Detail of a miniature of Dante and Virgil looking into the tomb of Pope Anastasius.
As Dante and Virgil make their way through the City of Dis (and see the tomb of yet another pope), Dante has a moment very much like the one where you open the bathroom door at work and are assaulted by the fumes of a previous occupant’s abomination. Of course, in this case, it’s the smell of lower hell. Virgil gives Dante a few minutes to compose himself and assures him that he’ll find a way to make the time pass while Virgil describes the rest of hell. In many ways, canto 11 is a lot like canto 2—it’s a way of briefly making everything clear to both Dante and to the reader. It’s Virgil’s way of saying, I know what you’re thinking; did we go through six circles of hell, or only five? Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I kind of lost track myself. Let’s briefly recap!
And to be fair, Dante the poet couldn’t have picked a better moment to pause and explain what’s going on, because it’s starting to get very confusing.
Virgil explains that the next circles of hell will be reserved for the violent, with sinners ranked by the severity of their sins: violence against others, violence against oneself or one’s property, and then the worst—violence against God (things like sodomy and eating lobster rolls). The next circle is for the fraudulent—those who committed fraud against the mistrusting (robbery), and the following circle is reserved for the worst kind of sinners—those who committed fraud against people who trusted them. Virgil explains that human beings are meant to have a natural love for one another; to commit any kind of fraud is to betray this. But treacherous fraud against the trusting is even worse because it betrays an even greater bond: natural love supplemented by a bond of faith. It is so abhorrent that, as Virgil says, “In the tightest circle, the center of the universe and seat of Dis, all traitors are consumed eternally.”
At this point, Dante basically says, I don’t really get it, and asks why the other sinners they saw in the earlier parts of hell were not confined to the city of Dis as well. Virgil’s response is appropriately frustrated: Dante, just when I thought you couldn’t get any stupider you ask a stupid Florentine question like that. Use your head for a minute. Outside of Dis, Virgil explains, though the sins are damnable, they are not sins of malice. For instance, Francesca didn’t sleep with Paolo because she was trying to hurt her husband. The prodigal may have been horrible people, but their sins weren’t committed with the intentions of causing harm to others. Then Virgil asks Dante if he’s even read Aristotle, because if he had, he would understand that incontinence offends God less than malice. God, Dante, read a book.
This canto is one of the shortest in the entire poem. In a strange way, we can see here a Dante we don’t know very well—Dante the comedian. He follows up a canto like canto 10 with a short joke about how hell reeks, and a preemptive, indirect apology to the reader for the upcoming pedantic lecture, and later in the canto he allows himself to be berated and called an idiot by his mentor. It’s not to say that canto 11 puts the comedy back in Divine Comedy, but indeed in canto 11 a good-natured, sardonic facet of the great poet’s character slips through for a second. Even Neil Simon couldn’t write this stuff.
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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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