Muhammad in Hell

To one of the lowest circles of Hell and one of the most grotesque of Hell’s punishments Dante consigns the “sowers of discord”—those souls who, as translator John Ciardi puts it, rend asunder what God has intended to be united. Their punishment is to be

hacked and torn through all eternity by a great demon with a bloody sword. After each mutilation the souls are compelled to drag their broken bodies around the pit and to return to the demon, for in the course of their circuit their wounds knit in time to be inflicted anew. Thus is the law of retribution observed, each sinner suffering according to his degree.

Who are the sowers of discord in our time? They are the people who divide what was meant to be united, the people who turn marriage, the fundamental institution of human society, into a battleground over homosexual “marriage”; the people who bring millions of unassimilable immigrants into a once harmonious country and thus divide that country forever; the people who accuse all Republicans and conservatives of being accessories to murder simply for being Republicans and conservatives; the people who call white Americans guilty racists just for existing; the people who have turned our country against itself.

And who is the greatest sower of discord in Dante’s Hell? It is none other than Muhammad (spelled Mahomet in Ciardi’s traditional spelling), who, as I have often observed, was the greatest hater and generator of hatred in history, the “successful Hitler,” teaching Moslems for the last 1,400 years that all non-Moslems are perverse enemies of Allah who deserve to be killed for the crime of not believing in Allah and his Prophet; the man who launched a war of Moslems against all of non-Moslem humanity that cannot end so long as Islam exists. Dante makes Mahomet the representative denizen of the ninth ditch of the Eighth Circle, where the sowers of discord reside, and has him deliver a speech describing the punishments there. In the medieval view, Islam was not a different religion, but a Christian heresy.

The below is from The Inferno, Canto XXIII. (Readers should be prepared for some crude language; it is not for nothing that Dante is known as the master of the disgusting.)

Who could describe, even in words set free
of metric and rhyme and a thousand times retold,
the blood and wounds that now were shown to me!

At grief so deep the tongue must wag in vain;
the language of our sense and memory
lacks the vocabulary of such pain.

If one could gather all those who have stood
through all time on Puglia’s fatal soil
and wept for the red running of their blood

in the war of the Trojans … if all these

were gathered, and one showed his limbs run through,
another his lopped off, that could not equal
the mutilations of the ninth pit’s crew.

A wine tun when a stave or cant-bar starts
does not split open as wide as one I saw
split from his chin to the mouth with which man farts.

Between his legs all of his red guts hung
with the heart, the lungs, the liver, the gall bladder,
and the shriveled sac that passes shit to the bung.

I stood and stared at him from the stone shelf;
he noticed me and opening his own breast
with both hands cried: “See how I rip myself!

See how Mahomet’s mangled and split open!
Ahead of me walks Ali in his tears,
his head cleft from the top-knot to the chin.

And all the other souls that bleed and mourn
along this ditch were sowers of scandal and schism:
as they tore others apart, so are they torn.

Behind us, warden of our mangled horde,
the devil who butchers us and sends us marching
waits to renew our wounds with his long sword

when we have made the circuit of the pit;
for by the time we stand again before him
all the wounds he gave us last have knit.”

Canto XXIII in Ciardi’s translation, with his introduction and notes, along with the rest of The Inferno, can be read at Google books here.

- end of initial entry -

Stephen Hopewell writes:

Your short piece “Muhammad in Hell” was a beautiful statement of righteous anger. Surrounded by idiocy and insanity, one sometimes becomes numb to it all. None of this ever had to be, but here it is. Thank God we still have the voice of someone like Dante as our advocate and defender.

On a more prosaic note, do you know anything about the “Dante boom” of the late 19th and early 20th centuries? Dante was quite popular with many very secular-minded American poets and intellectuals. I’m not quite sure how it happened.

LA replies:

No, I don’t know about the Dante boom. But now that you mention it, it seems to me that Dante has an influence stylistically in the 20th century, most obviously in The Waste Land. It’s not just that Eliot quotes Dante (“I had not thought death had undone so many”), and that he casts modern life as a kind of hell populated by dead souls, but that Eliot uses Dante’s technique of touching on something very briefly, making some obscure reference packed with meaning, then immediately going on to the next thing. Indeed, when I think about it, isn’t the entire Wasteland written in the manner of Dante, with the brevity of language combined with all those literary and historical references which are not explained in the work itself but require notes to explain them? When I began reading The Inferno again about a month ago, it struck me how “modern” Dante was in some respects with the simplicity and brevity of language and the way a large idea is suggested in very few words. This is utterly different from, say, the Victorian style of fiction of the 19th century, which is filled with frills, long, complicated sentences, and excessive description. Lew Wallace’s Ben Hur, which I briefly tried to read a couple of years ago, comes to mind.

Also, I have a lot of criticisms of Dante. Often in The Inferno I feel his writing is disappointing. For example, he fails to explain something that needs to be explained, or he leaves something out that needs to be there. He starts a scene in some circle of hell, doesn’t tell us enough about it, and then immediately goes off into some side issue having nothing to do with the immediate subject matter. I don’t mind the side issues that much if the main issue has been taken care of. But sometimes the main issue has not been taken care of.

Some of the Cantos I frankly find very unsatisfactory, others much better. Sometimes he gives a full and satisfactory account of the class of sinners and the punishment in a certain part of Hell, sometimes he doesn’t tell us enough.

For example, in the first Canto of The Inferno, he wakes to find himself in the Dark Wood, and speaks of the terrors of that night, then he finds himself at the base of a hill with the morning sun shining on it, and hope returns. Then he looks back at the way he has come, like a swimmer who through great effort has escaped a turbulent sea, and, exhausted and relieved to be alive, looks back at the sea he has escaped. But Dante (the character, not the author) has made no effort to get from the Dark Wood to the base of the hill. He simply “found himself” at the base of the hill. Dante (the author, not the character) uses a metaphor to suggest that Dante the character went through a great struggle to get to the base of the hill, but that struggle is entirely missing from the story.

So that bothers me. That strikes me as seriously flawed writing. Unless there is some way I’m supposed to understand this that I’m not aware of.

Or take the famous story of Paolo and Francesca in the fifth Canto, the two lovers who are in the circle of the carnal, where they are forever blown about by winds as a symbol of the desires that they allowed themselves to be controlled by in life. Francesca tells Dante of how their affair started. They were reading aloud a knightly tale together, and started desiring each other, until: “That day we read no more.” So their sin for which they are being punished eternally in hell, as far as we can tell from the text of the poem, is that they made love.

But then you read Ciardi’s notes at the end of the Canto, and you find out that Francesca was the wife of Paolo’s brother, and they were in an adulterous affair for several years. Finally the husband discovered them together and killed them.

Two young literary types giving in to desire and going to bed together is one thing; a married woman carrying on a five year long adulterous affair with her husband’s brother and then being murdered along with her lover is something else! But in the poem Dante tells us nothing about the seamy adulterous affair. We only know about it because the editor has included it in the notes. Dante is making the two lovers’ sin seem much less than it was in real life. In the poem they are portrayed as pitiable rather than guilty, but when you read about their actual conduct you realize they are much guiltier than Dante lets on. If he had told their full history, he could not have presented them as sympathetically as he does. Also, this leaves us uncertain how we are to understand them and their punishment. Is it simple fornication they are being punished for, or the most sordid adultery?

And I hope no one says to me that these distinctions, i.e. between fornication and a five-year long adultery, don’t matter because according to Catholic teaching all mortal sins are the same. That may be true, but in Dante there is an infinite number of gradations and types of sin.

I want to look up literary criticism of Dante to see if critics have found fault with his writing, or if I’m the only reader who has had these problems with him.

January 27

Charles T. writes:

You wrote:

“And I hope no one says to me that these distinctions, i.e. between fornication and a five-year long adultery, don’t matter because according to Catholic teaching all mortal sins are the same. That may be true, but in Dante there are an infinite number of gradations and types of sin. “

I recently had a fairly strong disagreement with a fellow Christian who stated that all sins are the same. I responded that all sins separate us from God, so in that sense they are the same; however, all sins are not the same with regards to their intensity or consequences both for the offender and/or the victim of sins committed in this life. I base this assessment on reading the law in the first five books of scripture. Some sins require restitution, some require fines, others require forfeiture of the offenders life, etc. The gradations that you speak of in Dante are present in scripture.

Mrs. K. writes:

Thank you for your piece “Muhammad in Hell” and for your observations on The Inferno. I enjoyed both.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at January 26, 2011 02:50 PM | Send

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