Now for something less sturm und drang (which is ironic, since just now it is thundering and raining outside) and more reflective.
We’re still attending the Dante reading group. Yesterday we did Canto XIV of Purgatorio and indulged some lively conversation over the meaning and intent. It’s become fairly obvious (long ago, back in Inferno it was obvious) that Dante was not talking about the afterlife, not in any serious way. All of this is a critique of the world and its denizens. It is a thoroughgoing strafing and scourging of the component parts of the world through which he moved. He was doing what science fiction does, talking about the present world through the distorting lens of the fantastic.
There are equivalent personalities in Inferno and Purgatory. There seems to be a question of degree, however, and an additional component of self awareness that has put the denizens of Purgatory—the Purgs in our group shorthand—and the Infernals where they are. We have just completed Pride and are in the midst of Envy, and certainly there are those in Inferno who suffer from the same faults. The difference is the Purgs know they have a failing, the Infernals embrace their flaw as if it is only right and natural. The person of Chaco for one is convinced he’s heaven-bound just as soon as the bureaucratic cock-up that’s put him where he is gets cleared up. The Infernals, you realize, are exactly where they want to be.
This is a point I think Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle missed in their otherwise delightful take, Inferno. They portrayed the denizens of hell as people being punished and are aware of being punished, unable to do anything about it. But it becomes clear with close reading of Dante that this is precisely not the case. Chaco, and his ilk, like the way they are, they have no problem with themselves, it is the world that they see as the problem. They would tear down creation to make it conform to their view of how things should be.
Whereas the Purgs have no such conviction. They are flawed and feel incapable of doing anything about it. They know there is a problem, but can’t seem to identify it, or feel powerless to effect change. Theirs is a more complex dysfunction, and it is compounded by a confusion with the systems they have lived and worked within. They are loathe to drop the forms they have grown both comfortable and diseased embracing.
And Virgil, who is outside this entire construct being a pagan, pre-Christian, tells Dante:
That was the iron bit meant to hold man within his proper bound. But you men swallow bait and hook and all, and then your ancient enemy yanks you in—small profit to you then, the rein or call.
Stepping outside for a moment, which is Virgil’s freedom, this suggests that mankind has been sold a bill of goods, a slick salesman has had his way with us, and we bought it. Bought into it. And we’re stuck with it. There are wonders enough in life and elsewhere, but we’re too busy tending the Great Machine to pay attention—or to think we can abandon what doesn’t work in the hope of finding…better.
If Dante hadn’t written this in the 13th century, one might see it as an almost modern critique of the corporate system. But why not? The same flaws inform modern institutions, drive people to ignore their own best interests, create the same monsters of singular obessive control.
Seen from this perspective, I have to say—I can’t resist saying—that the entire health care debate seems custom tailored for a Dante-esque interpretation. Kind of fitting. And frightening.