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The Inferno by Dante Alighieri - Barron's Booknotes
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CANTO XVIII

We have all been swindled at one time or another, and nothing
makes us angrier than to know that we have been swindled by
someone that we trusted. Dante now devotes half of Hell to
the description and punishment of the different ways that
people swindle others.

Circle Eight, where Dante and Virgil find themselves after
Geryon deposits them, is called the Malbowges. Shaped like a
stone funnel, or an amphitheater, as one critic describes it, it
consists of ten trenches dug into the rock with a stone path
bridging the trenches. In each trench, one of the kinds of
simple fraud is punished.

NOTE: Fraud, for Dante, is the most offensive sin, for it is the
perversion for sinful purposes of the one quality that separates
man from other earthly creatures-intellect. The sinner must
think to plan his deception. In Dante's malbowges, you will
see how fraud causes the disintegration of every kind of
human relationship, both personal and social. You might pay
special attention to the recurring image of a city in
corruption. When sexual favors, political offices, religious
offices, authority, money, and the very language itself are
fraudulent, the order and trust that allows men to live and
work together is gone.



In the first of the trenches, bowge i, Dante sees two streams of
naked sinners running in opposite directions from one another,
whipped by demons. These are the Panderers and Seducers.
Dante recognizes Venedico Caccianemico, who supposedly
sold his own sister to another man's lust. He speaks to him
briefly but the demon's lash abruptly sends the sinner prancing
again with the rest. Virgil points out to Dante the shade of
Jason who is punished for his seductions of Hysiphle and
Medea in the Greek legends.

The next image is perfect. Everyone has someone to add to
this crowd. Moving to the bridge that arches over bowge ii,
Dante hears whimpering and coughing and the slapping of
hands. Looking over, he sees the foul trench of the Flatterers.
The banks of this trench are encrusted with scum; the fume
rising to the bridge is horribly offensive. The trench is filled
with Flatterers, who are wallowing in the actual excrement
that they spewed metaphorically, in the form of words, on
earth.

Dante looks for someone he might recognize and finds one
whose head is thickly plastered with merd. When the sinner
challenges Dante, asking why he stares more at him than at
the others, Dante tells Allessio Intermini that he has seen him
"dry-headed" on earth.

Virgil draws Dante's attention to another sinner, Thais, who
alternately rises and crouches in the pool, each time repeating
her famous line, a harlot's flattering lie. Our attention is
probably drawn to her because she is more than a trafficker in
flesh. She had defiled the language, as have all the inhabitants
of this circle, defiling the possibility of communication
between people.

NOTE: Dante's language is particularly vulgar in this canto
and his descriptions are grotesque. Some translations refine
the language more than others, but the level of coarseness is
unmistakeable. You might be asked to leave class or the
dinner table if you used it. So why does Dante use such
graphic descriptions here and other places farther down in
Hell?

As we said before, Dante uses language that matches his
subject. The subject here is the depths of degradation possible
to the sinner in his sin. Dante can't very well give a spiritual
description, so he translates his concept into a physical
description. Dante means no insult or lack of seriousness
when he employs such low-style language. He simply means to
communicate exactly what each sin is and what the
consequences of choosing that sin are. You are what you do.

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