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?