One might be tempted to assume in the prior two cantos that this is a bit of comic relief, what with bumbling pseudo – soldiers who are saluted by a fart from the commander and made fools of by one of their prisoners. Indeed, as I mentioned in the last post, it does remind me of some of Shakespeare’s comedic captains and sheriffs. Yet this is dark comedy with more than an edge of fear and danger. Even Virgil is drawn in and deceived by these fierce farcical flying fiends. As they flee from them Dante the Pilgrim is more and more worried, telling Virgil:
21 …'Master, can't you quickly
22 'hide yourself and me? I am in terror
23 of the Malebranche; I sense them there behind us,
24 imagine them so clear I almost hear them.'
And of course, it turns out that he is right on, being more perceptive and worried all along than his guide Virgil. (Does Dante the Poet give us a hint here that Reason alone cannot perceive the evil that is ever-present in this fallen world?) They just barely get away, sliding down the incline into the next ring where God’s invisible barrier prevents the demons access to them. Unnerving to say the least.
We have here in these three cantos a marvelous example of Dante the Poet’s art and insight. There are extended connections across the cantos that create motifs at several levels. Some of the different translators have picked up on some of these and having read five different ones, comparing them with the Italian, it is fascinating to see how expansive the comments and insights are. We have just a sample in the following:
• Movement: Dante the Poet is a master at comparing and contrasting different actions and movements. There is marching, flying, running, jumping, wrestling in the air and in the hot pitch, shuffling and hiding. Sinners are dunked into the hot liquid time and again while Virgil carries Dante the Pilgrim like a little child being rushed out of a burning house. We then find them sliding down the slope with the image of a fierce waterway roiling as it meets the millworks. This is brought to an abrupt halt by the slow, painful movement of the hypocrites in the next ring.
43 Down from the rim of that stony bank,
44 supine, he slid along the sloping rock
45 that forms one border of the next crevasse.
46 Never did water, as it nears the paddles,
47 rush down along the sluices
48 cut through earth to turn a millwheel
49 more swiftly than my master down that bank,
50 bearing me along clasped to his breast
51 as if I were his child, not his companion…
58 Down there we came upon a lacquered people
59 who made their round, in tears, with listless steps.
60 They seemed both weary and defeated.
• Sound and Silence: We have contrasts as well with the rowdy and raucous gabbling of the pseudo-soldiers fighting with each other, crying out at the sinners, being farted at by their commander. This is contrasted immediately by Dante and Virgil walking in silence away from the soldiers which leads to the quiet cloaked sufferers of the hypocrites who scarce have energy to move painfully forward within their leaded cowls, let alone argue, shout and converse. Even the presence of Dante the Pilgrim brings, at first, silent and intense scrutiny:
Canto XXI [Noise!]
37 From our bridge he said: 'O Malebranche,
38 here is one of Santa Zita's Elders.
39 Thrust him under, while I head back for more
40 'to that city, where there's such a fine supply.
41 Every man there -- except Bonturo -- is a swindler.
42 There money turns a No into a Yeah…'
136 Off they set along the left-hand bank,
137 but first each pressed his tongue between his teeth
138 to blow a signal to their leader,
139 and he had made a trumpet of his asshole.
Canto XXIII [Silence!]
1 Silent, alone, and unescorted
2 we went on, one in front, the other following,
3 as Friars Minor walk along the roads…
85 When they came near they looked at me askance
86 for a while, without uttering a word,
• Animal Imagery: Dante the Poet shows remarkable inventiveness in these three Cantos with similes from nature and Aesop involving bats, hawks, wild boars, frogs, mice, wicked cats, ducks, filthy birds, as well as snouts, tusks, claws, wings and much more. All of this communicates at many levels including humor as well as an allegorical commentary on sinful human nature and reason, which, without the gift of Grace, ends up reverting back to primal animal actions and reactions.
127 It did him little good, for even wings
128 could not catch up with terror: the sinner dove
129 and the devil turned up his breast in flight,
130 just as the wild duck, when the falcon nears,
131 dives for the bottom, and the bird of prey
132 must fly back up, angry and outsmarted.
133 Calcabrina, furious at this trick,
134 was winging close behind him, eager for the sinner
135 to break away as an excuse to scuffle,
136 and, since the barrator had vanished,
137 he turned his claws against his fellow
138 and came to grips with him above the ditch.
139 But the other was indeed a full-fledged hawk,
140 fierce with his talons…
Allegory As Well
We must not forget as we continue on this journey that Dante the Poet remains often beyond our ability to fully divine his allegorical lessons after only one reading. With all of the furor happening here we also have deep moral and theological lessons to be learned. I will not unpack all of these here. Some are quite obvious, such as with the brightly colored cowls of the hypocrites hiding the leaden weight underneath: one is reminded here of Jesus’ statement in Matthew 23: 27: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites ! For ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outwardly but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.”
Dorothy Sayers outlines the allegorical lessons of Caiaphas being stretched out in a transverse execution so that every hypocrite must step upon him. Just as Jesus bore the weight of the world’s sin upon the cross, so too must Caiaphas bear the weight of the world’s hypocrisy by sending the Son of God to the Cross. Briefly, the levels of allegory are this:
1. Literal: the eternal punishment of Caiaphas after his death.
2. Allegorical: the Medieval understanding of the consequence of Jewish rejection of the Son of God by crucifying Him, hence eternal crucifixion for Caiaphas.
3. Moral: the result here is because Caiaphas sacrificed his inner integrity for the sake of easy expediency.
4. Anagogical: for any soul who rejects the divine love and acceptance offered by the Cross, all of life and eternity becomes hopeless suffering and God is seen only as angry and hateful.
Is it any wonder I keep returning to this wondrous work of art, theology, insight, humor, hope, beauty and terror?