Emilio DeGrazia

When I was a kid my favorite book was “Pinocchio.” Pinocchio’s nose was very sensitive. His nose could smell lies, and whenever he told one his nose got big right in front of his face. It stared him down and told him to take a serious look at himself.

Whenever I told a lie I looked at the floor thinking I could keep my nose out of sight. Nowadays when I catch myself shading the truth I look the other way.

“Pinocchio” was written in 1880 by an Italian named Carlo Collodi. Because my parents were from Italy I eventually force-fed myself a meatier book by another Italian, “The Divine Comedy” by a guy named Dante. It’s tidy but slow and long. He started writing it in 1308 and didn’t finish the book until 1320.

Dante’s “Divine Comedy” is too complicated to be a funny book. It has three parts: Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Hell’s got enough bad guys and gory stuff to make it interesting, but Purgatory’s hard to get through. For years I figured part three, Heaven, could wait, and maybe give me something to do on my deathbed. But one night I said what the heck, I wonder how it ends. So I suffered through part three and actually found Heaven rather boring.

But Dante’s Hell is something else. Most of the bad guys (and ladies) down there are liars, and the worst have egos bigger than the worst Pinocchio nose. Hell has nine circles to it that spiral down to a frozen lake in Circle Nine, where we find the worst, and the most calculating and cold-hearted evil ones. I was expecting fire down there, not a Minnesota winter scene.

The nine circles of hell are neatly arranged according to types of sin. Limbo is Circle One, full of dead babies and philosophers born too soon to be Christian souls qualified for Purgatory. Circle Two is for lust. It makes me wonder about ex-president Jimmy Carter, who in a Playboy magazine interview admitted he had lust in his heart. Would he qualify to be in or out of Circle Two? I also wonder what his nose did, how big or normal it was when he said that.

The three circles after Lust are also for familiar sins — Gluttony, Greed, Wrath — the sins lots of people are guilty of on their way home from another bad day at work.

Next comes the Heresy Circle. Here people go when they believe things not based on valid authority and truth. They get hooked on superstitions and devote themselves to cults requiring faith rather than truth. People who behave like this look the other way without turning the other cheek, and when you look people like this in the eye, they look down at the floor. Or they like to make noise and laugh out loud.

The last three circles are for those guilty of Violence, Fraud and Treachery. Here you never find noses nearly as big as inflated egos. These three circles are loaded with big-time liars. No little fibs down here. Only big-time liars belong here — and the very worst ones are cold, calculating and secretive about how their lies are tied to money, influence and power. The evil ones in these circles cause a lot of misery, and drag everyone down with them. None of their liar friends dare call it treason.

A lot of ordinary moms and dads pay little attention to how they nose their way to the truths that matter most to them. Once upon a time the words “conscious” and “conscience” used to mean the same thing. Dante tells us that conscious lies, the ones deliberately divorced from conscience, belong in the deepest parts of Hell. And they’re the top-down lies that do a lot of people in. But Dante doesn’t let the people who fall for big-time liars off the hook. They also go down when they refuse to pay conscious attention to what’s often right in front of their faces.

You never see big-time Pinocchio noses telling us who the liars are any more. George Washington, his cherry tree confession, and Honest Abe also seem like models we’ve left behind. It’s easy to see that kids at first trust and look up to adults for honesty, and that some kids have better noses for it than adults. But you just don’t see long noses on kids any more. Kids see a lot of bad movies and ads and hear a lot of dishonest, superstitious, and loudly believed nonsense these days. Maybe noise makes noses insensitive to lies. Maybe kids now are so used to noise, nonsense and lies they figure it’s the only way to go.

Maybe that’s also what happens when Treachery goes shamelessly public with enough lies to make them the norm.