This is a transitional canto, covering a number of issues for Dante the Poet as he guides us and Dante the Pilgrim further into the heart of darkness which will lead to a healed heart of light. Hopefully we can read these cantos and come to these mythical characters with an eye toward allegory and lessons as opposed to an assumed literalist interpretation. Of course Dante and his readers knew that Plutus / Pluto or Dame Fortune / Luck are not actual characters, but the themes represented by them and many of these other characters are crucial to development in wisdom, faith, love, maturity and integrity for any true pilgrim moving toward the light. Let me touch on three of these themes in this canto.
I find hidden among all the strange names and almost absurd and visceral descriptions wondrous gems of truth for our growth and discernment. In the first two stanzas is to be found such a little gem and it is easily passed over due to the strange beginning from Plutus. The nonsensical opening is surely something created by Dante the Poet to emphasize the weird setting in which Dante the Pilgrim finds himself. And the odd and fearsome sounding words in a voice that is gross and guttural would almost certainly fill anyone with fear and doubt. We have lost the power of words in today’s word-filled world. In generations past, to utter the name of Satan aloud would be to invite that presence to appear. Even to give one’s own name to another before one knew that person could be trusted would be to give a level of power to that unknown person that would be unwise. Hence, one can see perhaps Dante the Pilgrim hesitate at such a fierce and overt proclamation of the Evil One.
And yet, and yet, Virgil responds immediately and wisely. All but one of the translations I read seemed to get it right.
4 …'Do not be overcome
5 by fear. However powerful he may be,
6 he'll not prevent our climbing down this cliff.'
4 …“Pay no attention
5 to your fear, for no matter what his power be
6 he cannot stop our journey down this rock.”
4 “Don’t let your fear harm you; whatever power he has
5 Cannot prevent us climbing down this rock.”
…and so on. Ciardi misses it by merely having Virgil pat Dante’s arm, saying “don’t be startled….” This is far more than being startled however. There is an acknowledgement here that fear can derail even the best of God’s guides and abort the new life that has begun within us. There is a recognition that, in fact, fear is to be admitted, owned, and then one is to move forward despite the fear. Virgil lets both Dante the Pilgrim and Plutus the guard know that there is a higher plan here that must be followed, even if the reality with which we are presented is, in fact, profoundly fearsome. One must move ahead, regardless, trusting in one’s guide and guard.
We find the bulk of this canto dealing with wealth, its use, misuse and the lack thereof. Some spend without concern for those in need, while others hoard and never give as demanded by God. The two camps circle around as if on a giant spectrum and the further one goes in one direction the more one becomes like the other. In point of fact, anger and acquisition seem to go hand in hand at this level of Hell.
Virgil gives a brief lesson on the Medieval figure of Dame Fortune. One can find more about this in the notes in your version of the Inferno, but it also is rooted in the Christian teaching that all good things come from God above, and not simply one’s own manipulation of, in today’s parlance, stocks and bonds and diversifying one’s portfolio. Ultimately, one must learn to rejoice in what is available while not taking too much pride in what one has accomplished. “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.” [Revelation 3:17]
We know that in the world where the plague devastated society and entire cities, one felt at the mercy of luck or fortune. And yet, even today, we must recognize how precious each day is and the level of ‘giftedness’ there can be in simply receiving (or ‘receiving simply’) the Grace of the Moment and the Practice of the Presence. Hence the monk, praying in the Medieval image and he observes Dame Fortune reminding even the Pope, on the far downward side of the wheel, that we are all at the mercy of Fortune and, ultimately, Grace.
The canto ends with a remarkable vignette of what happens when one is never content… ever… with anything: anger takes over. There is never enough to go around so everyone else becomes one’s opponent. What you have should really be mine. I deserve that. And even, under the black muck of the marsh, there is an undercurrent of complaint that is almost an equivalent to the Gregorian Chant that sings God’s praises seven times a day in the monasteries. Instead, it is the mumbling of despair and they have become complaint incarnate. That which they did throughout life is that which they became in death. In another context C. S. Lewis describes what I am trying to say: “Hell begins with a grumbling mood, always complaining, always blaming others... but you are still distinct from it. You may even criticize it in yourself and wish you could stop it. But there may come a day when you can no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood or even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself, going on forever like a machine. It is not a question of God "sending us" to hell. In each of us there is something growing, which will BE hell unless it is nipped in the bud.”