Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Category of Bad

a reflection on Dante's Inferno

There were some dark days during the reading of this book at school. Why am I doing this to myself? was a question not far from the minds of most of my classmates and I, many times, as we read of conditions of the soul too grisly to detail here. It's a painful journey.
     But as, at long last, with Dante and Virgil his guide we passed through the bottom of Hell, the navel of the universe, where Satan sits fixed in eternal ice bearing the punishing weight of the world, and as gravity flipped around and we found ourselves now, after our long and lurid descent, just barely moving upwards, climbing up and out of Hell-- as the light of silent and long-missed stars hit our faces out of that darkness, like air rushing into your lungs as your nose and mouth finally break the surface of the water after too long a dive-- as the River Lethe, the River of Forgetfulness flowing down from Purgatory's cleansing mount, broke upon our parched ears and eyes-- I got the sense that maybe it had been worth it. That maybe this whole journey was nearer the heart of things that I had realized.
     We have misplaced the Category of Bad, we fallen sinners. Fear, disgust, and anger seem bad. So do perpetually burning feet, souls turned into sickly trees, and the continuous company of a vicious three-headed dog. However, sin is so bad as to justly merit all six of these. Prevailing opinion insists that the way to solve the world's problems is to eliminate negativity with disarmament and tolerance. Get rid of the negatives of combat, offense, and contention. What is missing is the recognition that while there are bad guys, the good guys need guns. While there are bad options, there need to be rejections. While there are hateful things, there need to be harsh words. While there are wrong ideas, there needs to be discussion. While there is evil, there needs to be Hell.
     While reading this book, I have found myself more critical of my subconscious categorizings. Scary may not equal bad. Pleasant may not equal good. There is real badness out there, and its consummation is repulsive. Fear and flee the hellishness of subtle selfishness, not the pain of self-discipline. Some things are bad. Some are just unpleasant--even if violently so. It's a type of reminder present in many good things, but particularly pointed in this harrowing journey. Because even here, as Dante and Virgil find inscribed on the gates of Hell, the will of God is being executed, and the eternal perfection of God expressed. Even in this pinnacle-pit of pain, the Justice of God shows itself with a terrible, terrible rightness.
     And there are things too terrible to look on for long, which is why it was such a blessed relief to my psyche that at the end of this part of Dante's journey from the Dark Wood of Error (where he finds himself at the beginning of the poem) to (as, at least, the title of the final volume of this epic attests) Paradise, we meet the River of Forgetfulness. Suffer, this flowing river seems to say. Feel this pricking spur of pain. And then, on some level, forget. Because this flame you leave behind cannot burn you. Ever.

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