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Patrick Reilly The Heirs ofVanni Fucci: Malice in Modern Fiction I want t? identify A moment and to isolate a theme in the Inferno in die belieftiiat together they will supply a context for die exposition of a major impulse in modern literature. The moment occurs at the close of Canto XXIV in the encounter between the Pilgrim and Vanni Fucci, damned to the eighdi circle in the bolgia of the thieves. The dieme is "the strife with tile pity" tiiat pervades die whole canticle from beginning to end. A close attention to botii will illuminate much diat is dark or repugnant in some ofdie major fictions of our time. On die bridge over the seventii bolgia, Dante hears strange sounds rising from the impenetrable darkness below and he asks Virgil for permission to descend to investigate what's happening. Virgil consents and they climb down to confront a terrible confusion of serpents, all of such a monstrous kind the thought of them still makes my blood run cold. ' Logos 2:1 Winter 1999 12 Logos The hell ofdie poetic imagination far surpasses anytiiing existing in reality. Libya, with its swarms ofserpents so graphically described in Lucan's Pharsalia, cannot even begin to rival Dante's dream. Keats claims that the melodies of the mind are sweeter dian any music we may actually hear.2 Dante's is die negative version of tiiis claim for die superior creativity ofthe imagination. Libya, Ethiopia, and all the lands along die Red Sea "never bred so great a plague of venom" as the poet now surveys in hell.The seventh bolgia is a venomous place, and, widiin it, running amok in blind panic, are its naked victims, hands tied behind witii vipers, serpents knotted tiirough their loins, "witii no hope ofa hole or heliotrope"—tiiat is, with no place to hide or rest invisible. Hell is the forfeiture of privacy; suffering is a spectacle , and Dante seesVanni Fucci before recognizing him. At first, he is simply "a sinner running by our bank" who is suddenly struck by a snake just at the junction of neck and shoulder. The stricken man is instantaneously incinerated upon the spot, and then, to Dante's amazement, from the pile of ash, in parodie imitation of Christ, comes a dreadful, undesired resurrection. Like (but so unlike) die phoenix, the bewildered sinner is restored to the flesh and looks around, in agony at his suffering: how harsh the power of the Lord can be, raining in its vengeance blows like these! 3 Vanni Fucci is resurrected only for perpetually recurring incineration, to be stung, consumed, and made whole again tiiroughout eternity. Dante, as shocked as the victim, still does not recognize him, but Virgil demands his identity and Vanni Fucci is compelled to comply, acknowledging as he does so the justice of his damnation: I loved die bestial life more than the human, like the bastard that I was; I'm Vanni Fucci, the beast! Pistoia was my fitting den.4 The Heirs of Vanni Fucci Having chosen bestiality on earth, he now has his choice forever among the serpents, punished notfor but by his sins, in yet another striking instance of the device of contrapasso employed so brilliantly by Dante throughout the poem. Dante, surprised and puzzled at this revelation, asksVirgil to detain the sinner for furtiier questioning . Dante knew Vanni Fucci in the world above, but as a man of blood and anger whom he would have expected to find immersed in Phlegethon, the river ofblood, with the shades of the violent in Canto XII. Why is he so apparently mislocated? How has Minos come to send him to the wrong part of hell? Vanni Fucci responds directly to the Pilgrim, though "colouring with a look of ugly shame." That he has no choice but to reply is made clear when he says that he is suffering more from this moment of compulsory disclosure than when he parted from his first life. Yet he can neither lie nor evade: Now I am forced to answer what you ask. s He is in his proper place, condemned to this lower circle, not for his violence, but for the...


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