Trading the Center of the World
Dante's Inferno and the Underworld Journey of September 11th
© 2007 Thomas Fortson, and used by permission
[Images: "Dante's Gate of Hell" by William Blake]
As the summer of 2001 was drawing to a close, I was reading Dante's Divine Comedy for the first time. When September 11th suddenly irrupted in our lives, it was quite natural that I saw it cast in that archetypal light. Over the next few weeks, while the shock and grief were still palpable and the sympathy of a stunned world was still genuine, I wrote this essay. It's true that the rhetoric and the rumbling of drums that would lead us to "shock and awe" were already stirring on the horizon, but it still seemed that we might digest the experience honestly and respond in appropriate ways. I didn't know that our journey into Hell would come — not by a conscious effort of will, like Dante's, not by choosing a path that could make things sacred — but by refusing to pay the price of real sacrifice at that time. The consequences have been all too obvious. Yet it seems that we had to have another source of light to see things more clearly. But for now, let's go back to that defining moment in September 2001.
From self-centered to a centered Self is a movement of soul — impossible without the difficult wisdom of the underworld journey. This may not seem like such a good idea when we suddenly find ourselves (like Dante) feeling lost and vulnerable in a dark, confusing wood. But the trade is not only fair — it is essential. We may try to ignore it or find some way around it, but this kind of inward, soul-searching journey is the only way through to a renewal when the center of the world has fallen out from under us.
Distressing experiences happen all the time, but we seem particularly vulnerable in mid-life when troubling questions can arise with almost any uncertainty — questions about our values, our behavior, even our sense of self. It is as though life itself is provoking these questions, demanding that we face ourselves more clearly. Drawing on his own experience, Carl Jung describes how fearful this can be: He says that "the dread and resistance which every natural human being experiences when it comes to delving too deeply into himself is, at bottom, like the fear of the journey to Hades" (Jung § 439). Indeed, one of the most eloquent examples of this difficult undertaking is Dante's epic allegory, The Divine Comedy, a mytho-poetic song-of-the-soul that begins with the Inferno — a journey into the depths of Hell. In the opening lines of the poem Dante takes us to that threshold:
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita.
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura.
Midway along the journey of our life
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
for I had wandered off from the straight path.
How hard it is to tell what it was like,
this wood of wilderness, savage and stubborn
(the thought of it brings back all my old fears),
a bitter place! Death could scarce be bitterer.
But if I would show the good that came of it
I must talk about things other than good. (I. 1-9)
This bitter place is where we find ourselves today as we try to make sense of the awesome tragedy of September 11th.
In the title of this essay, Trading the Center of the World, I'm playing with words that have already been elevated beyond the infamy of December 7th and Pearl Harbor. I don't do this lightly but with deep appreciation for the meaning that they hold. Still, meaning is never singular, and words (like dreams) are full of layers and regions of meaning. If we can find other dimensions of meaning in the words, then perhaps we will also find deeper meaning in the events themselves.
In a letter to his patron, Can Grande della Scala, Dante explains that his poem is not simple but has many meanings. "The first," he says, "is called 'literal' and the second 'allegorical'..." which he elaborates to include "moral" and "mystical" (Howe Section 7). Francis Fergusson describes this as a double movement in the poem: "the literal narrative and the movement of understanding" (Ferguson 1). Dante goes on to say that, "having seen this it is evident that the subject around which these alternate meanings revolve must be double" (Fergusson Section 8). I'm reminded that The World Trade Center itself is double — the familiar Twin Towers silhouetted against the sky. Perhaps this is psyche's way of affirming that there is more than one meaning to the tragedy, and a journey of understanding is possible.
Already the words tower above the tragedy and will live in the American psyche long after the impossible grief and bewilderment of the moment. But I wonder what their legacy will be. Will they become a rhetorical balm used to soothe our wounded pride? Or will the words take on new meaning because of our vulnerability, honest confusion, and willingness to question —- per una selva oscura?
What happened? What the hell happened? We're not sure who we are anymore. The tangled forest of twisted girders; acrid clouds of smoke smothering the sky; a fearful darkness at mid-day: this is our wilderness — our grief, confusion, and lost innocence — our dark, bewildering wood. Referring to The Divine Comedy, Helen Luke speaks of "the intensity of meaning which may be born from the heart of tragedy... " (Luke, x). She also points out that "through a dark wood" is a more accurate and meaningful translation of the second line of the Inferno than "in a dark wood." "The poet," she says, "is surely also telling us ... that it is precisely through the terrifying experience of the dark wood that we find the way of return to innocence" (Luke 2). This is good advice even if we don't welcome it with open arms.
Dark Wood to White Rose is Helen Luke's exploration of The Divine Comedy through the lens of depth psychology. Meaning below the surface of things, Shadow and Self, the alchemy of transformation and critical lessons of discernment, responsibility and consequence — all of these come into play in a journey of consciousness and comprehension.
Jung sees The Divine Comedy as an example of individuation: a process of growth within the psyche, that is: within the soul. More specifically, he sees it as a visionary and deeply personal description of a kind of crisis/opportunity that can unexpectedly appear in mid-life — a crisis that often begins with an underworld journey. James Hillman calls it a time when "all is stripped away and life is turned upside down" (Hillman 43). This is a time when the hopes and accomplishments of a lifetime suddenly seem shallow and insincere; our integrity, a fraud; our motivations, scrutinized and found wanting. Even if there's only partial truth to this seeming, still, it feels like the whole world is falling apart as the ground drops out from under. But catharsis is never easy, and only by stripping away the old shape and center of the world can there be real change. The underworld journey is where this trade can take place — a transition from the bold, self-confident integrity of early life to a different, more mature center of integrity in relationship with the larger world.
Dante and depth psychology are quite a stunning combination. Together they can open the experience and the consequences of September 11th in unique ways. Only something as powerful as Dante's visionary language and symbolic intensity can come close to the felt destruction and psychological implosion of that day, revealing an emotional kinship between medieval and modern soul. For its part, depth psychology can shed light on them both, gleaning insights from Dante's journey that make it relevant today, and showing things in the light of cultural as well as individual dimensions of soul.
Still, the magnitude of the crisis places it on a global stage and suggests something else worth considering. Perhaps the trauma of September 11th is an alchemical phenomenon of soul on a scale that's hard for us to imagine: the soul-of-the world: the being of the world as a whole. Perhaps we are participating in a collective experience that is keenly and critically felt within the individuating soul-of-the-world. If so, it wouldn't be the first time, but this time, in our time, we may be willing to entertain such a possibility. And if we begin to recognize psyche's presence in the flood of current events, then we must also know that this experience belongs to the whole-world's-being — that it is not "ours" alone even though America has suffered the unexpected assault.
What brings all this to mind is, first of all, the enormity of the impact throughout the world; and second, the doubling of the symbols at the heart of the experience. Dream images that are doubled can indicate the approach of something in the psyche that is ripe, some new energy or quality or comprehension that is breaching the threshold of consciousness. The particulars of a dream are important; meaning is carried in the details, and psyche chooses her words carefully. I can think of only one other event in recent history that has the same kind of magnitude, world reference, and symbolic doubling as the attacks of September 11th. It was mid-way through the 20th century — a century that introduced us to the subconscious and also the sub-atomic; a century that began to realize how finely woven the web of life truly is; and a century that gave us our first glimpse of the earth as we had never seen her before: hovering in space — whole, fragile, and beautiful. All of these are seeds of new understanding and self-perception.
Halfway through that 20th century, at the end of a second world war, twin mushroom clouds rose above the incinerated cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki irrevocably changing the world we live in.
Today, at the threshold of a new century, the world has changed again. We have seen the Twin Towers exploding in fire, watching with horror suspended in long-agonizing minutes of disbelief; we have experienced the sudden shock, the collapse and massive implosions of smothering fear that shrouded the city in ashes and grief. And all the while, a second assault, mirroring the first, was happening at the Pentagon. I think we need to reflect well on these events and wonder what they mean. We need time, time to pay attention to thoughts and feelings so suddenly and violently focused on these symbols of our stature and our strength — our economic and military might. And we need time to consider the possibility — hidden in a play of words — that we can (and should) trade the center of our world.
In the Third Canto of the Inferno, Dante finds himself at the Gates of Hell where these words are inscribed:
I AM THE WAY INTO THE DOLEFUL CITY,
I AM THE WAY INTO ETERNAL GRIEF,
I AM THE WAY TO A FORSAKEN RACE....
ABANDON EVERY HOPE, YOU WHO ENTER IN. (1-3, 9)
Dante is terrified! But Virgil, his guide, explains that there is no other way; the path he must take leads into the very darkness that he so desperately wants to avoid. And so, with all the courage he can muster, Dante crosses the threshold to Hell. In these next few verses he describes the sudden, terrible shock:
...and the grim terrain
shook violently; and the fright it gave me
even now in recollection makes me sweat.
Out of the tear-drenched land a wind arose
which blasted forth into reddish light,
knocking my senses out of me completely.... (III. 130-34)
A heavy clap of thunder! I awoke ...
startled, the way one is when shaken out of sleep....
...I found myself
upon the brink of grief's abysmal valley
that collects the thunderings of endless cries.
So dark and deep and nebulous it was,
try as I might to force my sight below,
I could not see the shape of anything. (IV. 1-3, 7-12)
Dante's words evoke the fearful intensity of September 11th — the incomprehensible assault upon our senses and awful void left in the belly. No wonder so many people are quick to fill that void by clinging to familiar biases and ideologies. Likewise, there are many who begin to read the Divine Comedy but never get past the Inferno. It remains imprinted as a confusing Apocalypse Now that only seems to reaffirm a judicial "eye for an eye" kind of God.
But the Inferno is only the beginning, the first of the Comedia's three Canticles. True, it is a difficult beginning (hellish in fact!) but Dante must have intended it so — not only as a wake-up call but, also, as an obstacle — one that requires struggle, self-reflection, and a severe personal honesty. It only begins to make sense in retrospect, in the light of experiences that unfold in the Purgatorio and Paradiso. And what we find is a kind of "holographic paradox" suggesting that the Inferno is not overcome nor is it transcended; rather, in the texture of the whole, it somehow dis-solves revealing a complex dimension of our own being — no less valuable than any other. This brings me back to Helen Luke's words (they make more sense now) where she says that "the poet is surely also telling us ... that it is precisely through the terrifying experience of the dark wood that we find the way of return to innocence" (Luke 2). The path that Dante leads us on is not easy, but it is necessary. At this point our journey is barely begun, and we can be sure that there are many subtle and difficult lessons ahead.
In the immediacy of the September crisis an extraordinary flood of deeply felt kinship, responsibility, and self-sacrifice forged a new sense of individual value and the reality of our interdependence. For many people this has initiated an awareness that will continue to grow. But the shadow of the Twin Towers still looms over our culture — in the hubris of our heroic, political gesturing, and in a lingering despair. Only by confronting our own shadows will they lift. We need a Virgil to keep reminding us to stay awake, pay attention, and respond to the world from our deepest values of understanding and compassion.
- Alighieri, Dante. "Dante's Letter to Can Grande." Translated by Nancy Howe.
- Fergusson, Francis. "The Metaphor of the Journey," Dante's Drama of the Mind. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1953.
- Hillman, James. The Dream and the Underworld. New York: Harper, 1975.
- Jung, Carl Gustave. "Psychology and Alchemy," The Collected Works #12. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1953.
- Luke, Helen. Dark Wood to White Rose: Journey and Transformation in Dante's Divine Comedy. New York: Parabola, 2001.
- Musa, Mark, trans. Dante: The Divine Comedy, Vol. I: Inferno. New York: Penguin, 1984.
Thom Fortson is a painter, writer, and jack-of-all-trades living in Northern New Mexico. He has a Masters Degree in Mythological Studies from Pacifica Graduate Institute with a particular interest in the developing relationships of individuals and cultures to the life of the Planet as a whole.
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