In cantos XXI-XXIII of Dante’s Inferno, the fraudulent sinners are submerged in a simmering fondue of boiling pitch, a fitting contrapasso corresponding with the obfuscations of truth they have committed in their mortal lives. Here Dante relates the episode of the travelers’ encounter with the Malebranche (“Evil Claws”), cunning demons who torment the fraudulent by pushing them down into the murky stew with sharp prongs. In a circle lower than that of adultery, suicide, and even murder, we might wonder why the dishonest are subjected to punishment acute enough to merit the constant surveillance of bullying demons. Snappish insults, gutteral sounds, base humor, and crafty tricks by fiends and shades alike all provide lively entertainment in a bolgia full of diverting action and wordplay. Our wicked enjoyment, however, is haunted by a vague and disturbing uneasiness as the pilgrim witnesses the tricksters’ devilish mistreatment of language, particularly in light of the potential devastation such abuse may visit upon a community. Robert Durling’s explanatory notes highlight autobiographical connections to Dante Alighieri’s real-life accusers; such shifting alliances among the demons and sinners certainly seem to reflect the complex and volatile Florentine politics which resulted in Dante’s own exile. In this episode of the Commedia, painfully relevant to the poet, Dante illustrates our vulnerability to charismatic but insincere word-crafters while emphasizing the hollow existence of those whose fraudulent words shred the fabric of kinship.
The reader would assume that Virgil, divinely chosen to be Dante’s wise mentor and voice of reason, would be unerring in his judgments. Yet he ignores the demons’ hyperbolically evil appearance and antics, only to receive purposefully inaccurate directions to Hell’s next pocket. We wonder at Virgil’s susceptibility to the seductive but blatantly patented lies of Malacoda. After all, Virgil is no simpering or skittish Blanche duBois, coyly remarking that he has always depended upon the kindness of strangers. In fact, in an episode of the Inferno which accentuates human fallibility in the wake of seductive words, it is Virgil’s overconfidence in his own intellect which blinds him.
The demons’ first appearance in the poem, like Virgil’s own, tells us everything we need to know about them, namely that they are not to be trusted. Dante’s first glimpses of the Malebranche leave him cowering, and his terrified descriptions of the demonic tormentors pervade the cantos. While he might understand very little about their origin or physiology, he is able to tell with one glance that they are “non buona” (XXI. 99). In the circle of Hell where truth has been inverted, the childlike intuitiveness of the pilgrim (a lost and defenseless mortal) is far more accurate than Virgil’s erudite yet fallacious judgment. Robert Hollander’s catalogue of Virgil’s mistakes in cantos XXI-XXIII includes Virgil’s ignorance about the bridge’s damage in the sixth bolgia and his “rather poor [readership] of another sort of text, the gnashing of [the demons’] teeth” (343). Dante’s apprehension about this gesture is dismissed by Virgil, who insists, “[D]on’t be afraid; I know how these things go” (XX1. 61-3), but does not suspect that he could be the object of malevolent intentions.
Virgil’s troubling vulnerability may be attributed to his own preferred manner of speaking and the way in which Malacoda subsequently adapts his rhetoric to suit his target. We have seen Virgil pleased by the “sound of true words” as he listens carefully to Dante’s sermon to canto XIX’s burning Pope (121-3). And what sounds more true than factual data? Virgil himself speaks directly, as in his discursive lecture on the geography and history of Mantua in canto XX, his words lent gravitas by mathematical-seeming accuracy. His rock-climbing advice to Dante in canto XXIV is, “That’s the one you will grip next, / but try it first to see if it is firm” (XXIV. 29-30). Clinically, Virgil knows when and how to test a shaky foothold, but he trusts a lying demon in Hell more than he does a rocky ledge. He fails to test the weight of Malacoda’s words to see if they will hold truth, instead trusting the demon leader’s salivating, shifty-eyed henchmen with his most precious mission.
Malacoda, like Shakespeare’s “lean and hungry” Cassius (who uses what he knows about the honorable Brutus to sway him with altruistic-seeming rhetoric) sets a linguistic snare for the father of Roman poetry. Guy Raffa suspects that Virgil is hasty to accept the demon’s advice because his pride has not fared well at the gates of Dis, therefore he misses that Malacoda is a shameless poneros, something even the hapless pilgrim can assess instantly. Raffa observes that, by giving an exact date, Malacoda’s description of the path “contains the sort of precise factual information that would surely impress and possibly disorient Virgil” (280). After authoritatively curbing the devils who are eager to stab at the pilgrim’s rump (the halting of which engenders misplaced trust), Malacoda declares:
...There is no use in going
much farther on this ridge, because the sixth
bridge—at the bottom there—is smashed to bits.
Yet if you two still want to go ahead,
move up and walk along this rocky edge;
nearby, another ridge will form a path.
Five hours from this hour yesterday,
one thousand and two hundred sixty-six
years passed since that roadway was shattered here.
I’m sending ten of mine out there to see
if any sinner lifts his head for air;
go with my men—there is no malice in them. (XXI. 106-25)
By the time Malacoda orders the Malebranche, “keep these two safe and sound till the next ridge” (125), the readers may find Malacoda’s ironic lie in the last line laughably obvious, yet Virgil is hooked, not by the sharp points of the demons’ pitchforks, but by the rhetoric which is perfectly tailored to appeal to a Cartesian audience. In his translation of Inferno, Mark Musa’s endnotes comment on “the sin of fraud in action” in this episode:
The admixture of precise truth and falsehood gives, in both cases, an aura of
unquestioned truth to what is ultimately a fraud, and that method too comes, of course, from experience in the sin of barratry…The deceit involved in this “game” strikes the Pilgrim as “strange,” but we must assume that it represents the normal daily fare in this bolgia. (166)
Shrinking back but unable to look away from the Malebranche’s distorted faces, Dante alludes to the vernacular maxim, “in church with saints, with rotters in the tavern” (XXII. 14-5), advice Virgil should consider before heeding directions from demons whose names, as translated by Durling, include Evil Tail, Scratching Dog, Love Notch, Little Big Dragon, Big Pig, Trample Frost, and Evil Dog.1 Virgil knows that the Malebranche, being longtime hell-dwellers, will know the “true path” to the next bolgia. He is correct about what the demons know, but not about what they intend. Sadly overestimating their virtue and assuming integrity where he discerns expertise, Virgil’s epistemology is not a personal, intuitive mode of knowing. The pilgrim’s fear, like the love of God itself, is a more childlike, emotive way of experiencing truth, yet is more accurate than Virgil’s assessment of logical information.2 Accordingly, the poet of reason falls prey to tricks of language that sound reasonable. Who among us is unmoved by charming, well-timed words we want to hear, particularly if they reinforce our own hopes (and perhaps delusions) of our ideal selves? Despite his initial overture to the demons, a direct appeal in which he successfully and accurately invokes the will of God, Virgil now suspends his knowledge of damnation, quite prepared to believe that there are actually helping hands in Hell. He intellectualizes a visceral truth: that the Malebranche have been created by God as beasts who taunt, torture, and punish.
And the Malebranche certainly do enjoy themselves. Cedric Whitman distinguishes the buffoon, who creates laughter in others, from the ironically comic character, whose laughter and fun is for his own amusement. This is certainly true of the Malebranche, who pass the time by reveling in obscenities, playing riverbank vigilantes, and jabbing at the shades who sneak above the pitch level in hopes of temporarily alleviating their pain. In fact, whatever assumptions we can make about the demons’ physiologies, which seem to require no physical sustenance or rest, the Malebranche are likely to exist until the end of eternity quite unburdened by death or taxes.
Lest we envy the life of the Malebranche by mistaking fun for happiness, however, let us consider that constant amusement is the only activity available to these creatures who, almost like the pagan gods of antiquity, cannot build anything lasting even they are immortal themselves. The devils turn on each other, bickering when they are bested, impatient for further hilarity when Dante and Virgil approach their bolgia, even chasing the visitors to the precipice of their pocket when they realize the travelers have slipped away during their mêlée. This is where the Aristotelian similarity ends, for while we may be entertained by their squabbling and skirmishes, amused by the spiked points they employ on the sinners and on each other, these tricksters enjoy the suffering they inflict, and frantically heed their perpetual, insatiable instinct for more frenetic diversion and torture.3 Virgil may fall short of intuitive truth, but not of compassion, as he flees the bolgia grasping Dante “instinctively…like a mother waking to some warning sound, [who] grabs her son and runs…she cares not for herself, only for him” (XXIII. 37-40). This image is not merely a gripping depiction of a narrow escape; it is an icon of selfless familial care—something about which the Malebranche know nothing. They are unable to age, die, or leave their pocket, trapped in a treacherous community of shifting, diaphanous allegiances. The fate of the demons resembles a carnival less than it does a poetically rendered imprisonment inhabited by vacuous, restless creatures who must fill their time with ceaseless action. The imps’ grotesque utterances (ones which do not always erupt from their mouths) abuse the tools of language: instead of using their teeth to chew on sustenance and conversation at a communal table, they gnash them; instead of exercising their tongues to communicate beautifully or truthfully, the demons wave them as leering salutes to their demon leader.
The Malebranche’s “evil claws” are not just the cruel pitchforks they carry: they are the dual-pronged barbs of false words divorced from truth. Such a separation of signs and their symbols is acrimonious indeed, for words stripped of meaning become throwaway half-thoughts (omg, lol!) or weapons in the hands of master marketers who tell fallible mortals what we want to hear, not what we need to hear. This latter divide, like the broken bridge leading to the sixth bolgia, is a dangerous one, particularly in Dante’s world, where even the judicious Virgil is gullible, and where humans get what they want (they just better be certain to want the right things). The demons, Robert Durling reminds us, “are at war with both God and man” (342). Cursed to reside in the margins, they burst into the Commedia with vivid, animalistic howls that terrify and fascinate the Pilgrim. Like Tolkien’s Gollum, however, these margin dwellers are not the source of evil; they are instruments of the divine that teach us about the joy of true community and the dangerous allure of pretty lies in a cosmos ordained by a Christian God.
1 Malacoda’s assignment of these guides may parody Virgil’s first appearance to Dante in the forest, where he arrives during a moment of bewildered terror, sweeping in calmly to declare, “I think and judge it best for you / to follow me, and I shall guide you, taking you from this place through an eternal place” (I. 112-5). Virgil’s well-paced words and cool self-possession soothe Dante and inspire trust, whereas Malacoda’s disingenuous offer of help, while well-spoken, does not.
2 Virgil is missing the distinction T.S. Eliot makes when, more than six hundred years later, he asks in “The Rock,” “Where is the knowledge we have lost in information? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?" Mourning the growing abyss between knowledge and spirituality, Eliot charges humans with “Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.” Dante’s eighth circle embodies Eliot’s lament, as it is full of “endless experiment” and “motion,” but a spiritual emptiness on the part of its residents.
3 The Malebranche may seem to enjoy the run of their territory, but are actually confined. Virgil’s initial admonition, “Oh Malacoda, do you think I’ve come…without the will of God and helpful fate? / Let us move on; it is the will of Heaven / for me to show this wild way to another” (XXI. 79-84) deflates Malacoda palpably when he drops his pitchfork upon hearing these words. The demons will test this boundary, but are ultimately limited to their street block, as we are reminded when Virgil and Dante flee from the demons who cannot escape the electric fence of God’s will, “for that High Providence / that willed them ministers of the fifth ditch, / denies to all of them the power to leave it” (XXII. 54-57).
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