Charon Carries Souls Across the River Styx, Alexander Dmitrievich Litovchenko, 1861, Russian Museum, St. Petersburg.
I am writing this from the lobby of the Ace Hotel in New York; as I ascend from the basement with Dante under my arm, I see the following text printed on the stairs: EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT. This inscription offers an appropriate contrast to the opening of the third canto, which gives us the famous line written above the gates of hell, a line so famous that many know it well without knowing exactly who wrote it: ABANDON ALL HOPE, YOU WHO ENTER HERE. And just like the inscription in hell, these words too are written in the hotel’s neo-Victorian “dark hue.” But whether or not Dante knows it, he and I are essentially reading the same sentence—as chilling as the inscription is, the words in canto 3 ultimately do not apply to the man who travels beside Virgil.
Canto 3 is our first real contact with hell. As Dante approaches, he is accosted by the sounds of sinners waiting to cross the Acheron—the river that acts as a sort of foyer to the inferno. Charon, the ferryman, refuses at first to take Dante across. Virgil insists, and offers Dante little comfort or advice as they cross over.
This canto is loud. As Dante passes beneath the archway, he can hardly see anything, and can hear only the noises coming from the swarm of sinners, babbling in different languages, the sound of their hands slapping against their bodies—the vast, cacophonic gang eager and hungry to cross, being stung by insects and bleeding. There’s even something relentless and winding about the way Dante describes the noise: “unfamiliar tongues, horrendous accents, words of suffering, cries of rage …” It’s a violent passage intended to overwhelm, and indeed, imagine entering the darkness and hearing only the deathly sounds of people who are about to enter hell.
At this point, Dante starts crying.
Dante can only see the sinners in what he calls the “dim light.” What is this dimness? Is it that Dante’s eyes have begun to accustom themselves to the darkness, or that, as he moves closer to the river, just the faintest light from hell leaks over across the black water?
Charon tells Dante to move aside, and can see that Dante is in fact alive. At this point Virgil plays the divine mission card (sort of like a theological AmEx Black) and flexes his heavenly influence. Charon, who has been ferrying sinners to hell since the beginning of time, probably isn’t in the mood to argue, and relents.
As Charon calls the proverbial “all aboard” and is about to set off on his skiff, the sinners, as Dante says, leap into the ship “just as in autumn as the leaves fall away.” Needless to say, it sounds like the autumnal foliage is far more harrowing in Italy than it is over here.
Virgil and Dante begin to rove mysteriously over the water toward the inferno. And overwhelmed by the passage to hell, Dante loses hold of his senses, and faints. Classic Dante.
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Alexander Aciman is the author of Twitterature. He has written for the New York Times, Tablet, the Wall Street Journal, and TIME. Follow him on Twitter at @acimania.
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