Monthly Archives: April 2010

Canto 34: Judecca – A Few Musings

By Pier Kooistra

Until now, Dante’s Hell has been a kinetic place, erupting, seething, its denizens trapped but moving (albeit mostly while making futile efforts to limit their suffering or, like the Malebranche, while multiplying the misery of their fellow hellions). How strange, then, to encounter, at long last, the King of Hell and to find him largely inert, frozen in place. Satan here bears little resemblance to Satan as we’ve seen or imagined (at least, as I’ve seen or imagined) him outside this realm constructed by Dante. Sure, some of the basic components of his situation are the same. For example, as usual he’s been expelled from Heaven for having dared to challenge the primacy of God. But this Satan has been not only cast out but cast down. In fact, to a striking degree he’s been casted—surrounded, incapacitated—in addition to having been hurled from his previously dizzying height to a nearly annihilating depth. This is not a Darth Vader/Emperor character, a dark lord capable of projecting power to any corner of the universe. This is not a Bond-film villain, skilled to the Nth degree in a million forms of malefaction, elegant in his brutality, as polished as his deadly hidden weapons. This guy isn’t really the King of Hell; he’s a mock-king. He’s huge but ungainly, not a wicked Zeus but a bumbling grotesque, a Cyclops, stuck—and, worse, attacked, humiliated—in his own cave. He bosses no henchmen. He convenes no cabals. One can’t call where he is a dominion, as he rules over nothing. And, therefore, one can’t really call this figure Satan or Lucifer, in the sense that those names usually connote. More properly, this is Dis. Or, rather, Dissed. And his Hell has nothing to do with Pandemonium, that sprawling, autonomous hideaway of all the devils in the cosmos, a place that, generally, I’ve envisioned as every bit as rowdy and humming with action as the greenwood of Robin and his merry men, if taken up with the hatching, rather than the foiling, of nefarious plots. There is nothing majestic about this figure we see in Canto 34. He makes no choices of his own. To be sure, he is heinous, chewing ad infinitum on the head of Judas and the legs of Brutus and Cassius. But there is no malevolence here, no whiff of the evil genius licking his lips with relish, the torchlit hallways of his lair echoing with cackles of excitement about the loosing of his next horrible scheme. Once the arch-machinator, this guy has been reduced to a machine, an instrument of someone else’s justice. Having dared to prosecute the ultimate act of insubordination, he has been, as recompense, completely subordinated, stripped of all initiative, all volition, hurled to the absolute bottom of a territory that functions as a wholly owned subsidiary of Heaven.  Huge and hideous but defanged, Dissed has been put on display in a sort of Underworld’s Fair, the chief exhibit in the No-No Pavilion. For Heaven’s sake (literally), the erstwhile master of malignancy has been so utterly tamed, in fact rendered so impotent, that a couple of lilliputian (if literarily gigantic) poets can clamber right past his midsection and not be totally fucked. There is no wrath, no vengeful fury for them to contend with. Virgil and Dante can gawk instructively, seriously up close and personal, at the tethered former fiend, and, so long as they’re willing to put in a good walk, just saunter home. This is a devil that is decidedly separate from God—and not equal. That’s the first thing about this canto that strikes me.

The second is who else, along with Satan, has been consigned to this infernal stratum reserved for the lowest of the low. I can see, of course, how the most notorious acts of Judas, on the one hand, and Brutus and Cassius, on the other (turning Jesus over to the authorities, assassinating Caesar) constitute more than peccadilloes. But if Judas’s crime was instrumental to the redemption-through-Crucifixion project, and if Brutus and Cassius were motivated even just in part by an impulse to curb tyranny, it’s hard for me to see these characters as the lowest of the low. My twenty-first-century-liberal mind, if charged with assembling a list of malignancies meriting cutting-away from human society and searing in retributive flames, would gravitate toward the murderous-despot crowd, the fomentors of genocide, such as Leopold of Belgium, Hitler and Pol Pot, not to mention thugs like Milosevic and Karadzic and the demon-leaders of Akazu. Nicole Pinsky says in her notes that those cast into “the final division of Cocytus and the innermost part of Hell” are “those who betrayed their benefactors.” How about those who have betrayed their putative beneficiaries—who, in fact, have turned on their own peoples, such as Stalin and Mao and other wielders of homicidal state power like Ceausescu and Pahlavi, al-Bashir and Amin, Mugabe and Pinochet? Surely there must be a roster of Herods from the ancient world with whom to fill the Wholly Unholies.

If, by some unlikely chain of circumstances, these underconsidered jottings of mine were to be canonized (rather than cannonized) and scrutinized by some poor soul seven centuries hence, I’ve got to believe that such a far-off reader would notice in my brief catalog of especially hellacious human beings a dearth of North Americans. We all have our biases. Mine notwithstanding—in fact, likely as a result of mine—I am struck by the possibility that what to Dante are crimes explicitly constituting the betrayal of benefactors (for, surely, Jesus did minister lovingly, generously unto Judas, and Caesar did in significant ways champion Brutus and make him a protégé, and these actions in both cases appear to merit a high degree of loyalty and special consideration) may also amount to violations of the expected social order. Dante inhabited a world of clearer and more keenly delineated castes and classes. He lived under podestas e principi (and under their edicts and bans). His, far more than ours, was a world of clergy and laypeople, masters and apprentices, superiors and servants. Perhaps that heavily hierarchical social context helps to explain why his Cassius and Brutus are highlighted as the most abject of lowlifes and why his Judas, the unfaithful, if unintentionally helpful, disciple qualifies for such flagrant opprobrium. In other words, is it possible that B, C and J come in for such stark punishment as much for having done offenses to factors (big movers and shakers) as for having violated benefactors (doers of good)? They are, after all, thrown in with (in fact, into) the ultimate upstart, Satan. For what it’s worth, if consigned to Hell myself, while I wouldn’t be psyched about serving as a stick of the arch-fiend’s eternal chewing gum, I’d rather cast my lot with the denizens of Judecca than with the terrors of the modern world whom I’ve named above.

Except for one thing: Judecca—that name troubles me. I know it’s supposed to denote the particularly ruinous, ruined condition to which Judas has been condemned for betraying the Christian savior. But does it also suggest a more general collecting place for traitors to the body politic and/or mainstream culture—or “Jews” in the slipperiest, most denigrating sense (denigrating, that is, to labeler and labeled alike? Nicole Pinsky says in her notes on Canto 34, regarding Brutus and Cassius, “Their crime was seen in the Middle Ages as an offense not only to the murderers’ great benefactor, but to the progress and history of the Roman Empire and the Church.” Is Dante suggesting that Brutus and Cassius are not only Judases but “Judahs,” followers of a corrupt agenda, flouters of Roman Christendom’s hegemonic march? Maybe I, the loving husband of a Jewish wife, the adoring father of Jewish sons, am prone to suspecting anti-Semitic ugliness where it isn’t. But as Virgil and Dante emerge from Hell to see the stars, I can’t help but wonder how their transit through the infernal depths may influence the way in which they interpret the signs above them—may prompt them to assemble constellations of thought predisposing us to steer a troubled course. The journey began “In dark woods, the right road lost” (Canto I, l. 2). To what degree have climbing over the devils’ crotch, hiking through the runnel-tunnel and emerging from that “round aperture” (Canto XXXIV, l. 138) set our guides, and ourselves, on a trajectory uncomplicated by mis- (or mal-) perception?

Your thoughts, companions?


Canto 33: Anti-Eucharist

By Gordon S. Mikoski, Princeton Theological Seminary

Surprisingly, the lowest level of hell is icy cold. Those who have committed the worst sins of all – the treacherous – must suffer in bitter, barren cold for eternity. Who knew that there is something worse than unquenchable fires?

In the midst of this canto Dante and Virgil encounter Ugolin0 della Gherardesca. He pauses from chewing on the head and brains of his archenemy Archbishop Ruggieri  in order to share with the visitors the account of his death and that of his children (and grandchildren, actually). Ironically, Ugolino spends more time describing the horrible circumstances of his death than in owning up to his own treachery and double dealings. Is there anything worse than a victimizer who portrays himself as a victim?

Ugolino relates how he and his younger family members were shut up in a tower and left to starve to death. His children offer their very own flesh and blood to him as a way to sustain his less than meritorious life. At first, he refused to engage in cannibalism of his own children. Eventually, he succumbed to the power of hunger and ate the flesh and blood of his own progeny. Now, in hell he perpetually cannibalizes the brain of his enemy.

When reading about Ugolin0’s ugly end, it is hard not to think of Jesus’ teaching about the Eucharist in John 6. There, Jesus spoke of giving of his very own life to sustain the life and faith of his disciples. He went so far as to say that his followers would have to eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to have eternal life. Jesus Christ, the meritorious one, willingly gave his embodied life for the lives of others. On the very first Maundy Thursday (during the institution of the Eucharist), Jesus connected the broken bread with his broken body and the common cup with his shed blood. The powerful pours himself out for the weak and vulnerable. This feasting on another shows forth and concretely communicates life-giving love born of integrity, uprightness, and commitment to the truth. What a contrast to the circumstances of Ugolino and his horrible tale.

I find it fascinating that Dante entered hell by passing through the waters of a river and at the final destination of his journey he encounters one who eats the flesh of another. It seems fitting, somehow, that the journey to hell ends up being a counter-narrative to Christian initiation through participation in baptism and the Eucharist. Whereas baptism is the entrance into the church and Eucharistic participation is proleptic fulfillment of the eschatological messianic banquet in warm fellowship, hell is the exact inverse of this pattern (passing through water leads to the death of all hope and the end of the journey involves savagely devouring both one’s loved ones and one’s enemies in icy barrenness).

Zooming out a theological level or two, we can see in the Inferno a profound insight first articulated by St. Augustine: evil is the privation or corruption of the good. Far from having independent existence, evil (and hell) are parasitic upon the good, the true, and the beautiful. We can only really conceive of hell in terms of the inverse of the Reign of God. Inasmuch as this is the case, even hell itself points – obliquely, to be sure – to the goodness and mercy of God.


Canto 32: This Is How Low You Can Go

By John Timpane

So at the bottom of the bottom, “where all heaviness convenes,” all rocks press down together, what do we find? Whom does God punish most harshly? Among the damned, all of whom are hopeless, who have the most humiliating, most painful burden of hopelessness?

Dante is pretty specific. This final, lowest circle of hell, which will end in the buried body of Satan (the ultimate fraud, ultimate traitor, ultimate treacher) himself, is devoted to frauds. But not just any frauds. Fraud, after all, is involved in almost every permutation of perversion and sin seen in Inferno – pretending to be what one is not; ignoring the truth and acting as though it were not true; lying to oneself or others; doing to others as one should not do; trying, on all levels, in all ways, to get away with it.

These are those who work hard to impose their fraud on others. They betray. They get you to trust them – they even hold high office of trust for powerful regimes – and leverage that to terrible ends.

When trust is betrayed, most of the time, it’s all gone. We are taught to forgive, but a breach of trust is hard. Many people, for example, can’t find the strength it takes to forgive a wayward spouse, even though sexual infidelity (the kind of betrayal most often in question) doesn’t necessarily ruin the structure of the relationship. Spouses often forgive financial breaches, breaches of habit (I say I won’t gamble any more, and then I do), failures to live up to the implied equality of duties within a marriage (you never cook, or do the dishes, or care enough about the kids, or fix the house) – all of these, in practical terms, are potentially far more harmful than a breach of sexual trust.

But that breach stands for all others. Many feel that if that is breached, all others are threatened – perhaps destroyed.

In intimacy, we come to the trusted one literally without dressing, with all guard, all defenses, far away. Intimacy, the embrace of another person, whole-body, whole-self, is the very idea of trust. And when that is betrayed — when it is treated like garbage, or like just another option, nothing special, or when it is discounted or taken for granted — it stands for all betrayal. This has much to do with Christ, actually.

When writing this entry, I asked myself why, when betrayed, we feel such a rush of wounded, vicious fury. It’s obvious why: in extending trust to one we now see has betrayed us, we laid ourselves open, rendered ourselves vulnerable. We came to the other as children and were used.

The thought arises: surely God never did this. But then again: Christ. Who else is the very metaphor for vulnerability, the ultimate in laying oneself open, the great teacher of childlikeness, sacrificial love, turning the cheek 490 times, not worrying about what you shall eat or what you shall wear? In setting the all-time standard for taking on all pain, all human suffering, Christ was also the great teacher of the necessity of trust. Trust in God, and therefore trust in one another.

Once we realize our betrayal, often we see our former, trusting selves as naive, as childlike. “How *could* I have been such a fool?” is a common question. You get a lot of pop songs based on this idea . . . leading to the time-honored genre of “never again” songs, as in that old Bacharach/David chestnut, “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.” Once trust has been abused, we’re wary of ever extending it again. Many of us learn, literally, to trust no one if we will survive.

Then again: Christ never did this. He is disappointed in people. He sees his betrayal coming, first Judas in major, then Peter in minor. But Christ never quite washes his hands, never refuses forgiveness, asks God to forgive human beings closed to their own sinfulness.

And this is the central point of Lent. This laying open of self to suffering, this spectacular, tragic embrace of sacrificial love in our names, each name and the name of all, comes to mind at each specious sacrifice we make during Lent. This is one of the trickiest things to explain to friends who do not observe Lent but want to know “why you give stuff up.” Sure, there’s an instrinsic value in changing habits, avoiding excess, disciplining body in the name of concentrating on our faults, finitude, fallibility. But the real reason we give things up during Lent is as a spur to remembrance.

We do without and we remember. We do something for someone else, and we remember what was done for us. The cosmic betrayals that summoned this sacrifice . . . Judas, yes, but also Cain, also Clay (Adam) and Breath (Eve), also the betrayal of Heaven by the Angels . . . these are images of our own continual, small, characteristic betrayals. Sadness is appropriate, is necessary. As the marvelous poet (and pal of Shakespeare) Ben Jonson once wrote of his relation to God, “A broken heart/Is my best part.” Our capacity to feel pain, sadness, suffering, in light of our betrayals, image of these terrific and terrifying betrayals of God, is one of the best, most glorious things about us.

In “To Heaven,” Jonson writes, “Good and great God, can I not think of thee / But it must straight my melancholy be?” Sometimes, yes, and as that poem makes so clear — it’s a very Lenten poem, actually, one of the best — when we think in clear-eyed honesty about ourselves and what we really are, about how our motives are often pretty corrupt, then a degree of melancholy is appropriate. We’re close, however, in Canto XXXII to the end of Inferno, literally the lowest of all low points, and, as I’m sure somebody will point out in Canto XXXIV, a turnaround is about to happen. Which, after all, is what we’re hoping for, with all this work, all this meditation, all this trust.

But in this canto, once again, Dante is definite. There’s an end. It’s not that the angry God of the Old Testament bursts into a rage and starts destroying His enemies. It’s simply that once time ends for us, if we have defrauded others, we risk sinking as low as you can go, freezing in the consequences, gnawing bone.

The conundrum is that we cannot survive without trust. We could not get through a single day if we did not assume that the people all around us would perform roles that allowed us a place in the world. Moment to moment, we present ourselves each to another. We cannot but do so. And that furnishes an opening to all who would betray, first and foremost the busiest and most vigilant of all Betrayers, he whose body is the axis between hemispheres.

Dante’s Inferno is a museum of betrayal, of fraud, descending, level by level, from terrible to even worse, to unimaginable. He settles old scores, smacks political rivals and enemies who threw him (through treachery, so he implies) out of his Florence, gives us a detailed taxonomy of transgression and punishment. Inferno is the creation of a God who cannot forget because God exists outside time, in an eternal Now in which all transgression happens in an instant alongside its consequences. No forgetting can exist in a timeless now, and thus . . . what of forgiveness?

We are taught that, when furious or hurt or disappointed in someone, we “give it time” before acting on our feelings. No time with God. No before, no after. It’s instantaneous. Sin, always, on some level, is fraud against the God Who cannot be fooled. All the other things sin is – self-delusion, self-betrayal, hubris, blindness, perversion – fan out from this root. Sin begins and ends in betrayal. Whether we’re stealing pies off the windowsill, boffing the wife next door, or selling U.S. nuclear secrets to Iran, we start by ignoring the trust we have created with others and asked from God. That first step seals it, and whether the betrayal is small, and therefore lands us, say, in Purgatorio, to suffer for centuries until we’re Elysium-ready, or in Inferno, another timeless Now, the first step carries the sinner beyond mercy and toward punishment.

. . . and because this is one of the most trenchant analyses of politics in all poetry, it’s important to stop and consider how we feel toward those who have betrayed our country. Since Watergate, and since new ethics laws were instituted, sneaky, sly politicians have found a way to use those higher standards to create a continual train of indictments of their enemies. The problem is that many of those whose careers were ruined richly deserved it, and a few of those whose careers were not (Bill Clinton, maybe?) also did. Public service is a promise, and a huge promise, since it is taken in the name of so many, who have little choice but to trust that the people who pass laws and spend funds in their names do so for the good of all. And when that doesn’t happen, again the furious resentment. Dante has made such fury a theme through this poem: the fall of Florence, the double-dealing that dealt him right out of his beloved city, the corruption of Lucca, the diseased fraud of Pisa. As a political man, Dante challenges us to see the rotten body politic for what it is, the way, he believes, God sees it.

Ugolino, icelocked (and this might be the most gelid of all poetic passages . . . I love that part in which Dante writes that shivers always come back on him “whenever I see icy ponds”), frozen to the body of Ruggieri, his co-betrayer, each gnawing the other’s skull . . . how much lower can you go? Not too much. Beyond this lie only Brutus, Judas, and Satan.

Since I am a male, I want to point out how intimate, how central the sense of fraud is to the male psyche, if any. It’s often said that men never grow into security . . . I tend to think no one does, actually. I know only that many men are raised to be insecure. You can’t ever be as big as Daddy, ever strong enough or smart enough or perfect enough. Maleness plunges us into a life in which maleness is constantly questioned and attacked. Even the best among us is constantly looking over his shoulder, constantly worried that some day, the veil will fall, and the world will discover what a fraud we really, truly are. I assume women have their own versions.

However fraud pervades our lives and characters, somehow we get where we get in spite of what we truly are. Some of that is grace, thank God. . . . in fact, all of it is. Grace is what gets us forward.

And that’s the only comforting thing. God, in Milton’s formulation, gave us enough grace to do the dang deal. We are “sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.” Yet there is not a one who does not fall somewhere, somehow. The key is not to fall this low, to let in the kind of fraud that undoes everything, even grace itself. This Lent, I’ve been praying hard that I never let my genius for fraud overtake absolutely everything else.

What is frightening is that each of us, man and woman, chooses repeatedly to play traitor, ignore the grace and trust we are shown, by all those around us, and by the source of grace and trust. We don’t really believe in the end of time, the end of life, the end of chances “to get out of it,” the end of mercy. Dante manifestly does, or manifestly hopes for it. He hopes for a place in which living souls will be locked in ice and gnaw each other for all time. Weeping and gnashing of teeth.