Inferno XXI: Comic Villainy
Inferno XXI: The Malebranche
Ink on paper, 2016
22 x 15”
In the fifth ditch (or malebolgia) of the eighth circle of Inferno, Dante and Virgil are immersed in tarry darkness, which—while unnerving—provides cover from a comically furious band of nine demons known as the Malebranche. Hidden behind the rocks, Dante is eventually revealed when Virgil addresses the rowdy brood. They threaten to attack but are stopped by Malacoda, their leader, as he engages Virgil in conversation, and even offers to accompany our heroes on the next leg of their journey. Much excitement ensues and their leader releases an explosive burst of gas from his butt or, in Dante's words, "ed elli avea del cul fatto trombetta" (he made a trumpet of his rump): Per l’argine sinistro volta dienno; ma prima avea ciascun la lingua stretta coi denti, verso lor duca, per cenno; ed elli avea del cul fatto trombetta. They wheeled about along the left dike, but not before each had thrust his tongue between his teeth in signal to their leader; and he made a trumpet of his rump.
* * * I grew up in a politically liberal yet sexually repressive household. My father and mother were born in 1918 and 1920, respectively, and I never saw them display affection with enjoyment or abandon. My father would arrive home from work at 5:00pm, and meet my mother in the kitchen. She would greet him cheerfully, and as their lips would touch, his gaze would meet mine with a furtive look of embarrassment, or even panic. When we watched the Jackie Gleason Show, with its sexy chorus girls in skimpy costumes, my dad would mutter "nothing but bums, all of them." He was fearful and disdainful of all things carnal, as was my mother, who was raised in a superstitious, Irish-Catholic household in Boston, with the remnants of 19th century moral codes guiding her conscience ("Marguerite, you know that the Blessed Mother frowns on little girls who whistle"). She squelched my own sexual expression early on in life (without revealing too much here's a snapshot: little boy, boner, bed) with a fierce glare. I am always impressed and a little surprised when I encounter Canto XXI of L'Inferno, wherein the pious Dante delivers with gusto the imagery from the passage above. His delight in vulgarity is infectious, even if he disguises it by presenting it as the shameful product of a marauding band of demons. The plain truth is that Dante periodically indulges in vulgar bits of narrative, just as Chaucer did several decades later in The Canterbury Tales. Here's an excerpt from The Miller's Tale: This Nicholas just then let fly a fart As loud as it had been a thunder-clap, And well-nigh blinded Absalom, poor chap; But he was ready with his iron hot And Nicholas right in the arse he got. It's a dirty shame that things which come naturally to us as a species—the smelly, comically sonic marvels of flatulence, the unbridled enjoyment of animalistic sexual encounter, naughty delight in a dirty joke, unbridled promiscuity, empowerment to identify our own gender and sexual orientation —are arbitrarily relegated to the shadows of sin. Less than 500 years ago our carnal nature was factual. It was expected of us. We reveled in it. Michel Foucault wrote extensively on the subject of changing sexual mores and the first volume of his History of Sexuality begins with a bang: “At the beginning of the seventeenth century a certain frankness was still common, it would seem. Sexual practices had little need of secrecy; words were said without undue reticence, and things were done without too much concealment; one had a tolerant familiarity with the illicit. Codes regulating the coarse, the obscene, and the indecent were quite lax compared to those of the nineteenth century. It was a time of direct gestures, shameless discourse, and open transgressions, when anatomies were shown and intermingled at will, and knowing children hung about amid the laughter of adults: it was a period when bodies “made a display of themselves.” Reading Dante offers a glimpse of humanity's relationship with the illicit in medieval times, underscoring the notion that, whatever our proclivities or indulgences, we were born this way.