Monthly Archives: June 2014

Dorothy L. Sayers on the first few Circles of Hell

I’ve been making my way through Dante’s Comedy for my third time — this time in Dorothy L. Sayers’s version. The translation, which pulls off the incredible feat of reproducing the original terza rima rhyme scheme in English, certainly has its charms, but in many places it strikes me more as an interpretation of Dante than a faithful rendering, and I would recommend it only to those who have already read a more literal version. However, Sayers’s introduction to each cantica and brief commentary at the end of each canto are often very insightful.

The following is from Sayers’s commentary on Canto IV of the Inferno, which deals with the First Circle of Hell, or Limbo, to which Virgil and the other virtuous pagans are consigned.

After those who refused choice [described in Canto III] come those without opportunity of choice. They could not, that is, choose Christ; they could, and did, choose human virtue, and for that they have their reward. . . . Here again, the souls “have what they chose”; they enjoy that kind of after-life which they themselves imagined for the virtuous dead; their failure lay in not imagining better. They are lost . . . because they “had not faith” — primarily the Christian Faith, but also, more generally, faith in the nature of things.

The First Circle is uniquely troubling because its inmates seem to be there through no fault of their own. It is true that they are not actively tortured as those in the lower circles are — their only punishment is that “we have no hope and yet we live in longing” — but they seem not to have deserved even that. Virgil’s explanation in Canto IV is that these souls are damned for no other “fault” than that, living before Christ, they lacked baptism and did not profess the Christian religion. To damn them for failing to do what they could not possibly have done seems manifestly unjust.

However, that is not the whole story. Even in Canto IV we learn of how Christ descended to Limbo and rescued the unbaptized souls of Adam, Abraham, David, and other pre-Christian biblical figures. And once one has read the entire Comedy and found Cato in purgatory and Trajan in paradise, the situation appears even more complicated. It is not true that all non-Christians are summarily damned. It is not even true that all non-Hebrew non-Christians are summarily damned. Therefore, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, and the other denizens of the First Circle must be there for some actual moral failing — a comparatively minor failing, but still one which precludes all possibility of salvation — a failing which, without the benefit of the Christian revelation, is almost (but not quite) inevitable. Sayers’s interpretation of that failing seems a plausible one.

“Dream other dreams, and better!” — the admonition of the angel at the end of Mark Twain’s Mysterious Stranger. This, in Sayers’s interpretation, is what Virgil and the others failed to do. It is characteristic of Dante’s logic that each punishment in hell simply is the sin being punished, seen for what it truly is. If Virgil’s only punishment is that he has no hope, it stands to reason that that was also his only sin. (As a great admirer of Virgil and a somewhat obsessive re-reader of the Aeneid, I would have to say I agree with that assessment.) Where there is no vision, the people perish. By way of contrast, consider Goethe’s Faust — whose only virtue is that he lacks Virgil’s only vice. And Faust is saved.


In her commentary on Canto VII of the Inferno, Sayers comments on Dante’s passage through the first few Circles of Hell. Dante blacks out at the gate of Hell and enters the First Circle (Limbo) unconsciously. The passage from the First to the Second (where lust is punished) is made consciously but is not described in any detail. Dante then again loses consciousness and awakes in the Third Circle (where the gluttons are). The passage to the Fourth Circle (misers and spendthrifts) is described in a little more detail, and thereafter the passage from each Circle to the next is very clearly described. Sayers writes:

From Limbo to the Second Circle — from the lack of imagination that inhibits the will to the false imagination that saps it — the passage is easy and, as it were, unnoticed. From the Second Circle to the Third — from mutuality to separateness — the soul is carried as though in a dream. From the Third to the Fourth  Circle the way is a little plainer — for as one continues in sin one becomes uneasily aware of inner antagonisms and resentments, though without any clear notion how they arise. But as antagonism turns to hatred, the steps of the downward path begin to be fearfully apparent. From this point on the descent is mapped out with inexorable clarity.

For Sayers, what distinguishes the sins of the Second, Third, and Fourth Circles is not so much their differing objects (sex, food, and money, respectively) as the differing attitudes towards other people which they represent. Lust involves love and mutuality and is “not wholly selfish”; gluttony, in contrast represents “solitary self-indulgence,” indifferent to others. In the Fourth Circle, “indifference becomes mutual antagonism, imaged here by the antagonism of hoarding and squandering.”

This is not the most obvious interpretation of these three categories of sin, but I think it is a promising one. (If the sins are taken at face value, it is rather difficult to see how indulgence in food could be considered more serious than sexual sin!) Here, then, is Sayers’s interpretation of the first four Circles, with the succeeding five Circles noted as well:

  1. Virtuous living, limited only by a lack of hope or imagination
  2. Mutual and quasi-“loving” pursuit of pleasure together with other people (typified by sexual lust)
  3. The solitary pursuit of pleasure without regard to other people (typified by gluttony)
  4. Antagonism towards others because their chosen pleasures are incompatible with one’s own (typified by the antagonism between misers and spendthrifts)
  5. Wrath
  6. Heresy
  7. Violence
  8. Fraud
  9. Treachery

If this is indeed the primary significance of the first four Circles, Sayers is right that the passage from each to the next is smooth and natural and many be made almost unconsciously.  Certainly the transition from “imagine there’s no heaven” to “imagine all the people living for today” is an easy one — though not, as shown by the virtuous pagans, an inevitable one. And once mere pleasure has been accepted as a goal, the transition to selfishness — first indifferent and then resentful — is equally natural.

A passage from Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, showing a very similar progression, comes to mind:

The inevitable corollary of such sexual interest is rebellion against the parental authority that represses it. Selfishness [Circles 2-3: lust and gluttony] thus becomes indignation [Circles 4-5: avarice and wrath] and then transforms itself into morality [Circle 6: heresy]. The sexual revolution must overthrow all the forces of domination, the enemies of nature and happiness [Circle 7: violence]. From love comes hate, masquerading as social reform. A worldview is balanced on the sexual fulcrum. What were once unconscious or half-conscious childish resentments become the new Scripture.

This is, for me, a new way of looking at the Circles of Hell. Instead of seeing each succeeding Circle as simply another sin, “worse” than the ones that preceded it, it can be quite fruitful to try to interpret it as the next logical step in the soul’s downward journey.

I am about to begin Sayers’s translation of the Purgatorio, which is explicitly about the soul’s step-by-step progress from sin to absolution — though, oddly, I have never really kept that sufficiently in mind in past readings. Finding pride near the bottom of the mountain and lust near the top, I have been content with the explanation that pride is “worse” than lust — when in fact the explicit message of the Purgatorio is that one must overcome pride first, then envy, and so on, and lust last of all. (This contrasts strongly with my own feeble efforts at self-improvement, which have always focused first on “obvious” sins of lust and gluttony rather than abstractions like envy and pride.) This time through Purgatory, I intend to focus on the sequential, step-by-step aspect of it and see what kinds of insights reveal themselves.


Filed under Christianity, Ethics, Literature

Excerpts from The Grand and Gray Pig-Latin Dictionary

beau v. omplycay

foe n. Eynmanfay

powers n. ixtysay inutesmay agesway

Rex n. adiographray

ripe interj. easeplay

sigh interj. onpay imay ordway!

so interj. ancay ouyay eesay?

Suez n. ethay Atesstay

sun v. ecantray

wonder adj. inway ogresspay

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Bilingual limerick

There once was a rhyme, not a long one,
Comprising both English and 中文。
I wrote it, but how?
I haven’t a clue, so 不用問。

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Moses contemplating a human skull

I dreamed that I was reading a book by a New Age author who claimed to have telepathically received a series of striking images. The book consisted of reproductions of those images — pen-and-ink drawings done in a style reminiscent of Tom Baxa‘s — each with an accompanying paragraph giving the author’s interpretation of its meaning. (As the introduction of the book made clear, the images themselves were “received” but the interpretations were the author’s own.)

One of these images — the only one I spent any time looking at in the dream — showed a young Egyptian man looking at a human skull which he held in his hand. (The Egyptian’s hand was not visible in the picture, but it was understood that he was holding the skull.) The scene was shown from such a perspective that the skull loomed huge in the foreground, grinning at the reader, occupying almost the entire right half of the picture. The Egyptian was in the background, on the left side of the picture. The skull faced directly out towards the reader — so the Egyptian was apparently looking at the back of the skull. Every detail of the skull was clearly visible, and it appeared to have a strange texture, almost as if it were made of tiny Legos.

The author had given this picture the title “Moses contemplating a human skull” and written the following commentary: “He asked himself, ‘Did you, O Moses, come from yon human skull?’ — and he concluded that he had, and that only he had.” (Yes, I know that’s an incorrect use of “yon.” The New Age guy in the dream wrote it, not me.)

In the hypnopompic reverie following this dream, I interpreted this as follows: The skull young Moses was contemplating was that of a Hebrew slave, and he noticed that he — and he alone, of all the people in the pharaonic court — had a similarly shaped skull. This was when Moses realized for the first time that he was of Hebrew, not Egyptian, parentage; and this realization marked the starting point of the trajectory that would lead to his role as liberator of the Hebrews. (Once I had fully woken up, though, I no longer thought that interpretation made sense. It seems unlikely that two closely related Middle Eastern peoples would have any noticeable craniometric differences; and if they did, those differences would surely have been accompanied by outwardly visible differences which Moses would have noticed long before, without having to look at a skull.)


The dream was on Wednesday night, and it’s clear where many of its elements came from. On Wednesday nights I lead a conversation group for students of English, and our topic that night was “Africa.” We talked about various historical figures from Africa, including Moses, and there was also some discussion of hominid evolution in Africa, including Leakey’s discoveries in the Olduvai Gorge. So that’s obviously why my dream featured Moses (and specifically Moses qua Egyptian), as well as someone contemplating a skull and considering whether he had “come from” it.


The Friday morning following the dream, I was browsing an online discussion board, and someone had posted an inspirational quote incongruously illustrated with a picture of “He-Man” cartoon villain Skeletor.

Clicking on the picture out of curiosity, I found that it came from a blog featuring dozens and dozens of such “Skeletor Affirmations.” The third one on the page caught my eye.

This is exactly the same layout as the picture I saw in my dream: a huge skull, staring directly at the viewer, occupying the whole right half of the picture; and in the background, a man staring at the skull. The ghost guy in the Skeletor picture is not an Egyptian, but the shape of his helmet, together with the horizontal stripes below his chin, does suggest the stereotypical Egyptian headdress seen, for example, on King Tut’s mummy case. (I am not entirely sure that the Egyptian in my dream was wearing such a headdress; I just know that he looked obviously Egyptian.) Skeletor himself, with his hood and his blue-and-yellow color scheme, reinforces the King Tut image. And while the Skeletor picture is not black-and-white, it is a cartoon line-drawing with extensive areas filled in with black, and to that extent it is similar in style to the picture in my dream.


This, like my other recent precognitive dream (of a beast with many eyes), demonstrates the following points:

  • Dreams mix elements from past and future, combining them in such a way that they are impossible to separate out except in hindsight. (Dunne mentions this as well in An Experiment with Time.)
  • So far, all of my strong precognitions have been of images, not ideas, and the meaning associated with the image in the dream is generally completely unrelated to the meaning of the image when it appears in waking life. (This most recent dream seems almost to make that point explicitly; the author of the book of images explains that, while the images themselves were revealed to him, the interpretations are his own.)
  • None of my precognitions so far have been of anything that could even remotely be considered important or meaningful. The dreaming mind (my dreaming mind, anyway) appears to draw on experience (past and future) quite indiscriminately, without regard to whether or not it means anything.


Filed under Dreams, Precognition / Prophecy

With apologies to Joyce Kilmer

I think that I shall never see
A poem tiny as a flea.
Although my vision’s 20/10
(Compared with that of other men,
That’s rather good), I rather doubt
That I could make a poem out
On such a microscopic scale.
My eagle eyes, I fear, would fail
Me when confronted with so fine
A typeface. Even eyes like mine
Are not all-seeing; even they
Can’t read a strand of DNA
Without a magnifying glass
(A rather potent one), alas!
Alas, I say, for fools like me,
Who long to read what we can’t see!
A cruel trick, to give men eyes
That only see a certain size!
And what’s the use — explain, I plead! —
Of poems only God can read?

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