Dante’s Divine Comedy, Inferno: Cantos 6-7 – From Grief to Grief

Canto 6

“Wherever I turn away from grief I turn to find grief again.”

Dante recovers from another fainting spell and finds himself drawn from the communally self-indulgent lustful to the privately self-indulgent gluttons. They are lying down (as gluttons often do) “feasting” on refuse (as gluttons often produce) falling from the sky. They are tortured by Cerberus the “meat eater” – an appropriate guard dog from the classical Hades gate. Gallagher notes that as these gluttons could not resist their senses’ desire in life, they are now having them grated upon continually. From this Canto we also learn that the Inferno is not the final judgment – but that the suffering will actually be worse when these lost souls are “perfected” (as much as they can be) at their resurrection. This makes sense out of a curious feature of the Inferno – namely that although these souls are described as being burned upside down, frozen in ice, torn apart, etc., they still retain the ability to have what seem to be fairly calm conversations! If I recall, Stump attributes this to mercy on God’s part, but this particular mercy is only temporary. What many think of “Hell” proper, or the “Lake of Fire,” seems to lie in the future.

I believe Stump also says that punishments do not necessarily increase as one descends into the Inferno, but Dante is told here by Ciacco that there are others he knows who “lie below in a blacker lair. A heavier guilt draws them to greater pain.” This may not allow a general conclusion to be drawn, but it does seem to explain the intuitive sense that things get worse the lower one goes. Ciacco also gives the first clear prophecy in the Inferno (oddly, the souls that cannot see the present often see the future). It is related to political warring going on in Dante’s [real] time that issued in his actual exile from Florence.

Ciacco is also the first to ask that he be remembered to those who remain alive above. For most of the souls in the Inferno this seems important, although the ones lower down may seem to simply wish to be forgotten.

Canto 7

“What guilt is man that he can come to this?”

Passing Plutus, the god of wealth (not Pluto – the god of the underworld), we come to another example of Dante’s brilliant self-inflicted punishments. Hoarders and wasters are forced to live and work with one another – each therefore providing the pain for the other as “opposite guilts meet in their wretchedness.” Because these spent too much time focused on material goods, now fighting over rolling material is their only focus. So blind were they in their pursuit of materialism that now they can no longer be recognized – their souls faded into unrecognizability.

Dante then enters into a discussion of Dame Fortune – here elevated to angelic status and given care over the world as part of God’s design.  But all too soon it is time to “go deeper into greater pain” (reaffirming the fact that suffering increases the deeper one goes) along the “nightmare path.”  This last section of Upper Hell ends at the Styx – the famed river of the Underworld transformed by Dante into a filthy bog. This is a section of the overall waterpath of Hell, descending from Acheron. “Dante’s power is structural,” writes Gallagher, “there is no way of grasping the genius of Dante’s architectonic power without noting his careful development . . . everything relates to everything else.”

In the mud the Wrathful fight and underneath the Sullen moan out eerie “hymns” with “throats that swallow the slime of Hell.”  For the first time Dante does not report being moved by the plight of the lost souls. He will need a further reminder against pitying the damned soon, but as he descends into man’s depravity, his heart grows hard.

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One thought on “Dante’s Divine Comedy, Inferno: Cantos 6-7 – From Grief to Grief

  1. Huge Dante fan here. I think the mercy is more literary than divine. The presence of mind of these suffering shades may or may not fulfill God’s purpose but is most certainly crucial to Dante’s purpose. I’m slowly working through the Inferno for a second reading using four different translations simultaneously. As an auto-didact, I know I miss a lot along the way, but it is an incredible journey. Always appreciate discovering others’ interpretation of the Divine Comedy.

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