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The Inferno by Dante Alighieri - Barron's Booknotes
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This and the next are probably the funniest cantos in the
Inferno. They are like off-color satiric comedy. While you are
reading, think whom you would like to reduce to such
ridiculous stupidity.

Talking of various things, Virgil and Dante walk down the
stone path until they come to bowge v, which is particularly
dark. Looking into the bowge, Dante sees huge bubbles
boiling up in a stream of sticky pitch. Virgil yells a warning
and yanks Dante to a safer place to watch a huge demon
approach, carrying a sinner over his shoulder. The demon
hurls the sinner into the pitch, into the care of other demons
who gleefully prod him with hooks while he stews. Virgil tells
Dante to stay hidden behind a rock while he negotiates
passage with the demons.

Virgil must curb the threatening demons with strong words
before he is granted a conference with one appointed as
spokesman. Virgil tries to intimidate the demon, who is not
very cooperative, by letting him know this is a divine mission
to show another person the depths and horrors of Hell. When
the demon agrees to let them pass, Virgil calls Dante from his
hiding place in the rocks. The demons tease and threaten
Dante with pokes and prods. Dante cowers beside Virgil, who
is hearing from the demons that the bridge on the path they are
on is down and has been since the earthquake which followed
the crucifixion of Christ. The spokesman does offer a demon-
escort team to show the poets the way around part of the circle
to another path.

Dante doesn't make any attempts to hide his fear and doubt,
and is told by Virgil not to be afraid of the noise, which is
meant for the sinners. The demons line up to be dismissed by
their spokesman-leader and stick their tongues out at him in
unison. He turns, bends over, and sends them off with a fart
that sounds as loud as a bugle salute.

NOTE: The journey with the demons will continue in the next
canto, but an explanation of the image and the unusual tone is
probably appropriate here. Dante spends two entire cantos on
this sin. He also treats it with a tone of savage satire that is
not evident in other places in the Inferno, even as the sins
grow worse. Dante was banished from Florence for Barratry
or Graft, and so his particular interest in this sin is
understandable. (Barratry can mean either the sale of public
office or persistent hassling by law suits.)

Money sticks to the palms of Grafters, and so the image of
sticky pitch is appropriate. The demons are probably parodies
of various Florentine officials who were responsible for
Dante's exile. The grossness of the demons, particularly the
final salute, might be part of Dante's revenge on those people
who ruined his life. (Don't the guardians look more ridiculous
than the sinners in this canto?)

Almost every critic felt it was necessary to say something
about these cantos. Some call cantos XXI and XXII the
"Gargoyle cantos." Remember the comparison of the Comedy
to a Gothic cathedral that we made in the introduction? These
two cantos would be the grotesque corner gargoyles on the
beautiful whole, if we were to continue this metaphor. Other
critics explain the cantos in terms of Dante's intent to separate
the blasphemous and profane in nether Hell II from the merely
obscene above. Despite the differences in opinion, it is
interesting to note that so many critics felt compelled to justify
the existence of these bawdy cantos within the intensely
serious poem.

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The Inferno by Dante Alighieri - Barron's Booknotes

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