Tag Archives: Dante Divine Comedy

Canto 34: Judecca – A Few Musings

By Pier Kooistra

Until now, Dante’s Hell has been a kinetic place, erupting, seething, its denizens trapped but moving (albeit mostly while making futile efforts to limit their suffering or, like the Malebranche, while multiplying the misery of their fellow hellions). How strange, then, to encounter, at long last, the King of Hell and to find him largely inert, frozen in place. Satan here bears little resemblance to Satan as we’ve seen or imagined (at least, as I’ve seen or imagined) him outside this realm constructed by Dante. Sure, some of the basic components of his situation are the same. For example, as usual he’s been expelled from Heaven for having dared to challenge the primacy of God. But this Satan has been not only cast out but cast down. In fact, to a striking degree he’s been casted—surrounded, incapacitated—in addition to having been hurled from his previously dizzying height to a nearly annihilating depth. This is not a Darth Vader/Emperor character, a dark lord capable of projecting power to any corner of the universe. This is not a Bond-film villain, skilled to the Nth degree in a million forms of malefaction, elegant in his brutality, as polished as his deadly hidden weapons. This guy isn’t really the King of Hell; he’s a mock-king. He’s huge but ungainly, not a wicked Zeus but a bumbling grotesque, a Cyclops, stuck—and, worse, attacked, humiliated—in his own cave. He bosses no henchmen. He convenes no cabals. One can’t call where he is a dominion, as he rules over nothing. And, therefore, one can’t really call this figure Satan or Lucifer, in the sense that those names usually connote. More properly, this is Dis. Or, rather, Dissed. And his Hell has nothing to do with Pandemonium, that sprawling, autonomous hideaway of all the devils in the cosmos, a place that, generally, I’ve envisioned as every bit as rowdy and humming with action as the greenwood of Robin and his merry men, if taken up with the hatching, rather than the foiling, of nefarious plots. There is nothing majestic about this figure we see in Canto 34. He makes no choices of his own. To be sure, he is heinous, chewing ad infinitum on the head of Judas and the legs of Brutus and Cassius. But there is no malevolence here, no whiff of the evil genius licking his lips with relish, the torchlit hallways of his lair echoing with cackles of excitement about the loosing of his next horrible scheme. Once the arch-machinator, this guy has been reduced to a machine, an instrument of someone else’s justice. Having dared to prosecute the ultimate act of insubordination, he has been, as recompense, completely subordinated, stripped of all initiative, all volition, hurled to the absolute bottom of a territory that functions as a wholly owned subsidiary of Heaven.  Huge and hideous but defanged, Dissed has been put on display in a sort of Underworld’s Fair, the chief exhibit in the No-No Pavilion. For Heaven’s sake (literally), the erstwhile master of malignancy has been so utterly tamed, in fact rendered so impotent, that a couple of lilliputian (if literarily gigantic) poets can clamber right past his midsection and not be totally fucked. There is no wrath, no vengeful fury for them to contend with. Virgil and Dante can gawk instructively, seriously up close and personal, at the tethered former fiend, and, so long as they’re willing to put in a good walk, just saunter home. This is a devil that is decidedly separate from God—and not equal. That’s the first thing about this canto that strikes me.

The second is who else, along with Satan, has been consigned to this infernal stratum reserved for the lowest of the low. I can see, of course, how the most notorious acts of Judas, on the one hand, and Brutus and Cassius, on the other (turning Jesus over to the authorities, assassinating Caesar) constitute more than peccadilloes. But if Judas’s crime was instrumental to the redemption-through-Crucifixion project, and if Brutus and Cassius were motivated even just in part by an impulse to curb tyranny, it’s hard for me to see these characters as the lowest of the low. My twenty-first-century-liberal mind, if charged with assembling a list of malignancies meriting cutting-away from human society and searing in retributive flames, would gravitate toward the murderous-despot crowd, the fomentors of genocide, such as Leopold of Belgium, Hitler and Pol Pot, not to mention thugs like Milosevic and Karadzic and the demon-leaders of Akazu. Nicole Pinsky says in her notes that those cast into “the final division of Cocytus and the innermost part of Hell” are “those who betrayed their benefactors.” How about those who have betrayed their putative beneficiaries—who, in fact, have turned on their own peoples, such as Stalin and Mao and other wielders of homicidal state power like Ceausescu and Pahlavi, al-Bashir and Amin, Mugabe and Pinochet? Surely there must be a roster of Herods from the ancient world with whom to fill the Wholly Unholies.

If, by some unlikely chain of circumstances, these underconsidered jottings of mine were to be canonized (rather than cannonized) and scrutinized by some poor soul seven centuries hence, I’ve got to believe that such a far-off reader would notice in my brief catalog of especially hellacious human beings a dearth of North Americans. We all have our biases. Mine notwithstanding—in fact, likely as a result of mine—I am struck by the possibility that what to Dante are crimes explicitly constituting the betrayal of benefactors (for, surely, Jesus did minister lovingly, generously unto Judas, and Caesar did in significant ways champion Brutus and make him a protégé, and these actions in both cases appear to merit a high degree of loyalty and special consideration) may also amount to violations of the expected social order. Dante inhabited a world of clearer and more keenly delineated castes and classes. He lived under podestas e principi (and under their edicts and bans). His, far more than ours, was a world of clergy and laypeople, masters and apprentices, superiors and servants. Perhaps that heavily hierarchical social context helps to explain why his Cassius and Brutus are highlighted as the most abject of lowlifes and why his Judas, the unfaithful, if unintentionally helpful, disciple qualifies for such flagrant opprobrium. In other words, is it possible that B, C and J come in for such stark punishment as much for having done offenses to factors (big movers and shakers) as for having violated benefactors (doers of good)? They are, after all, thrown in with (in fact, into) the ultimate upstart, Satan. For what it’s worth, if consigned to Hell myself, while I wouldn’t be psyched about serving as a stick of the arch-fiend’s eternal chewing gum, I’d rather cast my lot with the denizens of Judecca than with the terrors of the modern world whom I’ve named above.

Except for one thing: Judecca—that name troubles me. I know it’s supposed to denote the particularly ruinous, ruined condition to which Judas has been condemned for betraying the Christian savior. But does it also suggest a more general collecting place for traitors to the body politic and/or mainstream culture—or “Jews” in the slipperiest, most denigrating sense (denigrating, that is, to labeler and labeled alike? Nicole Pinsky says in her notes on Canto 34, regarding Brutus and Cassius, “Their crime was seen in the Middle Ages as an offense not only to the murderers’ great benefactor, but to the progress and history of the Roman Empire and the Church.” Is Dante suggesting that Brutus and Cassius are not only Judases but “Judahs,” followers of a corrupt agenda, flouters of Roman Christendom’s hegemonic march? Maybe I, the loving husband of a Jewish wife, the adoring father of Jewish sons, am prone to suspecting anti-Semitic ugliness where it isn’t. But as Virgil and Dante emerge from Hell to see the stars, I can’t help but wonder how their transit through the infernal depths may influence the way in which they interpret the signs above them—may prompt them to assemble constellations of thought predisposing us to steer a troubled course. The journey began “In dark woods, the right road lost” (Canto I, l. 2). To what degree have climbing over the devils’ crotch, hiking through the runnel-tunnel and emerging from that “round aperture” (Canto XXXIV, l. 138) set our guides, and ourselves, on a trajectory uncomplicated by mis- (or mal-) perception?

Your thoughts, companions?

Canto 33: Anti-Eucharist

By Gordon S. Mikoski, Princeton Theological Seminary

Surprisingly, the lowest level of hell is icy cold. Those who have committed the worst sins of all – the treacherous – must suffer in bitter, barren cold for eternity. Who knew that there is something worse than unquenchable fires?

In the midst of this canto Dante and Virgil encounter Ugolin0 della Gherardesca. He pauses from chewing on the head and brains of his archenemy Archbishop Ruggieri  in order to share with the visitors the account of his death and that of his children (and grandchildren, actually). Ironically, Ugolino spends more time describing the horrible circumstances of his death than in owning up to his own treachery and double dealings. Is there anything worse than a victimizer who portrays himself as a victim?

Ugolino relates how he and his younger family members were shut up in a tower and left to starve to death. His children offer their very own flesh and blood to him as a way to sustain his less than meritorious life. At first, he refused to engage in cannibalism of his own children. Eventually, he succumbed to the power of hunger and ate the flesh and blood of his own progeny. Now, in hell he perpetually cannibalizes the brain of his enemy.

When reading about Ugolin0’s ugly end, it is hard not to think of Jesus’ teaching about the Eucharist in John 6. There, Jesus spoke of giving of his very own life to sustain the life and faith of his disciples. He went so far as to say that his followers would have to eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to have eternal life. Jesus Christ, the meritorious one, willingly gave his embodied life for the lives of others. On the very first Maundy Thursday (during the institution of the Eucharist), Jesus connected the broken bread with his broken body and the common cup with his shed blood. The powerful pours himself out for the weak and vulnerable. This feasting on another shows forth and concretely communicates life-giving love born of integrity, uprightness, and commitment to the truth. What a contrast to the circumstances of Ugolino and his horrible tale.

I find it fascinating that Dante entered hell by passing through the waters of a river and at the final destination of his journey he encounters one who eats the flesh of another. It seems fitting, somehow, that the journey to hell ends up being a counter-narrative to Christian initiation through participation in baptism and the Eucharist. Whereas baptism is the entrance into the church and Eucharistic participation is proleptic fulfillment of the eschatological messianic banquet in warm fellowship, hell is the exact inverse of this pattern (passing through water leads to the death of all hope and the end of the journey involves savagely devouring both one’s loved ones and one’s enemies in icy barrenness).

Zooming out a theological level or two, we can see in the Inferno a profound insight first articulated by St. Augustine: evil is the privation or corruption of the good. Far from having independent existence, evil (and hell) are parasitic upon the good, the true, and the beautiful. We can only really conceive of hell in terms of the inverse of the Reign of God. Inasmuch as this is the case, even hell itself points – obliquely, to be sure – to the goodness and mercy of God.

Canto 32: This Is How Low You Can Go

By John Timpane

So at the bottom of the bottom, “where all heaviness convenes,” all rocks press down together, what do we find? Whom does God punish most harshly? Among the damned, all of whom are hopeless, who have the most humiliating, most painful burden of hopelessness?

Dante is pretty specific. This final, lowest circle of hell, which will end in the buried body of Satan (the ultimate fraud, ultimate traitor, ultimate treacher) himself, is devoted to frauds. But not just any frauds. Fraud, after all, is involved in almost every permutation of perversion and sin seen in Inferno – pretending to be what one is not; ignoring the truth and acting as though it were not true; lying to oneself or others; doing to others as one should not do; trying, on all levels, in all ways, to get away with it.

These are those who work hard to impose their fraud on others. They betray. They get you to trust them – they even hold high office of trust for powerful regimes – and leverage that to terrible ends.

When trust is betrayed, most of the time, it’s all gone. We are taught to forgive, but a breach of trust is hard. Many people, for example, can’t find the strength it takes to forgive a wayward spouse, even though sexual infidelity (the kind of betrayal most often in question) doesn’t necessarily ruin the structure of the relationship. Spouses often forgive financial breaches, breaches of habit (I say I won’t gamble any more, and then I do), failures to live up to the implied equality of duties within a marriage (you never cook, or do the dishes, or care enough about the kids, or fix the house) – all of these, in practical terms, are potentially far more harmful than a breach of sexual trust.

But that breach stands for all others. Many feel that if that is breached, all others are threatened – perhaps destroyed.

In intimacy, we come to the trusted one literally without dressing, with all guard, all defenses, far away. Intimacy, the embrace of another person, whole-body, whole-self, is the very idea of trust. And when that is betrayed — when it is treated like garbage, or like just another option, nothing special, or when it is discounted or taken for granted — it stands for all betrayal. This has much to do with Christ, actually.

When writing this entry, I asked myself why, when betrayed, we feel such a rush of wounded, vicious fury. It’s obvious why: in extending trust to one we now see has betrayed us, we laid ourselves open, rendered ourselves vulnerable. We came to the other as children and were used.

The thought arises: surely God never did this. But then again: Christ. Who else is the very metaphor for vulnerability, the ultimate in laying oneself open, the great teacher of childlikeness, sacrificial love, turning the cheek 490 times, not worrying about what you shall eat or what you shall wear? In setting the all-time standard for taking on all pain, all human suffering, Christ was also the great teacher of the necessity of trust. Trust in God, and therefore trust in one another.

Once we realize our betrayal, often we see our former, trusting selves as naive, as childlike. “How *could* I have been such a fool?” is a common question. You get a lot of pop songs based on this idea . . . leading to the time-honored genre of “never again” songs, as in that old Bacharach/David chestnut, “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.” Once trust has been abused, we’re wary of ever extending it again. Many of us learn, literally, to trust no one if we will survive.

Then again: Christ never did this. He is disappointed in people. He sees his betrayal coming, first Judas in major, then Peter in minor. But Christ never quite washes his hands, never refuses forgiveness, asks God to forgive human beings closed to their own sinfulness.

And this is the central point of Lent. This laying open of self to suffering, this spectacular, tragic embrace of sacrificial love in our names, each name and the name of all, comes to mind at each specious sacrifice we make during Lent. This is one of the trickiest things to explain to friends who do not observe Lent but want to know “why you give stuff up.” Sure, there’s an instrinsic value in changing habits, avoiding excess, disciplining body in the name of concentrating on our faults, finitude, fallibility. But the real reason we give things up during Lent is as a spur to remembrance.

We do without and we remember. We do something for someone else, and we remember what was done for us. The cosmic betrayals that summoned this sacrifice . . . Judas, yes, but also Cain, also Clay (Adam) and Breath (Eve), also the betrayal of Heaven by the Angels . . . these are images of our own continual, small, characteristic betrayals. Sadness is appropriate, is necessary. As the marvelous poet (and pal of Shakespeare) Ben Jonson once wrote of his relation to God, “A broken heart/Is my best part.” Our capacity to feel pain, sadness, suffering, in light of our betrayals, image of these terrific and terrifying betrayals of God, is one of the best, most glorious things about us.

In “To Heaven,” Jonson writes, “Good and great God, can I not think of thee / But it must straight my melancholy be?” Sometimes, yes, and as that poem makes so clear — it’s a very Lenten poem, actually, one of the best — when we think in clear-eyed honesty about ourselves and what we really are, about how our motives are often pretty corrupt, then a degree of melancholy is appropriate. We’re close, however, in Canto XXXII to the end of Inferno, literally the lowest of all low points, and, as I’m sure somebody will point out in Canto XXXIV, a turnaround is about to happen. Which, after all, is what we’re hoping for, with all this work, all this meditation, all this trust.

But in this canto, once again, Dante is definite. There’s an end. It’s not that the angry God of the Old Testament bursts into a rage and starts destroying His enemies. It’s simply that once time ends for us, if we have defrauded others, we risk sinking as low as you can go, freezing in the consequences, gnawing bone.

The conundrum is that we cannot survive without trust. We could not get through a single day if we did not assume that the people all around us would perform roles that allowed us a place in the world. Moment to moment, we present ourselves each to another. We cannot but do so. And that furnishes an opening to all who would betray, first and foremost the busiest and most vigilant of all Betrayers, he whose body is the axis between hemispheres.

Dante’s Inferno is a museum of betrayal, of fraud, descending, level by level, from terrible to even worse, to unimaginable. He settles old scores, smacks political rivals and enemies who threw him (through treachery, so he implies) out of his Florence, gives us a detailed taxonomy of transgression and punishment. Inferno is the creation of a God who cannot forget because God exists outside time, in an eternal Now in which all transgression happens in an instant alongside its consequences. No forgetting can exist in a timeless now, and thus . . . what of forgiveness?

We are taught that, when furious or hurt or disappointed in someone, we “give it time” before acting on our feelings. No time with God. No before, no after. It’s instantaneous. Sin, always, on some level, is fraud against the God Who cannot be fooled. All the other things sin is – self-delusion, self-betrayal, hubris, blindness, perversion – fan out from this root. Sin begins and ends in betrayal. Whether we’re stealing pies off the windowsill, boffing the wife next door, or selling U.S. nuclear secrets to Iran, we start by ignoring the trust we have created with others and asked from God. That first step seals it, and whether the betrayal is small, and therefore lands us, say, in Purgatorio, to suffer for centuries until we’re Elysium-ready, or in Inferno, another timeless Now, the first step carries the sinner beyond mercy and toward punishment.

. . . and because this is one of the most trenchant analyses of politics in all poetry, it’s important to stop and consider how we feel toward those who have betrayed our country. Since Watergate, and since new ethics laws were instituted, sneaky, sly politicians have found a way to use those higher standards to create a continual train of indictments of their enemies. The problem is that many of those whose careers were ruined richly deserved it, and a few of those whose careers were not (Bill Clinton, maybe?) also did. Public service is a promise, and a huge promise, since it is taken in the name of so many, who have little choice but to trust that the people who pass laws and spend funds in their names do so for the good of all. And when that doesn’t happen, again the furious resentment. Dante has made such fury a theme through this poem: the fall of Florence, the double-dealing that dealt him right out of his beloved city, the corruption of Lucca, the diseased fraud of Pisa. As a political man, Dante challenges us to see the rotten body politic for what it is, the way, he believes, God sees it.

Ugolino, icelocked (and this might be the most gelid of all poetic passages . . . I love that part in which Dante writes that shivers always come back on him “whenever I see icy ponds”), frozen to the body of Ruggieri, his co-betrayer, each gnawing the other’s skull . . . how much lower can you go? Not too much. Beyond this lie only Brutus, Judas, and Satan.

Since I am a male, I want to point out how intimate, how central the sense of fraud is to the male psyche, if any. It’s often said that men never grow into security . . . I tend to think no one does, actually. I know only that many men are raised to be insecure. You can’t ever be as big as Daddy, ever strong enough or smart enough or perfect enough. Maleness plunges us into a life in which maleness is constantly questioned and attacked. Even the best among us is constantly looking over his shoulder, constantly worried that some day, the veil will fall, and the world will discover what a fraud we really, truly are. I assume women have their own versions.

However fraud pervades our lives and characters, somehow we get where we get in spite of what we truly are. Some of that is grace, thank God. . . . in fact, all of it is. Grace is what gets us forward.

And that’s the only comforting thing. God, in Milton’s formulation, gave us enough grace to do the dang deal. We are “sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.” Yet there is not a one who does not fall somewhere, somehow. The key is not to fall this low, to let in the kind of fraud that undoes everything, even grace itself. This Lent, I’ve been praying hard that I never let my genius for fraud overtake absolutely everything else.

What is frightening is that each of us, man and woman, chooses repeatedly to play traitor, ignore the grace and trust we are shown, by all those around us, and by the source of grace and trust. We don’t really believe in the end of time, the end of life, the end of chances “to get out of it,” the end of mercy. Dante manifestly does, or manifestly hopes for it. He hopes for a place in which living souls will be locked in ice and gnaw each other for all time. Weeping and gnashing of teeth.

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

By Jeff Vamos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canto 30: Guilt by Association

Adrienne Perry

My high school Spanish teacher preferred not to use a syllabus. When we weren’t watching “Destinos,” a protracted telenovela designed to teach Spanish to non-native speakers, we were listening to him rant about current events, though rant is probably too harsh a word. Astute and worldly, Señor Redler was a spectacular linguist in Spanish and a gifted grammarian in his mother tongue. He relished words and a good verbal joust, yet he could smell his retirement as plainly as a cochon rooting for truffles. By the time we landed in his class, he’d hit the stage in his teaching career when he could have taught the subjunctive or railed about Latin American politics even if he were stone drunk. Instead, he used his encyclopedic knowledge to both intimidate and hold captive his audience. He drew a boy or two to near tears.

Day to day the majority of kids in class nodded off and checked-out, though a small cohort listened; Mr. Redler could say provocative things. He was appalled, for instance, by a meeting designed to rally faculty around ways to stem the fights breaking out in the halls. “Do you know what they told us to do?” No one said anything; we had learned what a rhetorical question was the hard way. “They told us, when we see a fight, to take a ten dollar bill out of our wallets, work our way in, and ask, ‘Did anyone drop this ten dollar bill?’” He punctuated this with a demonstration, drawing out his wallet and extracting a Hamilton. He wagged it a little and rolled his eyes a little. No question: the suggestion that this gesture could disperse a crowd of restless teens eager to see a beat down was a glaring symbol of the administration’s incompetence.

What the hallways of Central High really needed was Virgil. With a quick cut of the eye, he could have reinforced that our desire to see (or hear) “such baseness is degrading” (255). Towards the end of Canto 30, we see Dante become a different kind of rubbernecker. Not like he hasn’t been interested in spectating through hell before—certainly he takes an active interest in certain sinners—but this time we get a sense that he’s enjoying (a little too much) the spectacle of watching Master Adam and Sinon exchange physical jabs and a bolgia ten version of “yo mamma” barbs. Like someone settling in for the guilty pleasure of a ½ hour of Jerry Springer or WWE, Dante can’t take his eyes off this grotesque and ridiculous scene. Or, at least he can’t until Virgil raises his voice, “Now keep on looking/ a little longer and I quarrel with you” (254). Or, as I’ve heard it from my loved ones, “Mind your business.”

Dante’s spiritual guide has brought him back to his right mind before, and this time Virgil chases that good deed with an absolution. Dante need not feel lasting embarrassment: “my shame to ask his pardon; while my shame/ already won more pardon than I knew// ‘Less shame,’ my Guide said, ever just and kind,/ ‘would wash away a greater fault than yours’” (254). That’s nice Virgil, but it’s hard not to continue to feel the residue of shame, once we realize how magnetic violence is and how we can be both compelled and repelled by it simultaneously. We know we shouldn’t watch the fight in the hallway, and yet we don’t want to miss anything, not even for ten bucks. It’s no surprise to me now that Mr. Redler and his colleagues were advised to take out money in an effort to redirect and reinvest the mob. We weren’t mere spectators; active players, we might not have had lines, but we had a part.

This struck me as the critical Lenten lesson for me to extract from this canto. Since my last posting, I feel as though I’ve watched a literary horror flick unfold tercet after tercet. Canto 30 is salt on the proverbial wound, with its continuation of “The Falsifiers,” those sinners who have assumed false identities, counterfeited money, and born false witness. Master Adam says “Inflexible Justice” has “forked and spread” his “soul like hay” (252). He’s also without legs, has a “distended belly,” and the wretches beside him “reek so strongly” (253). Like our gluttons in Canto 6 (oh so long ago!), these sinners are equally incontinent. Except, instead of food, they can’t control themselves or what they put into circulation. They stamp images on money, lie, and presume to be other people. They sound like junkies, train wrecks, thirsty souls with bad tempers made worse by hell. And yet, no matter their sin or suffering, it cannot be for our amusement. These cantos teach that, yes, there is guilt by association—meaning ours. When the temptation arises to watch “petty wrangling and upbraiding,” ’tis better to, as Issac Hayes sings, “walk on by.”

Canto 29: Vulgar Alchemy

Jake Willard-Crist

Two hundred years after Dante wrote canto 29, the Venetian cardinal and literary scholar Pietro Bembo effectively banned the low style of vulgar imagery and sound adopted by Dante in cantos like this one, which teems with festering scabs and scraping claws.  In his most famous work, Prose della volar lingua, Bembo writes:

It would have been far more praiseworthy if he [Dante] had set out to write about a less lofty and wide-ranging subject matter, and kept to its appropriate middle ground; having chosen, however, to range wide and high, he could not help demeaning himself by writing very often about the most base and vulgar things.

(Prose della volgar lingua II, xx, 178)*

Bembo’s criticism reminds us how Dante’s style mirrors his journey’s structure:  the poet must descend into the guttural depths of his language, and do so with technical mastery, in order to ascend to the heights of his project, his “lofty and wide-ranging subject matter.”  To make a work of lasting imprint, Dante cannot dwell only at the Parnassian summits of mythology and theology (with more invocations of Ovid), but must stoop down to earth to the stable and the dock.  The pair of alchemists who are punished here with leprous sores are likened to stableboys, their scratching fingers to the metal teeth of the grooming comb; they are compared also to knives slicing the scales off a carp.  Pinsky’s translation retains some of the consonantal harshness.  Hear the some of the English:  Scabs, scales, skin, scratching, rake, slake, snagging, dragging; and now some of the Italian:  l’unghie, scabbia, scardova, scaglie, dismaglie, talvota tanaglie.  Those g’s and c’s, sounds of cankering clinics and gangrenous sickbeds, are far from the angelic, pillowy Petrarchan melodies that Bembo elevates.

Did anyone else find it amusing that this far into Hell, having just passed through a valley of sinners sliced open, dismembered, and decapitated, that we encounter this jocular moment of the pilgrim and these two scabrous alchemists taking jabs at the Siennese?  “Has there ever been another people as vain as the Siennese?” the pilgrim asks Virgil.  There’s an uncanny sense of relaxation here.  And it’s funny.  It makes we wonder if the usual town gossip and chatter didn’t transpire at the Last Supper?  After the words of institution perhaps, did Christ and a few of the disciples wink on about the buffoonery of the village down the street?

It’s fitting that this canto comes into our reading schedule near Palm Sunday.  On this day, the church celebrates the union of the kingly and the common.  The new Cyrus, the messiah-king, comes riding into town on the colt of an ass.  Moreover, he comes riding to the inverse throne of the cross.  We might call this vulgarized triumph a successful bit of alchemy.  The incarnation (of which Phillipians 3 speaks) is a tale of gold turned to lead so that lead might be gold.  Leaden God, golden man.  Suffering Servant, King of Kings.

*I found this quoted in Lino Pertile’s chapter on this canto in Lectura Dantis (University of California Press, 1998.)

Canto 28: Giving Up Giving Up

Pier Kooistra

Those who suffer in the ninth circle of Hell are the most repugnant scum. They are sowers of discord, souls who in life turned people against one another, by design. Having fomented division, having incited social cleavages, they themselves have been cleft, their outsides split open from guggle to zatch, their skins forever suppurating and enflamed, their bowels exposed. As they move around the ninth circle these agents of cruelty are subjected, as retribution, to something even worse than the entropy and agony they have engendered; they are forced after the flaying of their skins to experience a degree of healing (a healing that is slow and improper, of course, but that approaches closure)…so that their hideous, dagger-rent, scar-strewn hides can be torn open again to maximize torment. No doubt, Quentin Tarrantino would love conjure this infernal scene on film, raping our ears with a chorus of wails, forcing us to luxuriate in stench and despair.

I’m not Tarrantino. I don’t want to linger in this place. But I have to admit that when I first read about the ninth circle, my mind called up—instantly!—people who I thought should be consigned there. In other words, this canto rent my skin and revealed my stinking viscera and their ugly gut instincts. “I know sowers of discord,” thought I. “And I know exactly where they belong.” The first to come to mind was John McCain, he who claimed this week, shortly after the healthcare bill passed over his party’s wishes, that there would be no more cooperation this year from the GOP—with the president and his agenda. (Had there ever been any?)

In Newtonian terms, my inclination to recriminate would be described as “an equal and opposite reaction.” But the reality is worse. My reaction isn’t opposite at all; it’s equally stupid…and in the same horrible direction, sinking further into a cycle of antagonism. I may be justified in pointing a condemning finger at Senator McCain for his destructive childishness, but I’m unjust unless I point the same finger at myself. I may not, strictly speaking, be a sower of discord in calling out such idiocy, but I’m certainly a stoker, an amplifier, if all I do is cluck and wag. Well then, how to heal so that my ugly viscera are tucked away again, facilitating the emergence of the better angels of my nature?

Such better angels were, of course, invoked by Abraham Lincoln as he attempted, in his first inaugural address, to forestall the sowers of discord, the fomentors of civil war. His purpose was to preserve and promote Union. Well, it was more complicated than that, of course, but this is a blog posting, and I’m shooting for at least some degree of brevity. The essential point here is this: In speaking to his antagonists, Lincoln said quite deliberately, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.” He asserted the same imperative of interconnectedness, of mutual belonging, that Bellamy, Upham et al would enshrine in America’s most widely declared pledge: “I pledge allegiance…to the republic for which [the flag] stands, one nation…indivisible.”

Well, if we are to be a nation indivisible, if we are to be friends rather than enemies, then we must—not just during Lent but always—give up giving up on one another. I think it’s fair sometimes to get after one another, to get on one another. The John McCain of 2010 is, after all, a sorry reduction of the courageous, national-consensus-seeking presidential candidate of 2000. He is now—alas!—“Palin comparison” to his prior iteration as a would-be American chief. Anyway, John McCain’s not really being John McCain anymore serves my purposes perfectly, since this paragraph isn’t really about John McCain. It’s about sowers of discord. The senator who suggested last week that he would do nothing to propel his party into productive engagement with the Dem in the White House and the Dems across the Senate aisle showed a dismaying lack of commitment to collective enterprise, at least for the moment. But if, as a result of doltish obstructionism, I—and others—decide to do nothing with him but to make him an object of scorn, then we condemn ourselves to being stoking and amplifying discord. Others may attack us. If so, we may defend ourselves, but defense isn’t tantamount to attacking in turn. “We must not be enemies.” There are cheeks—not to mention wheels of the mind, dynamics, paradigms—to turn.

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.

Canto 20: Tear-Falling Pity Lives Not in This Eye

By John Timpane

Most of Inferno is inhuman and inhuman in some way. In this epic that suckles on the breast of revenge, Dante is withholding nothing. Evil, the evil he has suffered, the evil people he has known and suffered from, and the types of those people and their actions, absorb a storm of abuse, in horrible, ingenious images of torture and agony that present us with a tableau without equal this side of Hiernoymus Bosch, Dante’s painterly counterpart. In Bosch, too, there is a will to violence, an impulse to torture, a grasp at mercilessness. And in Bosch, too, in The Garden of Earthly Delights, there is tenderness, pity in the images of unlovely, vulnerable, naked human beings subjected to exquisite, bizarre tortures. Their defenseless, anonymous hopelessness grates against the vividness of their grief.

In Canto XX occurs the most heartless moment in the entire poem. It follows perhaps its most horrific single image. Dante is in XX, and he sees the damned who have used necromancy and magic to see into the future. They walk with their heads horribly twisted, to face backward. It’s not only a petrifying image of blindness and mutilation – this is the mutilation, enforced backwardness, perpetual perversion in the sense of “turning away,” guaranteed blindness, a negation of the forward-facing, clearsighted mind as a metaphor for the Creator. Dante says he is in “a deep canyon watered by tears of anguish.” And now he sees what tears they are, and he weeps for the weepers:

“Reader – God grant you benefit from your reading – now think for yourself how I could keep a dry face, when nearby I saw our image wrenched so, that the tears of their eyes bathed their hind parts at the cleft.”

These are bodies outraged, in a posture that’s all wrong. It’s the human body compelled to humiliate itself in the act of grief. But Dante’s tears only get Virgil mad:

“My guide said to me, “Are you like the other fools, too? Here, pity lives when it is good and dead. Who is more impious that those who feel compassion at the divine judgment?”

Virgil has no time for Dante’s foolish, misplaced humanity. God has shut His heart to these, and therefore it’s wrong to pity them. Pity would imply that God is unjust.

The rest of the Canto is fascinating, full of characters from history, and a very odd retelling of the history of the town Mantua, purported birthplace of Virgil himself. But I’ll skip all that and come back to the Boschian image and the forbidding of pity. It’s a central moment in the poem, and one of the most frightening in a poem that often frightens.

Pity dies at the gates of Inferno. Nor is this a failure of the Divine, a limit to the reach of God. This is the keeping of a promise, the fulfillment of damnation. Instead of LASCIATE OGNE SPERANZA, VOI CH’INTRATE, the lintel above the entrance could well read SEE WHAT HAPPENS? What happens is Judgment, and Judgment is equal to Justice. If you landed in Inferno, that’s because you should land there. And indeed, the legend above the gate to Inferno (Canto III) does say, “JUSTICE MOVED MY HIGH MAKER; I WAS SHAPED BY DIVINE POWER, THE SUMMIT OF WISDOM, AND PRIMAL LOVE.” Justice, Power, and Love. When Love is spurned, Justice creates Inferno via irresistible Power. SEE WHAT HAPPENS?

Evil happens. And so does death.


We don’t believe in evil.

Evil in ourselves, that is. We don’t really believe, when you rip skin off flesh, that we ever could be authentically bad. Other people? Oh, yeah, that’s clear enough. Of course. Easy to see. All around us, every day. But we . . . somehow we’re exempt. We don’t do anything that’s really evil.

Our denial of evil in ourselves is on par with our denial of death. Other people? Yeah, they die. Poor saps. But we . . . somehow we’re exempt. We’ll get out of it somehow.

To read Canto XX, and to endure Virgil’s bracing, cold rebuke to Dante’s understandable tears, his angry prohibition of compassion, is to face what we try never to face: the fact that we are inherently, congenitally unable to accept evil in ourselves or death. We can totally accept them in other folks. We can look on with Dante and see the horror of the inhabitants of the Fourth Ditch of the Eighth Circle.

But when Dante does something humane – weeping out of sheer ruth, out of sheer, hopeless pain at seeing others suffer – he is rebuked by his guide. We feel the border, the cold frontier of judgment beyond the human. Dante, making an earthly assumption, default-thinks that if a person suffers, s/he deserves compassion. Compassion, however, “gives” the object of compassion “a pass,” as we say. It makes an exemption. It declares that “to understand all is to forgive all.” He did this, yes, but I understand why. He did this, yes, but in the circumstances, who wouldn’t? Compassion means forgiveness. And the poet has wrought this episode cunningly. The speaker feels compassion out of a Christian reflex, almost — and we follow him out of the same reflex. (I certainly do, every time I read this Canto, at the image of those poor, twisted figures.) But there has been a mistake. On his part and on ours. He has forgotten that past a certain point, no one is exempt from the absence of pity, as no one is exempt from death or personal evil.

Always we assume we’re exempt. We’ll get out of it. We understand ourselves and our motives and ends so well that we assume the world will, too. And beyond the world. When Virgil forbids tears for the damned, however, he’s telling us that, actually, no, you won’t be taken at your own estimate. You won’t be heard. There will be no tears except your own. The leaden certainty, the utter fall of judgment beyond recourse, beyond appeal, falls on the pilgrim and on us.

If we could accept (and I’m saying we can’t) such a finality, one that exists apart from us and our world of excuses, clarity would ensue. We’d be forced to take the most critical of stances with regard to ourselves. We could accept that we fall short, that we are sometimes blind, sometimes bad, and that sometimes it really is our fault and the finger does not point elsewhere. Such a moment of ecstatic despair would give ourselves no choice but to own what we are and what we do. That’d make a pretty good Lent.

So when Virgil prohibits pity, he forces on us all an existential moment, an episode determinante (if we choose to accept it). We are incapable, I fear, of ever really reconciling our sense of personal exemption with the fact of personal shortcoming and personal death. When Virgil says no to tears in hell, he’s letting us know: you won’t get out of it.

Canto 19: Holey Fathers

[Editor’s note: be sure to check out Jake Willard-Crist’s post for Canto 17, which has also been posted today…]

By Jeffrey Vamos

I can’t help but marvel at the strange fortune that places at my feet…this canto. And have I been the one commenting on all the religious professionals in hell? What gives, Dante?

This canto was a real strike on home turf. It did make me consider, by putting myself in front of the Dantean camera (thanks, John): in what ways is the issue that Dante explores in this canto – Simony – an issue for me? It made me think of why I went into the ministry in the first place. It certainly was not for the money. No, this was why:  by the power of grace, to love folks. To roughly (sometimes very roughly) approximate and model and point to that love that we know by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and the spirit he breathed on us. And money should not be an issue here.

But if we’re honest, ’tis. It colors things in my line of work; it certainly can: how you see people, how you treat people.

For example, in my congregation, I do not know who gives what; that information is kept scrupulously secret by our two pledge accountants. I’ve often joked about the fact that for most of us Protestants, it’s way easier  to talk about sex, than about money. And whether this is a good practice (keeping our giving secret from each other) is not debated here. But, while I’m at it…need to say that there’s a part of me that rails against the privacy with which we guard our generosity – or lack thereof. We ought to celebrate each other’s giving – and challenge each other. But ah, that – a topic for another sermon.

But here’s at least one good argument for keeping secret such info from the shepherd of the congregation. Because, let’s just be honest here: even though it’s secret, one does know who gives, generally. One does know whose pledge would sting worst if it were missing, those few at the top on whose giving so much of the church budget exercise depends.

And perhaps it starts subtly enough. You think one of the top guys is a banker, and so you skip the part of the sermon you were going to do about how our banking system has stacked the deck against the poor. And maybe then you wonder, when pastoral care time gets divvied out: are you doing more for this person, that family… because they are of means? Because you know that their yearly chit means more than others? I try not to, I certainly do. But sometimes, I do feel that pressure. I try not to bow to it, but I feel it; and sometimes wonder if it does make a difference, in subtle ways.

When they are paying your salary, after all. Their money is paying for your digs, and your kid’s braces.

Well, just a small snapshot into my world – and OK, that’s a somewhat pale comparison to what Dante is talking about here. Dante is talking about people who abused the power of their office – made of it a mockery and a fraud, and used it for their own gain. But the trajectory is there – whenever we use the office that is sacred in order to curry favor, to use that power to personal advantage, or to avoid the hits you sometimes have to take, because this is the biz you’re in; that IS what Dante’s talking about. Failing to understand and live out the implications that holiness places on a person, whether religious professional or not.

A friend of mine pointed out the transition we’ve just made here, now that we’ve passed from sins of violence, to sins of fraud; in the latter place, people (like usurers) treat cheap things as if they were holy; here they treat holy things, as if they are cheap. This is clear in the scene in Canto 18: the flatters who treat the truth as cheap – they are literally swimming in their own bullshit.

Now, before we get into that further – a brief interlude here, to comment on Dante’s poetry – which is so very beautiful and subtle and multilayered.

Here’s something. And perhaps I’m just getting a bit flip, and loose, as we are now past the hump in this endeavor. Taking Adrienne’s tack, notice the topography of hell here; it’s HOLEY. A mockery of what holy should be. Now I highly doubt that such wordplay is going on in the Italian, but I think Dante would be pleased with it. The poetic point is this: people are using what ought to be treated with reverence and respect – symbolized here via the sacrament of baptism – and defaming it, abusing it. The whole (hole) place is shot through with abuse and fraud. The holes that are meant to serve as the portals to eternal life – those holes where people are to be baptized into it – have become clogged…with popes! The holiest of holy people! And their contrapasso is for their feet to be tortured by the very pentecostal flames that they ought to have called upon to transform the lives under their care. Dante talks to one (Nicolas the III) who, in a neat poetic trick, is expecting the very Pope who was alive at the time the poem was taking place – Dante’s archvillain, Bonaface the VIII.

Then notice also the beginning of this Canto. Dante makes a big deal about some baptismal font he once smashed, in his home church in San Giovanni. He says that he did it to save a life – the life of a young boy. Now, notice what he’s doing here? See how subtle a move that is? He’s saying here: I’m going to tell you about people who, by their actions, abused and destroyed this practice (baptism). But what I’m trying to do is “save” lives – and so I myself am going to have to do some smashing here, just like I did in that church, for that boy. I’m going to have to smash some holy things here, only in this case, I’m smashing (metaphorically) the reputation of a couple popes.

AND also, Dante, all with one fell swoop of a few lines, then settles the score on that whole San Giovanni incident – one where people accused him of losing his temper, being a hothead, and impetuously smashing the baptismal font. He sets the record straight on that too. Brilliant or what?

There’s so much going on in this canto that touches on the stuff that I do. Did you also notice the very first reference here, to Simon Magus?

Simon Magus was a magician (hence the name “Magus”) we meet in Acts 8, who wanted to “buy” the gospel, in order to use it for his own purposes. Is that not reflective of so many religious professionals today too? Who use religion – and the magic of charismatic speech – to attain power and to manipulate people? And what of the reference at the end of the canto to the ambivalent “gift of Constantine.” Dante is not referring to his conversion per se, but his conferral of land and wealth upon church, whose identity had heretofore been known in Christ’s suffering. This first Christian emperor, who made Christianity legal, is the same one who wrecked it, by bestowing upon it temporal power. Dante basically speaks to how religion had become (continues to be) a chaplain to culture.

Reminds me too of those who lament the lost power of the church in our era – how we used to speak with much more authority than we do now. In some ways, I wonder if Dante might cheer that. I think of Kierkegaard here: truth is always with the minority. When the church gets mucked up with money and power, and currying favor with the (usually wealthy) majority – it ceases to be what it’s meant to be. What is holy becomes coin, becomes currency, and then loses its very essence.

Boy. Glad I’m not mucked up with any of that business.

Canto 18: No Harm

Adrienne Perry

Spend enough time in hell and it becomes, well…more hell. It becomes more of itself, revealing its full dimensions through the poet’s vision—its nooks, crannies, and characters—layer after layer and circle after circle. It is a vulture perched beside road kill, slowly lifting its wings until we see, bit by bit, the full span of its body and what it plans to do next. By the 18th canto, hell seems horrible and yet familiar, perhaps even horribly familiar. We have had fire, whips, excrement, rafts of sinners, and creatures resurrected from mythology (easily, as though they were strange, yet intentionally/opportunely placed) to move the sinners, and sometimes our pilgrims, along.

I opened to this canto and felt myself a tad numb, stimulated by my fellow bloggers’ insights to be sure, and yet inured to what this level of hell might hold. Perhaps that’s how Stephen Dedalus felt as “[he] sat again in the front bench of the chapel. The daylight without was already failing and, as it fell slowly through the dull red blinds, it seemed that the sun of the last day was going down and that all souls were being gathered for the judgment” (Joyce 300). As the preacher details in his sermon to Stephen and his peers, there is, in hell, physical pain, spiritual pain, and—the “last and crowning torture of all”—eternity (Joyce 304). The Inferno had successfully conjured, for me, hell’s physical pain and eternity. A place where “sodomites” run across burning sand isn’t where a gal wants to spend much time. I’d been taking it all in, but I hadn’t yet felt the pinch of spiritual pain. For whatever reason, this canto flipped that switch. Dante’s hell has room for pimps and poets, lovers and looters. And sometimes they stir our compassion while we stir their souls to recognition…

Here’s what stirred me to recognition: Dante and Virgil descend from Geryon’s back and our poet soon finds “new souls in pain,” “new torments, and new devils black as pitch” (158). I was skeptical about the “newness” at first. True, the Malebolge of this eighth circle provided a twist, and not just because there’s a sassy, Tolkien-esque map at the start of this canto in my translation. The “we’re-not-in-Kansas-anymore” shift could have easily come from the changed landscape, but I soon found the “the new” in language and in the nature of the sin that landed these “misbegotten wraiths” in this circle and their various bolgia. For instance, I’d not yet heard this in hell: “Move on,/ you pimp, there are no women here to sell” (160). Or, as Dante and his guide approach the second bolgia:

Once there, I peered down; and I saw long lines
of people in a river of excrement
that seemed the overflow of the world’s latrines.

I saw among the felons of that pit
one wraith who might or might not have been tonsured—
one could not tell, he was so smeared with shit. (161)

The abrasiveness of the language drew me to the “coarseness” of the sin. While the eighth circle is full of the “Fraudulent and Malicious” (I assume, writ large), somehow the panderers, seducers, and, to a lesser extent, the flatterers made clear that it is one thing to bring ourselves low and quite another to intentionally drag others down alongside us. The panderers and seducers, in particular, traffic in other people—be it actual beings or their emotions. In this circle, we bring others into sins they would perhaps never have designed for themselves: prostitution, slavery, the fallout of a twisted love affair; it is, at its most common and worst, the possibility of manipulation through every level of human relation. For the flatterers in hell, their false and hollow speech is shit made manifest. Alessio says, “Down to this have the flatteries I sold/ the living sunk me here among the dead” (162). There is a connection, it seems, between the soul and the substance of our sin.

As a Lenten contemplation, this canto makes me want to be very honest and to do what Chögyam Trungpa has called “no harm.” To be aware, without being neurotic, of the way in which my actions impact others. In my experience, spiritual pain is internal turmoil, often caused when I feel as though my thoughtlessness or negligence have extended beyond me to friends, loved ones, coworkers, even strangers. Do I attempt to bend situations to my will, thinking I know better for others than they know for themselves? Do I see people as some currency to get what I want? Have I spoken half-truths in the hopes that others would like or accept me? Certainly. It sounds vile, but I also know I’m in good company. I can see the way this mixture of opportunism and cowardice unfolds in everyday situations—driving to the grocery store, the kinds of purchases I make, and the list goes on. In this level of hell I imagine enduring physical pain and eternity while being tormented, most brutally, by the recognition that my selfishness and deception—whether sinister or perhaps even a bit everyday—had harmed another.

Joyce, James: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1992

Canto 17: Ecco la fiera

by Jake Willard-Crist

The French poet René Char called the poet a “magician of insecurity.”  In this canto, Dante’s insecure magic is on display.  The wild beast Geryon is his most anxious conjuration.  The beast is born from his own belt, which he has given to Vergil to cast into the abyss, and thus the beast becomes the figurative assurance, at least he hopes so, that he will not be caught with his poetic pants down.  Here, Dante meets the exposure of his art head on, and, in a paradoxical act of disguise, appropriates that exposure for a vessel, rides it as a protective vehicle to new depths of truth-seeking.

For the past year and a half I have composed poems for worship services at the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville.  It’s a slippery business, one of which I’m still untangling the nature and implications.  To put it in terms of my own Geryon, pulpit-poetry is a tri-form beast of 1) myth and scripture, 2) homiletic impulses, and 3) my autobiography.  Every time I ascend the pulpit I swear, as it were, by the lines of my own poem, that what I have seen I have truly seen.  Every time I ascend the pulpit, I will hear, from now on, an embarrassingly accented “Ecco la fiera”—“Behold, the wild beast”—keeping in mind what the Italian fiera contains within its meaning:  fiero, one who is proud, bold, intrepid.  I risk being exposed as a Phaëton or Icarus:  one who has attempted to commandeer the unwieldy conveyance of language for the lofty award of “lunga grazia”, lasting favor (or the more intriguing translation, “long grace.”)  I’m reminded of another quote by René Char:  “A poem is furious ascension.”

Of course it is no accident that the first time that Dante refers to his own comedia (XVI: 128) Geryon swims up from the abyss.  The beast, “fraud’s foul emblem”, is the manifestation of the poet’s craft, his fraudulent vessel, his ship of lies.  The insecurity is palpable in the final lines of Canto 16:  Halfway there, don’t abandon me now, Reader.

I’ll just point to two more things that I’ve thought about as I’ve mulled over this canto past its due date.  First, the landscape, or noticeable absence of definite landscape—we are presented, with the exception of the usurers (who are, however, unrecognizable), with a predominantly sonic atmosphere, the thunderous rush of the falling waters of Phlegethon.  And then, in canto 16, we have “the murky air.”  It’s worth considering that Geryon, the personification of the poetic enterprise, emerges from an abstract abyss, from “sound and fury” or, as Pinsky has translated, “sheer air” which resonates with Elijah’s theophany of God in the sheer silence.  One can’t miss the psychic parallel, the connections with the poet’s unconscious.  The poet is a like the diver who releases an anchor from deep shoals and shoots back up to the surface.

Second, I think of Virgil’s work in this canto.  It is significant that he’s the one who parleys with Geryon while Dante observes the usurers.  Virgil has already won for himself lunga grazia, has already penned his epics to lasting favor.  He is Helios, the one secure in his ability to take the reins.  Furthermore, he is a safeguard, and perhaps here we have Dante, by placing Virgil where he does on the back of Geryon, representing his own self-consciousness of including the character of Virgil in his commedia: he is a buffer between the poet and the scorpion tail of the fraudulent art.


Midway through our journey, we find ourselves stuck. Dante and Virgil need to figure out how to get to the “next level” (in this case, down to it).

I’m crafting a brief reflection to mark the halfway point in the poem–this most eerie episode when Dante must ride the monster of fraud, even as our Jake Willard-Crist rides the steel beast back from Chicago (and will post his offering – the official post for this day – after he’s settled back in).

This episode in the poem has always been most fascinating for me. In Gil Bailie’s lectures on Inferno – listened to about nine years ago, and they have always been a huge influence on me – he points out that this midway meeting with Geryon, the monster of fraud, has to do with the poetic enterprise itself. Is this Dante wrestling with his art, the “vehicle” through which he has attained fame, but the vehicle through which he is aiming at truth itself? Virgil “rousing” that beast that makes the next step possible takes some prodding, some negotiating.

What Dante is doing, we must remember, is theology-in-poetry, that which aims at the highest truth. Can one ride the monster of fraud (which has an honest man’s face) toward the the angelic realm? Can lies lead to truth? Can fiction bring true knowledge? And perhaps more to the whole artistic enterprise: how do you muster the strength to go on when you realize that the enterprise itself (Dante’s fiction) is itself a fraud?

I have attempted in my life five novels. It’s at this point (half way) where I always seem to run out of steam. Is that where Dante is as well, in his writing enterprise? Realizing the fraud of the whole thing? Some other force – in this case, a beast with a poison tail – needs to give you a lift. So to speak.

Jake – look forward to what you have to say.


Suite 16

Pier Kooistra

Canto XVI isn’t the place to go for action. There are fireworks—alas!—but not in the big-scene, heavy-drama sense. The fireworks in this section of the seventh circle are grotesquely ho-hum. They are emblematic of the oh-by-the-way, this-is-just-what-we-do-here ruthlessness with which Hell tortures its inmates, with which it visits miseries innumerable and unrelenting on the pitiable—but determinedly unpitied—souls condemned there.  And that, at least to me, is why and how the canto matters. It’s not a thriller. It doesn’t make the trailer when Inferno: The Movie gets a Hollywood marketing push. Canto xvi (“Suite 16,” as I’ve come to think of it) is one of those interstitial spaces in which, for just a second or two, when the cars have stopped squealing and the guns have quieted, one gets to think a little bit about what’s happened so far, and what it means.

What’s happened here, though modest, has significant implications.

WHAT HAS happened here? First, Dante has shared an encounter with Guidoguerra, Tegghiaio Aldobrandi and Jacopo Rusticucci, all stars in the political-social firmament of thirteenth-century Florence.  Then, afterward, Dante gives up to his “master” the cord securing his clothes and watches as Virgil drops it “into the depth of the abyss” (l. 98).


Though GG, TA and JR have been sentenced for heinous crimes to one of the grimmest precincts of Hell, Dante responds to them with an interesting combination of deference, sympathy and patriotic fellow-feeling. Dante et al talk about how they love Florence but wish their dear city hadn’t been degraded by such degenerate interlopers as Guglielmo Borsiere, who, ostensibly, has coarsened the culture of the place with an undue emphasis on money.

But, of course, Dante’s interlocutors are not blameless. They are in the seventh circle for “sodomy,” for various perversions of humane living. Guidoguerra and Tegghiaio, for example, have put tremendous energy into fomenting among their Guelph partisans a war against their Ghibeline fellow Florentines.

In a way, Dante’s reaching out to these Florentine shades is understandable, even commendable.  He isn’t above extending himself to these sorrowful souls. Then again, he IS NOT ABOVE extending himself in a way that constitutes chummy intercourse with hardened characters who look past their own scheming and murdering to lay blame for the compromised ethos of their society at others’ feet. The mental coordinates from which Dante talks with these figures suggest that his moral-ethical framework is too Earth-bound, too world-shaped—in fact, that he’s not working from a moral-ethical framework at all but from, fundamentally, a social-political one instead. (Just like me. Just like so many of us. Except that in my case the frame of the moment is more social-familial, as opposed to social-humanitarian. I’m in Vail, skiing. Great fun. But in a way I’m forced to reckon with what it means to indulge in “a vacation.” I’m hanging with my people. Making runs down the mountain. Sharing chats with Guidoguerra and Jacopo Rusticucci. I’m not in Haiti. I have left that possibility—that necessity—vacant.)

So, it’s a good thing that Virgil has dropped Dante’s cord into the abyss. Who will drop mine—and lay me (and my habits and priorities) bare? Time to go deeper. Onward. Further into Hell. My own Hell. And yours. In search of salvation.