We have come to one of the most famous / infamous scenarios in all of literature. It is based upon an actual event that occurred during Dante the Poet’s lifetime. Your notes from your translation will surely explain the intricacies of the situation, being yet again the tragedy of Guelph versus Ghibelline, family against family, promises broken and the innocent caught and punished in it all. This lowest level of Hell is where the traitors are to be found, and here we must remind ourselves that BOTH Ugolino and Archbishop Ruggieri are the ones who betrayed their city, their political parties, their own family and, of course, each other.
As we saw with Francesca da Rimini and Ulysses, Ugolino is one of a pair of sinners eternally connected together, but once again, the partner is silent. Dante the Poet plays a subtle game here, playing on our shock of the hint that Ugolino not only put his family (two sons and two grandsons) in this situation, but Dante made them far younger than they actually were and also leaves the suggestion that Ugolino ended up eating his own kin to preserve his own life. The images conjured up by this Canto through the centuries have almost all focused on the shock value of the story. Yet, we cannot allow the shock of the literal images to prevent us from seeing the more subtle allegorical truths that are here. Let me lift up just one or two.
Within the Orthodox Church, which is part of my faith tradition, there is a gift of the Holy Spirit called the ‘Gift of Tears’. The one who is moved to weep is said to be blessed by God. Tears may come for many reasons: perhaps out of joy realized due to God’s Grace, or maybe seeing the lack of compassion that should be offered to one suffering, or even the reality of suffering itself. All can bring forth the Gift of Tears. The sign of true tears is a litmus test for true understanding not only of grief, but of the reality that is being played out in the sight of God and of God’s Presence in it all. The suffering of the innocent or the miraculous healing or the quiet promise fulfilled are all reasons for holy tears. Within this reality one also understands that Jesus weeps too, with us. Indeed, weeping is mentioned in this Canto XXXIII time and time again:
37 'When I awoke before the dawn of day
38 I heard my children, in that prison with me,
39 weep in their sleep and ask for bread.
40 'You are cruel indeed, thinking what my heart
41 foretold, if you remain untouched by grief,
42 and if you weep not, what can make you weep?
43 'Now they were awake, and the hour drew near
44 at which our food was brought to us.
45 Each of us was troubled by his dream.
46 'Down below I heard them nailing shut
47 the entry to the dreadful tower. I looked
48 my children in the face, without a word.
49 'I was so turned to stone inside I did not weep.
50 But they were weeping, and my little Anselm
51 said: "You look so strange, father, what's wrong?"
52 'Even then I shed no tear…
If he could have wept he would first shed tears over the fact that he, Ugolino, had already betrayed his family several times over, as well as his party and city. He actively worked with Ruggieri to have one of his grandsons removed from power and exiled. So much for family love! In fact, these betrayals quite literally led his sons and grandsons to be imprisoned with him. And throughout it all, he does not weep. One gets the sense that if, in fact, he did weep, it would only be for himself. He presents only his side, and the atrocities done by Ruggieri to HIM, forcing Ugolino to devour his own kin, and then to devour Ruggieri throughout eternity. As with Francesca and Ulysses, it isn’t their fault they are in Hell, it is always somebody else that made them do it. We must not allow the visceral brutality of the images prevent us from recognizing the culpability of Ugolino at the heart of the tragedy. I am reminded of Jesus’ statement in the Gospel of Mark 9:42 “But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea.” Well, Ugolino is the cause of these little ones starving to death and now he himself is cast into the frozen sea at the bottom of the universe and the millstone around his neck is Ruggieri.
In point of fact, if Ugolino could have wept for others, then that would have been the beginning of repentance and ownership of his own sin. But he would not and did not. Hence, this place and this punishment.
The children show the way to true redemptive and sacrificial love, in a way that Ugolino totally misses (and many secular commentators miss as well). While they are starving to death, they are not worried about their own lives, but rather that of their own father / grandfather. So they offer their own bodies and lives to preserve Ugolino’s.
60 They … rose at once, saying:
61 '"Father, we would suffer less
62 if you would feed on us: you clothed us
63 in this wretched flesh -- now strip it off."
Historians believe that, in fact, Ugolino did try to preserve his life by eating on his dead family there in the tower. Not once does Dante the Poet consider that Ugolino offered his own flesh and blood to preserve these little ones. He engages in cannibalism in life and engages in cannibalism in death. He loved only himself in life and gets to devour his enemy in death. C. S. Lewis believed that the general direction of one’s life while living continued in that same direction in death: hence Ugolino continues that which he desired and lived in his life: pure hatred and a totally self-referent reality.
Dante the Poet also brings us the allegory of Christ’s statement in John 6 through the mouths of the innocents:
47 Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” 52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55 for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. [NRSV]
Without the presence of the Spirit and God’s loving Incarnation, this statement indeed becomes a ‘hard saying’ which many commented on after hearing Jesus’ teaching. If Ugolino was filled with the Holy Spirit and was one with Christ, then perhaps he would not even have been in this situation in the first place. But regardless, he would have been the first to offer himself and his own life for the ‘least of these,’ his own family starving there before him. Jesus’ offer is symbolic and yet ultimately and absolutely real: He gives Himself and His life for us, offering up His body and blood out of love for each of us. Ugolino can’t even imagine doing that for another. Even at the bottom of Hell, God’s sacrificial love is the true reality. Evil is merely the absence of that sacrificial love.
On the way to the final Canto and the harrowing image of Satan, Dante the Pilgrim comes across yet another sinner in the ice. Some have been confused about the treatment of Dante the Pilgrim here, just as we saw when he yanked hunks of hair out of Bocca’s head in Canto XXXII. The best commentators, such as Sayers, Ciardi and Hollander all assure the reader that one must keep in mind the difference between allegorical lessons and literal small mindedness. Dante the Poet wants us to see how lack of love and care for humanity in the sinners’ lives will lead to a complete failure of humanity. This is portrayed at many levels, including the odd statement that a sinner is already in the ice even though his body is still alive on earth. In fact, he had stopped being human so completely that there was no possible way for the soul to NOT be in Hell, even if life was still going on in the physical body. For Dante the Pilgrim to relieve suffering of those whom God himself had placed at this level is to deny God’s recognition of their soul’s state.
148 'But now extend your hand and open
149 my eyes for me.' I did not open them.
150 And to be rude to him was courtesy.
It is not that Dante the Poet wanted to show Dante the Pilgrim as a spiteful bully, but rather, finally, to help his readers see that these sinners are receiving that for which they had lived their entire lives: to be only and always for themselves. And so Dante the Pilgrim grants them that wish and leaves them, solipsitically, to their own devices: they are the only ones that matter in their private little universe.