"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Monday, February 5, 2018

Comments, Inferno, Cantos VI Thru XI

The first six circles are all passed by the first eight Cantos, and so there are three remaining circles for the remaining 26 Cantos.  Those last three circles have many subdivisions, so there is a lot more to go.  But we have to understand malice.  I think violence, the middle category, is rather obvious.  The violent have consciously gone against the love of neighbor.  Heresy is a little harder to understand, and I’m not sure I get it a hundred percent.  It does seem like an act of will if you have been taught the divine revelation, and yet you reject it.  But what exactly is the malice?  Are you doing being malicious against God?  Perhaps.  Or are you leading your neighbor astray with your heresy?  Perhaps.  Perhaps both.

Fraud in the hierarchy is the most severe category of sin, and it makes sense when you realize that fraud is a direct violation of love.  It is certainly performed through an act of will.  Unlike heresy and violence, it actually uses love in a diabolical way.  And by love here I do not mean lust or anything sexual.  Fraud is a diabolical inversion of charity.  The best way to understand this is to see who Dante puts at the very heart of hell.  *Spoilers Ahead*   The most severe category of fraud are those that betray, because they have taken the love of a friend and performed malice with it.  Besides Lucifer, who is at the very heart of hell, at the center of the pit is Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus Christ—God Himself—and betrayed Him with a kiss.  Fraud is the inverse of love, the opposite of God, God being Love.

Now Irene, considering the concept of social justice, I think sinners who consciously create an environment that violates human dignity naturally fall into fraud.  As you will see when we get to that circle and sections within the circle, fraud is very broadly defined.  There is a place for usury, which is part of what I think you’re bringing up, and there are places for thieves and counterfeiters.  If you think the sinners of avarice (Circle 4) should be down here, there is a distinction between those that take through volition and those that take through appetite. 


  I want to try to convey an appreciation for Dante’s poetic art, and let me use Canto VI to make my points. Canto VI happens to be the shortest of all 100 Cantos (actually tied with Inferno Canto XI, both having 115 lines) and I think it is particularly vivid and energetic so as to highlight the poetic skill. This is the Canto where the pilgrims (Dante and Virgil) are in the circle of gluttony and meet a Florentine, Ciacco, whose nickname means “hog.” The first thing I want to point out is the economy of words. 115 lines with about six words per line amounts to less than 700 words, which is less than a page worth of prose writing, and yet notice how much is in this short canto: he wakes up from his faint from the last canto, provides a description of the circle, a description of Cerberus and his actions, meeting up with Ciacco, their dialogue of Florentines, and Virgil discussion on the nature of the sinner’s lives in hell and their ultimate fate. How does Dante pack so much in a short canto? Compression and suggestion. Let’s take a look.

I am in the third circle, of eternal,
hateful rain, cold and leaden,
changeless in its monotony.

Heavy hailstones, filthy water, and snow
pour down through gloomy air.
The ground it falls on reeks. (VI. l. 7-12)

Thirty-four words to give you the sense of what it’s like to be there. Of course there are lots of nouns: rain, hailstones, water, snow, air, and ground. But notice the modifiers: “eternal, hateful rain,” “heavy hailstones,” “filthy water,” “gloomy air,” and ground that “reeks.” The adjectives either prod the senses to recreate the atmosphere or provide a point of view, “eternal, hateful rain,” which brings the reader in and suggests a context. Dante is a minimalist as a writer, using just enough and no more. If you compare him with the other great poets that are put in his great peers, Homer, Shakespeare, and Virgil, Dante is I would say by far the most laconic. Homer and Shakespeare are outright maximalists as I like to call them. They love to add words upon words to flesh out a scene. Virgil is closer to Dante, but even he is not as laconic. There is nothing wrong with being either a minimalist or a maximalist (I defend Shakespeare all the time on it) but a minimalist does require more skill. You have to be super sharp.

Let’s continue.

Cerberus, fierce and monstrous beast,
barks from three gullets like a dog
over the people underneath that muck.

His eyes are red, his beard a greasy black,
his belly swollen. With his taloned hands
he claws the spirits, flays and quarters them.

The rain makes them howl like dogs.
The unholy wretches often turn their bodies,
making of one side a shield for the other.

When Cerberus -- that huge worm -- noticed us,
he opened up his jaws and showed his fangs.
There was no part of him he held in check.

But then my leader spread his hands,
picked up some earth, and with full fists
tossed soil into the ravenous gullets. (VI. l. 13-27)

Can you get more vivid than that? The economic use of words—it’s actually even more economic in the Italian, I think—rolls with energy. Read it in the Italian if you can. The sound effects are a joy, and the terza rima rhyme scheme just accelerates the movement. Notice line 24, “There was no part of him he held in check.” What a succinct way to describe Cerberus’ abundance of action, and notice how such abundance accentuates the theme of this canto, gluttony. The three-headed dog is ravenous in both his appetite and his motion. Notice too how that last tercet is just 17 words to describe Virgil’s actions. Here again I have to praise the Hollander translation. It really captures the compression and rhythm of Dante’s phrasing.

As the dog that yelps with craving
grows quiet while it chews its food,
absorbed in trying to devour it,

the foul heads of that demon Cerberus were stilled,
who otherwise so thunders on the souls
they would as soon be deaf. (VI. l. 28-33)

Finally we come to one of Dante’s similes. Like Homer, Dante is famous for these too. Homer’s similes are also called Epic Similes, and they sometimes go on for lines at a time. Dante’s I think are much more nuanced, much more subtle, and I don’t recall them ever going on for more than two tercets. Just as a noisy, eager dog goes silent while focused on eating his food, so Cerberus goes silent. How subtle is that? It focuses on the silence, by contrasting it with a noisy pre-moment. It actually makes the silence vivid, which is no easy trick. If you have a dog, you know exactly the analogy. Let’s continue.

We were passing over shades sprawled
under heavy rain, setting our feet
upon their emptiness, which seems real bodies.

All of them were lying on the ground,
except for one who sat bolt upright
when he saw us pass before him.

'O you who come escorted through this Hell,'
he said, 'if you can, bring me back to mind.
You were made before I was undone.'

And I to him: 'The punishment you suffer
may be blotting you from memory:
it doesn't seem to me I've ever seen you.

'But tell me who you are to have been put
into this misery with such a penalty
that none, though harsher, is more loathsome.'

And he to me: 'Your city, so full of envy
that now the sack spills over,
held me in its confines in the sunlit life.

'You my townsmen called me Ciacco.
For the pernicious fault of gluttony,
as you can see, I'm prostrate in this rain.

'And in my misery I am not alone.
All those here share a single penalty
for the same fault.' He said no more. (VI. l. 34-57)

What’s interesting here is that Ciacco recognizes Dante the character, without Dante the poet explaining how and why. And we get almost nothing about Ciacco for us to know who he is. Dante never wastes words to fill the reader in, unlike Homer and Shakespeare. Would Dante’s readers know who Ciacco is? Though I could be wrong, he’s so obscure, unlike Farinata, who we’ll see further down, I would think not many, if any. I want to point out the metaphor that Ciacco uses (of course Dante wrote it) to describe Florence. 'Your city, so full of envy/that now the sack spills over,/ held me in its confines in the sunlit life’ (l. 49-51). Florence that once provided such an abundance for his life (“sunlit life”) is now like a “sack that spills over.” His reference is to the political strife that is going on at the moment in the city. The strife spills over like a bag full of food emptied. Now what a perfect metaphor for the canto of gluttons. And it provides a great pivot to go from the gluttony theme to the theme of Florence’s politics. Hollander in his notes says that no one has really stated a satisfying reason why politics and gluttony are merged together in this canto. I disagree. I think they are perfect matches. Just look at our politicians, and how the political wrangling is never enough, how politicians are always looking for the next angle to score political points, never satisfied with a political win, so that they are off onto to eating up the politics for the next political win. I think it’s brilliant, and all stemming from one unassuming metaphor.

Finally I want to discuss Dante’s rhythm, which comes in two forms, not including the meter itself, which I don’t think is worth pointing out unless someone wants me to. Notice how the sentences tend to stop at the end of a tercet, either with a full stop or with a coordinating conjunction, where then it stops at the next tercet. It’s not absolute, so it doesn’t feel mechanical, but regular enough to provide the reader a pause and breath at the end of the tercet.

The other rhythmic element is the shape of the Canto. The canto lengths range from 115 lines to 160 lines, which I think is Purgatorio XXXII. But most cantos run around 130 – 150 lines. That regular length—and again not mechanically fixed—paces the reader. But even more important I think is the construction of the cantos. It’s not obvious but if you haven’t picked up on it each canto roughly divides into thirds, call it an A, B, and C part. Here in Canto VI, the first thirty-three lines (the description of the circle and Cerberus) make up the first part. The second part is the dialogue with Ciacco, lines 34 through 93. The last twenty-two lines, Virgil’s explanation on the state of those in hell, make the last third. Each third varies in length, so again it’s not mechanical or obvious, and it may not be for every canto. But it is for almost all. Sometimes A part might be the lengthiest part, sometimes the C, sometimes B as in this case. That rhythm of threes builds in the reader’s reading rhythm.

One of the great scenes of Inferno for me has to be that of Canto X, the scene with Farinata and Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti.  It’s a scene just rich with irony.  The pilgrims are in the circle of the heretics, walking through the sepulchers of those who believe in only the material world and are forced  to lie in a bed of fire until the end of time.  While Dante and Virgil are talking and passing through, the spirit of Farinata, the great Ghibelline leader from Dante’s father’s generation rises out of the sepulcher on recognizing Dante’s Tuscan dialect.

Notice the irony.  As Hollander points out, Farinata is a man who in life rejected the notion of the Resurrection, and Dante the author has him rise up from the tomb.  Notice that he is pulled into Dante’s conversation when he hears Dante say “Good leader” (“Buon duca”), only Dante is addressing Virgil.  Ironically, Farinata’s ears are pricked with a title he wants to hear about himself.  Farinata’s mannerisms and speech exudes pride and superiority. 

Already I had fixed my gaze on his.
And he was rising, lifting chest and brow
as though he held all Hell in utter scorn. (X. l. 34-36)

His prominent features are his chest and brow, just like any politician, and his scorn of Hell is a reaction to his uppity nature and perhaps disagreement in how the place is run.  What we have is a person who is full of pride.  And the first thing he asks Dante was about Dante’s family lines, as if to place them into a political context.

When I stood at the foot of his tomb
he looked at me a moment. Then he asked,
almost in disdain: 'Who were your ancestors?'

And I, eager to obey, held nothing back,
but told him who they were,
at which he barely raised his eyebrows

and said: 'They were most bitter enemies
to me, my forebears, and my party --
not once, but twice, I had to drive them out.' (X. l. 40-48)

And there he shows his pride at having defeated Dante’s family, but Dante returns with his own bit of boast, replying that unlike Farinata’s family who have not come back after being exiled, his family came back each time.  Then comes the Cavalconte interlude, which I’ll get to, but let me jump to the conclusion of the Farinata conversation.  Farinata continues and regrets how his family have not been let back into Florence: “’That they have badly learned this skill/torments me more than does this bed’” (l. 77-8).  He’s in hell, burning in torment for eternity and still he’s thinking of the politics of Florence and his family’s political skill.  He goes on to predict that Dante too will “know how difficult a skill” it will be to return from exile.  Remember that the Comedia is set in the year 1300, though Dante the author is writing this eight or so years later, six years after he is exiled.  So Dante in the story has not been exiled yet, but Dante the author has been.

And here is more irony.  When Fainata goes on to ask Dante why his Dante’s kin have been “so pitiless” against his, Dante cites a battle of great slaughter “that dyed the Ariba [river] red caused them [his kin] to raise/such prayers in our temple.”  What a great metaphor to relate political arguing with prayers.  Politics for the Florentines amounted to a religion, which is not any different than our politics today.  And ironically the metaphor comes in the circle of heresy.

Farinata goes on to further boast when he alone saved Florence from the Ghibelline’s desire to destroy the city, which was actually a very noble action.  Dante the author treats Farinata most humanely, even though he is in hell, allowing him to shine in his historical moment of a profile in courage.  If I were to relate Farinata to one of our historical politicians, it might be Abraham Lincoln.  And here is the irony.  Even though Farinata was a great leader and of true consequence with his moment of courage, he is still in hell.  It’s as if you or I were walking through hell and stumbling on Abraham Lincoln, the most saintly of all our politicians.  Just because one is great and did noble things, does not mean one is saved.

Now let’s turn to Cavalcante.  He is the father of Guido Cavalcanti, a renown Florentine poet and at one time Dante’s best friend.  Both Cavalcantis were atheists and Guelphs.  The elder Cavalcanti starts in a diminutive position, with just his head popping up, but then he too rises up out of the grave.  Unlike Farinata he does not talk or even suggest politics, but the only thing he can inquire about is his son.  He does not see Guido along with Dante, and so jumps the the conclusion his son has died.  Now here’s the irony.  His son will die in August of 1300, three or four months after the poem’s setting but seven years before Dante the author is writing this.  So his son has died in real life but not yet in the story’s moment.  It is interesting to note, that Guido is married to Farinata’s daughter, so Cavalcante and Farinata are in-laws. 

So why does Dante place Farinata and Cavalcante side by side?  Surely he’s pushing us to compare and contrast.  As to similarities, both are concerned with their family, and both then must be seen as failed fathers.  Farinata’s family are exiled, and Cavalcante’s son will surely go to hell like his father for his atheism.  Though of opposite political parties who may at one time been at each other’s throats, both now share the same sepulcher on the same bed of fire.  It doesn’t matter what your political party was in hell.  As to contrast,  Farinata is overly dignified and Cavalcante is overly emotional; Farinata is a legend, Cavalcante is overshadowed by his more famous son.  Farinata was from before Dante was born, Cavalcante Dante knew personally.  Both find themselves in hell.

I find this one of the most fascinating of all the scenes in Inferno.  


  1. I wish I could think of something intelligent to say. Manny, you intellect is on a different planet to mine.

    God bless.

    1. Oh, I'm just learned in this. You have great attributes I admire. Thank you for the compliment.