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?

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4 responses to “Canto 34: Judecca – A Few Musings

  • Bob Sinner

    Hello Pier:
    At long last I have set enough time aside to comment on your insightful, thought-provoking observations concerning the final canto of the Inferno. I fully agree with you (even though this was not my first reading of the “Inferno”), that Dante’s Satan is very different from what I would have expected. Indeed, “Satan here bears little resemblance to Satan as we’ve seen or imagined.” I am fully with you on that.
    Though all Christians “believe” and hold that God is greater than Satan, I know many of us (me included) fall into the trap of Dualism (Good vs. Evil: from Zoroastrianism, et. al. onward) at times. And so, like you I am surprised that “This is a devil that is decidedly separate from God—and not equal. That’s the first thing about this canto that strikes me.” I was also surprised to an extent (in my first reading, in any case) “to encounter, at long last, the King of Hell and to find him largely inert, frozen in place.” Though I do not find it as surprising upon this reading as I did in the past. Why? Because I have increasingly come to see “HELL” simply as “total separation from God.” How much darker and colder could you get than that?
    Once again, I am fully with you on the view that “This guy isn’t really the King of Hell; he’s a mock-king” . . . “he rules over nothing . . .. More properly (he should be called) … Dis. Or, rather, Dissed.” There at the bottom-most, frozen pit, God has put the “huge and hideous but defanged, Dissed . . . on display in a sort of Underworld’s Fair, the chief exhibit.” Fascinating how different Dante’s view was from the one that evolved during the next 700 years. And yet, as one analyzes the Biblical text, it all makes a sort of sense, does it not? Indeed, “Satan has been not only cast out but cast down.” Very far down.

    In your second major point, I diverge a bit more from your position. Like you, I would probably assign the monsters of the 20th century to the lowest pit in hell: “those who betrayed their benefactors. … [and] those who have betrayed their putative beneficiaries—who, in fact, have turned on their own peoples, such as Stalin and Mao.”
    We seem to find their like in Dante’s Hell’s more middling circles [7th out of 9]. Alexander the Great is found in the seventh circle (of hell), a circle that contains three rings. He is in the topmost ring of the circle, being one of those who “killed for gain” (albeit on the massive, empire-building scale). So, even “mass murderers” such as Alexander (though up to his eyebrows in boiling blood) are considerably better off than Cassius and Brutus. Below Alexander’s like, in the second ring, are those who committed suicide. Suicides are below the homicides, even mass homicides (Dante probably could not imagine genocide), because they willfully violated the concept (natural law?) of self-preservation. This is not at all similar to our thinking, but seems consistent with Dante’s own scheme of things.
    “In the Inferno, Dante established a scheme in which the penalty was to “hold a mirror to the sin itself, to show how it manifested itself in life.” Did he remain true to the scheme in the last pit in the last circle? I’m not sure. But he was certainly a loyal “Italian” of his times, who felt Caesar’s betrayers had sowed chaos and betrayed the peoples of Italy for centuries to come. As you noted of Dante, “His, far more than ours, was a world of … 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.”

    Finally, concerning the possibility of anti-Semitism. Certainly anti-Semitism was rife throughout Christian Europe in the 13th-14th centuries. But I am not convinced the choice of the name Judecca is an example of it. Indeed “it’s supposed to denote the particularly ruinous, ruined condition to which Judas has been condemned for betraying the Christian savior” as you note. 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”?
    I’m not as sure as you are. Where were the usurers located? Were they noted to be Jews? No. The main attack on Judaism then was the crime of usury (officially condemned by the Church). Yet you will not find the Jews mentioned among the usurers (which by the way meant getting ANY interest for lending something). And, of course, Dante also damns Muslims in Canto 8, with its burning mosques, and in 28 with Mohammed and Ali being torn apart. So, he was definitely more anti-Islamic than anti-Semitic.
    I seem to recall some anti-Semitic barbs in the Purgatorio, but I really feel Dante comes across as quite ‘enlightened’ for his time in this matter, when compared to his contemporaries. I have not gone back to the Purgatorio, so I am just guessing.

    I will end by returning to my original point. I thank you for an in-depth, extremely thoughtful examination of this the final canto.

    To the future!! Agape, Bob

  • Tom

    As I understand it, you read Dante’s Inferno as an activity for the season of Lent. I wonder what you will think of my reactions to this. (1) Reading only the Inferno part of the Divine Comedy is akin to reading only the first third of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” or only the first third of Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.” Inferno is just the first act in a three act play, so to speak. Inferno is most commonly read in isolation from the other two parts, and it seems like very few people ever read or study Purgatorio and Paradiso. I think this leads to terrible misunderstandings of Dante and what his aim was in producing his Commedia. (2) Since the season of Lent seems to be about doing penance, at least traditionally, then would not Purgatorio be the most relevant part of the Commedia to read during Lent? No one does penance in Inferno, and penance is all they do in Purgatorio. (3) Was Dante even a Christian in any meaningful sense? I doubt it. His Commedia and his Nuova Vita are full of strong hints that he consciously rejected the Catholicism of his time, and perhaps rejected any and all traditional concepts of the Christian religion. Consider this line from Inferno 9: “O ye who have undistempered intellects, Observe the doctrine that conceals itself Beneath the veil of the mysterious verses!” There are other similar lines in the Commedia. Later, in Paradiso, the Dante character asks about the apparent injustice of damning to Hell people who’ve never heard the Gospel. There the discussion hints pretty strongly that Dante the author did not think anyone needed to be a Christian to be saved. In Paradiso, Dante condemns King Philip of France for destroying the Templar Knights order. They were accused of heresy and many of their leaders were burned at the stake, including their very top leaders. A number of authors point out evidence of a possible connection between Dante and groups associated with the Templars. Because of their many years in Palestine, the Templars did pick up many non-Christian religious ideas from Muslims, Jews and others. When the Christians were finally driven out of Palestine, Templars returned to Europe, and spread these heretical ideas in many cities, including cities in which Dante lived. One book that touches on all this is “The Esoterism of Dante,” by Rene Guenon. There is also Mark Booth’s “The Secret History of the World As Laid Down By The Secret Societies.” Also, stop and consider how, in so much of the Divine Comedy, the persons, events and doctrines of Greco-Roman myths are treated as just as true and real as the persons, events and teachings of Hebrew-Christian Scriptures. There must be some meaning in that equivalency. I think the meaning is that Dante considers both systems to be myths–yet myths that convey underlying spiritual truths, what Martin Lings called “The Underlying Religion.” Also stop and think that Dante chose, for the main teacher and guide in the Divine Comedy, not someone like St. Paul of Tarsus, or the Beloved Apostle John, or St. Augustine, but a PAGAN Roman who is not even saved and can never be saved according to the official Catholic Faith of Dante’s time. There must be some significance in that choice! When you read Dante’s Nuova Vita, I think it is clear that Dante’s religion is not Christianity, but Love, Love in the sense of Spiritualized Romantic Love, but Romantic Love nevertheless. Dante was a member of a group of love poets in his city of Florence. A key leader in that group, Guido Cavalcanti, was also Dante’s best friend for a number of years. Barbara Reynolds points out in her book “Dante” that Guido was suspected of being an atheist. Dante lived in a police state, in which heretics were tortured and burned alive. This is dramatically shown in the film “The Name of the Rose,” which is set in about the same time as Dante’s lifetime. My take on Dante’s religion is that is was something very much like the Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism, or Sufi mysticism of today. Given the police state conditions in which he lived, and it would be very understandable that Dante would communicate his non-Christian religious views in a very veiled manner. Well, I wonder what you think of my three reactions to your blog.

    • Bob Sinner

      A Very Belated, but Heart-felt Reply

      Hello Tom:
      You understood correctly about the purpose of the exercise. A number of friends, along with some members of The Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville (hereafter known as PCOL) joined together in an exercise to read Dante’s “Inferno” as an activity for the season of Lent. Rev. Jeff Vamos, the PCOL pastor, organized the session and acted as its moderator/ overseer.
      I have been mulling over your posting to our “Dante Dailey” for some time now, and feel I finally can begin to respond to points you have made. When I say “Our” I am taking some liberties, since, as noted above, I was invited to participate, but was not one of the main six “Primary Contributors”. I did, however, follow along as best I could and posted many thoughts of my own and here are my own reactions to your posting.

      1. Concerning the Appropriateness of “The Inferno” as a Lenten Exercise. The whole idea was “to reverse normal practice,” and instead of (or in addition to) giving something up for Lent, to do something more (or add on). In a sense, for me at least, the exercise became a mental discipline and form of prayer. I became more focused in my search for God and my understanding of Him.
      I do feel you make a valid point in stating: “Since the season of Lent seems to be about doing penance, at least traditionally, then would not Purgatorio be the most relevant part of the Commedia to read during Lent? No one does penance in Inferno, and penance is all they do in Purgatorio. But, since we could only cover one book in Lent, it seemed to make sense at the literal bottom, with ”the Inferno.”
      2. Concerning the Limitation to one of the three books of “The Comedia.” The
      time limits involved made this a practical consideration. Since Dante designed the trilogy in the order of Hell, Purgatory, Heaven (i.e. as ascension), “Inferno” seems the logical starting place for any reading. Certainly Robert Pinsky saw it that way in his translation. I agree with what I believe you are saying, that one should not STOP, there, although I do not agree with some of the comparisons you make to parts of other works. “The Inferno” IS a separate, self-contained piece of a larger work, but it IS a complete piece. I disagree with your statement that “reading only the Inferno part of the Divine Comedy is akin to reading only the first third of Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest,’ or only the first third of Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.” Inferno is just the first act in a three act play, so to speak.” To me, it is a PART, but it is not a fraction. You continue that the “Inferno” is most commonly read in isolation from the other two parts, and it seems like very few people ever read or study Purgatorio and Paradiso. I think this leads to terrible misunderstandings of Dante and what his aim was in producing his Commedia.”
      On this, I feel more in agreement with you. I do hope our group re-gathers to continue the journey on to the “Purgatorio” and “Paradisio.”
      3. Concerning Dante’s possible Atheism, mysticism and his “real” religious position:
      I doubt very much Dante was an atheistic, a cultist or member of some secret anti-Christian group (Shades of Dan Brown). While he lived in that tumultuous period spanning the end of the so-called “Middle Ages” and the beginning of the “Italian Renaissance” he was very much part of his age. He was just one of many talented thinkers and writers of a long chain who saw and commented upon the perversions of the institutions around him, in both Church and State. He was a member of a long line of people who were brave enough to say what he saw and point out inconsistencies. He was a Catholic, as were most all West European Catholics. As a historian I generally tend to view Boccaccio, Chaucer, and later Hus, Wycliffe and many others who wanted the Church to “clean up its act.” But, I wouldn’t push it further than that.
      4. Concerning Dante’s use of a pagan, Virgil, as a guide and the positioning of many pre-Christian thinkers in Hell. Dante was hardly alone in that, but one of the reasons he is often considered a proto-Renaissance writer was because he did look back to the Ancient Greco-Roman glories that had been eclipsed, if not lost, for nearly 700 years or so. Considering how many different, early Church Fathers/commentators also incorporated pre-Christian thought into their theology, this should be no great shock. Others will show up in Purgatory.
      5. Concerning Dante’s seeming equivalence given to Greco-Romans and Christians.
      You questioned whether Dante was “even a Christian in any meaningful sense? “ and, stated, “I doubt it. His Commedia and his Nuova Vita are full of strong hints that he consciously rejected the Catholicism of his time, and perhaps rejected any and all traditional concepts of the Christian religion.” I feel he stays close to the understood Christian traditions of his time. And, I see his use of characters for allegorical and argumentative purposes, not as examples of actual characters to be found in hell or elsewhere in the afterlife.
      To conclude, I thank you for raising so many significant questions and points to consider. To me, this was an experiment. A work in progress. Meaningful, thoughtful questions are and were necessary.
      And, I particularly thank you for point to the need to continue the exploration and discussion of the remaining to books of “The Comedia.” Bob Sinner

  • Tom

    Dear Mr. Bob S.,

    Thank you for your thorough, thoughtful and respectful reply. I saw that you mentioned Dan Brown in your comment, and that made me think that Dan Brown’s main message in his famous “Da Vinci Code” novel is at the heart of my thinking about all this. As I understand it, the main thing that Dan Brown was intending to get across was that the New Testament documents are not reliable as historical documents, that the real history and real teachings of Jesus were probably much different and that the real history and teachings of Jesus were suppressed by the early leaders of the Christian church, and continued to be suppressed into the Middle Ages at least. At bottom, I agree with those very few scholars (a very tiny minority indeed) who interpret the life and writings of Dante as pointing to the conclusion that Dante was more like Dan Brown than St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas, in that Dante was probably a heretic more or less in the camp of Gnostic-like groups such as the Cathars, the Templars, and the Albigensians, and other major heretical groups that were savagely suppressed in the Middle Ages. One thing that convinces me of this is a book I read recently, titled “Gnostic Philosophy,” by Churton, that shows the close connection between the Troubadour poets and the Cathars. Dante sings the praises of the key Troubadour poets in his Comedy. That is just one piece of evidence. I am also influenced by a recent book titled “The Sistine Secrets,” which seems to show conclusively that Michelangelo was a heretic who very intentionally filled the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with images that were meant to communicate heresies and reject orthodox Catholic teachings. I could cite more info about Dante, Michelagelo, Guido Cavalcanti, Da Vinci, and others, and, in the end, I fully agree that no one is bound by logic and reason to accept the Dan Brown-like conclusion. If a person has made life commitments that are inconsistent with Dan Brown-like interpretations, then one has no incentive to see things that way. If a person has made life commitments that are inconsistent with orthodox Christianity, then one has no incentive to see things as conservative Presbyterians do. And yet, there are the writings of Dante, full of so much that is strange, so much that is really is unlike the New Testament. In Canto 1 of Paradiso, Dante the Pilgrim offers up a devout prayer of supplication to the god Apollo. By name, the god Apollo! What would Paul of Tarsus say to that? Wouldn’t he have immediately broken off fellowship with any “Christian” doing or writing anything like that? To me, the reason conservative Presbyterians feel a certain warmness and acceptance towards Dante is because of the intellectual need to ratify and legitimize much of what the Catholic Church did in the Middle Ages, since the legitimacy of the Reformation Church in the present time depends on the legitimacy of much of what the Catholic Church did and believed in the Middle Ages. Furthermore, as I see it, a main drive of many conservative Presbyterians today is to create a bulwark against ever expanding secularism, nihilism, atheism, hedonism, Islamism, absurdism, and so on. And so, to make this bulwark as strong as possible, the Christian tradition need to be legitimate all the way from the time of Jesus up through to today, and, above all, the New Testament documents need to be seen as true in every way, historically, doctrinally, etc. And so, you are willing to overlook prayers to the god Apollo if that is what it takes to stand up against, and maybe someday defeat, the liberals who you see as destroying America and the world. Oh, forgive me! What good can come from such a conversation as this? I wish you well. I frankly confess I have no answers. Everyone must take some path through life, and must recommend some path to others who ask the way. Dante had his path, but he is long dead, at least as far as this world and this time go. I don’t like nihilism or secularism or Islamism either. I wish time could have frozen some time around the Eisenhower Adminstration. But, time goes on. Good luck. I’ll pray to Apollo for you. (Just kidding.)

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