Category Archives: Inferno

Canto 15 Can we make ourselves eternal?

By Gordon S. Mikoski, Princeton Theological Seminary

In this canto, Dante encounters his former teacher Brunetto Latini. In the touching conversation between former teacher and former student, Dante recalls “…It was you who showed the way man makes himself eternal…” There is great irony in this statement. Dante’s teacher does live eternally, but in hell. It is hard to tell whether Dante places him there for his teaching of hubris or for his homosexuality (the major encoded theme of this canto). For the sake of  conversation, I suggest we go down the hubris track.

The biblical allusions involved in human beings attempting to make themselves eternal go all the way back to the Tower of Babel and to the Garden of Eden in the first chapters of Genesis. The human endeavor to make ourselves eternal always ends badly. This tragic impulse brought about the Fall. It also brought about divine wrath which destroyed the first ziggurut and the confusion of languages (or the condemnation to perpetual misunderstanding). With a little help from John Calvin and Karl Barth, we can even say that all “religion” – inasmuch as it is a thoroughly human attempt to make ourselves eternal – can be accounted for in relation to the tragic impulse to stave off the inevitability of death.

Why stop with “religion”? It does not take much analytical insight to see that much of what we occupy ourselves with in culture involves the attempt to make ourselves eternal. I would certainly include acquiring wealth and expensive symbols (cars, homes, clothing, jewelry, exclusive memberships, and the like) in the category of attempting to make ourselves eternal. Certainly, the twin American obsessions with youth and sexual gratification begin to make sense as tragic grasps at eternal life. After a while, it becomes easier to list the aspects of life and culture that are not about the quixotic quest to make ourselves eternal. Even the key strategy for a certain American political party revolves around the twin strategy of activating the fear of death and then promising a perpetual extension of life if elected (Oh, yes. I just went there).

My vocation has taken me into the realm of higher education. The quest to make oneself eternal through scholarship (especially publication) is alive and well in academia. We academics want to make a name for ourselves. We want to make a difference through our publications and our teaching. We are not immune from the same sin as Dante’s teacher: attempting to make ourselves eternal through our scholarly endeavors.

Perhaps we should all take a lesson from Dante. He would teach us that there is something higher and more reliable than attempting to make ourselves eternal. He seems to say to us that we cannot save ourselves. The attempt to do so may well be the height of selfishness or self-assertion. Instead, we are called to let God save us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Only the free gift of God on Good Friday and Easter can make us eternal. The truth of our existence is that we cannot save ourselves nor can we make ourselves eternal; salvation and eternal life comes to us as a gift  from Another. Once we see the truth about misguided attempts at auto-salvation and have ears to hear the Good News of the Gospel that comes to us from outside (extra nos), we can begin to reorder our lives according to the gracious and life-giving will of God. We can cease to live tragically for ourselves and begin to live creatively for God and others.

Dante’s encounter with his former teacher seems to be a perfect Lenten moment. It brings into bold relief the sad irony involved in our multifaceted attempts to save ourselves and it points us to the higher truth of the gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ, whose body was broken and whose blood was spilled for us and for our salvation.


Canto 14: Money, Sex, Language, Oh My!

By John Timpane

Warning: The author of the following piece has a very dirty mouth and mind. He is perhaps the last person who should be writing such high-minded things.

Each of us and all of us are in a relation to God – whether we like it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not, whether we are attentive to it or not. Being itself is a relationship, and we who exist change our beings, and our relationship to God, by what we do. When we speak, we speak out of and within our relation to God. Same when we use money, when we invest it, when we hope our investments prosper. Same when we are physically close to our beloved, around and within our beloved, welcoming our beloved with all senses, literally with everything we’ve got. As the neoplatonists believed, that is when we are next to God.

In Canto XIV, Dante beholds one of the most horrible set-pieces yet, as he sets eyes on the Third Ring of the Seventh Circle. It’s a panorama of pain played out on an arid desert plain, with flames falling from on high on the suffering damned. Blasphemers lie supine (so they suffer on both sides at once), usurers sit on the sand, and sodomites wander ceaselessly. We are told this circle is reserved for those who have been violent toward God.

Medieval categories can strike us (as ours would strike them) as inconsistent and arbitrary. What do usurers share with sodomites? And what does either category of sinner have in common with blasphemers? How are these sins violence toward God?

Usury violence against God? Well, isn’t it? Ten percent of Americans, more or less, are unemployed at the moment and probably will be for an average time of six months. The percentage swells to 17 if we count the underemployed and those not even searching for work. And, as Dante would be the first to say, much of this is chickens come home to roost in our way of making money out of money. I won’t go into the relative moral standing of derivatives and hedge funds, even if I understood them, and I don’t – but I do know that our intention with money is deeply sick and deeply culpable. We act as if riches are what we’re here for. We regard as fools anyone who lives as if money isn’t the main or most important thing, and we celebrate as geniuses anyone who manages to compile the biggest pile.

It’s not wealth itself. You do have to make a living, and it is not always evil to have prospered. (Not always.) But in our unconscious celebration of the ways money pollutes, we are all usurers. Usurers place money between themselves and God. And that is violence supreme.

We perhaps will be most uncomfortable with the sodomites being in the Seventh Circle. Their restlessness lets us know that, in Dante’s world, sodomy was always wrong (and, by the way, the term had a very expansive meaning – it included homosexual and pederastic acts but could also include what used to be called “perversions” in general), that practitioners of these acts had lost their way and had forfeited spiritual rest.

I am profoundly uneasy with any viewpoint that condemns homosexuality per se as always, inevitably damnable. I speak only for myself (and that’s how everyone should speak of these things), but I cannot find the moral ground from which I could ever make a judgment like that. The point is not the gender you choose to be intimate with – it’s how you treat people within intimacy.

But Dante’s vision strikes home when we accept that each of us is a pervert, in the darkest sense. Perhaps we are largely conventional in our conduct in the realm of intimacy – yet what is more morally sensitive, what more challenging to our patience, our compassion, our ability to show love, than intimacy? Anyone who says, “I have never failed in my intimate life” is saying something not even they will believe. And intimacy is so momentous, so deific, and so damaging when it collapses, that when any of us fail, that’s a moment of perversion (“turning away”). In the sense that the loved one is our ultimate home, our mirror of God, our chance to be our best and do our best, when we turn away, lose patience, withhold gentleness, suppress compassion, when we do not see our beloved (as in the Na’vi sense of I see you), when we fail to be home for our beloved, to take him/her in, shelter him/her, lead our guests to the table of the Lord in our intimacy – then, truly, we have lost our home and wander an arid life ceaselessly. We have shown utmost violence against the God in our beloved, and the God in us.

During Lent, there might be nothing that haunts me so much as the many perversions littering my path.

Violence against God is easy to see with blasphemers, who employ language to abuse the deity. Our age does not take cursing or blasphemy seriously – in fact, our age, maybe because it is awash in words, saturated with an engulfing onrush of language, doesn’t take language seriously. Cursing is a way to be accepted, to show you’re modern, with it, to fit in with various crowds. It’s how men show other men they’re tough. It’s how teens show other teens they’re willful, rebellious, and cool.

Let’s take a mild case. That sucks, once a thing you’d never hear in public, is almost invisible today because it has become so common. It is, of course, entirely coarse and insulting; its broad acceptance as an expression of exasperation, judgment, or sympathy suggests to some people that we have become desensitized.

That sucks insults an intimate act. Behind the slang use of suck is the notion that certain sex acts are dirty, and those who perform them (women, mostly) are degraded thereby. Strangely, and ironically, many of us enjoy being sucked – yet much of our common language assumes that sucking is bad and suckers polluted and inferior. If a Martian came down from Mars and observed our swearing habits, they’d be perplexed.

Fuck you is a subjunctive or optative statement meaning May someone have sexual intercourse with you. “Oh, what a nice custom, to wish such a pleasant fate on somebody else,” say the Martians. They would not be able to hear the toxic overtones in the verb fuck, which (although often used as a catchall term for intercourse – and that’s toxic in itself) is freighted with overtones of degradation, submission, and even violence. May someone have sexual intercourse with you – and may it ruin you.

I remember the first Lent I ever tried to give up swearing. It was sixth grade, and I’d only gotten started. Hell and damn exclusively – I wonder if I even knew any others. I didn’t make it. What was hard about keeping the resolution was this: I did it without thinking. The horse was out of the barn, galloping over the hill, and eating daisies in the neighbor’s farm, way before I was aware. I even woke up one morning remembering a stray hell the day before.

I try to exercise all sorts of disciplines during Lent, and I do try to watch my mouth. To me, words and our use of words, our second-to-second choice of what to say and how to say it, is the closest, most continual gauge of the self who does the choosing. Word choice is moral choice. It has to be.

Now allow me to contradict myself. I want to make clear that at some level, a certain degree of freedom and coarseness with language is meant not to be taken seriously. And if we take it too seriously, we assume a moral position it’s impossible to maintain. If we have no sense of humor, well, for me, that’s acedia. If we allow no sense of play, even coarse play, with language, we set ourselves up as tiny gods.

What’s bad is when we use words as weapons, when we say Go to hell and mean it, Fuck you and mean it, whore or ho and mean it, when we imagine the person before us as shit, as garbage, as worthless. When we do such things, we do violence, literally, to the target person, and thus to God. And we do worst violence to ourselves, and thus to God.

As my sixth-grade experiment shows, we can’t actually watch every word we speak. Language is too liquid, too quick, too mercurial. And we shouldn’t be like the naïve sixth-grader me, worried he was polluted because he said hell yesterday.

What I need, this and every Lent, to think of is my general ways with language, the values that flow out of my mouth and pen and keyboard. Am I building up or tearing down? Am I having playful fun, toying with openness and abandon in creative ways, or am I just being a pottymouth and pottyhead? Do I ever, when I open my lips, sacred portals created by the deity, dirty those portals with words as weapons?

And if I deny this ever happens, aren’t I like Capaneus, the type of the toxically proud man? He declared he was so great he couldn’t be beaten – and then he got smoked by a higher authority. Our usury, our perversion, our violent words all speak loud and clear, all the way to Good Friday. Humility. Humility.


Canto 13: My Life in Thorns

By Jeff Vamos

Here’s a question: In what sense does your life belong to you? And if so, in what sense are we free to give it? Or take it? Seems to me Big D is tempting us to meditate on that question.

I’m a Dante amateur – but it strikes me that this Canto is as rich, variegated and theologically (and poetically) complex as Canto 33 – which is for my money perhaps the most beautiful bits of literature (and theology) I’ve ever read or experienced.

As in Canto 33, we are witnessing the very subtle and ironic perversion (inversion?) of that impulse or opportunity that can land one in heaven.  In Canto 33, it is the perversion of the Eucharist (in the lowest pit of hell, it has become cannibalism). Here it is, I think (perhaps you thought I thought…ahem)… the inversion of the cross. The squandering of the gift of one’s own life, whose highest expression is found through giving it. But here its ultimate perversion and squandering is in taking it. And we see (as in Canto 33) how close those two possibilities can be. As Augustine said, sin is the perversion of the desire to love. And perhaps that is a theological insight that’s key to understanding D’s Comedia.

We begin the canto with images of faux verdancy: a forest of deadness and pain that is now the embodiment of those who forsook their bodies. We have the image of anti-life, of its botanical inversion and negation. Instead of fruit, the foliage bears thorns. Instead of offering life and sweet sustenance, these anti-plants instead offer pain – a “fruit” that both inflicts pain and suffers it at the same time (such is the irony of suicide: the victim and perpetrator of violence is the same).

I would love others to comment here, but that dominant symbol seen here (thorns) carries with it so many biblical resonances, for me at least. The sacrificial victim of the Lamb that Abraham finds caught in a thornbush as a substitution for Isaac in Genesis 22 comes to mind (a foreshadowing of Christ for those who read the OT that way). But the first and most obvious one has to do with the Passion story. In that central moment in the drama of incarnation, the divine man chooses to suffer; to give his life “as a ransom for many”. Here, a man in a similar situation – Pier della Vigna (PdV) – has a parallel opportunity to do so.

As Peter held the keys to the kingdom, Pier (is the name a coincidence?) holds the keys to Frederick’s heart (as the Pope is to God, according to Ciardi’s note on this). Seems Dante is intentionally posing PdV as a kind of inverse image of Peter, the vicar of Christ. Like Christ, he is accused unjustly (out of “Envy”) of a crime he did not commit; like Christ, PdV has a reputation for moral blamelessness, which he’s obviously claiming for himself. He, like the Lamb caught in the thornbush, is a victim.

And here is the brilliant irony, and the glorious delusion Dante puts on display: “To this, my glorious office, I stayed so true / I lost both sleep and life.”

PdV was a loyal advisor to Frederick the II, who through political machinations going on around him fell out of favor, and was imprisoned and tortured.  When given the opportunity to endure suffering (symbolized in the Biblical narrative as a crown of thorns), PdV instead escapes it, by hitting the eject button.

Here really IS a tragic statement (and just because Ciardi fits here, I use his): “unjustly blamed, / my soul, in scorn, and thinking to be free / of scorn in death, made me at last, though just, / unjust to myself.” Like Dante, I feel pity for him. Instead of suffering torture and ill repute, he tries to juke his fate. And who can blame him? Dante doesn’t pick some thin, cardboard character to illustrate this particular sin. This is one whose sin we could easily justify. He is a just man, unjustly tortured.

To me this irony (the very subtle inversion of the cross) seems no more clear than in line 100ff, when PdV is describing the contrapasso for all those like him who forsook their bodies. In contrast to the one whose body hung on a tree to secure the redemption of all, this is the destiny of the bodies of those imprisoned here (following RP): “Here shall we drag them and in this mournful wood / Our bodies will be hung: with every one / fixed on the thornbush of its wounding shade.”

I guess it was Jung who said that neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering. Perhaps we see that at its most extreme here: the neurosis for PdV is to misconstrue the purpose of his life. His reputation (and virtue?) had become more important than his life. Irony indeed. And his moral failure was the inability to endure the pain of it, which as we know in the next Canticle (Purgatory) is the very stuff that transforms one into the likeness of God, and enables humans to feel and to know heaven. His is the squandered opportunity to show that love shown to us: willing to suffer and die. Here, life is taken, squandered.

I respect Dante for the way in which this theme is explored with such subtlety and skill. Even the poetry (and I’m only reflecting others’ expertise here) is part of the irony: the very carefully wrought verse is meant to telegraph the appearance of PdV, by using a type of verse that he himself was fond of; the literary skill that was a mark of PdV’s (all so important) reputation. And as I understand it, the gnarliness of the poetry reflects its landscape.

There are so so many other things going on here, seems to me. This just scratches the surface. For example: the theme that Dante seems to be developing around the desire of those shades in hell both to be pitied (and here, he makes a convincing case), and to have one’s reputation “cleared” in the life above. The irony around how Virgil coaxes Dante to get PdV’s shade to speak (it means having to cause pain). And, what’s going on with those Harpies? Perverse birds in the anti-nest?

All I can say about this is…wow. Wish I could get out of my day job today to get further beneath the surface of this….


Canto 12: Violent Against Neighbors

Adrienne Perry

Even the terrain in hell can change.

As Dante and Virgil head into the first round of hell’s seventh circle, they stand on the edge of a devastating and treacherous pit. No accidental tourist, Virgil has passed through “this dark way to the depths of Hell” before; yet he notes that the topography, on this journey, has changed dramatically (112). Dante describes it as a “ruin” similar to “the result of an earthquake/or of some massive fault in the escarpment—” (111). Given the photographs of downed houses, upturned roads, and piles of rubble from Haiti, Chile, or eastern Turkey, it isn’t hard to imagine the “broken cleft” our poet and his guide saw. Without warning, earth and hell rip open and then seal off their wounds like a boxer’s bloody mouth opening and closing.

My Uncle Richie was a pugilist and a Jehovah’s Witness; he would have seen no accident—indeed, only continued portent—in the physical, human, and spiritual upheavals of the last few months. Virgil looks at his “hellscape” and also sees the hand of God at play. After all, it was in the coming of Christ, as he “took/ the souls from Limbo, that all Hell was shaken…” (112). Virgil goes on to say that, in that eventful moment, he “thought the universe felt love/ and all its elements moved toward harmony,” though we see more convincing evidence in this canto of “ancient rock…stricken and broke open” (112). To my ear the poetry in these lines and in this canto soar, even though they do so, like a bird flying down a mineshaft, in hell’s ever darkening, deepening, shape-shifting landscape. (Mi dispiace, Dante, for not unpacking more of it here and by so doing seeking to revel in those moments of exquisite poetry.)

The river of blood proves to be the most obscene and disturbing part of this scene. The Minotaur didn’t have it easy above ground, and in hell he’s as dodgy as the path Dante and Virgil must navigate to pass him. The centaurs, with their bows and arrows at the ready, have a “shoot first, ask questions later” attitude. Split between man and beast, their very physical being makes them possessors of a (potentially) terrible, unpredictable power. (Just like animals; just like us.) And yet, outside of the few moments when their arrows are turned toward this creature who “moves what he touches,” their attentions remain trained on the souls cooking, at various depths, in the river (113). Somehow, I expected the river of blood to be red, but it is instead a “scalding purple” in my translation. A gruesome reduction.

In hell, I’m beginning to realize, all of a river’s good—indeed much of nature’s good—appears turned on its ear. True, earthly rivers cause destruction and wreak havoc, yet they also make life possible. They replenish the land as they flow seaward. They transport us and our “goods,” literally and metaphorically, up and down river. Crossing the Mississippi or flying above the Colorado makes easy a sense of wonder. Rivers baptize us, they heal us, they usher us from one shore of our existence to the next. They don’t turn into the burning Cuyahoga River, in other words, without some sin. Nor do we get, without some sin, a river of blood that feeds into itself, in a loop with depths both profound enough to cover a man and shallow enough for some critters to barely wet their hooves.

As children we used to prick our fingers and become blood brothers/sisters with the other kids in our neighborhood. Someone always had the needle if someone else had the will. We might not all have been born of the same family, from the same blood, yet by combining our red sap we could become kin to one another and symbolically unite our family trees. We went around saying that we were brothers and sisters to one another, not only because of this ritual, but because someone had heard at church that we were all brothers and sisters in the eyes of God. For a few weeks, this neighborly, embracing notion of “blood” relations took off like a match to dried grasses.

Everyone hanging out in the river of blood either ignored or forsook that basic notion of brotherhood, even though their sins appear to be on a sliding scale—a hierarchy which leaves Dionysius and Alexander up to their eyelashes and a bunch of cats, whom Dante recognizes, free from the waist up. Though of a similar type, not all of these sins are created equal. Is Eichmann covered over, Ted Bundy bare from the shoulders up, and woman who poisoned her neighbor wading up to her kneecaps? The centaurs may be ready to shoot them back down when they get “uppity,” but these questions invite questions about the nature of sin and hell and justice.

Nessus guides Dante and Virgil expertly past the river to “deeper Hell,” explaining the various figures and their sins along the way. At one telling moment, Virgil raises his hand to hush Dante, “Let him be the teacher now, and I will listen” (114). I wondered what Nessus was thinking, whether this was all in a day’s work for a centaur and a soldier of sorts. After he carries them across the river, he goes back across the ford without fanfare. There is work. There is hell. There is the reality of blood. Much like, when we as girls asked my father about Vietnam, “Have you ever killed anyone?” All of the blood in him froze. He didn’t answer. He walked upstairs, back to his work, without saying a word.


Canto 11: Smoke Break

By Jake Willard-Crist

Lucky me—assigned to comment on the Inferno’s expository interlude.  I recently, and unfortunately, saw Angels & Demons, the movie based on the Dan Brown novel.  My wife Keri and I snickered each time Tom Hanks, playing the erudite Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, made good use of the actionless intervals to educate his co-stars and viewers with the intricacies of papal history and occultist lore relevant to the plot.  Dante and Vergil engage in something similar here, resting behind the upturned lid of a heretical pope’s sepulcher, under the pretenses of inuring themselves to the noxious fumes.  “While we’re waiting, Vergil, why not elucidate for us the moral architecture of Hell?” Dante asks.  I sense something like an editorial contingency here (perhaps you might agree, John):  the author needs to pause and lay it out for us, at least to appease all those readers with a cartographic penchant.

Though this canto is, arguably, necessary, I found it to be less exciting reading compared to what we’ve encountered so far.  It wore its contrivance too thick.  Perhaps this is due to my general allergy to taxonomy (which, on a side note, is why I tend to abstain from orthodoxy/heresy conversations)—Aristotle and Aquinas give me hives.  I think my ears perked up twice in my reading: first, the reference to Dis as the “red city”; and second, the closing temporal reference: “above us in the skies the Fish are quivering at the horizon’s edge.”  It’s the perennial tension between the poetry and its undergirding theory, and the manner in which the latter pokes its head out into the former.  How many of us have spaced out when the Exodus narrative breaks into legislation?

I will say that the canto sparked some reflection on the messy science of human morality.  Dante picks here from Aristotle, Cicero, Genesis, and Aquinas to construct his infernal scaffolding, and still he seems to forget about the heretics he just encountered, as well as the souls in Limbo.  This kind of moral anatomizing does not lend itself to exactitude, especially when it involves assumptions about the divine moral imagination.  When lawmakers have pretensions to retributive precision, they seem to get dangerously close to barbarism.  Teeth and eyes for teeth and eyes is not difficult arithmetic; however, when we begin to get into that metaphorical dental and optic territory, then we collapse into subtle casuistries.

I’d be interested to hear from someone more versed in U.S. legal history, who might offer a short-list of influences apparent in our own penal system.  Why doll out 5 to 10 years to one, only 5 years to another, or life to another?  Are modern penitentiaries (note the obvious etymology of that word) adumbrations of hell’s stratifications?  Incidentally, though Pinsky translates stipa in XI.3 as “pen”, many translators have felt that “prison” is the most appropriate English rendering.  All the damned souls in their niches–I wonder how far we’ve come from the infernal hive and the logic that bolsters it…(I mean it when I say “I wonder”–I really don’t know, and would welcome any feedback, even to tell me the association is way off base. )


canto 10: Coffers of Stone

Pier Kooistra

Canto X—“Here Epicurus lies / With all his followers” (ll. 11-12).

As in Canto IX, Dante is in the sixth circle of hell, but now with an emphasis on the fact that in this place Epicurean heretics—those who in life declared disbelief in an afterlife, asserting that the soul dies with the body—“are shut / Ensepulchered within…coffers of stone / Making…sounds of anguish from inside” (ll. 111-3, Canto IX). According to Dante’s cosmography, clearly, there IS an afterlife, and for these souls—surprise!—their earlier wayward belief has resulted in a present lot that is especially—vengefully—cruel and grim.

I’m going to bypass most of the details from Dante’s exchanges with Farinata and Cavalcante—about Guido, about the war between the Ghibelines and Guelphs—to join Gordon in addressing heresy.

In the circle of the world that our little crew of bloggers inhabits, the word heresy doesn’t get used much. It’s essentially a shibboleth that, when uttered seriously, signals an incursion by an outsider, someone who hasn’t learned, or hasn’t accepted, that when we (hmmm, how to categorize us?) New York Times readers / NPR listeners hear the word heresy, we pretty much automatically think, “Oh oh, here’s a moron of the burning-infidels-at-the-stake type.” So I very much appreciate Gordon’s post on Canto IX, not only for its willingness to take on heretical stupidities (such as the idea of natural disasters being wrathful acts of God) but also for Gordon’s insistence that we consider heresy, nonetheless, as a real danger for all of us—in other words, not just as the muck of gross oversimplification in which the patently ridiculous Pat Robertsons get stuck. Who would challenge Gordon’s assertion that “wrong or distorted beliefs can and do still lead to various kinds of human wreckage”? Who would dismiss his contention that “right belief and the actions that follow from it can mean the difference for us between (spiritual) life and death”?

I make innumerable mistakes every day, often resulting in regrettable costs. I would like to avoid such mistakes.

I have no interest in, nor cause for, arguing against Gordon. What I’d like to do, instead, is argue WITH his commentary on heresy—in a both/and, rather than either/or, way. I see the tremendous importance of laboring to avoid heresy, if what we mean by the term, as Gordon proposes, is “wrong or distorted beliefs.” But I also believe fervently in the necessity of practicing heresy, on purpose, in order to overturn harmful orthodoxy.

Last week, in response to Canto IV, I quoted Martin King’s famous line about how injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. One might say, similarly, that misunderstanding anywhere is a threat to everyone’s capacity to live lives built on truth.

In Canto X, as Dante makes his way among the heretics imprisoned in infernal sarcophagi, the doomed Cavalcante says to him at one point, “’Preserve in memory what you have heard / Against yourself…And I pray / You, listen’” (ll. 119-21). Remember what you have heard against yourself. And listen! What a striking command. It’s not easy to hold onto critical feedback, especially if it doesn’t square with the narratives and conceptions that we receive and construct about ourselves. The same is true, of course, regarding the narratives and conceptions we receive and construct about the cosmos in and from which we draw life. We’re not free perceivers and thinkers. At least, it’s not easy for us to be. We have predilections of personality and ideology that that thwart and pervert our autonomy, that predispose us to certain perceptions and ideas. I find (as indeed I’m inclined to do, in that I’m working now in a certain mindframe) this basic fact of human behavior exemplified in what Dante says to Virgil at the very beginning of this canto: “Speak to me with the answers that I crave” (l. 5). Dante doesn’t say just, Give me the answers. He says, in effect, Tell me what I want to hear. (At least, that’s one way of reading the line.)

Cavalcante’s injunction—again, “’Preserve in memory what you have heard / Against yourself…And I pray / You, listen’” (ll. 119-21)—is an important antidote to the strong human inclination to believe what we want to believe and to avoid what we don’t want to know. Clearly, ‘tis nobler in (and for) the mind (and, moreover, the whole self and, by extension, the whole society, the whole body politic) to suffer the slings and arrows of unwelcome revelation than to take arms (and at their ends the hands with which we can block our ears) against a sea (or hearing) of troubling discoveries and by ignoring end them. When such revelations pertain to the larger world of which we’re a part, when they are unwelcome but true, or at least not yet proved untrue, we must publish them in order to consider them. Thus, we must practice heresy. When such revelations pertain to us, when they challenge our ways of (mis)understanding ourselves, again, we must consider them. We must be willing to engage in apostasy—must be willing to walk away from prior belief systems in order to construct new ones that better equip us for living as rightly as possible instead of ensepulchering ourselves in bad ideas or habits.

And I say that as a certain stripe of Epicurean heretic. One might say a Feuerbachean heretic, too. Nothing in my experience, my heart, my spirit or conscience has suggested the existence of life after death. I’m one of those people for whom praying that God’s “will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven” means that we must do all in our power to realize in the material world what with our spirits we perceive as the way things should be. That means doing all we can to emancipate ourselves from coffers of stone, both physical and metaphysical.


Canto 9: Heretics

Rev. Dr. Gordon S. Mikoski, Princeton Theological Seminary

In the sixth circle of hell, Dante inquires about the flaming sepulchers he encounters. His guide informs him that those making “sounds of woe so great” as a result of “horrible pain” are the heretics and their followers. They are not named by Dante, but we know their names: Simon Magus, Marcion,  Valentinus, Arius, Donatus, Montanus, Eunomius, Mani, Nestorius, Pelagius, Sabellus,  Eutyches, Photinius, Novatus, Apollinaris, Macedonius, the Bogomils, and the Cathars. And these are only some of the most famous of the heresiarchs from the periods of the early church and the middle ages.  These heretical teachers undermined orthodox biblical teaching about the doctrine of God, christology, salvation, the authority of Scripture, and the character of the Christian life.

I find it interesting that Dante places these figures much lower in the order of hell than great Greco-Roman pagan philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Seneca. The pagan philosophers get off relatively easily in Dante’s vision: they only lack (evangelical) hope. By contrast, the heretics are found much deeper in the bowls of hell. Perhaps the reason for the differences in location have to do with Dante’s Christian humanism. While we find a basically positive view of the great pagan philosophers of antiquity, those who distorted or corrupted the core teachings of the Church are treated with severity and disdain. Perhaps this difference in Dante’s appraisal arose from the dual conviction that the best of the ancient pagans obliquely pointed toward and, in some cases, actually paved the way for belief in the holy Trinity, while the heretics ultimately turned people away from or even contributed to the destruction of authentic Christian faith. Presumably, the heretics had known the truth of the Gospel and  yet willfully distorted it to serve their own selfish interests – and brought untold thousands with them on the way to fiery destruction.

Heresy still matters today – despite the liberal mainline emphasis on toleration and inclusivism. Corrupt teaching in the name of Christ can still lead people to disaster. Think of the wingnuts in the media who preach the  “prosperity Gospel,”  solicit funds for faith healings, or who explain unbelievable human suffering through natural disasters as the wrath of God. I also think of those who make arguments for the use of torture in the name of God and country. Or how about the creeping Islamicization of Christianity among the liberal Protestants (i.e. Jesus was merely a prophet who pointed us to the transcendent One)? Of course, this is not to mention the countless unconscious adherents in every pew of every church that I have known or served: Macionites (those who hold the view that the God of the Old Testament is angry and evil and that the Father of Jesus Christ in parts of the New Testament is loving and forgiving), Adoptionists (those who hold the view that Jesus the human being was so good that he received a metaphysical promotion), Arians (those who hold the view of “trickle down divinity” in which the Father is really God, the Son is the first thing that “God” created, and the Holy Spirit who comes in a distant third place), and Pelagians (those who hold the view that we can choose God by “making a decision for Christ” or that we can somehow earn God’s favor).  Make no mistake, the heresies from the early church and medieval periods of church history are much more than historical oddities; they are alive and well today.

Why do heresies matter today, though? Aren’t these just so many theological head games akin to arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? I would argue that corrupt or erroneous beliefs about God, Jesus Christ, the way to salvation, the status of the Bible, or the character of the Christian life matter existentially and spiritually. Wrong or distorted beliefs can and do still lead to various kinds of human wreckage. Puts most starkly: bad theology can kill. It can also lead to the killing of others.

Conversely, I believe that right beliefs (rooted in Scripture and defined by the church through the ages) contributes significantly to Christian health and growth. It matters, for instance, whether we believe that the one who died on the cross for us was both fully God as well as fully human. It matters whether we believe that we are saved from our sins by God’s gracious choice and not by our own tragi-comic efforts or actions. Like an expert doctor’s diagnosis and prescription, right belief and the actions that follow from it can mean the difference for us between (spiritual) life and death.


Canto 8: Of enemies and friends

By John Timpane

This Canto faces readers with an uncomfortable, inevitable irony: that many transcendent works of art are driven by murderous intentions.

Dante is world-famous for putting his enemies in perpetual hellfire. The Inferno is the perfect literary revenge tool, nothing but benefits, no downside. In this Canto, Dante encounters Filippo Argenti – hilariously, “Phil Silvers” – as he courses across the excremental mud of the Styx. Dante’s safe and dry in the boat; Phil is choking on mud and gets torn to pieces once Dante passes by, very much with the approval of Vergil, Dante’s guide.

Argenti (real name Filippo Cavicciuli degli Adimari) was a pretty famous guy, an enemy of Dante’s back in Florence. His nickname came from his love of silver, with which, according to lore, he shod his very horse. From a very powerful family and being a Black Guelph, he chose the winning side in the political cataclysm that expelled Dante from his beloved Florence. Basically, Filippo is the nasty foe who prospers. He apparently was famous for his violent temper: he appears in novella VIII of Boccaccio’s Decameron, screaming, cursing, and comically beating people up. So he sorts well with boatman Phlegyas, a figure from myth who ruins himself through wrath. (Interesting: I note that the phleg- in Phlegyas’ name is the Greek word for “flame” or “fire,” the burning intensity we see in the word phlegmatic, the fire of wrath.)

The allegory on offer here addresses the wages of wrath. The wrathful get stuck in the mud, in the marshy, crappy filter of excrescence, to choke on the mire of their self-obsessed, self-blinded passions. “Who are you,” Dante asks Phil, “who have become so foul?” The wrathful tear themselves to pieces, or get torn, over and over, because for such people, anger never ceases but invades the heart in destructive, rending waves. “No goodness decks his memory, / So his shadow is what rages.”

But we can’t get away from the fact that Dante is having vengeance on a man who, as far as I can discover, triumphed over him in all ways in life, in power, politics, success, and in cutting a figure in Florence. And there’s an acid complacency in the way Vergil rubber-stamps Filippo’s fate: “In what you wish to see, you shall be satisfied,” he says to Dante, “for what you seek is just.”

Much of the best art is powered by our worst emotions. Even the God-obsessed, worshipful Psalms, even they bring us a world obsessed with the enemy, a world in which (beloved Psalm 23) the King prepares me a table in front of my enemies, nya-nya-nya! In which (Psalm 137) Babylon is told, “How happy the one who takes your little ones and dashes them against the stones,” perhaps the single most horrifyingly vindictive sentence in our sacred literature. It’s almost as if we cannot have the concept friend without first and foremost having a lively, choleric sense of the enemy. Thinkers like Jacques Derrida have wondered aloud whether the fearful, threatening, hated notion of enemy actually structures the notion of friend.

I want to believe we don’t need enemies to have friends, but sometimes, I, too, wonder. In the case of the Psalms, the friend is God. Do I really need the raging heathen, my triumphant enemies, to build my notion of God? Does Dante really need a Phil Silvers to build his notion of Beatrice?

During Lent, I think continually about my capacity for friendship. I wish it were greater. I wish I were a more attentive friend, more considerate. I hope my friends, if any, love me and forgive my slovenly maintenance of the bonds between us. I hope that I and my friends are engaged in the blessed work of cultivating one another’s characters, of reflecting to each other all that is the best in love and companionship.

OTOH, my capacity for animosity is a lot livelier. My enemies just seem more vital, more vivid, more concrete. The people one resents, envies, objects to, they tower in sharp, eye-popping HD, while your friends sort of linger in the lobby, nice and smiley, black-and-white TV. The imperative to do something, to feel something, to take steps, to remake the world so it is rid of the gall, the millstone, the headache of having these people and their provocations around, is simply more urgent, more compelling, with enemies than with friends.

And revenge. Is anything sweeter? No! Has anything less to do with justice? No! I used to teach revenge tragedy when I was a professor, and I’d say to the students, “OK, if somebody hits you on the arm, the thing you want to do is hit them exactly on the arm, the way they hit you, right?” and everybody would laugh and say, “Of course not! If somebody hits you, you want to annihilate them!” Just so: revenge seeks not justice (a balance that does not satisfy) but the absolute erasure and triumph over the opponent. You steal my Tootsie Roll? I set fire to your family.

Not to understress the suffering, humiliation, and spiritual pain of the Israelites during the Babylonian captivity. The Psalmist of 137 makes clear that it’s justice s/he wants to see, to see Babylon “served as you served us.” More than a few of Israel’s little ones were dashed against the stones. And let no one doubt Dante suffered terribly to be expelled from Florence, the determining episode that shades Inferno. Perhaps he was justified in punishing Phil, as the Psalmist feels she is in wanting God to rain punishment on the captors and enslavers of the Israelites in Babylon.

Feeling “justified,” however, strikes me as terribly dangerous. We could, for example, always be wrong. And how often do we leverage our justified feeling, or the sense that our anger is reasonable or understandable, as a pretext to revenge? If we do that, we were never justified, never just, in the first place.

So that’s a Lenten thought: let me be better at friendship. Let me make friend the major term, enemy the minor, and not the reverse. Let me shun revenge, ignore that feelng of being justified in anger, entitled to act out of ire. Let me seek humility and peace.

Dante certainly feels justified in Canto VIII, as he watches Vergil dicker with the fallen angels over admitting Dante to the City of Dis. The angels, after all, are most futilely, pointlessly envious beings we encounter in Canto VIII. They forfeited Heaven and can’t stand seeing a tourist come through who won’t be forced to stay and share their constantly renewed horror and pain. The angels have no chance for God – Dante, and all humanity, still do, and that fact just kills the fallen.

Justified wrath, however, is still wrath, and when such verbal and imaginative beauty arises from wrath, all I can say is, it gives pause. Perhaps what is beautiful about the Inferno, what teaches us about God and salvation and right dealing, can save us from what is troubling about it, the anger and envy motivating some of the portraits of the damned, the revenge taken through poetry. In that sense, that mix-up of good and evil, Inferno is a very human poem and teaches us much about ourselves. That, in itself, in ways Dante could not have intended, is also a saving grace.


Canto 7: Homo Economicus

By Jeff Vamos

To reprise Jake’s question, in slightly different form: are we THERE yet?

Well, if hell is the destination, then we’ve definitely arrived my friends. But perhaps it’s appropriate to say that in this hell, and by its very nature, the sinners trapped there never actually do get “there”, wherever that is. Ever. For Dante, hell seems to be the place of perpetual non-arrival, eternal dis-ease, literal pointlessness – and here is no better example.

The Hoarders and the Wasters

Dore's Spenders and Hoarders

After being blasted by what Dante means to be a meaningless (advertising?) jingle on the turgid lips of Plutus (think something like, “papasexy is specialixic”), and being shouted down by Virgil (“one little word shall fell him”), we meet a group of sinners – the “spenders” and the “hoarders” – who are locked in a perpetual Sisyphean round dance. Each is involved in a kind of equal and opposite version of the the very same meaningless activity.

And in this we encounter yet another aspect of the taxonomy of hell. Dante makes a definite point in this canto (which bespeaks utter pointlessness) that sin comes in pairs – the opposite version of the same sin. Aristotelian that he is, Dante shows that one of the sinister aspects of sin is that its nature is to cloak itself by accusation of the other. To be guilty of one extreme is not the real sin; the real sin is to seek to cover oneself by showing another to be worse than you.

All this on display in this parody of economics. In this section of hell, economics is all there is. Humans have indeed become Homo economicus. Locked in an eternal free enterprise zone of competitive activity, here are the shades of those who in life lost any sense of a larger system of meaning and values in which economics – the regulation of the oikos, household – makes sense.

Wordsworth seems appropriate here:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours…

And perhaps there’s more than chance (ahem) involved that it is I to whose lot it is to comment here. Because all (did he really say all?) in the infernal circle are clergy!

What up with that?

Perhaps it has to do not only with a critique of the system of wealth acquisition that had become the church of his time – but pointing out that of all people, these folks should know better. Clergy are the ones whose very job is to point folk to such a larger system of values in which economics plays a servant role, a chauffeur, in the drama of salvation, not its main character. To lead people into an experience of a world where “nature” is the gift for which no one must compete. It’s a gift that we spurn if we hoard it, or waste it.

We might find more evidence here for such a point in the linguistic playfulness and mastery of Dante as he speaks of fortune. He’s playing with the idea of fortune, using its personification, the pagan goddess whose Christian equivalent is providence. In our own language, we’ve perverted the original meaning of the word. In our parlance, fortune refers to the material stuff; as in, “I made a fortune selling widgets, and now look at my wad, eh.” Instead, the real meaning of fortune is what’s meant by the word: fortunate. To perceive in this universe created by God a fortune, a providence, that satisfies what our grasping – our getting and spending – cannot; in fact is negated by.

I can’t resist quoting one of my Dante heroes, Gil Bailie on this point. He speaks of a friend of his who says this:

There is no good or bad weather. There’s just weather.

Happiness is what happens.

To be satisfied. To have arrived. To be there. To have enough, whatever is provided, means enjoying life based on what you don’t even have to work for: it’s free. The rest is just the means of distribution. That’s what Dante’s talking about. And here’s the opposite tragedy on display:

“…you see from this / How all the gold there is beneath the moon, / …could not relieve / One of these weary souls.” (XII.57-60)

As my friend Gil asks here: is it possible that Job’s suffering is his inability to see this “providential universe”? Were he living “there,” might he be able to call his fate – what the wheel dealt him – “fortunate”?

We end the canto with an encounter of another matched set of sinners whose sin seems to make their minds “squinty-eyed”: the angry and the sullen. I find it utterly amazing that, so many hundred years before the modern psychological insight that “depression is anger turned inward,” here it is on display in Dante’s poem. The depressed folk are literally stuck in the oozing Styx – beneath it, blowing bubbles to the surface with half-articulate sighs – while the angry are stuck in the same muck, biting each other – a different dog-eat-dog version of the same old S*** we just saw. Here too, perhaps we say: What a waste – if not of value, in this case of psychic energy.

Onward! Down is up!


Canto 6: The Gluttons

The VIth Canto – how apt. Historically the Lenten season has not been met, in my life, with much meditative reflection. As a child, I looked forward most to Shrove Tuesday, to gorging myself on a pancake supper at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. We sat at a table for children and teens, our plates loaded with pancakes drenched in imitation maple syrup and accompanied by a thick slab of ham. We ate ravenously, as though we’d been locked in solitary confinement, as though we’d gone without hot food or good company for the entire winter. It was a gastronomical and social highlight of an otherwise bleak time.

Knowing now the soulfulness and earnest devotion the people manning the griddles and pouring hot coffee have either shared or exhibited, I’m sure many at those pancake suppers returned home eager to turn inward – perhaps with a bottle of Tums – and make space in their lives and hearts for a time of penitence and contemplation. Not so with me. I wondered how long we had to wait before the crosses were unveiled. Later on, Lent became a self-centered gimmick to embrace the cause self-improvement; it was an opportunity to abandon guilty pleasures or parts of my life over which I felt out of control: baked goods, lying, gossiping, candy, Taco Bell. A rash of acne and my interpersonal relationships made my failure to “rein it in” all too apparent. I had (have) a knack for missing the Lenten boat.

Maybe reading the Inferno is like taking Psych 101. We thumb through the diagnoses and somehow find ourselves described through the shorthand for each condition or disorder. Our phobias and neuroses are both confirmed and laid bare. We are suddenly agoraphobics with wacky Oedipus complexes. The way Dante describes it, Hell might just have a seat for me, particularly the third level we enter in Canto VI.

This may get me booted from the blog, but I have to say, I laughed at the beginning of this canto. Dante makes the scene sound utterly wretched—something akin to diving into a freezing privy in the dead of night while being chased by wolves. What out of this putrid and restless morass could prompt a chuckle? Virgil. He’s the comic and he’s the relief. Virgil is keeping it so real, perhaps even gangsta. He has, as one hip hop artist put it, “diplomatic immunity in every ghetto community.” I’ve never heard of someone facing down so many ravenous multiple-headed beasts, and in this canto he does so simply by throwing down Cerberus’ “gullet” a “clod of the stinking dirt that festered there.” Next thing we know, Cerberus’ heads have “choked on their putrid sops and stopped their fuss.” And then Dante and Virgil are on their way, like Dorothy and the scarecrow down a road paved with bodies, which their footfalls push through to “emptiness.”

The emptiness inherent in gluttony has no apparent bottom; there is no sating the insatiable, after all. Cerberus has three heads, plenty to eat, and he’s still barking, bearing his teeth as much out of habit as real need. No wonder he would shut his trap after Virgil threw him a handful of offal. This canto warns that gluttony transforms a human being into a garbage can, numbing the senses that were once used to taste until there is no possibility for moderation. That first pancake goes down smooth—buttery, spongy, sweet. The tenth pancake is intestinal caulk. Gluttony doesn’t live far away; it’s not across the railroad tracks. More likely, it’s in the living room or, at best, next door in the Lazy Boy eating Cheetos and waiting for some company. It’s just too easy to get too much of a good thing, except perhaps, spiritual nourishment. It’s hard to imagine Ciacco in this level of Hell if he had turned his hunger inward, used that longing as a vehicle for coming closer to the divine.

“The Hog” is part of the second chuckle. I like the way he calls to Dante, as though they’re in the final throws of an office holiday party. “Oy, Dante, remember me?” “Hmmmm. Let me see. Your face looks familiar, but now that you’re ‘rotting like a swollen log,’ it’s hard to place you. . .” Soon, however, they are past introductions and onto the essential conversation: what of Florence? Well, though I don’t think I’m picking up all of what Dante’s putting down, the phrase “political incontinence” comes to mind. Any vice powerful enough can take multiple forms, and so with gluttony, as “Black shall ride on White for many years,/ loading it down with burdens and oppressions/…There,/ pride, avarice, and envy are the tongues/ men know and heed, a Babel of despair.” There is no shortage of political rapacity today, heaven knows. And I find myself asking about our “Florence,” with all of its inhabitants and leaders’ insatiable desires: the accumulation of wealth or power or nuclear arms or natural resources—a hoarding (a gluttony) without sense. There’s an even lower level of Hell for the worst of those gluttonous for power, I would guess. That is what I will contemplate as Dante and Virgil walk away from the scene “speaking of pain and joy.”


Inferno Canto 5: Lovebirds

By: Jake Willard-Crist

Five cantos in:  are we in hell yet?  Though we’ve reached the place where no thing gleams, we’re still distinctly flame-less.  I sense that Dante’s art lies in his ability to keep that question ticking in his reader’s brains:  Are we in hell yet? There seem to be several ways in which he holds one of our eyes fixed on the terrible and the other fixed on the terrestrial.  We are never fully unmoored and cast into the shadow; there’s always a creaturely tether, an ardent humanistic vine that keeps us guessing, keeps us reevaluating our coordinates.

Entering the second circle, we get a benvenuto from Minos, that ‘connoisseur of sin’ (aren’t we all!).  As he whirls out his caudate verdicts, we think, “No, no, Toto, we are not in the well-lit, enameled, philosophically opulent Kansas of the first circle anymore; we are in Hell.  Look at that guy!”

Furthermore, just as we pass by the mythological monster we hear the ‘hurricane of Hell’, the wailing winds and ‘blasts of sorrow.’  Just as light has become mute, the relatively mute sighs have been amplified to blasts.  Alas, the weeping and gnashing.  O Hell, Hello!

Yet, just as our eyes adjust to the darkness, the birds come out to play.  Dante invokes winter starlings, cranes, and—most incongruously of all—doves to illustrate the particular kinetic energy of the carnal sinners.  Presumably because passion carried them away beyond reason on earth, these buoyant damned are buffeted by the winds like a flock (though some, mostly literary, are more stately than the masses).  Though Dante describes the air here as ‘malignant’ and ‘black’, the avian similes imbue it with at least a modicum of grace, as the reader envisages the dignified stature of cranes, the starlings’ gloss, and the symbolic treasury of the dove.  In short, even in Hell Dante doesn’t allow us to forget the sky.

This tension reaches its apogee with Francesca and Paolo.  Not surprisingly, the ‘merciless weather’ stills for these two doves.  I don’t know about you, but the image of a tormenting tangle of infernal lovers doesn’t come readily to mind.  I see Chagall:

In a groundbreaking feat of down-to-earthness, Dante gives this woman, a contemporary of his, the literary spotlight over the more lustrous love-lost like Cleopatra, Dido, or Helen.

Francesca’s eloquence and politesse, I’ve read, have driven many commentators to go through the critical pains of exculpating her.  Her short discourse on love (note the triple Amor…Amor…Amor) is a reflection of Dante’s own earlier poetry, the Love poetry of the dolce stil nuovo, so one can really register the earnestness of his pity, and his final swoon can be read as piteous relief that he, unlike the two lovers, did not stop reading the book right there.  That he is still reading…We, in fact, are, in a sense, reading his continued reading.  Are we fully in Hell, yet?  Unlike Minos, we don’t have a reliable adjudicatory appendage to judge what stands before us—like Dante’s pilgrim, we have to keep close to the ground.  And anyway,  more often than not, we’re down there chasing our own tails.


Inferno Canto 4: How Low Can Ya Go?

By Pier Kooistra

To this Dante neophyte,* Inferno’s Canto IV is both a lark and a nightmare.

On the lark side, what fun to imagine sidling up, at a sort of netherworld cocktail party, to some of the superpeople—actually former persons, now shades—whom Dante encounters in Limbo. So long as the down-under visitor were well versed in ancient languages (and these shades convivial), s/he should be able to conjure up rich conversation. Even if the netherworld sojourner could only manage a little medieval Arabic and some classic Greek, how fascinating to be able to launch into tete-a-tete’s with openers like these:

-“A pleasure to meet you, Saladin. I’m curious: Having ruled over both Egypt and Syria, you at all surprised at the old U.A.R.’s having come apart, or would you have expected it to fracture? Whose regime do you think is worse—Mubarak’s or Assad’s? What would be your road map to Middle-East peace?”

-“Ptolemy. THE Claudius Ptolemy? Wow! Bad enough that you were relegated to this place. Cruel, on top (bottom?) of that, that you’ve been consigned to the historical margin of science. Have you had a chance to read Copernicus and Galileo? Whaddayathink? Hey, wait a second while I pull up something cool on my iPhone. Check out these nebulae as photographed by Hubble.”

-“A great privilege to meet you, Hippocrates. I can’t resist asking: If forced to choose just one, which of these technologies would you prefer to have at your disposal for doctoring—the simple blood-pressure cuff or arthroscopy? Why?”

But, on the dark side, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” These, of course, are the words of Martin King, penned in the Birmingham city jail, in Alabama, in April of 1963. They’re King’s words, but the idea has a long history. Moreover, it has lived long outside history, in innumerable hearts and minds whose flickerings and broodings have never been recorded. The consignment to Limbo of such luminaries as Ptolemy and Hippocrates, not to mention Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Euclid (all of whom Dante encounters in this canto), was a searing moral problem for many Renaissance Christians; they couldn’t help but react to this situation as an acute injustice.

As he enters the first circle of Hell and discovers the presence there of so many heroic contributors to human civilization, Dante is deeply troubled, especially when his guide, Virgil, acknowledges that the inmates of Limbo “did not sin” (Canto IV, l. 25). Their status is not a result of their having done anything wrong. The issue, Virgil continues, is that their “merit…can’t suffice without / Baptism” (ll. 25-6) to secure their entry into Heaven. “Knowing how many souls endured / Suspension in that Limbo” (ll. 34-5), Dante asks Virgil whether any have been released, and Virgil explains that, yes, Christ, “A Mighty One who descended here, arrayed / With a crown of victory…re-called / Back from this place the shade of our first parent [Adam], / And his son Abel, and other shades who dwelled / In Limbo” (ll. 42-6). These Christian forebears—including also Noah, Moses, Abraham, King David, Israel/Jacob, Rachel—have been saved. Virgil says of Christ’s intervention in Hell, “His / Coming here made them blessed, and rescued them” (ll. 50-1).

But to what degree have the souls in Limbo, in general, been rescued? Virgil is still there. Inasmuch as Dante’s pilgrimage through Hell begins in the year 1300 (on the day before Good Friday), and Virgil died in 19 BCE, the poet of the Aeneid and the Eclogues, for all his contributions to humanity (not to mention his taking care of Dante in this harrowing place), has wallowed in Limbo for thirteen centuries, so far. The duration of his punishment is perhaps numerologically apt; he is profoundly unfortunate. But it seems far from right. Though Dante is quite particular about telling us that the denizens of Limbo express only “shadowy sadnesses, not agonies” (l. 22) and, moreover, that the virtuous but un-Christian heroes there speak in “courtly voices” (l. 99, suggesting a courtly atmosphere) and inhabit a stately “enameled green” (l. 102), nonetheless these good and generally socially constructive people are kept apart, denied the fullest salvation, only because they “lived before the Christian faith, so that / They did not worship God aright” (ll. 29-30). Here we are in only the first circle of Hell. If fundamentally good people are suspended in Limbo, then it seems clear that we need to ask a question that the term Limbo (in one of its other iterations) suggests: HOW LOW CAN YA GO? No doubt, far lower. This really is gonna be Hell.

*(Regarding my participation in this little Inferno blogging group, I can’t resist saying what delighted amusement I felt, while reading Canto IV, in coming across lines 86-7: “I made a sixth / Amid such store of wisdom.” I don’t compare to my co-bloggers nearly as favorably as Dante does to Virgil, Homer, Horace, Ovid and Lucan, the ancient literati in whose company he finds himself in Limbo. My companions in this e-space far surpass me in erudition, insight and prior experience of this text, which I’m diving into for the first time. I cast a smaller shadow—and also less light. But what fun. With the line, “How low can ya go?” echoing in my mind’s ear, I find myself thinking happily, “Deeper. Just give me time.” Till next Saturday, and Canto X. –Pier)


Inferno Canto 3: Anti-baptism?

By Rev. Dr. Gordon S. Mikoski, Princeton Theological Seminary

Canto 3 is liminal in character. It is about crossing over from one reality to another. It is a transitional space and time.

It strikes me that Canto 3 has great resonance with the season of Lent. Pastoral leaders in the early church created Lent for the purpose of navigating the liminal space between paganism and Christian faith within the context of the church. The forty days provided time and space for converts to cross over from lives lost in labyrinthine confusion into the promised land of salvation in the community of the redeemed. During Lent, candidates for baptism would come daily to the church in order to receive instruction in the rudiments of Christian belief and practice, to be exorcised, and to pray. These candidates (called “catechumens”) would always have a sponsor to guide them through the process of transformation and transition into membership of the Body of Christ.

The whole process would culminate during the Easter Vigil. Beginning on Easter eve, the catechumens, their sponsors, and the entire Christian community would gather to pray their way into Easter and to initiate the newcomers. The catechumens would cross over into membership in the church by passing through the waters of baptism. Often, the baptismal rite would invoke liminal imagery from the Old Testament: the Exodus of Hebrew slaves from Egyptian bondage; the entrance of the Israelites into the Promised Land by passing through the waters of the Jordan River; and the inauguration of Jesus’ public ministry in the waters of the Jordan. Crossing the baptismal river led to a life of faith, joy, and hope in the fellowship of the church and in unity with Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Canto 3 read against the Lenten practices of Christian initiation would appear to be a kind of anti-baptismal narrative. Nearly every element of the scene depicted in Canto 3 has an anti-type in the Lenten journey culminating in baptismal initiation into the church. Here, the condemned pass over from life into a living death by passing over the river. The ferryman is  a catechist of condemnation, conducting souls from one reality to another.  This new reality for the damned is one of woes, pain, loss, and divine judgment. The bottom line of the inscription over the portal to hell is, in fact, the metaphorical bottom line: “Abandon hope, you who enter here.”  The new reality means the death of hope.”

Dante’s theological insight takes one’s breath away: hell means living without any hope whatsoever. If we invert this spine chilling word, we see that life in fellowship with God is a life of hope. During this Lenten season, Dante can help us to see both the horrors of life lived without hope and also the life-giving power of life lived with hope.


Inferno Canto 2: “Love Moved Me”

By John Timpane

First thing: read the canto and then come back here. Ten minutes max. I’ll wait.

One of the many wondrous things about Canto II – and we haven’t even reached the Inferno yet! – is how almost everything and certainly everyone in Dante’s imagined world is more than themselves. The characters are themselves, but they also telescope out into other people who pre- and postfigure them.

Dante is Dante, the Florentine who suffered exile, who descends through the Inferno and ascends through Purgatory and Paradise to find blessing, meaning, and justification in God and Beatrice – but he’s also Aeneas, who descended into Hades. He’s also Paul, who spoke in Corinthians of ascending to the third heaven. Aeneas, a Trojan, founded Rome; Paul, a pagan, founded the future of Christianity. Each had to make an arduous, cleansing journey to another realm before they could remake history. And Dante – can he do it, too? No wonder he’s scared. Paul’s world replaced Aeneas’ as popes replaced caesars – how might one pilgrim’s renewal usher in a new order of the ages?

Canto II suggests an answer. Dante sees Aeneas as a prophet – as a man who spoke the future into being. Paul is the great Christian prophet. Could Dante, as a pilgrim, as a Christian searching for his way through life, as a poet working his way through his losses and griefs, reach a place where he can say the future, a new, better future? And if so, how the heck can he get there?

The second telescoping figure is Vergil. We already know from Canto I that Vergil encompasses many guides, all great poets, “the glory and light of the other poets.” He’s not only a great stylist, as Dante keeps saying – he’s also, for him, a Roman without Christ who nevertheless foresaw the coming of Christ. So Vergil, too, is a prophet.

And Beatrice – isn’t she great? I love how, in this Canto, Dante is rescued via a chain of women. We can work back up that chain all the way to Paradise. Remember our problem: Dante is scared, scared he’s not up to the journey, scared he has nothing to say, nothing to contribute, not as pilgrim, not as poet, not as a person. Who will help him?

His saving chain begins with the Intercessor of all Intercessors, Mary. “The Lady is gentle in heaven who feels such compassion / For this impediment where I send you / That hard judgment there [in heaven] is broken.” They’ll budge the rules up there for the sake of the Mother of God. She turns to Lucia, a patron saint of vision and light, among other things – the shortest day of the year is named St. Lucia because, once that day is done, the light does nothing but increase! And Lucia goes to Beatrice, who, stirred by Dante’s steadfast love for her, hurries down to him.

There’s the beautiful third telescope of this Canto: Mary-Lucy-Beatrice. Lucy calls Beatrice “the true loda of God” – and loda has all sorts of meanings, including “glory,” “treasure,” and “praise.” Remember that.

All this telescoping reminds us that (1) this is an amazing, multilayered poem by a writer in firm command, in clarion awareness, of history, literature, and theology. All the relations are present to him, clearly, in an instant, at once. But (2) this is also a way of thinking we see in the medieval Christian mind, of seeing one thing as the type of others, of human history as a constant mirroring, a constant teaching by the repetition of immemorial patterns established throughout history by an instructing, guiding God. We are not just like Adam; we are Adam. We are not just like Paul; we are, each of us, a Paul. It’s not simile, it’s not metaphor – it’s a mystical identity. That’s a good (3): this poem plays out the constant awareness of our unfurling mystical identities, back and forth, to heaven and back, resonating constantly.

It doesn’t take Beatrice long to buck Dante up. All she has to do is remind him of the women who support him in Paradise. Energized, he hits “lo cammino alto e silvestro” – the “deep and wooded [meaning wild] road.”

I could say a lot about the poetry. I am, as a person who reads and tries to write poetry, blown away by the verse in this Canto. Dante wields a poetic line both tight (it follows a strict rhythmic and stanzaic form) and fluid (it is seldom crabbed, often conversational, often simple and direct, often lyrical).

But I’m not supposed to do that. Instead, I want to think through Lent in terms of this Canto and vice versa.

Dante, we just saw, telescopes back and forth into all sorts of historical and theological figures. But there’s one I haven’t mentioned yet: the reader. Here’s a figure wracked with sin, terror, doubt, and suffering, in search of meaning and redemption. He can’t do it all by himself – he needs a guide, he needs champions in heaven (Mary/Lucia/Beatrice), and he needs God. He’s got what he needs to make the journey, but he seldom realizes it. Dante’s plight is mine, is yours, is ours. He telescopes into us, and we into him.

What a Lenten thought that is. I often find myself hesitant before ducking beneath the lintel of another Lent, another long, harsh passage, nothing but faith and an honest appraisal of oneself for company. I hope for healing. I hope for health. I always wonder whether I am up to it.

Two things Dante learns: (1) we bear a lively, constant connection to the divine, with lots of folks working hard on our behalf; and (2) what redeems us, what always redeems us, what brings us closer and closer to God, what is always our resource and our hope, is that we have loved. The universe does not forget that we have loved.

Lucia asks Beatrice: “How could you not help one who loved you so much / that he left, for your sake, the order of the common man?” Dante loves Beatrice so much, and so hard, and so faithfully, that Beatrice courses down through Limbo to speak to him on the path to the Inferno. Why do all this, if you’re Beatrice? She tells us, in one of the truly beautiful apercus in the poem: “amor mi mosse, che mi fa parlare,” something like “love moved me; it makes me speak.”

So we’re never alone, no matter how dark, how deep, how savage the road.

And if we love, we deal in salvation, of ourselves and others.

Which brings us to this: Dante can remake the future because he has loved. He can succeed Paul as Paul succeeded Aeneas, and by the same act: the rediscovery and renewal of love. Each of us can. Whenever a human being is saved by love, saved through God, the future is redeemed, for that person and for the cosmos.

Lent is supposed to be both personal and communal, but in practice, maybe I’m wrong, but it tends, relentlessly, unbearably, to focus on me, on making me better, on looking with clear eye on what needs to change, what needs healing and health. It can be a terribly lonesome time. There’s so much about Lent you can’t share. Sometimes it seems as if the Unblinking Gaze is Closed. For one thing, I don’t deserve it. For another, who am I that Thou shouldst be mindful of me?

Beatrice rushes down with the message of Mary, of  weeping Lucia (“her illumined eyes weeping”), the message that is God’s message: there is mercy, there is compassion, it is known that you suffer, it is known that you fear you are lost.

It is also known – here’s the main thing – that you love. Dante has loved, Lucia knows it, and Beatrice loves him for it. And when she says, “Love moved me,” she means more than just the personal experience of love. She means what that experience connects us to: capital-l Love. Fear had made Dante forget that, forget his power to love, forget God in love, and God’s love in his love for Beatrice.

We are not built to keep things in mind. That’s the burden of living in time: we have to go with the flow, pass from this to that. We forget what we possess, what we have been given. Lent could, at least potentially, be a time of great joy. Because, wouldn’t it be joyful, in the midst of a grey, hard Lent, all banged up, so far from the spring – to rediscover what we had all along, what will get us through: the ransoming power of our maculate love? Love as connection to God, a connection we re-enact each time we know love.

Maybe Dante just needs to see the love in her eyes, the love that sent her. “Why hesitate? Why hold back?” she asks Dante. Why, indeed? “Go now,” he tells Vergil. Dante is ready now. He’s ready to write the prophetic poem he hopes will remake the world (as it has), remake his life, remake his past . . . and he’s ready to undergo the work and suffering on the long, overgown, untamed road to understanding and blessing.


Inferno Canto 1: I Found Myself…Lost

by Jeff Vamos

Of the 14,000 (or so) lines of the poem, here’s where we begin: “Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself…lost”.

I first read, and fell in love with, The Divine Comedy when I was about 39 years old. Like Dante, right smack in mid-life. Typical of that stage, I found myself in my own dark wood, wandering in the mist of dissatisfaction and confusion. (And for anybody reading this – I won’t bore you with the specifics; suffice it to say it was painful). And somehow, this poem washed up on the troubled shores of my life.

And I discovered in its strangeness, its otherness, a certain balm for my soul. A giant prayer-wheel that spoke to my spirit’s longing. Dante’s story somehow became my story; his lostness my lostness. And I realized that this time in my life required something of me, something important. Something that needed to be examined and experienced, and not just gotten past. And this poem seemed to offer the symbolic landscape with which I might understand that struggle.

The poem begins with a paradox. Do you get it? “Midway through our life’s journey, I found myself…lost.” For those of us who have heard “Amazing Grace” about a billion times, it should be clear. The only way to be found is by being lost. Finding oneself means the willingness to embrace lostness, not to wallow in it, but to be present to it, to be willing to learn from it.

This is how the poem begins: with Dante–in his era the cultural equivalent of a rock star–getting lost in some woods at night. He is totally unconscious of how he got there: “how I came to enter, I cannot well say, being so full of sleep”. And he tries to get past this painful reality on the cheap: the irony is that he sees the goal of his journey at the very beginning of it. He sees the holy mountain (the mount of purgatory he’ll get to later), and the heavenly sun beyond, and he starts climbing. He “sees the light” from the very beginning, and feels some sense of relief that it’s only a little way off.

But here’s the deal: you can’t get there from here.

Three mysterious beasts – a leopard, a lion and a she-wolf – prevent him. What these symbolize is not terribly important to us, methinks – Pinsky’s notes give us the traditional understanding: that they are symbols of the sins of lust, pride and avarice. The things that have probably gotten us lost in the first place. The thing that prevent us from getting to where we’re going.

But the message is clear: the only way past hell is through it. You can’t go around. T. S. Eliot, in Four Quartets, puts it this way: “the way up is the way down”.

But Dante – like many of us who’ve been lost – does not have to journey alone; he finds a guide that had been sent to him. Not just any guide, his mentor. The person who inspired his own poetic fame: the Roman poet Virgil. And Virgil speaks of another guide who will come later, one even more “worthy” than he – Beatrice. The female Christ-figure who is the inspiration and the destination of the journey in the first place (who will be a primary character in the next canto).

I’ll end on this note – a few lines at the end of this canto that tell something of the nature of the hell he’s about to enter. Dante’s moral instruction will happen by witnessing the “lostness” of other souls who “lament…the second death they must abide.” But this kind of existence, this mode of living, is contrasted with that of those existing in the realm just beyond hell – in purgatory, the second stage of the journey (and the subject of the second Canticle):

“Then you shall see those souls who are content / to dwell in fire because they hope some day / to join the blessed…”.

What we shall learn in a few cantos here is that the souls in hell want to be there; that’s the irony. And their torment is their inability to imagine any other way of being. In that is true suffering: ultimate stuckness in one’s own pain. They “have lost the good of the intellect” (III.14, 15)

But on the other hand, at the very beginning of the poem, we understand what it takes to get to heaven: to see suffering as meaningful, literally “purgative,” purifying. A willingness to dwell in the pentecostal flame.

I suppose I learned that lesson in my own “lost” experience. But the only way to see that – the meaning of one’s suffering – is on the other side of it.

Postscript: If you’ve made it this far – hope you will keep reading. A few things to note:

1) This blog is a group effort, among my colleagues who have agreed to share their insights and reactions to the poem; and hope you’ll chime in too (via the comments).

2) I’ve set up a page (which I hope my colleagues might contribute to as well) of “Dante Basics” – some basic information about the poem to help get you oriented as to some general information about Dante and his Medieval context.

Onward!