Dante the Poet begins this Canto with an apology of sorts, and an odd one at that. We have traveled with him through all the levels of Hell, and his capacity to be a descriptive guide has been remarkable. We have come across gutter language, beautiful similes, powerful descriptions of pain and vain excuses for bad choices made. Indeed, on several occasions Dante the Poet has placed himself alongside the greatest poets ever in a conscious and even self-congratulatory way. And yet, here, at the bottom of the very universe, he openly admits he is not sure that he can express what he experiences adequately. As a result, he makes a plea to those who can create worlds with words and sound. He must describe ultimate evil, but suddenly feels like a beginner once again, just learning how to talk.
7 It is no enterprise undertaken lightly --
8 to describe the very bottom of the universe --
9 nor for a tongue that still cries 'mommy' and 'daddy.'
10 But may those ladies who aided Amphion
11 to build the walls of Thebes now aid my verse,
12 that the telling be no different from the fact.
I think also, what we do with language and how we care for one another is the acid test for how truly we follow Christ and how fully we surrender to God’s call and try to walk in that way. Hence, Dante the Poet prays at the beginning of this end of the journey, “that the telling be no different from the fact.” He wants to be true to his word and tell it like it is.
In all these travels and travails through the levels of Hell we have been bombarded with noise and movement. There have been shrieks, cries, farts like trumpet blasts, stories and pleas for notoriety and information. Even just before being lowered to this level there was a giant horn blown that shook the walls of Hell. We have had Francesca da Rimini buffeted about by wind and others diving into boiling pitch. We’ve watched sinners being transformed into serpents and being torn asunder by scimitar wielding demons. Yet here, at the very bottom of the universe, the “fondo a tutto l'universo,” there is silence and stasis. The only sound introduced is as a result of Dante the Pilgrim’s intrusion upon their pain, and only from those of course who are above the ice. Countless others are suspended beneath the ice like flies in amber.
This is a staggering revelation of the ultimate consequence of the self-referential aspect of sin. One becomes not only one’s own god, but one’s own world, like a black hole closing in on itself. The more fiercely one focuses on one’s own desires and demands and hatreds, the less the outer world exists until all that is left is a grudge or hatred. Here we have those who placed themselves above all else in their world. They have ultimately received that for which they had been striving and plotting their entire lives: it was and still is all and only about them. C. S. Lewis got it exactly right in The Great Divorce:
“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.”
Those readers who do not understand this truth will never understand Dante the Pilgrim’s reaction to the traitor in the hair pulling incident. We must never forget that while the literal description is frightful and seems mean-spirited, yet at the allegorical level it shows how completely those in the ice have separated themselves from community and relationship to either God or their sisters and brothers. Bocca wants no one to know where he is, partially because he is ashamed but mainly because he never cared for others anyway. He, like his neighbors, is the ultimate traitor and the ultimate lover / hater of self. He has become, ultimately, non-human, for to be a child of God is to be one who is the servant of all.
The chunks of hair left on the ice beside the head of Bocca are nothing compared to the next sight Virgil and Dante the Pilgrim come to: the head of one man eternally gnawing at the neck and head of another man. And just as Dante the Poet used the imagery of the muses or the music of Amphion above he now uses an odd image here; that of a hungry man satisfying his need by devouring a loaf of fresh bread to describe cannibalism. Yet even though we will read the full story in the next Canto, this is still an allegorical creation with a Christian core, so I am reminded of Paul in the New Testament: “But if you bite one another, take heed or you will be consumed by one another.” (Galatians 5:15) Indeed. The supreme self of sin and sin of self-love devours all.