Autore: Dorothy Sayers
Tratto da: Introductory papers on Dante
Editore: Methuen-Harper, London-New York
I shall never cease to be grateful that my first introduction to Dante came through the late Charles Williams, himself, like Dante, a poet, and, like Dante, a lay theologian ofa very original and creative turn of mind. There are many ways of approach to the Divine Comedy: the scholarly, the dogmatic, the historical, the linguistic are all good oftheir kind, and anybody who intends to make a serious study of the poem must explore each of them in turn if he is to become familiar with the terrain. But one’s first approach to any place has a unique quality; nothing that happens afterwards will ever quite efface that primal impression stamped upon the blank metal of the mind. If that impression has been significant and right, one may thereafter wander along any by-ways one likes, without fear of stumbling into the dark forest of irrelevance where “the right road is lost”.
In the first paragraph of his book, The Figure of Beatrice, Charles Williams notes: “Dante is one of those poets who begin their work with what is declared to be an intense personal experience.” In the last paragraph he says, in speaking of Dante’s affirmation of the womanhood of Beatrice: “This is what Dante insisted on, and... we ought perhaps to take Dante’s poetry as relevant to our own affairs… If we ought, then the whole of his work is the image of a Way not confined to poets.” In those two sentences we have, I think, a guide to the first principles of all literary criticism. Our main business is to ask ourselves: “What did this poem mean in the experience of the poet? And what does it mean in our own experience?” So long as we keep these two questions clearly before us, we can ask any subsidiary questions we like, and it will all be to our profit. But unless we ask those, and can answer them satisfactorily, the poem, as a poem, will be dust and ashes to us, however many little jackdaw pickings we manage to extract from the dump.
I do not mean, of course, that such pickings are useless. The historian’s pickings are useful to history; the grammarian’s pickings to philology; the theologian’s to theology; and the scholar’s to scholarship. But they are not useful to poetry unless we have first seen the poem in its native poetical significance. When we have, then we can use all these other things as aids to a fuller understanding; when we have not, then they serve only to bury understanding beneath the dustheaps of antiquarian learning.
During the last few years, I have been engaged in widening and deepening my acquaintance with the Divine Comedy, including, of course, the Inferno. I have by now read the Inferno innumerable times; I have toiled to translate it into English (and there is no better way of finding out whether one understands a thing or not than translating it); and I have gone through it again in order to compile the necessary minimum of explanatory notes. In the course of these labours I have had, naturally, to read a great many of the critical works which, in my first flush of enthusiasm for Dante I, almost deliberately, ignored— because I did not want to read them until I had made something out of the poem for myself. It was, I remember, while trying to write a helpful note upon the Giants who stand round the Well which forms the division between Malebolge and the frozen Lake of Cocytus at the bottom of the Pit, that I found myself asking the question: “Why in the world did Dante put he Giants just here?” And while looking for the answer, I quite suddenly saw a vision of the whole depth of the Abyss—perhaps as Dante saw it, but quite certainly as we can see it here and now: a single logical, coherent, and inevitable progress of corruption. When I had once seen it so, innumerable small conundrums—più di mille , as Dante would say—seemed promptly to solve themselves, the answers clicking quietly into place as they occasionally do in a cross-word when, after long puzzling, one has hit upon some central fifteen-letter word which crosses and clues them all. I do not, of course, mean that I discovered a code or a cipher—that kind of thing belongs to detective fiction, not to poetry. I mean only that I saw the whole lay-out of Hell as something actual and contemporary; something that one can see by looking into one's self, or into the pages of to-morrow's newspaper. I saw it, that is, as a judgment of fact, unaffected by its period, unaffected by its literary or dogmatic origins; and I recognised at the same moment that the judgment was true.
I cannot say I was surprised; because, as I have explained, I was so brought into Dante's presence that I expected his poem to be a judgment of fact. What does surprise me, now that I have read more books about Dante, is to find that this expectation is so rare. I have been looking for a critic who should examine the arrangement of the Inferno, in detail, with a view to determining whether it is, or is not, justified as a judgment of fact; and I am still looking. What writers usually discuss is, however interesting, something quite different. Witte, for instance, was apparently the first to inquire why the arrangement of Hell was not simply that of Purgatory in reverse. There is, of course, one very obvious answer: namely that, from the purely narrative point of view, no poet, not even Dante with his passion for symmetry, could easily face the task of going through exacetly the same list of sins twice over with no variation except that between upside-down and right side up. Ignoring this artistic consideration, with its corollary that, since Virgil is the guide through the Inferno, a classical arrangement is clearly more appropriate in the context than a Christian one, de Witte and Wicksteed point out very rightly the dogmatic reason for the difference: namely, that whereas in Hell evil deeds are punished, in Purgatory evil cendencies are corrected; and that these two things are by no means the same thing. Furthermore, there is a fascinating argument about how much of the arrangement is based upon Aristotle and how much upon Cicero, and whether, in conflating two separate classifications, Dante was not led, by an unfortunate mistranslation in the mediaeval Latin version of the Ethics, to use the word malizia ambiguously in two slightly different senses (a position learnedly combated at very great length by W. H. V. Reade). All this is great fun, and sheds a lot of light on Dante’s method of work; I would not be without it for the world. But it sheds no light at all upon the gradation of sins within the three main divisions of Incontinence, Violence, and Fraud (Simple and Complex)—a gradation for which, in default of other evidence, we must presume Dante responsible. And it does seem to me curious that, having traced the disposition back to its classical origins, and decided whether it could be reconciled with scholastic doctrine, it should so seldom occur to anybody to ask: “However Dante arrived at this infernal arrangement, is it soundì is it relevant? does it correspond to anything at all within the living experience of you and me row? of the soul and state of Manat all times?” Because, if it does not, our enjoyment of Dante may be aesthetic or historical or political or antiquarian, or anything at all except poetically complete; and whatever the Comedy does to us, it will assuredly not fulfil the purpose for which Dante says he wrote it: “To remove those living in this life from the state of misery and lead them to the state of felicity”.
The book, after all, is an allegory. It is certainly literature; but—by its author, at any rate—itis no more “intended to be read as literature” than the Bible is so intended—if by “literature?” we mean something as irrelevant to belief and conduct as “Three Little Kittens they lost their Mittens”. And, being an allegory, it is not primarily “about” the condition of souls after death; that, as Dante points out, is only the literal meaning, and the least important. Considered as a story, the literal meaning is full of entertainment: it is interesting to know what Dante thought of Boniface VIII, to account for his rather surprising choice of Cato as the guardian of Mount Purgatory, to wonder who the blazes Matelda is, and to work out the complicated geography of that “whole quadrant of the first climate” through which Dante found himself “rolling with the eternal Twins”. That geography, like his astronomy, was no doubt defective by twentieth-century standards, his embryology would not pass muster among modern medical students, he appears to have got muddled about the dates of Hugh Capet, and to have mistaken the character of Thais in a play by Terence for the historical lady of the same name and profession; moreover, he was very likely wrong about the post-mortem destination of most of the people he wrote about, and so, very likely, are his critics. But nothing of all this really matters. To the topography and the administration of Hell many sources contribute: Homer and Virgil, the Bible, the apocryphal Scriptures, Ovid, St. Patrick’s Purgatory, the matter of Brittany—to separate all these elements out, and see how they are marshalled by a master-hand is to receive a liberal education in the art of narrative construction; but the validity of the Inferno does not depend on these things. If a concept is false it will remain false, from whatever authority it can be shown to be borrowed; if it is true, then it will carry the same conviction, whether based on tradition or invented from top to bottom. The truth of the Inferno is to be sought in the allegory and not in the literal story. The map of Hell is the map of the black heart; if we want to verify it, we cannot do so from books. At most, we may profit by the title of a little household handbook very popular in my childhood, which professed to instruct one in everything, from the care of babies to “How to Make a Will”: it was called Enguire Within. The Kingdom of Hell, like the Kingdom of Heaven, is within you. The road from the Vestibule to the Centre lies open to anybody to take.
“It is of course true”, says Charles Williams, “that no single soul commits all these sins, nor does Dante say so. But there is a sense in which his singlesoul, following Virgil, creates for us an opposite vision of a single shade, without Virgil, clambering, stupidly, obstinately, and painfully, from ridge to ridge of deepening evil. The progress of that perversion is seen in many incidents, but it is true essentially ofeach; there is no place yet where the weary spirit can stop. The earlier plagues still torment it and drive it on to more.”
“No single soul commits all these sins”; true. But the interpretation of the allegory need not be confined to the level of the individual soul. It can be made also at the level of society, and Dante himself would be the first to approve our making it so. The City of Dis remains always the image of the City—of the Empire, of community, of man-insociety—the perverted image of that heavenly Rome which spreads its gyres so wide in the Empyrean. “Behold our city,” says Beatrice of that, “how great is the company of the white robes”; and Virgil says of this: “Behold . . . the City that is named of Dis, with its sad citizens, its great company.” This is the Città Dolente: as the Mystic Rose spreads upward and outward in a timeless eternity, so this narrows inward and down in a “bad infinity” of endless time. It is the image of things to come: but it is also the image of things present. Let us walk about the infernal city and tell the towers thereof; it may be that we shall recognise her public monuments, that as we pass through a street we shall say suddenly, “I have been here before”; that we shall turn a corner and come unexpectedly upon our own house.
The City of Dis is extended in time and in space. She is all simultaneously present at every moment of time, from her respectable suburbs (never more respected than today) inward to that withdrawn and secluded centre where
in that black spot,
Core of the universe and seat of Dis,
The traitors lie, and their worm dieth not.
But we may see her otherwise: as a progression in time from suburbs to citadel—a corroding and inevitable process of destruction. Whichever way we look at it, it is all one. Hell is a funnel, continually sucking and drawing all heaviness downwards and inwards towards that centre “upon which all weights downweigh”. That which to-day is in the suburbs will be within the walls to-morrow. Everything shifts and slides with the steady centripetal pull towards the bottomless gulf “where there is no more downward”; at the end of the descent is the “great Worm” which devours and is never satisfied.
Let us, then, begin the journey—the journey of self-knowledge into the possibilities of depravity. We may find the gate anywhere in the Dark Forest, and there are no bolts upon it. It is, says Dante, “the wide-open door”, “the gate whose threshold is denied to none”. We enter; we are in the Vestibule. This is not yet Hell, though it is the way to Hell. It is the outer fringe of the suburbs; it is almost, we might say, the junction from which we may take the train for Hell. It is populated by those whom both Heaven and Hell reject: those who were “neither for God nor for His enemies”’. Virgil speaks contemptuously of “this dreary huddle”’ whose “blind life trails on so low and crass” that it would welcome everlasting death.
“No reputation in the world it has,
Mercy and doom hold it alike in scorn:
Let us not speak of these, but look and pass.”
Dante looks, and recognises. We too may recognise—perhaps with some astonisament. The Vestibule is very crowded—more so, indeed, than in Dante’s day, and the numbers surprised kim. Here are the people who never come to any decision. Do we despise them? or do we admire their wide-minded tolerance and their freedom from bigotry and dogmatism? They discuss everything, but come to no conclusion. They will commit themselves to no opinion, since there is so much to be said on the other side. Like the Duke in Chesterton’s play, Magic, they never give a subscription to one party without giving one to the opposite party as well. They never abandon themselves wholeheartedly to any pursuit lest they should be missing something: neither to God, lest they should lose the world, nor to the world, because there might, after all, be “something in” religion. They shrink from responsibility, lest it should bind them; they condemn nothing, for fear of being thought narrow. They chose indecision, and here in Hell they have it; they run for ever after a perpetually-shifting banner; the worry and fret that torments them as of old stings them like a swarm of hornets. They sweat blood and tears, but in no purposeful martyrdom: the painful drops fall to the ground and are licked up by worms. Let us not speak of them—let us at any rate not commend their wavering minds and their twittering little indecisive books. ‘But surely,” they cry, “all experience is valuable! AIl good and evil are relative! All religions are the same in essentials! One mustn’t draw hard-and-fast distinctions! One must be free to try everything!” Look, and pass.
We pass. We come to Acheron. Acheron is the passage into Hell itself - it is the act of the will consenting to evil. The dead souls long to pass it, for beyond it lies the place of their choice. They hate what they chose, yet because they chose it they cling to it, as the drunkard clings to drink or the lecher to lechery; as the tired millionaire can get no kick except out of making yet more money that he cannot enjoy; as the tyrant glutted with blood can only stimulate his jaded senses by inventing more complicated forms of torture. “All their fear is changed into desire” because, although their choice has become their punishment, it is yet the only tolerable existence for them; because, though all the savour of thesinisgone, they cannot live without it. Their will consents to judgment, and Charon ferries them over the river. But Dante, the living man, swoons; and when he wakes he is at the other side. Critical ingenuity has exhausted itself in discussing how he got there. But the whole point is that he does not know. How often does a man know the precise moment when his will consented to sin? By what obscure interior resolution did the thought, “I wish my brother were dead’ give place to the settled intention: “I mean to murder him”’? or the speculative premeditation of murder become a foregone conclusion, crystallising into an act? There is a point at which the dark desire, struggling out of the depths of the subconscious, passes the warder who, in Dante’s phrase, “guards the threshold of assent”. As a rule, the assent to evil is not recognised until after it has been ratified by the conscious mind.
Acheron passed, we enter the First Circle. It is a place, not of pain, but of grief—a sighing for eternal loss. Here is the Limbo of the unbaptised and the great pagans—people, we may think, who had no opportunity to choose. Yet they are placed on the far bank of the River of Assent. Why? Because, Virgil explains, “they had not faith”. Literally, because they lacked faith in Christ; but allegorically because they lacked faith in a more absolute manner. Some ofthe noblest minds are in that Limbo. They cannot trust the universe; they are strangers to ecstasy. Whether, like Thomas Hardy, they accept this world, or whether, like A. E. Housman, they shrink from it, they are alike in the rejection of eternal joy. In the Paradiso, Dante worked out to its conclusion the great Catholic affirmation that those who passionately aspire by faith to beatitude are baptised into Christ by desire: Trajan and Rhipeus are exalted into the Heaven of the just.
They died, not pagans, as thou deemest it,
But faithful Christians, clinging, he and he,
To the passion-pierced, to the yet-to-be-passible feet.
But with the great pagans of Limbo it is not so. They show in their mien “neither joy nor sorrow”—they would not let themselves go. Because they dared not abandon themselves to faith they chose not to have hope; therefore they have their choice: ‘without hope they live in desire”. They have honour in Hell, for they gave great gifts to men. Yet they belong to the City of Sorrow, and Satan can use them for his work of corrupting society; for by precept and example they can make men afraid of hope.
In the Limbo of the Pagans there is light—the cold and clear light ofa dutiful though unecstatic morality. But now we pass into darkness. In the Circle of the Lustful there is no light at all—only the black air and the howling whirlwind. Upon that wind and exposed to its buffetings the lovers drift for ever. This is appropriate; for all these circles that we are now passing through are the circles of drift. We are not yet within the walls of Dis which ring the inner city with the iron ramparts of an obdurate and malignant will. We are still in the suburbs, among the sins (as Dante will presently explain) of Incontinence, where a defective will, too inert to march in pursuit of the good, trails helplessly after the appetite.
In this Second Circle, the image is sexual; it is the obvious and convenient image for what it figures, but we need not confine it to the sins of sex. The circle of the Lovers is the circle of shared sin. It still preserves mutuality: the love that was exchanged does not leave Paolo and Francesca—they chose to be together, and so they are. That is the mercy in their punishment, but it is also part of the punishment, for they now know to what pass each has brought the other, and their mutuality has become their reproach. The sin is mutual indulgence— the self-indulgence of indulging other people. One gives way—partly, no doubt, for one's own pleasure, but partly because it would hurt the other person to say “No”. Francesca cannot say “No” to anybody. Because Dante speaks kindly to her, she will do anything for him: “Hear all thou wilt, and speak as thou shalt please, And we will gladly speak with thee and hear.”
“The bitterest woe of woes
Is to remember in our wretchedness
Old happy days, as well thy Doctor knows;
Yet, if so dear desire thy heart possess
To know the root of love which wrought our fall,
I’ll be as those who weep and who confess.”
The sin, you see, looks convincingly like self-sacrifice. One gives way to one’s lover out of pity, and damns him with the kindest intentions. One indulges one's children to their hurt because one cannot bear to give them a moment’s unhappiness. One writes and speaks no matter what foolishness, because one’s public turns up an eager face and must not be disappointed—“Hear all thou wilt...and we will gladly speak”. We listen to the claims of humanity,and wallow in theyielding of ourselves to their lusts, lusting ourselves for their grateful appreciation. We love them, we say, and like to see them happy. We devote ourselves… It is a sweet and swooning agony of pity and self-pity; and Dante swoons in sympathy.
When he wakes, the mutuality of indulgence has mysteriously vanished. The indulgence has become a solitary indulgence ofappetite. He is in the Circle of the Gluttons. The appetite, once offered and shared, has now become appetite pure and simple, indulged for its own sake. Like all the sinners we have so far met, the Gluttons are people of whom our present civilisation is inclined to think highly. They have an engaging egotism; they demand so amiably and seem to get so much out of life that we feel they have hit on the right attitude to the world of things. They have, in fact, a high standard of living—and that, we agree, is the thing to aim at. If we are ever inclined to envy or resent them, it is not really because their standards are wrong, but because our own standard of living is too low. It is true that something in the nature of things seems reluctant to concede these standards. If Dante had seen a civilisation that understood beatitude only in terms of cinemas and silk stockings and electric cookers and radiators and cars and cocktails, would it have surprised him to find it all of a sudden waking to the realisation that, having pursued these ideals with all its might, it was inexplicably left cold, hungry, bored, resentful and savage? Probably not, for he described Gluttony so. For Dante, the punishment of sin is the sin itself; the Gluttons lie prostrate under an eternal drench of rain and sleet and snow, and Cerberus, the embodied appetite which ruled them, rules them still, yelping and tearing them.
In this cold and sensual wallowing, there is no mutuality. Each shade suffers his greed, as he enjoyed it, by himself and blind (it is Dante’s word) to his fellows. But appetite cannot so indulge itself without encountering the thrust and pressure of other, conflicting, greeds. So in the next circle the Greed of Hoarding and the Greed of Squandering are chosen as the types of those opposing greeds. Here a perverted spirit of community reappears: it is a community of opposition. The greeds of either sort combine in gangs; they roll great stones against the other party:
They bump together, and where they bump, wheel right
Round, and return, trundling their loads again,
Shouting: “Why chuck away? Why grab so tight?”
They are united in nothing but hatred, and their combination is to no purpose; for
... round the dismal ring they pant and strain
On both sides back to the point where they began,
Still as they go bawling their rude refrain;
And when they meet there, back again, every man,
Through his half-circle to joust in the other list…
It is sheer futility. Dante says that their faces are unrecognisable; and indeed they have nothing distinctive about them, except what they derive from a gang and a party-slogan. Even as gangs they are barely distinguishable—the economy of accumulated thrift and the economy of conspicuous waste are counterparts of one another and issue in the same economic deadlock. And indeed, among nations, combines, parties and gangs of all descriptions we may find the same spurious alliances against the common enemy, and the same ominous family resemblance.
Spurious alliances do not hold together; community of opposition is no lasting bond. The clash of greeds dissolves and disintegrates into an anarchy of hatred, all against all. Beneath the Circle of the Hoarders and Spendthrifts is the Marsh of Styx, where the Wrathful are plunged in a muddy slough. On the surface, the souls, “naked, with looks of savage discontent”, rend and snarl at one another: this kind of wrath is active and ferocious; it vents itself in sheer lust for inflicting pain and destruction—on others if it can; on itself, ifit can find no better object.
The other kind is passive and sullen; it lies at the bottom of the marsh, gurgling its inarticulate hymn of hate:
“... Sullen were we; we took
No joy of the pleasant air, no joy of the good
Sun; our hearts smouldered with a sulky smoke;
Sullen we lie here now in the black mud.”
This is the last of the Circles of Incontinence; this savage and impotent frustration is the end of the indulgence that began so tenderly with the mutual yielding of Paolo and Francesca—which can be traced back even further, to a morality without joy, or, beyond that, to a mere habit of tolerance and indecision. The beginning of it all seemed to promise well enough—by what inexorable steps did society reach this point? Dante, when he was wandering in the Dark Wood, met with three beasts: the first of them wasa gaily spotted Leopard, which gambolled about him so prettily that he had, he says, “good hopes of the animal with the dappled hide”, and scarcely noticed that it was tripping him up and turning him out of the way. The Sins of Incon- tinence are the sins of the Leopard, and we are rather apt to take a hopeful view of them. Tolerance and open-mindedness are surely rather desirable than otherwise; there is much to be said for good Paganism; love makes the world go round, and as for a high standard of living, is not that the very charter ofthe City of the New Jerusalem? Thrift and generosity—and, of course, all those other pairs of incompatible opposites—call them the Hegelian dialectic of thesis and antithesis, and it is clear that out of a concentrated effort to push each to its logical conclusion there will come—well, a clash, certainly, but equally certainly a reconciling synthesis. Wrath and hatred -?
It is noticeable that in the passage from mutual antagonism to wrath, the path which Dante follows is, for the first time, described in detail. The first stages of the descent into Avernus are almost imperceptible —we pass oblivious, or swooning; we dream our way into damnation. But with the drop into wrath and war we begin to be aware that something is seriously wrong with society; we begin to see just where it is we are going.
So to the farther edge we crossed the rink,
Hard by a bubbling spring which, rising there,
Cuts its own cleft and pours on down the brink.
Darker than any perse its waters were,
And keeping company with the ripples dim
We made our way down by that eerie stair.
A marsh there is called Styx, which the sad stream
Forms when it finds the end of its descent
Under the grey, malignant rock-foot grim…
The way is plain, and from now on we can deceive ourselves no longer. But in Hell, once we have given ourselves over to the will to destruction, there is no way back. We must go on. Now, however, evil has become conscious of itself, There is a change. We have, in fact, passed through the suburbs of Upper Hell and reached the moat of the City itself. We come to a watch-tower, from which our approach is signalled to the garrison of Dis. A boat is sent to fetch us. We step in. This time there is no doubt about how we make the crossing; the will is awake and the consent deliberate.
And here, in the poem, comes an episode which all the critics have conspired to misunderstand. As the boat is ferried across Styx, a hideous shape rises from the mud and confronts Dante,
Crying: “Who art thou that com’st before thy time?”
“Tho' I come,” said I, “I stay not; thou who art made
So rank and beastly, who art thou?” “Go to;
Thou seest that I am one who weep,” he said.
And I: “Amid the weeping and the woe,
Accursed spirit, do thou remain and rot!
I know thee, filthy as thou art, I know.”
Then he stretched out both hands to clutch the boat,
But the Master was on his guard, and thrust him back,
Crying: “Hence to the other dogs! Trouble him not!”
And after, laid his arms about my neck
And kissed my face and said: “Indignant soul,
Blessed is the womb that bare theel”
Almost every commentator exclaims that Dante is here displaying a cruel and unchristian spirit, and that it is highly unbecoming in Virgil to hail him with words that were originally used to Christ. But this kind of criticism comes of forgetting that Dante’s pilgrimage through Hell is a pilgrimage made inside Dante. The soul that rises from the mud is only literally the spirit of the Florentine Filippo Argenti; allegorically it is the image of Dante's sin. In the marsh of Styx, sin for the first time consciously recognises its own ugliness and, for the first time, consciously repudiates itself. However feebly, however ungraciously, and for whatever inadequate motives, the sinner sees himself as he is and, for the first time, sides with God's judgment against himself. Dante, who had honoured the pagans, swooned for pity of Francesca, been sorry for Ciacco the Glutton and felt himself vaguely distressed by the Hoarders and Spendthrifts, turns on Filippo Argenti in horror and invokes the justice of God against him. It is the first faint stirring of the birth of Christ in the heart. “Blessed is the womb that bare thee.” And if the civilisation which Dante (at that level of interpretatio n) represents first recoils from its own corruption only when war has made that corruption unmistakeable, then, however ill-phrased and ill-directed its expressions of horror, nevertheless, so far as it goes, blessed is that recoil and blessed that self-recognition.
Yet to know and hate one’s own sin is not necessarily to repent and amend it. There may be other consequences. Across the waters of Styx the iron ramparts of Dis appear, glowing red-hot, as though they burned in a furnace. The demon-guardians slam the gates in Virgil’s face: Virgil is human wisdom—he is science, poetry, statesmanship; but none of these things will of themselves carry us any further along the path of self-knowledge. Above the gate-tower appear the Furies; they call for Medusa to turn Dante to stone. Here Virgil can intervene, and he does. “Turn away—shut your eyes tight; if once you look on the Gorgon, there is no returning to the light of day.” The Furies are remorse; the Gorgon is despair; if self-hatred and self-horror lead only to remorse and despair, the heart turns to stone and no amendment is possible. Dante covers his eyes, and Virgil lays his hands on Dante's, interposing between him and despair the accumulated wisdom of all ages—all beauty, all art, all decency, all reason, all the great tradition of the natural order. He cannot open the gates or quell the demons, but he can at least do that. They wait. Then, with a sound like thunder, the supernatural order breaks through. The great and terrible Angel comes striding dry-shod over Styx and the gates open at the touch of his wand. We enter Nether Hell and are within the City.
From this point on, the images are those of souls who have looked on the face of the Gorgon. The will is set in obduracy; it no longer drifts at the service of the appetite but drives and uses it.
The first circle of Nether Hell is that of the Heretics, for Heresy is the first effect of obduracy. The Heretic, taken literally, is one who at the same time accepts the Church and defies it; for when he departs from the doctrine he justifies his departure. The incontinent sinner is the man who says: “I know I am breaking the Law, but I can’t help myself.” The heretic says: “I know I am breaking the Law, but I am justified. The Law did not provide for my special case. I propose to amend it. I accept it only so far as I choose and no farther.”’ The heretics are enclosed in burning tombs. Among them is Farinata degli Uberti—ruthless, magnanimous after his fashion, bearing his torment defiantly, “seeming to hold all Hell in deep despite”. He is Dante’s first great image of Pride—the first image of the dark, Satanic fagade of nobility that almost persuades us to be of the devil’s party. People have asked where, in the /nferno, is the punishment of the proud? The answer is: in Upper Hell, nowhere; in Nether Hell, everywhere. All sins that justify themselves are proud sins. But, as Hell deepens, we shall see the progressive degeneration of pride.
Below the Circle of the Heretics there comes a cliff with a great drop. We descend from the sins of the Leopard to the sins of the Lion. The will that is bent on destruction, justifying its choice, breaks out into open violence. The first consequence of saying “I am right, Law or no Law” is violence against one’s fellow-man and the tyrannical imposition of one’s naked will on others. Rapine, murder, oppression —these are the corruptions of absolute power; here the tyrants stand, plunged in the river of boiling blood which is called Phlegethon. Violence heated their blood; they shed blood; the blood that was their argument is their torment. We cross the river on the back of one of the Centaurs—half-beast, half-man—who guard these human beasts, and come into a wood full of withered trees. We pluck a branch, and it bleeds and speaks. The trees are the souls of Suicides, in whom selfdisgust has bred despair. Through the barren wood rush the shades of men, pursued and mangled by black hounds. They are the Profligates who madly gambled away their substance. These are not the comparatively harmless spendthrifts of the Fourth Circle—they are those who flung away their goods in a desperate thirst for sensation; they squandered, not for any pleasure bought with spending, but for the morbid thrill of ruining themselves. Why are they classed with the Suicides as the “Violent against Self”? Because their sin too was a sin of desperation; they “turned to weeping what was meant for joy”. When an acquisitive and tyrannical society has despoiled others, it cannot stop. It goes on to despoil itself. It flings away the possessions it holds in trust and begins to prey upon its own vitals.
We pass to the Third Ring of the Circle of Violence; here are the Violent against God, Nature, and Art. It is a huge, sterile desert of burning sand, over which falls a perpetual fiery rain. Hatred ofselfnow turns outward and embraces the whole of creation. Its types are the Blasphemers, the Sodomites and the Usurers. The Blasphemers lie supine, spitting their hatred in the face of Heaven. Here is Capaneus, one of the Seven who fought against Thebes. He is the second image of Pride. Where Farinata suffered in silence he is loud and voluble:
“That which in life I was, in death I am.
Though Jove tire out his armourer, who supplied
His wrathful hand with the sharp thunder-stone
That in my last day smote me through the side;
Though he tire all the rest out, one by one,
In Mangibel’s black stithy, and break them quite,
Crying, ‘To aid! Vulcan, lay on, lay on!”
As once before he cried at Phlegra’s fight;
Yea, though he crush me with his omnipotence,
No merry vengeance shall his heart delight!”
Hell, says Dante, is the dwelling of those who have “lost the good of the intellect”. Pride here has so far parted company with intellect that it issues in an impotent spite. We look and pass to the Sodomites, who run upon the burning sand and may not rest. They blaspheme against Nature and so blaspheme against God. Violence has taken a fresh twist: it no longer merely beats and brutalises: it perverts. Sitting upon the sand in the same circle are the Usurers—they are violent, not only against Nature, the child of God, but also against Art, which is the child of Nature. How so? Because, says Dante, in effect, there are only two sources of real prosperity: the produce of the earth and the labour of men’s hands (that is what he means by “Nature” and “Art”); but the Usurer has found a third way which does violence to both Art and Nature. Here the old commentator Gelli has written the brilliant gloss: “The Sodomite makes sterile that which was meant for fertility; the usurer makes breed that which was meant to be sterile.” Money breeds money—but in so doing makes sterile everything else. The nineteenth-century commentators, brought up in the tradition of financial autonomy and the sacro-sanctity of banking, were aghast at this astonishing listing in one doom of unmentionable vice and irreproachable finance; they could only suppose that Dante’s genius had been entangled, willy-nilly, in a net of mediaeval nonsense. To us, pondering upon the “End of Economic Man”, and looking at a world full of dust-bowls, unemployment, strikes, and starvation, yawing hideously between over- and under-production, the connection between usury and the barren and burning sand does not, perhaps, seem altogether too far-fetched.
The Circle of Violence, the Circle of the Sins of the Lion, ends here. The Leopard is a beast of the jungle, where uncontrolled passions sprawl and proliferate. The Lion is a beast of the desert; and Violence makes a desert of the world. The river, the wood, the sand are all barren. We are left with a society that has exhausted all pleasure, stripped the earth bare, and no longer cares either to live or to propagate itself.
We are now half-way down Hell, looking over the iron-grey precipice of the Great Barrier, stretching beneath us to an unfathomable depth. Close beside us, the cataract of Phlegethon plunges downwards with a noise so loud that we can scarcely hear ourselves speak. What further profundities of misery wait to be plumbed? The mystery of iniquity has, we may say, only begun to unveil itself. We have still to see what Dante calls the Grand Woes—the Sins of the Wolf. Up through the thick air comes swimming the monster Geryon—triformed, with the face of a just man, the forepaws of a beast, the body of a serpent,
Painted with ring-knots and whorled tracery.
No Turk nor Tartar ever wrought coloured stuff
So rainbow-trammed and broidered; never wore
Arachne’s web such dyes in warp and woof.
We mount the glittering back of that “unclean image of Fraud”, and are carried in slow spirals down the black funnel of the Abyss. At the bottom are fire and stink, and the ten circular pits of Malebolge, carved in the eternal rock, and bridged by radiating spurs of stone. Far below the circles of appetite indulged and appetite self-justified lie the circles where appetite is exploited.
At the upper confine of Malebolge, as at the upper confine of the Circles of Incontinence, we again encounter a sexual image. Here the Panders and Seducers run continually, driven—not by an impersonal wind, but by the whips of devils. The perverted intellect makes gain of what it destroys. From now on, all relationships begin to be falsified. That which simple Lust gave and simple Tyranny violated has now become the subject of a traffic. The lost mutuality again appears, distorted into the relationship of buyer and seller. A demon cracks the lash about the loin of the man who sold his own sister to the lust of Ezzelino, crying: “Away, pander! there are no women here to coin.”
In the opposite direction run those who were their own middle-men, and purchased love with gold, only to betray it.
In the next ditch are the Flatterers,
plunged in dung, the which appeared
Like human ordure, running from a jakes;
and here we are called upon to look at
…that uncleanly and dishevelled trull
Scratching with filthy nails, alternately
Standing upright and crouching in the pool.
That is the harlot Thais. “To what degree,”
Her leman asked, “have I earned thanks, my love?”
“O, to a very miracle,” said she.
Is that all? Certainly, as Terence says, from whom the episode is taken, “Great thanks” would have been sufficient. But is an extravagance of speech culpable to this extent, that it leaves Thais so far below the harlots of the First Circle, and even below the Panders and Seducers, who traffic in flesh? Thais shows us how Dante understood Flattery; it is the prostitution of language—of the means of intellectual intercourse. Words are falsified for gain. Flattery—wheedling (for the word lusingare means that too)—shall we go on to say advertisement, journalism, propaganda?—this is the filth and ordure of the falsifying intellect, steeped in its own slime. It is inaccuracy—“Hell’’, says Charles Williams, “is inaccurate…. Flattery is precisely the unfruitful excrement of mankind; its evil is that it asserts falsely what can be asserted truly ... Meaning is lost, accuracy is lost, and accuracy is fruitfulness—it is the first law of the spiritual life.” Is there an image here that we recognise? Could we perhaps have supplied Dante with examples more striking than that of Thais? Are we tempted to wonder whether the Second Ditch of Malebolge is not now filled to overflowing? No matter: “Look and pass”. “E guinci sien le nostre viste sazie— Having seen this, we have seen enough.”
In the Third Ditch are the Simoniacs, who trafficked in sacraments and spiritual offices: panders, Dante calls them, who prostitute the bride of God. The image is in form ecclesiastical; the phrase conflates it with a sexualimage. It is true that there are more kinds of sacrament than one. Marriage is a sacrament, and art may be. Where such things are used for gain, the body of God is bartered. The Simoniacs are thrust head downwards into holes in the rock: the flame runs, licking, upon the soles of their feet, like a descent in judgment of those cloven tongues which were the sign of the outpouring of the Holy Ghost— for, if the Spirit can be known to such as these, it can be known only as judgment.
Here again, that which could be used truly is used falsely. The consecration of these Simoniac priests is a true consecration; the sacraments they administer are valid. But they are fraudulently exploited by the lean Wolf whose maw is never filled. So, too, in the next ditch, where the Sorcerers walk backwards, with their heads so twisted that their tears
Spilled down to bathe the buttocks at the cleft.
Prophecy is a true gift. But it may be aped by charlatans, or, worse still, exploited by those who truly possess it, and used as an instrument of domination. Here are the fortune-tellers, here are the witch-wives. The image is of the twisted magical art, which deforms knowledge to an end outside the order and unity of creation; it is the image of the abuse of all psychic power and of all scientific knowledge—it includes the “conditioning” of other people to selfish ends by the manipulation of their psyches, as well as the vulgarer forms of spirit-rapping, and the more disgusting excesses of Satanism. Magic, even when it uses the legitimate technique of the scientist, is distinguished from true science by the “twisted sight”, which looks to the ego of the practitioner: the truer the gift, the greater the power, and the more dangerous and criminal its abuse. Whatever form it takes, magic thrives upon credulity, and it is therefore not difficult to see why, in the time-sequence of the City’s deterioration, itshould follow upon the prostitution of language, and the loss of integrity in the Church. When religion is discredited, men turn to the wizards who peep and mutter; and if they have been put at the mercy of words, and so have lost the gift of tongues, they will not easily retain the gift of the discerning of spirits.
So far, there is disorder in the State, but the State itself may siill function after a fashion. The next stage is the beginning of the rot within the organism of the State. Below the Sorcerers come the Barrators. They are to the State what the Simoniacs are to the Church: they traffic in the offices of the State. One is at first, perhaps, surprised to find the circles in this order: is it worse to sell the things of Caesar than to sell the things of God? We remember, indeed, that for Dante the State, like the Church, derives its authority directly from God. But whether or not we agree with Dante about this, it is not difficult, I think, to see his point. There is a sense in which the State, which is of the natural order, lies at a deeper level of man's being than Religion, which is of the spiritual order. This the Lord Christ recognised: “If you cannot be honest about worldly riches, who shall trust you with the true?” “Ifa man love not his brother whom he hath seen, how shall he love God whom he hath not seen?” When Dante was lost in the Dark Wood, he had gone beyond the reach of Beatrice, who is Divine Grace; she had to make Virgil her messenger, to reach him upon the natural level. The Simoniacs sell Beatrice; the Barrators sell Virgil himself.
Out of the stream of boiling pitch in which the Barrators are immersed, an attendant devil forks up Ciampolo the traitor. Ciampolo is a great fellow. Ciampolo is a regular card. He is one too many, even for the devils. The canto which tells how he tricked and foiled his tormentors bubbles, like the boiling pitch itself, with an ugly and oily chuckle. We rather like Ciampolo—indeed, we always do. He is a smart chap and there are no flies on him. Graft and the pulling of strings, the little bit off-the-ration and under-the-counter—who does not to some extent practise and admire these things? Unless, of course, we are personally inconvenienced; and unless, by some accident, the thing should happen to boil up on a big scale in a Marconi case or a Stavisky scandal. Then we are naturally indignant and talk about corruption. Between our admiration and our indignation, between our recognition that Barratry is worse than Simony and our strong disposition to countenance and practise it so far as is reasonable, there might appear to be some contradiction. Is it possible that we are hypocritical in these matters?
It is possible, at least, that Dante thought so; for in escaping from the devils of the Fifth Ditch, he and Virgil fall promptly into the Ditch of the Hypocrites, who walk in leaden cloaks, gilded and glittering.
The next ditch is the Ditch of the Thieves. The “orderly devolution of property” is disintegrated. No man can say what is his own; and in Hell the Thieves lose even their own bodies, being changed from man to serpent and from serpent to man, or blended hideously, two bodies welded into one. That which a man possesses, he holds in trust for God and his fellows: but if that which he has is not his own, where is the trust? Here, in the place where no personal rights are respected, appears Vanni Fucci, the third great image of Pride. He respects nothing, not even himself; his pride is in his own beastliness, and out of that beastliness he screams his blasphemies and makes the figs in God's face. The fagade is being stripped from Pride: Farinata was silent; Capaneus, defiant; Vanni Fucci is vulgar.
From the Thieves of Property we pass to the Thieves of Personality. In the next ditch walk the Counsellors of Fraud, who filched away the integrity of those they counselled and now walk for ever wrapped in living fame. They used other men’s tongues to deceive; and now the flame is the only tongue they have. The “thievish fame’’, Dante calls it; for the substitution of personality that was adumbrated in the circle above is here accomplished at the level of the intellect. Mutuality and exchange discover a fresh perversion. The 26th canto itself is the noblest in the whole Inferno, but we cannot pause to examine its beauties. We must pass on to the Ninth Ditch, where the Sowers of Dissension are continually mutilated by a demon with a sword.
Religious schism, political sedition, family dissension: the fomenters of discord split the State at every sensitive point. Their will is to disintegrate; by this means they achieve their personal power. Divide and rule; we are familiar with the principle. All groupings, all centres of union, must be split up, because they are centres of resistance, in which justice and truth and other positive and divine things may find a refuge and a rallying-point. Exchange is driven out of yet another stronghold: the coinherence of the community takes one more step down the way of incoherence.
In the Tenth Ditch the last—or almost the last—step is taken. In this ghastly place are the Falsifiers—they falsify their persons, they falsify speech, they coin false money. Is this an anti-climax? Why is money so important? It is important precisely because it is the means of exchange. In the other circles everything is bought and sold—sex and religion and government, and art and speech and intellect and power: now the very coin for which they were sold is itself corrupted. That no state can hold together when its currency is hopelessly debased is a practical fact with which we are only too familiar; but that fact is itself only a symbol of the greater truth which it symbolises.
Of this last Ditch of Malebolge, Dante says:
Could all disease, all dog-day plagues that stew
In Valdichiana’s spitals, all fever-drench
Drained from Maremma and Sardinia, spew
Their horrors all together in one trench—
Like that, so this: suffering and running sore
Of gangrened limbs and putrefying stench.
The diseased lie heaped on one another—leprous, dropsical, fevered, rabid; the place crawls: it is the image of a society in the last stages of its mortal sickness and already necrosing. Every value it has is false; it alternates between a deadly lethargy and a raving insanity. All intercourse is corrupted, every affirmation has become perjury, and every identity a lie. No medium of exchange remains to it, and the “general bond of love and nature” is utterly dissolved.
Can there be a lower deep than this? Yes; there is a lower deep. In the dissolution of the natural tie, some special trust, some lingering personal loyalty might yet remain. We cross the grey plain. In the distance we see the towering forms of the Giants, who stand about the rim of the Well which leads to the core of Hell and throne of Dis. When the intellect is wholly perverted, what can remain? Blind forces —great blocks of primitive mass-emotion, the more dangerous because they are not just mindless, like “elephants and whales”, but stupid like imbeciles, like crowds, like cunning and half-witted children—a pinpoint human brain in a body of superhuman strength. These are fitting “executives of Mars”; at once the victims and the tools of that which lurks behind and beneath them.
We pass Nimrod: he is a braggart idiocy—the doom of nonsense. We pass Ephialtes: he is a senseless rage—the doom of nihilism, or smashing-for-smashing’s-sake. We come to Antaeus: he is a brainless vanity and the doomoftriviality. He is persuaded to lower us “into the bottom of sin”.
Then I turned round, and saw before my face
And ’neath my feet a lake, so bound with ice
It did not seem like water, but like glass.
This is the end of all things; this is treachery—“the freezing of every conception”. Here the final ties which bind man to man are broken: the tie of kindred goes first, and then the tie of country: into these we are born—we did not choose them, though we are bound to them. Here, there is still room for a little remorse—tears may flow, if the shade, frozen to the neck in ice, keeps his face down. We pass Caina, we pass Antenora, where Count Ugolino gnaws forever upon the scalp of Ruggieri. This is the last appearance of mutuality: the disorder which began in mutual indulgence ends in a mutual hatred and betrayal. The phrases with which Ugolino begins his story are a close parallel of those in which Francesca begins hers, and they share between them the echoes of the same passage of the Aeneid. There is no mistaking Dante’s intention here. We pass to Ptolomaea: here lie those who betrayed their invited guests. Is that a worse thing than to betray kindred or country? Itis worse: the special obligation is of the traitor’s own choice and making. Chosen guests, chosen friends—they who betray these “go down quick into Hell”. They come there before their death, and that which walks the earth in their bodies is but a devil in their shape. These shades cannot weep, for they lie on their backs, and the bitter wind that blows across the ice of Cocytus freezes the tears into a mask of ice. They can, however, still speak.
In the last region of the thick-ribbed ice they cannot even speak. They are whollyimmersed, unable to communicate. The last semblance of community, the last vestige of humanity is withdrawn from the “social animal”, man. This is Giudecca, the circle of Judas, the circle of those who betray the ultimate bond of deliberately sworn allegiance.
One thing only remains; the miserific vision, the confrontation with the head and source of evil.
The Emperor of the dolorous realm was there,
Out of the girding ice he stood breast-high…
It is the final image of Pride. It is he that was fairest of the sons of light. He is still an angel ruined, but the ruin here is total. The Satanic fagade is wholly shattered: he is not noble; he is horrible; he is grotesque. His face is threefold, in a hideous Trinitarian parody; he retains the six wings of his primal cherubhood, but they have become the wings of a bat—
…and as they flapped and whipped
Three winds went rushing over the icy flat
And froze up all Cocytus; and he wept
From his six eyes, and down his triple chin
Runnels of tears and bloody slaver dripped.
In the jaws of Dis are three shades: the shade of Judas who betrayed God; the shades of Brutus and Cassius who betrayed Caesar. This is the end: treachery to God and treachery to the Cityr—to God and to Man. Here, in the heart of cold, in the place that linows neither obligation nor community nor coherence nor exchange, treachery devours treachery for ever.
That is Dante’s vision ofa corrupted society. Whether it is borrowed or original matters little. The question is rather: is it rational? is it true? Can we recognise the steps of that inexorable progression? Have we ever seen anything at all like it?
We cannot, mercifully, see anything exacely like it in this world, for here the City of Dis contains always some admixture of the City of God. Dante’s vision is of the City in Hell—of the City as it would be if the good were, through the gaps, as it were, in time or space, wholly drawn away. It is the absolure negation whereof we can have no experience while time and space endure. But it is necessary, perhaps, for us to contemplate the City of Dis in its essential possibility in order to recognise clearly its approximations in a living society. The road to restoration and the Earthly Paradise lies—not through Hell, for from Hell itself there is no issue, but—through the understanding of Hell.
We pass the centre, we enter the hemisphere of the Antipodes, we leave Beelzebub behind us; we see him, now, upside-down, impotent, ridiculous. It is not he that has moved; it is we that have passed through the ultimate self-knowledge and look upon things from a new viewpoint. On that yonder side of experience, from the Mount of Purgation, the stream of Lethe, the stream of forgetfulness, runs down into the Abyss. We follow its course—upward—towards recollection and renewal:
There is a place low down there underground
As far from Satan as his tomb is deep,
Not known to sight, but only by the sound
Of a small stream, which trickles down the steep,
Hollowing its channel, where with gentle fall
And devious course its wandering waters creep.
By that hid way my guide and I withal
Back to the lit world from the darkened dens
Toiled upward, caring for no rest at all,
He first, I following; till my straining sense
Glimpsed the bright burden of the heavenly cars
Through a round hole; by this we climbed, and thence
Came forth, to look once more upon the stars.