Thinking Through Hell: Hate to Die

I’m finally doing something I’ve wanted to do for a while: catalogue scenes in the Inferno where Dante exhibits a physical and/or emotional reaction to the damned. I’m sure someone has already done this somewhere, but I wanted to comb through the text myself. In every instance, either Virgil explicitly comments on the appropriateness of Dante’s reaction, or the narrative description invites reflection on Dante’s view of sin in that particular moment.

Below, I’ve listed the scenes with a brief summary of what happens. At the bottom of the post, I’ll remark briefly on my own conclusions about what I think is going when these scenes are taken together.

Note on the Translation: I used the online text available through the World of Dante website.

I. Canto 5: Paolo and Francesca, circle 2, Lustful

  • Dante: swoons and faints when he hears Francesca tell her story, “so that-because of pity- / I fainted, as if I had met my death. / And then I fell as a dead body falls” (5.140-42).
  • Virgil: No reaction.

II. Canto 6: Ciacco, circle 3, Gluttonous

  • Dante: “Ciacco, your suffering so weights on me that I am forced to weep” (6.58)
  • Virgil: No reaction. Tells Dante that the damned will receive their body again on the day of doom which will perfect their punishment.

III. Canto 7: N/A, circle 4, Avarice

  • Dante: Desires to meet some of the souls in this circle.
  • Virgil: Does not allow Dante to talk with anyone because… “That thought of yours is empty: / the undiscerning life that made them filthy / now renders them unrecognizable” (6.52-54).

IV. Canto 8: Filippo Argenti, circle 5, Wrathful

  • Dante: Insults Filippo (8.37) and then tells Virgil “I am very eager / to see that spirit soused within this broth / before we’ve made our way across the lake” (8.52-54).
  • Virgil: “you shall be satisfied; / to gratify so fine a wish is right” (8.56-57).

V. Canto 10: Farinata, circle 6, Heretics

  • Dante: initially afraid to speak to Farinata; lost in thought after his conversation with Farinata who has told him about the political future of Florence and the nature of a damned soul’s knowledge.
  • Virgil: reprimands Dante for cowering at the sound of Farinata’s voice and forces him to speak with him; encourages Dante to remember the words spoken against him by Farinata.

VI. Canto 13: Piero della Vigna, circle 7, Suicides

  • Dante: breaks a twig of a tree that happesn to be Piero; cannot find the words to ask questions of Piero because “so much pity takes my heart” (13.84);
  • Virgil: tells Dante to break one of the branches though it “grieves me deeply” (13.51); encourages Piero to tell Dante his story so that he can refresh his fame (13.53); also takes Dante to the tree ravaged by the souls and hounds racing through the forest.

VII. Canto 14: Capaneus, circle 7, Blasphemers

  • Dante: —
  • Virgil: Rebukes Capaneus and tells Dante that in hell, Capaneus’ true nature is revealed (14.70).

VIII. Canto 15: Brunetto Latini, circle 7, Sodomites

  • Dante: Strongly desires to sit with Brunetto (15.34); remains fond of and grateful for Brunetto (15.82); narration end on a positive description of Brunetto.
  • Virgil: allows Dante to speak at length with Brunetto.

IX. Canto 16: Three Noble Florentines, circle 7, Violent Against God

  • Dante: speaks with them at length and then says, “Your present state had fixed / not scorn but sorrow in me-and so deeply / that it will only disappear slowly…” (16.52-54).
  • Virgil: Tells Dante that these three souls deserve his respect.

X. Canto 19: Pope Nicholas III, circle 8, Simonists

  • Dante: delivers a long invective against Pope Nicholas III
  • Virgil: appears happy with Dante’s rant.

XI. Canto 23: Two Friars, circle 8, Hypocrites

  • Dante: speaks with two friars; begins to respond to their story, “O friars, your misdeeds–” (23.109), but then he cuts it short when he sees Caiaphas crucified to the ground.
  • Virgil: Recommends the friars as sinners for Dante to speak to; he stares at Caiaphas in amazement (23.124).

XII. Canto 26: Ulysses & Diomede, circle 8, Evil Counselors

  • Dante: desires to speak to the “twin flame” that contains Ulysses and Diomede
  • Virgil: says that Dante’s desire is a worthy request, but forbids him from speaking to them directly–Virgil claims that they would shy away if Dante attempted to speak to them in Italian, so he speaks on Dante’s behalf.

XIII. Canto 27: Guido de Montefeltro, circle 8, Evil Counselors

  • Montefeltro’s story is detailed, but as soon as he’s finished speaking, the narrator simply says that Dante and Virgil walked away. Strange that there’s no description of Dante’s reaction to such a detailed–and sad!–story.

XIV. Canto 30: Master Adam & Sinon, circle 8, Falsifiers

  • Dante: “intent on listening” to two sinners insult each other (30.130)
  • Virgil: reprimands Dante for being so captivated by the scene.

XV. Canto 32: Bocca Degli Abati, circle 9, Traitors

  • Dante: accidentally stubs his toe on Bocca; asks Bocca to identify himself, and when he refuses, Dante first tries to convince him by offering him fame, but eventually must yank his head back and pull out his hair to force him to respond.
  • Virgil: no response

XVI. Canto 33: Count Ugolino, circle 9, Traitors

  • Dante: listens to Ugolino’s story; instead of a direct response, the narrative complains that the people Ugolino betrayed should not have punished his sons along with him.
  • Virgil: no response

XVII. Canto 33: Brother Alberigo, circle 9, Traitors

  • Dante: Alberigo cries out to Dante to hear his complaint; promises to wipe the ice from Alberigo’s eyes if he tells the truth; when Alberigo has finished talking, Dante refuses to fulfill his promise to him because “it was courtesy to show him rudeness” (33.150).
  • Virgil: No response

XVIII. Canto 34: Satan, circle 9, Traitors

  • Dante: when he sees Satan, he says, “I did not die, and I was not alive…I became deprived of life and death” (34.25-27).
  • Virgil: No response

(Brief) Concluding Thoughts

The pattern of Virgil’s responses seem relatively straightforward: Virgil only reproves Dante when he fears or is entertained by the sinners. Anger and pity, however, are allowed and often praised.

One question that often comes up in discussions about the Inferno is why Dante must travel through hell before ascending Purgatory into Heaven. The answer, I think, lies in the pattern of Dante’s behavior that Virgil praises and censures. Dante must learn to hate sin. Hate encompasses a spectrum of responses to sin that range from anger to pity.

Dante must also be bold in facing sin. Cowardice cannot hate. Boldness counter-balances the opening scene where Dante “awoke” in a dark wood. He’d become lazy and fell asleep, no longer vigilant in his fight against sin. The way was lost to him because he didn’t keep up his courage.

The goal of Dante’s journey through hell is to hate sin so much he’d willingly die to it. Dante’s transformation ends in a form of death–i.e., a state of being deprived of “life and death.” This death is different than the kind of death the sinners in hell experience. Sin does not kill Dante. Rather, Dante’s perseverance throughout his journey suggests that he’s resolved to die before he allows sin to chain him in hell. Such a death ultimately liberates Dante and allows him to escape.

Places and Spaces

I’ve read and watched two things today that have my mind humming with old ideas re-presented in new contexts.

The first is from Wilfred M. McClay at Comment:

As we have become ever more mobile and more connected and absorbed in a panoply of things that are not immediately present to us, our actual and tangible places seem less and less important to us, more and more transient or provisional or even disposable. Sometimes it almost seems as if we are moving toward a nomadic existence as plants without definable roots, perpetually forgetful beings who draw our daily sustenance from what is far rather than what is near. We rely on the ubiquitous satellites that encircle us and the resultant computer clouds that feed and absorb our energies. We do this rather than drawing sustenance from the actual people before our eyes, and the specific ground beneath our feet, and the stories and memories that form our lives in community. We forget the things that make our places distinctive, and concentrate on the things that make them interchangeable.

(Note: I struggled not to copy and paste the whole essay. You should read the whole thing).

The second is from a talk by Andy Crouch:

A couple takeaways:

1. When we abstract our material and tangible experiences, we implicitly alter our conceptions of personhood and leave ourselves vulnerable to powers that would impose their will upon us. Abstraction is as reductive as materialism. Abstraction, however, is not just the sin of the ivory tower. It is located within tech. industry and our cultural obsession with convenience. For Crouch, one of the problems that emerged from the Industrial Revolution was the replacement of human work with machines. Ostensibly, technology allows us to off-load human work so that we can live lives of uninterrupted pleasure. The result is a vision of humanity unfettered from the work that produces tangible goods. In a word, we become “consumers,” and so we are at the mercy of those who provide the consumable goods.

2. One of my favorite parts in McClay’s essay (not included in the above quotation) is his image of human beings as gardeners and pilgrims. These are competing extremes within the human psyche and within philosophy/theology of personhood. McClay points out that the gardener can’t subsume the pilgrim aspect of our nature, and vice versa. The two must always be held in tension. But, McClay emphasizes, our present cultural moment leans too much in the direction of pilgrimage–both in secular (i.e., technological conveniences) and religious contexts: “We cannot flourish without rootedness, and we should not let the pilgrimage element in our faith become a pretext for relegating all our attachments to meaningless shadows, a world in which there is no there there, only a vague spiritual beyond.” Paradox is at the heart of human experience, and our tendency is to try to eliminate one of the competing aspects. After all, paradox is both uncomfortable and inconvenient–two words our “technological progress” is hell bent on eliminating.

I also appreciated McClay’s essay because it helped keep my inner-luddite in check. Technological improvement does not have to progress at the expense of human flourishing. And much of the technology we enjoy today–whether medicinal, recreational, educational, etc.–has enhanced our lives in good ways. The trick, McClay says at the end of his piece, is preserving our memory of what it means to be human.

Feast of the BVM

This morning I received a notification in my inbox that Malcolm Guite had published a new post that featured a collection of his own sonnets about the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM). And I was reminded that today is the feast day of the BVM. Having grown up in a non-denominational Church, Mary was only an important character during the Christmas season. She was rarely, if ever, mentioned the rest of the year. My childhood memories of Mary are factual: she was very young when she was pregnant with Jesus, and her betrothal to Joseph was jeopardized because of her per-marital pregnancy. Not much else was said aside from the occasional reference to the courage she showed volunteering to be the human means for the incarnation.

It wasn’t until college, when I started to read more widely in Christian history, that I realized the strength of her influence on Christian theology and literature. As Guite points out, she has often been a source of bitter disagreement among Christians. See for example the “immaculate conception” and the “dormition of Mary.”

Personally, reading and reflecting on Mary’s role within the larger salvation narrative has been a spiritual comfort. It’s hard to explain in words, or in any rational way, why this has been the case. But I’m not alone. Guite also mentions that Mary has historically been “a sign of hope, an example of prayer, devotion and service, and an inspiration.” The BVM is so much more than a historical necessity or factoid. She maintains symbolic significance and an undeniable presence in the life of the Church–past, present, and future.

Her symbolic importance is especially prevalent in her title “Theotokos”–God-bearer. While the title itself is used predominately in Orthodox theology and liturgies, the idea runs throughout the Church catholic. The verb “bear” is rich in meaning. It can mean “to carry, convey, display, be called by, or conduct oneself.” Not only are all these meanings at play in the title Theotokos, they have both a literal and spiritual meaning as well. Mary physically bore God for us, and she continues to bear God to us as a witness and example of God’s love in the person of Jesus Christ. In Christian iconography, Mary is usually depicted with Christ or in a way that demonstrates her relationship to him. Often she is either visibly or implicitly pointing (us) to Christ.

I’ve never read a decent or satisfying prose description of Mary’s importance to history,  to the life of the church, or to Christian individuals. Poetry and iconography seem to be the best mediums of representation. So here are a few of my favorite Marian poems and icons. (Click on the links for the full poems).

Theotokos, by Malcolm Guite

“You bore for me the One who came to bless

And bear for all and make the broken whole.

You heard His call and in your open ‘yes’

You spoke aloud for every living soul.”

mary 3

The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air we Breathe, Gerard Manley Hopkins

“If I have understood,

She holds high motherhood

Towards all our ghostly good

And plays in grace her part

About man’s beating heart,

Laying, like air’s fine flood,

The deathdance in his blood;

Yet no part but what will

Be Christ our Saviour still.”

mary 1

The Magnificat, Luke 1:46-56

46 My soul doth magnify the Lord.

47 And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.

48 For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.

mary 4

Kaepernick & the Water We Swim In

Alastair Roberts recently wrote a post about the controversy surrounding the Colin Kaepernick and Nike ad. I’ve been thinking about his post all week because he seems to get to the heart of the issue. He starts with the idea of the “Cult of Patriotism:”

Beyond drawing attention to the specific issue of racial injustice, in kneeling for the American national anthem before the start of games, Colin Kaepernick’s actions served to expose the power of the American cult of patriotism, which has steadily brought professional sports into its orbit. While many justifiably lament the increasing politicization of every area of life, it wasn’t Kaepernick who really initiated the politicization of the NFL. The spread of the cult of the state and the military in American football was considerably advanced before Kaepernick ever took a knee.

Alastair is exactly right. Every time I hear people complain about how every area of life has been politicized, my knee-jerk reaction is to wonder when politics was ever a separate or contained social reality. Every social institution and entertainment industry–including governments and professional sports–is an extension of cultural values and identity. The NFL, MLB, and NHL have always been political entities because they represent a history of American cultural identity.

Consider, for example, the names of two teams in the NFL: the New England Patriots and the San Francisco Forty Niners. The Patriots recall the history of the Revolutionary War, and the 49ers recall the prospectors who journeyed to Northern California during the gold rush in 1849.

The names of both teams, however, are more than reminders of factual historical events. It’s safe to assume that a nation wouldn’t intentionally name a sports team in honor of a collectively recognized national shame. Team names are meant to promote a sense of national identity, and they do this by affirming a specific view of history.

“Patriots” is an unequivocal celebration of the heroic efforts of those who fought for American independence. “49ers” is a celebration of the wealth and prosperity promised to those who work hard and courageously seek a better life for themselves–i.e., the American Dream.

Seen as an endorsement of a particular view of American history, we shouldn’t be surprised when disagreement emerges. History is as much a game of interpretation as it is a record of dates, events, and people–hence, the name controversy surrounding the Washington Redskins. The flurry of denouncements and support of Kaepernick’s decision to take a knee during the anthem underscores Alastair’s point: Kaepernick did not politicize football. He exposed yet another way in which football was, is, and will always be political.

The difficulty, of course, is that the politics of professional sports is usually unstated. Professional sports are built on unquestioned assumptions about national identity, and they participate in the rituals/habits of culture. The result is a large-scale form of peer-pressure, what Alastair describes as the “power of cult.” The most effective way to reveal cultural habits of thought is to behave differently. In this case, “for the power of the cult to be made manifest, all Kaepernick had to do was to kneel.”

Alastair extends his argument further into the realm of civil religion, which I may take up in another post. But for now, I found his description of culture, sports, and politics especially fruitful for reflection and further discussion. It reminds me of David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College Commencement speech. Culture and politics are part of the water we swim in. Unfortunately, we’re not always aware of it.