Malebolge: A Revised Circle 8 for the Modern Age

Part 1 of my Inferno tour consists of eleven cantos covering Circles 1-7. Part 2 will also span eleven cantos, but covering Circle 8 alone. Circle 8 will be over 40% of the entire tour, and it’s worth reflecting over why Dante devoted so much breakdown to the sin of fraud.

Circle 8 is called Malebolge, which means “evil ditches”, and there are ten of them. (Click on the right image for full view.) According to Dorothy Sayers:

“Malebolge is the image of the City in corruption: the progressive disintegration of every social relationship, personal and public. Sexuality, ecclesiastical and civil office, language, ownership, counsel, authority, psychic influence, and material interdependence — all the media of the community’s exchange are perverted and falsified, till nothing remains but the descent into the final abyss where faith and trust are wholly and forever extinguished.” (Inferno, p 185)

That’s about as accurate a description of Circle 8 as any. However, I am revising Ditches 3 and 5. In Dante’s scheme, Ditch 3 punishes the ecclesiastical crime of simony, which is archaic in today’s age. It was part of the feudal structure by which clergy members (like priests and bishops) became the hand-picked pawns of secular lords and emperors. I can’t come up with an example of a modern simoniac. Ditch 5 punishes barratry (the secular equivalent of simony) and also grafters who use their political office to take bribes. Grafters can easily be grouped with the thieves and extortionists on Ditch 7.

In place of simony and grafting/barratry, I’m substituting categories that Dante would have surely added if he had lived in today’s world. He never knew woke-left propaganda, alt-right conspiracy theories, yellow journalism, and fake news like we have it today. My new Ditch 3 punishes snowflakes — woke college professors, public speakers, or commentators who have a large platform. They are fraudulent because they subordinate facts to feelings. My new Ditch 5 punishes cranks — crackpot scholars and conspiracy theorists.

This revision also carries the benefit of freeing up Ditch 10 to be reserved for the falsifiers of something concrete: forgers, counterfeiters, and identity thieves. Dante had constructed Ditch 10 as a “catch-all” punishing ground for any falsifier, including liars in general (“falsifiers of words”), but liars and deceivers are spread out across many Ditches, in some form or another, including, now, on my new Ditches 3 and 5.

So this, tentatively, is what Circle 8 will look like, and the souls I plan to see there.

Circle 8 Souls Punished
Sinners I encounter in this Ditch
Ditch 1
Panderers and Seducers Jeffrey Epstein (P), Gerald Sandusky (S)
Ditch 2
Flatterers Giulio Alberoni, Joseph Goebbels, Mike Pence
Ditch 3
Snowflakes Linda Sarsour, Reza Aslan, Laurie Charles
Ditch 4
False Prophets Charles Taze Russell, Ophira and Tali Edut, Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins, David Koresh, Brian David Mitchell
Ditch 5
Cranks and Conspiracy Theorists Oliver Stone, Michael Baigent, Alex Jones, Maajid Nawaz, Steven Brandenburg
Ditch 6
Hypocrites Barack Obama, Bill Cosby, Michael Landon, James Buchanan
Ditch 7
Thieves (Robbers, Extortionists, Launderers) Carl Gugasian, Darnell Riley, Francisco Correa Sanchez, Abdulla Yameen
Ditch 8
Counselors of Fraud Bernie Madoff, Martin Shkreli, L. Ron Hubbard, Mariam Al-Sohel
Ditch 9
Sowers of Discord, Inciters of Rebellion Daniel Shays, Donald Trump
Ditch 10
Forgers, Counterfeiters, Identity Thieves Matvei Golovinski, Charles Dawson, Konrad Kujau, Walter Fritz, Morton Smith, Wesley Weber, Frank William Abagnale

And here are the punishments I came up with for Ditches 3 and 5:

Circle 8 Souls Punished
Contrapasso: Punishment Fitting the Sin
Ditch 1
Panderers and Seducers They are whipped by devils while marching. The devils apparently gain sexual pleasure by inflicting pain on those who were either pimps or obtained sexual pleasure by abuse of trust.
Ditch 2
Flatterers They live in the shit they spoke in life — plunged into a lake of excrement.
Ditch 3
Snowflakes They have their lips sown shut, forced to march on a narrow line to a specific drumbeat. As they subordinated truth to their personal feelings, and policed the speech (or even tried to ban speech) of those who spoke truth, so now in death they have their lips sown shut, unable to ever speak again. And because they manufactured offenses, castigating people for trivial causes, they are now flailed with a spiked ball for even slightly stepping out of line or missing a single beat.
Ditch 4
False Prophets They walk with heads twisted backwards, destined to look only behind through eyes blinded by tears.
Ditch 5
Cranks and Conspiracy Theorists They sit against the walls of the ditch with their eyes torn out, continually screaming in fear. As they feared every phantom menace they couldn’t see any real evidence for, so now they can’t see anything at all, and suffer extreme paranoia.
Ditch 6
Hypocrites They walk in gilded cloaks lined with lead. As in life, they shine on the outside but are lifeless on the inside.
Ditch 7
Thieves (Robbers, Extortionists, Grafters) They have their hands tied behind their backs by snakes and suffer a horrible metamorphosis, stealing each others identity, unable to distinguish what’s “mine” and what’s “yours” after all the transitions.
Ditch 8
Counselors of Fraud They used their eloquence to mislead people and rip them off, and so are wrapped in tongues of fire which conceal them, just as in life their speech concealed their fraudulent thoughts.
Ditch 9
Sowers of Discord, Inciters of Rebellion They divided people in life, so now in death they are hacked and divided into a dismembered state, forced to drag their mutilated bodies around the ditch. Their wounds heal as they march the circuit, and then the devil cuts them open again.
Ditch 10
Forgers, Counterfeiters, Identity Thieves Forgers are afflicted with leprosy, counterfeiters with dehydration, and identity thieves are driven insane. Their physical rottenness mirrors the rottenness of their souls that caused them to falsify things.

 

My Tour of Dante’s Inferno (Circles 1-7)

Dante did Inferno in 34 cantos. I’m doing mine in 24 and posting them in three parts. Here is Part 1, which consists of cantos 1-11 (Circles 1-7). I will post cantos 12-22 (Circle 8) in early February, and cantos 23-24 (Circle 9) in mid February.

A few notes are in order. First, I admit this is a hit piece, but I believe appropriate since that’s what Dante’s classic is. Inferno is revenge fiction, pure and simple. But it’s hard to appreciate if you’re not familiar with 13th-14th century Italian politics. I wanted to walk in Dante’s footsteps and find modern people in Hell — politicians, scholars, celebrities, authors — and rub their noses in their “sins” as I see them. (Though like Dante I also include some figures from the deep past.)

Unlike Dante, however, I thought it was only fair that I enjoy this fun at my own expense, and so I put myself in Hell — on quite a low Circle for that matter.

There’s an interesting payoff to this exercise. In filling the Inferno with modern souls, I became acutely aware of how weird the medieval hierarchy of sin is. As far as I’m concerned, the first Ring of Circle 7 (violence against others) contains the worst sinners and should be the lowest circle, while the souls of the second Ring of Circle 7 (violence against self) don’t deserve to be in Hell at all. Not to mention the sodomites of the third Ring. Then there is the curiosity of Circle 1, which is a quasi-paradise for virtuous non-Christians; they end up doing far better than the liberal (heretical) Christians who are burning in tombs down on Circle 6. But this counter-intuitive scheme is precisely what makes Dante’s Inferno so compelling. It’s weird but has a consistent logic on its own terms.

I’ve provided notes at the end for the various souls I encounter in Hell.

As for the setting, it’s simple: The year is 2061 AD. I have traveled from my present time (2021 AD) through a gate that leads forty years into the future, to the bank of the Archeron River in the First Circle of Hell. Thus begins my downward tour of Dante’s Inferno. I hope you like it.

Upper Hell: Ignorance and Excess (Circles 1-5)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Canto 1: The Virtuous Unbelievers (Circle 1)

In the first Circle I see the virtuous souls who dwell “suspended” without being punished. They are not tormented like the souls on Circles 2-9. The only “torment” they experience is the permanent exclusion from paradise. These souls are non-Christians — noble atheists, righteous Jews, virtuous pagans, saintly Buddhists, etc. — who were morally upright and thus don’t deserve to be on any of the “sinner circles” below, and yet they cannot attain paradise since they do not profess Jesus Christ. The Circle is a state of ignorance and shadowy bliss, an ashen wasteland with the pocket paradise of the Noble Castle. The souls of the virtuous are content here for the most part, yet aware that their fate is somehow blighted.

Here I stood in the devil’s blind
With the Acheron River roaring behind
Ready to begin my tour of Hell
Starting with those who nobly fell

As I surveyed the ground of the virtuous elect
It was hard to see why a soul would object
To being denied paradise
Since the “punishment” here looked pretty nice

There was no torture, nor any screaming
Only the sighs of souls day-dreaming
They sat, reclined, or wandered about
Aimlessly, as if slightly worn out

A few of the souls became dimly aware
Of my presence and called to ask my affair
I told them I was a visiting guest
And they shrugged as if I were a common pest

I went down a road through the ashen tide
And saw more souls on either side
Some in groups, some alone
But always sighing their wistful moan

And I kept my eyes peeled for my very own self
For I was hoping to end up on this shelf
Of the nine circles whenever I died
As I wanted to be on virtue’s side

After some miles I came to a castle
With towers tall – white and gracile
The citadel had seven walls around
With a moat and bridge to completely surround

I was greeted at the bridge by a familiar ghost
The soul of a famous talk-show host
Bill Maher, still so smug
Yet somehow earned it, so it didn’t bug

“Bill,” I said, “fancy you here!
You actually seem in fairly good cheer
But why this post, outside at the gate?
Is this your eternal mandate?”

[Maher]
“This is my penance for being dismissive
Of all religion – now I’m submissive
To the noble souls who abide in this castle
I am ever their dutiful faithful vassal.”

[Me]
“At least you made it to the very top
Probably for preaching against sin, non-stop
Granted in your own secular way
It was still pretty harsh back in the day

Especially that funny New Rule segment
When you blasted obesity and stayed unrepentant
You pissed off the world and made your fans nervous
When you were only providing a public service.”

[Maher, laughing]
“I wouldn’t want to be down on Circle 3
I’d get lynched and again repeatedly
Nor for that matter, on any of the others
Honestly, if I had my druthers.”

And with that he told me to go on in
And to stop my yakking about rules and sin
So I crossed all bridges into a field
That I couldn’t believe Hell concealed

The meadow was fresh and full of trees
And a perfect 72 degrees
Fruits and fountains sparkled brightly
With notes of music falling lightly

Wildlife that I’d never seen
And everywhere impossibly clean
A pocket paradise truly unnerving
Granted to souls that were most deserving

I wanted to lie and go to sleep
But I crossed the field into the keep
And there inside I stopped in awe
Stunned by all the souls I saw:

Asra Nomani, for Muslim reform
She took the Islamic world by storm
Calling out her faith as violent and crude
And for teaching the truth got viciously skewed

From devout Muslims and the woke left too
Who weren’t so different (who fucking knew?)
Both of them allies for the same cause
Reinforcing Islam’s blasphemy laws

Nomani had blasted them, time and again
Refusing ever to put down her pen
Going for the jugular, sawing the bone
Saying Muslims do shit to police their own

Sam Harris was there in the hall
As calm as ever before his fall
Here in Hell he seemed just as unflappable
And content enough inside this chapel

Perhaps his life of meditation
Continued giving some sedation
Against the knowledge of his fate
That for an atheist must surely grate

I saw David Lynch, the Yogi apprentice
Whose impact on film was simply momentous
His dark brutality was overdone
So that grace came not cheap but dearly won

There was Margot Adler, drawing down
Whose love for nature knew no bound

Elie Wiesel, to my right
Who made us feel the pain of night

Gendun Drubpa, intoning Brahma
The very first Dalai Lama

And many – too many – more souls yet
Whom people on earth owed a mighty debt
For laboring hard with endless grace
To make the world a better place

They welcomed me to make my stay
But I said that I had to be on my way
They were melancholy souls and bittersweet
With no resentment or sense of cheat

I realized then that I could only aspire
To be in such company when I expired
I expected to find my future soul
On the next level down, in the lustful bowl

And so I departed.

Canto 2: The Lustful (Circle 2)

I finish crossing the First Circle, and enter the Second, where the souls of the lustful are tossed about on a howling wind. As they had been swept away on earth by raging sexual desires, so now they are swept away by a storm that doesn’t stop.

As soon as I crossed, I was hit full force
With roars lamenting intercourse
The light was dim and the air alive
With souls blown about like bees from a hive

It was official now, this was Hell
As every soul could only yell
Under devil patrol and torment unending
Against which there was no hope of defending

I began my trek and got real sour
As the winds blew 50 miles an hour
Souls rolled by like tumbleweeds
Wailing their protests and lustful screeds

But after a while I saw a face
Blowing around in the same place
It was caught in a vortex – a whirring loop
I doubted this poor soul would ever recoup

Screaming loud so that I could be heard
I asked who she was to be so interred
“If you have to ask, you don’t deserve
To look upon my seemly curves!”

And lo, I recognized the sultry voice
That had given men a raunchy choice:

Madonna, that vixen of unbridled lust
Who published Sex to wide disgust
Though frankly I thought it was quite a gem
With lurid photos of S & M

Some even called it a liberation
For women who lived in sexual frustration
But there was no reward for Madonna now
No freedom at all that Hell would allow

[Me]
“I do recognize you, Louise Ciccone
And always admired you for not being phony
It doesn’t seem fair to be punished so awful
You pushed obscene limits, but always lawful.”

[Madonna]
“All my sex was based on consent
So let my fucking critics vent
I hope they’re all suffering too
On deeper levels than Circle 2.”

[Me]
“Speaking of that, are you aware
If I’m being blown about anywhere?
I come from the past about 40 years
And was expecting to find my soul here in tears.”

And I told her my name, but she knew it not
She’d never seen me on this lustful lot
I thanked her then and wished her well
But she cursed me and all who were down in Hell

Steeling myself I plodded on
Through winds that battered like demon spawn
And on my way to Circle 3
I recognized some who flew past me:

Tiger Woods, whose sordid affairs
Caught his wife at unawares

Paris Hilton of nympho fame
Screwed any-who and which-where to shame

Albert Einstein (I gasped in awe)
Who slept with every woman he saw

Sex addicts so very misunderstood
Nymphos who had all the sex they could:

Danielle Staub every day
Ernest Fucking Hemingway
Russell Brand, Brittany Spears
Lust defined their whole careers

Others spilling, rolling by
Burning hot to gratify
Their partners lost to other places
While here they pined, devoid of graces

And so I came to the Third Circle.

Canto 3: The Gluttonous (Circle 3)

I cross into the Third Circle, where the souls of the gluttonous lie in a filthy mire, bombarded with rain, hail, and dirty snow. They wallow in the mud like the pigs they were in life.

The high winds stopped but the air got worse
Freezing cold like Narnia’s curse
I was in a swamp with drifts of snow
Over sludge and mud like sloppy joe

From the sky poured misery to feed my pain:
Snow, hail, and icy rain
But worse than even the filthy sleet
Was a smell on the air of rotten meat

The smell came strong from every which way
Like some kind of omnipresent decay
And the souls, they groveled down in the sludge
Howling like dogs unable to budge

Their overindulgence of food and drink
Is what put them down in this putrid stink
They looked like they each weighed a ton
As if eating had been their only fun

Dante thought he had witnessed fat
But in his day gluttons weren’t even that
The souls I saw were downright obese
And had feasted daily on sugar and grease

Revolted and shivering, I started my walk
But right away looked over to gawk
Weltering in the mud and vomiting hard
Was Game of Thrones author Lord Lard

George R.R. Martin, he preferred to be called
But his fans didn’t care, they were so appalled
At the snail’s pace he pretended to write
Around sports and politics he indulged on his site

And because of that stubborn outrageous cunctation
He had become irrelevant to his own creation
The TV writers finished the series
Finally resolving all the fan theories

And make no mistake, what they wrote
Was better than Martin’s recent bloat
Books 4 and 5 of Ice and Fire
Were filled with chapters dull and dire

“George,” I said, disturbed by his plight,
“Christ, but you’re a sorry sight
Perhaps it wasn’t the smartest play
To shit on your fans every day.”

[Martin]
“I never asked much of a devotee
Just that they worship and fawn over me
But all they did was piss and moan
About deadlines I never cared to own.”

[Me]
“No one will accuse you of having thick skin
But you’re guilty of this particular sin:
Instead of revising the drafts you wrote
You were shoveling troughs of food down your throat.”

[Martin]
“Watch your mouth or be prepared
To get the treatment as you dared
The odor here is bad enough
But I can let out viler stuff.”

And with that Lord Lard let loose a fart
That stung my nose and stopped my heart
Clutching my chest I lurched and fell
Face down into the putrid gel

[Martin, laughing]
“You think I don’t know who the hell you are?
The blogger who acts like a fucking czar?
Your shitty, lousy, absurd reviews
Set a whole new bar for the fakest news.”

I tried to rise but no such luck
I could hardly move in the stinking muck
His toxic gas clawed at my lungs
I muttered words, speaking in tongues

But the poison finally dissipated
Though my chest felt utterly desecrated
I crawled away from that awful hog
And finally rose to resume my slog

Slowly recovering, I went a few miles
Realizing I had frozen piles
And the roars of the gluttonous drove me insane
I could hardly watch them – the sight was profane

I did however hear a shout
That my ears automatically singled out
From all the other barks and brays
I’d know this voice to the end of my days

It was Sally Struthers, I tell no lie
Howling for cake and apple pie
She came a long way from her comedy days
Her slim figure yielding to gluttonous ways

Her face contorted with starving rage
Which she was clearly demanding that I assuage
“Sorry, Sally, I’ve no remorse”
And I went on my way as she screamed herself hoarse

I finally neared the circle’s brink
And saw that it sloped down into a sink
But before I could escape the freezing bog
I saw a monster in the smog:

President Taft, blocking me
Three-fifty pounds to an absolute tee
He’d hosted the White House in slothful disgrace
Falling asleep while feeding his face

There was even a rumor of some doubt
That his bathtub held him and he couldn’t get out
More reliable was the tale of the horse:
That he broke its poor back as a matter of course

Taft was thrashing and yowling in trauma
But I was having none of his rabid drama
I kept my distance and skirted around
And came to the edge of the gluttons ground

And I descended the cliff.

Canto 4: The Greedy (Circle 4)

I descend to the Fourth Circle, where the hoarders and spendthrifts — the flips sides of greed — roll huge rocks against each other.

The switchbacks went 500 feet down
To the circle’s floor of blackened ground
I realized then I was glad to be alive
And I reflected on Circles 1 through 5

Dante had called them “Upper Hell”
Since their punishments weren’t nearly as fell
As those on the circles far down below
– The unspeakable full-blown horror show

Here at the top were the sins of excess:
Lust, gluttony, and greediness
And wrath too, that didn’t bruise
Or in any way physically abuse

These were the sins of the appetite
Good in themselves, in doses lite
But when overindulged they became a beast
Though not doing harm to others at least

Upper Hell basically punished the brat
Who took much of this, and did much of that
Warping what mattered in his or her life
For the sake of making these pleasures rife

I saw this now as I reached the floor
And heard the march of the Greed Corps:
Souls being whipped by devils close by
To labor and heave without any cry

Against each other they pushed huge boulders
And strained to agony the joints of their shoulders
Hoarders and spendthrifts, the flip sides of greed
Tasked with making the other bleed

A tormented shriek then ripped the air
And I looked to see what caused the scare
A soul had collapsed while pushing his rock
Unable any more to keep up the walk

And holy shit, did I know this swine
As would anyone who lived online
He was the fifth richest person from the year I came
And everyone, everyone, knew his name:

Mark Zuckerburg, CEO troll
Of Facebook that spiraled out of control
So that by the year 2021
He controlled all discourse under the sun

Which he justified being in the private sector
Like any greedy executive director
“Private business” – that feeble excuse
For big tech companies on the loose

The public discourse was as he deemed
In a way that governments only dreamed
Banning users by capricious whim
Like his pal Jack Dorsey, who was equally dim

And sure enough, not far behind
I saw Jack Dorsey in the grind
Unlike Mark, he pushed his stone
But with awful effort – and many a groan

Ignoring Jack, I knelt in place
And leaned over in the other’s face:

[Me]
“Mark Zuckerburg, I cannot tell
How glad I am to see you in Hell
Your wealth and greed was only surpassed
By all the arrogance you amassed

You began as a neutral platform mission
Where people could post without condition
Then slyly became an editorial site
Without being liable for what you invite

Maybe you thought that policing the Net
Was fine according to ‘Terms’ you set
But anyone with half a brain
Knows this is wrong – simple and plain.”

[Zuckerburg]
“Go away, you hectoring shit!
You think I care for any of your spit?
Facebook was mine and no other fool’s
My fucking house, my fucking rules!”

[Me]
“Your house was the entire goddamn globe
Is something wrong with your temporal lobe?
If that’s the line you want to own
Then enjoy your eternity of heaving stone!”

And with that, a devil snapped its whip
And Zuckerburg let out a yip
Before getting up and pushing on
In the godforsaken marathon

There were others I noticed shoving weights:
Simon Cowell, William Gates;
The Koch Brothers, and Julia too
None of them worth talking to

Of this parade I took my leave
And left these wretched souls to grieve
Forever to haul and break their backs
And regret their greedy acts

And I came to next cliff.

Canto 5: The Wrathful (Circle 5)

I descend the cliff to the Styx River, which forms the Fifth Circle and contains the souls of the wrathful, yelling at each other on the surface of the river, reenacting their rage in life.

500 feet of treacherous path
Brought me down to the souls of wrath
My senses were smacked by sounds and smells
Surely not found outside the Hells

Cries of fury raged on the air
And the clapping of water everywhere
I looked and beheld the River Styx
Oily brown and a filthy mix

It smelled of eggs foul and rotten
Washing over souls misbegotten
Angry and pissed, as they’d been in life
They yelled and thrashed in eternal strife

Sunk to their necks to swim and splash
Through mounds of rancid stinking trash
And the soul that yelled by far most loud
Stood out from the rest of the crowd:

Steven Anderson, the fundie pastor
Who had followed Christ his ultimate Master
For all the good it did him now
Swimming in trash up to his brow

Also known as Pastor Piss
For castigating men who were remiss
In peeing properly against the wall
(To pee sitting down was a major shortfall)

The pastor screamed above the din
Ripping face for every sin
Hell itself was put to shame
As he cried out all the offenders by name:

Sodomites, whores, girls wearing pants
Abortionists, Zionists – his favorite rants
But the people who made him zealously bitter
Were those who committed the crime of litter

He projected that outrage on every soul
With orders to clean this stinking hole
As he now tried to do, in fervent haste
To rid the Styx of trash and waste

[Anderson]
“Listen to me, everyone, listen now!
Clean up this river, I don’t care how!”
Don’t worry about a devil backlash!
Throw away this stinking trash!”

Raving like this, he threw his slop
To the bank where I stood, but it was only a drop
From a river filled with bottomless junk
And the pastor got crazier like a roaring drunk

[Me]
“Hey there, Pastor, calm the hell down!
You’re wasting effort, you stupid clown!
All this trash is your just deserts,
Your eternal penance, as bad as it hurts.”

He stopped and stared at me over the water
And his face announced he was ready for slaughter
Putting aside his litter crusade
He went off on a nasty (and crazy) tirade:

[Anderson]
“Listen to me, you filthy queer!
Come and say that to me over here!
You homos will never be content
Until the rise of your one-world government.”

As I began to reply with utter contempt
A horde of souls made a vengeful attempt
They dove at the pastor, jaws open wide
And Steven Anderson cursed them and cried

These souls had taken it none too kind
At what went on in the pastor’s mind
Nor for commanding them this way and that
So they tore and ate at him like a rat

And as his soul was eaten live
I saw a boat about to arrive
As it glided forward the souls swam clear
Of the demon inciting terrible fear

Phlegyas, I recalled from Dante’s verse
A demon under a nasty curse
For horrible crimes in ancient days
He was consigned to patrol Hell’s waterways

[Me]
“Phlegyas,” I called, “ignore Pastor Piss!
I need safe passage to the City of Dis
Ferry me, please, as you once did Dante
And then I’ll happily go on my merry way.”

[Phlegyas, roaring]
“Who are you to presume what I’ll do?
Listen good, and I’ll explain this to you
I’ll take you across, but not for free
You’ll have to give me one of these three:

(1) Your right arm for my evening chow
(2) All the money you have on you now
(3) Twenty years from your worthless life
– Which I’ll cut and remove with my demon’s knife.”

[Me]
“Some fucking choice, you goddamn vulture
Is this what passes for devil culture?
Take my wallet, it’s all my money
I assure you this isn’t the least bit funny.”

And he ferried me across.

 

Lower Hell: Heresy and Violence (Circles 6-7)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Canto 6: The Heretics (Circle 6)

I enter the City of Dis and find the burning tombs of the heretics. As they were intellectually stubborn on earth — liberal or rebel Christians insisting themselves more enlightened than the orthodox — their souls are encased appropriately: iron without and fire within. Many of the tomb doors are open, and the souls are half-exposed, baking in flame and smoke.

As I entered the gates of the smoky city
It was hard not to be moved to pity
For those whose sins were crimes of thought
There shouldn’t be punishment, I always taught

To believe in doctrines the church disapproved
And to continue teaching them after being reproved
For that who could blame them – surely not I
A heretic at heart to the day I die

But my sympathy vanished as I moved through the city
The tomb lids were raised, and the sight wasn’t pretty:

I saw Martin Luther, the worst of the lot
Who deserved exactly the tomb that he got
A “reformer” possessed of hatred and spite
A misogynist and anti-Semite

He should have been barred from reading Galatians
For what it did to Jewish-Christian relations
With Romans his heresies got even more grim
As he reinvented Paul to be just like him

I refused to speak to this pile of manure
It would be way too much for me to endure
So I trucked on past and kept on walking
And then stopped at the sight of two souls talking

Sharing a tomb as if having a fling
Were Dominic Crossan and Karen King
Embracing each other they talked non-stop
About Jewish cynics and gnostic slop

I broke up their tryst and they got all sour
Acting as if they were full of power
“Dom,” I said, “how does it feel?
To be down in Hell is a shitty deal.”

[Crossan]
“Cough it up and keep up your brayings
I’m comforted by authentic sayings
The red ones, you know, that passed the vote
The words that came from Jesus’s throat.”

[Rosson]
“You certainly peddled a fantasy Jesus
An egalitarian who could readily please us
If only he were remotely true
You wouldn’t be in Dis without a clue.”

[King]
“Leave him alone, you insufferable snot
Why should we listen to what you’ve got?
No matter how hot we burn in these holes
The devils will never kill our souls.”

[Rosson]
“That’s brazen talk for one who was fooled
Despite your degrees and how you were schooled
You promoted that silly gospel hoax
That duped many liberal and secular folks.”

[King]
“I suspected that thing was a hoax all along
That’s why I ignored Walter Fritz for so long
I only finally accepted his offer
To save my Divinity School from the coffer.”

And with that, the pair told me to scram
They obviously didn’t give a tinker’s damn
About what I thought or said or wrote
Or about any reason I had to gloat

Which was fair enough; I left them to bond
And took the opportunity to abscond
Alongside more tombs, and heretics many
Whose theologies were hardly worth a penny

When I reached about the city’s center
I saw the tomb of a known dissenter
Amidst the smoke that was black-and-bluish
Lay a bishop insisting he was truly Jewish

[Me]
“So here’s the famous N.T. Wright!
Under Hell’s eternal blight
I’ll bet you’re suffering deep abjection
For being stripped of the resurrection.”

[Wright]
“Now you listen good, Mr. Rosson!
I do not belong in this city with Crossan
How can I be judged a heretic?
It’s such a farce it makes me sick.”

[Me]
“Seriously, Bishop, do you need to ask?
Your ‘orthodox’ doctrine is only a mask
For denying the apocalypse just like those scholars
You think aren’t worth a lousy two dollars.”

[Wright]
“If you paid me attention, you’d clearly see
That God will act dramatically
Within history, yes, I’ve said before
But don’t be blind to metaphor.”

[Me]
“Say what you want, but I’ve read your works
And you’re just like all the liberal jerks
Who practice blatant eisegesis
And pass it off as exegesis.”

That went too far, and he screamed in rage
And retreated inside his iron cage
I left as he started to raise a din
Yelling, roaring, and burning within

As I continued through the fiery tombs
I gagged and choked on smoky fumes
And finally came to a perilous bluff
That overlooked some nasty stuff

The stench arising from the circle below
Was enough to make my vomit flow
The cliff was a 70 degree-grade slope
I’d have to climb downwards and carefully grope

And so I descended.

Canto 7: Descending the Cliff (from Circle 6 to Circle 7)

I pause in my descent to Circle 7, and reflect on the arrangement of the Circle’s Three Rings.

As I clambered down slowly, I cursed the heat
This climb was 1500 feet
Red misty vapor rose from the crud
Smelling of corpses and sulfur and blood

I paused halfway down to take a rest
And saw below my seventh test
The Circle was really three in one
A trinity of violence with horrors a ton

My studies of Dante seemed like a dream
But this is how I remembered his scheme:

In Ring 1 splashed the violent against neighbor
Destroyers of humanity’s labor
Killers and warmongers of every theme
I saw trapped in the bloody boiling stream

In Ring 2 then the violent against self
Users of every drug on the shelf
Looking down closely I spotted the trees
The warbling souls of the suicide disease

In Ring 3 violent against the divine
Blasphemers shouting while lying supine
Calling God the foulest names
As they writhed and burned under falling flames

Bracing myself, I resumed my descent
And for that was almost made to repent
As I tripped and tumbled for quite a length
Before breaking my fall with all my strength

And at the bottom, I entered the Circle.

Canto 8: The Violent against Neighbor (Circle 7, Ring 1)

I reach the slope’s bottom and come to the River of Boiling Blood. Centaurs with bows and arrows patrol the banks of the river, shooting at any of the souls who try to escape it. These souls in life were murderers, abusers, torturers, pillagers, and warmongers, and they boil for eternity in the blood of their victims.

The stench of blood was a frontal assault
Forcing me to a grinding halt
The air was full of screams so savage
And the first soul I saw looked eager to ravage:

His commands exploded like a bomb
The founding prophet of Islam
He called for war and everything cruel
To subjugate all under Islamic rule

There had never been reasoning with this brute
His orders against infidels were absolute
He screamed those orders in the burning splashes
That plastered his body with burns and rashes:

[The Prophet]
“Put terror in their hearts and strike their necks
And make their women into slaves of sex
Do all of this in Allah’s name
And you’ll reap the rewards for playing His game

Slay the enemy wherever and how
You may spare them only if they bow
To Allah and convert — or if they follow the Book
They can pay the jizya and get off the hook.”

Too unsettled, I found nothing to say
I turned on my heels and walked away
Crossing myself I prayed for the error
Of the millions killed under jihad terror

There were countless others in the broiling run —
Hitler, Stalin, Attila the Hun
Jihadists like Zengi and Saladin
Who turned Palestine into a filthy latrine

“Peaceful Sufis” like good old Shah Wali
Were just as murderous as the school of Hanbali
Al-Hallaj, Ahmad Sirhindi — too many to name
Different sects, but jihad the same

I wanted to flee these abominable sights
But the river wasn’t done showing its frights
I looked and saw five presidents
Whom every American reinvents:

(1) Jackson who robbed and slaughtered the Reds
And sent them to live in homes that were sheds

(2) Lincoln who killed for emancipation
Instead of giving slave owners compensation

(3) Wilson whose catastrophes were so bad
That he remains the worst president we ever had

(4) Johnson whose excursions in Vietnam
Were as bad as dropping a nuclear bomb

(5) Bush who hammered Saddam without cease
While whitewashing Islam as a religion of peace

These five men did plenty to kill
People, their spirit, and much more still
They extended themselves to harm and destroy
Lands, livelihoods, and human joy

They imprisoned citizens for the slightest breach
Even denying the freedom of free speech
They suspended habeas corpus — or two of them did —
And had egos the size of legend El Cid

Yet Americans love them (except maybe one)
As if from their asses shone the sun
I knew better, having studied them hard
And was righteously glad to see them boiled and charred

As if sensing my thoughts, they wailed as one
Clearly not having an ounce of fun
For them I had no forgiveness at hand
They deserved to burn in this evil land

The more I saw in this bloody tide
The more my convictions were amplified
The crimes of these souls were of such a design
That they deserved to be down on Circle 9

Violence against others was underrated
By medievals who felt inoculated
From seeing bloodshed often up close
And Dante himself got his own heavy dose

But for me, this first ring of Circle 7
Contained the souls most anathema in heaven
I had to move on and leave much unexplored
And sighed with relief as I came near the ford

And then I crossed it.

Canto 9: The Violent against Self (Circle 7, Ring 2)

I enter the Forest of Rotting Trees, where Harpies are perched, eating the leaves as the trees scream in pain. The trees are the souls of suicides and people who abused themselves through addiction. As they destroyed their bodies on earth so now they have been denied proper resemblance to a body in hell.

The Wood was pathless and deathly silent
The trees encasing more souls of the violent
But I felt for people who wanted to die
And I wasn’t inclined to vilify

Suicide, really, worse than war?
The souls in the River I could only abhor
But these in the Wood had harmed no other
No stranger, enemy, friend, or brother

Just their own self, which was plainly their right
Or so I believed on this hellish night
And as I walked among the mutated trees
The souls began to voice their unease

“Who goes there?” cried one in pain
And I turned and saw legend Kurt Cobain
“A fan of yours,” I said after pause
And soon more souls took up the cause

The chorus became a mournful keen
Provoking the Harpies to intervene
Alighting on branches, pecking, awling
Until the trees curbed their squalling

Covering my ears I resumed my stride
In a direction I hoped to the other side
After two miles I was stopped in my tracks
By a despondent tree running like wax

I recognized – barely – the visage within
It was Robin Williams, atoning his sin
A man who was such a lovable guy
Had surrendered to his need to die

I asked if I could do anything
To give any comfort or lessen the sting
But he barely even heard me, it seemed
As he moaned about trials of the unredeemed

That he was down in Hell, ill and decayed
Was an irony considering the role that he played
In the 90s film What Dreams May Come
As the husband, Chris, of a wife and mum

Who killed herself unable to cope
With tragedies leaving her zero hope
In a fit of rage Chris left no doubt
That he would descend into Hell and get her out

And so just like Dante (and me of course)
He embarked on a major tour-de-force
Of Hell in all its perilous faces
And found his wife in the darkest of places

Against all odds, and holding his ground
He reached her and turned her completely around
With her spark of life and spirit restored
She then escaped her Infernal ward

I recounted that story of Annie and Chris
But that only served to widen the abyss
Of Robin’s pain that put him here
He cried so loud that all Circles could hear

That film was a fantasy anyway
From the Inferno there was no breaking away
And so I left, troubled and tired
For Williams was someone I had much admired

And I came to the forest’s end.

Canto 10: The Violent against God (Part 1) – Blasphemers (Circle 7, Ring 3)

I reach the Desert of Fire. The souls of blasphemers lie on the ground, shouting vulgarities at the sky, as fire rains down on them. As in life they defied the heavens, so now the heavens strike them down eternally with flame.

Leaving the diseased forest behind
(Robin’s cries still impaling my mind)
I came to a desert of blasted sand
With tongues of fire pouring over the land

And lying everywhere, crying fury
Were the souls for whom God was their judge and jury
They were giving the Deity the middle finger
And frankly I didn’t even want to linger

For fear of guilt by association
That would land me in the same damnation
For the temps in this Ring were out of sight
One hundred and twenty Fahrenheit

Already my mouth was beginning to parch
So I gulped some water then started my march
And as I waded through the ungodly herd
I saw a particularly ugly nerd:

Andres Serrano, the vulgar artist
Who fancied himself the blasphemers’ smartest
His most lurid and infamous work by far
Was a crucifix dumped in a urine jar

There were so many others, but one stood out
As he hurled bolts of venom with every shout
It was Richard Dawkins, most irate
Filling the air with bilious hate:

[Dawkins]
“Fist and fuck and felch yourself, God!
Your word is shit, your promise fraud!
Torturers are saints compared to you
And clit-snippers start to look pretty nice too.”

What he then said next was awful mean
I can’t repeat it, it’s too obscene
I looked down asking “Why so much hate?”
And he proceeded to launch a fierce debate

I cut him off with a direct appeal:
“So now you believe that God is real?
Unless you’re in a state of dire confusion
You’d never yell like that at a delusion.”

[Dawkins]
“I’ll show you yelling, you little twit
So listen closely, you measly shit:

All religion is rotten excuse
Teaching kids God is child abuse
Parents of faith shouldn’t exist
And I don’t care if that makes you pissed.”

He was going to vent on, but was suddenly struck
By a huge tongue of flame and he cried out “Fuck!”
And tried to rise, but was pushed down firm
By a nearby devil to make him squirm

I grabbed my chance and sprinted off
Leaving Dawkins alone to sputter and cough
And as I beat my more than hasty retreat
Souls kept wailing in the sweltering heat

And from that cacophony floated a swear
A voice I would know anywhere
I stopped and turned, hardly believing
That it was my own best friend doing the grieving

I knelt down and got really near:
“Matt, why the hell are you here?”
He scoffed as if I’d had too much to drink:
“Loren, why the hell do you think?”

He was a long-time atheist and a fierce one at that
His sworn enemy the theocrat
Creationist dogmas to him were the worst
Just thinking of them made his bowels burst

Seeing him this way, so reduced
On the sand where God-haters came to roost
I felt remorse for a second time
For a soul that didn’t seem guilty of crime

[Matt]
“Don’t waste your goddamn pity on me
Save it for yourself – you’ll need it, you’ll see
You’re here down with me, burned by this fire
And your sin in God’s eyes is just as dire.”

[Me]
“What are you saying? That makes no sense
I don’t hate God or have any pretense
My only real sin is lust — it’s true
But my soul wasn’t even on Circle 2.”

At that my friend laughed mightily hard
That his anus let loose a toxic petard
When his gaseous farts began to quit
He explained the scheme of Dante’s pit:

[Matt]
“Your lust unfortunately cuts both ways
You sleep with the straights and you sleep with the gays
And because of the latter, no matter how lite
The Almighty judges you a sodomite.”

I confess I’d forgotten this part of the rhyme
Where Dante made sodomy a grievous crime
Grated the medievals were really austere
But the equation with blasphemy seemed quite severe

[Matt]
“You shouldn’t be surprised by any of this
You listened to the sermons of Pastor Piss
It was he who made clear without facade
That you homos are absolute haters of God.”

[Me]
“Don’t remind me of that King James fanatic!
The point is what Catholics consider dogmatic
Obviously fundies hate gays with a passion
But Catholics usually have greater compassion.”

[Matt]
“I’m afraid on this subject they’re not that tribal
They read, after all, the very same bible
And that book does call you a reprobate
That you’re filled to the rim with ungodly hate

It’s why Abraham was sent down into Sodom
To witness its sinners who’d hit rock bottom
Not to preach or make them repent
But to see how filthy they really went

With Ham there was no hope – just ‘Cursed be Canaan!’
With Sodom no lifeline – just brimstone rainin’
It wasn’t like Ninevah or any other town
Where repentance was offered to turn things around

There’s nowhere in the bible, anywhere you glance
That gives the sodomites a second chance
Jesus was silent, and the apostle Paul said
That you homos, frankly, deserve to be dead.”

[Me]
“All right, enough! That puts me to shame
I guess I’m resigned to the Desert of Flame
I can’t believe we’ll be stuck together whining
Though maybe that’s a small bit of silver lining.”

And I moved on.

Canto 11: The Violent against God (Part 2) – Sodomites (Circle 7, Ring 3)

While crossing the Desert of Fire, I see the souls of sodomites, who run about forever, chasing each other — looking toward the human body they offended, without ever getting anywhere.

I departed my friend and walked in haste
And sure enough, across the waste
Came a group of souls running for sport
And I was among them, out of sort

Seeing myself in this marathon
I despaired of my fate as an Infernal pawn
And recalled why the souls ran here and there
For sodomy is exercise that gets nowhere

My soul broke ranks and left the race
And came to me showing the burns on his face
Not to mention the rest of his bod
That had been horribly scorched by the fires of God

[My soul]
“See what the future holds for you?
I hope you’re satisfied, you’ll have to make do:

With running forever, until your legs feel like clay
And you curse the genes that made you half-gay
Every day worse, hotter and hotter
And never getting a cup of water.”

He ran back then to rejoin the throng
Before I could say that we did no one wrong
Not that it mattered in Dante’s design
Our offense was that we had wronged the divine

“Haters of God, indeed,” I sneered
And then the cliff to Circle 8 appeared
But before I got there, I was almost knocked over
By another runner who looked hungover

His face rang a bell and then I recalled
He was Kenneth Pinyan, who had so appalled
Every citizen in Washington State
For fucking a horse, which sealed his fate

[Me]
“Holy shit, you bestial perv!
What you did took considerable nerve
How did you get that horse to agree
To enter and ream you so thoroughly?”

[Pinyan]
“Never you mind my tricks of the trade!
Mind yourself and how you get laid
And show me some sympathy – my life was stolen
When I died on the table from a perforated colon.”

[Me]
“I’m sorry to hear, that’s a bloody shame
You took initiative and went down in flame
I called you a perv, but I don’t really judge
Anyone who likes to pack mammal fudge.”

[Pinyan]
“That’s small consolation in this devil’s lair
I’m caught in a race that goes nowhere
Do me a favor and get yourself lost
And don’t fuck horses without counting the cost.”

Equine beasts weren’t quite my thing
But I was humbled by the perils of a horse’s ding
I proceeded then straight to the waterfall
Which tumbled down the 2000-foot wall

And I looked over.

Here ends Part 1 of My Tour of Dante’s Inferno. Part 2 is here.

 

Notes to Canto 1 (The Virtuous Unbelievers)

Bill Maher. “That funny New Rule segment”: Maher’s segment on fat-shaming made a lot of viewers angry, despite his making clear that he opposed mean-spirited shaming.

Asra Nomani. “For teaching the truth got viciously skewed”: Nomani is the rare feminist Muslim reformer who speaks honestly about Islam as a toxic religion. She has taken abuse from the left for her courageous efforts.

Sam Harris. “His life of meditation”: Harris wrote the book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality, in which he advocates techniques of Buddhist meditation remolded for atheist/secular consumption.

David Lynch. “So that grace came not cheap but dearly won”: Lynch is agnostic, but some of his films have been hailed as profoundly (if obliquely) religious.

Margot Adler. “Drawing down”: An allusion to Adler’s famous book Drawing Down the Moon, the famous study of modern pagans.

Elie Wiesel. “Made us feel the pain of night”: An allusion to Wiesel’s acclaimed book Night, based on his Holocaust experience.

 

Notes to Canto 2 (The Lustful)

Madonna. (1) “Published Sex to wide disgust”: Madonna pushed sexual boundaries left and right, and her pornography book included images of sadomasochism. It was widely panned at the time, though later became hailed as a daring post-feminist work. (2) “Louise Ciccone”: Madonna’s real name.

 

Notes to Canto 3 (The Gluttonous)

George R.R. Martin. (1) “Around sports and politics indulged on his site”: Martin is legendary for his snails-pace writing, and the long intervals between the volumes in A Song of Ice and Fire. Pissing off his fans even more is the fact he indulges writing so many off-topic posts on his blog, instead of getting his ass to work on Ice and Fire. (2) “A whole new bar for the fakest news”: Years ago I had written satirical reviews for The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring, which hadn’t been published yet (and still haven’t). Many readers, blind to the humor, took these reviews seriously and went viral with their enthusiasm. Martin didn’t take kindly to this.

Sally Struthers. “A long way from her comedy days”: Struthers was slim when she played Gloria in the ’70s sitcom All in the Family. After putting on a ton of weight, she became the butt of jokes, and in the South Park comedy was ruthlessly satirized. The South Park creators saw one of Struthers’ commercials and found it hilarious that a massively overweight woman was doing commercials for starving children in Africa. So they wrote an episode in which she was asking for food donations — and then hoarding the food for herself instead of giving it to the African children. Later the show turned her into a female Jabba the Hut. (See here.)

William Howard Taft. “Three-fifty pounds to an absolute tee”: President William Howard Taft did in fact weight 350 pounds, and was so fat that he fell asleep everywhere — at important meetings, state funerals, even White House dinners as he was in the middle of eating. He probably did not get stuck in the White House bathtub, though it’s hardly surprising that urban legend was taken seriously.

 

Notes to Canto 4 (The Greedy)

Mark Zuckerburg. “Without being liable for what you invite”: When big-tech companies censor and de-platform users, they are assuming the role of an editorial site instead of a neutral platform. If they want to do this (that is, censor and/or remove users according to “Terms of Service”), then they should be treated as an editorial site and be stripped of their legal immunities: held liable for what is posted on their site (copyright violation, defamation, etc.), like any other editorial site. Only under that condition should they be allowed censoring privileges as a private business.

 

Notes to Canto 5 (The Wrathful)

Steven Anderson. (1) “Those who committed the crime of litter”: One of the worst sins in Anderson’s bible is littering; it drives him nuts. He publicly chastises anyone he sees littering, and sermonizes with as much rage as he does on the subjects of sodomites, abortionists, Calvinists, Modalists, Zionists, and men who pee sitting down. (2) “The rise of your one-world government”: Anderson subscribes to the one-world government conspiracy, but puts a spin on it: this new order is run by a cabal of vicious homos, who are bent on pushing “the homo agenda” everywhere.

 

Notes to Canto 6 (The Heretics)

Martin Luther. “Reinvented Paul to be just like him”: Luther’s readings of Galatians and Romans have influenced Christian theologians immensely, despite the fact that the apostle Paul was saying something very different about the law than Luther was. Not least, the fact that Paul had no trouble being righteous under the law as a practicing Pharisee (Philip 3:6). Luther read Paul’s attack against the law through the lens of western guilt and insecurity – and many Christians today still read Paul as a prototype of Martin Luther.

John Dominic Crossan. (1) “The Lord’s authentic sayings”: as a member of the Jesus Seminar, Crossan voted on which of the gospel sayings were likely spoken by the historical Jesus. Few of them made the cut. (2) “Egalitarian Jesus”: Crossan wrote a famous book called The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (1991), which argued that Jesus was an egalitarian. But the idea of social equality between human beings originated with the 18th-century Enlightenment and was first put into practice (and only imperfectly) with the American and French revolutions. Jesus wasn’t born out of time and place. He was a messianic boss who chose twelve male disciples as his closest confidants. That he provided for the weak and vulnerable, and promised a reversal of fortune in the kingdom of God, didn’t make him egalitarian; nor did his reciprocity in common table-fellowship promote a message of equality.

Karen King. “To save my Divinity School from the coffer”: A conman named Walter Fritz emailed Karen King on July 9, 2010, describing Coptic fragments he wanted to sell. She didn’t reply until almost a year later, on June 25, 2011, and that was to tell him she wasn’t interested. Then, four months after that, on October 15, 2011, she suddenly had a change of heart. And for the next four and a half years, she promoted the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife”, even though it was effectively debunked as a hoax less than a month after she announced it publicly in September of 2012. She finally conceded the hoax in June of 2016. The question is why King ignored Walter Fritz for so long before finally taking his bait, and then persisting in willful denial when the hoax was clearly exposed. Ariel Sabar’s book Veritas (2000) answers this question: In October 2011, Harvard University was on the brink of creating a secular religious studies department, and the divinity department (and Karen King’s status) was in jeopardy. To Karen King, the Jesus-Wife fragment may have seemed a godsend for keeping progressive liberal theology married to academic scholarship.

N.T. Wright. (1) “A bishop insisting he was truly Jewish”: Wright sees every piece of New Testament theology as Jewish to the core, even when it’s at its most supersessionist, and even when mainstream Jews laugh his interpretations out the door. (2) “Don’t be blind to metaphor”: Wright is often seen as a conservative biblical scholar, and in many ways that’s true, but not others. He rejects the idea that biblical apocalyptic language speaks about the destruction of the earth and the world coming to a literal end. He claims that apocalyptic language was a vivid and colorful way to use metaphors when describing major socio-political changes occurring within human history. But this claim is based not on a careful assessment of literary evidence, but on Wright’s personal views of creational monotheism — which by rights should make him a heretic in the eyes of the orthodox.

 

Notes to Canto 8 (The Violent against Neighbor)

Muhammad. (1) “Put terror in their hearts and strike their necks”: see Qur’an 3:151, 8:12, 8:60, 47:4. (2) “Make their women into slaves of sex”: the Qur’an teaches that infidel women can be lawfully taken for sexual use (cf. its allowance for a man to take “captives of the right hand”), 4:3, 4:24, 23:1-6, 33:50, 70:30. (3) “Slay the enemy wherever and how”: see Qur’an 2:191-193, 4:89, 5:33, 8:39, 9:111. (4) “Pay the jizya and get off the hook”: The Qur’an teaches that Jews and Christians (“People of the Book”) may live if they refuse to convert to Islam if they pay the jizya, which is a special tax (Qur’an 9:29). (Paying the jizya tax puts Jews and Christians under a mafia-like rule which subjects them to a raft of discrimination laws; it’s a second-class citizenship at best.)

Saladin. The first sultan of Egypt and Syria and founder of the Ayyubid dynasty (died 1193 AD). He led the military campaigns against the Crusader states. In modern myth-making, Saladin has become the prototype of the tolerant, magnanimous Muslim warrior. He was in fact as ruthless as other Muslin sultans and had visions of extending his jihad far beyond the holy land of Palestine; he believed that his fight against the Crusaders was part of a larger global jihad, which he intended to pursue. (Dante actually put Saladin on Circle 1, with the virtuous unbelievers, following the precursor to the modern myth, that Saladin, like Richard the Lionheart, was “nobly chivalrous”.)

Sufi Muslims (Shah Wali Allah, etc). It’s a common myth that Sufi doctrine is peaceful, just because it is heretical. The mystical doctrine of the Sufis in not at odds with the jihad imperative, and many Sufis are jihadists as Islam requires.

The five presidents. (1) “Jackson who robbed and slaughtered the Reds”: Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, and was responsible for more suffering and death on the part of the Natives than any other president. (2) “Lincoln who killed for emancipation”: Abraham Lincoln could have ended slavery as other countries had ended it (Britain in the 1833-38 period, and even “backwater” Mexico in 1829), and the cost of this kind of emancipation would have been far less than the financial costs of the Civil War, not to mention the obscene cost of human lives, which by the end of the Civil War totaled 600,000 Americans, 38,000 of whom were African Americans. (3) “Wilson the worst president”: Woodrow Wilson was the most catastrophically interventionist president in history, causing more deaths than any other; he was a virulent racist, who fueled the rise of the second KKK; he was the worst offender of peoples’ civil rights; his presidency screwed up the 20th century and beyond – and the meter is still ticking. (4) “Johnson’s excursions in Vietnam”: Lyndon Johnson knew and acknowledged that the Vietnam War was stupid and wrong, and yet for political purposes escalated the war to the point of getting 58,000 American soldiers killed. (5) “Bush who hammered Saddam without cease”: George W. Bush was responsible for the 9/11 attacks, because he could have prevented them, but was too consumed with scheming against Saddam Hussein; he was responsible for ISIS, because he deposed Saddam Hussein who was a lesser evil; he peddled a rosy view of Islam, which impedes an understanding of the motivations of jihadists — the religious ideology that drives groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS; and he was responsible for the deaths of over 4000 American soldiers and 100,000 indigenous peoples in Iraq, for a war entirely without cause.

 

Notes to Canto 9 (The Violent against Self)

Robin Williams.What Dreams May Come“: In this 1998 film directed by Vincent Ward, Williams played Chris Nielsen, and Annabella Sciorra played his wife Annie. Annie goes to Hell when she commits suicide, and Chris finds a way to enter Hell and rescue her. The imagery of Hell in the film is very Dantean.

 

Notes to Canto 10 (The Violent against God – Blasphemers)

Andres Serrano. “Crucifix in a jar of urine”: The artist known for glorifying images of feces and bodily fluids, especially in his photograph Piss Christ.

Matt. “The sermons of Pastor Piss”: A reference to Pastor Steven Anderson (encountered on Circle 5 among the wrathful). Anderson teaches the Reprobate Doctrine (Romans 1:18-32), which states that there is a line which an unbeliever can cross, where God no longer wishes for that person’s salvation. The Deity — fed up after being patient and offering second chances — finally gives the person over to a reprobate mind, turning the person into a sodomite. That’s how people become homosexual, according to the Reprobate Doctrine. Homosexuals are beyond hope and impossible to save, because God has “given them up” to be precisely this way, in an act of irrevocable rejection. Curiously, the modern fundamentalist Reprobate Doctrine aligns fairly well with the medieval Catholic view, which also treats sodomites very harshly, as the Inferno makes clear.

 

Notes to Canto 11 (The Violent against God – Sodomites)

Kenneth Pinyan. “I died on the table from a perforated colon”: This isn’t an urban legend. Pinyan was sodomized by a horse and died from it.

 

ROSTER FOR CIRCLES 1-7

Souls Punished
Souls I encounter on this Circle
Circle 1
Virtuous Unbelievers Bill Maher, Asra Nomani, Sam Harris, Margot Adler, Elie Wiesel, Gendun Drubpa
Circle 2
The Lustful Madonna, Tiger Woods, Paris Hilton, Albert Einstein, Danielle Staub, Ernest Hemingway, Russell Bran, Brittany Spears
Circle 3 The Gluttonous George R.R. Martin, Sally Struthers, William Howard Taft
Circle 4
The Greedy Mark Zuckerburg and Jack Dorsey, Simon Cowell, Bill Gates, the Koch Brothers
Circle 5
The Wrathful Pastor Steven Anderson
Circle 6
Heretics Martin Luther, John Dominic Crossan, Karen King, N.T. Wright
Circle 7, Ring 1
The Violent against Others (Murderers, Warmongers) Muhammad, Hitler, Stalin, Attila the Hun, Zengi, Saladin, Shah Wali Allah, Al-Hallaj, Ahmad Sirhindi, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Lyndon Johnson, George W. Bush
Circle 7, Ring 2
The Violent against Self (Suicides) Kurt Kobain, Robin Williams
Circle 7, Ring 3
The Violent against God (Blasphemers, Sodomites) Richard Dawkins, Matt Bertrand, Loren Rosson, Kenneth Pinyan

Special Preview: Dante’s Inferno in the 21st Century (Donald Trump)

Dante’s Inferno is in drastic need of updating for modern times. It’s one of the best classics of Western literature but so much of it is tied to the obscurities of 13th-14th century Italian politics. I aim to rectify that. In honor of Inauguration Day, here is a special preview of my revised Inferno. I’m the one touring Hell and I encounter Donald Trump pretty far down — on Ditch 9 of Circle 8, punished as an inciter of rebellion.

From Canto 21: The Sowers of Discord, Schismatics, and Inciters to Rebellion (Circle 8, Ditch 9)

As I watched the souls all disemboweled
I saw a headless trunk befouled
It held its head by the orange hair
And swung it like a lantern with hardly a care

In the other hand it carried a monstrous sword
Bloody, like that of a medieval lord
Suddenly this figure walked straight towards me
And I gasped as I saw who it had to be

[Me]
“Donald Trump, you piece of shit!
So this is where your fate is writ
How does it feel to be sliced in two?
I only wish I could have done that to you.”

[Trump]
“Who are you, putting on airs?
You come here disturbing my thoughts and prayers
You have something to say, go ahead
I give you five minutes, then I chop off your head.”

[Me]
“I’ll take all the time I fucking need
To explain how you made our country bleed
Feeding conspiracies, nurturing lies
And wishing for a Wall to blot out the skies.”

Snarling he came closer, two steps ahead
And replied – clearly wishing me dead:

[Trump]
“I ruled with fairness and wisdom besides
There’s always always blame on both sides
And if that isn’t enough to fucking appease
Then the Constitution said I could do as I please.”

[Me]
“That document says nothing of the goddamn sort
Your presidency was one to abort
As for blame, there’s much more ambivalence
While all you can do is make false equivalence.”

He roared and swung his sword in an arc —
— barely, barely missing its mark
As I stumbled he brandished his face instead
And rage poured from that decapitated head:

[Trump]
“Who are you, to pass judgment on me?
Just like that know-nothing Jack Dorsey
He censored and silenced me all too well
It’s he and Mark Zuckerburg who should be here in Hell!”

[Me]
“They are here in Hell, but not nearly this deep
They’re up on the Fourth, where stones make them weep
But you are forever consigned to a fate
On this hideous Bolgia of Circle Eight.”

The sword came again, and Trump went insane
Hacking and slashing and screaming in vain
For the sword passed right through me, unable to wreck
Anything except his own red neck.

Special Novels Reading List

Here’s an updated reading list. I rank these special novels from #1 to #20, but the only rankings that really mean anything are the first five. Lord of the Rings, Shogun, The Throat, Dune, and The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant — in that order — remain my all time favorites. Numbers 6-20 are ranked according to how I feel today but if you ask me next month, or next year, they could get shuffled around. The point is they’re all excellent, and more than just “favorite novels”; each has impacted me in a unique way and worth singling out for that reason.

lotr1. The Lord of the Rings. J.R.R. Tolkien, 1954-1955. What needs saying? I could go on about Tolkien’s meticulous crafting of Middle Earth, his prehistorical approach to myth and disdain for allegory, his linguistic brilliance, or his ear for the pagan epics. But it’s the long defeat theme more than anything else that sets Middle-Earth apart from feel-good fantasy. As a Catholic Tolkien thought history could only be a long defeat. Some Christian critics have mistaken Gandalf, Aragorn, and/or Frodo for Christ-figures, but for Tolkien these heroes actually show the need for Christ. They’re noble and courageous but ultimately hopeless against the forces of evil. Frodo was a failure, unable to resist the Ring when it mattered most. His quest was triumphant because of a fluke, or the intervention of fate made possible by mercy shown to Gollum. Sauron may have been defeated, but The Lord of the Rings is about everyone’s defeat: the suffering and passing of Frodo, the fading of the elves, and the foreordained deterioration of men in the Fourth Age. That’s what the Grey Havens is about, and it gets me every time. Even aside from all of this, on the strength of the narrative alone, The Lord of the Rings is the best story ever told.

shogun12. Shogun. James Clavell, 1975. This is a novel that completely re-contextualizes you. You begin horrified by the Japanese and somewhere, somehow, become convinced they’re the civilized ones. By the end, you’re actually thinking like a samurai and endorsing ruthless codes against your integrity. Ritual suicide and honor killings — of which there are countless in Shogun — made complete sense to me; that’s how good Clavell is making you forget who you are. It’s probably the most didactic novel I’ve read (its message being that western people have much to learn from easterns) and yet it never feels preachy. Clavell is a storyteller whose priorities are action, romance, and political intrigue; endless backbiting; and cracking dialogue. He wants you to live and breathe the past, and to see feudal Japan through the eyes of the first Englishman to sail there. He reinvents historical figures like Will Adams and Ieyasu Tokugawa without sensationalism, knowing exactly when to loose the bounds of his imagination. Shogun taught me as much about thrilling fiction as it made me reflect on themes that were clearly important to Clavell — death (escaping from “the abyss of life”, as one samurai reflects), love (understood in terms of duty more than affection), and treachery (the other coin to honor-shame loyalty, and sometimes esteemed as a virtue). Shogun is the emperor of historical novels, pure and simple.

throat3. The Throat. Peter Straub, 1993. The final book of the Blue Rose Trilogy is a masterpiece of meta-fiction, dealing with murder and secrets and how crimes of the past hold the present in a vise. Koko did this in the context of Vietnam war horrors, and Mystery was about a Sherlock Holmes figure mentoring a gifted boy. Those stories had nothing to do with each other aside from the indirect influence of a serial killer called Blue Rose. In The Throat, the Blue Rose killings become the focus: “I really had to solve the Blue Rose Murders,” said Straub, “and that meant I was in for as long, long book. It not only had to do that, but also had to swallow Koko and Mystery, to digest them and exist around them like an onion.” Put simply, The Throat is Straub doing best at what he does best. I resent having to put it down whenever I read it. Tim Underhill is a thoroughly intimate character, his world (both inner and outer) suffused with an organic realism few novels achieve. Heartless people. Bleak childhoods. Religious rites of cannibalism. The specter of Vietnam. It’s a novel about the ugly violence people are capable of, for reasons barely comprehensible, deep scars, and the question of healing. Only Lord of the Rings and Shogun have affected me more deeply than The Throat.

dune4. Dune. Frank Herbert, 1965. What makes Dune the best science fiction novel is its disdain for the science fiction vision. Robots, computers, and cyberwars are non-existent, and in their place are clairvoyants, messiahs, and jihads. By creating a cosmos which has rejected the machine, Herbert was able to focus on religious and social issues without interference of techno-glam, and in particular to show the tensions inherent in charismatic messiah movements. Paul Atreides/Muad’Dib is the living contradiction of an elite duke and low-life prophet, and though a savior of the oppressed, will lead a jihad that will kill sixty billion people. Herbert did for sci-fic what Tolkien did for fantasy, building a world so convincing it may as well be real. For years I’ve dreamed of planet Arrakis, where water is precious as gold and sandworms are the size of skyscrapers. And which of course is the only source of the addictive spice (the One Ring of sci-fic if there ever was one), which prolongs life, heightens awareness, and even makes interstellar travel possible. Dune is impossible to stop thinking about when I read it. It contains ideas that are as relevant today as they were fifty-five years ago.

1118full-the-wounded-land-(the-second-chronicles-of-thomas-covenant-#1)-5. The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. Stephen R. Donaldson, 1980-1983. Of the three Covenant chronicles, the first haven’t aged well and the third are a mixed bag. The second trilogy is the masterpiece and proves that sequels can be really good when authors push themselves. For all the first trilogy’s originality with the character of Thomas Covenant, the outcome depends on a standard contest of muscle — armies fighting armies, with clear lines between good and evil. The second shows Donaldson completely on his own terms in a blended genre of fantasy-horror. I consider the Sunbane to be the most brilliant plot device after the One Ring. The Wounded Land is probably the most depressing fantasy novel ever written, as we see the Land we grew to love in the first series poisoned in hideous cycles. The One Tree was an important milestone for me in my teen years: it turns the horror of The Wounded Land inward with self-scrutiny as Linden Avery relives her traumatic childhood over the course of a sea voyage. The quest’s failure at the isle of the One Tree is pure courageous tragedy, leaving Covenant no other option in White Gold Wielder than to surrender to Lord Foul in a desperate gambit. This is a rare symphony in fantasy writing.

6. The Prague Cemetery. Umberto Eco, 2010. The only fictional character in this novel is the main one, Simone Simoni­ni, and he’s one of the most despi­ca­ble char­ac­ters ever portrayed in a work of lit­er­a­ture. We get to watch this gluttonous anti-Semitic pile of shit hatch his plans to forge The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the famous hoax describing a Jewish plan for global domination. Most of the novel is in diary form (written by Simonini in 1897), and the book’s title refers to a pivotal meet­ing of rab­bis from across Europe who gather in a Prague ceme­tery. There they plot the destruc­tion of Chris­t­ian civ­i­liza­tion so they can become the rulers of the West­ern world. Along the way we’re treated to other conspiracies “factualized” in the novel — a Jesuit plot against the Freema­sons, proof that Jews were behind the Masons and other rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ments since 1789, con­spir­ing to bring down Christian monarchies. Eco uses a vile character to mine con­spir­a­cy the­o­ry for all its worth, and to show its role in leading to Hitler’s ascendance. Even aside from that, The Prague Cemetery has plenty to say about our need for conspiracy theories in general — which has only increased in the 21st century — and why trashy novels like The DaVinci Code become runaway bestsellers. Eco was the anti-Dan Brown, a gift from the literary gods, and I still mourn his passing.

Silmarillion-cover7. The Silmarillion. J.R.R. Tolkien, 1977. The tales of the First Age are almost as good as Lord of the Rings and in some ways even better. The history resonates on a level that suggests this really might be how our world began. The overarching theme is the Fall, which was always important for Tolkien, and shows how Middle-Earth aligns with the Christian myth without allegorizing or containing it. The elves fall from Valinor when they keep the Silmarilli gems and refuse to help the Valar against Morgoth; this mirrors the fall of humanity from Eden. They fall a second time when they recreate paradise in Middle-Earth by the power of the Three Rings (in Rivendell, Lothlorien, and at the Grey Havens). Men also fall again, when they grow dissatisfied with their island of Numenor, and sail for the Undying Lands to make war on the Valar. In each of the four falls, there is a reach for godhood: men want immortality and elves want to be gods of their own creations. The result is all the tragic tales in The Silmarillion — cycles of hopeless war on the Enemy, destined to be replayed again and again. These battles of Beleriand are epic, and like The Iliad show a broken world craving redemption.

8. Boundaries of Eden. Glenn Arbery, 2020. The way this novel blends genres subtly across a philosophical canvas is something rarely seen these days. It’s a heritage mystery, a southern Gothic, a drug-cartel thriller, and looks at the mind of a serial killer in a way reminiscent of Peter Straub. Also Straubian are the way sins of the past impinge on the present, and the pain that comes with digging up the past. The main character Walter Peach has a lot of pain to begin with. He runs a newspaper in the central county of Georgia, treats his wife and kids like sewage, falls in love with his niece, openly fawns on said niece around his family, while at work he publishes screeds against Mexican cartels that no one takes seriously. Pivotal to the drama (and Peach’s past) is an abandoned 40-year old house buried under a sea of kudzu. Some of the scenes inside the house show that Arbery could be a horror writer if he wanted to; he has a gift for summoning dread that many horror writers only aspire to. Some of the most horrifying parts, though, are revelations unearthed about the main character’s mother, her slave heritage, and crimes committed in the name of justice. Well crafted and multi-layered — even poetic at times — Boundaries of Eden begins like a Faulkner classic and slow-burns into something much more; it never cheats the reader because it’s a novel that does everything, and because Arbery is simply incapable of writing a dull paragraph. I didn’t want it to end.

9. Inferno & Purgatorio. Dante Alighieri, 1320. The ultimate revenge fiction and the best narrative poems in the history of western literature. (Paradiso isn’t so inspired; Dante should have quit while he was ahead and left his final act to the imagination.) While the lurid and graphic Inferno will always hold pride of place for me, Purgatorio gets better every time I read it. Purgatory deals with psychological sins, punishing the seven deadlies committed in thought more than in actuality, and for which the sinner is repentant. The terraces purge sin in a manner fitting the crime (as the circles of hell punish sinners in deserving manners), but Dante’s vision goes beyond mere debt-paying to the desire to change and become good, that makes Purgatory so interesting. Dante’s placement of Eden at the top of Mount Purgatory is a brilliant piece of theological revisionism: one’s purging leads to the state before original sin; one stands on top and looks down, wondering honestly how he or she could have ever found anything sinful to be alluring. But what really makes Inferno and Purgatorio great is that they’re so shockingly modern — lyrical, satirical, biblical, yes, but also full of nasty invective and coarse humor. I’ve often dreamed of rewriting the Divine Comedy for modern times, and populating hell with world leaders, politicians, and religious figures from the 20th-21st centuries. No shortage of candidates, that’s for sure.

10. Weaveworld. Clive Barker, 1987. The fifties gave us Lord of the Rings; the sixties Dune; the seventies Shogun. For me the epic of the eighties was Weaveworld, a tale of magic-users fighting for their wonderland among human inferiors, and failing tragically. The prose is a feast and the narrative never flags. The premise involves a race of spell-casters who for centuries had carved out a niche for themselves in England, until forced into hiding. The magic-users are the Seerkind; their geographical wonderland is the Fugue. At the novel’s start, both have been preserved in suspended animation (since 1896), shrunk and woven into a magic carpet. Now eighty years later, they are unwoven and unleashed again into the human world, fully unprepared for the hostility that awaits. On the one hand, there is the alliance of a rogue Seer and a nasty salesman, though they each have conflicting motives. The protagonists of this drama are Cal and Suzanna, drawn to each other as they try to save the Fugue from those who would sell, abuse, or extinguish it. Fantasy elements are fleshed out with the right amount of detail — not so much that it bogs down the narrative, but just enough to take the world seriously — and horror elements are horrific by even Barker’s standards. The novel is a meditation on memory, and how memory fails us in the scheme of life’s mysteries, when we need it most. I often say that the worst thing I fear about getting old is losing memory — having parts of my life erased, as it were — and Cal’s tragedy brings those fears into sharp focus. See my retrospective that I wrote in quarantine last year. For whatever reason it was the perfect novel to revisit when everything shut down for Covid.

11. The Gap Cycle. Stephen R. Donaldson, 1990-1996. This five-volume homage to Wagner’s Ring is not only the darkest, nastiest sci-fic in existence, but probably the darkest, nastiest work of fiction period. Everyone is mean-spirited to the core; allies are as deadly as enemies, if not more so, including the galactic police director who puts a cop through rape and worse to achieve justice. No one in this universe has so much a decent thought. Perhaps every hundred pages, a character will say something close to nice and you sigh in appreciation. Donaldson has always been a depressing writer, but he set a new bar in the Gap Cycle. And the suspense levels are insane. The race to escape Thanatos Minor still gives me panic attacks when I read. Every corner of that planetoid is unforgettable, especially the self-mutilation stage in the Ease ‘n’ Sleaze bar. Crazy as it sounds, I grew to like the central character of Angus Thermopyle. He’s scum, but as a cyborg bereft of choice elicits compassion. The Gap Cycle is a space opera about evil authorities, genetically imperial aliens, and vile people caught in between. Humanity’s hope? An abused woman who must navigate the machinations of all three. Nothing tests the boundaries of “the darker the evil, the more good will shine in the end”, than Donaldson’s pulverizing Gap Cycle.

captain from castile12. Captain from Castile. Samuel Shellabarger, 1945. It’s hard to believe that authors like Shellabarger were the John Grishams of their day, but the ’40s were the golden age of American fiction. The popular novels of that decade look like high-brow literature today, and Captain of Castile may as well be a classic. It throws you into the life of a young Spaniard who seeks honor and wealth in Aztec lands, after fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. The capture of his family and death of his sister at the Inquisitor’s hands drive incredibly powerful scenes, and Cortes’ conquest of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) seems drawn from first-hand accounts. For a ’40s effort, the contrasts between the new world’s “pagan savages” and supposedly superior conquistadors is handled with surprising subtlety; Shellabarger’s decade was a politically incorrect one, to say the least. The politically incorrect elements that do emerge are a strength in any case, for the same reason James Clavell’s brand of multiculturalism is; respect for the Other doesn’t preclude judgments or even feelings of superiority, and there’s as much (if not more) to judge about the Aztecs as the Spaniards. There are dilemmas about friendship, racism, and religious tyranny. And a powerful love triangle: Pedro pines for an aristocrat beyond his reach, but is also in love with a tavern-wench beneath his station; it’s impossible to predict how it will end. Captain from Castile is focused abroad, but it’s the first part set in Spain, revolving around the fist of the Inquisition, that stays with me, more than even Aztec sacrifice.

elric13. Stormbringer. Michael Moorcock, 1963. If you want nihilistic fantasy, you can’t get more devastating than Elric. But his final chapter (in a series of eight volumes) shares a premise with Lord of the Rings that often goes unnoticed. Elric’s purpose in wielding Stormbringer is somewhat like Frodo’s mission to destroy the Ring: both will defeat evil but in the process cause the passing of gifted races (the elves, the Melniboneans) who made amazing things possible on earth. Both create the basis for a new age, in which humanity has more of a fighting chance, without evil entities like Sauron and Arioch. The difference is that Elric’s world has to be destroyed first; the historical age won’t emerge gradually like it does out of Middle-Earth’s Fourth Age. After Elric defeats Chaos (or even if Chaos wins) he must wipe everything out so humanity can start over. Things are so bad that a purging is required — the equivalent of Noah’s flood — meaning that Elric’s world is fated to lose no matter what; it’s just a question of whether or not Chaos will continue dominating in the new age. There are scenes of repulsive horror in Stormbringer that left me poleaxed, like Elric’s wife changing into a huge worm from the neck down. It’s a rare fantasy that raises the stakes high and brings everything down so low without tripping over its ambitions.

lost boy lost girl14. Lost Boy, Lost Girl. Peter Straub, 2003. There’s a scene from this book forever burned in my psyche: It’s evening. Jimbo creeps onto the front porch. From the lawn Mark shines a flashlight into the window. Jimbo is so shocked by what he sees that he leaps backwards and passes out before Mark revives him and they run for their lives. Pages later we find out what he saw: “A guy was hiding way back in the room. He was looking right at me. It was like he stepped forward, like he deliberately moved into the light, and I saw his eyes. Looking at me.” That may fall flat in the retelling, but in context it’s a ripper. It appears that Jimbo has seen the ghost of a serial killer who used to live in the house and customized it to facilitate his murders. (The killer had used secret passageways to spy on his terrified captives, torment them on beds of pain, and do all sorts of hideous stuff.) But it turns out the ghost isn’t the only entity inside the house; there’s something or someone even worse, and this mixture of terrors is handled so brilliantly we’re never sure what’s going on. Soon after, one of the boys disappears, and the question is whether he was abducted by a pedophile or snatched into a spiritual world by the ghost of the serial killer’s daughter. How you answer determines your reaction when you turn the final page. Lost Boy, Lost Girl is that rare novel completely beyond criticism.

15. The Five. Robert McCammon, 2011. If you like rock music and want a novel that makes you hear it off the page, then this is what you’ve been waiting for. A dirt-poor indie rock band (called The Five, three men and two women), drive around in a van and play gigs across the southwestern U.S., chasing dreams of success. They finally get that, but at a nasty price when a crazy ex-Marine sniper starts picking them off for comments made by the lead singer about soldiers in Iraq. Suddenly the band’s concerts swell in proportion to the media vultures, and with the fame comes devastation. It’s a nail-biter punctuated with slow pauses and soul-searching, both parts just as hard to put down. The narrative is saturated with the author’s love for rock n roll. It’s no mean feat to make a novel reader “hear” music, yet that’s what I was doing — crafting my own mental jams and drawing on textures from favorite bands. (You’ll make your own associations, but I imagined The Five as sounding grungy like The Smashing Pumpkins and searing like The Walkmen.) This was especially true for the signature song written by all of the band members instead of the usual two: it takes on a curious life throughout the story, as it’s born of harrowing events and each band member finds his or her muse at the oddest, eeriest moments.

whirlwind16. Whirlwind. James Clavell, 1986. About the Iranian Revolution in ’79, almost a year before the hostage crisis began, and like all of Clavell’s novels based on true events in a clash of cultures. Like Shogun, Whirlwind involves western people struggling in a hostile land they can barely make sense of — this time, it’s helicopter pilots working for Iran Oil — and the story is their escape from a nation being strictly taken over by Islam. But it carries a different thrust from Shogun. Between East and West, Clavell built bridges; he seems to have been more intent on burning bridges when it came to the Middle-East. Shogun and Tai-Pan are about cross-cultural fusion: the western protagonists remain in Japan or Hong Kong, meshing their western outlook with revelations in the east. They take the good and discard the bad from both. Whirlwind advances the opposite impression: there can be no such optimistic marriage with Islamic countries. Some today might call this Islamophobic, but there’s no irrational fear of Islam that emerges in Whirlwind. Anyone would be rationally repelled if put into the situation of these characters. Clavell depicted things accurately, lived extensively in the places he wrote about (he even took helicopter training as background to Whirlwind), and always respected the peoples he portrayed. This is a grand, sprawling novel (like Shogun over 1000 pages) that immerses you in the Islamist mindset with no sentimental whitewashing, and ends on an escape operation that leaves me sweating every time.

altars117. The Seven Altars of Dusarra. Lawrence Watt-Evans, 1981. Ask fantasy readers if they’ve even heard of The Lords of Dus quartet and I guarantee you’ll get a blank stare. Even in my day it was an obscurity. The second book, The Seven Altars of Dusarra, is the one I read so many times as a teenager it was ridiculous. Garth the Overman has the personality of Conan, lives in a world like that of Fafhrd and Grey Mouser, and wields a sentient bloodthirsty sword that calls to mind Elric’s Stormbringer. Yet none of this feels like pastiche. Garth holds his own like the best of the pulp anti-heroes. He’s sent on a mission to steal whatever lies on the temple altars of seven nasty cults, and he does so with no scruples, relying on hack-and-slash, killing people, regretting it, and calling forth a citywide manhunt. I love the Dusarran pantheon, and the cults have some pretty ghastly rites. The priests of Andhur Regvos blind themselves, those of Sai practice torture and human sacrifice, those of P’hul have hideous skin diseases and enjoy spreading them, etc. On rereading this book in recent years I’d forgotten how much blood Garth spills without a second thought to get what he needs. On the other hand, I remember the strong D&D overtones. Garth’s mission is classic temple robbing, and this is the quintessential novel for old-school D&D players. No one would ever accuse it of being high-brow literature, but I love it to pieces.

18. Cluster. Piers Anthony, 1977. From a time when science fiction writers weren’t afraid to take real risks. Cluster‘s premise is that spiritual possession is the most effective way to space travel, as it allows people to send their kirlian auras (what we think of as “souls”) across vast distances, safely, instantly, and at little cost while their bodies stay behind. Their auras take possession of a host, alien or otherwise, though the takeover cannot be forced on a consciously unwilling subject. Possession is a bold idea in science fiction and allows the author a protagonist whose perspective on other species, including his own, changes according to the aliens he inhabits. This is a great novel for its interrogation of inter-species perspective, for the whole premise of spirit possession — and for some graphically arresting portrayals of alien sex. Throw in an explosive murder mystery, and you have perfection. See my 40th anniversary retrospective for more details of this gem that’s been largely forgotten in the 21st century.

king+of+vinland19. The King of Vinland’s Saga. Stuart Mirsky, 1998. If Shogun is about the clash of east and west, this is of Viking and Indian, and the codes of honor are just as deadly. Mirsky’s narrative is lyrically old-fashioned but addictive once you get used to it. The dialogue sea-saws between descriptions of what is said and the actual quoted speech. For example: “Osvif said this was all very irregular and a serious matter, ‘or didn’t you know that it is a fatal flaw to bring charges against men, if you are equally guilty of them?'” Or this: “Arnliot laughed and promised to bring her back many fine gifts from the land of the Skraelings, ‘and not least of these, the heads of those who oppose me’.” I’ve never seen this style wielded with such rhythmic discipline, and it meshes perfectly with the gloom-and-doom tone of the Norse and Icelandic sagas. The story is about Leif Erickson’s grandson who sails to North America and reclaims the territory of Vinland, assimilates into a Skraeling (Indian) tribe and battles against another, and then finds himself in hot water when the enemies he left behind in Greenland come after him. Mirsky follows the idea that Vinland was in present-day Maine rather than Newfoundland where most historians place it. This is a page-turner of family feuds, overseas conquests, hopeless battles, and doomed warriors. And there’s no Dances with Wolves political-correctness here; neither Vikings nor Skraelings are heroes or villains. Each is fluent in savagery, and each capable of the rare tender mercy.

faerie20. Faerie Tale. Raymond Feist, 1988. If it isn’t the scariest book I’ve read, it’s certainly the one which most convincingly conveys the fear of its characters. I’m not easily unnerved, but in his experimental departure from high fantasy, Feist gave me more scares than Stephen King at his best. The plot is simple: a family moves into an old farm house in New York State, with acres of woods in their backyard, which happens to be the playground of spirit beings out of Irish folklore. The novel explores the dark side of these faeries. Puck and Wayland Smith make an appearance, as does the Wild Hunt. There are sprites and leprechauns — but again, not the benign creatures we think of on St. Patrick’s day — and contorted creatures of demonic fury. The strongest of these beings have the power to incite terror and lust in a person, fan those passions like a blaze, and then feed on both until there is nothing left of the soul. The novel also explores the idea of forgetfulness: the cultural forgetfulness of people who treat myths lightly throughout history, and individual forgetfulness inflicted by way of enchantment. Thanks to this book, I think of St. Patrick’s Day as a second Halloween. Leprechauns and changelings have all the potentials of ghosts and vampires, and if Faerie Tale doesn’t convince you of that, then you’ve grown up too much.

Big-Tech Companies: Platforms vs. Editorial Sites

In the wake of recent events, there’s been a flood of commentary on the power wielded by big tech companies. Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a long-time foe of Donald Trump, came out swinging on his behalf against Twitter, stressing the need for at least some regulation on social media companies like Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube, whose CEOs rule the digital universe according to whims and Terms and Services never consistently applied.

To which I say yes and no. On the one hand, I believe it’s important to preserve the distinction between the public and private spheres. When Merkel’s spokesman (Stephan Seibert) said that “the fundamental right of freedom of expression can be interfered with, but along the lines of the law and within the framework defined by the lawmakers, not according to the decision of the management of social media platforms”, no, that’s advocating something worse. Governmental interference with free speech is the worst possible option, though of course Merkel and Seibert are speaking as Europeans who don’t have the First Amendment.

Free speech, in the American legal sense, is all about the public sphere. People have the right to say as they please and express themselves without fear of being criminalized, punished, or stopped in any way by the government. Under corporate wings there is no free speech, and nor should there be: it’s their house and their rules. Or, in the words of a friend yesterday, “If a baker can’t be forced to bake a specific cake, Facebook shouldn’t be required to post a particular page.”

And yet… it’s not that simple either. The analogy between big tech companies and small time bakers isn’t a good one. The reality is that companies like Facebook and Twitter and Youtube exercise more power and control over public discourse than any government ever dreamed of having. I would defend a baker’s right to refuse to create or design a cake in a particular way without reservation, but I have mixed feelings about big tech companies censoring or deplatforming those whose views they object to. My position is that I do support their right to censor and deplatform if they would start being treated consistently as editorial sites, and thus held liable for what is posted on their platforms.

Owners of editorial sites exercise discretion about what is published on their sites. If the material doesn’t meet their editorial standards, then it gets censored, and if it does meet their standards, then it gets posted, but the owner is therefore liable for what is allowed to be posted — for any defamation, use of copyright without permission, etc. Owners of neutral platforms (like phone lines) don’t have to worry about such liabilities. A phone company can’t be sued when its customers say illegal things on the phone, or coordinate illegal activity on the phone, because they’re a neutral platform.

Therein lies the rub: Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube have been treated legally as neutral platforms (like a phone line) — so they’re not responsible for what people say and post — while being allowed to function as editorial sites — so they can step in to edit or remove what people say on their platforms, or kick them off. That’s having their cake and eating it. If they want the prerogative to censor and deplatform as private corporations, then fine, I support that, but they should be stripped of their legal immunities. They shouldn’t be able to have it both ways.

Obviously, there’s no way these big-techies would ever give up their legal immunities. They’d be inundated with lawsuits and bankrupt within a week. Holding them accountable like this would effectively force them into the proper role of a neutral, non-censoring platform.

That’s the solution to the problem of big-tech CEOs who have too much power silencing people. Not to advocate that the power be transferred to the government, as Merkel would have it — Christ, that’s cutting out your heart to save your legs — but to simply hold these CEOS to the standards of their practice.

The Spell of Cobra Kai: Season 3

“I’m sorry, this is absolutely surreal.”

Daniel’s words to Kumiko surely speak for the way many audiences feel about Cobra Kai‘s third season. By this point the San Fernando Valley has become a crazy alternate reality where karate is the rule of law and even the key to one’s spiritual salvation. If you’re Cobra Kai, then you’re a social Darwinist upholding survival of the strongest: strike first with bloodthirsty aggression, and forget you’ve ever heard of a concept like compassion. If you’re Miyagi-Do, then you’re a Zen Buddhist, competing more with yourself than others: train your body and mind to achieve balance, and fight defensively. And if you’re Eagle Fang, then you’re probably confused about what you are: a breakaway sect from Cobra Kai wanting to have your badass cake and eat it — but also to join forces with the Miyagi-Do infidels, heretofore your sworn enemy.

Friendships, romances, and alliances turn on a dime in this universe, and the dojos lose/gain students by a continual stream of attrition and defection. When karate brawls break out, all beings of authority — parents, teachers, and police — are powerless to protect kids from broken arms and comas. For that matter, the kids themselves seem powerless, as if karate is possessing them and putting them in thrall to absurdist melodramas. Sensais Johnny and Daniel are the worst in this regard, still seething over adolescent quarrels that any mature adult would have long put to bed. In the real world they would be deemed terrible role models; in the world of Cobra Kai they are weirdly compelling, and in this season about equally so.

One critic has described season 3 of Cobra Kai as ¼ teen soap opera, ¼ martial arts epic, ¼ Richard Linklater, and ¼ underdog sports drama — and that’s pretty much right. (Those who have seen Linklater’s Before series will find resonance in the return of Daniel’s old flings Kumiko and Ali, and their conversational therapies.) Strangely, this is what makes season 3 the best so far. If you’re going to do a cheesy dramedy, then go the full nine. Accepted on its own terms, this season is what the series has been building to, with John Kreese finally assuming his role as the nasty arch-villain, leaving Johnny out in the cold, and Daniel trying to pray Mr. Miyagi back to life.

Johnny and Daniel have a brief team up in episode 2 that ends on quite the opposite note. They are hunting the city for Robby before the cops catch him (for putting Miguel in a coma), and the hunt takes them to a den of thieves who stole the van that Robby took from the LaRusso auto shop. Johnny and Daniel unload an ass-pounding on these thugs, and interestingly, this is only the second time (up to this point) in the series that Daniel has been involved in a karate fight. He didn’t fight at all in season 1; he saved Robby from the beach attack in season 2; he will get into three fights this season, and this first one is hilarious. After he and Johnny kick the shit out of the thugs, they immediately begin attacking each other, overreacting as they always do to the other’s perceived faults. This is what I love about Cobra Kai: allies are as dangerous as enemies, for the most melodramatic causes.

The surrealism continues in one of the season’s best sequences — the school conflict of episode 4 that leads to smack downs and windmill kicks on the soccer field. It begins in the cafeteria with Eli demolishing Demetri’s science project (that took the poor kid three weeks to build), but Demetri and Sam are, incredibly, the ones who get chastised by Counselor Blatt, while Eli, all innocence, protests about being triggered in his safe space. He then warns Sam against any further micro and macro aggressions. Cobra Kai has never shown mercy in making fun of political correctness, and I’m glad to see that the series’ move to Netflix hasn’t cramped its style. In any case, when Counselor Blatt swallows Eli’s deferential bullshit, the Miyagi-Do “good guys” decide to take revenge in gym class. Of course, the soccer teams are conveniently divided so that the Miyagi-Dos are playing against the Cobra Kais, but the surrealism goes into overdrive when the punches, headbutts, and windmill kicks start flying, while the referee just stands on the sidelines exasperating and wringing her hands.

But as I foreshadowed at the start, season 3 is at its most surreal during Daniel’s trip to Okinawa, where he encounters his old girlfriend (Kumiko) and homicidal nemesis (Chozen) from The Karate Kid Part II. This is another reason why season 3 is my favorite: back in the day I liked the second Karate Kid film more than the first, which is heresy to most fans of the franchise. I saw Part II first, in the theater, and then worked back to the Part I on VHS, so the latter always felt more like a prequel: a sports film prefacing the epic adventure in Okinawa, where karate was high stakes and involved real fights — to the death, not to score tournament points.

Indeed, the Okinawan scenes in episodes 4 and 5 are the season’s best, some of them genuinely moving, especially when Kumiko reads Daniel the love letters that Mr. Miyagi had sent Yukie. The one he wrote on his deathbed — in which he describes to Yukie his special feelings for Daniel and his daughter, how Daniel welcomed him into his family and made him feel like Sam’s grandfather — actually brought a tear to my eye. And when Chozen makes his entrance the next morning, he exudes a real menace we’re not used to seeing in Cobra Kai because Kreese is so cartoonish. It turns out that Chozen’s surface hostility masks a deep shame that he continues to feel for trying to kill Daniel and Kumiko decades ago. When he paralyzes Daniel in a sparring match, and acts like he’s ready to kill him, my heart almost skipped a beat. Chozen is written very well. He forces Daniel to rethink his reverence for Mr. Miyagi, and ends up teaching Daniel “war secrets” that Mr. Miyagi withheld from him — moves that Daniel will use in the finale against Creese.

Most importantly — though I’m not sure the writers intended this — the Okinawan drama shows how melodramatic the American one is by comparison. For all their ugly history from Karate Kid Part II, Kumiko and Chozen have moved on, and are at peace with each other; Chozen is at peace with Daniel, and Daniel finds forgiveness within easy reach. If Daniel and Chozen can be this way after trying to kill each other, why can’t Daniel and Johnny put petty rivalries behind? There are two levels of surrealism here, the exotic Asian, and the absurdist American, and the former hangs as a commentary on the latter. In the finale, Daniel and Johnny finally bridge their dojos, and while this comes right after Ali telling them to bury the hatchet, I prefer to believe that Kumiko and Chozen had the stronger influence on Daniel’s reconciliation with Johnny.

As for Johnny, he and Miguel continue to be the best characters in Cobra Kai; they anchor the series, and it’s hard to imagine it without them. The things Johnny does to get Miguel out of a wheelchair are classic Johnny Lawrence — dangling porno mags over Miguel’s head, even lighting the poor kid’s foot on fire. Meanwhile, Miguel’s Cobra Kai buddies are proving themselves supreme assholes in avenging Miguel, resulting in a shocker I didn’t see coming: Eli pinning Demetri on the ground, and then — to the cheers of Tory and other Cobra Kais — sadistically breaking his arm. This while Sam chokes in a panic attack, unable to do anything to save Demetri. Which brings me to Mary Mouser’s performance.

Mouser is worth singling out, because she has come 180 degrees in her ability to impress as an actor, just as Sam has evolved into a better character. In my review of the first season I didn’t hold back my distaste for the entire Larusso clan, including Sam. But the family has become more likeable as situations propel them out of their world of goody-two-shoes comfort. I’ve gone from hating Amanda and disliking Daniel and Sam (season 1), to hating Amanda and liking Daniel and Sam (season 2), to feeling okay about Amanda and really liking Daniel and Sam (season 3). Amanda, for her part, is finally on board with karate and gets aggressive herself — bearding Kreese in his dojo and belting him across the face. Daniel of course shines throughout the whole season, especially in Okinawa. But Sam really stands out. She displays a vulnerability in her rage against Cobra Kai, and suffers debilitating panic attacks in the aftermath of Tory slicing her arm at the end of season 2. And the heart-to-heart between her and Daniel on the boat in episode 7 is probably their best daughter-father scene of the series.

Then there is Tory and Robby, who I’m guessing will be an item in season 4. They get in great performances as angry castaways, and I admit that Robby’s turn to the dark side caught me off guard. It must gall Johnny to no end that his son has chosen mentors regardless of their philosophy — from the pacifist LaRusso to the war-mongering Kreese — just so long as it’s not dear old Dad. I’ve heard some critics say that Robby’s pendulum swing is unrealistic, but it’s most certainly not: as a neglected and angry son, it’s natural for him to latch on to any father figure except the real one — especially an authoritarian like Kreese. Not to mention Robby’s history as a delinquent. Of course he’s going to backslide when his benevolent sensai LaRusso “betrays” him by giving him over to the cops. As for Kreese, his Vietnam flashbacks are the weakest part of the season. They do nothing to flesh out his character in any revelatory way, and the injection of themes like war crimes into a dramedy seems strikingly out of place.

I’m sure the final two episodes (9 and 10) will be the fan faves, but as good as they are, they can’t compete with 4 and 5. The Okinawa fight scenes beat even the finale showdown with Kreese, and Kumiko — sorry fans — buries Ali with an “i”. I have dreaded talking about Ali Mills, as fans have been orgasmic for her return, but let me rush in to assure everyone that I enjoyed seeing Elisabeth Shue reprise her role. It was fun to watch Ali, after all these years, referee Johnny and Daniel’s mud slinging, and then regale the dinner table with embarrassing stories of her and Daniel’s break up. Prior to the party she and Johnny have a night out that gives him some peace and closure, and this is all very nice. But I can’t say that Ali was necessary to make season 3 as good as it is, unlike Kumiko and Chozen.

Actually in fact, the Ali drama becomes somewhat intrusive in the finale, which cuts back and forth between the Christmas party at the country club and the karate war in the LaRusso home. In seasons 1 and 2 the finale battles were uninterrupted as they deserve to be. The season 3 finale divides our interest and puts our bloodlust on pause. And there is blood to be sure: Miguel’s face in particular ends up looking like it’s been put through a grinder. Sam’s face-off with Tory is no joke, as Tory comes at Sam with nunchucks. (Those are seriously dangerous weapons; a weakling waving them around could smash someone’s skull with very little effort.) But it’s the LaRusso home that takes the most outrageous beating — thousands of dollars worth of damage as the kids kick and smash each other through the coffee table, sliding doors, the Christmas tree, lamps, and other fineries. This karate war is brilliantly choreographed, though it’s not a masterpiece like the massive season-2 school brawl.

The final confrontation with Kreese is of course what pushes Johnny and Daniel together, and it will be interesting to say the least how their season-4 alliance unfolds. Miyagi-Do is an uncompromising school of thought; Eagle Fang might have to lose its fangs. Though maybe not. In going against Kreese’s new incarnation of Cobra Kai, Miyagi-Do might, just might, have to start playing more dirty, and tap into those war secrets revealed by Chozen. In any case, the final scene is pretty sweet.

Honestly, there was no better way to start the new year than with Cobra Kai season 3. I usually go for dark and depressing, but after the year 2020, Miyagi dramedy hit the sweet spot.

 

See also:

The Spell of Cobra Kai: Season 1
The Spell of Cobra Kai: Season 2