Recapping Dante: Canto 28, or Unseamly Punishments
May 5, 2014 | by Alexander Aciman
Canto 28 opens with a very self-conscious address by Dante. He tells the reader that even if his writing weren’t constrained by the dictates of meter and form, he still would’ve had trouble describing the following scene. But he had no idea what he was talking about: canto 28 is marvelous and harrowing. Canto 28 is perfect.
He begins by listing famous battlefields—if all the mangled bodies and limbs and guts from all these vicious wars were combined, he says, they would pale in comparison to the ninth pit of hell. The first thing he sees here is a man “cleft from the chin right down to where men fart.” What’s remarkable about this line is not that a poet as great as Dante would use the word fart—although, let’s face it, that is sort of funny—but that it’s almost identical to a line that Shakespeare would write many centuries later, in Macbeth: “unseamed … from the nave to th’ chops.”
Our unseamed sinner—with his entrails and “loathsome” “shit” sack torn asunder—is Mohammed, who tells Dante that this pit is reserved for those who “sowed scandal and schism.” The Hollanders point out that Dante must therefore have seen the prophet not as the founder of a new religion, but as the catalyst for the schism that would branch off from Christianity and become Islam.
Mohammed explains how punishment works around here. He and his fellow mangled sinners eventually find that their injuries have healed—but once they’re all closed up, they’re mangled yet again by a demon. The punishment is not simply about pain and suffering, to say nothing of the inconvenience of having to carry your colon in your hands; the indignity of being mangled is equally important. Mohammed believes, for some reason, that Dante and Virgil are dead and simply taking a tour of hell before being punished. Clearly, Mohammed hasn’t quite grasped the way hell works.
As Dante and Virgil continue walking, they come across another gruesome scene. A sinner named Pier da Medicina, who recognizes Dante, has been wounded so badly that sound can no longer leave his mouth, and he must hold open his windpipe to speak. This Pier, like the famous bleeding tree in canto 13, is singularly pathetic and pitiable: “Should you ever see that gentle plain again that slopes from Verceli down to Marcabò,” he says, “for Pier da Medicina spare a thought.” It is a melancholy phrase from a sinner we don’t get to know well, and whom all of history, except for Dante, has forgotten. The simplicity and intimacy of his request makes us pity him—he wants to be remembered in the most obscure manner. And now, thanks to Dante, this Pier lives forever in that little realm on earth, and any time we see the slopes from Verceli down to Marcabò, we who have read Dante will also have to spare a thought for a man we never knew.
The poet and pilgrim go on to speak with another sinner whose severed hands are spurting steady streams of blood. This man is a Ghibelline whose actions played a great part in starting the feud between the two parties that divided Florence. After a crime like that, it sort of seems like his punishment leaves him off easy.
But before Virgil and Dante leave, the two see something that still manages to overshadow the unseamed Mohammad, the unfolded talking windpipe, and the blood hoses coming from a man’s wrists: they see a headless figure approaching them, holding his own head by the hair like a lantern. It’s a scene that can be met in darkness only by Caravaggio’s painting of David holding the head of Goliath. The sinner is Bertran de Born, a poet who wrote in Provençale and who, according to the Hollanders, took a great deal of pleasure in seeing towns leveled. (Dante will meet another Provençale poet in Purgatorio—Arnaut Daniel, who will actually speak in Provençale.) Bertran de Born’s sin was turning Prince Henry against his father, Henry II.
The last line in canto 28 mentions contrapasso, which is, simply put, the idea that the punishment should fit the crime. Dante is devoted to the concept. Think about it: Bertran de Born’s head was separated from his body as he “severed persons thus conjoined.” Fire falls down on sodomites as it did on Sodom; suicides lose their bodies in the afterlife; the lustful in hell are tormented with weird forms of sex deprivation. It starts to make a lot of sense, doesn’t it?
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