Metathon 2012 – Dante’s Inferno

Dr. Geier: “It’s interesting that Satan’s uninteresting.”

The Metathon ended Sunday night, complete with its traditional climactic cake. Lots of us stayed up an hour or two after eating to follow loose conversational threads from the last few days (“So what did you mean that knowledge is an image?”) or to play with our newly-minted inside jokes. It’s amazing the sort of work and play that’s possible after you’ve shared so many words and so much focus with a small group of loving people.

The group covered a lot of ground in the time since I wrote–enough ground for another post or two (I hope) after this one. Here, I’ll highlight a big idea we mulled over at the end of Inferno, and then we’ll call that book closed. Let’s think about Satan.

He’s immense and grotesque in Dante’s hell. Surrounded chest-high by ice he creates by the relentless beating of his six scaly wings, he gnaws on the world’s three greatest traitors. Two faces grow on his shoulders, joined to the face at the front by their tops. Spit, foam, tears, and blood dribble off his chin. Bodies hang half-out his mouth. We settled –pretty easily– on calling him a “freak.”

When Dante first sees him, he’s frozen by the sight:

How faint I then became, how turned to ice,
Reader, ask not; I will not write it down,
for any words I used would not suffice.

I did not die, did not remain alive.
Think for yourself, if wisdom buds in you,
what I became, deprived of life and death.

And it’s no wonder. Satan’s gruesomeness, his repetitive motions, and his massive size all end up being pretty hypnotic. They’ve become the frequent material for artists. They’re often considered the climax of the infernal story. They absorbed our conversation on Friday. It seems like just about everyone gets frozen alongside Dante.

Everyone except for Virgil, that is. The guide God sent to Dante is, it seems, the person least impressed by the devil. When he tells Dante everything he thinks he needs to know, he leaves Satan out of it entirely. He points out the three gnawed-on sinners, then says, almost dismissively,

…night is rising, and it’s time to leave,
for Hell has nothing more for us to see.

And this before he nonchalantly strolls up to Satan’s icky mass, counts the beats of his wings like a schoolboy waiting to skip into a double dutch jump rope game, grabs hairs on the devil’s side and climbs him like a stairway out of Hell, with Dante slung on his back. Satan just doesn’t seem to interest him. And that is interesting.

But maybe Virgil had simply seen Satan too many times. Maybe he had a local’s forgetfulness of the value of his own environs. No: it’s unlikely given Virgil’s reliability, and it’s absurd given that, after Dante is done describing his initial, stunning view of the devil, he joins in Virgil’s disinterest. He asks no questions about Satan, and he records no exceptional emotional response to the experience of approaching and climbing on him.

Dante’s response to seeing Satan couldn’t be more different than his response to seeing God. When he approaches “the source of every woe,” he’s surprised and stunned by an unexpected glance, he gushes description for a few lines, and then he runs out of things to say. In contrast, he spends three books slowly preparing himself for the sight of God, slowly developing his capacity to see Him, and then, once he’s finally honed his eyes and language, he finds his many, beautiful words incapable of containing a description of the experience. He’d have to talk about the experience forever, and he’d still find the description inadequate. Satan starts out by overloading Dante, and then turns out to be pretty vacuous. God slowly, slowly trains Dante, fills him up, transforms him, expands him, and then turns out to be infinitely greater than Dante is, even when Dante’s at his best.

I think we were right to substitute “evil” for “Satan” when we talked about it together on Friday night. Evil’s uninteresting, like Satan is: it starts out with a hypnotizing bang, and then… that’s it. It’s done. You can describe it, see its effects, and then climb its hairy flank back into the light of God’s sanctifying love. We need to be careful here: it’s infinitely possible and often good to describe the injustice of horrors, and it’s wrong to neglect the pain of sin’s consequences. But seen next to God’s great goodness, there’s no comparison. His light exceeds speech, and his love moves the stars.


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