Sunday, February 26, 2012


Why the Inferno is the most interesting part of Divine Comedy

While the Purgatorio and especially the Paradiso tend to bore the modern reader, the fascination with the Inferno, that “Canticle of Pain,” only keeps growing. One reason for its literary success is vivid imagery wed to a concise narrative. When we call a landscape or a scene “Dantesque,” we mean something resembling the Inferno – never his tedious Paradiso.

Let’s consider this passage showing Bertrand de Born, a famous troubadour (1140s – 1215) who finds himself in hell for ‘sowing discord.” The sowers of discord are paraded before us in various degree of mutilation (“as they tore others apart, so they are torn”). The most mutilated of all is the prophet Muhammad, whom Dante regarded as a sower of religious discord. But let’s turn to Bertrand de Born, met by Dante the Pilgrim and his guide Virgil in the 8th Circle of Hell:

I saw it there; I seem to see it still –
a body without a head, that moved along
like all the others in the spew and spill.

It held the severed head by its own hair,
swinging it like a lantern in its hand;
and the head looked at us and wept in despair.

It made itself a lamp of its own head,
and they were two in one and one in two;
how this can be, He knows who so commanded.

And when it stood directly under us
it raised the head at arm’s length toward our bridge
the better to be heard, and swaying thus

it cried: “O living soul in this abyss,
see what a sentence has been passed upon me,
and search all Hell for one to equal this!

When you return to the world remember me:
I am Bertrand de Born, and it was I
who set the young king on to mutiny,

son against father, father against son
as Achitophel set Absalom and David;
and since I parted those who should be one

in duty and in love, I bear my brain
divided from its source within this trunk;
and walk here where my evil turns to pain,

and eye for an eye to all eternity:
thus is the law of Hell observed in me.

Canto 28, tr. John Ciardi

Gustave Doré

“It” is the headless body, no longer a “he.” In Italian, “lantern” is the beautiful word “lucerna.”

The “law of hell” in Dante’s Commedia is contrapasso – “counter-suffering” or maybe “equivalent suffering” or “symbolically correct suffering.” What Bertrand de Born actually says is Cosi s’osserva in me lo contrapasso.

Francesca and Paolo da Rimini were once unlawfully joined; now they are stuck together, unable to separate, tossed by the whirlwind (which reminds me of the song by Charles Aznavour: “Love at last you have found me. Now the storm begins.”)

Below: another example of contrapasso: the circle of fortune-tellers in Canto 20. Now their heads are twisted backwards, so they see only what’s behind them. In life they tried to see into the future. Now their sin is “reversed” – some might say, not reversed but literalized, since now they can’t see what’s immediately before them, compelled to walk backwards for all eternity.

Giovanni Stradano: The Fortune Tellers

Of special interest in Canto 20 is Dante’s show of pity for the sinners and Vergil’s reproach:

Reader . . . ask yourself
how I could check my tears, when near at hand

I saw the image of our humanity
distorted so that the tears that burst from their eyes
ran down the cleft of their buttocks. Certainly

I wept. I leaned against the jagged face
of a rock and wept so that my Guide said: “Still?
Still like the other fools? There is no place

for pity here. Who is more arrogant
within his soul, who is more impious
than one who dares to sorrow at God’s judgment?

The modern reader is of course moved by Dante’s weeping, and dares to feel compassion for those who suffer -- a matter of empathy that is taken for granted in our relatively comfortable and secure age. The Commedia, however, was written during hard-hearted times when public executions by disemboweling, being broken on the wheel, and the like hideous tortures were popular entertainment, the whole town or village gathering at the market square, the on-lookers jeering at the victim. The idea of compassion was centuries in the making; life had to become more secure first and, paradoxically, less overwhelmed with suffering.

It’s only natural that when earthly life is mostly unhappy, people yearn for bliss in heaven. But Christian heaven was never depicted with any specificity. For one thing, humans need variety, and that’s just where images of heaven are deficient. Duration of any mental state is an important determinant of the pleasure it can provide. If pleasure lasts too long, it becomes painful. Unless there is sufficient variety, an eternity of harp-twanging heaven morphs into hell. William Blake spoke about this:

Time is the mercy of Eternity.
Without Time’s swiftness,
Which is the swiftest of all things,
All were eternal torment.

Freud, in Civilization and Its Discontents, makes this acute observation:

“One feels inclined to say that the intention that man should be ‘happy’ is not included in the plan of ‘Creation’. What we call happiness in the strictest sense comes from the (preferably sudden) satisfaction of needs which have been dammed up to a high degree, and it is by its nature only possible as an episodic phenomenon. When any situation that is desired by the pleasure principle is prolonged, it only produces a feeling of mild contentment. We are so made that we can derive intense enjoyment only from a contrast and very little from a state of things. Goethe indeed warns us that ‘nothing is harder to bear than a succession of fair days.’ But this may be an exaggeration.” 

Not having lived in Southern California, how did Goethe know that endless sunshine is a form of torture? Come to think of it, he lived for a while in Italy. But there is nothing like Southern California if you want to discover how much you love clouds and rain. By the way, Freud really makes a good point about happiness. The most intense kind is based on contrast. Fortunately there is also contentment and a sense of well-being.

Has it really been a tragedy for the imagination, the loss of Satan and hell for many (perhaps most) of educated readers? Milosz lamented that we lost the metaphysical “second space” – in John Lennon’s famous words, “Above us, only sky.” Heaven and hell are now thought to be states of mind, and not actual places (actually Milton said much the same, noting that the mind can make “heaven of hell, and hell of heaven”). Wallace Stevens lamented it too, though not from a believer’s viewpoint. Yet his lament is even more poignant:

Phantoms, what have you left? What underground?
What place in which to be is not enough
To be? You go, poor phantoms, without place
Like silver in the sheathing of the sight,
As the eye closes . . .  How cold the vacancy
When the phantoms are gone and the shaken realist
First sees reality.

~ Walace Stevens, “Esthétique du Mal”

Of course for an astrophysicist, and basically for any scientist, this world – the reality of matter and energy – is totally fascinating and rich with mystery, beyond what believing in ghosts and angels and devils could provide. (This is off to the side, but I love what a friend said about religion and politics: “It’s when a politician says Satan that you know he’s crazy.”)


Let me mention that recently I happened to be in Encinitas, that Mecca of New Age eclectica. In one of the several Lotus-something bookstores, I saw the title “To Heaven and Beyond.” This totally amused me, something I needed at the end of a day full of idiotic frustrations it would be a sin against the reader to enumerate. 

“To heaven and BEYOND.” Heaven is not enough any more. Heaven is so yesterday!

I stood there with a smile on my face – and suddenly the title of my third book came to me. You see, years ago I had an unforgettable dream of trying to save the manuscripts of my three wisdom books from the fire – then realized I’d have to re-create them. The title of the first one was The Serpent and the Dove (“Be ye as subtle as the serpent and gentle as the dove”).

It took me many years after the dream to “see” the titles of the other two books. The title of the second book was to be Letters to a Middle-Aged Poet. The third book remained a puzzle until the doors of perception were cleansed that evening in Encinitas and I saw it: Spiritual No More.

And the weight I didn’t even know I was carrying fell off me, and a feeling of great joy enveloped me as I ascended into clarity.

Now I can agree with Mary Oliver’s “You don’t have to be good” if I translate it into “You don’t have to be spiritual.”

Furthermore, I’d like to translate “what the animal of your body loves doing” to “what your mind loves doing.” If my mind is happy, my body is also happy.

I had this thought before, but now the realization was complete: instead of attending lectures on emptiness, chanting, meditation classes and the like (all wonderful for those who find nourishment in those activities), I needed to spend more of my time doing what I love doing. Insights tend to have a stunning simplicity: forget “spirituality.” Just do what you love doing.

The energy and sense of effortless accomplishment that comes from doing what you love, and afterwards, blissfully tired, falling asleep smiling to yourself – it’s a magnificent surprise. It’s “beyond heaven.”


Some people are likely to ask, “But isn’t writing your spiritual practice?” No. To me writing is writing. It’s not a ritual. It’s not the least bit like prayer (at least as I’ve experienced prayer – practically the opposite of writing).

For me writing is writing, just as a tree is a tree, and not a manifestation of the Spirit. Others are welcome to see the Spirit in it, or the Earth Goddess, or Intelligent Design. “It’s a free country,” as people in Milwaukee like to say (at least that’s where I learned the saying, along with all the “bad words” in English). I see only the tree and the wind in the leaves, and love the tree as a tree and the wind as wind.

From a poem of mine:

The same moon moved between
darkness and light-wounded clouds,
winter’s hungry Wolf Moon,

adding phantom beauty to beauty.
“That is all,” a master said.
That is all but it is splendid” –


Below: as I see the Spirit of Milwaukee

I don’t have any special time set aside for writing. It’s not a practice – it’s writing. I write whenever quiet opens up and I feel like writing. In the case of poetry, I write if the knocking of words inside my head becomes too painful to ignore.

Deep reading actually comes ahead of writing. Joseph Campbell was once asked, “What kind of spiritual practice do you have?” He replied, “I underline in pencil sentences in a book.” Now that brings a big smile to my face. Yes, that’s my “spiritual practice” too.

At the same time, I am happy to announce a new arrival in my scriptorium: a heart geode – it could also be called a womb geode. It’s gorgeous: beautifully polished, lined with a wealth of amethyst crystals. It’s the most beautiful thing in the house, the most beautiful thing I’ve ever owned. We carry on little conversations, the geode and I.  “Amethyst” means “not intoxicated.” In the past, my chief intoxication has been delusional, depressive thinking. Amethyst, a rationalist stone, keeps me cool-headed. How can I sweat the small stuff with such beauty next to me showing me what’s really important?

A friend observed, “So you too are a crystal-waving rationalist. Welcome to the sisterhood.”

At last I belong.


My special thanks to Sarah for the lines by Blake and for the “crystal-waving rationalist sisterhood.” 

And thanks to Marjorie for "Fish of the Day." 



The new blog speaks directly to me. Even my dreams are telling me I need to face the fact that I have been dabbling in various spiritual practices over the past few decades as a way to not go completely into my atheism, perhaps holding out for something else that might really be "out there."

What would it be for me to just forget spirituality?  Some spiritual practices (meditation) etc. have brought me great pleasure, particularly during eras of my life when nothing else was bringing me pleasure.


I envy your for having experienced pleasure in meditation. I have found meditation extremely difficult and maddeningly boring. I could do a "listening" meditation (e.g. traffic and other random noises) and experience some slight pleasure, but never the bliss that some people report. For bliss, I go to music and nature, and of course good books, though it’s pleasure rather than bliss – except after a period of reading deprivation.  

I too once dabbled in “spirituality” – in California, who hasn’t? I’ve had a few interesting experiences, but once a more clear sense of my vocation as a writer emerged (though it was never just a straight line – always zigzags and spirals – now poetry, now journalism, then back to poetry, then into prose, etc.), there simply was no time, and delving into astrology, say, lost appeal. There was no longer time for this dubious stuff, and I wasn't gaining any real nourishment from it, any true wisdom.

Oddly enough, I was given a gift of a Polish New Age magazine, and found it a quantum level of sophistication above what I’d learned to expect. The articles used the various disciplines (should we call them “occult” or “spiritual”? is going to a psychic – and I suspect psychics are becoming more popular than psychotherapists – spiritual or occult? that’s another issue here) as platforms (I almost want to say “excuses”) for discussing psychology, mythology, history, art, and philosophy. There was also quite a bit of humor. I could see that the magazine was slanted toward the educated.

But I’m glad I basically dropped it all. It was a drain on my time and a distraction. Yes, it’s possible just to drop “spirituality.” If I ever miss it, I know where to find it. I can understand the popularity of psychics among the educated. It’s not the claims that these people can hear messages from the dead or from the fairies and so forth. That’s what I call the platform. It’s that something unexpected is likely to be said, something “out of the blue” that can change our whole perspective. Another benefit is getting empathy. And the atmospheric touches such as various crystals and other magical objects, silk and velvet, the low lighting – it’s not the sterile semi-medical setting we’ve come to associate with various “helping professions.” So I can see some positives. A bit of irrationality can be so soothing, e.g. the idea that "there are no accidents." Of course we want to believe in an ordered universe. And then there is the lunatic fringe, and books stuffed with the most outrageous nonsense allegedly dictated by extra-terrestrials, and stories of abusive and downright dangerous gurus. 

But all this is minor stuff. You hit on the important issue when you say that “being spiritual” may be holding out for something else that might really be "out there." In the West, the whole “spiritual” business started with the body/soul dualism for which Plato tends to get more blame than anyone else, except perhaps Descartes. Yet already John Locke, in his 1690 Essay Concerning Human Understanding. suggested that it wasn’t necessary to posit a material body inhabited by an immaterial soul. We might just as well suppose that matter is capable of producing mental life.

In modern terms, we’d say that mental life results from brain function. We don’t think we have an immortal mind – we realize that the mind is not a thing, but a form of brain function. But because of millennia of ignorance about the brain, and our great longing to believe that death is not the end of us, many people believe that we contain an invisible little self that survives our death and goes somewhere afterwards, hopefully to paradise or at least to the “astral world.” In Islamic paradise, the soul even gets to have sex with beautiful virgins. It’s interesting that only Judaism, at least before being influenced by Christianity, has managed to avoid wishful thinking about the afterlife.

“All is matter” and “all is spirit” are both obsolete positions. What works best is the assumption that matter (specifically the brain) has evolved to be capable of producing mental life (a process, and not a thing). Once we drop the ancient baggage of an immaterial soul as a thing separate from the body, we still have all the richness of our mental life. Atheism does not deny that richness. The brain keeps on working as it always did. But we are forced to recognize that “this is it.” There is no “pie in the sky,” and thus we better not waste the “now,” the unique moment of our lives. That’s all we have, “but it is splendid.”


I love the “Spiritual No More” section.

Art, not politics and not religion, is the universal language of healing.


Yes, art that is real art – not propaganda or pointless uglification – something that hushes us into delight. Art lifts the mind to a different mental plane.

I love all men who dive. ~ Melville


The pictures by Doré are among the most haunting of all illustrations, especially of Dante and Coleridge's 'Ancient Mariner.' ( I only wish  he could have done Moby Dick, I believe he could have captured Ahab  perfectly)

Your mention of Zen brought to mind the 'kinder, gentler' aspects of the world's main faiths. Of course, the Quakers come to mind, as do the Sufi's.( There needs to be a conference in Jerusalem of leading Quaker and Sufi elders!)

The older I get the more convinced I become of poetry's power  to awaken one to a new awareness of the beauty and joy of the world. Kazantzakis comes to mind as well, his bold 'Odyssey' is a quest into  the deep corners of the mind; as Melville would say, 'I love all men who dive.' We all must dive and dive deep, life is indeed a wonder and something to be treasured every day....and your blog is one I count as  one of those wonders to treasure.


Yes, I think Doré would have been the perfect illustrator for Moby Dick. Doré knew how to render emotions. I love the Melville quote. Yes, if only we could have the “kinder, gentler” sorts of faith. I think they are emerging. The old hell-fire based religions aren’t working anymore, and both “gentler faiths” and humanistic life philosophies are emerging. It takes time to make a full transition to loving the world instead of rejecting it. It takes generations of living in relative peace and comfort.

Perhaps it’s too daring to use words like “paradise.” It’s religion that taught us to think in terms of extremes: heaven and hell. Maybe the goal should be modest: more good days than bad days. More kindness than meanness. Imagine: interactions that are 90% kindness. This leaves room for occasional melt-downs, but not habitual falling apart and taking it out not necessarily on someone, but on yourself (I was an expert in taking it out on myself).

Basically I’m in agreement with Ginette Paris who says, in Wisdom of the Psyche, that it’s still early after the death of god (the traditional toxic god), and it will take generations to form viable philosophies that can sustain us through life’s challenges. And I am all in favor of taking all the wisdom and poetry we can find in the past, including religious traditions. I’ve just been told not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. To me the supernatural elements are the bathwater, and the baby is the wisdom that can sustain us. The Golden Rule is the main example.

And the bathwater – well, we enjoy the Greek and Norse myths without any need to worship Zeus or Wotan. I think the Judeo-Christian stories will eventually be appreciated in the same manner, though they are more disturbing, e.g. Abraham’s blind obedience when he’s told to sacrifice Isaac. There will have to be a lot of collective thinking on how to deal with the toxic part. 


  1. Oriana, thanks for the post and the opening lines from Ciardi's translation of Dante's Inferno. It's the one I first read and it still holds the most power for me. It's plain speak is the only way to talk about hell.

  2. Likewise: Ciardi's translation is the first one I read, and I still go back to it, after having sampled a myriad other translations (there is even an Inferno in which each canto is translated by a different poet, all big names -- and nobody can equal Ciardi, who feels so visceral and authentic.)

    At this point I see heaven and hell as states of mind. It's amazing to ponder that Pope JP2 said this very thing, infallibly, ex cathedra! Or maybe not all that amazing; he was a very bright man. Dante's vision still applies to states of mind, right in this life.

    Thanks for commenting.

  3. Now that I read more of of your own progression I begin to understand your response to my comment about Rilke. I wonder if accetance of non-spirituality is also a rejection of its existence.

    "But because of millennia of ignorance about the brain, and our great longing to believe that death is not the end of us, many people believe that we contain an invisible little self that survives our death and goes somewhere afterwards, hopefully to paradise or at least to the “astral world.”

    There are some of us that have genuinely experienced existence as separate from the body. It may be difficult to accept unless one has had the objective experience. Once it has happened it's like returning from death -- you can never forget it, nor would you wish to.

    Thanks so much Orian for your post. You are filling in my education in ways impossible to measure!

  4. I know that the modern movement is anti-religious and perhaps anti-spirituality. I think one can acknowledge the darker sides of religion without throwing out the baby. I know a woman who was a nun for eight years and then ran as fast and as far as she could from the Catholic church yet she has kept that spiritual drive within her and I do think it is a drive -- call it spirit, call it art, call it aesthetics, but don't call it a bunch of neurons firing LOL.

  5. Just because at the physiological level it IS a bunch of neurons firing does not detract from what that thirst for the spiritual might be. Rilke said, "I don't believe in belief." He wanted to know experientially that something greater which we might call spirit. A few years ago I'd probably say that I have that thirst myself. Then something amazing happened: I let go of depression, and saw my life gradually become more and more satisfying. As this life became happier, the longing for happiness in the hereafter simply faded. Not that I'd turn it down -- what a wonderful surprise that would be, if consciousness could survive neuron death, if some psychological continuity persisted. I'm not counting on it, and strangely enough that does not throw me into despair (smaller things than death used to throw me into despair). On the contrary, I feel even more energized to keep creating a beautiful now.

  6. Oh, sorry, I missed the post before the "bunch of neurons." Yes, I imagine that having had an out-of-body experience can be powerful. There is a neurochemical explanation for those visions, and again, I don't mean to say that just because neuro-active chemicals are involved, that somehow lessens everything. The brain is fabulous! It creates visions to heal itself -- or it can do that. I think the human brain is the most astonishing and wonderful thing in the known universe. If I gain evidence of something beyond it -- and I don't mean a whole network of brains, which creates the genius of humanity, but something entirely different -- I'm open to it. It would be very exciting.

    Subjective experience -- I wouldn't be a poet if I didn't treasure it. But I haven't had an experience yet -- and I've had some amazing ones -- that I didn't ultimately know (totally, utterly know, deep in every particle of my being)was not created by my own brain in its search to make sense of reality and enable me to survive. Of course I've had my visions. My brain is not inferior to the brains of mystics, I don't think. In the Middle Ages, of course I would have said that I heard the voice of an angel (at least). Because of my knowledge, saying that is impossible -- unless god is redefined to a very considerable degree. And even through the bible, we can trace a considerable evolution of the god-concept. I've recommended this book again and again: Robert Wright's THE EVOLUTION OF GOD. And Wright is actually a believer, just not an orthodox one.

    Anyway, if it helps someone live (stay sober, etc) to believe, I'm fine with it. For me having a vocation is enough, but it wasn't always that way. When life was very hard, I kept trying for some "invisible means of support." Finally, I discovered that for me only work works. For me, having a vocation is a necessity. Spiritual quest could never substitute, and was in fact in the way -- but that's my particular whole-hearted orientation. I need to give myself completely. That's just my intensity, my kind of neural genetics combined with environmental influences.

    Actually I don't think we disagree, only speak a somewhat different language. I know that centuries ago I would have been burned at the stake for daring to reveal my thoughts. There has been progress -- that cheers me immensely. And progress since the day when I was warned, at 17, soon after my arrival in the U.S., never to admit to atheism -- "This is not Europe." So I'm coming out of the closet after decades of silence . . . even if atheists are still reviled and misunderstood, even if it still takes courage. At long last I don't feel like a coward. I'm expiating past cowardice, at least a bit.

    1. Oriana,

      Sorry I've been occupied for a few days and came back to your well considered reply. I'm afraid we do disagree and that's perfectly alright! I would never try to convince anyone they were a spirit nor would I proselytize the divinity of the brain. Both parts have their place -- it's a matter of which created which and on this point we could speak ad infinitum!

      I am glad you feel a sense of purpose and freedom. Life itself is the pleasure we get out on a daily basis and how we create that life given our physical limitations and are illimitable potential.

  7. Oriana,

    I have no use for Inferno, limited use for Purgatorio, and I absolutely adore Paradiso. Just imagine a bunch of serious saints jumping in and out of the river of living water, lounging on the petals of the white rose, and flying around like bees. It has to bring a smile to your face. Giovanni di Paolo's illustrations of Paradiso are my favorites.

    If you live in Hell and only know Hell, you'll be impressed by Hell, but if you tasted Paradise, you'd be drawn to it like a bee to a rose.

    Here's my poem, "Rosa Mystica" - published in an online chapbook on Dante, edited by Kathi Stafford, Beatrice Emerges. It starts from a quotation from Dante.

    Rosa Mystica

    "The love that calms this heaven
    always offers welcome with such greetings
    to make the candle ready for its flame"
    ~ Dante, Il Paradiso, Canto XXX: 52-54

    I knew it all along
    (at least, suspected)
    Beatrice’s swimming cap
    betrays Heaven
    as nothing but an oversized

    pool where saints swim
    like fish in the river of light
    and God-Mother rests
    on white lounge petals
    of a Mystic Rose

    Giovanni di Paolo’s
    illumined pages of Il Paradiso
    unveil creature comforts
    beyond the sapphire glow
    of Dante’s Empyrean

    Angels curl in their pods
    like babies asleep
    on metallic wings
    with round pillow halos
    of shimmering gold

    Multi-hued gowns of cobalt,
    salmon, palm green, and sienna
    reveal the childish joy
    of heavenly hosts
    adoring the Trinity

    Cherubs play hopscotch
    dance the Sarabande
    twirl like a swarm of bees
    among light-bursts that do not
    sear their eyes with pain

    Sparkling waterfalls
    of laughter, diamond waves
    on the robes of our Mother,
    Daughter of her Son
    figlia del tuo figlio

    She gave Him a kiss
    on the threshold of Rose Garden
    serene Love’s Greeting
    beneath seraphic wings
    rainbows that cut our darkness