When Dante tortures the sinners, Virgil says nothing
A few months ago, U.S. President Barack Obama took the controversial decision to release documents concerning interrogation practices in Guantánamo, Afghanistan and Abu Ghraib. At the same time, he decided not to order the investigation of the men and women involved in carrying out those practices. The issue seemed to me serious enough to draw loud and intelligent worldwide protest, but after a few voices were raised here and there against his decision (and also for it), the question seems to have faded away. I believe it needs to be raised again.
In the past few decades, after the French war against Algerian independence and the military dictatorship in Argentina, for instance, I’ve heard the practice of torture being justified “under certain circumstances” or criticized so mildly that the question remained ignored and unanswered, and I believe the decision to forgo the trial of the Guantánamo, Afghanistan and Abu Ghraib torturers constitutes a serious and troubling precedent that will be invoked in future cases. Discussing the matter with a friend, I was reminded of a much earlier instance in which, as occurred in the States, a legal system was used to justify torture and the torturer was not condemned for his actions. It occurs almost at the end of Dante’s descent into hell, in Canto XXXII of his Commedia.
After following Virgil down through the various infernal circles, Dante reaches the frozen lake where the souls of traitors are trapped up to their necks in ice. Among the dreadful heads that shout and curse, Dante thinks he recognizes one, a certain Bocca degli Abati, who had betrayed his party and taken up arms on the side of the enemy. Dante asks the bowed head to tell him his name and, as has been his custom throughout the magical journey, promises to bring the sinner posthumous fame by writing about him when he returns to Earth. Bocca answers that he wishes for the exact opposite, and tells Dante to get lost. Furious at the insult, Dante grabs Bocca by the scruff of the neck, threatening to tear out every hair on his head if he doesn’t give his name. “So snatch me bald,” Bocca taunts (in Deborah Digges’s translation). “Go on. I swear/ I will not tell you my name, nor show you/ my face. Go on. Pound my head a thousand times.” Dante then pulls “yet another fistful,” making the sinner howl in pain. All the while, Virgil, Dante’s heavenly appointed guide, remains silent.
Virgil’s silence can be read as approval. Several circles earlier, in Canto VIII, as both poets are ferried across the River Styx, one of the souls condemned for the sin of wrath rises from the filthy waters, and as usual Dante asks him who he is. The soul doesn’t give his name and says that he is merely one who weeps, for which Dante, unmoved, curses him horribly. Delighted, Virgil takes Dante in his arms and fulsomely praises his ward with words used by Saint Luke to praise Christ. Dante, taking advantage of Virgil’s encouragement, says that nothing would give him greater pleasure than to see the sinner plunged back into the ghastly swill. Virgil agrees, and the episode ends with Dante giving thanks to God for granting his wish.
Over the centuries, commentators have tried to justify Dante’s actions as instances of “noble indignation” or “just anger,” not a sin like wrath (as one of Dante’s intellectual masters, St. Thomas Aquinas, maintained) but the virtue of being roused by the right cause. The problem resides in the reading of “right.” In the case of Dante, “right” refers to his understanding of the unquestionable justice of God: to feel compassion for the damned is “wrong” because it means setting oneself against God’s imponderable will. Only three cantos earlier, Dante was able to faint with pity when the soul of Francesca, condemned to whirl forever in the wind that punishes the lustful, tells him her sad story. But now, advanced in his progress through hell, he is less of a sentimentalist and more of a believer in the higher authority. According to Dante’s faith, the legal system decreed by God cannot be mistaken or wicked; therefore, whatever it determines must be just, even if the human mind cannot comprehend its validity. Dante’s deliberate act of inflicting pain on the prisoner tortured in the ice, and his prurient desire to see the other prisoner tortured in the mire, must be understood (these critics say) as humble obedience to God’s law and acceptance of superior judgement.
A similar argument is put forward today by those arguing against the investigation and prosecution of the torturers. And yet, as almost any reader of Dante will admit, however cogent the theological arguments may be, these infernal passages leave a very bad taste in the mouth. Perhaps the reason is that if Dante’s justification lies in the nature of divine will, then instead of Dante’s actions being redeemed by faith, faith is undermined by Dante’s actions. In much the same way, the implicit condoning of torturers, merely because their abusive acts took place in the unchangeable past and under the superior judgement and law of another administration, instead of encouraging faith in the present administration’s politics, undermines that faith and those politics. Worse still: left unchallenged, the old excuse “I merely obeyed orders,” tacitly accepted by the Obama administration, will acquire new prestige and serve as precedent for future exculpations.
Gilbert Keith Chesterton once observed that “clearly, there could be no safety for a society in which the remark by the Chief Justice that murder was wrong was regarded as an original and dazzling epigram.” The same can be said for a society that refuses, under any circumstances whatsoever, to investigate and condemn the brutality of torturers.