At the Tombs of Heretics

An Essay on Dante’s Inferno Canto X

Illustration by Gustave Dore – Dante’s Inferno Canto x

Friday morning, I received an invitation in the mail to join one of my friends for a leisurely stroll through hell. Of course, I would not have accepted this had it not come from Mr. Dante himself, whom I knew to be quite familiar with the region – its persons, its local customs, its tourist traps. Agreeing to join him, I set out for the nearest Walmart.

There are in fact many entrances to hell in America.

One need not clamor up mountains, or down doleful ravines, to stumble upon one. Almost every retail outlet in America has an entrance– usually somewhere near the employee timecard. In fact, on difficult days, entrances to hell pocket our ground like so many mole-holes. Some larger than others.

Curiously, I once found an entrance between a telephone and its app – about the size of a thimble – through which I could not fall but could certainly smell.

I also know for a fact that our Capitol building is not only an entrance but is an entire wing of the Infernal itself. Though I’m not sure whether the occupants there are the devils or the damned.

Anyways, I slipped my way into a crevice inside the Walmart (this was just between the denim jeans and the dollar books), crawled downwards into darkness for at least one hour, slid, fell, tumbled, tambored, and at last arrived.

Mr. Dante was there waiting for me – holding a raised blazing torch.

He told me:

– Through me the way is to the city dolent; through me the way is to eternal dole; through me the way among the people lost. Justice incited my sublime Creator; created me divine Omnipotence, the highest Wisdom and the primal Love. Before me there were no created things, only eterne, and I eternal last. All hope abandon, ye who enter in!

– Yes of course, of course. Said I, dusting myself off. You’ve explained that many times, Mr. Dante. Now what is it you wanted me to see?

Dramatically, he turned and led me forward with the torch. Through the hot air we went, and the sound of cursing tongues diverse, and hallowing shouts, and horrors I mention not.

We came to a field of small sepulchers and open tombs littering the ground, their slabs not yet shut, their falls open to us, where fires burned at bottom.

I looked down into one of these open graves – a thousand or more persons there writhed within.

– What’d they do? I asked simply, familiar with such sights as these.

– Heretics. Said Mr. Dante. This is my lesson to you. These, who believed the soul existed only with the body, now suffer the permanence of the soul. They be, and be, and be. Death not ends to be.

– All harm from a thought-of unthought. Said I, pitying, and (quite selfishly) prizing my stance above them. A round goes around, a wheel turns, nothing reels the rest, nausea spokes the best…

– An American! Shouted a voice.

We found a man had hauled himself, by his fingertips, to the lip of one of these flaming crowded cluttered graves. He hanged there as over a precipice and peered up at Mr. Dante and I. I thought then I knew him.

He seemed old, white yet burnt, in tattered suit yet dignified, burning yet positive.

– American! Said he, smiling. I want you to deal with your problems by becoming rich!

– A rich soul was this one once, though not rich in soul. Said Mr. Dante.

– Were you rich, oh poor soul? Asked I.

– I’m still rich! Said he, laughing as though unaware of his condition. My bank account looks like my phone number! Hanging by my knees is this year’s swimsuit model! What year is it anyway? Hello! Who’s there? Tell me something son, how much do you make a year? Right here right now tell me.

He seemed to drift in and out of a clear thought and place. At times he spoke it seemed a speech, at another, to cry out to some intimate friend a despair. He asked me again how much money I had. Embarrassed, I told him the figure.

– Listen to me, if money isn’t everything, then go work at McDonalds. You have to unlearn all the thoughts that were making you poor and replace them with new thoughts – rich thoughts. He said happily, shining bright teeth above the flames, with the flames.

– You seem to know not where you are, in what condition we find you… Said Mr. Dante.

– If the circumstances around me suck I change them. Said he earnestly, erratically. Or I change me. Said he, looking about himself, then becoming silent, as though he dare not risk more argument, and realize.

We left him hanging there. We wandered back earthwards, Mr. Dante talking aloud endlessly, myself lost in thought, leaving with more question than answer. I parted ways with Mr. Dante, thanking him for the trip, and returned again to Walmart.

 As I passed the perfume aisle, I thought of myself as caught onto a turning burning wheel; perhaps it was a carousel.

Cheers to your Sunday morning…

JCL

Dante, Alighieri. “Canto X.” Dante’s Inferno. London: Arctus Publishing Limited, 2018. 60 – 62. Print.

Belfort, Jordan. The Wolf of Wall Street. Bantam Doubleday Dell, 2007.

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