In Dante’s Inferno we are guided through the city of Dis, the walled city of Hell. The city is divided in concentric walled circles which descend lower as they near the middle. The inner part of each section is reserved for a certain class of sinner, and each sin, and the punishment for that sin, grows darker as the center draws closer. The lower parts of Dis are terrible indeed, and there is some indication that Dante believes the way deeper into Hell is easier than trying to get back out again.
If we are to take the work of Dante out of context of the 1300’s when the book was written, we leave out the world in which the man lived, but I will suggest to you at this point we ought to do just that. I say we treat Dante not as a man of his times, nor in fact a man at all, but as a person whose world is defined not by time but by his art, and by his humanity. I will suggest to you this is entirely appropriate, and we need not think of ourselves or our times that much more different than those when the book was written, three hundred years hence.
Whatever else we believe, I think it is important to believe that art transcends time to a degree. Art, whether it be the painting on a cave wall or a fresco on the ceiling of a chapel, is a reflection of the creativity of the human mind. Symbols, whether they be painted figures or words arranged in a certain order, reveal not so much the personality of the person, or mirror the times, but they reveal the human mind to be an organ of complexity and nuance. The painting of the Mona Lisa is not a picture of a woman. Moby Dick is not a fish story. Dante’s Inferno is not the religious treatise it appears to be. Inferno is the scaffolding where the idea of circles and punishment are hung for us to either see, or not see depending on what we are reading.
Timeless, I would suspect, is the human mind’s reaction to abuse, both physical and emotional. Cuts and bruises may heal, the person who abuses the victim may go away, or be jailed, or killed, but the affects of the abuse live on inside the mind of the victim, and all too often we discover that someone who abuses children was abused as a child. At first glance this is counter intuitive, but my theory is they feel the only way to slay the monster is to become the monster. My taken on the mantle of one who commits the abuse, it is a way to remove themselves from being the object of abuse.
Like the walled city of Dis, this is a circle that continues onward and downward. I do not think it accidental that Dante’s world was circular, and I do not think it accidental that his vision of hell involved victims inside their own place in Hell. In fact, I will go so far as to suggest that Hell itself, mirrors the human mind to a degree, where retribution and punishment await those who have sinned. The deeper you go into either the harder it is to return to the outside and still be whole.
Yet the concept of Purgatory itself is one of hope. The punishment is in theory temporary and only after a certain time will fate be decided. It is not a given that someone who has suffered abuse will turn into the same monster. It is not a given that someone who has found themselves inside the downward gyre cannot stop and turn away from it. If we can agree the human mind can construct the walls of a prison that exists wholly within, we must also agree those walls can be deconstructed and those trapped within, freed.
The walls of the prison within, the Purgatory of the personality, is as carefully crafted as any piece of artwork ever shown in a gallery or spray painted on the side of a rail car. Artists of all crafts and species have been known to be a tweaked bunch as a whole. But it is the human mind that drives all of this, and in each piece of artwork, in each line of text, and in each volume of work there are clues as to how the mind works, and what it is we see in ourselves that is good and is evil. Inferno is not a story about sin and punishment but rather it is a reflection of fear, and of hope.
This is not to say each and every work has some deeply hidden meaning that can be revealed as some revealing truth about its creator, but each work does mirror the mind of the artist in some way. Who they have been crafted to be is revealed in their own craft. Creativity, if thought of as an extension of the divine, recreates the person who created it. As wood feeds the fire, and the fires feeds on the wood, the wood and the fire are eventually both gone, yet they leave ashes, coals, smoke, and perhaps, the warmth of the fire reshaped metal, or cooked food, or gave light to the cave painting. This is the very nature of creativity and the mind.
Inferno, divinely inspired, an act of madness, or perhaps, just a story about Hell, has given life to this conversation, many years past the author’s own life. We know very little as to why he has given us this, or what caused this vision of his. What we can know, if we uncover enough clues, is why this speaks to us as individuals and as a whole. The idea of the downward gyre, a descent into worsening conditions and less humane humans, is timeless as good and evil.
What does it say that we are fascinated by this?