We move now to an organized, structured and controlled environment that is rather striking. I will once again encourage any reader to find a solid translation with extensive notes to help sort out the stories and figures we find in this next section. [Again, my favorite translations are: John Ciardi, Dorothy Sayers, Mark Musa, Robert and Jean Hollander, Robert Pinsky (Inferno only).] But the allegory and the moral landscape of Dante’s creation should be apparent here.
We are given at the beginning of Canto XVIII a very detailed description of the overall structure of this section of Hell. It is as if Dante the Pilgrim has spread out before him an ancient street-map of Hell, much in the order of the old maps of Florence.
115 On it goes, swimming slowly, slowly
116 wheeling, descending, but I feel only
117 the wind in my face and blowing from below.
118 Now on our right I heard the torrent's hideous roar
119 below us, so that I thrust my head forward
120 and dared to look down the abyss.
What a remarkably visceral imagination Dante has!
Not Just Lust
This is a place where we find sex, hatred, anger and murder. Note however, there are other places for lust [Francesca da Rimini in Canto V] and for murder [Phlegethon, the river of blood in Cantos XII and XIII], but they are higher up than this circle, and hence judged to be less evil. This goes against the grain of today’s culture where one can imagine and indulge in the worst of actions and, in fact, we are encouraged to do so in some circles in order to prevent individuals from acting on those desires. Virgil the Poet seems to be telling us what Jesus in fact taught time and again, if one sins in one’s heart it is just as severe, or even worse, than if one actually committed the sin.
Matthew 5:27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” [NRSV]
But there is more, for here we have misuse and violence and lust performed by the mind and the language. What is done to others through lies and greed and hate by our words and manipulations is far worse in Dante’s scheme than what is done physically to one another. If the gates of Dis that had to be opened by the angel of God represented the city walls of Florence, or Rome, then here we have the circular street-map of the heart of the city. It is the destruction of society and civilization and trust that is allegorically presented here, for the circle seems to represent an anti-society containing every part of the earthly culture above. This is even represented by the odd parallel of following the Medieval Vatican’s lead for crowd control, those heading into town keep to the right, those leaving town stay on the left. [I always tell my family and friends in England that Europe and the States drive on the proper side of the road!]
Obviously, Dante the Poet is telling us that language matters, and in doing so he enriches parts of this Canto with remarkable clarity and physicality. Those in this part of Hell have used words to destroy others and Dante the Poet uses amazing wordplay to show the result:
103 From here we heard the whimpering of people
Quindi sentimmo gente che si nicchia
104 one ditch away, snuffling with their snouts
ne l'altra bolgia e che col muso scuffa,
105 and beating on themselves with their own palms.
e sé medesma con le palme picchia.
106 The banks, made slimy by a sticky vapor
Le ripe eran grommate d'una muffa,
107 from below, were coated with a mould
per l'alito di giù che vi s'appasta,
108 offending eyes and nose.
che con li occhi e col naso facea zuffa.
The difference between the first two Bolgias is even remarkable with the language changing depending on the tortures within each deep ditch. The second Bolgia for the flatterers, those who used language so effusively and destructively is the very place where Dante the Poet explodes in this descriptive “glory”.
I am also impressed with the fact that other than Thais at the very end of the Canto, we have here men using women, men lying to women, men abandoning women whom they have made ‘great with child.’ To what extent, I wonder, is Dante the Poet and Husband chastising himself for not being faithful to his own wife and family in earlier days by focusing so much on the love poetry for Beatrice and others? He seems to be saying that integrity of relationship and communication and honor toward women is what holds all society, earthly and heavenly, together. To sell women into sexual slavery is far worse than the other sins that preceded this particular place in Hell. The sex trades in the world today, the kidnapping of hundreds of young girls in Africa, the ongoing abandonment of young mothers to raise their families alone all shows that not much has changed in this old world. I believe Dante the Poet would not be surprised at all. The entire world should repeat after him, and me, Mea Culpa, Mea Maxima Culpa.