It’s probably a good idea to remind ourselves as we come closer to the bottom of the Inferno that we are only one third of the way through the journey. Dorothy Sayers’ wonderful quip comes to mind: knowing the Commedia only through the Inferno is like knowing Paris only through its sewer system. This is a very timely reminder, because things get very grim down here: tough for the pilgrim and, if we are reading it right, tough for the reader too. Dante’s job as a poet at the very bottom of hell is to describe absolute evil. Dante as pilgrim has to experience it. The whole of the Inferno could, not inaccurately, be described as looking at things that we would prefer to avoid, not only because things can get pretty gruesome, but also because what Dante the pilgrim sees and what we see through his eyes are mirrors of ourselves: evil is not something that other people do. When we read the Inferno, if we are doing it right, if we are willing to really look honestly, we take our cue from the pilgrim and realize that all of the sinners whom we encounter are either actually or potentially embodiments of traits or at least temptations that we can find in ourselves. The inhabitants of hell have taken their actions to the limit; they have refused to repent; they have in a very real sense become their sins. We are being warned, explicitly and implicitly throughout the Inferno, not to follow their example. But what is true of the Inferno as a whole is true on steroids at the bottom of the pit.
Now, in Inferno 32, as we approach the very end of this canticle, we look at the frozen immobility of the very worst sinners, those who have betrayed family, friends, country, lords, and benefactors: the worst evil that humans are capable of. Canto 32 gives us the overview of this, the ninth and final circle of hell. It is an overview first of all in a literal sense in that Dante describes the lake of ice where, frozen and immobile, the worst sinners are lodged. We get a sense of the big picture: hate, the total absence of love, is ice, not fire. It is also an overview in that the poet gives us some clues about how to read what will follow in the last two cantos. If we are not horrified by what we see there, we are not reading carefully enough.
At the beginning of Canto 32 the poet speaks to us directly about the difficulty of finding language adequate to the task. The implication is that one has to be very careful to find the right words because attempting to describe the point where all evil converges is a task that has to be undertaken with the utmost care:
“If I had harsh and clucking rhymes such as befit the dreadful hole
toward which all other rocks point their weight,
I would press out the juice from my concept more fully; but because I
lack them, not without fear do I bring myself to speak;
For it is no task to take in jest, that of describing the bottom of the
Universe, nor one for a tongue that calls mommy or daddy.” [lines 1-9]
The image of language as “concept juice,” pressed out as oil is pressed from olives, is wonderfully suggestive. But Dante says he can’t do it, can’t give us the one hundred percent pure virgin concept juice, because he doesn’t have rhymes that are harsh enough for what he needs to say. How can language encompass the reality that he is approaching? (He will have the same problem in the much more joyful context of Paradise, when he attempts to describe what is above and beyond language itself.) So, something of Dante’s fear at undertaking the task ought to transfer to us when reading it. The problem is, Dante seems to be suggesting, that if one doesn’t have the right words, the very act of writing might trivialize the subject matter. A decent analogy from our own time would be the problem of talking about the horrors of the holocaust. What sort of language could do justice to those who experienced it? And if language can’t capture the horror, do we trivialize the experience if we attempt to talk about it? It’s a real problem. Dante tackles it head on. And he calls upon the Muses for help, in particular, the Muses who inspired the writers who told the story of Thebes. For Dante, Thebes is the archetypal example of a city at war with itself and his reference to it at the beginning of the canto prepares the way for his retelling a story from the Theban cycle at the end of this canto, a story which is the most important clue that the canto provides for reading the end of Inferno.
Sinners often come in pairs in the Inferno, at least many of the most interesting and important ones: Francesca and Paolo, Farinata and Cavalcante, Ulysses and Diomede. In Canto 33 we will meet the last of them, Ugolino and Ruggieri, frozen together in a horrendous cannibalistic embrace, with Ugolino gnawing on the head of Ruggieri. Although they are not named until the next canto, when their story is told in mind-blowing detail, they are introduced here at the end of 32 by means of an allusion to the Thebes story.
“…I saw two frozen
in one hole so that one head was a hat to the other;
and as bread is eaten by the starving, so the one
put his teeth to the other, there where the brain joins the nape:
not otherwise did Tydeus gnaw Menalippus’ temples
in his rage than this one did the skull and the other things.” [lines 124-129]
In the Theban saga, Tydeus and Menalippus fought together with the sons of Oedipus, one on each side, for control over Thebes. In this famous battle, they each gave the other mortal wounds. But while Menalippus died instantly, Tydeus did not. As it happened, he was a beloved of Athena’s who decided to go to Mount Olympus and bring back the medicine that would save him. In his death throes, and while she was winging her way back with the cure, Tydeus asked for the skull of his enemy as a kind of grotesque last meal. When Athena returned and saw Tydeus munching on the head of Menalippus, she was so disgusted, she threw the medicine away. What a way to end a canto!
Why? For Dante, it brings to the foreground the dominant way he signifies absolute evil at the end of Inferno: cannibalism. Ugolino eats the head of Ruggieri in 33. Satan eats the three great traitors Judas, Cassius, and Brutus in 34. And in the story Ugolino tells in 33, there is even the more-than-suggestion that, locked up and starving to death in a walled up tower, Ugolino ate his own children. The resonances are strong: cannibalism as absolute hatred; cannibalism as the absence of community. Cannibalism as the parody of a banquet. (More specifically, and more importantly, cannibalism is a parody of the Eucharistic banquet, the letter without the spirit.) If hell is inversion, this set of cannibalistic allusions, references, and stories serves to summarize, synthesize, and in a way recapitulate all of the evil that has come before. This is what it all leads to. Somehow the grace and mercy which Dante encounters in the poem, and that he wishes to share with us, needs to take into account the starkness at the end of the Inferno. Without looking at this head on, Dante implies, the journey upwards could not take place. It would be a kind of cheap grace.
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.