As Dante the Pilgrim follows Virgil out of this final circle of the violent, we have yet another conversation with fellow Florentines. The levels of subtlety and irony in the Commedia are quite remarkable. Dante the Poet shows on several occasions that even Virgil gets it wrong at times, and we see that here. Due to the earthly political actions of these three residents of Hell, Virgil seems in awe, suggesting that Dante might meet them halfway!
13 My teacher was attentive to their cries,
14 then turned his face to me and said:
15 'Now wait: to these one must show courtesy.
16 'And were it not for the fire that the nature
17 of this place draws down, I would say
18 that haste suits you far more than it does them.'
Indeed, Dante the Pilgrim, after hearing who they are, is impressed as well. He even wants to hop down among them to get closer, but fear prevents him. Hmmm…
46 Had I been sheltered from the fire
47 I would have thrown myself among them,
48 and I believe my teacher would have let me.
49 But because I would have burned and baked,
50 fright overcame the good intentions
51 that made me hunger to embrace them.
Now it is not so much the suffering that brings out pity in Dante the Pilgrim as we have seen in prior circles, but rather the type of awe of being in the presence of a superstar which leads to the adoring crowds we see that follow these actors, athletes and even academics. Dante seems to want to hop down and take a selfie of himself with these three. As John Connor asks Schwarzenegger the Terminator “are we learning anything yet?” In this Canto, the answer is not really. The public personas of these three outweigh the individual actions that led them to this circle of Hell. Dante the Poet knows full well what he writes, for the good done in the public realm counts ultimately for nothing if there is no integrity within the private realm. David, the king can win all the battles and establish Israel as a powerful nation, but sleeping with Bathsheba and causing the death of her husband, even if hidden from the public view, is still what brings the wrath of Yahweh down upon him.
43 'And I, who am put to torment with them,
44 was Jacopo Rusticucci. It was my bestial wife,
45 more than all else, who brought me to this pass.'
It’s all my wife’s fault that I am here. Right. And Dante the Pilgrim as well as Virgil don’t even blink at this blatant attempt to shirk responsibility for one’s own actions and sins. Do some of you remember Flip Wilson’s Geraldine: ‘The Devil Made Me Buy This Dress.’
Dante the Pilgrim and his three heroes rehearse their disappointments with the current regime in Florence and how they miss the good old days, when the ‘right’ sort of people were in charge. The three circling did all they could, and Dante the political power who is the unknowing Pilgrim had done all he could, and yet none of it seems to stick. Things change and they have tried and huffed and puffed and still Florence isn’t the way they want it. This is not ancient history. I have dear and beloved friends who work tirelessly for justice or this or that political party or write scathing indictments of current policies. They care and they try their best and I am humbled by how wise and persistent they are. I try my best to also change this world and do my best and make a difference. And yet, my friends are also ones who live lives of real faith and integrity in the private realm too. I also want to be sure that I remember that my outward persona that is in the public eye has the same integrity that I try to walk in my own hidden, private world. I want there to be congruence at every level of my life and being just as I see in some of my friends whom I respect so much.
This is where the subtlety of this Canto begins to shine through, for in these three circling figures, there is no congruence at these different levels. Publicly they are famous and have done remarkable things. Privately, they have assumed that what was done in secret did not matter and would not be noticed, by others or by God, and ultimately perhaps they even tried to fool themselves.
Ultimately we must do what Virgil demands of Dante: let go of control. In order to descend into the well for the final circles, Dante the Pilgrim must relinquish all control. This is represented by Virgil receiving from Dante the girdle, the cord around his waist. As an allegorical tool, it represents many things. In Medieval [and Modern] Christianity, the cord-girdle in monastic circles represented one’s vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Some even had prayer knots as a part of the girdle for the rosary. The cord-girdle also represented the ‘girding of one’s loins’ for battle, as in strapping on one’s armor and sword. Dante acknowledges this in his remark:
106 I had a cord around my waist
107 with which I once had meant to take
108 the leopard with the painted pelt.
The leopard at the very beginning of this journey is one of the reasons Dante the Pilgrim was lost in the first place. It represented his inability to control his lusts and pride and voracious nature. Dante wanted to conquer this side of himself by force of will, using that cord-girdle to wrap up that stupid leopard. Has anyone else made such vows based on force of will alone, [“I will NEVER do that again!!”] only to have the leopard prevent us from moving forward in faith and integrity because we fail, we fail and we fail again. Salvation in the deepest sense cannot be accomplished by strength of will or overt actions, no matter how politically savvy one is or whom one knows or what one reads. It comes down to obedience and trust. As we approach the waterfall we come to that odd cord-girdle request and action by Virgil which touches on all that has taken place in this Canto as well as what Dante the Pilgrim must let go in order to continue to progress in holiness and repentance.
109 After I had undone it,
110 as my leader had commanded,
111 I gave it to him coiled and knotted.
112 Then, swinging round on his right side,
113 he flung it out some distance from the edge,
114 down into the depth of that abyss.
Out it goes, over the edge, into the darkness. And as a result, slowly, Dante the Pilgrim begins to realize yet again, more and more clearly, that his own salvation cannot be won by himself, no matter how hard he tries. Florence and the public realm and justice for the least of these must not be neglected and yes, we must work for them all, but ultimately it must be done with a sense of true trust in God, for truth to tell, this world will ever be hurtful and hateful in many ways. Dante the Pilgrim, in seeing his cord-girdle, the symbol of his attempts to do it all by himself, go sailing into the darkness, and in handing it over willingly to Virgil, is now filled with enough trust and wisdom to descend into the darkest and deepest part of Hell. Ultimately he now knows he is not alone in this walk and this struggle for truth and light. Ultimately he now realizes that he cannot do it himself, alone, and to continue with God’s guide will not mean everything is set right. It will, in fact, mean that he has to go even deeper into the heart of darkness, but it will ultimately lead to the light.
We are barely halfway through Hell, dear friends. We are slowly unpacking our own expectations and assumptions and discovering new depths within ourselves as well. Are we learning anything yet?