In that part of the young year when the sun
begins to warm its locks beneath Aquarius
and nights grow shorter, equaling the days,
when hoarfrost mimes the image of his white
sister upon the ground—but not for long,
because the pen he uses is not sharp—
the farmer who is short of fodder rises
and looks and sees the fields all white, at which
he slaps his thigh, turns back into the house,
and here and there complains like some poor wretch
who doesn’t know what can be done, and then
goes out again and gathers up new hope
on seeing that the world has changed its face
in so few hours, and he takes his staff
and hurries out his flock of sheep to pasture.
Dante, The Inferno, Canto XXIV
We are indeed in January, with cold nights and slowly lengthening days, so in that sense we are coming into the light. To read The Inferno, however, is to descend ever deeper into darkness and misery, visiting sinners in their abode of eternal punishment. And as Dante’s descent was supposed to have begun on Good Friday (1300 CE), his journey partook of a similar paradox.
With Canto XXIV, we are still in the Eighth Circle of the Inferno, the place of torment for men who were deceivers of other men. In preceding “pouches” of this Circle (and I have not written before of any particulars of this work, so did not explore earlier Circles in detail) we encountered panderers, seducers and flatterers (those guilty of “ordinary fraud”); simonists (corrupt churchmen); corrupt politicians; diviners, magicians and astrologists; grafters; and hypocrites. In Canto XXIV we shall pass from hypocrites to thieves, and as this passage begins Dante seems a poor, frightened sheep, soothed by his shepherd guide, Virgil, who capably leads him down a craggy, treacherous path.
It is interesting that sins of violence—whether against one’s own self, against others or against God—are punished less severely by Dante’s imagination than sins of fraud. So too lust and gluttony, “deadly” sins by the reckonings of the Church, occupy only the mildly punished Second and Third Circles, just below Limbo (Limbo that First Circle occupied by otherwise good people who unfortunately died without baptism or lived prior to its Christian possibility). Frauds, grafters and hypocrites, behold your place in Dante’s scheme of things! Your sins are worse than murder and suicide! Worse than the punishment meted out to heretics is your fate! Why did Dante see it (or wish to see it) so?
My first thought was that a blasphemer, a murderer or a suicide, like a lustful person, may have been taken by momentary passion, whereas fraud requires steady, cold-blooded intent, but the friend I tried out this answer on (another reader in our group and more studious than I by far when it comes to secondary literature) objected that murder also may be planned and executed in cold blood. True. And so my first speculation fell to ground.
Can it be that flatterers, seducers, corrupt churchman and lying politicians, grafters and hypocrites and the like spread their harms more widely because their use of language to deceive undermines the very possibility of truth, which is itself the necessary condition of justice? This is my new hypothesis—a philosopher’s hypothesis, to be sure--and I’ll be watching to see if it holds up as I descend to the Ninth Circle.
Meanwhile, strange as it seems, I don’t mind lingering a while in the Eighth Circle, since at this depth I seem to have broken through more completely than before to the wonders of the poet’s invention. The diviners, astrologers and magicians, for instance, because they “wanted so much to see ahead,” to tell the future, are punished by having their heads fixed on backwards, “...so awry that tears, drawn from the eyes,/bathed the buttocks, running down the cleft”! Tears running down their butts! What a wild notion! Introducing the fifth pouch of this Circle, in Canto XXI, Dante begins with a description of an Italian shipyard in winter--
As in the arsenal of the Venetians,
all winter long a stew of sticky pitch
boils up to patch their sick and tattered ships
that cannot sail (instead of voyaging,
some build new keels, some tow and tar the ribs
of hulls worn out by too much journeying;
some hammer at the prow, some at the stern,
and some make oars, and some braid ropes and cords;
one mends the jib, another, the mainsail)...
--to set the stage for the punishment given to politicians who took bribes: they are submerged in boiling pitch, and if they so much as dare to lift a hair above the level of the pitch, their tormenters push them back down under, like cooks “...force the meat with hooks/deep down into the pot, that it not float”! And don’t you think they deserve it, too? And can you wonder now that I am tempted, when at last I reach the end of this book, to turn back to the beginning and spend more time on the analogies, some given in a word, others in a phrase, still others in long, multi-stanza passages of description?
Phew! It’s hot down there!