In Ravenna, Italy, archivists recently discovered a lost canto of Dante’s Inferno — what appears to be the tenth circle of Hell. The ninth circle was previously understood to be the lowest point of Hell reached by Dante and his guide Virgil before ascending on their journey toward Paradise. A portion of the 14th-century manuscript, translated into English prose, is reproduced below.
“Virgil,” I cried, “Those shades—burning, immersed in human excrement, trapped in icy waters. I thought I had witnessed the basest of all sinners. So who are these figures I now see? Do my eyes betray me, or are their heads fully absorbed in the derrières of others? And who are these individuals whose bottoms are swollen due to the immense size of the heads there immersed?”
“Your reaction is sound,” he replied, “for it is an atrocious sin these shades have committed. Those whose enlarged heads are occupying the derrières of others were graduate students while they lived. As you well know, sinners must eternally suffer the wrong they committed in life; and thus their heads are swollen from illusions of grandeur. As for the position of these heads, I need only reveal the identity of second group: tenured professors. While alive, these elders allowed many heads to be consumed in their rear ends, and they now endure this punishment eternally.”
I wished to flee from the sight, but many questions still burned within me. Virgil sensed my desire to understand. “Go on,” he urged, “you may speak directly to the shades. But make haste, as I fear that you will contract that wretched condition of pretentiousness by proxy.”
I cautiously approached the shade closest to me, standing tense so as not to tremble: “What was your discipline?” I asked. “What brought you to this place?” The shade’s head was fully obscured, so his professor spoke for him as he had done, too, in life: “This student occupied himself with the implications of Heideggerian philosophy in contemporary humanistic discourse,” he responded.
There ended that interaction as I could not have cared any less than I did in that moment.
I stopped then at an elderly derrière, wrinkled from its years of experience yet swollen more than any other I had yet seen. “And why is it that your behind is inflated more than all the others?” I inquired. The professor responded: “this shade was my pupil, studying toward a PhD in postmodern reinterpretations of 11th-century lyric poetry.”
I was slowly beginning to comprehend. The more inconsequential a field of study, the more swollen the head, and in turn, the derrière.
Sensing that I understood, my guide urged me to join him and leave this terrible circle. But there remained one shade I could not ignore. A unique sight, her head was not in the rear end of another shade. Instead, she was contorted in a way I did not think feasible—her head was inserted into her very own posterior. I briefly paused, turning toward Virgil, but his back was to me; he did not dare look.
“Why is your body distorted so,” I asked, “with your head in your own rear end?” I could barely make out the response, for the sound was muffled as it passed through the derrière. As I recall, I heard but three letters: MFA.
After witnessing this horrific spectacle, I resolved to rejoin to my guide. “Virgil,” I wept, “Let us return to the circles we have already passed. I would sooner burn in fire, rot in excrement, or freeze in an icy lake than spend another second with these miserable, putrid shades.”