Here's a question:
Take a moment, any moment, any place or time, and see which place in Dante's metaphysical/apocalyptic topography matches up best with it.
Take now, for example, and our nation's capital in particular: where in the Divine Comedy do you suppose corresponds best?
This is a good question for us in the "second terrace," who are stuck here on the second level of Ante-Purgatory (not the place of Envy in Purgatory proper, on the second level or cornice of the great mountain, as some have inveighed). Since 2005, this has been the place of the pre-occupied, in the locus of "salvation in articulo mortis." You may read about the Second Terrace (and really, all we've attempted herein) in Cantos iv through viii in the Purgatorio.
It has always been my private belief that Dante utilized that rather superficial cosmology of western Christendom as a pretty big trope for his poetry -- or rather, a topography.
Thus, I think I'm on safe footing when I suggest the question "Where are we in Dante?"
I'll tell you what I think. I think we are nowhere in the third book, or even in the second. We are not even in the rather interesting -- but diabolical -- locales of the frozen underworld; the circuitous malbolges; the unpleasantly loud city of Dis, where Plutus jabbers the unhinging magical invocation of all insanity: "Pape Satan, Pape Satan aleppe!"
[See the unsetting comment below about Joyce]
I think, where we are, is in the boorish vestibule of the Inferno (canto iii). Take a look (from Esolen's translation):
Shuddering din of strange and various tongues,
sorrowful words and accents pitched with rage,
shrill and harsh voices, blows of hands with these
Raised up a tumult ever swirling round
in that dark air untinted by a dawn,
as sand-grains whipping when the whirlwind blows.
So Dante asks his guide, the inestimable Virgil, who these unfortunates are. Responds the Mantuan:
... "This state of misery
is clutched by those sad souls whose works in life
merited neither praise nor infamy ...
These souls, immortal, have no hope for death,
and their blind lives crept groveling so low
they leer with envy at every other lot.
The world allows no rumor of them now."
It doesn't take Dante long to understand where he is, and who he sees:
These worthless wretches who had never lived
were pricked to motion now perpetually
by flies and wasps that stung their naked limbs.
Criticism and discernment require the recognition of spirit beyond matter. Did not Heraclitus once mention that "Nature loves to hide"? So I like to think that the Florentine master manifested the political reality of his time: the Guelphs and Ghibellines, and the Guelphs themselves split into Black and White, revealed an insane, suicidal foolishness that we recognize as cognate with our own can of green toy soldiers -- the Decromats and Rebuplicans, and themselves chiasmatized into Boehners and Pea Tartiers.
Right and Left wave the same tattered banners that have always been wheeling about in the buggy, loutish Vestibule.
I perorate this screed with the spooky words of another Dantean, George Orwell:
Political language. . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.
And how eloquent they are in the wind.