“Thus I descended from the First Circle,” Dante tells us in the opening line of Canto V. He’s left behind the wailing babies and the Virtuous Pagans and he’s heading into the Second Circle: Lust.
You’d think, “Aw, yeah! This is gonna be good!” because you’re a pervert. But this is Dante. There’s nothing lusty about Lust at all.
In fact, Dante even tips his hat to that fact in the second line of the first stanza: che men loco cinghia,/e tanto più dolor, che punge a guaio: “[It] girds a smaller space but greater agony to goad lament” — seemingly an earlier spin on that Catskills favorite, “This food is terrible, and the portions are so small.”
Dante and Virgil are met at the entrance to the Second Circle by Minos, who had once been a man*, but now has, ironically (see note below), a monstrous and demonic form. Minos is the concierge, if you will, of Hell. You confess everything to Minos, and he then wraps his tail around you. The number of times he circles you with his tail is the number of the Circle to which you are to be banished (E quel conoscitor de le peccata/vede qual loco d’inferno è da essa;/cignesi con la coda tante volte/quantunque gradi vuol che giù sia messa: “And that accomplished judge of all sins decides what place in Hell is fit for it, then coils his tail around himself to count how many circles down the soul must go.”). I would have a hard time with that.
[* Not just a man, but a king. It’s from Minos that we get the story of the Minotaur: Minos’s wife, Pasiphae, convinced the architect Daedalus to build her a wooden cow so she could mate with a beautiful white bull that showed up one day (a gift from Poseidon that Minos was supposed to sacrifice back to Poseidon). The result of that splintery union was the half-man, half-bull Minotaur. Later, Minos’s son Androgeos, in one version of the story, dies while competing against the Athenians in some sporting event or other. Minos is both distraught and furious, and demands that ever ninth year, the Athenians send nine beautiful boys and nine beautiful girls to be fed to the Minotaur, now hidden in an elaborate labyrinth built, also, by Daedalus. Eventually, the Minotaur is killed by Theseus. The thing about Greek myths is, you start by trying to tell one, but then there are a frillion other stories that lead off of it. Like how Minos’s daughter Ariadne helps Theseus kill the Minotaur, but then how Theseus leaves Ariadne on an island with the goat-god Pan because he doesn’t want to be tied down at the moment with this new girlfriend. Or how Daedalus and his son Icarus try to escape from the labyrinth with disastrous results for Icarus. Or how Minos dragged the poor maiden Scylla behind a boat until she drowned because she betrayed her father to help Minos win the kingdom. But clearly, I’m digressing…]
I’ve had more than my fair share of therapy, it seems. Therapy is supposed to be this place where one can share everything without judgment. It only works if one can be one hundred percent honest. And I can’t be one hundred percent honest. So for me, that moment in Hell where one has to tell Minos everything? That’s the worst place possible to be. My circle of hell would be the check-in desk.
Let’s talk a little more about this honesty, especially when it comes to confessing sins. It won’t be too much of a digression, because the Second Circle is where Dante himself indulges in some irony about the nature of confession. (More on that later.) Here is how I confess; there are two speeds. The easier one to write about is where I sort of don’t confess entirely. I leave out the parts that I feel would be too difficult to explain. I give enough to show that I’m aware that something needs to be confessed; but I try to be pretty canny about how far I can go. “There’s no need to upset anyone more than is necessary,” I think. “We’re all suffering enough all ready. It’s a kindness, this confessing I’m doing now.”
The second kind is a little more complicated, and I may not even write about it coherently here. Sometimes I feel like I have to over confess. That if I make the sin sound very unbearable, then that somehow mitigates the very awfulness of the sin. I want my frankness to disarm. I wonder if one could consider it a kind of passive-aggression.
But the kind of confessing one does before Minos — that sounds beyond the art of spin. It sounds like I would not have any control over what sins I shared and how they came out. And it would be bad enough, telling it to Minos; but to tell it in public, and in front of other sinners? That seems too much to me. I also wonder if there isn’t something of the Mobius strip to my fear: that one of the sins I’d have to confess is lying about my sin to the ultimate confessor, and then lying about lying about that sin, and so on and so on. “Look, I know we’ve got forever, but you’re gonna need to wrap this up,” I imagine Minos saying.
When Minos spies Dante and Virgil, he is surprised to see a living soul. “Guarda com’entri e di cui tu ti fide;/non t’inganni l’ampiezza de l’intrare!” he says: “Beware how you come in and whom you trust. Don’t let the easy entrance fool you.” Some commentators on the poem suggest that Minos is warning Dante not to trust Virgil; however, I think it’s more likely that Minos is saying, “Don’t believe everything you hear from everyone in Hell”; sort of the way everyone is an innocent man in prison. This will be more apropos when we get to Francesca later in this Canto.
One of the interesting visual things Dante gives us, and that may pass the casual reader without much notice, is how the lower Dante goes, the harder it is for him to see. It takes him several moments in each new circle of Hell for his adjust to the new level of darkness. I mention it now because of an interesting turn of phrase Dante uses to describe the light in the Second Circle: luce muto: mute of all light. It’s a lovely notion, that light makes a sound, and that one can hear the absence of it; or, too, that one can miss hearing it when it’s gone. Of course light, here, has a double meaning; and it’s balanced nicely by another Dantean phrase, La bufera infernal, or “the hellish squall.”
The Circle of Lust is punished by an unceasing storm, a hurricane that battles and buffets the souls of these damned around and around, forever. In this case, of course, it could be worse: there are those stinging wasps from Hell’s antechamber. While recognizing that the goal isn’t to end up in Hell at all, if one is feeling like it’s a pretty strong eventuality with no hope of salvation, perhaps one might want to ratchet up the lusty sins in the hopes of ending up here. Strong winds are better than biting wasps in my book any time.
Dante defines lust as che la ragion sommettono al talento: “they who make reason subject to desire.” A….nd that’s me. Kind of. Mostly. A lot of my decisions seem to be based on emotion, or meeting some sort of ill-formed emotional need, rather than on anything approaching logic. Or reason.
Last night Zach and I went to the movies (avoid The Ghost Writer like it’s your job, people; it is not a good movie) and, because it had been sort of intermittently damp and rainy, we took the big umbrella. “Don’t let me forget to remember this,” I kept telling Zach, and we safely made it off the Metro with it; through the movie with it; out to dinner with it; to the cupcake place with it; and almost all the way through Giant with it without losing it. On our way to the Metro, though, Zach was besieged with the need for a chocolate croissant. “But we’ve got this box of cupcakes,” I said. “And you bought that bag of mini Three Musketeers. And we restocked the Cadbury Cream Eggs. There’s hedonism, sir, and then there’s the silk-sheeted feather bed hedonism sleeps on. And you’re the fabric softener of–”
“I don’t even know where you’re going with that.”
“I’m just so pleased we get to meet yet another need of yours.”
“Isn’t it great?”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“You want to keep going to the Metro and we’ll meet at home?”
But that wasn’t the point, of course. The point was I wanted to boss Zach around, and I wanted to deny him a croissant, and I wanted to go home. The croissant place was on the way to the Metro. We didn’t have to go out of our way at all. I don’t have a good reason for being so contrary.
Zach buys the croissant (I wait petulantly outside. I hoped that people walking by, looking at me, would think, “Look at him. He puts up with so much. Selflessly giving and giving, and getting so little in return. Let’s remember him all the days of our lives.”) and we prepare to continue walking to the Metro when Zach asks, “Where’s the umbrella?” And I don’t have it. I can’t blame Zach (but I totally blamed him), and in a sigh of defeat I say, “It’s lost, let’s just go home now.”
“It can only be in one of two other places, though. Either the cupcake place or Giant. We can find it.”
“But I don’t want to find it. I want to go home.”
“It’s a good umbrella.”
“You want to go and find it, don’t you.”
“Great. We get to meet another of your needs.”
And he still wants to marry me. I do shit like that all the time, people. I’m selfish and irrational. I’m lazy and often a bully. (And here’s me maybe going too far in the confession. “Oh, Mike, you’re not that bad…” But yes, reader, I am.)
Dante reminds us, again, how those in hell are “never comforted by hope” (nulla speranza li conforta mai), and then gives us a list of the VIPs inhabiting this part of Hell. There’s Semiramis*, who lustfully legalized incest in order to carry on with her son. There’s Dido, who lustfully takes up with Aeneas before the ashes of her husband have even fully settled before lustfully taking her own life when Aeneas abandons her**. Poor Cleopatra only gets a quick line (poi è Cleopatràs lussuriosa: “The next is wanton Cleopatra.”), and then there’s Helen of Troy, Achilles, Paris, and Tristan.
[* Here’s a weird story about Semiramis: She’s allegedly the daughter of a mortal man and the Syrian fish goddess Derketo. Derketo abandoned Semiramis at birth and drowned herself. And yeah, I know. Or rather, I don’t know — because how can a fish drown itself? Let alone a fish goddess.]
[** Some who read The Inferno think that Dido should end up in Canto XIII, which recounts the Seventh Circle, since she commits suicide. Dante’s rationalization seems to be, though, that Dido kills herself not out of despair, the way the suicides in the Seventh Circle do, but out of some overly dramatic show of desire to the on-his-way-out Aeneas.]
Dante, though, isn’t interested in these stars of the Second Circle. His attention is, instead, drawn to two other figures buffeted about by la bufera inferna. This would be Francesca and Paolo.
My friend Steve has been excited about my finally getting to Canto V, because of the Francesca and Paolo scene. I was expecting a bit more from it; more of the story of these two. Instead, it’s a Mike-style confession where we only hear from Francesca while Paolo stands mutely behind her. (And what kind of Hell must that be? To have your sin filtered through the testimony of another? Not getting a chance, ever, to tell your side?)
Francesca was promised to Giovanni; however, because Giovanni, though brave, was born malformed, the marriage was performed by proxy, and Giovanni’s hunky brother Paolo was sent as the stand-in. Francesca wasn’t clear on this, thought she was marrying the hunky Paolo, learned otherwise, saw her actual husband, and launched an affair with Paolo. Dante has Francesca explain that they fell in love because of the Arthurian story of Lancelot and Guinevere:
Noi leggiavamo un giorno per diletto
di Lancialotto come amor lo strinse;
soli eravamo e sanza alcun sospetto.
Per più fiate li occhi ci sospinse
quella lettura, e scolorocci il viso;
ma solo un punto fu quel che ci vinse.
Quando leggemmo il disiato riso
esser basciato da cotanto amante,
questi, che mai da me non fia diviso,
la bocca mi basciò tutto tremante.
Galeotto fu ‘l libro e chi lo scrisse:
quel giorno più non vi leggemmo avante.
“One day, to pass the time in pleasure,
We read of Lancelot, how love enthralled him.
We were alone, without the least misgiving.
More than once that reading made our eyes meet
And drained the color from our faces.
Still, it was a single instant overcame us:
When we read how the longed-for smile
Was kissed by so renowned a lover,
This man, who never shall be parted from me,
All trembling, kissed me on my mouth.
A Galeotto was the book, and he that wrote it.
That day we read in it no further.”
It’s that “That day we read in it no further” that makes the story awesome. So, while “read[ing] in it no further” — wink-wink, nudge-nudge — they’re found by Francesca’s actual husband, the deformed Giovanni, who isn’t so deformed that he can’t kill them both where they lay. Thus, in the act of lust they die; thus, in the act of lust, they’re condemned to an eternity in a whirlwind.
I’m pretty sure Dante sees something ultimately romantic about this fate; and even though he’s put them in Hell, they’re in Hell together. However, there’s something perverse in Francesca’s confession, and in the confessions of everyone who comes to Hell. Had they confessed their sin on Earth and in life, they would, no doubt, according to the sort of noxious Catholic theology that pervades the Comedy, not have ended up in Hell. And yet, in Hell, they have to confess not just to Minos, but to Dante and, no doubt, anyone else who happens through. On top of their named punishment — swept violently about by wind — they’re also punished to confess, with no relief, for eternity.
The narrator is overwhelmed by the romance of it all, and swoons. (Again.) The last line of this Canto is: E caddi come corpo morto cade. “And fell even as a dead body falls.”
Next week: Canto VI