When I used to read fairy tales, I fancied that kind of thing never happened,
and now here I am in the middle of one!
–– Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
The economy of nightmare demands waking.
–– Gillian Beer, Alice in Space
We’re trapped in a nightmare and we can’t wake up. America’s ruling faction, supported by 75% of white evangelicals and 40% of American voters, seems pretty much OK with planetary suicide, racism, misogyny, militarism, authoritarianism, plutocracy, kleptocracy, blatant corruption, sexual assault and possibly even treason. The norms of democracy, truth and decency remain under sustained assault by the Trump crime family. Cruelty and violence against the “other” are on the rise, inflamed by the preachers of hate. As W. H. Auden wrote in another dark time (1941-42):
The evil and armed draw near;
The weather smells of their hate
And the houses smell of our fear.[i]
We organize, march, resist. We yearn for Mueller’s evidence and November’s Armageddon (though anxiously mindful of voter suppression, racial gerrymandering, Russian hacking and White House lawlessness). But even if we manage to throw the current rascals out, over a third of America will still be in love with disturbing ideas and ruinous behaviors. Malevolent lunacy is no longer confined to the fringes of American society. It has been openly embraced, endorsed, nurtured and exploited by the leaders and voices of the right, and it will not return to the shadows willingly––or, I fear, very soon.
The actions of the ruling powers now appear utterly contrary to normative assumptions about ethics, rationality and common decency. How can they be saying such horrid and crazy things? How can they be doing such horrid and crazy things? The United States has become a land of crippling nonsense.
Many of us feel as bewildered and indignant as Alice lost in Wonderland, where rules of logic and truth no longer apply. Her frustrated complaint about the chaotic croquet game could be a current op-ed column from the Washington Post: “I don’t think they play at all fairly . . . and they don’t seem to have any rules in particular: at least, if there are, nobody attends to them.”[ii]
Wonderland’s fascistic Queen is possessed by what Lewis Carroll described as “ungovernable passion––a blind and aimless Fury.”[iii] Sound familiar? As critic Gilian Beer describes Carroll’s dystopian fantasy, in the violent atmosphere of the tyrant’s court “there are rules but no order, voices but no listening, and assertions but no evidence.” The Queen of Hearts––long before Twitter––shouts “her mantra of ‘Off with their heads’ at the slightest show of resistance or misunderstanding.”[iv] In such a world, reasoned discourse is fruitless, and all our certainties come into question.
In Wonderland’s sequel, Through the Looking Glass, young Alice does her best to establish a sense of firm reality within the unstable flux of Lewis Carroll’s narrative world. But Tweedledee infects her with radical doubt, telling her she’s only a figment of the Red King’s dream.
“I am real!” said Alice and began to cry.
“You won’t make yourself a bit realer by crying,” Tweedledee remarked: “There’s nothing to cry about.”
“If I wasn’t real,” Alice said––half-laughing through her tears, it all seemed so ridiculous––“I shouldn’t be able to cry.”
“I hope you don’t suppose those are real tears!” Tweedledum interrupted in a tone of great contempt.[v]
Of course, Alice herself has been dreaming, and when she wakes up she sensibly declares: “I don’t like belonging to another person’s dream.” And with that her story ends, at which point the reader awakens as well, suddenly restored to the more stable “reality” of his or her familiar environment. But is that environment, the world in which we habitually live and move and have our being, just another dream as well? Can we rely on it? Can we trust it? Or must we wander forever in a hall of distorting mirrors, an endless maze of competing fictions and conflicting interpretations?
Several centuries of epistemological doubt have severed the connection between words and things. Language and narrative are reduced to a play of arbitrary signs which say and mean whatever we want, with no necessary connection to real things or proven facts. In the objectless virtuality of the Internet Age, the world is not directly encountered, but only imagined. “Reality” becomes a construction produced by the subculture of our choice––or the choice of those who manipulate our thinking.
Reality in such a circumstance is no longer a communicable experience which can be shared between opposing world-views. I, for example, am unable to comprehend the cruelty of the immigration storm troopers, the poisonous malice of the EPA administrator, or the murderous greed of the gun lobby. But in the world imagined by such people, it all makes perfect sense. As far as I know they all sleep with untroubled consciences. That’s why shame has proven such a feeble weapon of resistance. The liars, the haters and the destroyers take pleasure in what they do.
I suppose we can find some small hope in conservatives’ visceral reaction to Michelle Wolf’s monologue at the White House correspondents’ dinner last week. When the comedian held up a mirror to Trumpian vulgarity, skewered the hypocrisy and heartlessness of the ruling powers, and named liars for what they are, the tuxedoed elite showed at least a vestigial capacity to be ashamed, resulting in a lot of misdirected anger but alas no repentance.
Michael Certeau, a French Jesuit thinker (d. 1986), said we have become a “recited society,” where “people believe what they see and what they see is produced for them.”[vi] Like Alice, a society of spectators belongs to dreams manufactured by others. But unlike Alice, many of us are finding it difficult to wake up. Or as Graham Ward summarizes Certeau’s diagnosis of our preference for representations of reality over reality itself (the “object”):
“We defer the truth about the object to other experts, whom we have never seen nor can substantiate. These hidden experts in whom we put our trust enable us to accept as credible that which we are told is true. The space we as believers inhabit then is a space of ‘consumable fictions.’”[vii]
Who will rescue us from this body of death?[viii] Is there no exit from the infinite maze of fatal illusions? Can we glimpse any possible truth beyond the self-referential confines of human imagination?
In his sublime Commedia, Dante trod the perilous pilgrimage from illusion toward ultimate reality. By narrating his journey from the selva oscura (”dark wood”) of human ignorance, folly and sin into the radiant smile of divine Love, he made his supreme fiction a vehicle for transcending every fiction, including his own.
O you who have sound intellects,
consider the teaching which hides itself
behind the veil of these strange verses. (Inferno ix.61-63)
Let me suggest a few insights from the Inferno to provide perspective on our own predicament. First of all, the very structure of Hell clarifies the taxonomy of sin. The lower you go, the worse the offense. The upper level contains the “incontinent,” those whose will to resist evil and do good was weak or distorted. The next level down contains the violent, those who could not control the raging beast within them.
But the lowest level (occupying fully half of the Inferno’s text!) is reserved for the fraudulent and the treacherous, who didn’t just make bad choices or surrender to impulse. These are they who deliberately undermined the foundations of human community, which needs mutual good faith and trustworthy behavior to function in a healthy way. When lies become the common speech and there is no reliable shared reality, we are all in the deepest pit of hell.
The Inferno also raises questions of salvation and forgiveness. If we recoil at the apparent theology of eternal punishment so vividly described by the poet, we must remind ourselves that the Commedia is a fiction, using unreal means to convey real truth. As St. Augustine warned biblical literalists, “Whatever appears in the divine Word that can be referred to neither virtuous conduct nor to the truth of faith must be taken to be figurative.”[ix] Or as Dante scholar William Franke puts it, “the fantastic story exists for the sake of something that is supposed to be learned from it.”[x] In other words, the Inferno is about something other than the anger of a merciless god.
So what are we to learn from the troubling images of infernal suffering? Franke observes that “the inhabitants of Dante’s Inferno are consistently shown to be damned by their own self-interpretation, their eternally stubborn resistance in refusing to understand themselves as God sees them.”[xi] At best, they continue to romanticize their illusions and idealize their failings. At worst, they cling to their bitterness and rage. Either way, says the poem, if you have no desire to be transformed, go to hell.
But Dante’s poem is comedy, not tragedy, and the stasis of sin is not our fate. We are, in fits and starts, on the move toward bliss––but by no power of our own. Throughout this life and beyond, we are ultimately drawn and driven by Love divine.
The way may be rough and steep, and Dante the pilgrim suffers the trials of every pellegrino. He grows weary, succumbs to fear, wants to turn back, encounters insurmountable obstacles. And yet, by the grace of God, he finds his way, even when there is no way.
As for Dante the poet, neither the insufficiencies of language or of human intellect can prevent the poet––or the reader––from the prize of beatific vision. But it is hard to accept our limited capacities. From the depths of hell, Dante laments the impossibilities of his journalistic task:
Surely every tongue would fail,
for neither thought nor speech
has the capacity to hold so much. (Inferno xxviii.4-6).
Even in the final canto of Paradiso, Dante is still confessing––repeatedly––how little justice his words can do to grasp and convey divine experience. But in the Commedia’s final lines, he lets go of language at last and simply abandons himself to “the Love that moves the sun and all the other stars.”
And to all who still languish in Alice’s nightmare, Dante’s Inferno, Trump’s America, or the particular thickets of our own dark wood, the Spirit and the bride say,
[i] W.H. Auden, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio, in Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York: Random House, 1976), 272.
[ii] Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, q. in Gillian Beer, Alice in Space: The Sideways Victorian World of Lewis Carroll (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 192-3.
[iii] Lewis Carroll, q. in Beer, 208.
[iv] Beer, 204.
[v] Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, q. in Beer, 161.
[vi] Graham Ward on Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life (1984), in Cities of God (London & New York: Routledge, 2000), 73.
[vii] Ward, Cities of God. The quoted phrase is from Michael Certeau, Culture in the Plural (1997), q. in Graham, 74.
[viii] Romans 7:24.
[ix] St. Augustine, in William Franke, Dante’s Interpretive Journey (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 86.
[x] Franke, 86.
[xi] Ibid., 106.
Citations from Dante’s Commedia are from Robert and Jean Hollander’s marvelous translations (New York: Doubleday: Inferno 2000, Paradiso 2007).