Series Index

John Ciardi’s Translation of the Commedia

Hypocrites and Church-Thieves

Living seven hundred years after Dante’s poetic career makes the final stretch of Inferno a particular philosophical challenge, largely because our temptation is to view all things “medieval” as somehow homogenous rather than parts of a grand philosophical and moral debate.  (My hunch is that those involved in poetry and philosophy in the early fourteenth century would have been amused to think that people in the future would think of them as waiting around for the Enlightenment so that they could disagree with each other.)  Thus I don’t want to imply here that “the medieval view” of sin was such that these crimes of fraud were worse than crimes of violence.  After all, Dante locates his own contemporaries in the various circles based on some sort of public knowledge, and many of those who are lowest in Dante’s poem were quite prominent in fourteenth-century public life.

All of that is to say that, unless I really need to read more history, Dante’s placement of the hypocrites as low as they are (canto 23) is not an acknowledgment of any sort of 14th-century legal consensus so much as a moral argument about the nature of the soul.  The lead-lined cloaks that make every step a painful, bone-wracking ordeal (Statius will explain, in the Purgatorio, why shades waiting for the general resurrection can still experience pain in their bones and their bellies) are Dante’s argument, as a public intellectual, that the distortion of the soul when one pretends righteousness for non-righteous ends is actually worse, despite legal practice that would speak contrary, than crimes of violence rooted in emotion rather than calculation.  Or, to put it another way, Inferno reflects a moral order that remains invisible to some in the world of the living but which unfolds and reveals the true nature of the soul in the afterlife.

I’ll admit that, on this reading, Dante’s elevation of Rome to the status of divinely-ordained paradigmatic order bothered me less than it has on other readings (I’ve been wrestling with that question for a decade now), but the magnification of what seem to be individualistic sins bothers me more.  Certainly flattery and hypocrisy are unattractive ways of life, and certainly I can concede that they shape the soul in certain ways, making the flatterer or the hypocrite something far less grand than the truth-telling soul.  But I also wonder whether they’re genuinely crimes of fraud so much as species of avarice, and thus I wonder whether my own Inferno (which I do not plan to write, so Reader, take comfort) would not locate their doom in regions before the gates of Dis rather than among the pimps and seducers and schismatics, whose fraud seems to bear much more on their neighbors than do hypocrisy and flattery.

Another crime that strikes the modern eye strange is stealing from sacred places, but there the circle of thieves (cantos 24-25) remains, once again challenging the historical imagination.  The visuals of this circle are among the most horrifying in the poem, and that’s saying something: a desert plain covered as far as the eye can see with snakes confronts the pilgrim, and the torment of the circle is that there are only a small number of human bodies for the much larger number of shades to inhabit.  Thus those who, at any moment, retain their human form run in abject terror from all of the other shades, who assume the forms of snakes.  Dante sees twice why they fear: the snakes, by biting and constricting and doing other serpentine things, can actually steal their neighbors’ humanity, taking for a while their neighbors’ very identity and then running in their own terror, knowing that all of their infernal neighbors want nothing other than to steal and to kill and destroy.

The visuals are terrifying but not complicated.  The crime is somewhat more challenging.  The thieves are not merely all those who take what legally belongs to another but specifically those who rob temples and churches and other sacred spaces.  Certainly I’ve known such crimes (too intimately in one specific case), but I won’t pretend that I understand, on an emotional level, how this crime belongs in the vicinity of seduction or schism or even confidence scams.  But the logic is there: since places actually can be more sacred than their surroundings as Dante imagines the world, crimes like Simony (the selling of church offices for personal gain) really do matter, and going into such a place under the pretense of worship, but taking things given for the sake of the least of these (which was the main purpose of sacred offering in the fourteenth century) really does constitute an act of fraud that, in Dante’s terms, distorts the soul terribly.

The snakes are still what I remember when I think of this circle, but the intellectual challenge is also decidedly a benefit.  I have to face the fact that, in my own imagination, places can be important socially and sentimentally and even artistically, but I don’t have any particular memories of walking into any place and thinking, “This is God’s place more than the place fifty yards behind me is.”  If I’m honest, I think of such designations as arbitrary and even superstitious, but if I keep being honest beyond that, I know that my geographically democratic mindset isn’t any less arbitrary than Dante’s universe, punctuated as it is by truly sacred places.

Ulysses, Muhammad, and Curio Walk into a Bar

The circles of the false counselors and the schismatics offers another occasion to reflect on the nature of history, specifically the history of the Church and of Rome, as sites of genuine theological dispute.  Once again the Greek/Trojan/Roman question arises, as Diomede and Ulysses appear among the false counselors, and the poem specifically names the Trojan Horse as the crime for which they’re punished (canto 26).  I’ve read this Canticle a dozen times at least, and I still always balk at the fact that Julius Caesar, whose capacity for military stratagem and political maneuver is legendary, gets a seat among the virtuous pagans while Diomede, who pulled one trick on the Trojans, has to exist eternally as a liar, but once again I have to acknowledge the strange but valid logic of favoring Rome over all others: if the Eternal City really is the site of God’s favor, in terms of political rule, then those who used (what I think of strategically valid) trickery in order to do harm to the Trojans, who were the ancestors of the Romans, get defined by that crime.

What’s stranger is that Curio ends up among the schismatics (canto 28).  For those who need a refresher on the career of Julius Caesar, Curio is the one who advises Caesar, on the banks of the Rubicon, to forge ahead and to march an army into Rome against the clear dictates of Roman law.  Once again, in case you skimmed the previous paragraph, Caesar, who actually commanded the legions, already appeared in the circle of the virtuous pagans, but Curio marches around the grisly circle of the schismatics along with Muhammad and others who divided church and empire.

Muhammad, once again, is another exhibit of Dante’s acting as a philosophical free agent in this poem.  Christian writers disagreed mightily about how truthfully to describe Islam.  The Song of Roland fairly consistently calls Muslims pagans and renders Muhammad as one of their pagan gods.  Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Contra Gentiles treats them as the objects of missionary preaching, hoping to convert them to Christianity from something other than Christianity.  But Dante writes Muhammad not as a pagan but as one who split the church, whose teachings on Jesus (which Dante might have read, given that missionaries had translated the Qur’an into Latin as early as the eleventh century) made more sense as analogous to the Nestorians or the Aryans rather than as counterparts to the pagan priests of antiquity.

Thus Curio and Muhammad, two characters I never would have associated, wind up in the same circle, split open as they march around in a circle, stitched together painfully as they march, only to come around again to be split open once more.  The allegory could scarcely be clearer: a schismatic, rather than submitting to the tradition handed down for the sake of keeping Rome or the Church together, wills to split open a body that by constitution is one, and more often than not, the schismatic splits open a body already suffering the pain of previous separations.

Of the alchemists (canto 29) and the counterfeiters and the impostors (canto 30) I won’t say much here (perhaps I’ll treat them more fully in future years), but after reading the description of the schismatics’ painful healing, doomed every time to be split again, the distortions and the decrepitude of those in the final bolgia certainly seemed unpleasant but had a certain sickly humor to them that once again seemed out of place.  The comedy didn’t rise to the slapstick of cantos 22 and 23 (Malacoda and the Wile E. Coyote demons), but the souls in the final bolgia before Cocytus struck me as sad in a Jim-Henson-puppets sort of way but not horrifying like the circle of the body-snatchers or the eternally re-wounded schismatics.

Like a Bat… Eternally in Hell

Okay, folks.  Forgive the section title.  At least I didn’t call it “Hell Freezes Over.”

The guardians of Cocytus, the icy pit at the center of Inferno, are giants, beings who have the massive power that we human beings associate with whales and tornadoes and other grand forces of nature but also have intelligence, the ability strategically to deploy that inhuman power for the sake of destroying what’s ultimately important, the things that the ancient pagans might have called gods (canto 31).  Once again the distance that opens up between Dante’s world and my own makes me sad.  I can imagine but can only imagine living in a universe in which human powers to destroy the world are so limited.  As it stands, I grew up at the tail end of the Cold War, in which powerful men had the capacity, if they had the will, to alter radically the entire biological character of the planet, to wipe out major cities and even the entire human species with the press of a button.  The weapons have not gone away, of course; the only power to have used such power against human cities (one of them the most Christianized city in Japan) still retains thousands of them, and once more I long to live in Dante’s moment, when giants were legends rather than Democrats and Republicans and Russians.

But that ain’t what I come here to talk about.  I come here to talk about Hell.

Betrayal, in Dante’s moral economy, is a species of fraud, the most horrendous of its kind.  To betray means to accept something good and gratuitous, something that by one’s own effort one could never have achieved, and to use specifically that good gift to turn upon and to destroy the one who gave the gift.  Thus the four divisions of Cocytus take their names from famous traitors: Cain betrayed his brother, the divine gift of family.  Antenor betrayed Troy to the Greeks, destroying the divine gift of city, which is of a higher order even than family.  (Read your Aristotle.)  Ptolomea houses those who betrayed their guests, whose presence allows the host to practice hospitality and magnanimity, the highest of human virtues.  And of course Judaica is the home not only of Brutus and Cassius, who betrayed the one who would lead them to the highest God-given political order, the Roman Empire, and not only Judas, who betrayed the one who would lead the human race into the Kingdom of God, but Satan himself, the angel who betrayed the Father Almighty, who gratuitously made one being, Lucifer, the true crown of creation.

Once again the visual allegory of Satan’s eternally-chewing mouths and the eternally-mauled hides of Judas and Cassius and Brutus is there for those who have learned to read allegory: the benefactor is the one who sets a table for the blessed, but for the one who wills to betray, no food will ever satisfy, and although languishing in the mouth of Satan for all eternity is without a doubt a horrifying spectacle to consider, Satan’s doom likewise brings a shudder.  Given the gift to sing of the Most High like no other being can sing, Satan’s mouths are stopped up with precisely the sorts of souls his work most corrupts.  Thus the silver tongue of the talking serpent can no longer pose subtle questions, and unlike even Ugolino, whose harrowing tale of betrayal and cannibalism still gives me nightmares, Satan will never be able to tell his own story in Dante’s version of things.

As Virgil and Dante climb towards the base of Purgatory, I’m ready for this Canticle to be over.  I know what’s coming next–after all, I’ve read the entire Commedia more than ten times–but dwelling on the most distorted of the souls of the damned always leaves me drained, ready to read stories that offer some hope that even my own soul might climb out of that kind of pit.

As things unfold, the Purgatorio is just that sort of poem.

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