Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Inferno VII: The circle of capitalists

"Pape Satàn, pape Satàn aleppe!"

If these words ever meant anything in any language, or were otherwise intelligible to the contemporaries of Dante Alighieri, that meaning is lost. What’s left to us is the beginning of a curse, or a demonic incantation, which is quickly cut short by Dante’s guide, Virgil.

Taci, maladetto lupo! consuma dentro te con la tua rabbia.

But who is this ‘accursed wolf’ whom Virgil hopes will be ‘consumed inwardly by its own rage’? The illustration by Gustavo Dorè looks nothing like a wolf, nor like the fiera crudele – ‘cruel wild beast’ – of the only other line that mentions its appearance.

Dorè’s Plutus is a demon with human semblance. Perhaps he’s Plutus or Ploutos, the Greek and Roman god of wealth and agricultural bounty, son of Iaison and Demetra; or else he’s Pluto, the god of the underworld that bears his earlier moniker (Hades), and from which we get the sometimes planet by the same name. Or possibly both, because in medieval times the two were routinely mixed up.

Wealth and death, whether married by poetry or by historical accident, oversee the seventh canto of the Inferno. Or, more precisely, the fourth circle of Hell, because for the first time Dante breaks the symmetry of one circle per canto. The fourth and fifth are both here.

First he and Virgil encounter, on a giant ridge that encircles the whole perimeter of hell as it continues to narrow towards the bottom, the throng of the greedy and the prodigal. The poet calls them gente più ch’altrove troppa, people who, more than elsewhere, are too numerous. But too numerous for what? In excess of what? This claim would appear to break a rule of Hell alluded to in the fifth canto, whereby each circle is smaller than the one that precedes it, and is occupied by a smaller number of souls guilty of a greater crime. This violation, then, is likely a result of the poet’s own psychological judgment rather than an actual fact. There shouldn’t be so many people here, so many spirits damned by a sin so grave.

And what do they do? What is their contrappasso?

The greedy and the squanderers are two faces of the same coin (as it were), and serve two halves of the same punishment. Each is condemned to push a boulder with their chests along the arc of the ridge. When they reach the end of the half circle, they crash into the other group, who are pushing boulders in the opposite direction. As if in a fit of road rage, they exclaim to one another perché tieni? perché burli? ‘Why do you keep?’ ‘Why do you squander thus?’ Then they turn around and start pushing their boulders in the opposite direction, along another semi-circle. And so forth. The most famous illustration is, of course, Dorè’s.

But I am also reminded of the perpetual circle of Dr Seuss’ Star-on, Star-off machines in The Sneetches, overseen by the greedy Sylvester McMonkey McBean.

The greedy in this circle are all members of the clergy, as signalled by their tonsure. ‘Clerics, popes and cardinals’ in cui usa avarizia il suo soperchio – in whom avarice exercises its excess (implied: as everyone knows). And when Dante observes that he ought to be able to recognise at least some of them, Virgil explains that la sconoscente vita che i fé sozzi, ad ogne conoscenza or li fa bruni: the unknowing (ignorant) conduct that sullied them in life, darkens them to knowledge in death – ie, conceals their appearance, makes them unrecognisable. Thus we are spared a catalogue of Dante’s contemporaries which might have created the exiled poet or the courts that gave him sanctuary some political bothers. (Although he was not one to pull punches in this area as we shall see later on.)

The greedy are greedy, the meaning is pretty much unchanged. But the squanderers are marked by greed as well. Perhaps they collectively represent the mercantile/banking class that was flourishing in Florence in Dante’s lifetime, along with early forms of conspicuous consumption not by aristocrats or priests, as was customary, but regular citizens.

We are at the dawn of capitalism, and medieval Florence is one of its nerve centres, servicing as it does the Papal state with a range of financial services (lending, changing, insurance) as well as with increasingly sophisticated goods. Dante has no regard for this private enterprise and its attendant private fortunes. This deeply Christian man, this medieval man, has no ideological basis from which to regard capitalist wealth creation as a means of social or material progress. Therefore he simply sees no future in it, other than the very bleak metaphysical outcome of an eternity spent pushing boulders in Hell.

There is another circle in this canto, hosting two quite separate groups of souls, known to the chronicles as the wrathful and the sullen (for Dante rarely names the sinners or the sins using the short-hand of his commentators). Both live in the murky waters of the Styx, the mythological river which is reduced here to a shallow marsh. But the two groups are quite alien to each other. The wrathful stand outside the water, fighting incessantly and for no reason; the sullen – which we might call the clinically depressed, for whom Dante and his time had no compassion – dwell underneath the surface, weighed down by their inwardly directed anger. Their sin consists in part in a failure to act (linking them with the indifferent of Hell’s vestibule) and partly in failing to appreciate the glory of creation and the gift of life, representing the contrary vice to the hedonism of the greedy. They want to talk, lamenting how they roamed sadly ne l'aere dolce che dal sol s'allegra, in the ‘sweet air which by the sun is gladdened’ (per Longfellow), but water pushes the words back down their throats.

Enough. In this heroic poem without danger of adversaries, Dante and Virgil have come to the foot of a tower, whereby the canto ends.

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