The Necessity of Journey

An Essay on Dante’s Inferno Canto I/III

Illustration by Gustave Dore

I had been feeling frightfully aimless. I felt a need to wander far fields, or knock the hats off those that still wore them, or to flee to the sea. While debating which of these to undertake, I had been wandering through the public park next to my home. Suddenly, a great cluster of trees surrounded me – I’d never seen them before.

Soon I was lost among their branch and bramble, their shade and frightful shadow.

No path there found my feet. But they crushed the thorns. And were cut by the thorns . Pits did imperil. Carefully I trod through that coughing ground, ere the slope of a mountainside I found.

The trees disappeared above the line of a thin, high air.

Grey rocks in upward slope. Up I walked. Up there were stars.

But a mountain lion was behind a grey rock. It stood out in front of my way, and would not move nor allow no matter my maneuver up. Its eyes shone with hellish gold. Spots, like spinning looms of Time, speckled its fur. It frightened me back down to the dark trees and the thorns that pierce and rend.

The lion stalked me, even into the deepest dark.

A man was under the moon, I called to him for help. Mr. Dante! an old friend, was wandering there. I hailed him. And he me.

I pointed out to him the lion, whose eyes glowed up in a tree. Mr. Dante nodded and said:

– That lion has a hunger insatiable. If you want to climb the mountain you cannot pass him here, but must take the other road, the longer road, which goes through Hell to Heaven. Journey is necessary. I can show you that way.

I sighed. There I was to go through Hell again. Had I not seen enough of that dull place? But some urge prods me up the mountain, up to Arthur’s bosom, or Abraham’s, or whoever’s chest it is that on the mountaintop, falls and rises and heaves. In beatific slumber.

He led me through the dark forest by some path he recalled, but that I could not see.

– Mr. Dante, why is it that you insist on walking the ways through Hell? What is there for you, or for me for that matter? Perhaps I have not the mettle for it ?

– The lady here might assuage thy cowardice. Said he, as always, dramatically.

Indeed, there was a lady there before us. The forest had led us out to a wide cliff. There were the stars, the moon, the whole horizon of the night’s vault we could breathe, and before this commodious expanse, the lady stood.

I’d met her once before on a vacation. We’d said hello. And she’d leapt into water, lithe like a nymph, swimming out to sandbar, just across the inlet of the ocean, yet farther than I’d dare swim – afraid as I was of water.

–  I am Julia. She said, primly dressed, dark eyes glowing like the Cosmos.

– I know. I remember.  Said I.

Illustration by Gustave Dore

– I’m here from where I would return. Said Julia. I bid thee go. Meet me upon the mountaintop. For I care for you and your presence I long for as a home long missed. Mr. Dante will be thy guide. Be strong and courageous. I bid thee go.

A halo was around her head. This light she turned into, but not before I could notice the tears that her dark eyes carried like shining jewels I would not possess but gently erase. I felt courage. She was gone like a breath in cold air. All was as it was before.

Mr. Dante tapped me on the shoulder, and we went on the precarious path down over the cliff, into a ravine, a funnel, a cave, where a gross smoke emanated.

‘Through me the way is to the city dolent; through me the way is to eternal dole; through me the way among the people lost. Justice incited my sublime Creator; created me divine Omnipotence, the highest Wisdom and the primal Love. Before me there were no created things, only eterne, and I eternal last. All hope abandon, ye who enter in!’

Thus said the etching above the door of Hell. Which Mr. Dante was so fond of citing. Yet I noticed that the etching was eroded almost completely away, as though it had been thousands of years, or more, since last I’d seen it – though only a few weeks ago I’d seen it!

All Hell had changed. I did not recognize it. Where there once was a great black plain, now was all twisting tunnels! Purple moss overgrew the roof and walls. And men and women slumped along the walls, dejected, as though unaware of our passing.

– What did these do, Mr. Dante? Asked I.

– Nothing. Said he.

– Nothing?

– Nothing.

– I’d thought nothing would come of nothing. What then is nothing’s punishment?

– It is not punishment. It is nothing. Nothing of nothing indeed.

We walked and walked. My head felt too large for the tunnels. They cramped me in.

The people were everywhere slumped on the ground. I could bear it no longer. I stooped and asked one of the men – who was very plain and dull – what he’d done. He only sighed. I asked another, a woman – also unremarkable – and again I heard no word.

I tripped over one of them and fell on my face. I fell face to face with one of these men – who I saw was awake – we met each other’s eyes directly. He blinked once then said:

– I did not trip you.

– Yes, I’m afraid you did. Said I, sitting up.

– I won’t help you up. Said he, sighing and rolling over.

He picked up a rock and looked at it, and poked at it, as though it was more interesting to him than any visitor. He squinted at it. And scrolled.

– What’d you do to get put here?

– Nothing. Said he, sighing again, poking his rock.

– That’s not true. Said a woman next to him, poking his head.

– I would prefer you not do that. Said the man.

– What, this? Asked the woman, poking him.

– Yes. I would prefer you not do that.

– Do something about it. Said she.

– I will do nothing about it. Said the man, sighing, putting his filthy feet up on another man’s face, who was greatly displeased, but said nothing.

– You should not put your feet on him. Said the woman to the man she was poking.

– I would prefer to do that.

– You should not.

– Do something about it. Said he.

– I will do nothing about it. Said the woman, sighing, and continuing to poke his head.

As I looked around the tunnel, I saw that everyone there was in fact greatly annoying each other, and each was complaining to the other regarding these annoyances, yet each was refusing to do anything about it whatsoever.

I wanted nothing to do with them. They were too mean for Heaven, too dull for Hell – not a remark made by them was worth mine – and I’ll say not a word more of them.

I wanted to continue the Journey, and quickly.

We came to the end of the boring tunnel. There was a marsh there, which we crossed to a great river. I saw a great white and red Missouri Steamboat was paddling over to us. A fat, carnival man was waving us to its deck. Grimly, I boarded the vessel.

He took us downriver.

Cheers to your Sunday morning…

JCL

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