It is beautiful outside my kitchen window. Jamie, who has been staying with us since Tuesday, found some violets in our yard, and several unindentified bushes in the back are blooming. It’s not until I look at the creepy red shed hidden in the overgrown trees that I remember how creepy parts of Canto VIII are, and I shivver a little.
Dante and Virgil are making their way towards a tower, with two flaming lights at the top working as beacons. Barely visible from many miles away is another tower, with its own beacons. The two communicate with each other, giving warning. And you wonder, “Warning from what, exactly?” Because they’re already in Hell. And I guess, sure, there can be infighting in Hell, just like Tennessee doesn’t really get along with Massachusetts. Maybe for me its the idea that there are things even in Hell that the denizens need an early warning system for. It’s unsettling, I tell you.
Dante isn’t able to maintain that unsettled feeling for me. Virgil points out a skiff making its way across the River Styx.
[Translation Interruption: Generally I think that Italian is going to be the preferred language over English in almost ever situation; it’s warm and has delightful rolled r’s. However, in this case, the English works a little better. In Italian, we’re told
Corda non pinse mai da sé saetta
che sì corresse via per l’aere snella,
com’io vidi una nave piccioletta
And the Hollanders, whose translation I’ve been using primarily, translate that section into English like this:
“Never did a bowstring loose an arrow
that whipped away more swiftly through the air
than, even as I watched, a skiff came skimming.”
That “skiff came skimming” is a wonderful piece of alliteration, especially with that “swiftly” from the line above sort of preparing the way. A more pedestrian way of rendering the Italian into English is this way:
“Cord never shot an arrow from itself
That sped away athwart the air so swift,
As I beheld a very little boat”
It’s serviceable. It gets the job done. But that’s all it’s doing. Granted, my Italian is miniscule almost to invisibility; but I have preferred the Hollangers in all their choices that veer too far from the literal Italian. Translating has to be about more than just giving us verbatim what the author wrote, I think. There has to be an understanding of the words themselves. And especially here, in an epic poem, the language has to be more than language — if that makes any sense.]
This skiff is piloted by a helmsman named Phlegyas (father of a lover of Apollo; Phlegyas also, at some point, cuts off his own middle toe for reasons that Wikipedia doesn’t make clear) who, like every other creature in Hell, is pissed that he has to ferry Dante all over the damned place. However here, for the first time, it at least makes a little sense. Phlegyas has been used to ferrying dead souls across the river; Dante, who isn’t dead at all, is an unexpected weight for the ferryman. I’d be a little cranky, too.
Halfway across the river — and, by the way, we’re not technically in a circle yet; we just left Circle 7, and Styx separates Circle 7 from Circle 8 — dinanzi mi si fece un pien di fango; “one cloaked in mud rose up to say.” (I’m thinking the Hollanders are holding back here; that fece doesn’t seem like it’s a cognate of “mud” per se. And even the Georgetown site that I link you guys to transaltes the Italian as “Uprose in front of me one full of mire.” But I say it’s poop, people. That thing that rises up out of the river at Dante and Virgil is cloaked in poop.) Yet another creature in Hell is giving Dante a hard time here: Chi se’ tu che vieni anzi ora?; “Who are you that come before your time?”
As it turns out, Dante knows this Poop-Cloaked Soul rising out of the river — as does the poet Dante writing The Inferno. It’s a man named Filippo Argenti, and there are three possibly real-life stories about him that explains why Dante puts him, shit-stained, in the River Styx:
1. Filippo might have once slapped Dante publicly during a dispute.
2. Filippo’s brothers took possession of Dante’s things after he was exiled from Florence.
3. Filippo and his family opposed Dante’s return to Florence after his exile.
Which is to say: The Inferno isn’t necessarily Dante trying to understand damnation and salvation — and again, I’ll contrast him with William Blake, who is obsessed with both ideas to the point of poetic madness. Dante, instead, it seems, sees Hell as a great place to fantasize out a grudge against anyone who has done him wrong. It’s my fault for wanting this poem to be something that it isn’t; I’ll cop to that. It’s everyone else’s fault for thinking this too-long vendetta is a masterpiece.
The other irritating thing about this exchange between Filippo and Dante is this: after a back-and-forth between Dante and Filippo, Dante says
Con piangere e con lutto,
spirito maladetto, ti rimani;
ch’i’ ti conosco, ancor sie lordo tutto
“In weeping and in misery,
accursed spirit, may you stay.
I know you, for all your filth.”
And then Virgil basically high-fives him:
Lo collo poi con le braccia mi cinse;
basciommi ‘l volto, e disse: “Alma sdegnosa,
benedetta colei che ‘n te s’incinse!”
“Then my master put his arms around my neck,
kissed my face and said: ‘Indignant soul,
blessed is she that bore you in her womb!”
As if Dante was in danger of being too kind to Filippo. The poor guy is covered in poop in the middle of a goddamned filthy river. There was no danger of philanthropic seduction there. It’s really easy to not want to help the poop-covered guy in Hell.
This is where I think my ideas about Hell are more sophisticated than a fourteenth century poet and yeah: I said that. I’m better than Dante. Step to me. Hell, and evil, aren’t monstrous. Hell, for instance, is dating Jeffrey.
I met Jeffrey through a friend, and he was obnoxiously beautiful. I…read a lot. He bought shirts a size too small because it emphasized his chest. I…read a lot. People often mistook us for cousins because he looked like a cologne model and I dressed like a poorer relation down on my luck from a nineteenth century novel about charity.
Dating Jeffrey means finding out that Jeffrey is also dating many other people, some of them checkers at grocery stores, who will tell you that they’ve slept with your boyfriend after asking “Paper or plastic?” Jeffrey will judge things you eat based off the labels he reads. He’ll say, lovingly, awful things about your body. He’ll give you crabs, and then act annoyed that you don’t want to go to a Hallowe’en party with the guy he’s been sleeping with while dating you. (“It’s not like you won’t know anyone else there,” he said, missing the point about why I might not want to go. “You’ve totally met this guy already.”)
Where the evil comes in is here: You won’t hate him. Not at the time. Not for a long time after you break up (the third time). You won’t hate him because he’s beautiful and you’re not. Because he’s sexy and you’re not. Because no one can understand how you guys are even dating at all, and to be mad at him for the way he’s treating you feels like you’re giving up on this relationship that you’ve decided validates you as a human being.
Guys: evil is seductive. It’s not a monster. You won’t recognize it when it comes for you because it will be wearing your desires as a second skin, and you won’t know to say no to it, because it feels like you’re denying your very self if you do. And it wraps itself up in you and then starts corrupting. You won’t notice the stains until way too late. That’s how evil works. So it just feels like an irritating slap in the face to have Virgil congratulate Dante for stepping away from and castigating Filippo. There’s no challenge there. There’s nothing to learn. Dante isn’t a different person after his encounter with with Filippo, except maybe now he’s worse than he was before, because he’s filled with a false sense of accomplishment.
But hooray for Dante. You totally showed that shit-covered guy.
Virgil and Dante reach the other side, and they’re AGAIN confronted by MORE people who don’t want Dante cutting through their yards (and by this point, I’m sort of on the side of the damned here). In the past, Virgil has been able to say a few words, wave his hand, and everyone steps aside. However here, outside the walled City of Dis, that trick doesn’t work. There are fallen angels here, who aren’t susceptible to Virgil’s hocus-pocus. (In a funny? Maybe? Bit, Virgil tells Dante to Ma qui m’attendi, e lo spirito lasso/conforta e ciba di speranza buona,/ch’i’ non ti lascerò nel mondo basso; “Wait for me here. Comfort your weary spirit and feed it with good hope. I will not forsake you in the nether world.” And it’s funny to me because Virgil’s all, “Comfort yourself by that filthy river.”)
(I guess it’s funnier in Italian.)
Unlike past cantos, this one doesn’t start with Dante and Virgil in a new circle; and it doesn’t end with them in a new circle. Virgil says:
Tu, perch’io m’adiri,
non sbigottir, ch’io vincerò la prova,
qual ch’a la difension dentro s’aggiri.
“Be not dismayed
at my vexation. In this contest I’ll prevail,
whatever they contrive to keep us out.”
But it ends with them both outside the walls of the city. The final lines of this canto are “Even now, making his unescorted way down through the circles, one descends by whom this city shall be opened.”
Next week: Canto 9