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Posts Tagged ‘Hell’

Illinois Jesus

August 18, 2014 | by

A forgotten Midwestern religious sect and the strange novel it inspired.

An illustration from Six Years in Heaven.

The most confusing thing about the rural Midwest is the importance placed on being normal. Perhaps this comes from demographic homogeneity: there’s a comforting stability in being able to drive a hundred miles in almost any direction and find a landscape almost identical to the one from which you set out.

The Midwest is construed as a place where nothing happens—that being, it should be emphasized, a good thing. Native Americans once lived here, of course; but there’s no longer any sign of them aside from some low mounds and their continuing near-universal use as school mascots. When I grew up here, no one wondered why they’d left. Probably it was more exciting somewhere else. Who could blame them? It’s a fine place to leave.

But on returning, as I did recently, the effect is disorienting: this is a place where everyone is cheerfully convinced of the rationality of their insanity. I was never immune to this. In school, everyone was perplexed by race problems. We weren’t racist. How could we be when there weren’t any black people? We ignored that in Rockford, Illinois, ten miles away, desegregation lawsuits were impossibly still grinding through the court system. Likewise, we firmly believed that gay people weren’t something we had; we learned we’d had a Jewish family in our town only after they’d safely escaped. This seems ludicrous to me now, and things have undoubtedly changed since the turn of the century. With the arrival of the Internet and cable TV, the boast that newscasters were carefully trained to speak like us—because we, among all Americans, had no accents—isn’t quite as impressive.

In 1988, when I was ten, my parents moved to a five-acre farm between the rust-belt city of Rockford and the village of Winnebago. Not being from the area, they were naturally curious about the history, and one of them found a Works Progress Administration history of Illinois in the library. In that book, we discovered that the country road we lived on had once not been so somnolent. A block north of us, a large complex of buildings painted red bore the name Weldon Farm, but once it had been called Heaven. In the 1880s it had been the center of an obscure religious sect—still lacking a Wikipedia entry of their own—called the Beekmanites. A woman named Dorinda Beekman had declared herself to be Jesus, as one did in those days; she died after promising to rise from the dead in three days. Her considerable followers were disappointed until one of them, a red-headed man named George Jacob Schweinfurth, neatly solved the problem by explaining that her spirit had moved into his body. Many agreed; he and his followers, the Church Triumphant, moved into Heaven and lived communally, where he’d attracted attention as far away as the New York Times.

A block south of my parents’ place, the road dead-ended in front of a run-down house. A “bad” family lived there, and their children occasionally went to school with me. We would have called them poor white trash had we not been afraid of being beaten up. Their house, ramshackle as it appeared to be, had a history as well: it had once been Hell. Schweinfurth had lived in luxury in Heaven, arrayed with young women called Angels. Their husbands, had they any, and members of the group who’d fallen out of favor, were sent to Hell, where the work needed to keep the sect fed was done. Read More »

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Recapping Dante: Canto 34, or “It Is Time for Us to Leave”

June 30, 2014 | by

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A colorized version of Gustave Doré’s illustration for Canto XXXIV.

We’re recapping the Inferno. Read along! This week: the final canto.

My relationship with Dante can be traced back to a Saturday morning in 1994. My dad and I were standing in the rain on Sixty-Sixth and Broadway, and I suspected he was taking me to Lincoln Center for a concert. Instead, we stopped at a small park where a large, bronze statue was shrouded by nearby trees, hidden away from the city. That, he told me, is Dante.

The night before, my dad had told me the story of Count Ugolino, the sinner of canto 33 who may or may not have eaten his children during his imprisonment in Pisa; and later that day, he’d take me to the courtyard at St. John the Divine, where a statue of a crab-like creature pinches off the head of a demon—a scene that bears a striking resemblance to the end of Dante’s Inferno, when the three-headed Lucifer gnashes his teeth around the bodies of the three greatest sinners: Judas, Brutus, and Cassius. Here, in canto 34, the final chapter, Dante and Virgil meet Lucifer and climb up his back in order to slip through a crack in the universe and leave the Inferno.

It wouldn’t occur to me for many more years that these weren’t stories from my dad, but the work of the better craftsman, or il miglior fabbro, as T. S. Eliot writes in the dedication of “The Waste Land,” paraphrasing Dante himself. In fact, if I look hard enough, I find traces of Dante throughout my life—a description of the wolf, lion, and leopard in the elevator of 765 Amsterdam Avenue, the building where my grandparents lived; the story of Paolo and Francesca, which I read in an illustrated, abridged Inferno for children; the fiberglass tyrannosaurus in Riverside Park, which I climbed as though I were Virgil scaling Lucifer’s back with Dante in order to reach Purgatory at the end of canto 34; a twig from a tree that I passed on a field trip in a botanical garden, which I tore off à la Dante in canto 13, so that my dad, a reluctant chaperone, would know that I wanted to be there as little as he did. As far as I knew, I wasn’t alluding to Pier delle Vigne but to a character from my father’s bedtime mythology. None of these tales came without embellishments, and so even today, when I reread passages of the Inferno and notice departures from the stories I heard growing up, I cannot help but think that Dante Alighieri’s versions are slightly inaccurate. Even so, by the time I reach someone like Ugolino, I feel as if I’m meeting an old friend. Read More »

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Recapping Dante: Canto 33, or History’s Vaguest Cannibal

June 23, 2014 | by

Gustave Doré, Canto XXXIII

Gustave Doré, Canto XXXIII

We’re recapping the Inferno. Read along! This week: a Sophie’s Choice in medieval Pisa.

Here we meet the last great sinner of the Inferno: Count Ugolino. Like the others, he’s a historical figure remembered today chiefly for his appearance in Dante’s poem; and in spite of everything he confesses in these few verses, we inevitably pity him.

At the end of canto 32, Dante finds Ugolino gnawing violently at the head of another sinner, Archbishop Ruggieri. Ugolino tells Dante that he will describe his own crime, and allow Dante to determine which of the two of them is the greater sinner.

Ugolino, a magistrate, was charged with betraying the city of Pisa—he gave three of their fortresses to a neighboring town—and for this he was locked, along with his four children, in a tower there (not the one you’re thinking of). One night, he dreamed that he and his young children appeared as wolves; they were hunted and torn to shreds. He awakes to find his children crying in hunger for food, but when mealtime in the tower arrives, Ugolino hears the doors being nailed shut.

He understands that he and his children will starve to death. Seeing them in agony, he begins to gnaw at his own hands, and his sons say, “Father, we would suffer less if you would feed on us.” Ugolino composes himself and watches his children die slowly of hunger over the course of the fourth, fifth, and sixth days. For two days, Ugolino, who has gone blind from hunger, wails over his children, speaking to them as though they were still alive. And then he speaks one of the most haunting and also perhaps most memorable lines in the Inferno: “Then fasting had more power than grief.” This line has been interpreted variously; some believe it means that he continued to starve, whereas others contend that Ugolino ate his dead children. Read More »

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Recapping Dante: Canto 32, or Area Man Discovers Hell Has Literally Frozen Over

June 16, 2014 | by

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Canto XXXII

We’re recapping the Inferno. Read along! This week: breaking news from the thirty-second canto.

INFERNO—After traveling nonstop for many hours through an array of chthonic geological obstacles, local political activist Dante Alighieri has found that the apocalyptic landscape has actually frozen over.

“I was supposed to be traveling through hell,” says Dante, who has seen everything on his journey from demons to the elusive and heavily mythologized lonza. “I thought the fire and brimstone would only get hotter as we journeyed farther toward Lucifer. There’s no way I could have predicted this—the ice, the chill, the subzero temperatures.”

The discovery will undoubtedly cause an iconological fiasco, challenging our contemporary of notion of hell altogether.

Dante, who has been gathering material for a yet-unnamed “hell project,” claims he was so caught up in seeing the sights around him—notably a giant wall—that he didn’t notice the floor made of ice in hell until a strange voice warned him to watch his step. “It’s a good thing a mysterious voice warned me,” he says. “I could have slipped through a thin patch.” Roman poet and limbo-dweller Virgil, who has accompanied Dante on the journey, added that, in Dante’s defense, the giant wall was indeed very, very large. Read More »

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Recapping Dante: Canto 31, or Dante the Television Writer

June 2, 2014 | by

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Gustave Doré, Canto 31

We’re recapping the Inferno. Read along! This week: the thirty-first canto as explained by a breathless contemporary TV critic.

By now it is clear that this season’s sleeper star is the breakout show-runner, Dante Alighieri. His show The Inferno, an unlikely gem of narratological genius, has consistently stood out from the televisual pack, relying for the most part on the rarefied taste of its audience and the poignant, lyrical style of the head writer. This most recent episode, canto 31, is no exception.

This divine segment uses, as ever, a canny rhetorical device to dispense with exposition: the question. In this case, our hero, Dante, entering the next circle of hell, gazes through a thick fog, through which he can faintly perceive the outline of various towers. So what does he do? He asks a question about them, of course, and his companion Virgil helpfully informs him—and us—that these are giants, not towers. Simple! Elegant! Where other shows go in for flash and gimmickry, The Inferno just tells us what’s what. Read More »

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Recapping Dante: Canto 30, or Triple X

May 26, 2014 | by

Canto-30

Gustave Doré, Canto XXX

We’re recapping the Inferno. Read along! This week: flesh-eating, incest, the lute-man, and more!

Dante has shown that almost every canto in the Inferno obeys a certain logic. First, Dante and Virgil enter a new circle or ditch; Dante notices a small cluster of sinners being subjected to a gruesome, albeit clever punishment (shit-eating for the flatterers, amputation and disembowelment for the schism-makers); then Virgil will encourage him to approach a sinner, who inevitably ends up being an Italian eager to tell the story of his life in a way that downplays the gravity of his sin. Virgil and Dante move on afterward. Salt, pepper, and serve. This formula is so apparent that had Dante been less skilled, his stories less heartrending, the Inferno would’ve been a heavy-handed entertainment instead of a lyrical masterpiece.

The opening of canto 30 abandons this formula. We pick up where canto 29 left off, as Dante meets the alchemists and the Falsifiers of Others’ Persons. In order to convey exactly how psychotic these sinners are, Dante compares their violence to two famously macabre stories from the ancients. First he tells the story of the goddess Juno, who arranged the death of Ino by sending Ino’s lover into a fit of madness during which he took Ino’s son and “whirled him round and dashed him on a rock.” Ino jumped into the ocean after her dead son and drowned. That’s plenty gruesome, but then Dante tells a second story, this one about Hecuba of Troy, who saw her two sons killed and went mad with grief. These mad Thebans and Trojans, Dante writes, are nothing compared to the crazed sinner we encounter here, in the Tenth Pouch of the Eighth Circle of Hell, who bites into the neck of a fellow sinner.

Capocchio, one of Dante’s former classmates who was introduced in Canto 29, is the guy being bitten; Griffolino, another sinner who was introduced in 29, explains that the aggressor—the biter—is Gianni Schicchi, who, when he was on earth, pretended to be the late Buoso Donati in order to help his own family inherit a sum of money. Griffolino also points out Myrrha, who appears in The Metamorphoses as the daughter of the King of Cyprus. She so lusted for her father that she put on a disguise and seduced him. Oops! Read More »

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