To hell and back

One of the greatest works of literature ever written is Dante Alighieri’s 14th-century epic poem The Divine Comedy.  Written in three parts, each the size of a modern novel, The Divine Comedy has secured for Dante a place in world literature equivalent to William Shakespeare.  The poem’s main character is a fictional version of Dante himself, with the Roman poet Virgil acting as his trusty sidekick and companion.  The plot is simple: at the beginning of the poem Dante is lost in the woods and finds a door that leads to hell.  Guided by Virgil, he travels through hell (Part 1: Inferno), purgatory (Part 2: Purgatorio) and finally heaven (Part 3: Paradiso).

Dante loses his way at the beginning of THE DIVINE COMEDY and soon finds himself travelling through hell.

Dante loses his way at the beginning of THE DIVINE COMEDY and soon finds himself travelling through hell, guided by the morally upright Roman poet Virgil.

 You will not be surprised to know that the first part of The Divine Comedy–Dante’s journey to hell–has always been more popular and more widely read than the second and third parts.  Dante’s depiction of hell as an literal, physical place of agonizing tortures that last for all eternity, a view that reflected the established dogma of medieval Christianity (and, for that matter, medieval Islam) is a fascinating, and horrifying, vision.

Dante and Virgil, escorted across the river Styx, observe the tortures of the damned in the lake of fire.

Dante and Virgil, escorted across the river Styx by the boatman Phlegyas, observe the anguish of the damned in “a black sulkiness which can find no joy in God or man or the universe”. These tortures, according to the poem, will never end, continuing for trillions upon trillions of years and into eternity.

Interestingly, at one point in the poem Dante expresses compassion for the souls in hell but Virgil reprimands him.  Whether Dante the poet felt the same compassion for the souls in hell that his character felt has been debated by scholars for centuries.  (Remember that Dante, as a devout medieval Catholic, believed in a literal hell as depicted in his poem; the only question is how he *felt* about the existence of such a place).  But one thing is certain: the poem raises fascinating questions about our ideas of justice, compassion, and good and evil.

For reasons which will soon become obvious, Dante’s great poem is forever linked in my mind with the little-known 1997 science-fiction film Event Horizon by the English filmmaker Paul W.S. Anderson.  Hardly a great work of literature (or even a great film), Event Horizon nevertheless had an intriguing premise that proves that Dante’s story is still of a source of endless fascination: in the year 2047,  a spaceship called the Event Horizon manages to break the light barrier through the use of a so-called “gravity drive.”  But in doing so, it opens a rift to “a dimension of pure chaos, and endless suffering and torture”.  Or, to put it in Dante’s terms, hell.

The gravity drive of the spaceship EVENT HORIZON allows the ship to travel faster than the speed of light, with the unfortunate side-effect of opening a portal to hell.

The gravity drive of the spaceship EVENT HORIZON allows the ship to travel faster than the speed of light, with the unfortunate side-effect of opening a portal to hell. The effect of this is pretty much what you would expect it to be.

Now let me tell you an interesting story.  I saw Event Horizon when it was (briefly) in theaters back in 1997–the same year, coincidentally, that I read Dante’s Inferno in a comparative literature course.  I was 26 years old, single, lonely, and, you won’t be surprised to know, at the movie by myself.  While I didn’t think the movie was particularly good, there was one small subplot that made an impression on me: one of the crew members of the Event Horizon learns that her son is in hell and she is, obviously, tormented by this idea.

That night I had a dream.  In the dream I had a son.  I don’t know how old he was supposed to be in the dream, or even what he looked like; he was sort of a vague, blurry form.  He was sitting on the edge of a cliff which stood over–you guessed it!–hell.  Beside him was Virgil from Dante’s poem, shaking his head sadly.

I ran towards my son and even as I ran I remember thinking that I would probably not be able to save him from falling, but that I couldn’t bear the thought of him falling alone.  So I dove for him, grabbed him, but I was too late, and we both plunged off the cliff.  As we fell I remembered thinking of my son, “I love him forever.” Then I woke up.

You might think this was a nightmare, but it wasn’t.  Instead, I woke with a strange feeling that I had learned something important.  In Inferno Dante occasionally expresses compassion for the souls in hell but he never indicates any wish to join them.  Why would he? But then again, he never sees his own child among the flames.  It was an interesting lesson for a single man who was not yet a parent, a lesson that I only understand now, as an adult (I don’t consider 26-year-olds to truly be adults; at least, I certainly wasn’t).  When my daughter was born eleven years ago my life was transformed in a way that I couldn’t have predicted or envisioned, and I now know one thing that I didn’t before: I would go anywhere to be with her, to anywhere on earth, to the farthest reaches of heaven, or to the deepest depths of hell.  If I were in the boat with Dante, Virgil, and Phlegyas, and saw my daughter in the river Styx, I would have no choice but to jump out of the boat and join her.  I would tell her, “At least now you aren’t alone.”


Pretty dramatic stuff, isn’t it? But that is, after all, the point of great literature.  It makes us think about the big questions of the universe, and the even bigger questions that lie within our own minds.

I have no doubt that my decision would make me a terrible Christian according to Dante’s medieval worldview.  But it would also make me a pretty good father.  Not a bad thing to aim for, I think.

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