Author Archives: jeffvamos

About jeffvamos

Presbyterian Pastor. Dante Fan. See also my other blog, The Electronic Meetinghouse, at: http://pclawrenceville.blogspot.com/

Canto XXV: There Are No Stupid Questions in Purgatory

There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate; 30
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea. 

– T. S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Yes indeedy, there will be time for all that. Or so we imagine as we spend our time, whose preciousness perhaps our pilgrim truly apprehends as he and Statius and the V-man whip around this cornice (following on XXIV:93, “It was an hour to climb without delay…”). And at the end of time, which gives substance in the remaining three dimensions to this flesh and its actions, this is what we find: the face unmasked.

Seems to me, that’s what this Canto is about: unmasking. Unmasking what is, through that divine and providential process (for Dante, scientific in his day) by which we come to know and see ourselves in our true seeming, and by which our true will is shown for what it is.

But first, let’s deal with the first few delightful lines of this Canto. A dense piece of cheesecake, methinks! OK, we’ve been dealing with gluttony here, n’est pas? As we’ve seen in the previous couple of Cantos, gluttony has to do, in a certain sense, with what we do with our mouths. We can fill our pie-holes with stuff we hope (in vain) will satisfy us. Or we can use them for both sustenance (in the right proportion)…and praise. We can also use them to ask. To seek. To know. (See line 19)

Throughout these last few Cantos, indeed throughout the whole DC, there’s a dialectic (and one that’s big for Dante to be sure) around the desire to know; a particular kind of appetite. For Dante, such desire is in a way akin to the glutton’s desire for food, the lust-driven for sex. What knowledge will really satisfy us? What is the purpose not only of hunger, but of that hunger of the mind called curiosity? What good is it to “know”? And I do mean to convey the whole range of meanings for that word…as in to “know” someone in the biblical sense. Because, check it out, there it is in line 128 (“I Know Not a Man” – the Whip of Lust). In that very specific sense, “knowing” serves the very most intimate purpose – both intimate and dangerous at the same time. But alas, I digress.

Dante wants to ask a question, because he’s curious. That Dante checks his appetite to know (i.e. to ask) is both a mark of his moral progress, still like a baby stork, that medieval symbol of new life. But it’s also a sign, I think, of his attempt at “continence” in his intellectual hunger. And tellingly – and typical of how things work as we keep getting closer and closer to heaven – Virgil picks up on the need of his companion, and invites him to ask about what he’s obviously bursting with. And thus to satisfy that sort of hunger. Clever indeed.

Apparently, little did Dante-the-pilgrim know that he’d be getting a lecture on the pre-reneassaince understanding of the birds and the bees. The process by which babies are made. But just to break it down for our purposes: this is a meditation, on the lips of Virgil and Statius, on how things are created, and more importantly, how they become what the are. As I alluded to in my blog entry last week – if we can join in the scientific naivete of our ancient compatriot, we might just find some spiritual wisdom for our time. (Just as the alchemists practiced bad science but good wisdom). Because, wheareas for Dante this Canto is all about science (in his time, a discipline in no way separate from theology), for us it’s a beautiful meditation on this very spiritual issue: how do we know ourselves for who we truly are?

The bottom line for Dante: death is the great unmasker. In death, again through the providential love and justice of the creator, we become who we truly are. Or perhaps more accurately (and surprisingly) we become who we will ourselves to be. In death, unfettered by the limitations of our flesh, our souls are free to take the form that reflects our true will.

I think Dante means for this Canto also to reflect us back to the very first shades we met, those residents of Inferno, as our Virgil, Dr. Ciardi, so aptly notes. As we learned in the first Canticle, the shades in hell desire to be there: their surroundings and form – and ironically their contrapasso – simply depict the true seeming of the essences and desires that governed them while still enskinned. And – again, so like the shades in this part of Purgatory are eager to move ahead, but for a very different reason – the shades headed for hell are eager to get there.

But here in purgatory, as Statius explains, there’s a twist. The will takes the form of its true seeming not for the sake of punishment, but for the sake of purgation. The purpose of unmasking the true appearance of a soul is for diagnosis, not to consign for (willful) self-punishment. And in Purgatory, the shades burning off their sins desire both heaven (the true essence of their desire) even as they experience the provisional desire for pain – which is experienced in a sort of odd sense as joy, since it is preparing them for a different kind of “seeming”.

I love this – abstract as it may be – for its “spiritual physics.” Dante, in the voice of Statius, speaks of God’s providential arrangement of the universe much like how physicists spoke of “ether” in the pre-relativity era: it’s the stuff in which stuff (matter, light, human souls) exist. God provides the substance that gives our souls (and more importantly, our wills) shape and form. It is the stuff onto which a “shade’s” form and sense is cast in the afterlife. And it’s there that, again, we are simply our essence.

Isn’t it interesting too, the specific example Dante is curious about: why are the gluttons…skinny…if in the afterlife “there is neither marriage or being given in marriage”; if in the afterlife, nobody needs to nourish the physical body? How interesting that just as those who struggle with anorexia perceive their true seeming as fat, those who are guilty of the sin of gluttony are seen in their true seeming: emaciated. Their sin springs from a (literal, in Dante’s case) self-image that is the opposite of the very-fleshy seeming in life: malnourished. Their downfall is the attempt to feed this need in the wrong way, to overcompensate for their lack.

What an irony: that in Dante’s version of the afterlife, we simply get what we want. And if we’re lucky, we have enough reason left – provided not by our own lights, but that great light that illumines the narrow path upward – we realize that the misguided desire that sidetracked us toward our truest destination is the very thing that wrecks us, and repairs us: all desires lead godward, ultimately.

And finally, how delicious that the only thing keeping someone in hell, or preventing them from getting to heaven, is our own desire; our own feeling of worthiness and freedom to deserve that destiny.

So, in that sense, maybe old T. S. had it right, and we can apply those words to purgatory too: it is the place and time to prepare a face for the faces that you’ll meet. Indeed.

[PS – I found a good website to use in reading the DC on the fly – much of the poetry preserved, but as prose… Check it out]


Canto XVIII, Take II: Lookin’ For Love

[Editor’s note: Jeff and Bob decided to do a sort of tag team, and “bonus” entry for Canto 18 – so popular, they wished to do two “takes” on it. Bob will post later this evening on Canto 19]

As I read Jake’s reflection on Canto 17 (and by the way we’ve just crossed the imaginary line between these Cantos marking the very middle of the Canticle), I can’t but help to think of the medieval alchemists. In the smoke-fed shroud of scientific naivete, the imagination of the medieval mixologists flourished, the dream of gold impelling their crazed search. Such rich imagination made bad science, but excellent metaphor; excellent theology; excellent psychology (especially for all you Jungians out there). Even though they never produced gold, might they have seen the truth, beyond the shroud of naivete? Because of the shroud of naivete?

I remember a friend of mine who once recalled the memory of seeing an angel in the desert when she was young, naive, ignorant of all the hifalutin’ theology she now possesses to enrich her well educated brain. But she reported sadly that it’s unlikely she’ll see an angel again: she knows too much.

Perhaps an ironic beginning to a reflection on a Canto celebrating human reason. I mention it because I think Dante has an advantage we do not: to play in the naive smoke that Jake mentions, and to be able to see through the shroud (perhaps) some truth that we find hard to make stick onto our scientifically self-assured, and (naively?) rational modern sensibilities.

Try this on…what if we believed, as Dante did, as Aquinas did, as the medieval theologians did: the world, the universe is powered not by energy or light or nuclear fission; it’s powered by love. The whole universe is pulsing, throbbing with…love. It’s what directs everything. What makes the fire’s smoke rise? It’s love seeking that unseen thing up there with which it seeks to unite. What if that is the story, the essential narrative, that governs not just everything, but every human being? We have got an inborn, innate desire to unite with that thing that loved us into being.

We are indeed “restless until we rest in thee.”

Dante has been saying that it’s desire that makes us human. And not just any desire, not an instinctual, animal love, but a desire that can lead us to love that very one who implanted love in us in the first place. And (contrary to my previous remarks) the only chauffeur capable of getting us there: Human Reason. Even though, how it actually works, how it all isn’t just automatic (hey, why punish or reward people for what they are born do do anyway?), is still a mystery, only to be revealed in Canto 5 of Paradiso, courtesy of Madame Beatrice.

What if we were to think that the addiction of the alcoholic; the frustrated attempt to satisfy our deepest desires with “the perfect mate”; every love song ever written – what if we thought that all of it is engendered by this nuclear reaction within our souls that is seeking to unite with what is most desireable? To desire is to love. And so what if all of that is really a misguided attempt to love the ultimate; to love God.

But for Dante, it’s not automatic. Not everything desirable is worth loving. As in Canto 10 of Inferno, what is being refuted here is the heresy of Epicurianism. The Epicurians believed that everything pleasurable could not, by definition, be evil. For Dante, any object of desire is useful only insofar as it leads our soul upward toward that object that is ultimately desireable. If we love anything out of proportion or direction – in the wrong way, or not enough, or too much – we go off track.

What if we understood, for example, that, just as we look back at the medieval cathedrals as markers of this desire for heaven, so too in our era: what if people were to see that the mega-malls that mar our landscape are the (misguided) shrines to this very same innate desire within us? And our frustrated attempts to meet that desire?

Dante knew in his time what we know damn well too: that the pleasures of the Epicurians are eventually going to disappoint us. Any of us who have stepped back to take in the sickening sight of the orgiastic aftermath of a Christmas morning, and the heap of plastic and cardboard and detritus that result from it – can see how ultimately, such pleasures are empty and disappointing.

Love gives us the energy. Reason guides us in the right direction. Grace provides the means.

And so goes Virgil’s little lesson in love. And so goes the explanation of the very neat (and naive?) schema of this place, so closely matched with the hopeless sins of hell: to get there means working through those vices that have to do with misdirected desire (Pride, Envy, Anger), with not enough desire (Sloth), and with too much desire (Avarice, Gluttony and Lust).

Interesting that here, the shades of the slothful – those who were given to that vice that made them inattentive to the good that ought to have impelled their attention heavenward – are purged of the stain by superenergetic activity. And note that here, we see the desire is not just for themselves; but rather to “strive on that grace may bloom again above.” Here we have the reverse phenomenon to contrast with what we’ve witnessed previously: instead of the living praying for the dead, vice versa.

How do we get there, though? Back to that question. I guess I’m not alone in my ambivalence about human reason: at the end of this Canto, Dante too admits that his mind is “scrambled” essentially. The chauffeur is just a chauffeur. Reason can drive us only so far.


Canto 13: I Liked Bob’s Post Better

…and Jake’s, and John’s and Gordon’s and Pier’s. They are such bloody good writers. And I…. You get the picture.

Envy. For Dante, the color is not green, it’s…well, I guess purple would be the closest to the word livido. Whatever is the color of a bruise. This is the color of the shades in this cornice of the Purg, and they are all wearing it this spring, along with the single mode of fashion, a hair cloak. The sin that is caused by making comparisons is healed by the thing that cannot bear comparison: mutual suffering. Those who were too busy comparing themselves to others to lean on them are healed of their woundedness by…leaning on each other.

I can hear music too…Bill Withers playing in the background.

“You just call on me brother…when you need a hand. We all need somebody to….” It’s the lesson the envious need to learn.

Dante is riffing on several levels here, as he continues some of the strands that he began in the previous cantos. First, there’s the riff on the senses: they can both cause our downfall, and effect our salvation, and in Purgatory the purification of the senses involves using one thing for the opposite (what’s seen is what’s heard; what’s heard is what’s seen). Here, it’s our sense of sight that is the culprit (literally): hence the color of bruising, as the envious eye wounds the soul of the envious by what it sees, by the mechanics of comparison. The cure? The envious have eyes sewn shut (as a falconer does to a falcon, to calm it down), in order to effect another, inner organ of sense: to cure the eyes requires the ear.

The “whip” here on Cornice Number Two does not consist of what’s seen, as in the previous canto (the bas relief that looked more real than reality). Here, the whip is what’s heard. (As Paul said, faith comes by hearing).

The healing of the soul requires the development of some other sense, that is in effect…beyond sense. That seems so clear in many of the references in the previous cantos: light too bright to perceive, images too real to understand. To “get” heaven, you have to develop a whole new set of senses, to be able to groc it.

I think somehow of Gloucester in King Lear, ambling along in mutual suffering with Lear along the fields of Dover. It’s only in losing his sight that Gloucester can actually see. “I see…feelingly.” Not to see enables these shades ultimately…to see clearly that sun that guides Dante and Virgil on their journey, whenever the “self-humbled” decide for themselves that they have had enough, and their will is pure enough to see what will allow them to continue.

And interesting isn’t it, the way Dante gives us an example we would not expect: instead of displaying someone who would typify the way we would obviously think of envy – desiring that of someone else’s we do not have – he gives us the negative space around which the vice subsists:  Shadenfreude. Leave it to the Germans to coin such a brilliant word to lay bare the darker but natural impulses of the heart: “harm-joy”. That Sapia rejoices at the downfall of Salvani shows the real trajectory of such a tendency: to abandon fear (and respect) for the ultimate power, that of God, which is indeed love; and to give ourselves over to love’s negative: desire for the other’s harm.

Vinum non habent. That’s for damn sure. But…it’s coming. It’s coming.


Purgatory Canto 8: A Paradise for Procrastinators

I’m an ENFP on the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). Always have been (meaning: same result each of the dozen times I’ve taken the thing). Probably always will be.

When I first took the MBTI, I think about mid-way through seminary, the results came as both a revelation and an affirmation. One of the descriptors of my “type” read thus: “Works more by inspiration than perspiration.”

And so afterward, I to myself: that explains why I was never able to start the paper three weeks in advance, read two books and three magazine articles, keep the notes neatly organized on notecards, and finish the first draft the week before. That explains why I’m up all night in a flurry of excited creativity, photocopies strewn about and highlighter stains on my fingers, until the thoughts flow like water through a dry irrigation channel. Inspiration. Not perspiration. I’m an ENFP, by God! It’s who I am!

Right.

I think this section of Purgatorio (meaning, Cantos 2-6; meaning Ante-purgatory) is ideal for ENFP’s. Meaning…procrastinators. And oh, I am not implying that we’ll all end up here – but there’s perhaps a better chance than most that this is our crib, initially, in heaven.

Dante’s playing around here, it seems to me, with this question: how do we get there? Is it by perspiration? Or by inspiration? Before I too hastily say that we ENFP’s have the right answer (inspiration), let me say that I’m sure Dante (being the extremes-avoiding, died-in-the-wool Aristotelian that he is…especially in this Canto) would say it’s got to be both.

But before we go there, first of all, let’s consider this: where is the “there” we’re trying to get to? It’s clear that what Dante’s after is the ultimate there: symbolically, it’s the thing that is represented by an entire 1/3 of the poem: Paradiso. It is the thing most to be desired, the ultimate joy and fulfillment of the human soul. It is that the place governed by that love that scratches our ultimate itch: a love that is love-in-loving. Whether we realize it or not, this is the ultimate thing that ought to capture our attention and desire, and it’s what we human beings are built for. Hell is where it gets totally screwed up beyond repair, and we forget the assignment itself; and purgatory’s where we work it out. We get the ultimate extension: all the time you need.

This whole section of Purgatorio is about those who, for one reason or another, were too preoccupied until the very end to apply their attention to what matters most: the disciplined practice of love that gets you there. The steady work that puts you there in your present, in-spired (that is, breath-ful) life, because you’ve gotten a taste of it, and it’s sweet.

Here, we see the shades of those who put it off to the end for seemingly good reason: the rulers mentioned here are “types” for all who neglected their own soul to be in service to others, through their exercise of worldly duties. I’m sure there are a lot of dutiful moms, magistrats…minsters here too? Their reward is a resting place of technicolor beauty (reminded me of that psychedelic Pink Floyd poster I stared at so many hours under a blacklight when I was a kid). One wonders, though – and this is a total riff – if God isn’t giving them a foretaste of the truest distraction that should have preoccupied them: might the beautiful colors represent that vivid brightness that should serve as the ultimate attention grabber. These are the colors of heaven, the brightness of the divine.

Which brings me back to the main point. How do you get there?  The sun, in Dante’s cosmos, plays a very clear and specific role: it is the inspiration part. It is the divine illumination without which one cannot make any progress toward the top of the mountain, toward that-which-matters-most.

This is the law of the mountain: ain’t goin nowhere at night. Not that someone’s blocking you (they’re not). It’s just that, to paraphrase John’s gospel, “cut off from me, you can do nothing.”

This seems particularly resonant right now, and not necessarily in a good way. There are so many I know who are feeling like they are in the dark. Completely unable to lift a toe upward, completely unable to make any progress forward; and it is no fun, let me tell you. And I know, because I’ve been there myself. Dark night of the soul. Theology seems like nursery rhyme. Life makes no sense. It’s night.

We’ll just have to rest the night, and wait until morning. I can testify to the notion that the color is indeed brightest when you’ve fully explored the darkness of night. That’s how it works. And – again having been there myself – I can tell you that morning does come. After night.

How do you get up the mountain? Is it inspiration? Is it perspiration? Presbyterians (so firmly on the inspiration side of the equation) do well to note: it’s got to be both. A holy and wise understanding of both in their place.

Evidence of Dante’s astute Aristotelian mean-ing: just take a gander at Henry III, practically the last visage we see in this Canto. The guy is there for the opposite reason: neglecting his worldly duties for an obsessive preoccupation with piety. Too fascinated by the notes and the drafts to ever actually produce anything at all.

How do you get up the mountain? Here’s an even better answer, and another reason we’re not in hell: It’s not just inspiration. Nor perspiration.

It’s with others. The help of the other, others; the Other.


Canto 1: God Rules

Several years ago I did a workshop at Green Gulch Farm, a working monastery that’s part of the San Francisco Zen Center, taught by the beat poet Michael McClure–pal of Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac and other great beat poets of the 1950s. The workshop was based on what McClure called “Shannon’s law”. He offered an elaborate and delightful explanation of what “Shannon’s Law” was about, which boiled down basically to this: The more rules, the freer you can be.

What ensued was a delightful morning and afternoon of poetry writing not based on “free verse” – but instead, based on careful “rules” that constrained the writing. We discovered that the paradox was right: the more rules, the freer you can be.

In some ways, that is an apt description of a major theme of this “middle third” of the poem, the canticle called Purgatorio. It is a meditation on this: what are the rules that both bind and free at the same time? How can rules both oppress and set at liberty the human soul? Ultimately, one of the main questions at stake is this: what is human freedom? How does one attain sovereignty over oneself?

So…before we enter, we need to have a clear understanding of the “rules of the game.” Because, O reader, take note. We ain’t in hell no more. Different house. Different rules.

First of all: there’s weather. There’s a sunrise. Hey – there’s change! Growth! Hell is a place characterized by absence, just as Augustine characterized evil itself: it has no substance, but indeed is the absence of something, namely good. Therefore in hell, the most notable absence is that of change itself. It is a place where people suffer, and continue to repeat throughout all of eternity the very thing that creates that suffering. Hell is the place where suffering has no meaning. Hell is the place where people keep doing the same damn thing (literally) over and over again, expecting a different result.

Here, we learn, is different. We read that in Purgatory, the purpose of Dante’s pilgrimage is to witness the place of those “whose suffering makes them clean.” (I.66) In purgatory, people do not do what they are compulsed to do over and over; they do what they truly desire to do–what they will to do: to suffer. Their will is aligned with the work of suffering. Why? Because here, suffering gets you somewhere. Ultimately, it gets you to heaven.

And we shall see in some detail the means by which that can happen – through confession, contrition, and satisfaction. There are rules by which the soul becomes clean. Rules to make you free.

Dante is well aware that there seem to be rules of a different sort, rules that govern the universe. And there are rules governing the intricate schema he’s devised (or recorded, we might imagine) that describe how hell, purgatory and heaven function.

AND YET. Here’s a weird thing. We enter this brand new realm, Purgatory, and encounter a sight that should cause us to do a double-take at our programs. Dante and Virgil cast their gaze on the solitary figure of Cato, and we are meant to think, “Huh? That dude shouldn’t be here.” It’s a violation of the rules!

Cato’s presence in purgatory seems a violation of the careful plan that Dante has laid out, the very precise rules that govern the spiritual physics of the universe: how is it that this guy, a pagan, and a suicide to boot, gets the job of guarding purgatory–the place that in essence is heaven? Why does he get a free pass, and the other sots in limbo not get there?

Perhaps he would appreciate Emerson’s famous dictum, “A slavish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Because no, Dante is at his subtlest here in this first Canto of Purgatorio. He seems to invite us to reflect on the rules, how precisely reasoned they are. How we need a structure in which to be free. But rules are the scaffold, not the building. Therefore, they are meant at some level to be taken down. “Rules are meant to be broken”, as the cliche goes.

So, why is Cato the exception to the rule? Cato’s story itself is the obvious signal as to what Dante is up to here: Cato lived and died for the sake of freedom. Of liberty. As we read in our Ciardi, he opposed Caesar for the principle of freedom; fell on his sword rather than to lose his freedom.

So…what then is freedom? Is it just doing our own thing, whatever we want (or “will”)? Is the will indeed free if it’s just unfettered? Or is it possible that the lack of any structure in which to experience freedom – true freedom – can be a kind of jail? Can really be a kind of slavery?

At the very beginning, Cato realizes that one cannot escape hell on his own power, with one’s own sovereignty. “Who led you?” he asks Dante and Virgil. “Are the laws of the pit so broken?” In other words, “who changed the rules all of a sudden?”

Virgil explains to him, of course, that no. They are not breaking the rules because here is one who is “still to see his final hour.”

Things here are akimbo. A liminal state, an in-between place where the rules don’t quite make sense. Cato is an almost-saint, one who is not motivated by love, as much by authority. It’s not his former love Marcia that moves him, but the authority of Beatrice. Cato is one moved by what is proper and virtuous. One who follows the rules.

Note some other signs of things to come; other wonderful and beautiful gestures that allude to the things of our spiritual beginnings: Dante washes himself with the dew of a new morning – a reference to the baptism that washes away the sin. And as they begin a new journey, we have another allusion to a key ingredient of this process toward freedom: humility. They begin on a descent. To go up still means that you begin…by going down.

Final note: Hope there are some folk willing to add their own commentary on this canto, by replying here – or to respond to the main reflection. We’d love to hear from you!


Join us in Purgatory!

Greetings, O Reader!

As the season of Lent begins again, we continue our blogging adventure with the second canticle of Dante’s Divine Comedy, 33 cantos chronicling Dante’s journey through Purgatorio. We are back, more or less the same motley band of bloggers as last year, with one change. Sadly, Adrienne Perry needed to bow out this year due to time constraints, and because her many writing projects are bearing down upon her especially now as she finishes her MFA. Hope you hear us cheering for you, A!

Enter Bob Sinner, who was a frequent commenter last year, a retired teacher of history, a member at The Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville, a wise mind, and a genuine good guy. We are aware that we have an abundance of Y chromosomes in this project – perhaps part of the purgatorial agenda will be to diversify. We will indeed work on that.

If you’re a new reader and would like some additional background on the project, and how it got started, read the first entry in this blog. You may also find our About page and the other pages in this blog helpful for orienting yourself.

Most especially though, we fervently hope you will join us in making this adventure part of your Lenten discipline – please do read the canticle, and comment along with us.

Tally ho!


Canto 31: How Do You Get a Giant to Kneel?

By Jeff Vamos

I want to pick up where Adrienne left off in her lovely riff on the wisdom of Virgil, so needed in the hallways of Central High—or the halls of name-your-Presbyterian-church, or the halls of Congress or the inner chambers of Wall Street.

Virgil functions in Dante’s poem as the embodiment of Reason–at least, this is the traditional interpretation. Remember who protected Dante from the poison tail of Geryon, as he hitched a ride on the very monster of fraud? That’s right: the V-man. Reason personified.

But there’s something interesting going on here, between Cantos 30 and 31. Beyond the prophylactic qualities of Reason (i.e. Virgil), so needed to prevent Dante from getting sucked into the wiles of Hell, here we see something different on display: grace. Here are the lines that follow Virgil’s rebuke of Dante’s voyeurism, and Dante’s consequent shame:

That same tongue made me feel its sting, / tinting one cheek and the other, then supplied / Balm….

He goes on to compare Virgil’s tongue – his speech – to Achilles’ lance, thought to both wound and heal. This is what grace does! The curious nature of grace is that it both wounds and heals, in a process that leads one toward new life (cf. what Dante just saw in Canto 28, in the healing-only-to-wound contrapasso of the schismatics).

I’m reminded of one of the many echoes we find in Eliot:

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
 / That questions the distempered part; / 
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel / 
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
 / Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

Our only health is the disease / 
If we obey the dying nurse
 / Whose constant care is not to please / 
But to remind us of our, and Adam’s curse,
 / And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse. (East Coker, IV)

And what is the necessary quality for grace to work, to give life, to heal? One word: humility. A realization of our human condition, best experienced close to the earth, the humus. It’s humility that Dante displays in the transition between Cantos here. And as in most every Canto, this is a hermeneutic key toward understanding what’s going on symbolically in what follows.

Where we are now is a liminal place—a place of transition between one level of Hell (the Malebolge), and the very bottom, the frozen lake called Cocytus. And what guards the boundary? Those huge creatures that nature rejected called Giants. Let’s take a moment to think once again, shall we, as to what Dante is up to, symbolically, by placing such beings on the boundary between here and the Very Bottom.

Beyond the interpretive clue of Dante’s display of humility, we have this interesting allegorical bit: a reference to the funky noise these beasts make, “blowing their own horns”, to call attention to themselves in a vain attempt at communication. Dante compares this sound to the horn blast of one Roland, famously described in the French epic poem the Chanson de Roland, the rear-guard of Charlemagne during his march home through the Pyrenees after being at war. When Roland was under attack he was too proud to blow his horn, whereas just before he died he let out a wail loud enough for Charlemagne to hear seven miles up ahead.

Perhaps this is what Dante is up to: here we see symbolized the ultimate death, via the ultimate sin: pride. Pride, which is the root of it all in this landscape: fraud, betrayal, the gateway to all of those failings that degrade not just individuals, but human community itself.

In that light, Giants and Titans seem the perfect allegory: those who stand proud of the surface of hell, towers of irrational hubris. (I’m thankful to my woodworking hobby for teaching me one of the variegated meanings of this word; in that craft, “to be proud” is to stick up from the surface. Interesting).

The first giant we meet is Nimrod, thought to be the Babylonian architect of the Tower of Babel, the ultimate monument to creaturely arrogance. And we see here, when we get up close, the consequence of such a condition: confusion. This is the place where society itself breaks down, symbolized by the confusion of that very thing that enables communion, community, communication: human language.

Perhaps this is so dangerous too, because Hell is the only place that accepts nature’s rejects. Nature refused these creatures, because they were too dangerous to—forget about human society—to the gods themselves, since their power was out of proportion to their ability to…reason.

Perhaps this foreshadows too what we are about to see: those who possessed great power, and used it for evil, even irrational purposes, thus destroying the very basis for our intended form of human civilization. (Speaking of which—that’s what Dante thinks he sees as he approaches all this: in the funky not-quite-day, not-quite-night fuzziness, he sees the illusion of a city, a faux city that stands in opposition to the real destination, the Heavenly City).

And, this canto ends with the ultimate irony, doesn’t it? How do you get such a creature to bow (the posture of humility), so he can take you to the next level? You appeal to his pride. Neat, huh?