You will agree that there are better ways to spend Easter than undertaking journeys to the Underworld. That even if the lockdown were to be lifted today on Good Friday, you’d think twice before signing up to a guided tour of Hell. If you’re given the choice between the bowels of the Earth or the celestial spheres, you’d most likely choose the latter.
Not so with Dante Alighieri, the poet of the sad countenance, who, after 700 years, is still widely remembered for his Diablo Trek, his descent to Hell, his Inferno.
‘Hell is other people’, wrote Sartre, and Dante knew many of those people, though he would tweak Sartre’s statement slightly. Dante assures us that because Hell is such a fundamental existential posture, there is no better time to put your name down than on the Nadir Day of Easter, the lowest point in the story of salvation. And so his journey to the Underworld began on Good Friday on the year of divine grace and personal disgrace 1300.
Dante’s Inferno is a re-encoding of the Easter story by the man who became Easter – which, I should say, is so much better than being the man who was Thursday, may Chesterton pardon my sins. Dante begins the descent at exactly noon on Good Friday and emerges on other side of life/story/Earth on Easter Sunday.
Allowing himself to partake of the expedition, Dante was effectively writing himself into Holy Week and into the existential blueprint of Easter. He was no mere tourist, but the author of his own descent into self and into history, becoming the story he was meant to tell. The two Dantes, the author and the pilgrim, don’t always converge – the pilgrim does things the author wouldn’t have approved, and the pilgrim often modifies the author’s own beliefs and knowledge. But that is precisely the point: life are random but it is also bent towards meaning. Life is Hell, and Hell is life, but, Dante argues, life is a journey through Hell, not a captivity in it – though the risk is always there, and one may get stuck, as Dante almost got stuck several times.
This is an intuition we all have, whether we believe in Hell or not. The path to self-discovery is a downward slope. As another poet of the sorrowful countenance (and voice) put it, ‘You go to Heaven once you’ve been to Hell’.
Becoming Easter, Dante rejected the idea that we can just stand and watch, worship and sing while the pandemonium of life unfolds before our eyes, and then write it in our own little book. No, one has to get one’s hands dirty first, smell the diabolical stench and play chess with Death before getting on the other side. Any personal resurrection begins on Good Friday, which is no good news for the disarmed self. The good news comes on Easter morning, as the gradient flips and one emerges ‘to see—once more—the stars.’