“Behold the beast with the barbed tail, who flies
past mountains, scattering armies, smashing walls!
Behold the beast whose stench sickens the world!” [17.1-3]
Even by Dante’s standards, that’s a pretty dramatic introduction. The beast is Geryon, and Canto 17 of the Inferno begins by suggesting danger to the pilgrim. But despite the scary opening lines, and the equally scary descriptions that follow, Geryon is there to be of service to Dante. He is the one who enables the pilgrim and his guide to descend to the pit that contains the circle of the fraudulent, carrying them on his back as he negotiates his way down a huge break in the pit of hell toward the bottom. Canto 17 is thus about transitions, bringing Dante and us from the realm of violence to the realm of fraud. But, as if to suggest a connection between violence and fraud, Dante’s encounter with the last of the violent, the usurers, is sandwiched between the appearance of Geryon at the beginning of the canto and the ride that Dante and Virgil take on Geryon’s back at the end.
Like so much of the Divine Comedy, this canto is divided into three parts. After the description of Geryon, which carries the reader through the first thirty lines, Virgil tells Dante to go and encounter the last of the souls in the circle of the violent, the usurers. Here in the second part, while Virgil seems to be busy negotiating with Geryon, Dante watches these souls bitterly insult each other. In the third part of the canto, beginning with line 76, the pilgrim rejoins Virgil who has already climbed onto Geryon. Dante, despite real fear, does the same. He holds on tight and they begin the descent. They dismount, and Geryon departs, “vanishing like an arrow from the string” [line 136]. The pilgrim is now ready to encounter Fraud.
This canto should be required reading before going to see The Big Short, the current film that portrays the horrendous financial crisis that hit Wall Street, the nation, and the world in 2008. This is the canto that explains what went wrong with Wall Street, dramatizing a moral position on money and its uses. It is no accident that we encounter the usurers in the same canto that moves us from violence to fraud. I think that the poet is suggesting that usury, while it officially belongs in the circle of the violent, tilts strongly toward fraud. Dante’s description at this point is very vivid. The sinners are weighed down by their moneybags, pouches that display each family’s coat of arms, and they eye each other’s heraldry suspiciously and malevolently. What is the poet getting at with his condemnation of usury? What is usury, anyway? This canto was a much harder sell before the mess on Wall Street. A textbook definition that one often hears, after all, is that usury is lending money at interest. Whoa: without loans paid back with interest I would not own a house, I would not own a car, and I would not have put my kids through college. Is that what Dante has in mind?
Think about it this way: Dante is asking, what does it mean to employ money simply for the sake of making more money, without any thought to the common good? In this scenario, which provides a moral framework for understanding both the heads of famous Italian banking families who are eyeing each other in hell and the hedge fund managers of our own time, money has taken on a life of its own. Money, which should exist simply as a medium of exchange, begins to “breed” and soon spins out of control. The point of money for the usurer is to make more money. The point of more money is even more money. The point of money for Dante, and for the moral system which the poem dramatizes, is to provide resources for the common good. Hedge funds managers employ PhDs in physics to find the cracks in the system, and bankers bundle sub-prime mortgages. These modern day usurers probably do not know or care that the principles and practices of banking that they are piggy-backing on, that provide the framework of the system they are gaming, were in point of fact invented in the Florence of Dante’s time. By casting a cold eye at what was coming into being in his own time, Dante tells us what is happening in ours.
The example of Hedge Fund Managers surely helps us understand the nature of the sin. But most of us are not Hedge Fund Managers. Does that mean we are off the hook, that the canto is about sins that other people commit? Maybe not. What happens if we allow ourselves to really think about all the ways in which we too objectify and idolize money? For all of us in America in the twenty-first century, to a greater extent than we are willing to admit, money is the way we keep score, in big ways and little ways. Looking at the restless anger and envy that dominates the figures Dante encounters here in Inferno 17 should give us more than a little pause.
There is no way Dante and Virgil can get to the bottom of hell without the help of Geryon. Surely that is a reminder of the fact that the entire journey is a grace, a mercy that Dante receives but does not deserve. But it is complicated here by the fact that Geryon is not only Dante’s “ride” down to the realm of the fraudulent. Geryon is himself an embodiment of fraud, a strangely composite beast having “the features of an honest man”…“but the trunk down below was serpentine” [lines 10, 12]. It gets even more complicated when, in the midst of the journey, described as though they are swimming through the air, Dante invokes the figures of Phaeton and Icarus, both emblems of pride, mythical figures whose own journeys took them too close to the sun and led them to death. One way to look at it is that the journey of these two mythological figures is upward through pride in their own resources, while Dante’s journey by contrast is downward, guided and helped by others, so that in invoking these figures the poet allows the reader to see the difference between their journey and his. But pride is a constant danger to the pilgrim, a theme that will be picked up even more forcefully in the Purgatorio.
Dr. Ron Herzman is a member of the English Department at SUNY Geneseo. He has taught, written, and lectured extensively on Dante. This year he is a Fellow at the Center for Medieval Studies at Fordham.