Wednesday, January 19, 2011


I love teaching Dante's Inferno.  It's an amazing canvas of literary talent, faith, Italian politics, love and spirituality, woven together by a brilliantly innovative rhyme scheme and beautiful, evocative language.

Students encountering Dante for the first time are often struck by his geography of hell.  In particular, they're surprised to find that the deeper you descend, the colder it gets, and that the things we usually think of as serious sins (lust, murder, etc.) aren't as far down as you might expect.

The ninth circle of hell punishes fraud.  To many, this seems odd: the guy (or gal) who commits fraud is punished more severely than the guy (or gal) who commits murder?  How can that be?

In Dante's world, it be for several reasons: sins of the body are lesser offenses.  Harming your own body or someone else's isn't a good thing, obviously, but harming another person's soul and integrity is much worse, because when you do that, you put the other person's salvation at risk. 

Fraudulent people change other people.  They cause all kinds of harm, some big, some small.  More importantly, they cause other people to do things they might not and to become something other than who they might be, if they knew the truth.

In any horror movie, as a woman is being hunted to her eventual, gruesome demise, she invariably screams, "Why are you doing this to me??!!"

It's an existential cry, really, and as such, it has applications outside of the genre of the horror film.

In real-life, it can be applied to situations in which a person isn't being literally murdered, but simply rendered extremely and inexplicably unhappy (on a more or less constant basis) by someone else.

Hence, my term: Why-Guy.  The question "Why?" follows a Why-Guy everywhere.  Sometimes it appears in "What the f**k?" form, but really, that's just an emotionally tweaked "Why?" question. 

You'll not only find yourself wondering, "Why?" all the time when you deal with a Why-Guy, but you'll also begin to realize that it has infected your other friends as well.  When you tell them what the Why-Guy did, more often than not, they'll say, "But why in the hell would he (fill in the blank)?" or, most often, "Oh, why are you still dealing with that loser?"

Most importantly, if you tell your friends you spoke to a Why-Guy again (or--worse yet--saw him), they'll immediately shriek, "OH MY GOD.  WHY???!!" 

If this happens, face it: you've got yourself a bona fide Why-Guy, and you need to simply listen to your friends from this point on and do whatever they tell you. 

I thought about what circle of Dante's hell a Why-Guy would belong in, because that's what literature buffs do as a form of emotional closure and therapy. 

The Ninth Circle with the Frauds is the obvious choice, because it's the worst possible place to be and everyone always wants to put someone who really hurt them in the worst possible place in Dante's Hell.

But then I thought that, although it would be emotionally gratifying, it wasn't really accurate. 

In Inferno, Dante includes a hallway leading into hell.

This vestibule contains all of the people who weren't evil, but they weren't good either.  They stayed middle-of-the-road: they didn't do anything really bad, ever, but they never actively tried to be a good person. 

They didn't choose their friends; their friends chose them.  They didn't do things; things just happened.  They were never sorry for what they'd done; they were just sorry it had all (somehow) turned out the way it had. 

They committed to nothing.  When difficult choices had to be made, they simply waited for the situation to work itself out through the actions of others, so that they couldn't be held to anything.

Ironically, they did this to be safe.  They didn't want to do anything really wrong, so they never did.  But then, they never stepped up and did anything good either.  They accepted no responsibility for anyone or anything, good or bad. 

They thought that being a good person could simply boil down to not being a bad one.

When they died, however, they were in for a surprise.

Dante's God has no use for people who always made sure that things could go either way and that no matter what, they could always insist that technically, they aren't accountable.

Basically, Dante's God doesn't give a crap about technicalities: they're Satan's prerogative.

At the same time, Hell won't take these people either.  Satan wants nothing to do with milquetoasts who don't have the courage of their own damned convictions.

Throughout Inferno, Dante stops to speak with the inhabitants of Hell.  When it comes to Hell's hallway, however, his guide, Virgil, tells him,
Fama di loro il mondo esser non lassa;
misericordia e giustizia li sdegna:
non ragioniam di lor, ma guarda e passa.  (Canto III, l. 51ff.)
Loosely translated, it means: "The world won't hear them spoken of/ justice and mercy disdain them/ don't speak of them, just look and move on."

Because they chose nothing and committed to nothing, good or bad, they end up with nothing.  Instead, stripped naked, they endlessly chase a fleeing banner while being stung by flies and wasps until they cry and bleed.  Disgusting worms devour their blood and tears.  

Unlike everyone else in Dante's Divine Comedy, they are the only ones who will receive no comment.  No names are mentioned and no time is spent hearing about who they once were, since in the larger scheme of things, they chose to be no one. 

They ultimately rendered their own lives meaningless.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."