In Canto VIII we move into a place of paradox and puzzlement. Suddenly, having journeyed with this pair swiftly, moving a circle for each canto, we now are stymied and stopped. They cannot continue, for they run smack-dab into fierce resistance, intentional evil and willful denial of God’s desires. From this point on, even to move forward in their journey requires several cantos. Here is where our modern sensibilities need to be set aside and we must remember that this great poem is also one of the deepest allegories on Christian growth and salvation that has ever been written. I think it would be helpful if we simply break this canto into sections and look at it in small sections.
We were left standing on the banks of the Styx, just about to leave the first main level of Hell. This was the level where sins of Incontinence were punished… It’s a shame that in the 21st century the only image conjured up when the word “incontinence” is used is a packet of “Depends Adult Diapers”. In reality of course, it refers to anything which is out of control, not just our bladders! Hence, Francesca da Rimini’s out of control lust and egoism, here the out of control anger and sullenness that roils the black waters of the Styx [the overly angry thrashing on the surface, the incessantly sullen burbling under the surface].
A medieval method of communication is used to notify either shore of their arrival, hence the use of flaming beacons. [The author J. R. R. Tolkien and movie director Peter Jackson used this method to great effect in the Lord of the Rings.] Note the immediate obedience here, when the boatman Phlegyas speeds over to pick them up, assuming there is yet another soul to torment. Obedience and the reasons for it play a huge part in these cantos. Why we do what we do and for whom, ultimately, is a measure of our faith, love and integrity.
As they pass through the filthy water, one particular suffering soul asks Dante who he is, alive in this land of the dead:
33 'Who are you that you come before your time?'
And it is here that many are shocked and confused. Dante the Pilgrim recognizes him as fellow Florentine and in this marsh of anger Dante responds in anger to a soul who lived in anger all his life. And Virgil embraces Dante for doing so. And encourages him when Dante requests to see Filippo Argenti experience even more suffering.
52 And I: 'Master, I would be most eager
53 to see him pushed deep down into this soup
54 before we leave the lake.'
55 And he to me: 'Before the shore
56 comes into view you'll have your satisfaction.
57 Your wish deserves to be fulfilled.'
58 Soon I watched him get so torn to pieces
59 by the muddy crew, I still give praise
60 and thanks to God for it.
What is this all about? Is it merely schadenfreude, the pleasure derived by someone from another person's misfortune? Or worse, is this a spiteful mean-spiritedness by one who resents past insults and affronts? Not at all, for this is the first hint we have of Dante actually recognizing that these sinners are here for a reason. Twice now, he has fainted ‘out of pity’ for the sinners, but here we begin to see that Dante the Pilgrim realizes that evil is often a CHOICE on the part of the perpetrators. Virgil reacts with pleasure not because of the suffering created, but of the first hint that Dante the Pilgrim is beginning to understand that intentionality is crucial in the life of faith and the growth in wisdom. Dante has moved beyond standing with the presumably innocent sufferers, like Francesca, and is now on the way to viewing evil and recalcitrance for what it is: ego incarnate. The only god these people truly worship is themselves, and Dante’s rather immature reaction still is commendable in that he has chosen to stand on the side of surrender to the one true God. Dorothy Sayers puts it like this: “It is the first feeble stirrings of the birth of Christ in the soul, and Virgil hails it with words that were used of Christ Himself.”
45 blessed is she that bore you in her womb!
They are deposited outside the gate of the mighty city of Dis, the capital of Hell, filled with fire and ferocity. As if to drive home the point of where one chooses to stand determines how one views this reality, the two pilgrims are stranded as a result of stubborn disobedience to God’s Will. The fallen angels refuse to allow them entrance, even though God demands it. Faced with this refusal, each pilgrim reacts in a different way. Dante the Pilgrim panics, and seems ready to quit completely. From a moment of understanding on the journey over just minutes ago, he now wants to pack it in. This sounds very familiar to me, at times I get it right and the next moment I lose my way.
96 for I thought I would never make it back.
97 'O my dear leader, who seven times and more
98 have braced my confidence and rescued me
99 from the grave dangers that assailed me,
100 'do not leave me,' I cried, 'helpless now!
101 If going farther is denied us,
102 let us at once retrace our steps.'
Virgil, of course, comforts him, encourages him, and tells him that he will take care of this. Surely they will listen to reason, especially Virgil who represents the pinnacle of Human Reason. And they don’t. The truth is that there is unreasonable evil in this world, there are always those who will do what they do because of their own designs and desires, reason be damned… literally! And the self-assured Virgil comes back to Dante, suddenly just as helpless as Dante the Pilgrim.
115 Then our adversaries slammed shut the gates
116 against my master, who, left outside,
117 came back to me with halting steps.
118 He had his eyes upon the ground, his brows
119 shorn of all confidence…
Of course, within the allegory of Dante the Poet, this is to be expected. Comes a time when reason and our own ego needs and personal drive and individual resources all fall short. Dante the political exile discovered this. Then we are forced back into the arms of God and must depend upon Divine assistance alone. If one is to journey deeper into the life of faith, one must learn over and over to surrender, to die to self, to trust completely.
Here we find also that Dante the Poet is a remarkable writer, for he leaves them, and us, standing alone, before locked gates, in a fierce and darkened land. Help is on the way, but it is not here yet. And so we wait. In faith and trust, we wait. Who of us has not been in this place before, between fear and hope, with dark waters on one side and unfulfilled promises on the other…
I love this work of literature!