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. Read More