Recapping Dante: Canto 23, or Hypocrites Get Heavy


Arts & Culture

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?  But then again, the climax in crime movies always requires a bit of imagination. Are we really supposed to believe that Jimmy Stewart was able to stun his would-be killer in Rear Window using only the flash from his camera?

In this next pocket of hell, Dante and Virgil meet the hypocrites, who are weighed down by long robes of gilded lead. They move with the same sort of sluggish indolence as the people wearing ankle-weights at the gym. Once again, Dante’s accent gives him away, and two sinners stop to speak with him. (They can also tell he’s alive by the way his throat moves.) Dante introduces himself using a construction similar to Francesca’s, from canto 5:

Dante, canto 23: “In the great city, by the fair river Arno, I was born and raised.”

Francesca, canto 5: “On that shore where the river Po with all its tributaries slows to a peaceful flow, there I was born.”

Dante goes on, but before long, he’s distracted by a sight that has even Virgil staring in awe: a sinner nailed to the floor as Christ was to the cross, who feels the weight as each sinner slowly walks over his body. This man is Caiaphas, who, convinced that one man should be martyred for the many, was responsible for Christ’s death. The Hollanders, whose annotations to the Inferno I’ve mentioned before, suggest that Virgil may be totally captivated by this scene because Caiaphas hadn’t yet died and gone to hell when Virgil passed through hell the first time—meaning Virgil has never seen a man crucified to the ground before. This would also explain why Virgil is often able to remain aloof in hell, explaining the torturous scenes to Dante but remaining completely unfazed by the sinners. Here, for once, Virgil is out of his element, and Dante must learn about the hypocrites from one of their own, a sinner.

Hoping to leave the hypocrites, Dante and Virgil ask for directions; they learn that the bridge leading to the next area is no longer standing, and that the demon Malacoda in canto 21 lied to them (“Nearby’s another crag that yields a passage,” Malacoda had said). It’s safe to assume Malacoda didn’t think Dante and Virgil would even survive long enough to find out he was lying.

One of the sinners tells Virgil it probably wasn’t the brightest idea to trust Malacoda—the devil is, after all, the father of all lies. Virgil, irate and probably feeling quite like a moron, struts off in “long strides,” to mock the sinners who are weighed down by their robes. Dante follows in his footsteps.

To catch up on our Dante series, click here.

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.