The Tenth Circle

At the risk of disturbing Dante’s magnificent architectonic  which allows only nine circles in Hell — nine being the perfect number, since when multiplied by any other number the integers always add up to nine, and being the product of 3 X 3 (three representing the Trinity, of course) — I would suggest that if he were alive today he might want to allow for a tenth circle.

To review (there will be a short test next period), Dante places the treacherous against kith and kin, folks like Judas, Brutus, and Cassius, in the pit of hell which is not a fiery pit, but a frozen wasteland. It is frozen because it is as far away from God as is possible in Dante’s geocentric universe. Some of the sinners’ heads are barely above the ice and close enough together that each person’s head is being gnawed upon by his neighbor. Some are twisted beyond recognition in the frozen ice. Others cry and their tears freeze against their cheeks. All are beyond redemption because they love only themselves and they never repented their sins.

In the tenth circle, which we can now imagine to be below the frozen wasteland, there are spaces reserved for modern-day sinners — folks like Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and their loyal supporters; and, of course,those among us who promote hatred and trade on the fears of frightened and ignorant people in order to increase their political power and prestige. We can also see the immensely wealthy who are blinded by their greed and can see only the huge bags of gold that are just out of reach. Even when they manage to drag their way to one of the bags, others appear just beyond and they spend all their time and energy seeking more and more. They are desperately in need of water, but there is none, because their own activities have dried up the lakes and ponds that we can see in the background, whips of dust being stirred up by brief winds that do not cool. Not that these men need the gold. It won’t do them any good in Hell. But they want it just the same. It is an uncontrolled urge and Dante was very hard on those among us who cannot control their urges.

Now, Dante allowed for the greedy and avaricious a circle much higher in his scheme, but these men are not only greedy, they are greedy at a time when there is widespread starvation and the planet is in danger of irreparable harm from the determined attempts of men such as these to line their pockets no matter the cost. And they are more than treacherous since their greed tends to the destruction not only of their country but also of our world. Thus, they must share the tenth circle with those who pile lie upon lie in order to have their way and who spread hatred and fear wherever they go. But, then, it’s not a small circle. There is plenty of room for growing numbers of folks who share the worldview of these stunted and purblind men.


In a recent post I mentioned that one of the sports journalists on ESPN referred to Russell Wilson, the quarterback of the Seattle Seahawks, as “boring.” He is a quiet, unpretentious young man who has pretty much kept his mouth shut and stayed out of trouble. That’s the problem. The talking head on ESPN preferred players like Richard Sherman who give the journalists something to write about. Writing about folks like Wilson might put the reader to sleep. Or something.

There is a certain element of truth in this comment, of course. But much of that is a result of the fact that the journalists seek out the sensational stories and leave the others alone. And that’s what we have become used to: it’s a self-fulfilling prophesy. We prefer the “exciting” stories and find anything that isn’t about violence, sex, and general mayhem “boring.” As the special effects people take over the making of movies, the movies themselves are excessively violent and horrifying, dulling our sensibilities and requiring no imagination whatever. In order not to be bored many of us now require smash-mouth images — on the TV and movie screen and in our books and papers. Sensationalism sells.

I have always thought that the word “boring” describes the mental state of the person using the word. One usually hears it from the mouths of those who have run out of diversions. It’s not so much that the situation, the book, or the person being discussed is boring; it’s more a matter of the person making the judgment. They can’t think of anything to do and have nothing going on between their ears. A person who is alive to what is going on around him or her will not be bored no matter where they happen to be or who or what they are reading about.

But I will grant that writing about the Russell Wilsons of the world might be less than scintillating to the one who worries only about selling his stories to a jaded audience.  After all, Dante whizzed through his Inferno and found writing about Paradise very taxing. And if Dante found Paradise hard to write about one can perhaps pardon the journalist who doesn’t want to write about Russell Wilson. Perhaps. On the other hand, it would appear that the real test of a good writer is his or her ability to make the boring exciting. After all, Dante did finish writing about Paradise and it was a stunning achievement.

Along these lines, Daniel Defoe explains the difficulties of writing about the “reformed” and “penitent” Moll Flanders, as contrasted with the “wicked” woman of the first parts of the novel by that name:

“It is suggested that there cannot be the same life, the same brightness and beauty, in relating the penitent part as in the criminal part. If there is any truth in that suggestion, I must be allowed to say, ’tis because there is not the same taste and relish in the reading; and indeed it is too true that the difference lies not in the real worth of the subject so much as in the gust and palate of the reader.”

Defoe almost certainly has his tongue planted firmly in his cheek in this Author’s Preface to his novel. But he makes a good point. We are hoist by our own petard. Wouldn’t it be better for us all if the writers occasionally wrote about the “boring” folks who do remarkable things, even heroic things, in a quiet and unassuming way? Should we insist, like the journalists themselves, that life’s only interesting when awful things happen? As Defoe suggests, that says more about us than it does about our world which is full of beauty and goodness if we only know where to look. Or are we, in fact, too busy looking for the sensational and the exciting because our sensibilities have become deadened by the journalists, movies, and games that keep pushing our faces into the pages or images of the scum of the earth?

What Went Wrong?

According to a Yahoo News story, pundits around the country lost no time in seeking answers to the question of what went wrong with Mitt Romney’s attempt to buy himself a presidency. As the story tells us:

Seeking answers to why their presidential candidate lost the election, the first round of consensus on the right has focused on the Republican need to recalibrate its message to connect with the nation’s shifting voting demographics—or, at the very least, acknowledge that the country is changing.

The search for answers about What Went Wrong began almost immediately on election night, a signal that some had already been mulling the possibility of a loss for some time.

One of the people who was attempting to figure out what went “wrong” was Karl Rove who spent $300 million of his own hard-earned cash on a losing cause before losing it himself on Fox News on election night when he refused to allow that the Republicans had lost Ohio — while in the process of losing every “swing state” except North Carolina. And no one knows for sure how much the Koch brothers lost, but it’s a safe bet that it’s quite a bit more than Rove lost. What a shame.

But even more interesting is our insistence on knowing what is going to happen before it happens. Think of the millions of dollars ESPN collects from sponsors each year to pay its talking heads to tell viewers before sporting events who will win and who will lose. Indeed, ESPN has a segment called “Cold, Hard Facts” in which experts give their opinions about what will happen next weekend in the main sporting events of interest to viewers — showing that (a) we have no idea what a “fact” is and (b) confirming our penchant for knowing what will happen before it happens. In any event these experts are almost always wrong, but we listen to them anyway — and we join in over beer at the local watering-place knowing even less than they do and having even weaker grounds for our predictions. But why do we do it? Why don’t we simply enjoy the moment we are in and let the future work itself out?

In the fourth bolgia, or ditch, of the eighth circle of Dante’s Inferno, Virgil and Dante see a group of men whose heads are turned backwards on their bodies and who walk through eternity with their tears streaming from their eyes and down their backs and between their butt cheeks not knowing where they are going. They are the fortune-tellers. They are in the eighth of nine circles of Hell, in the circle of malice and fraud — deeper down in Hell than murderers and suicides. Dante was strictly orthodox and he was simply giving us (graphic) images of the punishment that his church taught was waiting for sinners. It is wrong for humans to try to tell the future because only God can know what is in store for us.

Of course, people like Karl Rove and the Koch brothers didn’t simply try to foresee the future, they attempted to force it to their will by contributing millions of dollars to the political candidates of their choice. Dante doesn’t place such people in his Inferno, but we can imagine these people in the fourth bolgia where they push a huge (gold) boulder up the side of the ditch only to have it roll back again as it nears the top — like Sisyphus. That seems appropriate.

Most of us reject this sort of thing in this enlightened age. We are way too sophisticated for that sort of superstitious nonsense: bodies walking through Hell with their heads on backwards or pushing boulders up the side of a ditch. How absurd! But the question remains: why do we not treasure the moment and let the future take care of itself? Why do we insist on knowing what will happen before it happens?  And what makes the obscenely wealthy among us think they can determine the future by simply writing a check? I do wonder.