Thursday, June 7, 2018

Inferno XVIII: A place there is in Hell called Malebolge

The full text of the canto in Italian/English

Luogo è in inferno detto Malebolge
A place there is in Hell called Malebolge

We could spend this week’s post talking about this one line. Not c’è un luogo but luogo è, not ‘there is a place’, but ‘a place there is’. A declarative statement bearing a timeless, universal truth, which is also a sentence (in the judicial rather than grammatical sense). Like those words carved into the architrave of Hell at the beginning of the third canto, when Dante and Virgil first ventured into the cavern, which culminated in the famous exhortation to abandon all hope, ye etcetera.

That was just a few hours ago. In the meantime, the two poets have met scores of damned souls, a throng comprising perhaps the majority of the people who had ever lived up to the turn of the fourteenth century. Their numbers included not just the lustful or the avaricious and so forth, but also heavier sinners such as usurers, thieves, heretics and murderers. Yet we’re only halfway down. From here on in, things will get progressively worse, just as the upside-down cone that is Hell becomes smaller, and progressively less populated.

As Dante-the-narrator utters those words – luogo è, – Dante-the-pilgrim is actually there, at the entrance of Malebolge. We, as readers, occupy the space between the writer and the character. Modernity has stretched this space beyond measure – we can speculate, reinvent, historicise – whereas for a medieval, Christian reader, that space would have been far narrower. For one thing, few (if any) of Dante’s early readers would have doubted the existence of the larger place that contains the smaller place, Hell itself. Secondly, they – like Dante – would have placed Hell somewhere in the actual world. Although their geography mixed the symbolic with the concrete, this was a location someone could travel to, if they only knew where it was.

What of the second part of the line? What is ‘Malebolge’?

Hell is never mentioned in the scriptures. It was a medieval addition, sanctioned by the Church and filled over the centuries in the popular imaginary by demons drawn in part from classical literature and folklore, and in part invented anew. However, this ‘invention’ is not an invention in the modern sense, a flight of fancy. Remember: Dante knew the things he imagined to be true. Both literally true, to an extent, but to a larger one – and far more importantly – also figuratively, spiritually, metaphysically true.

As far as scholars can tell, ‘Malebolge’ is a word made up by Dante. Male of course means bad or evil (think of the word malevolent), whereas a bolgia is a large ditch. This place called Malebolge is a series of ten concentric moats, descending gradually towards a central well. It houses the fraudulent, divided into many groups: here, in the first ring-like circle, it’s pimps, seducers and flatterers. This last group is literally swimming in shit, as if all of the worlds’ latrines were fed directly into their ditch (vidi gente attuffata in uno sterco / che da li uman privadi parea mosso.)

All this is invention, but invention of a kind. If Hell is a real place on Earth, as Dante most surely believed, and if the hierarchy of sins is dictated by the prevailing theologians as of necessity, following God’s logic, then Malebolge, too, could be real, is real. It takes two words – luogo è – for Dante to declare the truth-value of his vision, and to make his vision true. It’s an incantation.

Let’s round off the tercet:
Luogo è in inferno detto Malebolge,
tutto di pietra di color ferrigno,
come la cerchia che dintorno il volge.

A place there is in Hell called Malebolge,
all made of stone and iron-like in colour,
⁠as is the circular wall that surrounds it.

Illustration (possibly by Giovanni Britto) from the 1544 edition curated by Alessandro Vellutello

There follows a 15-line description through similitude of the ditches or moats connected by bridges, as if part of a series of inter-linked fortifications. In later cantos, Dante gives some dimensions: the tenth circle is 11 miles long, while the ninth is 22. Each ditch is half a mile wide. This would make the first circle over one hundred miles long, and the diameter of the crater of Hell at the depth reached by Dante and Virgil some 35 miles.

We are used nowadays to imaginary worlds being described with minute precision. However, in Dante’s case this apparent concreteness or realism leads right back into metaphysics, for each measurement suggests a hidden symbolism or relationship with other numbers. Invention, again, is both constrained and sanctioned by the logic it is seen to obey.

For now, all we need to know is that a place there is in Hell called Malebolge. We’ll spend the next twelve cantos here.

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