Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Reflections on the Inferno

Reading through the Inferno this time around, I find myself particularly interested in the use and role of language here within. When you consider the various ways and forms of its use, an interesting picture is created.

First of all, the gates of hell bear a message for those that pass under, a final sentence of the condemned. "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here," and dares to suggest that all the horrors of hell are the product of Divine Love. Perhaps they are. Then descend we into Limbo, where we find the citadel of the virtuous pagans, and the great philosophers there, who, by reason as through language, stave off the darkness of the Hell around them, a light which, like that same fire stolen by Prometheus of old, gives light but not comfort: What comfort can be found in Hell? But even here, even in the best possible world without salvation, the barriers of language are firmly in place: Saladin stands alone.

Unless I have misread, Hell appears to be a place utterly divided by language barriers. Dante and Virgil can speak only to those who can understand them, and in light of the unfathomable numbers which must suffer therein, this is not a small thing: part of the torment of Hell appears to be its isolation, and language barriers only serve to increase this. Not only to suffer eternally, but to be unable to communicate your suffering to the greater part of Hell's population, and therefore unable to make it less than it eternally is. Here we see the faint glimmering of a great truth: If Hell is to be eternal, it must always be happening *now.*

Descend we further and we encounter Charon, and further still the band of demons, and I note with interest that they have no difficulty understanding human speech, nor in being understood by humans. Yet the demons, though they can understand and be understood by the damned, are such low, such vulgar creatures that they scarcely have anything to say that is worth hearing. Hell, it seems, has a sense of humour, and there is no stronger evidence than this that it is God's handiwork: the damned do not laugh.

In stark contrast stands Purgatory. When souls arrive, they arrive singing, and not only that but singing *together,* and there is more in that than might be supposed. Already we find a spirit of cooperation vastly, vastly different from what exists in Hell. They are singing the Latin text of Psalm 114, which in English is as follows (The Holy Bible, NIV):

"When Israel came out of Egypt,
the house of Jacob from a people of foreign tongue,

Judah became God's sanctuary,
Israel his dominion.

The sea looked and fled,
the Jordan turned back;

the mountains skipped like rams,
the hills like lambs.

Why was it, O sea, that you fled,
O Jordan, that you turned back,

you mountains, that you skipped like rams,
you hills, like lambs?

Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord,
at the presence of the God of Jacob,

who turned the rock into a pool,
the hard rock into springs of water."

These are not simply singing pilgrims at the base of their holy mountain: these are God's chosen, who, though they have not yet reached the promised land, have not yet seen the hard rock become springs of water, fervently look forward to the Divine Promise that it will be so. Eve at the entrance to purgatory, even at its lowest levels, the souls within exhibit a level of trust that is simply inconceivable in Hell. The psychology of the damned is, to quote C.S. Lewis, one that is primarily concerned with its own dignity and advancement. "It is a place where everyone has a grievance, and everyone lives the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment." And in Dante, it is also God's answer to these evils: a last, stop-gap emergency measure to draw even the irredeemable as close to perfection as can be achieved. If the damned could see beyond these passions, beyond their little lives, beyond their suffering, towards any kind of perspective whatever that was not centered on their selves, they would no longer be in torment but in Limbo. But here, at the base of the holy mountain, the souls who are about to be plunged into the purifying fires of Purgatory sing a psalm of praise. Their focus is in the right place: not on their selves, but on each other. Unlike the language of Hell, their language serves its proper purpose. Now they walk and sing. Presently they will learn to fly; it is said that angels fly by taking themselves lightly. So may we all.