Canto XXXII of the Inferno brings us at long last to the bottom of the pit of Hell. The story begins with a prayer by Dante the poet for the inspiration to portray accurately the state of this hidden and awaited realm, and it bears witness to Dante the pilgrim pulling out not his, but another sinner's hair, in a fitful attempt to win what he most desires. It is important for the reader of this canto to redraw and keep in mind the difference between the two Dantes. The one who prays has ascended to the heights of Heaven, borne the vision of the Trinity of Lights, and received a commission from his great-great grandfather to take his vision to the historical «dark valley» of exile. The one who pulls is still stumbling in the dark __ here over the heads of sinners __ and is as shocked as the reader to find that the bottom of Hell has indeed frozen over. Cocytus, the fourth river, is fanned to ice by the bat wings of Lucifer.

      The poet has already prepared the reader for a tale of bafflement, overturned expectations, and bewilderment. Canto XXX shows us the agony of those who willingly falsify their own reality. The Poet begins these verses with allusions to two maddened characters from pagan myth (Semele and Hecuba) whose insanity is a twisted vision which leads to their downfall. They serve as a backdrop to the scene in which the Pilgrim watches with fascination a street fight between two of the falsifiers. Upon Virgil's scolding, he realizes that our sense of shame and guilt is itself a wish to be dreaming. And then of course, in Canto XXXI, there is the scene of Dante's misperception of the giants who guard the well. In the gloom, he thinks they are the towers of a mighty fortress. One of the giants (and the one most important for the theme of this lecture) is Nimrod, the once mighty hunter and destroyer of all true speech. Having suffered his gibberish and trembled at the blast of his horn (blown at will), the Poet kneels to pray (XXXII, 1-12):

      S'ïo avessi le rime aspre e chiocce,
come si converrebbe al tristo buco
sovra 'l qual pontan tutte l'altre rocce,
      io premerei di mio concetto il suco
più pienamente; ma perch' io non l'abbo,
non sanza tema a dicer mi conduco;
      ché non è impresa da pigliare a gabbo
discriver fondo a tutto l'universo,
né da lingua che chiami mamma o babbo.
      Ma quelle donne aiutino il mio verso
ch' aiutaro Anfïone a chiuder Tebe,
sì che dal fatto il dir non sia diverso.1

      Two points call out for our attention. The first is that Dante asks for inspiration from the muses of Amphion, the sage whose song charmed even the rocks of Mt. Cithaeron and led them into a dance formation which was to become the fortress of Thebes. In his Ars Poetica, Horace comments that the art of this sapient was

To circumscribe men's rights, and part
Public from private, sacred from profane,
Protect just wedlock, vagrant lust restrain,
Build ramparted towns, engrave their laws on wood,
And knit the bands of social brotherhood.2

The ladies who inspired Amphion, then, were those of Civic Virtue. This, we should infer, is the power Dante needs the most to portray the well of Inferno.

      The second point is that he must resist the tongue that cries out mamma o babbo __ Mamma and Poppa. These two words from the speech of children are mentioned specifically in the De Vulgari Eloquentia; they are examples, he tells us there, of the ignoble words all poets of the vernacular must refrain from using.3 But this is as much a theological as a literary warning. In the essay Dante offers a theological treatise on language which is a curio for the modern sensibility but the heart of the poet's prayer.

      Our original language, Adam's tongue __ a primitive Hebrew Dante seems to know __ was an intimate speech between God and man; it was the innocent sound of Adam's privileged naming of the things of creation, of his delight at the first sight of Eve, and of the stirrings of love. It was the idiom Nimrod debased to unalterable confusion as man built the tower to attain heaven.

      Now according to the scheme, Latin, or what Dante calls «grammar», serves our fallen tongue in a way which roughly parallels the service St. Paul sees the Hebrew Law fulfilling for our fallen will. In his letter to Rome, Paul argues that the Law is a kind of «guardian», or «wet nurse», which holds our false desires at bay. In itself it is good and noble and precious but nonetheless contrived and artificial when compared to the spontaneity of our original freedom. Thus, Paul argues, in the redemption Christ won the Law is no longer needed. Those who are redeemed by definition, do not obey; rather, the Law «is on their hearts» (2:15). The sign of redemption is a living of the Law, not an obedience of the Law. Likewise, Dante argues that speech will be redeemed when we have a tongue as spontaneous and free as the lost original, but also as honorable and excellent as Latin. This he hopes to produce in the Commedia by depicting again the grace of God to pilgrims.4

      Thus, when Dante shuns the sounds, mamma o babbo, he is resisting the temptation of describing in «sinful» speech or the degradation of sinners, the degradation, that is, of those who so speak and so think. To put both of our points together, Dante wants to depict this pit in the verse of civic virtue, and this means that he must do so without using the words which make the place uniquely what it is.

      But this is not yet a full account of his need for prayer. His real need for inspiration at this juncture must be explained by looking at another theological matter, one that is a bit more vital to current faith than his theory of the fall and salvation of language. This matter is the Catholic doctrine of sin; it is played out in its essence in this canto. As in every other circle of the Inferno we see a type of sin punished... lust, gluttony, prodigality, and so on down the well. But in XXXII we see the sin on which all of them bear down (v. 3). We have reached dead center, the core of the earth and the heart of sin. This center is a type or kind of sin __ treachery and treason __ but Dante's portrait of it informs us immediately why this kind is also the essence.

      Being traitors, the sinners refuse to identify themselves. Unlike those in upper hell, they do not want their name and their «fame» spread abroad in mortal life. We learn their names and their deeds in the commission of the sin, in the contrapasso, when, that is, one sinner either finks on another simply, or else offers his name to disclose the blacker name of another.

      The first region of Cocytus, Caina (named for biblical Cain), is reserved for those who were traitors to their kin. Sinners here cannot look one another in the face. They must bend their necks, as traitors do, and shed the tears of their agony straight down on the ice. If they hold up their heads and let the tears well up in the sockets, the cold wind of Satan's wings will freeze the eyes shut, and the tears streaming down the cheeks will shut the mouth. Such is the fate of the brothers Alberti. These two, who in life killed each other over their inheritance, raise their heads in unison when Dante asks their names and in unison are silenced. A neighboring traitor, with his head and eyes down, is then glad to tell their sad tale. Dante leaves it to our surmise that the brothers took the risk of lifting their heads, not to offer their names, but rather to reveal the «guiltier» name and deed of the other.

      These traitors, then, are in an association of hatred, physically close out of loathing yet morally distant out of loathing. It is an association, we might say, for the sake of disassociation. As such Dante shows here in Cocytus a kind of sin which is the total inversion of Charitas. For if Christian love is found in giving all one has for the sake of the other, without any expectation of a return, save a gaining of the total freedom exercised in such giving, treason, as figured here, is the giving of all one has, even one's own name, for the detriment of the other, without expectation of return. Treason is as gratuitous, then, as charity; it acts for the simple sake of its own paralysis as charity acts for the simple sake of its own freedom.

      The other sins practiced in hell all show traces of this insanity, for all of hell is a treason of false pleasure. Lust purchases a love which punishes; gluttony satisfies an appetite which destroys. Canto XXXII reveals the dupe. Sin gets nothing. Sinners in upper hell keep grasping the turncoat pleasure; sinners in Cocytus are the turncoats themselves.

      In Canto XI, when Virgil pauses to outline the stages of the fall of sin, he tells the Pilgrim that any act of fraud is an attack upon the natural affections we have for one another. But the final fraud of treason he says, goes one step further. Not only does it attack natural affection but also the added, self-conscious, and explicit trust and love we often give to others. This concise account encapsulates well the absurdity of treason; but however clear the statement, the thought is not simple. A good deal of Classical and Christian anthropology is packed into it, and a brief analysis of it will help us understand this essence of sin a bit more, perhaps to the extent of understanding how the poet accomplished his task (with the aid of the muses we must suppose) of figuring a social insanity in the verse of civic virtue and a redeemed vernacular.

      The poet and his readers of the Purgatorio have already heard such an account. Virgil explains in Cantos XVII and XVIII that every act we perform, whether virtuous or vicious, is a result of love. He explains this by saying that in every creature there is a primal will or affection which, as bees to honey, draws us instinctually toward God's creation. This will, Virgil claims, is morally neutral, neither to be praised nor blamed, as it is a basic component of our natural endowment. But humans have a virtue of judgment, a virtù che consiglia (XVIII, 62), the end of which is to make a conscious assent to this natural goodness and keep it as free and spontaneous as it is naturally given to be. That is to say, humans must abstract the idea of the good drawn by natural love if their instincts are to be kept on track. If humans are to love all that is freely given and graciously alluring they must love the bare idea of something which is purely and simply good in and of itself. This good-in-itself is, of course, God, and to Him must the totality of human loving be graciously returned. If it is not returned to Him, then, willy-nilly, the idea our mind abstracts will be awarded to an object in the natural world; and when this occurs, evil actions ensue despite the fact that love is the motive.

      For instance, if a natural object, say white skin, is granted the highest good, then something else, say black skin, as a consequence will be denied its natural endowment. In terms of the bonds of natural human affection, black skin will be inhumanly treated. It follows, then, that only when the idea of the good-in-itself is awarded to God, who transcends the natural and authorizes natural goodness, can the world be loved appropriately, according, that is, to the degree of its natural merit.

      Now this conscious assent, this ascription of goodness itself, is the added explicit love Virgil mentions in Canto XI. Once it is understood, then the entire Inferno can be seen as a story of people inordinately and frenetically loving with all their might the wrong object. But in the final chapters we see not only this error, but as well the subsequent absurdity of those who grant the conscious assent, act appropriately, and then deny the good, as good, altogether. Who else is a traitor but one who makes an appropriate and trustworthy bond for the purpose of severing it? Who else, Dante is saying, is the one who gives everything freely for the sake of nothing.

      A rough consensus of Medieval theology and philosophy held that the ultimate mysteries of life __ the nature of God, the soul, the mind __ could not be known (as it was put) in se, in itself. We can only know them, and understand them, according to their effects, according to the way we can observe them in operation. This Virgil also teaches the poet. In Canto III of the Purgatorio he claims that we must rest content with the quia, with, that is, the basic fact that various natural operations point to impenetrable mysteries (Purg. III, 37-39):

      State contenti, umana gente, al quia;
ché, se potuto aveste veder tutto,
mestier non era parturir Maria...

This lesson holds true for the mystery of sin as well. To refer back to the opening lines of our canto again, Dante cannot squeeze the final drop of conceptual juice out of his thought. So the muses inspire a picture of the effects of sin. That is our canto; and this is how Dante's prayer is answered. The Pit we see is simply and ungodly cold and static and impotent. To have the heart for sin is to commit self-paralysis close to the brother you deceive. We see the heads, we hear the noise and chatter, we feel the wind, we stumble. That is all.

      The only drama in the Canto occurs when the Poet casts a spotlight on the Pilgrim and we watch him fall, now not over sin, but rather into sin (vv. 73-108):

      E mentre ch'andavamo inver' lo mezzo
al quale ogne gravezza si rauna,
e io tremava ne l'ettemo rezzo;
      se voler fu o destino o fortuna,
non so; ma, passeggiando tra le teste,
forte percossi 'l piè nel viso ad una.
      Piangendo mi sgridò: «Perché mi peste?
se tu non vieni a crescer la vendetta
di Montaperti, perché mi moleste?»
      E io: «Maestro mio, or qui m'aspetta,
sì ch'io esca d'un dubbio per costui;
poi mi farai, quantunque vorrai, fretta».
      Lo duca stette, e io dissi a colui
che bestemmiava duramente ancora:
«Qual se' tu che così rampogni altrui?»
      «Or tu chi se' che vai per l'Antenora,
percotendo», rispuose, «altrui le gote,
sì che, se fossi vivo, troppo fora?».
      «Vivo son io, e caro esser ti puote»,
fu mia risposta, «se dimandi fama,
ch'io metta il nome tuo tra l'altre note».
      Ed elli a me: «Del contrario ho io brama.
Levati quinci e non mi dar più lagna,
che mal sai lusingar per questa lama!».
      Allor lo presi per la cuticagna
e dissi: «El converrà che tu ti nomi
o che capel qui sù non ti rimagna».
      Ond'elli a me: «Perché tu mi dischiomi,
né ti dirò ch'io sia, né mosterrolti
se mille fiate in sul capo mi tomi».
      Io avea già i capelli in mano avvolti
e tratti glien' avea più d'una ciocca,
latrando lui con li occhi in giù raccolti,
      quando un altro gridò: «Che hai tu, Bocca?
non ti basta sonar con le mascelle,
se tu non latri? qual diavol ti tocca?».

      Bocca is Bocca degli Abati, who betrayed the Guelph cause at Montiperti. When Dante hears the name of the battle mentioned along with the word «revenge», he returns to find out the name of the enemy. Not until he has pulled out several tufts of Bocca's hair does an eternal neighbor reveal the name.

      I think that in these abrupt verses Dante is showing the effects of sin, sin in real operation, the truth for which the image of heads stuck in ice is but the effigy. We see, that is, the pilgrim lock himself up tight with his unknown rival and intend to stay there for the sake of disassociation. It is this easy, the Poet is saying, to fall to the bottom of a well. It is as easy as hating a man who betrayed your people, caused their death on the battlefield, and brought about their political destruction.

      This is by no means a majority opinion among those readers who try to make sense out of Dante's reactions to the sins he witnesses. Many see the bout with Bocca as one of those instances where Dante must resolve that the pity for the sinner is but a sign that the Pilgrim still loves the sin (as when Dante swoons at Francesca's story, or watches the Falsifiers street fight). Thus Dorothy Sayers, in her notes on the canto, reminds us that «treachery is cruel, and cruelty calls forth cruelty».5 Likewise Robert Hollander claims that in lieu of showing pity, Dante here becomes «staunch» and so remains until fear grips him at the sight of Satan.6 The most recent proponent of this opinion is the renowned Roman Catholic theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar. But von Balthasar, unlike Sayers and Hollander, finds no alleged Christian virtue in this «staunchness». Rather he cites the scene to show that there «is no question, absolutely no question of Hell in its innermost structure having been transformed by Good Friday and Holy Saturday». Furthermore, he alleges that «Dante does not distinguish theologically between pre-Christian Hades (Sheol) and the Hell of the New Testament». In the Inferno, according to von Balthasar, the reader follows simply «the footsteps of Virgil rather than of Christ».7

      Of these three representative scholars, von Balthasar's opinion is the best sparring partner. He agrees with me on the point that the Pilgrim's actions are unchristian. We disagree on whether the Poet applauds the hair pulling. My rejoinder is this lecture: Dante does indeed display the transforming power of the Christian Kerygma by showing us its complete inversion. Hell has not been «transformed» (to cite again von Balthasar's accusation), because it has transformed, in fact it has turned inside out, the transforming love of Christ.

      If this is true, then Dante is hardly being «staunch» in attacking the sinner. It seems to me rather that if the danger of showing pity for sinners is that one thereby shows a love for the sin and perhaps the first footfalls of its commission, then the pilgrim here is truly a man of pity. He is as close to Bocca as one Alberti brother is to another, and, as the canto shows before abruptly ending (as if begging for our acknowledgment) Ugolino is to Ruggieri. Recall that in Canto XX Virgil warns Dante that «qui vive la pietà quand' è ben morta» (v. 28: «Here pity only lives when it is dead»). This scene twelve cantos later is the dramatic proof of this claim. Pity can have an inverted life of its own.

      But the real evidence for this reading comes, for me unanswerably, in the manner in which the Poet uses the Pilgrim's «operation» to gain for us an understanding of the quia found at the heights of reality. When the Pilgrim sees the Trinity of Lights and l'alta fantasia (Par: XXXIII, 142) fails the Poet, the essence of God is witnessed in the final liberty of the pilgrim's will. Thus here too at the bottom: the quia of sin is not explained by the muses. We see its absurd life in the absurd act of the Pilgrim.*

University of Virginia

*Lecture given at the University of Virginia on December 5, 1988.


1 Dante is quoted from La Commedia secondo l'antica vulgata, II-IV, ed. G. Petrocchi, Milano, Mondadori, 1966-67.

2 The translation is from Albert Cook's The Art of Poetry: The Poetical Treatises of Horace, Vida, and Boileau, Boston, Ginn, 1892, p. 29.

3 De vulgari eloquentia, II, vii, 34.

4 For an excellent account of this portion of the De vulgari eloquentia see Robert Hollander's essay «Baby talk in Dante's Commedia», in his Studies in Dante, Ravenna, Longo, 1980.

5 The Divine Comedy, Baltimore (MD), Penguin Classics, p. 277.

6 Appendix III, «Fear, Pity and Firmness in Inferno», in his Allegory in Dante's Commedia, Princeton (NJ), Princeton UP, 1969, p. 306.

7 The Glory of the Lord, III: Studies in Theological Styles: Lay Styles, Edinburgh, T. and T. Clark, p. 100.