For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings:
How some have been depos’d, some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed,
Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping kill’d,
All murdered – for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court, and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear’d, and kill with looks;
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life
Were brass impregnable; and, humour’d thus,
Comes at the last, and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!
Cover your heads, and mock not flesh and blood
With solemn reverence; throw away respect,
Tradition, form, and ceremonious duty;
For you have but mistook me all this while.
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends – subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king?
— Richard II [i]
Shakespeare’s tragedy of Richard II dramatizes the gradual stripping away of royal power, until the mighty king is but a naked subject—“subjected thus” to mortality and the threat of nonbeing like everyone else. The moment comes when the impregnable aura gives way, “and farewell king!” Almost 40 years ago, I saw Ariane Mnouchkine’s Téâtre du Soleil perform the play as Kabuki theater, and the wrenching transformation of the richly vested monarch, who could “kill with looks,” into a caged prisoner, naked and helpless, remains vivid in my mind to this day. It was an important part of my political education, and it came to mind when I heard that the President has COVID.
Dante also came to mind. In Canto XX of the Inferno, the pilgrim Dante is rebuked by Virgil for weeping over the fate of the damned. While Dante certainly condemned their fraudulent deeds on earth, their disfiguring pain in hell moved him to tears. “Reader,” he says, “imagine if you can how I could have kept from weeping when I saw, up close, our human likeness so contorted…”
“Stop acting like an idiot,” Virgil tells him. “There’s no place for pity here. You will never learn piety if you sorrow over the shape of justice.” [ii]
This is not the only time that Dante the pilgrim experiences feelings of sympathy in hell. Modern readers always side with him, sharing the natural human response to the suffering of others. But Dante the writer and theologian remains committed to the poem’s implacable design. For the damned, there will be no exit. But then, none of them shows any desire for escape. Hell is populated by souls who refuse to change. As Helen Luke puts it in her Jungian reflection on the Divine Comedy, “the damned are those who have not only fallen into the unconscious but have chosen to remain there and so have lost their will to choose.” [iii]
Souls in Dante’s hell are no longer really persons in the sense of autonomous individuals engaged in a process of development and growth. Instead, they are indistinguishable from the sin which possessed them in their mortal life. Although they may appear vividly lifelike, with memorable personalities, they are ghostly simulacra, like cinematic images of long-dead actors, repeating the same self-absorbed words and actions, without change, for all eternity.
So our horror at the Inferno’s ingenious punishments is meant to be directed at the sins rather than the punishments. As Dante scholar John Freccero points out, “The punishments fit the crimes, provided we understand ‘fittingness’ as an aesthetic category.… If the bodies in hell are really souls, then it follows that their physical attitudes, contortions and punishments are really spiritual attitudes and states of mind, sins made manifest in the form of physical punishment. It is therefore correct to say that the punishments are the sins.” [iv]
Dante’s ambivalent interplay of sympathy and judgment resonates with my own response to the news that Donald Trump has tested positive for COVID-19. I do not wish suffering on anyone, nor do I even find much satisfaction in the blatant ironies of his case. It is a terrible disease and he is in an especially vulnerable category, and when I pray daily for the 7.5 million Americans who have the coronavirus, he and his wife will now be in that number.
At the same time, there is a degree of Dantean “fittingness” to his case. The pandemic, which Trump has made worse by things done and things left undone, has come home to roost. The sin has become the punishment. Trump is responsible for 38% of dangerous misinformation about the virus; he has encouraged millions of Americans to engage in reckless behavior; and even after learning of his own exposure, he continued to endanger others with physical proximity.
But as much as I desire an end to the abuse he has inflicted on our country, our world and our planet, I want that to come from a vote, not a virus. However, there are some who are openly enjoying the poetic justice. “I wish Trump, his wife, and cabal,” writes one blogger, “the same care and consideration they have given to those struggling to survive COVID19.… I wish Trump, his wife, and cabal the same care and consideration they have given to those grieving lost loved ones – the children, parents, and grandparents, friends and family who mourn.… I wish Trump, his wife, and cabal – Justice.”[v]
Eric Stetson, a Unitarian minister, blogged an admonition in “Don’t be a jerk about Trump getting COVID.”[vi] Not only would too much shadenfreude risk political blowback, he cautioned, but indulging our hates is “spiritually dangerous” for ourselves and our country. As Bobby Kennedy urged us after Martin Luther King’s assassination, “We must admit in ourselves that our own children’s future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge.” [vii]
Another blogger, a therapist, disagreed, arguing that it was fine, even healthy, to gloat. “I am not religious or spiritual,” he wrote. “I do not think there is any danger to me if I take pleasure in the suffering of evil people.”[viii] Really? God forbid! There’s more than enough such “pleasure” going around. A better world will not be built out of our darkest shadows. Resistance without love is the road to nowhere.
In addition to pleading mercy and care for all who suffer from COVID, I will pray that Trump’s time of trial may effect the healing of his soul. If he is going to suffer, may his illness be for him a birth of empathy, compassion, humility and goodness. Impossible, you say? The business of prayer is precisely the impossible. The possible can take care of itself.
In his poems on “affliction,” 17th-century poet/priest George Herbert, who died at 39 from consumption, discerned a transformative dimension in suffering. In “Affliction (III),” he prays:
My heart did heave, and there came forth, O God!
By that I knew that thou wast in the grief,
To guide and govern it to my relief …
In “Affliction (IV),” Herbert confesses to be “broken in pieces all asunder, / … tortur’d in the space / Betwixt this world and that of grace. / My thoughts are all a case of knives, / Wounding my heart …” But, he finds, all “those powers which work for grief” are actually in God’s employ. “And day by day” they work for “my relief,”
With care and courage building me,
Till I reach heav’n, and much more thee.
[i] Scene III, Act 2 (151-173. As Marjorie Garber notes in Shakespeare After All (2004), the more the king’s power wanes, the more poetic and reflective he becomes. “The failed ruler becomes a poet, writing the tragedy of Richard II.” As in Herbert’s poems cited at the end, suffering can be a teacher, guiding us toward our best self.
[ii] Inferno xx.19-21, 27-30.
[iii] Helen Luke, Dark Wood to White Rose: Journey and Transformation in Dante’s Divine Comedy (New York: Parabola Books, 1989), 13.
[iv] John Freccero, Dante: The Poetics of Conversion (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986), k105-106.
[v] Onamastic, “I wish them justice,” Daily Kos (Oct. 2, 2020): https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2020/10/2/1982751/-I-wish-them-Justice
[vi] Eric Stetson, “Don’t Be a Jerk About Trump Getting Covid,” Daily Kos (Oct. 2, 2020): https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2020/10/1/1982696/-Don-t-Be-a-Jerk-about-Trump-Getting-Covid#comment_78754030
[vii] Robert F. Kennedy, “Remarks to the Cleveland City Club” (April 5, 1968): https://www.jfklibrary.org/learn/about-jfk/the-kennedy-family/robert-f-kennedy/robert-f-kennedy-speeches/remarks-to-the-cleveland-city-club-april-5-1968
[viii] Hal Brown, “As a therapist I want to remind you not to feel guilty if you have dark thoughts about Trump,” Daily Kos (Oct. 2, 2020): https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2020/10/2/1982773/-As-a-therapist-I-want-to-remind-you-not-to-feel-guilty-if-you-have-dark-thoughts-about-Trump