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Recapping Dante: Canto 23, or Hypocrites Get Heavy

March 31, 2014 | by

hypocrites john flaxman

John Flaxman, Hypocrites, 1807

We’re recapping the Inferno. Read along! This week: the hypocrites and their leaden robes.

Canto 23 opens like the thematic climax of a slasher flick. Virgil and Dante—picture a cinematic hero and his love interest—have taken the opportunity to escape the methodical watch of the serial killer. Or killers, in this case: our travelers have fled from a pair of the murderous Malebranche, whose naturally violent tempers have been exacerbated by the loss of their human plaything and two of their fellow demons. Dante and Virgil are trying to calculate their next move. Their cell phones don’t work (hell doesn’t get great reception), they cannot fight back, and so Dante, whose scalp is “taut with fear,” asks Virgil to find them an out.

As the demons begin to descend upon our travelers, Virgil grabs hold of Dante as a mother does her infant, and the two slide down a rock to hide. Dante says, “Never did water … rush down … more swiftly than my master down that bank”; and if you suspend disbelief just a bit, you can imagine that it is a coy way of saying, “Virgil acted so quickly, I didn’t even have time to piss myself from fear.”

Though the two are unable to elude detection, they have made it to the next ditch, where the Malebranche’s jurisdiction ends, and where they are therefore safe from the billhooks and the claws. It seems like a bit of a cop-out—after all, if the demons were willing to disobey the divine law that protected Dante and Virgil, why weren’t they weren’t willing to disobey the divine law that determines the territories of hell? Read More »

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Recapping Dante: Canto 22, or Don’t Play Too Close to the Tar Pits

March 24, 2014 | by

This winter, we’re recapping the Inferno. Read along! This week: demons horse around in canto 22.

Canto XXII

William Blake, Two of the Malebranche quarrelling, Dante’s Inferno Canto XXII, c. 1824-27.

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. Read More »

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