The Devil in Dante. Page 2

  We have even more grounds for thinking this of the assistant guardians. These are not even legendary figures but animals, monsters, harpies, and centaurs (ibid. 12 and 13). Admittedly Dante gives us one rapid vision of the devil in the form of a serpent, but this is a definite reference to the passage in the Bible about original sin (Purg. 8. 97ff.).
  Before Dante there stretches a whole tradition with an established idea of what the devils were like and an accepted picture of hell. The demons-fierce, grotesque executioners -are charged with the torture of the damned. As the fancy takes them, they boil them in caldrons, roast them on spits, fry them, or slice them up across and lengthwise. The hell of Dante's forebears is a torture chamber in which childish imagination has been let loose, with no rules, no principles, no scheme behind its choice of details. Coarse popular imagery, this, designed to terrify but to provoke laughter, too. The two aspects go together, explained by a sort of rudimentary theology: everything that degrades the devils is good, so it is right to make them ridiculous. At the same time they must be frightening, so that Christians may beware of them. How at the same time mock and fear them, gibe and tremble? The explanation is that the mocker and the trembler are not the same person. Fear of the devil is a help for the hesitating-every man sometimes has within him a fainthearted Christian whom pure love is not enough to sway. But when a man's soul is united to the power of God, what has he to fear? For him this ontological mockery of the demons is a very proper nourishment for what might be termed mystic hilarity.
  This point of view was taken up by Dante - but with modifications. In the Divine Comedy the proportion of diabolical slapstick is greatly reduced. It comes only into the scenes of quarrelling devils at Malebolge (Inf. 21 and 22)-the one episode in which the devils are protagonists and our interest is permitted to dwell on them; the poet-theologian grants us a moment's distraction, the virtuoso introduces a variation, we come on a pencil sketch on the edge of a deep and austere work of art. Apart from that, the demons do not especially engage our attention, which Dante wishes to turn exclusively to the damned.
[Last] [Next] In hell itself the demons carry out their tasks like anonymous officials; they are the arm of divine justice. Thus we meet them in the second chasm of the eighth circle, scourging the panders, who were condemned to walk around and around it.

On this side, on that, along the hideous stone, I saw horned demons with large scourges, who smote them fiercely from behind.

Ah! how they made them lift their legs at the first strokes! truly none waited for the second or the third.
(Inf. 18. 34ff.)

Similarly, in the ninth chasm their job is to split down the middle, as they go by, those who have divided Christianity.

Even a cask, through loss of middle-piece or cant, yawns not so wide as one I saw, ripped from the chin down to the part that utters vilest sound;

between his legs the entrails hung; the pluck appeared, and the wretched sack that makes excrement of what it swallowed.

Whilst I stood all occupied in seeing him, he looked at me, and with his hands opened his breast saying: "Now see how I dilacerate myself, see how Mohammed is mangled! Before me Ali weeping goes, cleft in the face from chin to forelock;

"and all the others, whom thou seest here, were in their lifetime. sowers of scandal and of schism; and therefore are they thus cleft.

"A devil is here behind, who splits us thus cruelly, reapplying each of this class to his sword's edge, when we have wandered round the doleful road; for the wounds heal up ere any goes again before him." (Inf. 28. 22ff.)

In each case Dante barely indicates the action and is far from taking the opportunity to wallow in details. The demons have no personality: they are robot demons, supers who do their job almost without appearing on the stage.