‘Through me you go to the grief-wracked city.
Through me to everlasting pain you go.
Through me you go and pass among lost souls.
Surrender as you enter every hope you have.’
Thus did I begin my Boxing Day. Let’s look at the positives – at least I didn’t read this doom-laden opening to the third canto of Dante’s Inferno yesterday.
As Dante steps through the door, he hears a variety of heart rending sounds – sobbing, moaning and the voices of people in agony being among them. Virgil tells him that he is listening to
… those souls whose lives, contemptibly,
were void alike of honour and ill fame.
Dante recognises a few of the people here. But one stands out from all the others. It is the shadow of the man ‘who made, from cowardice, the great denial’ (l.60).
Over the years, Catholic Church has expressed its belief many thousands of people are in heaven but never that anyone – not even the worst person you or I can think of – is in hell. This is because no one knows who might have said sorry to God on their deathbeds and thus died in a state of grace without anyone knowing it.
If there is one person, however, for whom it would be rather hard to make a positive case for, it would be the man who Dante saw – Judas Iscariot, Jesus’ betrayer. Given the awfulness of Judas’ crime, I have to admit I am rather surprised to see him here in an outer circle of hell (described in the diagram that comes with my copy of Inferno as the realm of ‘the apathetic’).
Another surprise is that there are also angels here. Not fallen angels; Virgil says that they are were ‘not rebels, yet not true / to God [who] existed for themselves alone (l.38-9). Narcissists.
I like the distinction Dante has created (?) here. If one is not for God, one is against Him. But there can be inactive as well as active combatants in a battle and come the end it makes sense to imagine that that those who committed the fewer offences thereby will be punished more ‘lightly’.
What I don’t understand about the angels’ appearance here, though, is Virgil’s statement.
To keep their beauty whole, the Heavens spurned them.
Nor would the depths of Hell receive them in,
lest truly wicked souls boast over them.’
Correction: If the reference here is to Heaven expelling the angels to keep its beauty whole rather than to keep the angels’ then I understand line 40. What I don’t understand is Hell’s reluctance to let the angels in. Why would it want to do them a favour? That doesn’t sound very hellish at all. I must be missing something here.
There are a couple of references to classical mythology in this canto that reminded me it has been a long time since I read about the Greek gods. Virgil tells Dante that they will visit ‘the melancholic shores of Acheron’ (l.78) and ‘an old man… hair all white and aged’ (l.83) is identified as being Charon. He is a fearsome figure here, having ‘eyeballs / encircled by two wheels of flame’ (l.98-9) – rather different to the empty, cloaked figure that appeared that I remember from the original Clash of the Titans film!
As the souls approach Charon, they begin to rage
… blaspheming God and their own kin,
the human race, the place and time, the seed
from which they’d sprung, the day that they’d been born
This is a conception of the afterlife that I could never agree with. I know that these souls are damned and so deserve nothing better but it does seem to go rather beyond what is just that they are permitted to remember their pasts. If they can remember, they can regret, and if they can regret, they can repent. But how can they repent when there can be no going back?
An earthquake followed by ‘a gust of wind’ (l.133) overwhelms Dante and he is knocked unconscious.