Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Inferno XIV: Horrible justice

The full text of the canto in Italian/English

The giant lies on a bed of fiery sand, and barely seems to notice the lightning bolts that are raining upon him. Dante calls him quel grande, ‘that great one’, a qualifier that William Blake took to indicate physical as opposed to moral stature. It could have gone either way, really. For mythology dictates that Capaneus – one of the seven kings of Thebes – was both a man of indomitable spirit and enormous size.

Dante and Virgil have come to the third rung of the fifth circle of Hell, out of the forest of the suicides and to the edge of a desert where fire rains as thick and steady as snow in on a mountain on a day with no wind. This is di giustizia orribil arte, a horrible form of justice. The damned are naked – though in fact they all are, throughout Hell, it’s mentioned here just to emphasise the punishment – and react to the torment in different ways. Some crouch, some lie face down, some stomp around in a vain attempt to extinguish the flames. But not Capaneus. He lies still, disdainful, refusing to show any outward sign of pain. And when he boasts that an army of cyclops churning bolts out of the furnace of Mount Etna for Zeus to throw at him would not be sufficient to give to his enemy the satisfaction of seeing him squirm, Virgil retorts that this is the true nature of his punishment: not just suffering through an eternity of physical agony but also being consumed by that anger without outlets, save for this once in a death-time encounter with the unlikely traveller.

Di giustizia orribil arte. This is the essence of the Inferno and of its catalogue of punishments, which have to be borrowed from ancient literature because there is no explicit mention of Hell – let alone a detailed description – in either the Old or the New Testament. Although its roots date back to Augustine, Hell is a medieval invention: the distorted mirror, perhaps, to ordinary life for the majority of people. That ‘horrible justice’ warps the image of the merciful Christian God into an architect of infinite torture chambers. (Remember: in Dante’s vision, Satan is not the administrator of Hell, but its chief prisoner.)

We were taught about these things at high school. Our school had circles, too, and it too was upside down: in the sense that it started hard, and it finished easy. In the first two years, it separated the worthy from the unworthy. Of our intake of thirty-three, nine survived unscathed at the end of the first year. Nine were held back. The remainder had to set a varying number of remedial exams (call it Purgatory), which some failed so they were held back after ruining their summer holidays. The main rituals of school were the written and oral tests, both scheduled and unscheduled. The oral ones we called ‘interrogations’. They could happen at virtually any time, and its subjects were chosen via lotteries designed by the teachers which were sometimes so elaborate as to resemble the ancient art of the Kabbalah.

At the end of the first year, I was deemed one of the worthy ones. But only just. And on the last day our maths teacher warned me: study as if you had to sit a remedial exam, for I’ll test you as soon as school comes back. Which, naturally I didn’t. And so, on the first day we had maths after the summer holidays – I swear this is true – our teacher came into the classroom, put her book down, didn’t say hello, but rather: “Mr Tiso, please come to the blackboard.” Thus, I spent the remainder of that year trying to climb back the mountain of that failed mark. Another pilgrim’s progress.

By the time we covered Dante – from the third year to the fifth – the terror had abated somewhat. All of the unworthy (at least in the eyes of the school system) had been weeded out, and the subjects became easier. Not relative to the supposedly superior intellect and work ethics of the survivors, you understand, but in terms of the actual curriculum and the pace at which it was taught. The school’s brand of justice became a little less horrible, although in most respects it remained just as arbitrary and opaque.

This was the context of our Dante: a block of knowledge that sat on top and next to the others in the strange edifice we were intent on building. Just as in the study of history, philosophy and the rest of literature we were moving into the modern era – there to meet with the hard sciences we had been studying since the first year – in that weekly hour or two we returned to the Middle Ages.

It wasn’t an unpleasant detour, far from it. I think most of us rather enjoyed it. But all our subjects were compulsory, and we were never invited to question or reflect on the underlying logic. What was the theory of education that led to three years of close readings of the Divine Comedy alongside the study of Latin, algebra or physics? What sense were we supposed to make of all that knowledge, and whom was it supposed to turn us into?

Whilst continuing to walk alongside the great ring, between the forest and the sandy terrain on which the rain of fire falls, Dante and Virgil come to a stream of putrid red water. Why had they not crossed it before, and where does it come from, asks Dante to his guide. Virgil explains that their counter-clockwise trajectory down the pit of Hell hasn’t quite spanned the whole circumference yet. He then answers the second question: in the middle of the sea (ie the Mediterranean, the only sea that Dante knew) there is a paese guasto – a country in ruin – by the name of Crete, and on that island there’s a mountain, and inside that mountain there is the colossal statue of an old man, with his back on Egypt and the eyes bent toward Rome. His head is made of gold, his chest and arms of silver, his belly of copper, his leg and his left foot of iron, while the right foot – on which the statue leans – is made of clay. There is a crack running down the statue, from which a stream of tears springs. And these tears, which pool at the bottom of the hollow mountain, are the source of all of the rivers of Hell – Acheron, Styx and Phlegethon – as well as the stream to which the two poets have come.

For once, this is a biblical story: it is told in the book of Daniel, in the form of a dream of the king of Babylon’s, Nebuchadnezzar. Except his statue had both feet of clay, not just one (from which we get the expression ‘a giant with feet of clay’). The various materials of which the colossus is made are meant to represent the ages of humanity, and its progressive moral decay. What the allegory meant for Dante is not conclusively clear, though it is regarded as probable that the foot of clay represents the Papacy, the foot of iron the emperor: one weaker, but more heavily leaned on; the other stronger, but less relied upon.

For us, the giant is a mystery. For Dante, it was an explanation. For his world made a kind of sense that ours doesn’t, and never will again.


Previously: Inferno I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII, XIII.