Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Inferno VI: Black rain over Florence

Io sono al terzo cerchio, de la piova
etterna, maladetta, fredda e greve;
I have come to the third circle of the rain
Eternal, cursed, and cold, and heavy

We must learn to understand the laws of punishment. The Dantean contrappasso is usually translated as talion, but it doesn’t mean ‘an eye for an eye’: it means to suffer the opposite. We saw an example in Hell’s vestibule, where the throngs of the indifferent – those who spent their lives refusing to take sides – are condemned to chase a tattered flag of indiscernible design. That is to say, to subscribe to and be eternally consumed by a meaningless cause.

So now, having come to the third circle – the circle of the gluttons – we may expect the punishment to come in the form of the withdrawal or denial of scrumptious foods that are kept just outside of reach, or for the dwellers to be consumed by a persistent and self-perpetuating hunger. But the sentence is far crueller, and requires a little explanation.

As soon as we get past Cerberus, that is.

In adapting his ancient sources (above all Virgil) and transferring the demons of Hades to the Christian Hell, Dante always degrades them. Stripped of their nobility and majesty, the likes of Charon and Minos are reduced to infernal interns, servants of a master whose design they cannot comprehend. The fearsome three-headed Cerberus of Greek and Latin mythology suffers a similar treatment, while at the same time being rendered a great deal more disquieting by the addition of human features. He has nails, not claws. Hands, not paws. Human faces, not canine muzzles, and bearded too.
Li occhi ha vermigli, la barba unta e atra,
e ’l ventre largo, e unghiate le mani;

Red eyes he has, an unctuous beard and black,
And belly large, and armed with claws his hands.

As imagined by William Blake

The monster graffia li spirti ed iscoia ed isquatra – claws at the damned, flays them and tears them apart. But the rain is a greater torment. The rain that makes them howl like dogs. The rain that lashes them incessantly, causing them to writhe and turn in order to expose one side to the unendurable pain and briefly shield the other.

I say rain, but it’s more of a thick, putrid hail. In an image straight out of a modern horror, the mass of the gluttons lies underneath it in a pool of foetid mud, face upwards, like a carpet of bodies, and it’s with horror that Dante describes walking on those shapes that look like persons. A human mud.

And all this, for the sin of gluttony?

But surely in the Middle Ages the word meant something else, something other. Not a mere carnal indulgence, nor the affectation of being a foodie. Not a sweet tooth, or an insatiable appetite, or a hyper-refined taste, but a particular form of greed that becomes truly sinful when set against the experience that so many of Dante’s contemporaries could draw upon in order to imagine the torments of Hell: hunger.

This is why gluttony is not just sin but a mortal one. In these, the centuries of the Zannis, when a bad crop could decimate entire families, the spectre of hunger, as well as its relentless persistence wherever and whenever it took hold, to not only live comfortably but to hoard food (we’ll meet the otherwise greedy in the next circle) is a crime against human dignity. And so the contrappasso is one of the most humiliating punishments in the whole of Hell.

Giovanni Stradano, 1587

It is here, among the gluttons, that the poets meets Ciacco: a wealthy man of Florence who died after Dante’s birth, and with whom Dante has a conversation about the immediate future of the city. Thus medieval Florence is transported into Hell, its social life superimposed onto that slimy tangle of bodies: the first in a series of irruptions of politics and Dante’s present in the poem. There are more interesting ones, so I’m not going to delve into the details of Ciacco’s prophecy. Suffice to say that his presence here serves also to link the city with the sin.

After the conversation, Ciacco lowers his head. Virgil explains that he won’t raise it again until the angels’ trumpets herald the arrival of the nemica podestà, the powerful one that is hostile to the damned. After the day of judgment, when the spirits have been reunited to the bodies of the dead and the final sentences have been pronounced, all of the tortures suffered in Hell will be felt more keenly, so what Dante is effectively witnessing and describing is a mere semblance or preview of the eventual, true and truly eternal Hell.

A sobering thought to take into the next canto, but not before another cliff-edge ending to remind us that Dante knew how to create expectations as well as any modern screenwriter. Thus, out of nothing:

Venimmo al punto dove si digrada:
quivi trovammo Pluto, il gran nemico.
We came unto the point where the descent is;
There we found Plutus the great enemy.

Previously: Inferno I, II, III, IV, V.