What Happens in Hell? (Canto XXII)

Souls suffer in Hell, but if their suffering is the same at every moment for eternity, does anything really happen? They do for the pilgrim because he’s never seen it before. But events that always occur, predictably and routinely, generally feel like the static backdrop against which “real” events occur. In this sense, the only real event in Inferno was Christ’s harrowing of it, which left a trail of rubble as he descended to claim his own. The barrator’s flight and the half-horrible, half-comical demon fight over the boiling pit, by contrast, stand out to me as actual events in the sense that they mark a change from the status quo of Hell.

(Even as I say this I wonder if it’s quite right. The souls seem to experience their agonies very immediately, as if constantly new and fresh. This makes sense, as otherwise one might, like Capaneus or, later, Milton’s Satan, try to fashion a “Hell of Heaven, a Heaven of Hell” in one’s own mind.)

In this “new sport,” a soul tries to flee his captors and, presumably, hide higher up among souls experiencing a lesser punishment. The chaos of the scene is bewildering. The sinner jumps and makes a mad dash for cover, one demon goes after him, snarling, another follows, “Eager to see the sinner evade the chase / So there could be a fight.” The demons of Hell do not work together as tormentors of lost souls but are themselves disordered beings (beings, not souls, I suppose). They take pleasure in the novelty of the situation and in the promise of some action, and two of them wind up in the very boiling pitch that’s there to punish their charges. It’s an irony that’s emblematic of the internal Inferno of Capaneus from Canto XIV; they who should be enjoying their power can’t control themselves enough to avoid the fate of those they torment.

In fact, it almost sounds worse for them: by the time their peers come to help, they’re described as “already baked inside / Their crusts.” I’m not sure what that means, precisely, but it conjures for me an image of two clay statues drying out and cracking apart. That’s got to smart, even for a demon.

It all makes for an exciting episode, but that’s just what’s seductive about it. Just think about the kinds of questions we could ask of this scene: Where does this soul think he’s going? Surely he doesn’t hope to escape Hell?

Oh. Right. We all hope we can escape Hell, all think we can concoct some plan that will alleviate our suffering, now or in the future. But we’re only outwitting ourselves.

Meriting Fame (Canto XXIV)

My Classics professor in college used to say that fame for the ancient Greeks was an almost physical commodity. It was measured in the weapons, treasure, and even people you captured in battle, though always ambivalently connected to your parentage, as well. You see scenes in the epics where warriors, before engaging in combat with someone, demand to know who the other is, or announce themselves. It’s a kind of sizing up: Are you worthy of my time and energy right now? Do I stand to gain in honor from defeating you?

It seems so foreign to us, now, in the 21st Century and especially in the United States and other modern cultures. And yet I’ve heard arguments that we’re not so far from these practices as we like to think. We don’t fight wars through hand-to-hand combat, anymore, and we don’t believe in the same kind of honor code and

Achilles desecrating Hector's corpse

Achilles desecrating Hector’s corpse

mutual respect for one’s enemy that made Achilles’s triumphant desecration of Hector’s body so unforgivable, but we do ascribe value to people who acquire wealth through business, athletics, or entertainment, and we do get squeamish and even outraged when we learn any of our soldiers are mistreating prisoners and corpses. We’re still fascinated by mob narratives, which take the logic of capitalism, marry it to certain Old World values, and, the argument goes, bring the latent violence of the system to the surface. Gang culture is probably our most primal and dramatic form of this, but cronyism in politics and business is also a form of this tribal logic of power.

It really seems to me that Christ’s death undermines all of this stuff by saying, “Look at what real power entails. Not self-aggrandizement but self-sacrifice. Not the negotiation of wealth and loyalty but clearing away the barriers to true life for those in your charge by giving of your own life.” And yet, Dante never exactly disavows the logic of fame. Some souls stop him and ask to be given a good report back on the surface, and we can say that they don’t get it, but Virgil frequently coaxes souls into sharing their stories by promising them that the pilgrim will be able to spread their fame.

And now here, nearly at the bottom of Hell, after he has frequently chided Dante for his pity and compassion for the lost, our wise guide urges the pilgrim to continue the journey for the sake of fame. Having climbed up one of the valleys or “pouches” of the eighth circle, Dante stops to catch his breath, but Virgil says, “To cast off sloth / Now well behooves you, . . .

For resting upon soft down, or underneath

The blanket’s cloth, is not how fame is won—
Without which, one spends life to leave behind
As vestige of himself on earth the sign

Smoke leaves on air, or foam on water. (XXIV.46-52)

The Kansas song says, “All we are is dust in the wind,” an image of life’s temporal, ephemeral nature meant to focus us on what’s important in the here and now, but Virgil wants the pilgrim to think about what people will remember about him well after he is gone. I think we need to read fame, for Dante, kind of like we think of legacy. One way or another, we’ll each be remembered for how we spent our life, and Virgil adds to eternal suffering the threat of our lives dissipating as quickly as smoke in air. But legacy, for the Christian, will look different than for the devotee of worldly fame.