Recapping Dante: Canto 22, or Don’t Play Too Close to the Tar Pits
March 24, 2014 | by Alexander Aciman
The opening lines of canto 22 have a two-sided brilliance to them. First, there’s the way Dante—who is, along with Virgil, now in the company of demons—breathlessly describes the movements of a cavalry unit, the way soldiers will tousle hand-to-hand on the battlefield with war horns sounding through the air. It’s a nice lyrical passage that sounds like a nineteenth-century Romantic poet trying to modernize Homer’s battlefield passages. But then, absurdly, Dante juxtaposes those battle scenes with this “savage” band of demons; “as they say,” Dante writes, “in church with the saints, with guzzlers in the taverns.” It’s his polite way of saying that one must behave differently in the presence of demons who make farting sounds with their mouths and gather to the less-than-noble sounds of an anus trumpet. (See canto 21.)
As in the last canto, Dante is spellbound by a pool of pitch, where, now and then, he will see a sinner expose his back above the boiling liquid to relieve his suffering for a brief moment before diving back down. If the sinner stays above the surface for too long, a demon swoops down and tears him apart. Suddenly, Dante sees an overzealous sinner who has taken an irresponsibly long coffee break above the surface. Almost instantly, one of the demons grabs a billhook and prepares his talons so he can swoop down and shred the sinner to pieces. Dante has Virgil stop the massacre in order to learn a bit more about the sinner—he is from Navarre and accepted bribes when he worked for the king. Just as the sinner is about to be attacked, Virgil asks if there are any other Italians in the pitch. And who are we kidding? Of course there are going to be a ton of Italians in a place reserved for barrators. The sinner announces that he was just hanging out under the pitch with another Italian.
At that point, one of the flesh-hungry demons loses his patience with Dante’s whole I-gotta-interview-the-sinners shtick and rips out a chunk of the sinner’s flesh. Before he is overpowered, the sinner tells Dante and Virgil about the other Italians he knows—Fra Gomita and Don Michel Zanche, both from Sardigna and constantly yapping about the place. The sinner, who seems far more glib about the threat of being torn to death, says almost tauntingly, “Oh, look at that one there, gnashing his teeth.”
Trying to delay his punishment a bit longer, the sinner then offers to find some Tuscans and Lombards for Dante and Virgil to talk to. As I’ve noted before, this indirect form of identification is very common in Dante’s work. Dante the pilgrim has already been identified many times as a Tuscan, from the sound of his dialect. But what is strange is that the sinner knows that Virgil is from Lombardy by his accent; although Dante is addressing the issue of how the pilgrim and his guide communicate (we learn it must be in Italian), it also raises the question of why Virgil, one of the most important Latin poets, is not only speaking a language that didn’t exist for him, but is speaking it in the regional dialect of his hometown, Mantua in Lombardy. (And while we’re on the subject of plot holes: What exactly happens to the sinners after they’re torn to shreds?)
Another thing to consider is that the formal standardization of Italian was in part due to The Divine Comedy. This means not only that Dante’s dialect is very close to the standard Italian today (and that, as a result, I can read Dante in the original but cannot read a page of a twentieth-century Sicilian novel), but also that Lombardese might have been different than Tuscan. Thus, Dante has written a Virgil who speaks Italian, but whom Dante may have had some difficulty communicating with, because they spoke different dialects. It might have been easier if they both spoke in Latin.
The sinner assures Dante that he can get other Italians to the surface, but the demons see through his ruse and challenge the sinner to a game: Can he make it back into the pitch faster than the demons can catch him? The sinner accepts, and manages to escape. One demon, furious at another for letting his human rag doll go free, attacks the other. Before they can realize what has happened, they have both fallen into the pitch. As a demon rescue party sets out to discover that their fellow demons have been broiled to a crisp in the pitch, Dante and Virgil decide, wisely, to take this moment to sneak away.
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