Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Commedia Meditations: The Pit of Hell

Leaving behind them the ten concentric trenches of fraud, the poets of reached a cliff face, which falls away steeply before them into the deepest pit of hell, the cold and lifeless center of the world. In the dim light, as the approach the edge of the pit, Dante sees what he thinks are looming towers built along the edge. Virgil explains that these are, however, giants. As they get closer, Dante can discern their figures, and is amazed by their size and ugliness. The giants are a mixture of classical and biblical figures. The titans and sons of Earth are here, condemned for their revolt against Jove. Nimrod, who built the Tower of Babel is there as well, and babbles senselessly at the poets.

At Virgil's command, one of the giants lifts them down to the bottom of the pit. Here they find themselves standing on a lake of ice, so smooth it looks almost like glass.

When we were there below in the darkened hole,
Far down the slope beneath the giant’s feet,
And I still stared up at the steep-pitched wall,

I heard someone tell me, "Watch out how you pass!
Be careful not to step upon the heads
Of this weary, wretched brotherhood."

At that I turned around and saw before me
And underneath my feet a lake of ice
So frozen that it looked like glass, not water.

Neither the Danube in Austria nor the Don,
Far-off under the cold sky, ever fashioned
So thick a veil in winter for its current

As was here: for if the peaks of Tambernic
Or Pietrapana had fallen down on it,
Not even at its edge would it have creaked.

The way frogs sit to croak with muzzles out
Of water, in the season when the peasant girl
Often dreams about her harvesting,

So these mournful shadows were sealed in ice,
Livid to where they blush their cheek with shame,
Teeth chattering with the clatter of a stork.

Each held his face bowed down before the ice,
Witnessing to the cold by their mouths,
Witnessing to the heartache with their eyes.

When I had gazed around me for a while,
I looked down at my feet and saw two shades
So clasped, the hair of their heads knit together.

"Tell me, you who squash your chests together,"
I said, "who are you?" They bent their necks back
And, when they had their faces lifted toward me,

Their eyes, which had before wept inwardly,
Wet drops down on their lips, and the frost froze
The tears between the two and locked them tight.

Never was board on board bolted more firmly
Than these two, so that they butted one another
Like two he-goats, such anger drove them wild.

And one shade who had lost both ears from cold,
With his eyes still cast downward, spoke to me,
"Why do you have to stare at us so hard?

"If you desire to know who this pair is,
The valley from which the Bisenzio cascades
Belonged to them and to their father Albert.

"One womb bore them both, and you can search
All Caina and you shall not find a shade
More worthy to be riveted in ice:

"Not Modred who had breast and shadow pierced
With but one blow dealt by the hand of Arthur,
Not Focaccia, not this one here who blocks

"My view with his head so I see no farther —
And his name was Sassol Mascheroni:
Should you be Tuscan, you now know who he is."
(Inf. XXXII, 16-66)

The poets are in Caina, the first of three regions of the frozen lake that contains traitors. Named after Cain, who killed his brother Abel in the world's first murder, this is where traitors to kin lie encased in ice.

The poets continue on after talking to the betrayers of kin, until Dante accidentally kicks and nearly trips over the head of a sinner who cries out and demands to know who they are.

Dante explains the nature of their journey:

"I am alive, and it may be worth your effort,
Should you seek fame, that I would now note down
Your name with the others." This was my reply.

And he cried, "I want just the opposite!
You have a poor grasp of how to flatter us!
Get out of here and give me no more trouble!"

At that I grabbed him by the scruff of his neck
And said, "Either you give me your name now
Or you won’t have a hair left here on top!"

Then he cried at me, "Go right ahead and scalp me!
I wouldn’t tell you who I am or show you
Though you pummel my head a thousand times!"

I had already twisted his hair in my hand
And pulled out more than a full hank of it,
While he yelped on and kept his eyes down low,

When someone else shouted, "What’s with you, Bocca?
Don’t you sound off enough with your clattering jaws
But now you have to bark? What evil’s got you?"

"Now," I said, "I don't need you to blab more,
Evil-minded traitor, because to shame you
I’ll carry back the real news here about you!"

"Go away!" he answered, "Tell all you want!
But if you do get out of here, do not
Shut up about this one with the big mouth!

"He weeps here for the bribe of Frenchman’s silver.
‘I saw Buoso da Duera,’ you can report,
‘There where all the sinners cool their heels!’

"Should you be questioned, ‘And who else was there?’
Right at your side you have Beccheria
Whose head was cut off by the Florentines.

"Gianni de’ Soldanier I think is farther
On with Ganelon and Tebaldello
Who opened Faenza’s gates while it slept fast."
(Inf. XXXII, 91-123)

Moving on, the poets soon come to perhaps the most pathetic and revolting sight of their journey. Two souls are plunged together in the ice, their heads sticking out through the same hole. All the while, one of them chews at the back of the skull of the other, spilling blood, brains and bone upon the ice.

His mouth raised up above his savage meal,
That sinner wiped his lips upon the hair
Of the head that he had chewed on from behind.

Then he began, "You want me to make new
A desperate grief which even to call back
Crushes my heart before I start to speak.

"But should my words become a fruitful seed
Of infamy for this traitor whom I gnaw,
You’ll see me speak and weep at the same time.

"I don’t know who you are or by what means
You’ve come down here, but when I hear you talk
You surely seem to me a Florentine.

"You need to know I was Count Ugolino,
And this is the Archbishop Ruggieri.
Now I shall tell you why I am his neighbor.

"How I was captured and then put to death
As the result of his own evil scheming,
I, who trusted him, need not explain.

"What you cannot have heard, however, is
How cruel my death was: that you now shall hear
And you will know whether he has wronged me.

"A narrow window in a tower cell,
Which for my sake is called the Tower of Hunger
And in which others must be yet locked up,

"Had through its opening shown me several moons
Already, when I dreamed the nightmare
Which rent the veil of the future for me.

"This man seemed lord and master of the hunt,
Chasing the wolf and whelps upon the mountains
Which block the Pisans’ view toward Lucca.

"With well-trained hounds, a lean and eager pack,
He had sent up ahead of him, in front,
Gualandi, with Sismondi and Lanfranchi.

"After a short run, so it seemed to me,
Father and sons fell tired, and with sharp teeth
It seemed to me I saw their sides ripped open.

"When I awoke before the break of day,
I heard my little sons who were with me
Crying in their sleep and asking bread.

"You are cruel if by now you do not grieve
To think of all that my own heart forewarned:
And if you do not weep, what would you weep for?

"They then awakened, and the hour drew near
When customarily they brought us food,
But each of us was worried by his dream.

"Below I heard them nailing up the door
Of the horrible tower — at that, I looked,
Without a word into my young sons’ faces.

"I did not weep, I had so turned to stone
Within me. They wept. And my little Anselm
Said, ‘You stare so... Father, what is it?’

"At that I shed no tears, and I said nothing
In answer all that day nor the next night
Until another sun rose on the world.

"When a small ray of sunlight made its way
Into that forlorn prison and I saw
By their four faces the look in my own,

"I bit both of my hands in desperate grief,
And they, thinking I acted out of hunger,
All of a sudden stood straight up and wailed,

" ‘Father, the pain for us would be far less
If you ate us! You put this wretched flesh
Upon us and now you may strip it off!’

"I calmed myself, not to make them sadder.
That and the following day we kept silence.
Ah hard earth! Why did you not open up?

"After we had come to the fourth day,
Gaddo threw himself down full length at my feet
And cried, ‘Father, why don’t you help me?’

"He died then, and just as you see me
I saw my three fall one by one by one
Between the fifth day and the sixth, and then,

"By now blind, I went groping over each boy
And for two days I called them who were dead.
Then fasting did what grief had failed to do."

When he had spoken this, with his eyes rolling
He once more seized the loathed skull in his teeth
Which were as strong on the bone as a dog’s.
(Inf. XXXIII, 1-78)

The story of Count Ugolino was so notorious at Dante's time, that his narrative leaves out (or merely hints at) some of the details. Ugolino had plotted with Archbishop Ruggieri against his own political allies (and oldest son) and engineered their destruction. However, Ruggieri then turned on Ugolino and had him, his two younger sons and two grandsons imprisoned. After a period of being kept prisoner in a tower, the door was locked one last time and (on the archbishop's orders) the keys were thrown into the river. When the tower was finally opened eight days later, the prisoners all had starved to death.

In Dante's telling, Ugolino has clearly not repented of his betrayal of family and allies, but is consumed for all eternity with desire for revenge against his fellow traitor, Archbishop Ruggieri.

The poets leave this gruesome scene and move farther still toward the center of the frozen lake. Here the souls at encased in ice with their heads pointing up, so that only the facial features are exposed, and their tears freeze over their faces in a mask that makes further tears impossible.

This is the third region of the lake, Ptolomea, in which are the traitors against hospitality: one of the most basic and ancient moral laws, that a host cannot kill a guest, and a guest cannot kill a host. One of the sinners here calls out to Dante begging the poet to chip the ice off his eyes. Dante promises to do so on the condition that the soul tells him who he is and how he came to be in hell. The shade reveals himself to be a Friar Alberigo, who was notorious for a murder several years before. His younger brother, Manfred, had struck him across the face during a quarrel. Friar Alberigo publicly forgave his brother, and later invited Manfred and his sons to a banquet. Then, at a word from Friar Alberigo, armed servants rushed in and killed both Manfred and his sons.

Dante is shocked to find Friar Alberigo here, because he is still alive, but the friar reveals that the slaughter of guests is so grave a sin that those who do it are sometimes plunged immediately into hell, while a demon inhabits the sinner's body until it dies. He lists off several other notorious traitors to guests who, while their bodies are still alive, have already had their souls plunged into the ice of Ptolomea.

Alberigo then begs Dante to fulfill his promise and chip the frozen tears from his face, but Dante refuses saying that rudeness is courtesy to such a one as this.

The poets now reach the innermost region of the lake. Here the damned are fully submerged under the ice. In the distance, Dante can now see the giant form of Lucifer. He who was once the most beautiful of God's creations is now ugly. He has three faces, each of a different color, and in each of his three mouths he chews one of the three great traitors of history: Judas, Brutus and Cassius. The first requires no explanation, he is the traitor against God and against love, the one who took money for the blood of the innocent lamb. Brutus and Cassius were the main plotters against Caesar, and as such Dante uses them as the symbols of ultimate betrayal of the state.

Satan's wing beat constantly, sending a cold wind blowing out across the lake. And the tears dripping from his six eyes feed the frozen lake itself.

The poets approach his giant, hideous form, and climb down his side, beneath the ice, using his shaggy fur for hand-holds. Half-way down, the world seems to turn over, and they find themselves climbing up instead of down. They have passed through the center of the earth and are now in the antipodes, the far side of the world.

At last they reach a cavern in the rock, from which a path spirals upwards towards the world above.

Along that hidden path my guide and I
Started out to return to the bright world.
And without a thought for any resting-stops,

We bounded up, he first and I second,
Until, through a round opening, I saw
Some of the lovely things the heavens hold:

From there we came out to see once more the stars.
(Inf. XXXIV, 133-139)

With those lines, and that image of hope in the beauty of the stars, ends the long dark journey of Inferno. Next is the long steady ascent up mount Purgatory.

Are we up for more, or have we had enough? I think that with steady work I could probably get us through all of Purgatorio by Easter, and then have Paradiso, if we want to go for completeness, for Easter season.

Thanks to:

The translation and notes of James Finn Cotter

The translation, original text, and notes provided by Allen Mandelbaum

And most especially the translation and extensive commentary by Dorothy Sayers, which Penguin keeps appearing to drop, but never quite has.

1 comment:

Joseph said...

In the updated version of Inferno by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, the narrator notes the emptiness of the are between the eighth and ninth circles and suspects it's for sins that haven't been invented yet.