Friday, February 5, 2016

Hell Week

It's odd how your teaching life and personal life can intersect.  I hadn't planned to be teaching the opening books of Paradise Lost (which take place in Hell) and Dante's descent through the Eighth Circle of the Inferno during the same week. It just turned out that way.  Moreover I certainly did not plan to teach both texts while finalizing our Promotions and Tenure process and transitioning my mother--newly diagnosed with memory loss--into a care facility.

Seeing my mother slowly lose the narrative threads of her life strangely aligns with the plight of the fallen angels in Paradise Lost.  In Book II Milton has them hold a debate over the course of action they should take now that they are damned.  The first to speak is Moloch, a fierce and bloodthirsty advocate for eternal war. He argues they have nothing to lose, for annihilation is surely preferable to an eternity in Hell. As he puts it, “At worst, we stand on this side nothingness.”

In response Belial, a wily and silver-tongued devil, says that nothingness is not preferable to him. At least in Hell one has one’s thoughts. He says,

To be no more; sad cure; For who would lose,
Though full of pain, this intellectual being,
Those thoughts that wander through Eternity,
To perish rather, swallowed up and lost
In the wide womb of uncreated night
Devoid of sense and motion?

These lines have always affected me. Is it life we treasure? The mere act of breath and metabolation? Or is it the intimacy of our own thoughts and interwoven memories, the onrush of moments so peculiarly our own that have been spewing forth for as long as we can recall? 

Life is a few chemicals twitching in a moist sinkhole. It’s that breed of 'politic worms' that Hamlet mentions. But all of one’s afternoons, sensations, the odd memories and synaptic firings... To have these disappear forever--to see her standing on this side nothingness--is far crueler and more fiendish than anything Dante or Milton might have imagined.


One summer, long ago, during the Ford administration and the waning days of my parents' unhappy marriage, I laid each afternoon upon a...