Dante’s Hell is a place of extreme pain and suffering. This is partly the reason why generations of modern readers have found Inferno so much more exciting than Paradiso or even Purgatorio. The farther one moves away from excruciating pain, the boring the story gets, right? This is not how I feel, but I recognise, along with Victor Hugo who was the first to explain the modern obsession with Inferno, that hellish pain generates action, which turns the engine of storytelling. The general principle is that people prefer stories where things happen. That’s why Spiderman and the Lord of the Rings will always sign up more viewers than ‘Un homme et une femme’ or ‘The Great Beauty’, where not much goes on.
Yet, Inferno has its own pockets of non-action, active or passive, pain inflicted or pain received. And this is why, if you ask me where the sullen victims of confinement, those men and women who are bored out of their minds as they are forced to stay home for months – where in Dante’s Hell they should find a spot, I’d say: beneath the river Styx.
Under no circumstances am I passing judgment on these people, I merely exercise my literary and historical imagination. Besides, I sometimes join their ranks, if only for a little while.
Surprisingly, the bored, the weary, the sluggish get the best of Hell
According to Western medieval philosophy, what we call boredom may approximately be captured by accidia or sloth, one of the deadly sins. Whether it’s a sin or not, it’s not for me to say, but I guess everyone who’s ever been bored knows there’s something wrong or at least uncomfortable with that state of mind. For Dante, following Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle, accidia was a deficit (of love or wrath), and that made it sinful.
In Hell, we find the accidiosi, that is the bored guys, making bubbles under the swampy river Styx. There is no evidence that they are suffering physical pain. They can’t speak, but it’s not always a good idea to open your mouth anyway. The way Dante’s penal colony works is that the condemned sinner preserve the sin they’d been convicted of, while the punishment mirrors the sin via an original formula called contrapasso. As medieval slothfulness is a moral vitamin insufficiency, the punishment meted out to these people reflects the inertia of their worldly lives – and pain is as lethargic as their lifestyle had been. Which is to say that they’re quite good where they are.
They were bored with life, now the afterlife is bored with them.
Forced or voluntary confinement makes us susceptible to accidia – to be sure, this was well known to medieval thinkers. Dante’s son Pietro and one of his earliest commentators, wrote that ‘the sin of sloth is very common among cloistered monks.’ This new form of urban monasticism which we experience these days, whether cenobitic or eremitic according to how lucky or unlucky you are to be stuck with someone else at home, makes us all wonder whether we shall escape the fiendish grip of accidia.
Try not to get bored. If you do, there’s a comfy place for you in (Dante’s) Hell.