Category Archives: Inferno

Canto 27: On living in integrity with the Gospel

By Gordon S. Mikoski, Princeton Theological Seminary

In Canto 27, Dante invokes the memory of Guido da Montefeltro – a former warrior turned Franciscan who advised Pope Boniface VIII on the way to triumph militarily over a city in a papal war. In order to obtain Guido’s effective military counsel, the pope gave him blanket absolution for all of his sins. The warrior-turned-Franciscan urged the pope to make a promise to the inhabitants of the besieged city of Palestrina and then to break it as soon as the gates of the city were opened. Rather than pardon and clemency, the pope brought wholesale slaughter on the inhabitants of Palestrina. As a result, Guido da Montefeltro found himself in one of the deepest places of hell because “he counseled fraud.”

The case of Guido da Montefeltro’s counsel of fraud raises important issues for Christians of any age. Is it ever appropriate to draw from the habits and mentality of one’s sinful past in order to further the cause of the church? How important is it for Christians to have integrity with their words and promises? Should the core symbols and values of the church be used as a pretext for secular or military purpose? Do pragmatic ends ever justify the use of immoral or fraudulent means – particularly in relation to the church?

It seems right that assigned Guido da Montefeltro a very low place in hell. By doing so, Dante protests against the profanation of the church and the message of forgiveness and new life in Christ by corrupt political interests. No matter the circumstances or the potential advantage to be gained, the church must always act in a manner consistent with the  Gospel of Jesus Christ. It cannot prostitute itself to the logic of violence or to political agendas. The church and its leaders are called to fidelity to the way of love, the keeping of promises, and living by the integrity of words spoken (even to enemies).

This canto calls to mind a key element of the moral vision of Immanuel Kant. He argued that human beings should never be treated as a means to some end; they should always be treated as ends in and of themselves. For Kant, the end can never justify the means. One must always act in accord with that which is morally right – regardless of circumstances or consequences. Kant’s moral vision would seem to be deeply resonant with that of Dante in this canto. The corrupt Franciscan and the pope in question here are judged because they failed to live according to the core precepts of the Gospel and allowed themselves to engage in consequentialist calculations of a highly corrupt character.

As we journey with Dante  through hell on the way toward cross and the empty tomb during this Lenten season, we are invited to reflect upon the lessons he would teach us. In this canto, he would seem to have us reflect on the relationship between the Gospel and the way in which we conduct our lives in the midst of a morally messy and often violent world. He would seem to call us to as Christians to see that our means matter as much as our ends. He also seems to call us to a deeper integrity between our words and our actions.


Canto 26: Sailing off the Edge

By John Timpane

Going too far.

Canto XXVI literally is about that. Its “star” is a character far-famed for going too far, literally, traveling the known world, trespassing in the realms of the gods, pushing his luck time and again. He should be destroyed, time and again, but time and again he gets out of it with some trick or other. There’s a tragic side to him, of course, engraved in his name, Odysseus (“one who suffers, one who is a grief to many,” etc.): he suffers a long war, he wanders the world, he longs for home (never extremely hard). But there’s an affirmative, comic side, too. Odysseus/Ulysses is the polutropon of line 1 of The Odyssey, “the one of many twists and turns,” “the man of many tricks.” Ingenuity, resourcefulness, wordsmithing (Odysseus is very persuasive), technology (he’s a great sailor of ships) — Odysseus is an avatar of Everyperson. He’s the grandson of a thief (Autolykos, “he who fools people by with his self”) and the great-grandson of the god of thieves, Hermes. Ya gotta love him. He lies when he wants to, resorts to trickery and thievery when it’s expedient, and has the integrity of a man who’s never too punctilious in observing the rules of others, whether gods or men.

Ulysees is more like us than us.

He’s the guy who toys with Kirke, who has his men bind him to the mast so he can hear the Sirens, who puts the Kyklops’ eye out and then toys with him, calling himself Nobody. He toys with destruction and pollution and always seems to pull it out.

Lent is, among many other things, a time of restraint. We are called on to adopt moderation, to rein in on our usual pleasures and habits, to curb ourselves. Each time we feel the impulse to indulge (we hope), we’ll remember, remember what was done in our name, what was sacrificed, what suffered.

So it’s a time of wanting things, forgetting we are supposed to be giving up. Lent thus brings us face to face with our excesses, with all the places we cross the line, trespass, go where we shouldn’t.

The Ulysees we see in this Canto is the tragic side of the trickster. Dante imagines his story past the end of the Odyssey. Much as with Tennyson 550-plus years later, Dante just can’t imagine this wild, strong man could even stop moving, stay in one place, get old and indolent, domesticated, pudgy. Tennsyon sees some of the tragic aspect, but for him Ulysees is far and away a noble, grand myth of the man of indomitable resolve, who wants to keep going ever on, “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

But that’s simply a measure of the difference between Tennyson and Dante.

Dante sees Ulysees as a great and noble human specimen, all right, one of the greats of the past. So great, in fact, that only another great such as Virgil, whose poetry matched that of the story of Ulysees, can speak to him, not a guy who speaks plain old Tuscan.

But this Ulysees is all, all utterly tragic. He is another image of Icarus, of Prometheus, of Adam, of all the figures who, through the overgreatness of the human mind and will, go too far and are destroyed, staying noble and great throughout, the best fallen man can be, even as he descends to his inevitable punishment in perpetuity.

And so Ulysees has become only one horn in a two-horned flame, punished for the atrocities made possible by his trick of the Trojan Horse, punished for sailing past the Gates of Hercules in search of the ends of the earth. He finds them, all right, and descends into his permanent fire.

So much here. Once again, as in the episode of Paolo and Francesca, we see a poet warning against the blandishments of poetry, using the pleasures of poetry to warn against the pleasures of poetry. If we get the message, it means we’ve given in and haven’t gotten it. But the only way to learn, in the way only poetry can teach us, IS to give in. It’s the inescapable irony of poetry: to win is to lose. Here, we see Ulysees exhorting his men, in beautiful rhetoric, to follow him into the punishment of a God he does not know. Once again, at his tiptop bravest and best, he has counseled wrong.

Technology is also involved. Ulysees is a maker and a technician, a sailor and general and king. He has the singularly human gift of turning what’s around him into tools and tricks and expedients. We’re looking, on Dante’s terms, at a metaphor for knowledge, for science, for what’s implicit in any striking-forth of the mind.

At our very, very best, at the apex, the limit of what’s imaginable . . . well . . . SEE WHAT HAPPENS? It’s in our nature to quest, to push, to transgress. To be human is to go too far. Each of us is our own built-in Ulysees. The tragedy of sin is how intimate it is, how close to the core, how bound up in self-deception, self-assertion. We may think we’re doing our best, our utmost, when we are really eating the wrong dang fruit. And really loving it.

Lent: being mindful. Taking it down to the elements and being *with* them. Being open to what we find. Working hard to edit out the noise. Hoping we can be both like Ulysees in his energy and resolve and unlike him, getting to the Spring and avoiding the sea closing permnently over out heads.


Canto 25: Dante Freak-out

I don’t recommend reading Dante just before bed. Especially this Canto.

My sleep last night, after reading Canto XXV with a warm glass of milk (well, actually…a wee dram of scotch), reminded me of the night’s sleep I got after my first R rated movie (The Omen; summer of ’76). That’s to say: freaked me out.

This is Dante at his freakiest. This is Dante as master of Horror; and Dante as poetic maestro. If poetry were figure skating, or snowboarding – this is Dante doing a quadruple axel, double toe loop; Dante doing an inverted 1080 barrel roll.

Dante basically challenges the Roman poets Lucan and Ovid, the Apollo Ohno and Shawn White of the previous era (sorry, Winter Olympics still on my mind) to a grudge match. Check it out:

…Let Lucan now attend / In silence, who has told the wretched fates / Of Nasidius and Sabellus—till he has learned / What I will let fly next. And Ovid, who writes / Of Cadmus and Arethusa, let him be still….

And, if you delve into the many many layers upon layers of poetic symbol and artistry, might we discover Dante playing on so many levels. Is he “borrowing” from his forebears here, even as he illustrates in such vivid color and detail the sin of…thievery?

And in that vein…here’s something else I find absolutely fascinating, not just about this Canto, but the whole poem. Here…try this at home: think of some abstract quality, any quality. Let’s just say that quality is…rudeness. And then, try to make a movie of it in words; a picture using rhyme. And try not to depict just the outward, obvious manifestation of it, but it’s guts, the inner clockwork that makes it tick. And do it visually, symbolically. And, moreover, do it so it messes with their brain, just by reading it.

This is what Dante does, methinks.

But, what of this here? Who would connect these things: Thievery, and human-animal transmutation? What’s the connection?

The dude makes you think. And when we start doing that, we realize that there’s a lot more going on here, a lot more at stake, (at snake? sorry…) than just pinching that magazine from the rack at the Five and Dime. What really is at stake here is no less than the opportunity for human transformation.

Let’s pick that apart a bit, shall we? Let’s start with that grudge match, the two-on-one of Lucan and Ovid vs. Dante. What does Dante have that they do not? Sure, Dante has illusions (delusions) of Fama (fame), and he is a kick-ass poet. But what Dante has that these two Roman forebears do not is this: a revelation about the true nature of transformation, one that is only possible to understand in the framework in which Dante is operating; namely, a Christian one.

What is shown here is mock transformation; transformation as transmutation. The horror of it. The insanity of it. As the previous Canto depicted: self-created Phoenix who dies and whose ashes yield nothing but…the same damn thing, over and over again, in meaningless change. Ground Hog day indeed.

But, again, what does that have to do, specifically, with thievery? Stealing?

Seems to me, what Dante’s dealing with here is the issue of belonging. What does it mean to belong? What is “belonging”? What is the true object of my “longing”, my “longing-to-be”?

Perhaps we might peel back the creative process, imagine Dante’s mind for a moment here. Maybe like this…Dante: “Hmm. Stealing. Thievery. To take one’s belonging(s). To violate what belongs to another. To blur the boundary between self other, to violate the object which is the proper longing of the self; to violate one’s own selfhood. Hmm. Let’s have some fun with that. Reminds me of that Ovid I read in high school….”

That does seem to me to be the process going on here. In talking about thievery, Dante is really exploring how it is that we violate our relationship to ourselves by appropriating what does not belong to us.

And what is the proper object of longing? The other. And to long for another (an other) requires integrity of self. A boundary between self and other. Thievery is first and foremost a violation of this boundary.

Makes me think of all those times I read Khalil Gibran in college. “Almitra, speak to us of marriage:

Aye, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God. / But let there be spaces in your togetherness, / And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.

Maybe here’s a way to think of it: all transformation happens in an encounter, an encounter between self and other. As Buber said, between an I and a Thou. And the ultimate encounter happens with he ultimate Other. The first and final Thou.

But here, in Canto XXV, there is no self, no other: all is in a state of continual transformation that creates nothing but horror; nothing but disgust and “nausea” as our Robert Pinsky has commented (his comment on this chapter – well worth checking out).

Here there is no change; people only make changes. Akin perhaps to what they call “doing a geographical” in AA: you don’t change, you just change place. Same you, different town. But in this horror, there is no “you” at all.  The whole concept of “you” has been violated, such that no selfhood at all exists. Here humans have lost their humanity, and have morphed into beasts.

The result is total confusion, complete lack of “integrity.” Perhaps that is most vividly illustrated by our rather colorful Vanni Fucci (say that fast three times), who apparently attempted to enter the sinner’s decathlon; he is purported to have committed the most sins in hell.  Double bird to God? Stealing the silver from the sacristy? Wow. It all adds up to a complete confusion of self-hood, in a place where the tormentors are themselves tormented (ala Cacus the Centaur – the plagued plaguer plaguing the plagued).

So, what does that look like here on earth? Does it not happen when we try to take from others what does not belong to us – not just possessions, but when we try to “possess” another? In couples counseling, they call it being “fused”. The attempt to possess some quality of the other that can only be gotten if it’s given, freely. To demand, to take such, is a violation.

And perhaps that is the ultimate irony in hell: it’s so damn (ahem) close to heaven. Heaven is a place where people do get what they long for, but in that experience, it’s not taken. It’s given. And it’s patterned after one who gave self away; and who invites us to “lose yourself, to find yourself.” We’ll just have to keep slogging on, through the exhaustion and nausea, if we’re ever to get to that place….


Canto 24: Thieves in the Temple

Adrienne Perry

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church sits on the corner of 19th and Central in Cheyenne, Wyoming. A “pioneer” church, St. Mark’s history dates back to the town’s early heyday, just a few years after the end of the Civil War when Cheyenne was probably little more than a prairie outpost. Raised in the church, I was an acolyte and attended youth group meetings. My mother, on the other hand, became more than a participant. I have watched, particularly after my father’s passing, her devotion and sense of belonging to the church flourish. She has served as the church accountant, on the vestry, is part of ECW (Episcopal Church Women), and contributes to the life of the church in energetic and sustained ways. I can always count on our weekly conversations turning to some matter of church business, whether she updates me about the lives of people I’ve known since my childhood, something noteworthy (or funny) in the bulletin, or the Taize style service she’s just attended.

Over the last few years, the church has struggled with whether or not to leave the sanctuary open—and thereby unattended—during the day. Philosophically, most embrace the idea of leaving the church open to worshippers or those seeking a moment of quiet respite and meditation. The church is historic and, in its physical structure, simply lovely, with stained glass renditions of the Stations of the Cross, an impressive organ, and a sanctuary and altar somehow both humble and glorious in their subtle detail—brass railings, the cloverleaf pattern on the choir pews, the marble floors and cherry stained wood leading up to the altar. Unfortunately, theft has kept the congregation and church leadership hesitant to leave St. Mark’s open. Even with the crosses and candlesticks locked safely away by the altar guild, items have still gone missing—sometimes even baffling items from baffling places. While the parishioners are eager to share their church with others and often appreciate that the theft may stem from deeper social ills, it ends up leaving a sour taste of confusion, anger, and disappointment on the tongue.

At the end of Canto 24, Dante and Virgil encounter Vanni Fucci, a “beast” who stole treasure from the sacristy in Pistoia. “A mule among men,” Vanni Fucci “chose the bestial life above the human” and that choice has delivered him to the seventh bolgia in hell’s eighth circle (21). As far as levels of hell and bolgia to avoid, this one is high on the list. Here the sinners swarmed “naked and without hope,” they were “terrified,” and, worse still, “Their hands were bound behind by coils of serpents/ which thrust their heads and tails between the loins/ and bunched in front, a mass of knotted torments” (209). There is a cruel and intentional irony in these thieves having their hands—the most likely vehicle of their crimes—tied by vipers behind their backs. And these are particularly creepy snakes, mind you. Just moments before arriving at the bolgia, as our heroes neared the “the next chasm’s darkness,” Dante heard in the snakes a sound akin to a wrathful speaker somehow unable to form words (208). The depth from which that tormented voice sought to rise appeared bottomless, and so, not knowing what ill might have met them there, Dante and Virgil agreed to slightly alter their route. Even before we know what’s coming, we can feel, almost immediately, that this was a good move. All together it makes for a dark and eerie scene.

Snakes play such a powerful role in myth and imagination, with negative connotations from jump in Genesis, to the positive connotations associated with Kundalini (the “coiled one,” represented as a snake) in yogic traditions. Located at the base of the spine, coiled Kundalini is the power of a seeker’s latent consciousness. Once roused, Kundalini unravels, extending up through the chakras and ushering the seeker through higher and higher levels of consciousness and spiritual awakening. But these aren’t the kind of snakes Dante’s talking about. The very memory of the snakes in bolgia seven made Dante’s “blood run cold,” and so should ours in this seething pit of high drama. The snakes bite the sinners, dissolving them “into a heap/ upon the ground,” whereupon they turn to ash, they rise and sigh, already in anticipation of the agony’s repetition. Sorry love: it’s a Groundhog Day that will never, despite the perpetual resurrection, lead to redemption:

(Digression: Insert blues riff. Let’s say, 4/4 time: “I’m in bolgia seven and I got the blues/ thieves to my left and thieves to my right/ can’t tell whether it is day or night/ tied up by snakes that bite me on the neck/ I fall to ashes and say, ‘Hey man, what the heck?’/ I got them bolgia seven blues/ been a long time baby since we had good news…)

There are several turns in this canto, moments in which I felt as though Dante winked at me—from his almost bucolic rendering of a vernal scene at the canto’s start to Virgil’s admonition of Dante to tighten his belt: “The man who lies asleep/ will never waken fame…”(207). I don’t have the pluck to take up all of these moments here. It is enough, it seems to me, to contemplate the nature of thievery. As anyone who has had material possessions stolen can testify, we experience theft as a deep violation, not merely of our personal possessions but of our selves. The emotional range of our reactions can be profound—from disillusionment, disgust, and questions of personal safety to a nagging sense of disappointment in our fellow man. (And all of that before we even begin to deal with the fallout of what we’ve lost.) Theft ravages. So, sure, Fucci is a “beast” simply because he stole, but his beastliness is certainly made worse because he stole from a church. Dante makes clear that stealing what is sacred is diabolical; in pilfering from a church we rob God and those seeking to worship or know God. That’s low.

About the nuances of this kind of transgression there’s much more to say, though I don’t think I can elegantly unpack it all here. In my experience, theft doesn’t simply trample the golden rule or cross an established boundary. Whatever the reason behind the theft—be it hunger, malevolence, a still developing frontal lobe—, taking what isn’t ours undermines our sense of community. It blasts a hole through our social fabric—even “minor” theft. (Little moths still nibble away at the linens.) It bites us, reduces us, and, when we have the strength to rise again, we do so with a sigh.

Part of theft’s deeper, more lasting damage arises from our (understandably) kneejerk reactions and need for self-preservation. If we can, we want to patch the fabric and put it away so that nothing ever molests it again. We jam the cycle of giving’s gears, removing from circulation and creation many of the things we hold precious. It’s a response that makes sense, even though I’m not sure it’s always healthy. We can feel such a need to protect what’s ours that we neglect those around us, their needs, and the compassion that might grow in us if we were to extend ourselves enough to experience another’s reality. Thieves will do what they will. We, on the other hand, close down our houses, our sanctuaries, our hearts, imagining those around us as potential vipers, slithering about what we have and they hope to get.


canto 23: painted people

Jake Willard-Crist

Hypocrisy is originally a dramatic term.  It contains the Greek ύπό (hypo), which means ‘under’, and the verb κρίνειη (krinein), to judge, decide, determine, etc.  A hupokrites was a character who spoke out from under a homogenous chorus, and the word gradually came to refer in general to one who plays a part.  Under the guise of another, so to speak, one makes his/her judgments and decisions.  Hypocrites are actors, connoisseurs of pretense:  they are una genta dipinta, in Dante’s words, a painted people.  In canto 23 the contrapasso is spot on.  Those who put the most weight on their exterior are now overburdened by it.  I picture an underdeveloped interior dangling pitifully under the two-ton cowl like the clapper of a bell.

We identify hypocrisy most readily in politics and religion.  Our political leaders and people of faith have chosen to don a mantle of moral rectitude, and it’s easy to find the areas where their unwieldy bodies slip out of the tight costume.  Our preachers and public orators exhort us to follow higher paths, and we are quick to fling our epithets of hypocrisy at them, when they’ve been paparazzied on the lower streets.  However, hypocrisy cannot be boiled down to a simple failure to consistently practice what you preach.  Though the cross weighs a ton, and they drop it as much as we do, our preachers should not stop urging us to bear it.  Our leaders should not give up their clarions to charity and compassion, though they stumble.  Hypocrisy, rather, is deliberate pretense.  It is moral cosmetics.  It is about maintaining power—not just in the Machiavellian (that other famous Florentine) sense of using princely pretense to negotiate the demands of various political interests, but also in the more down-to-earth sense of the political power of standing out in the crowd, like the old Greek hupokrites on stage, separate from the chorus.

The saddled hypocrites in Hell are locked in an eternal procession.  Just as their ceremony has been distended into eternity, their ceremonious vestments are gilded lead.  In the words of Christ from the Sermon on the Mount, “they have their reward.”  Their desire was to be recognized by their outward appearance and act, and now that pretense is their defining characteristic.  The word hypocrite, it is worth noting, is used several times in Matthew 6.  Here Jesus is counseling his audience against ostentatious displays of piety—trumpeting one’s almsgiving, distorting one’s features while fasting, praying in the open streets and sanctuaries.  In short, Jesus exhorts, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:1).  In these verses, public displays of piety are for purposes of self-promotion, of exerting influence over the crowds; but Christ champions a piety of secrecy, one more attuned to the interior than the exterior, to the eschatological reward more than the immediate reward.

Hypocrisy is a political sin.  It is always perpetrated in crowds, in networks of relationships.  It is a sin of thinness, veneer, of lightness.  It is the satin or silk of sins.  In baptism, according to Paul in Galatians, one ‘puts on Christ’.  The water seeps into our skin, and we become Christ-saturated.  But when our bodies are greased with the Christ-mask we’ve painted ourselves, the water beads and remains on the service.  Divine justice, in the Infernal law, says “the surface is all.”  The stole that one wore so lightly on earth is now a leaden horseshoe.  In Paradise, one imagines, the ones who bore la grave stola of the cross (and didn’t, in self-interest and political expediency, like Caiaphas, pawn it off to another) are floating in wonderful lightness, unmoored by the interiors they filled in secret with the Spirit.  There, then, is the true hupokrites, set apart from the crowd, a pure holy drifting.


Canto 22: Mala-Coda

Pier Kooistra

Dante at this point is not just writing about blasts (such as the ass-trumpeting through which at the end of Canto XXI Malacoda mock-heralds the action to come). Clearly, at this point, he’s having one himself. He can’t contain the fun he’s having conjuring Hell.

Dante opens Canto XXII with a sort of epic grandeur:

I have seen horsemen moving camp before,

And when they muster, and when an assault begins,

And beating a retreat when they retire;

I have seen coursers, too, O Aretines,

Over your lands, and raiders setting out,

And openings of jousts and tourneys (ll. 1-6)—

…only to upend such pomp and circumstance with something more George Carlin than Sir Edward Elgar. For, whereas the canto has opened with the aforequoted martial tableau, continuing with the evocation of “bell and trumpet and drum, and signals set / On castles by native and foreign signalry” (ll. 7-8), in line 9 Dante shifts—to the but(t):

But I never saw so strange a flageolet

Send foot or horsemen forth, nor ship at sea

Guided by land or star! (ll. 9-11)

Hold it. What is a flageolet?  Furthermore, what is this “member of the fipple flute family” doing here in Canto XXII? Aha! It is the trumpet Malacoda made of his ass at the close of the last canto, for, “We journeyed now / With the ten demons” (ll. 11-2). In other words, there’s not just something comparative going on here; there’s something causal: The lesser Malebranche have received a signal to get moving.

As I said, Dante is having fun. Earlier I thought nothing more of the name Malacoda than “Evil Tail.” But now the name suggests both “Bad Ass” (as in big, bad leader) and “Foul End” or “Smelly Butt.” Moreover, the name seems to encode what happens here at the beginning of Canto XXII: We have a mal(odorous) coda, in  a musical sense, that reprises what happened at the end of Canto XXI. (And it seems likely to me that Mr. Pinsky may be in on the fun, too. Sure, flageolet provides a rhyme with “signals set” that fulfills the terms of the rhyme scheme articulated by Mr. Pinsky in his “Translator’s Note” at the beginning of our text. But trumpet, at least in a slant-rhyme-y way, would do the same thing…but without the intimation/slant-echoing of flatulate.)

So much of what happens here in Canto XXII, while Dante and Virgil encounter frauds (the barrator of “good King Thibaut’s household,” p. 179; Fra Gomita, p. 181, who as chancellor in the court of Nino Visconti of Gallura appeared to serve his lord faithfully while, in fact, taking bribes whose payment resulted in the clandestine freeing of some of Nino’s prisoners) constitutes a sort of “mala-coda.”

On the canto’s opening page Dante identifies the sinners who suffer in this “pouch” of Malebolge with dolphins…only to specify that, in fact, the likeness here is perverted. Whereas in rising to the ocean’s surface and arching their backs dolphins do themselves no automatic harm in signaling to sailors to save their vessels, here in Malebolge the sinners who rise to the surface do, of course, signal to Dante not to make the same terrible errors that they have—but at the cost of hideous suffering.

Whereas frogs in nature save themselves by disappearing from a pond’s surface to take refuge in the depths below, the sinners who, frog-like, disappear into the liquid misery of Malebolge do avoid , at least for a moment, one kind of agony (attack by the Malebranche)…but only to experience the equally miserable torment of boiling.

Again and again, in this canto that focuses on the torment of frauds, the details operate as frauds do: They appear at first in one light, only to reveal, later on, other intentions, other outcomes. They present themselves initially with one face, only to turn somewhat later and conclude with a “foul end” or “evil tail.”

And so: A canto that began with mock seriousness, that then horsed (and “Wild Hog”ged and “Nasty Dragon”ned) around quite playfully for a good long while, turns into a cruel fight at the end. In a way, this is gladiatorial entertainment that amounts to comic relief; things continue to be fun. But in a way—a very real way—the fun is a fraud—a foul ending, a mala-coda.


Canto 21: Oddly Satisfying

By Gordon S. Mikoski, Princeton Theological Seminary

I have to admit that I found this canto oddly satisfying. Maybe I should have said “perversely satisfying.” Confusion about what is going on in this canto gave way, eventually, to insight and, finally, perverse enjoyment. Here’s why.

When I first read the canto, I had no idea what was really going on – beyond the obvious encounter with demons. A little internet research taught me the meaning of a new word: barratry. For some reason, this was a new word for me. According to the online Miriam- Webster’s Dictionary it means: “1. the purchase or sale of office or preferment in church or state
2 : an unlawful act or fraudulent breach of duty by a master of a ship or by the mariners to the injury of the owner of the ship or cargo 3 : the persistent incitement of litigation.” In other words, barratry is a fancy word for the corruption of officials in church or state. In the case of Canto XXI, Dante uses it to refer to corrupt politicians. All of a sudden, the scene began to make sense to me.

This is the place in hell (pretty far down, I might add) where corrupt politicians go. Before death, they perverted justice and the good of the state. For a price, they could be bought and sold. As Dante said, “…and given cash they can contrive a yes from any no.” That has an all too familiar ring to it. Sounds like the U.S. Congress to me! Now that I know this new word – barratry – you can bet that I am going to throw it around as often as I can when referring to our federal lawmakers – pretty much all of whom are on the take.

As I reflect on what is wrong with American democracy today, I keep coming to the conclusion that the flow of lobbyist money into the pockets of Democrats and Republicans alike is the root of the problem. As I see it, both sides of the aisle are corrupted by major financial interests like the petroleum, armaments, and pharmaceutical industries – to name of few of the most prominent suspects. Even though there are occasional calls for campaign finance reform and measures that would put some sort of buffer between lobbyists with deep pockets and our elected officials, these generally come to nothing. My deepest concern about the American political system is that it cannot right itself. The buying and selling of Congress by special interests is too pervasive and too deep. In my humble opinion, this – more than anything else – is eroding the great American experiment.

You can see why I took some perverse pleasure in seeing corrupt politicians getting shoved down into the black, stultifying tar of this level of hell. There is something comically ironic about money grubbing politicians (whose hands are sticky for money) being mired in sticky filth from which they cannot extricate themselves. At least somewhere and at some point (even if in literary imagination!), corrupt politicians finally get what is coming to them for the terrible destruction to the society that they have caused.

The second source of my perverse pleasure in this canto comes from the devils themselves. Look, I know they are devils; but they provide some pretty funny comic relief in the midst of all the darkness and the horror of hell. Even though Dante and Virgil are granted safe passage by virtue of divine decree, one of the devils says to his buddies as Dante walks past, “Should I just touch him on the rump [with his hook]?” Even though it is not allowed, the others gleefully nod in approval, “Yes – go on and give him a cut.” This just cracked me up. Who knew that devils could be so funny. Then, at the end of the canto, as Dante and Virgil head off with an escort of devils who will get them to the point of a functioning bridge, the rest of the devils hail their leader by making grimaces with tongues against their teeth (a Bronx cheer in hell?). The piece de resistance, though, comes in the last line of the canto when the leader of this cohort of demons salutes his troops with a royal blast. In Dante’s more colorful and direct words, “…the leader made a trumpet of his ass.” Even though the politicians didn’t know how to act in a manner becoming to their office, the devils (qua devils) know how to act appropriately for their station in hell. Hilarious, poignant, and bawdy all at the same time.

So far, this is my favorite canto.