It’s difficult to think about Hell when it’s newly spring. We kept the windows open all day yesterday, into the night, while drunk on gin and tonics. The cats watched, fascinated, as I shuffled and bridged the cards. (“What are you, some kind of wizard?” Zach asks every time. “Have you been pining for a riverboat and a game of seven card stud this whole time?”) It’s March, nearly April, and it’s too nice to think of eternal punishment.
Dante, of course, cares nothing for my spring, not when there are gluttonous folks to torment in the Third Circle.
I know from gluttony. To paraphrase an acquaintance: While eating a bowl of ice cream, I’m already thinking about how great that second bowl of ice cream will be (for “bowl” read “carton”); then I have my third bowl. This is how I understand gluttony: too much of something wonderful, and somehow that’s supposed to be a moral failing. “No, it is better for my soul to deny myself pleasure. ”
Those people are kind of assholes.
I once had lunch with a guy who claimed he could help me get some sort of leg-up in freelance writing. It was disastrous, for a variety of reasons, but the most disappointing was the food shame. When we were ordering our sandwiches, he said “No mayo on mine,” and then glanced over at my ill-fitting pants. “No, uh, mayo on mine either,” I said to the sandwich guy. Then I quickly whispered, “Forget what I said, I’ll take the mayo, and his mayo too,” when I thought my lunch date wasn’t looking. “I’ll take extra sprouts, though,” he said. And I couldn’t follow him because sprouts taste like dirt and giving up. As our hour together was drawing to a close, he started wrapping up the other half of his sandwich. “I don’t like to eat the whole thing at one sitting, you know. One half of a sandwich is so filling,” he said. “Mufltotally,” I said, swallowing a bite of my second half before sadly wrapping it up. “I usually don’t like to eat too much of a delicious thing either. It interferes with my afternoon yoga. That’s a thing, right?”
I’m not entirely clear on what Dante means by gluttony. In describing what the Third Circle looks like, he tells us that
Grandine grossa, acqua tinta e neve
per l’aere tenebroso si riversa;
pute la terra che questo riceve.
“Heavy hailstones, filthy water, and snow
pour down through gloomy air.
The ground it falls on reeks.”
The Third Circle is guarded by Cerberus, a three-headed dog whom Dante goes ahead and makes even more monstrous by giving it clawed human hands and describing it in terms of a worm — il gran vermo. He rips each soul to shreds and howls continually — at least until Virgil picks up a lump of dirt from the ground and throws it at the beast. Then, Cerberus takes it down a notch as he eats and chokes on the lumps of earth.
I don’t know. It’s poetry. Not all of it is supposed to make sense.
Making their way through the Third Circle, Dante and Virgil are stopped by a corpse that sits up and says, “Hey, ‘member me?” Dante doesn’t (L’angoscia che tu hai/forse ti tira fuor de la mia mente,/sì che non par ch’i’ ti vedessi mai; “The anguish you are suffering may be blotting you from memory: It doesn’t seem to me I’ve ever seen you.”). The corpse tells Dante that he was once a man named Ciacco, and lived in Florence at about the same time as Dante. He then goes on to explain
per la dannosa colpa de la gola,
come tu vedi, a la pioggia mi fiacco.
“For the pernicious sin of gluttony,
as you can see, I’m prostrate in this rain.”
But…I can’t see. Nothing about the punishment (being ripped apart continually by a wormy dog while being pelted by all manner of disgusting weather) seems especially connected to gluttony. And, come to think of it, nothing about the sin of lust seems at all connected to being buffeted about by a wind for eternity. Eternal crabs, maybe, with no Rid — that I can see. An all-you-can-eat buffet with no sneeze guard for gluttony: sure. It’s possible I’m too literal for poetry.
Dante then takes gluttony another click away from what I expect — because the rest of the canto is spent explaining some sort of Jets/Sharks rivalry between two warring factions, the Black Faction of the Donati and the White Faction of the Cerchi. And here, the poem gets personal for Dante, because, as a member of the Cerchi, he was exiled by the Donati for some ridiculous 12th-century reason. This all comes up because Dante, instead of asking the guy to tell his story about the gluttony that got him to Hell i the first place, instead asks him to give him news of the city that Dante lives in.
Again, because I find it kind of ridiculous: Dante asks a dead guy who is continually ripped to shreds by Cerberus in filthy precipitation and is no longer living in Florence, p.s., for news about Florence. And the dead guy tells Dante that, though the Back Faction seems in power, they’ll soon be destroyed and the White Faction can return. Prophecy or wish-fulfilling fever dream — this is probably the least interesting canto in the poem so far.
Towards the end of the poem, Dante asks about a list of people he didn’t like very much in real life, wondering if he’ll find them in Hell. “Oh yeah,” says the dead guy. “But they’re deeper in.” (Ei son tra l’anime più nere:/diverse colpe giù li grava al fondo:/se tanto scendi, là i potrai vedere.)
Finally, the dead guy asks Dante a favor — and it’s not, you know, send an umbrella. Or a muzzle for Cerberus. Ciacco instead wants Dante to pull a “Country Road” and say nice things about Ciacco to anyone who’ll listen back up top. He then falls down dead a second time.
Virgil explains that Ciacco will wake no more until the angelic trumpets sound. When Dante asks if the torment of the damned will be greater, lesser, or the samer after Judgment, Virgil says
Ritorna a tua scienza,
che vuol, quanto la cosa è più perfetta,
più senta il bene, e così la doglienza.
Tutto che questa gente maladetta
in vera perfezion già mai non vada,
di là più che di qua essere aspetta.
“Return to your science,
which has it that, in measure of a thing’s perfection,
it feels both more of pleasure and of pain.
Although these accursed people
will never come to true perfection,
they will be nearer it than they are now.”
Or, in other words: It’s going to be worse, because being punished in Hell refines the sinner. Not enough, of course, to get them into Paradise; however, it will be enough so that it will feel “both more of pleasure and pain.”
Canto VI ends with the line quivi trovammo Pluto, il gran nemico; “And there we came on Plutus, our great foe.”
Next week: Canto VII