By Aaron James
The beginning of Dante’s journey found the poet at the midpoint of his life, lost in the dark wood of sin. As he enters the eighth circle of hell, Dante has reached another midpoint of sorts: this canto is the exact halfway mark in the thirty-four cantos of the Inferno. The abyss that Virgil and Dante cross on the back of the monster Geryon divides the sins of fraud and treachery from the sins of incontinence and violence. From now on, we encounter those who have deliberately chosen evil “with malice aforethought.”
The Eighth Circle, called “Malebolge,” is divided into ten pouches (bolgia) or ditches, each devoted to a particular kind of fraud. Pimps and seducers, who had once manipulated others by appealing to their sexual appetites, are now themselves forced to run endlessly in circles, pursued by demons with whips. In the second ditch, flatterers are immersed in excrement, a nauseatingly appropriate representation of the empty words that they had once used to exploit others.
The sins of these inhabitants of Malebolge are, in many cases, truly repellent. In the first ditch, Dante recognizes the nobleman Venèdico Caccianemico, who had procured his own sister Ghisolabella for the local marquis in order to obtain political favour. Nearby is the legendary hero Jason, who completed his famous quest for the Golden Fleece by seducing two women, Medea and Hypsipyle—only to abandon them both, leaving Hypsipyle “alone and pregnant.” Reading these descriptions of premeditated wickedness, it is easy to flatter ourselves that we would never be capable of such things; we might, reluctantly, recognize our own sins in the upper circles of hell, but we have nothing in common with the malefactors below.
Dante has no such illusions. As in many other places in the Comedy, he is careful to remind us that the gravest of sins grow from small beginnings; thus, the seducers and panderers are endlessly chased with whips in opposite directions, just as the greedy and wasteful are endlessly forced to roll stones in opposite directions in Canto 7. The predicament of the avaricious was amusing in its futility, but the fate of the seducers and panderers is deadly serious. Men like Jason and Venèdico, Dante seems to suggest, have merely given way to the temptations to avarice that all of us experience; obsessed with the desire for power or riches, they are willing to use others as mere objects to fulfill their own ends. And despite betraying friends and family, such people retain a kind of attraction on an external level: Virgil comments to Dante on Jason’s stoic virtue, keeping “the image of a king” in the midst of his suffering. We are meant to recognize in Jason not the external image of his nobility but the broken lives that his actions have left behind.
First-time readers of Dante often find his lengthy descriptions of the torments of the damned to be less than edifying: in the words of Dorothy Sayers, modern readers are tempted to “write Dante down as a spiteful politician or a vindictive sadist, and pass on to something else.” But this would be to miss the point, for Dante’s most penetrating psychological insight is directed toward himself. Dante will compare his own journey to Jason’s quest for the Fleece twice in the Paradiso (II:16-18 and XXV:1-9); as Jason’s dangerous journey will earn him his heroic status, Dante’s account of his travels will earn him the “laurel crown” of the poet (Par. XXV:9). Even in condemning Jason for making an idol out of his own ambition, Dante realizes that the same possibility for sin exists within himself, fueled by his desire to be admired as an artist.
The same observation can be applied to the flatterers who occupy the second ditch. The manipulative words of Alessio Interminei or Thaïs, after all, are nothing but an abuse of language—an evil use of the gift of eloquence that Dante himself possessed so extravagantly. By using fair-sounding speech to mislead and entrap their victims, they demonstrate the potential of words to tell lies instead of uttering divine truth. Charles Williams argues that the prostitute Thaïs signifies precisely this distortion of poetic language; when she tells her paramour that she is “marvellously” grateful to him, she is echoing the same elevated, poetic style—the key word meravigliose—that Dante uses to describe the beauty of Beatrice in La vita nuova. Small wonder that the two poets turn away quickly from this abuse of their own art of language.
Dante’s diagnosis of human sin is unsparing in its intensity; he realizes that his own ambitions and desires could easily be put to evil use, and that only the grace of God prevents him from falling into the same sins. Yet even in the eighth circle of hell, there is a glimmer of hope. The long lines of seducers and panderers remind Dante of the crowds of pilgrims going to St Peter’s in Rome in the “year of Jubilee” (28-33), pilgrims who have travelled long distances to have their sins forgiven and to receive the indulgences associated with the Jubilee year. Although the human tendency to sin runs deep, in other words, God’s mercy is a deeper reality still.
If we are to travel with Dante in this Year of Mercy, we will need to be diligent in self-examination, knowing that our selfish ambitions hold the possibility of much graver sins. We will avoid passing judgement on the failings of others, knowing that the same possibilities for evil exist within ourselves. But we will also travel with hope, knowing that when we turn to God for forgiveness we can be assured of receiving it.
Dr. Aaron James is director of music at St. Mary’s Church in Auburn, NY, and an Instructor of Music History at the College Music Department of the University of Rochester. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music, where he earned two doctoral degrees: a Doctor of Musical Arts in organ performance, and a Ph.D. in historical musicology. His research focuses on the Latin motet in the mid-sixteenth century.