I was rereading parts of Dante's Divine Comedy last week and remembered why I had always felt so uneasy about the experience my first time through. Here's the thing: Hell is...well...a heck of a lot more fun (to read about, at least) than Purgatory and Paradise. The Inferno is fairly brimming with pleasingly sadistic little set pieces--as any good revenge fantasy should be. For those of you who haven't taken the grande tour yet, I can tell you without spoiling the ending that a whole lot of the tormented souls that Dante, and his running buddy, Virgil, stumble upon "down there" are folks who managed to get on Dante's bad side up here (and from what I've read. it was much easier to do that than it was to stay on his good side). Poets being what they are, Dante took quill to parchment and consigned them all to the fiery furnace instead of taking his sword to the sternum of some hapless Florentine who cut him off in traffic.
And Now, Some Thoughts on the Subject from a Short, Middle-Aged British Man:
It's not the torment of the flames / That finally see your flesh corrupted / It's the small humiliations that your memory piles up.
--Elvis Costello, "This is Hell"
A Leisurely Stroll Among the Damned:
Sure, Dante and Virgil idle past oodles of souls suffering all manner of unspeakable tortures while discussing some pretty esoteric theology and parsing the intricacies of medieval religious practice (which depending on how you feel about such things, seems either rather callous or extremely appropriate). The reason the Inferno speaks to many of us more deeply than the other two books of the Divine Comedy is that it is grounded in our human-ness, our bodily beings, our fears, our guilt feelings, and our desire to see wickedness punished. While Paradiso, and to a lesser extent, Purgatorio, are so chockfull of symbolism and canto upon canto of head-clutching rapture, it always seemed to me that I would need every second of eternity and all the available divine light I could gather to sort it all out.
None of the above is meant to dissuade you from reading all three books of Dante's masterwork. It is one of the greatest feats of imaginative literature ever produced. It is a gothic cathedral in terza rima, and unlike Hell, it is a place one never gets to the bottom of.
We all may be steering, as best we can, toward those pearly gates, but the fact is, the devil is a lot more fun to write about. Just ask the folks below...um...on the page...below on the page--not, you know, below below).
Robert Johnson, the Complete Recordings
The Dore Illustrations for Dante's Divine Comedy
For what it's worth: Hell to me would be an eternity spent with that perfect word squatting at the base of your skull, just beyond the reach of your pen. As always, comments, suggestions for future posts, and your ideas about Heaven, Hell, and all points in between are gratefully accepted.