choked on their putrid sops and stopped their fuss.” And then Dante and Virgil are on their way, like Dorothy and the scarecrow down a road paved with bodies, which their footfalls push through to “emptiness.”

The emptiness inherent in gluttony has no apparent bottom; there is no sating the insatiable, after all. Cerberus has three heads, plenty to eat, and he’s still barking, bearing his teeth as much out of habit as real need. No wonder he would shut his trap after Virgil threw him a handful of offal. This canto warns that gluttony transforms a human being into a garbage can, numbing the senses that were once used to taste until there is no possibility for moderation. That first pancake goes down smooth—buttery, spongy, sweet. The tenth pancake is intestinal caulk. Gluttony doesn’t live far away; it’s not across the railroad tracks. More likely, it’s in the living room or, at best, next door in the Lazy Boy eating Cheetos and waiting for some company. It’s just too easy to get too much of a good thing, except perhaps, spiritual nourishment. It’s hard to imagine Ciacco in this level of Hell if he had turned his hunger inward, used that longing as a vehicle for coming closer to the divine.

“The Hog” is part of the second chuckle. I like the way he calls to Dante, as though they’re in the final throws of an office holiday party. “Oy, Dante, remember me?” “Hmmmm. Let me see. Your face looks familiar, but now that you’re ‘rotting like a swollen log,’ it’s hard to place you. . .” Soon, however, they are past introductions and onto the essential conversation: what of Florence? Well, though I don’t think I’m picking up all of what Dante’s putting down, the phrase “political incontinence” comes to mind. Any vice powerful enough can take multiple forms, and so with gluttony, as “Black shall ride on White for many years,/ loading it down with burdens and oppressions/…There,/ pride, avarice, and envy are the tongues/ men know and heed, a Babel of despair.” There is no shortage of political rapacity today, heaven knows. And I find myself asking about our “Florence,” with all of its inhabitants and leaders’ insatiable desires: the accumulation of wealth or power or nuclear arms or natural resources—a hoarding (a gluttony) without sense. There’s an even lower level of Hell for the worst of those gluttonous for power, I would guess. That is what I will contemplate as Dante and Virgil walk away from the scene “speaking of pain and joy.”


Inferno Canto 5: Lovebirds

By: Jake Willard-Crist

Five cantos in:  are we in hell yet?  Though we’ve reached the place where no thing gleams, we’re still distinctly flame-less.  I sense that Dante’s art lies in his ability to keep that question ticking in his reader’s brains:  Are we in hell yet? There seem to be several ways in which he holds one of our eyes fixed on the terrible and the other fixed on the terrestrial.  We are never fully unmoored and cast into the shadow; there’s always a creaturely tether, an ardent humanistic vine that keeps us guessing, keeps us reevaluating our coordinates.

Entering the second circle, we get a benvenuto from Minos, that ‘connoisseur of sin’ (aren’t we all!).  As he whirls out his caudate verdicts, we think, “No, no, Toto, we are not in the well-lit, enameled, philosophically opulent Kansas of the first circle anymore; we are in Hell.  Look at that guy!”

Furthermore, just as we pass by the mythological monster we hear the ‘hurricane of Hell’, the wailing winds and ‘blasts of sorrow.’  Just as light has become mute, the relatively mute sighs have been amplified to blasts.  Alas, the weeping and gnashing.  O Hell, Hello!

Yet, just as our eyes adjust to the darkness, the birds come out to play.  Dante invokes winter starlings, cranes, and—most incongruously of all—doves to illustrate the particular kinetic energy of the carnal sinners.  Presumably because passion carried them away beyond reason on earth, these buoyant damned are buffeted by the winds like a flock (though some, mostly literary, are more stately than the masses).  Though Dante describes the air here as ‘malignant’ and ‘black’, the avian similes imbue it with at least a modicum of grace, as the reader envisages the dignified stature of cranes, the starlings’ gloss, and the symbolic treasury of the dove.  In short, even in Hell Dante doesn’t allow us to forget the sky.

This tension reaches its apogee with Francesca and Paolo.  Not surprisingly, the ‘merciless weather’ stills for these two doves.  I don’t know about you, but the image of a tormenting tangle of infernal lovers doesn’t come readily to mind.  I see Chagall:

In a groundbreaking feat of down-to-earthness, Dante gives this woman, a contemporary of his, the literary spotlight over the more lustrous love-lost like Cleopatra, Dido, or Helen.

Francesca’s eloquence and politesse, I’ve read, have driven many commentators to go through the critical pains of exculpating her.  Her short discourse on love (note the triple Amor…Amor…Amor) is a reflection of Dante’s own earlier poetry, the Love poetry of the dolce stil nuovo, so one can really register the earnestness of his pity, and his final swoon can be read as piteous relief that he, unlike the two lovers, did not stop reading the book right there.  That he is still reading…We, in fact, are, in a sense, reading his continued reading.  Are we fully in Hell, yet?  Unlike Minos, we don’t have a reliable adjudicatory appendage to judge what stands before us—like Dante’s pilgrim, we have to keep close to the ground.  And anyway,  more often than not, we’re down there chasing our own tails.