Series Index

John Ciardi’s Translation of the Commedia

The Democratization of American Sins

One popular topic for invention among youth-group kids in the mid-nineties (and I was one for a spell) was the democracy of sinners.  In terms of eternal salvation, the game started, all sins, whether genocide or looking at a girl in a short skirt for a bit too long, would land a soul on God’s bad side, thus setting up the universal need for confession and baptism and all the rest.  I can remember more than one youth-talk that used visual aids, whether magic marker on sheets of paper or food coloring in glasses of clear water, to illustrate that, when the most important accounting comes around, all sins bore the same weight.

Later on in life I came to call such democracy into question.  I grant that the rhetorical play has some use in conversation, especially with folks lacking the self-awareness to realize that not-murdering and not-defrauding are absences of crime rather than the presence of goodness.  But conversations about the place of sin in the real, lived-in world need to include but expand beyond that conversation.  After all, even in terms of the soul, I’ve seen differences between the damage that a long habit of drug abuse can do and the damage that a long habit of womanizing can do.  Neither is a good way to live, but the seducer is distorted in a way that the druggie is not, and vice versa.

Thus once again my attention on this reading of Dante was on the questions that he puts to us moderns, the ways that he reads us as we read him.  And in the middle section of Inferno, Dante’s taxonomy of sins interrogates me and my own conception of the ways that crimes of violence and of fraud distort the created and intended goodness of the soul.  I can disagree with Dante’s inclusion of the suicides among the violent, but such disagreement requires that I provide some alternative, some reasoned account of the human phenomenon we call suicide, and that obligation is part of what makes Dante so good for teaching.  Like Plato and Dostoevsky and other writers whose work I most enjoy teaching, Dante doesn’t allow a reader to remain neutral, at least if she wants to remain a reader.

Of course, those in the circle of the violent (the seventh circle, if you prefer them to be numbered) that cause the most concern for us late-moderns are the Sodomites.  For those in the twenty-first century who regard certain kinds of sex as sinful, usually folks talk about such things in terms of lust, making it roughly analogous to fornication, adultery, and other such desires for sexual connection that don’t rightly involve the ceremony of marriage.  And to be fair, in Purgatory (which I’ll get to later this summer), Dante has the terrace of the lustful populated not only by men who inordinately desire sex with women and women with men but also with those whose lust is a man’s for men and a woman’s for women.  But in the first Canticle, violence is the crime of the Sodomite, and the reader must not only figure out why but come to stand somewhere on the question.

For my own effort to be a reader, the first thing I note is that the Sodomites are not alone: they share their part of the circle with usurers and blasphemers.  That grouping certainly stands as an intellectual challenge, and the genus that encompasses this species seems to be those whose ways of living violate neither the political lives of legitimate political orders (as do the warlords in the first part of the seventh circle) nor the biological lives of their own bodies (as do the suicides) but the social lives of the spoken word and the commercial exchange and the sexual connection.  Where the blasphemers use speech to insult rather than to praise the One who is greatest and most deserving, and where the usurers use money not to procure goods and labor but to increase exchange-value without a corresponding increase in real work or goods, the Sodomites, as Dante presents them, use sex not for the expansion of the human family but in ways that by definition cannot bring more life into the world.

And while I won’t provide a full-length evaluation of that system here, I will note that, at the very least, I tend to sub-divide these social systems more than Dante does.  I think that usury is not the charging of interest in every case but stands to be judged case by case, in terms both of how high and how low interest rates should go (I don’t think of all or nothing) and the purposes for which folks make loans.  Likewise I can’t imagine too many folks (though I could be wrong here) who would insist that the infertile or even those who have aged past the time of child-bearing should be considered sinful for continuing to live as married people, so at the very least, and at the very outset, I’m inclined to think that, historically, I can appreciate Dante’s rigor here while noting freely that I don’t live in the world that his poem frames.  I think I agree with Dante that folks can perpetrate violence against more than bodies or states, but I’m also inclined to think that such violence is not a zero-or-everything proposition.

 Fraud and Punishment

When I’ve taught Inferno, students balk most at the fact that some of the fraudulent, especially thieves and flatterers, are ranked worse than Attila the Hun and other bloody conquerors.  After all, even though “small lies” are among the favorite examples of youth ministers demonstrating the democracy of sins, usually those illustrations rely precisely on most folks’ instincts that killing is worse than such utterance for its force.  Dante just reverses them entirely.  The bloody conquerors are in circle seven, among the the violent, while those who flatter are lower, among the fraudulent, in the Malebolge.

Here’s why: Inferno takes its shape not from the public consequences of sin, which are important but secondary in Dante’s afterworld, but from the effects of the crime on the soul.  To overthrow a state, even with a big body count, is to give in to the desire to destroy, which some (not all) animals sometimes do.  To be lower than one’s true nature is certainly a vice, and to harm others in the expression of that rage is certainly a crime, but crimes of fraud, among them seduction and flattery and stealing from sacred places and alchemy and confidence games, rely not merely on animal urges but on the betrayal of human relationships.  To flatter, in other words, is to let one’s neighbor think that you speak truth, knowing that you stand to profit, in terms lower than the goods of the soul, from that betrayal.  The same goes for going into a sacred place and stealing what’s of monetary value, feigning love for the sake of gain or ambition, and falsifying currency, an act of deception that disrupts the whole order that relies on honest exchange.

I wonder whether Stan Hauerwas (whose essay “Honor in the University” we discussed on the podcast) had Dante or something like Dante in mind when he wrote his famous aphorism “Cheating is a more serious crime than murder for those engaged in the activities of learning and teaching.”  The logic holds there as well: because teaching and learning assume a certain kind of truth-telling relationship, to cheat in that context means to distort one’s soul in ways that ultimately are worse than brutal: they betray the very core of the specifically human.  Yes, now that I think about it, I might have brought up Dante in that conversation as well, or at least I should have.

Cantos 22 and 23 bring a genuinely strange element of levity to a poem getting more serious by the circle, the band of demons led by Malacoda.  No matter how many times I’ve tried to discover similar levity in other parts of Inferno, and no matter how many times I’ve tried to discover gravity in the bolgia of the con artists, I just can’t get over the fact that something very different happens when Dante and Virgil encounter big bruising demons who fart to signal their troop movements, fall for a con man’s con and lose the occasion to torment him further, and who ultimately crash into each other and fall into the sinners’ river of torment, allowing Virgil and Dante to escape.  I’m not inclined to treat the episode as a defect in the poem, but it’s definitely a moment of true comic relief, as the next set of cantos (and the next post) will show.

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