Archive for the Hell Category

Transient or Resident?

Posted in Dante, Hell, Review with tags , on December 21, 2009 by S.A.

As he is guided by Virgil through the first several circles of the Inferno, Dante suffers from occasional fainting spells. The grisly, unwholesome sights of various torments, and the frightful denizens of the place, stress him so much that he is wont to swoon and stumble. He eventually becomes more accustomed to it, but his reactions always seem over-the-top, as it is clear that he is never really in danger of becoming a permanent resident in Hell. His trip was ordained by Heaven. He is on a fact-finding mission. We know that everything will work out for him in the end: the third and final act of the Divine Comedy is the Paradiso, after all.

In contrast, we don’t know what ever really becomes of another Dante-like character at the heart of a similar tale – a cinematic odyssey through a different kind of Hell, Barton Fink (1991). This terribly underappreciated film from the peerless Coen brothers, more than any other in their wide-ranging canon, is one that rewards multiple viewings, leaves nagging, tantalizing questions for the viewer to contemplate long after, and is rich with interpretation possibilities. It is also a hilarious dark comedy with fine performances from John Turturro, John Goodman, and Judy Davis, among others. That there are subtle parallels to David Lynch’s Eraserhead is just the first of many clues that there are multiple levels of meaning to the story.

Like Dante, Barton Fink is a writer. In the early 1940s, having won overnight acclaim for one of his plays on Broadway, his agent persuades him to take a screen-writing assignment and journey to the antipodal point furthest from his high-brow New York world: the Hollywood of B-movies. At face value, it seems to be the perfect assignment, for Barton, growing up on the Lower East Side, considers himself a champion of the Common Man: an artist that will paint on the largest possible canvas the hopes and dreams of the everyday, average American. And where better to do so but the burgeoning new home to a new industry that can bring Art to Everyone, not just the few that frequent the theater districts?

But Barton has a lot to learn about the Common Man, and about himself, and it becomes clear early on that these lessons will come as he embarks on a descending trek into a virtual Hell. He is going through Hell because he is too self-absorbed to realize that the understands as little about the Common Man as do the Lady Higgenbottoms and Nigel Grinch-Gibbonses of the world, and as a result develops the worst possible case of writer’s block. His attempts patronize the rabble fall flat, and his desire to “elevate” their concerns elicits resentment and confusion. The unwashed masses want to be entertained by men in tights wrestling with each other, it turns out – not a man wrestling with his soul.

Dante had Virgil, his literary hero and inspiration, to guide him on his famous trek. The equivalent role in Barton Fink is shared by two different characters: The everyman, insurance salesman Charlie Meadows, who represents the ostensible kind of role-model that Fink celebrates, and the washed-up alcoholic novelist-turned screenwriter William Mayhew (who is an avatar of William Faulkner) that he considers to be the finest writer of his generation. Mayhew has preceded Fink in the attempt to use his formidable literary skills to cash in at the cinema box office. But his predilection for “idiot man-child” characters, among others, has made him as poor a fit in Hollywood as Barton is, and he responds to his failure with drinking. Meadows, the non-intellectual doppelganger to Fink and Mayhew, not only uses liquor as an escape, but has another hobby which I will not give away here.

If Meadows and Mayhew function as a composite Virgil, then most the remaining cast can all be seen to have allegorical connections to the various denizens of Dante’s Hell. There’s The Lovers, Paulo and Francesca, in the room next to him at the Hotel Earle, the lustful couple never seen but often heard moaning. There’s a number of sinners that Dante would categorize as The Violent, from the wrestler (“I will destroy him!”) to fist-fighting servicemen at a dance. There’s the Incontinent in the form of Mayhew (“sorry about the odor”) and his secretary, the strange, heavenly painting of his dream woman (Beatrice) that ever haunts Fink, and the imps and devils that appear as bellhops and cops. He is prodded and poked by a demonic mosquito that inexplicably inhabits his bizarre room. There’s Satan himself, the movie mogul behind the huge desk. There are tantalizing biblical references and dramatic visual clues that suggest the structure of the Inferno, such as when the camera takes us plunging down into filthy sink drain, or down into the dark depths of the funnel-shaped bell of a trumpet.

Is it real or just a fantasy? One memorable image is the wallpaper that adorns Barton’s prison-like hotel room. It often comes peeling off the walls with a slick, clammy sound. On a repeat viewing I realized that the film’s opening credits appear against a backdrop of this wallpaper, including the text that indicates the scene is set in New York City. The wallpaper is in New York, not the Hollywood hotel. It is a subtle pointer that the entire experience is probably all in Barton’s head, a head that is utterly inward looking and wrapped up with The Life of The Mind. And once he’s reached the depths of Hell, and the walls of his hotel literally erupt into flames, Charlie Meadows, aka Common Man, tells him, “You think your life is Hell? You’re just a tourist. I live here.”

And that is all Dante was. A tourist. And like Barton, he was probably too self-absorbed and privileged, to realize that Hell existed all around him on earth, in the lives of the average person mired in a world of superstition and ignorance.


Dante, Socrates, and ‘Situational Ethics’

Posted in Atheism, Dante, Hell, Religion with tags , , , on September 19, 2009 by S.A.


In Plato’s Apology, Socrates speaks movingly about the prospects of his imminent death. He finds no reason for alarm over his upcoming demise, as he sees two possibilities beyond the grave: the first is blissful unawareness and the utter destruction of consciousness, Hamlet’s consummation devoutly to be wished; the second is an afterlife in which all souls of the dead would be able to socialize, converse, and generally pal around together. (Shame on Socrates for thinking that only these two possibilities might obtain. For someone of his intellect, he should have recognized that when speculating on matters that cannot be investigated, there are literally an infinity of possibilities). Socrates says:

What would not a man give if he might converse with Orpheus and Musaeus and Hesiod and Homer? … What would not a man give, O judges, to be able to examine the leader of the great Trojan expedition; or Odysseus or Sisyphus, or numberless others, men and women too?

According to The Divine Comedy, it is the second scenario that is the fate for Socrates, for there he is, in the First Circle of Hell, with other great minds and heroes from the classical world – the likes of Homer, Ovid, Aristotle, Democritus, Aeneas and Hector. And just as he anticipated, it isn’t a bad life (or afterlife), but it isn’t heaven, either. The residents here are in Limbo: they are not tortured, burned, maimed, or harassed by demons. They are left to share each other’s company and certainly must have a number of stimulating discourses. (It always seemed that, given how the treatment in the Vestibule is so much worse than that in Limbo, that they should be reversed.) But these souls are yet denied the pleasures of Paradise, and this is something that these ancient worthies are aware of, and which they no doubt commiserate over.

Why were these Virtuous Pagans sent to a benign part of Hell instead of being rewarded for their virtues in Heaven? Through no fault of their own, they were born at the wrong time, before that glorious age when God finally had His Plan all worked out and sent His Son to earth to suffer that famous, staged death. And only those people that had the opportunity to accept Christ would be given the chance to get to Paradise. Regardless of how moral anyone born before that time might have been, regardless of any brave or selfless acts they may have committed, or what mysteries they may have solved, they were, in the modern vernacular, Shit-Outta-Luck.

It hardly seems fair to run a world that way, but let’s give Dante the benefit of the doubt. Let’s take the tack that those born before Christ’s time didn’t know the full rules of the game, so to speak, so they couldn’t earn the rewards of accepting Him- but at least they would not incur the harsh penalties reserved for those that violated Christian laws, either.

Except that isn’t quite the way it plays out. Recall Socrates mentioned Odysseus (that is, Ulysses), as one of the persons he looked forward to meeting after death. But that intrepid wanderer isn’t there in Dante’s First Circle. Socrates must have been disappointed. It turns out that Socrates will not be speaking with him at all. Odysseus is in Hell, to be sure, but he isn’t in Limbo with so many other Greeks. Because he was regarded as an “Evil Counselor” he has been sent to the Eight Circle, where his afterlife isn’t very pleasant; it involves a bit of roasting.

So, for Dante, the punishments of Hell are enforced retroactively, while the rewards of Heaven are not. Regardless of your virtues, if you lived before a certain date, you cannot get the full rewards offered to others. But you can still incur the penalties of sin. It is also an admission that the standards of good and evil existed before God set them out explicitly in the Christian version, although the consequences and rewards are not meted out consistently.

Then, there is also the matter of the souls that were removed from the First Circle during ‘the harrowing of Hell.’ These include Adam, Abel, Abraham, Rachel, David, Moses, and Noah, all born before Christ as well, but given Get Out Of Hell Free cards because they were mentioned in the Old Testament, apparently. The likes of Abraham, he who was prepared to murder his own son at the behest of the voices in his head, and Moses, the leader that slaughtered countless innocents and condemned countless young women to slavery and rape, go to Heaven. Socrates, brilliant philosopher and advocate of reason, stays in Hell.

I imagine Socrates would not be impressed with this scheme. Nor Odysseus, for that matter. And I’m reminded of how various fundamentalists decry the values of secularists and humanists as involving “situational ethics.” As if Christianity is some kind of model for the notion of objective rules and punishments. A few hours browsing in the Old Testament should convince anyone that there has never been a more haphazard, inconsistent, and ever-shifting system of morality than the one that the Hebrew God acted by.

Dante vs. Huck Finn

Posted in Atheism, Dante, Hell, The Infernova on August 29, 2009 by S.A.

This essay is the introductory chapter in The Infernova.

Two unlikely facts collided at the event of my birth, with potentially lethal consequences. The first fact concerned the genes that my parents carried in their cells. The second concerned the memes they carried in their heads.

Genetics first: my father was Rh-positive; my mother was not. They had a son before me who inherited the paternal blood type. His birth was without incident, but it set up potential problems for subsequent children. For during the violent process that is childbirth, some of my brother’s blood was introduced into my mother’s circulation, and her immune system, having never seen this Rh-feature before, developed antibodies against them, and would remain permanently antagonistic toward such cells. This was not an issue until it was my turn to arrive. As again some amount of blood was exchanged during birth, my mother’s antibodies found their way into my bloodstream, and began their destructive work on my cells. This is, and was at the time, a well-understood condition, called Hemolytic Disease of the Newborn. It can result in anemia, seizures, brain damage, and death.

This disease is straightforward to treat: the infant’s blood is simply exchanged. The antibodies from the mother are pumped out, and Rh-positive blood is pumped in.

Now as for my parents’ memes: as they were Jehovah’s Witnesses, they were carriers and victims of a set of wild ideas about Life, God, and How We Are Supposed To Act. Witnesses believe in all manner of nonsense, but critical here is their idiosyncratic interpretation of particular Bible passages, such as Acts 15:28-29:

For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; that ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well.

They read this as an injunction to abstain from blood entirely: it isn’t just an edict against imbibing it, but against taking it intravenously. Even to save your life. Or your child’s life.

As these two facts came together in early 1967, my father informed the medical staff that the transfusion was not an option. The hospital thought otherwise, thankfully, and obtained a court order from the state to proceed with the transfusion. My father was also given some education involving terms such as manslaughter, in order to help dissuade him of any thoughts about absconding with me or otherwise attempting to prevent the treatment. The blood exchange was performed and I recovered in accordance with the expectations of medical science.

I learned of all this when I was an adult, long after my parents had split up, and my mother told me about it, at last lifting a decades-old burden from her conscience. Although they were both Witnesses at the time of my birth, my mother’s innate maternal senses overruled the religious mandates, though she kept this to herself. Privately she was quite glad that the State of New York stepped in to save her child’s life.

From day one, my life has been profoundly affected by religion. As you might imagine, I’m not sympathetic to the views of the Witnesses in particular, or organized religion in general.

Not every Witness child requiring serious medical attention is saved by the courts. Sometimes the parents prevail–usually with an older child trained well enough to parrot their parents’ views and convince a judge of a certain level of maturity; enabling them to effectively choose suicide, a choice, ironically, that most religions will not extend to terminally ill, suffering adults.

A gruesome series of such accounts can be found in the May 22, 1994 issue of the Witnesses’ Awake! magazine. ”Youths Who Put God First” is the cover story, and it details case histories for a number of children who managed to avoid a blood transfusion and subsequently died. Vignettes of young lives cut short by wasting disease are troubling; far more disturbing is the article’s celebration of their martyrdom. And it seems as if we’ve become numb to this sort of idiocy these days, with the routine suicide bombings in the ”holy lands” that originate from the same irrational mindset.

For, just as with religious terrorists, the motivation behind the stupefying actions of the Witnesses is a hysterical concern with What Happens Beyond The Grave. Open the their literature and the root causes for their behavior are laid bare. They firmly believe in an Armageddon that is imminent, where God will launch a massive assault upon the earth, from which only they will be spared. After that, eternal life in Paradise awaits.

Whereas the Islamic version of heaven seems tailored to appeal to sexually repressed males and their hopes for unending pleasures of the flesh, the Witnesses would seem to target a younger audience. Their ubiquitous, colorful renderings of Paradise On Earth feature pastoral scenes of seaside picnics, exuberant families of young and old, racial harmony, and always the animals. A docile lion that allows children to climb all over him has appeared more than once (right now I’m looking at one of their illustrations where a beach ball lies between the ex-carnivore’s paws). If you want your Youth To Put God First, pandering to their innate affinities can’t hurt.

Obviously, the children discussed in the Awake! story demonstrated great courage, which I don’t mean to disparage, but I do mean to attack the root causes that forced them to act so. To persuade them to honestly believe they’d go to a better place–for eternity–by employing fantasies that would strengthen their resolve to suffer a needless death, is simply evil. These children are to be pitied. The monstrous ideas, institutions, and adults that put them in such situations, that misinformed their decisions with such lethal nonsense, are to be reviled.

The concepts of eternal rewards, and the suffering and trials needed to secure them, seem part of our interior makeup. When used as a template for narrative, when the mythology stays allegorical, when it all lies merely at the heart of a story arc, then they enliven and make resonant much of our literature and lore. But when religions wield them and bully us into taking them literally, all manner of conflict and misery result.

The original work that this book parodies, Dante’s Divine Comedy, blends both the allegorical and literal perspectives of religious myth. Read it like Homer’s Odyssey and see a perilous quest to find a peaceful home at last. Read it literally and see magnificent poetry wasted on the religious nonsense of a backward age. (Imagining what his immense talents might have celebrated had he lived in an age of human progress is what first inspired me to build my own narrative with the structure he used.)

Dante’s trip through Hell, great literature that it is, was motivated by the ethics of punishments and rewards, where God’s wrath is to be avoided and eternal bliss is to be achieved. Dante’s trepidation in Hell is palpable at times, but it’s always quite clear that he’s not really in danger of becoming a permanent resident. He’s a tourist; a student going through a process of striking and effective deterrence, like a seventh grader in shop class, forced to watch a documentary film that might have been named What Happens To Kids Who Don’t Wear Safety Glasses. Even before he completed the entire odyssey, the fate of Dante’s soul was never really in doubt. The visit to Hell was temporary. Paradise would be forever.

Dante’s choice to tour that terrifying abyss may be seen as a brave act by some, but it absolutely pales in comparison to another momentous literary decision involving eternity and Hell. A choice that was made by an astounding character that appeared some six hundred years later; a homeless waif on a different kind of odyssey: Huckleberry Finn, who was definitely not A Youth Who Put God First.

In Chapter 31 of his Adventures, struggling to do his duty and return the slave Jim to his owner, Huck is certain that Providence watches his every move with great interest. Will he attempt to purchase the tenuous freedom of a being considered subhuman, at the cost of his own soul? The climax of the book is the moment he finds the courage to ignore the sticks and carrots proffered by the religion of his society, and to make the bravest choice of all–to act true to his own self and his own conscience:

I was a-trembling, because I got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: ”All right then, I’ll go to hell.”

He does the right thing, and he does it in spite of a certain conviction that he will suffer endless torment for it. A more breathtakingly moral decision would be a challenge to find in any other works of literature, including those considered to be ”holy” books.

There has never been an intelligent person of the age of sixty who would consent to live his life over again. His or anyone else’s.” Mark Twain wrote, and given the era, I can’t say I blame him. And as he set out in his little known, satirical Letters from the Earth, heaven did not look to be much more desirable than the other place. I hope he’d forgive me for bringing him back to life in my story. Based on his affinity for contraptions (he invested heavily, and without profit, in an 18,000-part automatic-typesetting machine called the Paige Compositor, about which he wrote, ”All the other inventions of the human brain sink pretty nearly into commonplaces contrasted with this awful mechanical miracle…”), I thought it fitting to perform his resurrection by extrapolating forward the information technologies that have proliferated in our time, technologies that connect words and machines in ways that likely would have pleased him greatly.

Two examples of such extrapolation can be gleaned from the writings of professors Nick Bostrom and Frank Tipler. Bostrom, an Oxford philosopher, developed a clever argument for the so-called Simulation Hypothesis, which asserts a nonzero probability that we are all living in a vast computer simulation, while Tipler, in his book The Physics of Immortality, proposes an ”Omega Point” in the future where humans have colonized space, built supercomputers that can support human consciousness, and resurrected everyone who has ever lived. However small the likelihoods of such eventualities, they at least provide semi-plausible examples of purely naturalistic ways in which ”godlike” power could eventually develop and how a kind of eternal life could occur. They are more credible than anything traditional religion ever offered, and afford us an opportunity to look at such admittedly fascinating concepts as immortality, for once, through a lens not smeared with the dirty thumbprints of theism.

Many fine people are believers, of course, and I would be amiss not to acknowledge the important function religion often serves in providing narratives for our lives. Most of us seem to need a structure around which to base our actions. But that scaffolding can be built from better materials than a black rock in the desert or splinters of a cross. Purpose can be found without stupefying dogma and life-threatening irrationality to accompany it. To set out my own narrative, of how we err, and how wishful thinking can lead us so wrong, is why I wrote the parody that follows. Mix in equal parts of love for Dante’s genius and Twain’s spirit. My paradise, a destination seen at the start and end of my New Inferno, isn’t Dante’s, and it certainly isn’t the Witnesses’. It’s the world revealed by science, bit by bit through the meticulous and honest work of men and women speaking a common language, seeking understanding and benefit for all.

The paradise toward which science works is tied down to no particular geographical place, but I can’t help but locate the site of my own Divine Comedy in the state where my story started, where J.D. Salinger’s famous fictional youth descended through his personal inferno to eventually glimpse paradise for a moment with his sister in Central Park. Not far from there is the Waldorf- Astoria, where my parents honeymooned and set the biological dominoes in motion that would so affect me in a few years. Where, on one side of the Brooklyn Bridge (with its odd status as a kind of icon of gullibility), sits the world headquarters of the Jehovah’s Witnesses (which may in fact be the World Headquarters of Gullibility). And where a clear and horrific demonstration of the destructive power of faith-based thinking was made in the form of an elaborately planned mass murder on a September morning.

But mostly I see the city as symbolic capital of the state that saved my life in 1967. ”I Love NY” is, for me, much more than a famous slogan.

You don’t need religion to have holy places.

Eternity: Smoking or Nonsmoking?

Posted in Atheism, Dante, Hell, The Infernova with tags , , on August 13, 2009 by S.A.


I’ve long been ambivalent about Dante’s Divine Comedy, because for such a magnificent, imaginative story, it is built on a foundation of utter, malevolent nonsense. I feel similarly about Milton’s Paradise Lost. What a pity that such artists of antiquity had little to work with beyond the superstitions endemic to their age and geographical location. This has long been the case, of course – Homer’s epic poems are underpinned by legions of gods, after all – but the religious themes are far less intrusive on the story itself.

There are several reasons for this. First, Homer’s gods bear little resemblance to what the term God has come to mean today – after all they are as human as the human characters themselves, albeit more powerful. This is different with Dante. Perhaps because the religion that informs his work is still alive today – that there are so many millions that actually take it all seriously and go about causing problems because of it. Worshippers of Athena or Ares are quite rare, and they don’t endanger the world with silly ideas about condom use.

Second, and more importantly, the worldview at the core of The Inferno is integral to the story, and it is a worldview that is immoral and rotten. That isn’t true for The Iliad or The Odyssey.

I make my case for the evil heart that beats at the center of Dante’s universe in my book, and I’ll augment it here over the course of various essays related to different portions of The Infernova and The Inferno. To that end, it is instructive to begin at the beginning, with the famous inscription on the gates of Hell (all of my Dante quotes are from the fantastic John Ciardi translation of The Divine Comedy).

I Am The Way Into The City Of Woe.
I Am The Way To A Forsaken People.
I Am The Way Into Eternal Sorrow.

Sacred Justice Moved My Architect.
I Was Raised Here By Divine Omnipotence,
Primordial Love And Ultimate Intellect.

Only Those Elements Time Cannot Wear
Were Made Before Me, And Beyond Time I Stand.
Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here.

Justice? Love? Intellect? These are the driving forces behind the creation of eternal torment for sundry crimes all finite in nature? Even in the Fourteenth century, it must have made little sense. To think that the earth sat as the center of the universe, attended by the orbiting sun and moon and planets, is understandable. To think that living beings were the handiwork of some master being, is understandable too, since they did not have the explanation of natural selection readily at hand. But the notion that the apogee of Divine Justice included such an unbalanced, disproportionate weighting of crime and punishment is impossible to grasp. So apologists are left only with the classic “Who Are You To Question God’s Plan” defense. His ways are mysterious and not comprehensible to the little minds of men.

When I decided to have a go at rewriting Dante’s vision of Hell, I planned to make one point clearly, loudly and often – that even within the context of the dream in which my story occurs, it isn’t meant to be real. It’s a simulation, an amusement park ride, a visit to the Holodeck. The ‘souls’ that suffer in my hell are no more sentient than animatronics. Yes, the illusion is that they suffer, and the emotional impact is the same, just as the emotional impact from a film isn’t blunted by the fact that it isn’t real. And yes, it is tempting to put the likes of a pedophile-priest or a terrorist into an everlasting torture chamber, but it isn’t just. No matter how heinous their crimes, they were finite in scope. To prescribe an infinite punishment is to scoff at the concept of justice.

The details of hellish afterlives in Christianity and Islam, including their unlimited time scales, are what they are because they comprise the worst possible punishments anyone could dream up. Organized religion evolved under the pressure of many external forces, but certainly the notion of eternal damnation must have quickly gained in utility because it served as the ultimate consequence, the biggest possible stick to go with the biggest possible carrot. If you wish to dissuade people from a particular action, why bother threatening them with a finite consequence when you could offer up something far worse, since it cannot be verified or disputed? Just go all the way, peg the needle, turn the knob to eleven, and assure them that they’ll be tormented forever. There isn’t anything worse. No other religion is going to come along and one-up you with a more efficacious threat of damnation.

There is still a vertigo I feel when I contemplate that otherwise normal people here in the 21st century actually believe in Hell being literally true. I used to live in the Bible Belt, and had neighbors with signs in their yards about hellfire. I never spoke to them, as I tried to avoid them (just as I avoid a coworker here in Minnesota whose bumper sticker reads “Eternity: Smoking or Nonsmoking?”) but I doubt these people would have found fault with the Irish Catholic vision of Hell that James Joyce relates in A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man:

Ever to be in hell, never to be in heaven; ever to be shut off from the presence of God, never to enjoy the beatific vision; ever to be eaten with flames, gnawed by vermin, goaded with burning spikes, never to be free from those pains; ever to have the conscience upbraid one, the memory enrage, the mind filled with darkness and despair, never to escape; ever to curse and revile the foul demons who gloat fiendishly over the misery of their dupes, never to behold the shining raiment of the blessed spirits; ever to cry out of the abyss of fire to God for an instant, a single instant, of respite from such awful agony, never to receive, even for an instant, God’s pardon; ever to suffer, never to enjoy; ever to be damned, never to be saved; ever, never; ever, never.

This is the product of Love? Justice? Intellect?

Dante’s Heretics

Posted in Atheism, Dante, Hell, Religion, The Infernova with tags , , , on July 26, 2009 by S.A.

heretic_burningIn Dante’s Inferno, the Sixth Circle lies within Lower Hell, the region encompassed by the walls of Dis, that demarcation between sins of Incontinence and sins of Violence. His primary denizens here are The Heretics. They receive considerable attention in his text, with four separate Cantos (8 through 11) dedicated to them. More lines are devoted to them than any other group in The Inferno, so they are obviously rather important.

I was interested to learn that the term heresy itself comes from the Greek word for “a choosing.” It would, of course, become synonymous with choosing anything other than orthodox Church doctrine. During Dante’s era, the desire that every member of a community believe exactly as they were told was so strong, and the fear that a heretic would corrupt others was so overwhelming, that it was considered paramount to cut the offending body out of the picture as effectively as possible. Heretics were given a chance to recant their beliefs. Those that did not kowtow to such pressures were typically taken to the stake. The official pronouncement of Pope Innocent III (what an ill-fitting name) was: “Anyone who attempted to construe a personal view of god which conflicted with the church dogma must be burned without pity.”

The hysterical concern with heresy was kicked off in the twelfth century, in reaction to the Cathars, or Albigensians, a sect that considered the world to be a creation of an evil being. They believed in reincarnation. Yet, they were also Christians that spurned material wealth and considered Jesus to be the son of God. But since they openly despised the Catholic Church and labeled it as a tool of Satan, it isn’t surprising that they incurred its wrath (though this hardly excuses the horrific executions that the Church sponsored and called for, and then had secular authorities carry out).

The Cathar persecutions reached their heights decades before Dante’s birth. During his lifetime, a popular target of Catholic persecution was the Beguines, a loosely organized order of devout Christian women. These women held no particularly unorthodox beliefs, lived lives of voluntary simplicity, served the needy, accepted the Church and its authority, and attempted to provide translations of devotional documents that the laity could understand. Marguerite Porete, a Beguine who scandalously wrote (in French, and not in Latin) that it was possible for the soul to find union with God in this life and therefore not need to explicitly cultivate virtue, was rewarded with a trip to the stake in 1310.

And its nice to see that after the excruciating end that these people were given on earth, Dante’s God provides them with the bonus of eternal suffering in a like manner: in The Inferno, heretics are encased in burning tombs with red-hot walls.

All because of God’s “perfect” Love, Intellect, and Justice. And all for a minor difference in the interpretation of dogmas that cannot be tested against reality.

Simonists, Racists, and Cannibals

Posted in Atheism, Dante, Hell, Religion, The Infernova with tags , , , , , , on July 19, 2009 by S.A.

One group of sinners in Dante’s Inferno that most of us would not recognize are the simonists. We just don’t hear about the sin of simony these days, although you could say that many modern churchmen still practice a variant of it. A simonist was a member of the clergy that would accept cash in exchange for ecclesiastical favors. In other words, you gave them money and they did absolutely nothing at all real for you in return. (Perhaps the most obvious modern analogue for the simonists would be televangelists, since they have a similar M.O.)inf_19

The punishment for simonists in the Inferno was to be shoved, headfirst, into holes set in the ground, while having their feet set on fire. The holes were meant to represent baptismal fonts, those basins in church filled with holy water. When new arrivals came to this part of hell, no new holes were created; they simply pushed a current resident deeper into his hole and shoved the new one in on top of him.

These images from Dante: the searing heat, the huge vessels, and the relentless forcing down of the condemned, resonated with something I saw in my childhood that fairly traumatized me. And not surprisingly, it informed the corresponding canto in my satire of Dante’s classic, The Infernova.

Growing up in western New York in the 1970s, I’d regularly visit, with my family, an amusement park across the Canadian border called Crystal Beach. That park is gone now. In some ways, it was a place of sheer joy. There was a funhouse called the Magic Palace, the likes of which one doesn’t find anymore. And they had one of the huge slides no longer exist, apparently, where you’d hike up the stairs and then ride down the series of slopes and plateaus atop a burlap bag. But there was an absolute horror at Crystal Beach as well. It was a ride called Jungle Land, a ride that involved some small boats that floated along on a slow moving waterway inside a dark building. The interior contained various crocodile-filled dioramas meant to mildly scare or amuse. However, it was a display just outside the building that was the problem: At the entrance stood several huge animatronic cannibals and a pot set atop a faux fire. In the pot was some unfortunate European explorer they had captured and were slow-cooking. His face was a rictus of unspeakable terror and great pain. The “cook” would turn her head from side to side, with the same slow, regular cadence with which she’d push the head of the missionary down. She had to keep doing that because he was trying to get out of the boiling pot, apparently. Up and down his head went.

Every summer we’d go to Crystal Beach, and every time, I’d stand there and gawk in sick fascination at that inhuman display. I thought about how that poor fellow would be in the boiling water forever. That he was always in the pot, and his expression would always be the same. Even in the winter, I thought, the park would be closed, the electricity would be off, he would not be moving, but he’d still be there. And then the next summer his horrible cannibal captors would be cooking him again.

So in The Infernova, I ended up replacing the simonists with racists (I’d already found another level that was a good fit for the televangelists). Their punishment is to ever morph and take on the outward appearances of all of the people that they hate, and to only interact with one another based on skin color. Every strain of bigot is there: the racists so sure that a jealous God favored their own people more than others; the slave-owners that pointed to holy-book passages to justify their hateful traditions; and every primitive tribe that dehumanized others to the degree that they felt no qualms about killing and eating them.

It also occurred to me while writing my epic atheistic poem, that I was recreating my own kind of Jungle Land. There’s some really scary stuff in there, but it’s all a show, a simulation full of animatronics only. Nobody, not the worst simonist, televangelist, racist, or cannibal, deserves to spend eternity in the boiling pot.