It behooves us to once again be reminded of the fact that Dante the Poet is not, I repeat, is NOT creating these graphic images merely for the sake of shocking and offending his readers, [unlike the majority of movies made in the 21st century which, at the expense of narrative and storyline, fill the screen with any and all violence, fantasy and graphic overload imaginable]. The punishments are appropriate to the sin in these circles, and as one goes deeper into the pit of hell, then the more severe, and appropriate, are the punishments. For instance, it is apt that both Ulysses in Canto XXVI and Guido da Montefeltro are hidden from view in a tongue of fire, they who were always visible, in front of many men, leading them astray with their advice while they were living. Now no one can see them. Now the only tongue that wavers and speaks is the tip of the fire in which they are encased. Think back on other punishments and one will be reminded of this moral geography: those driven by lust in their lives are buffeted about and driven by wayward winds, murderers are boiled alive in blood, gluttons are eternally munched upon by Cerberus.
Now we come to the circle of the fomenters of schism. In the world of Dante the Poet, anyone who attempts to destroy the integrity and fullness of Christian teaching and community, such as Mohammed and his cousin Ali in their creation of Islam, are seen as severing and tearing apart God’s family, hence they themselves are severed and riven. Community and oneness matter to Dante the Poet, which is why those who tore Florence asunder are also found in hell. While Dante the Poet has no qualms in embracing the secular myths and stories of the ancient world, he also stands firmly in the teaching of the Christian worldview in which he was raised, understanding the subtleties of theology and atonement that are central to his faith. And foremost here is the nurture of the Body of Christ, which is the community of the faithful.
The damage done is based on the damage done. The cutting out of this tongue is due to the damage done by that tongue in life. The chopping off of Bertran de Born’s head is because he used those wits to destroy the body politic of England. One can review the different ways that the different body parts go flying and why, but in fact all this is not for the reader to leer at or enjoy the gore or vengeance. Rather we are to look inward to see how our families and communities are riven and torn asunder so regularly and fiercely. In fact, Dante the Poet puts the teaching in the mouth of the severed head of Bertran:
133 'So you may carry back the news of me,
134 know I am Bertran de Born, the one
135 who urged the young king on with bad advice.
136 'Father and son I set to enmity.
137 Ahithophel stirred no worse ill between
138 Absalom and David with his wicked goading.
139 'Because I severed persons thus conjoined,
140 severed, alas, I carry my own brain
141 from its starting-point here in my body.
142 In me you may observe fit punishment.'
Hollander’s translation of vs. 142 takes the Italian word “contrapasso” and renders it ‘fit punishment.’ This does and does not work for me. It is difficult to know how to fully express this, for contrapasso comes not only from the Hebrew Scriptures and Aristotle’s ‘Nicomachean Ethics’ but also St. Thomas Aquinas, where all use it to describe the sense of appropriate retribution. In today’s language it is “an eye for an eye,” or “the punishment fits the crime.” So Hollander’s ‘fit punishment’ gives us the general idea, but this is a much deeper and fuller concept than merely that. Our reality itself is often created by our own actions and priorities. If competition and getting ahead is primary in our world-view, then in the end we most often will find that indeed, we have destroyed all competition and stand alone, literally, at the end of life. In ‘The Great Divorce’ C. S. Lewis gives us several wonderful descriptions of those who have finally got things their way, to the ruin of their very beings. Ultimately, it comes down to which will happen: we either say to God ‘Thy will be done,’ or God says to us ‘THY will be done.’ In each of these circles of The Commedia, each soul has finally received what they ultimately wanted, their will has been fully realized and incarnated in their individualized contrapasso – Divine Retribution. That is why it is not appropriate for Dante the Pilgrim to weep at the suffering he witnesses. Ultimately the souls receive what they most desire, for, like Frank Sinatra, they can say “I did it MY way…”