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The Inferno by Dante Alighieri - Barron's Booknotes
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Just as you are wondering what could possibly be at the
bottom of Hell, Dante now apologizes in advance for any
inability to describe what he sees. It's small wonder that he has
doubts. This is the Ninth Circle, where the most loathesome of
the sinners, Traitors, are frozen into Cocytus. Two images,
that of the lake and that of freezing, work to create Dante's
final picture of the soul who has turned ultimately from God.

The lake is the collection of all the sin, refuse, and defilement
that descends from earth, from Hell, and from the river Lethe,
which runs through Purgatory and washes the purged sins
back to Cocytus. It is, therefore, the center or the core of sin.
The ice clearly portrays the painful numbness of the sinners
and the immobility of their souls, now locked in by cruelty
and treachery. Together, these images present the inversion
and perversion of the qualities of the Celestial City in this
place in the universe farthest from God.

As Dante is turning around to look, Virgil warns him not to
trample the heads of the sinners. The heads of the sinners,
bowed, teeth uncontrollably chattering, discolored from the
cold, protrude from the ice. This first region in Cocytus is
Caina, named for Cain, who in the Bible, slew his brother over
an inheritance. Here the Traitors against Kin are frozen with
enough freedom to allow their heads to bow and tears to run
unobstructed. (If you are thinking this is unimportant,
remember the last time you got a pain behind your eye from
eating ice cream too fast. Do you want to spend an eternity
like that?)

Dante takes in the whole vision and returns to the sight at his
feet, two souls frozen breast to breast so that, it seems to
Dante, their hair has grown together. Dante speaks to the two
and they raise their heads to answer. As a consequence, the
cold freezes their tears and locks their heads together. In fury,
the two sinners butt their heads against each other and rock
madly. Another sinner, who is frozen nearby and has lost two
ears to frostbite, asks Dante why he is looking so hard at the
pair. He goes on to identify them as Napoleone and
Allessandro degli Alberti, brothers who killed each other in a
quarrel over politics and their inheritance. The reporting
sinner also draws Dante's attention to other inhabitants of
Caina, Focaccia and Sassol Mascheroni, before identifying
himself as Camiscion de Pazzi whose sins, he says, will seem
less cruel when seen beside those committed by other
members of his family. (Camiscion murdered a kinsman who
was a traitor to his country, a White Guelph who surrendered
for a bribe a castle he was supposed to defend.)

Walking and thinking about the unforgettable sight, Dante
inadvertently kicks one of the Traitors in the face and gets a
shrill rebuke. Dante begs Virgil, who is hurrying ahead, to
wait just a moment. He has a hunch he knows this sinner.
Dante asks the still-cursing sinner who he is. The sinner
responds by asking who Dante thinks he is, to go through
kicking people in the face. Dante again tries to get the sinner
to identify himself by promising him fame on earth. The
sinner replies that he wants just the opposite and that Dante
shows a lack of wit when he tries that approach in this region
of Hell. (This region is Antenora, named for Antenor, who
supposedly betrayed Troy to the Greeks. Traitors against their
Country are cast here.)

Readers who remember the compassionate Dante who fainted
at the story of Francesca and Paolo in the First Circle of Hell
are shocked at the response Dante now gives this sinner.
Dante grabs him by the hair and threatens to pull it out, tuft by
tuft, if he doesn't identify himself. Again, the sinner refuses
even to look at Dante, telling him that he can strip his head a
thousand fruitless times. Enraged, Dante yanks a handful of
hair from the scalp. The shade yelps, which provokes another
sinner, Buoso da Duera, to chastise him for barking out and
disturbing everyone; he calls out the sinner's name, Bocca
degli Abati. Dante, hearing Bocca's name, calls him a filthy
traitor and assures him that his name will be known.
Responding, Bocca tells Dante not to forget the story of the
chatterbox who informed on him.

The sinners like to tell on each other, but are very reluctant to
identify themselves. Thus, they continue the cruel and selfish
treachery that landed them there.

NOTE: Is Dante too cruel to Bocca? You will have to decide
that for yourself. The Traitors are cruel; maybe they should be
treated cruelly. Dante's cruelty, on the allegorical level, looks
like a successful reaction to a terrible sin. Can we see Dante's
anger as part of the repulsion he feels at sin? When you see
someone who has done something cruel and deceitful to
another person, aren't you angry at him even though he didn't
do a thing to you?

Dante leaves Bocca and comes upon one of the most horrible
sights in Hell, two sinners frozen together, one gnawing the
skull and brain of the other. Dante begs the sinner to tell him
who he is and why he is condemned to this hateful display of

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The Inferno by Dante Alighieri - Barron's Booknotes

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