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The Postmodern Inferno: Part 1 (Cantos I – VI)

Alright, guys, what's the plan?

This was actually my final project for my Literature class but it’s entertaining enough to warrant general readership.  It’s probably better if you’ve actually read The Inferno, though.  I’ll probably write the rest of the cantos sometime in the future.

CANTO I

When I had journeyed half of our life’s way, that is to say when I was 36 years, 1 month, and 18 days old, I found myself on a crowded freeway confined behind the wheel of a passenger vehicle.  This scenario was quite unremarkable considering a large portion of my waking hours were spent in this fashion, all the more reason for my state of despair at the time.  Up ahead, a serious accident involving multiple fatalities hindered my progress toward home.  The hot sun was beginning to set when a loudspeaker announced that the entire incidental congregation of commuters would now be turned around to go the opposite direction.  We were to follow the flashing blue and red lights to the next offramp.  Well, technically, the last offramp.  Naturally, the whole ordeal took ages and by the time I had made it back to the street the sun was already sinking beneath the horizon.  If only those people hadn’t wiped out and gotten killed, I could be home watching TV right now.  Since I had already missed the Simpsons reruns, the night was basically ruined for me.  And with work in the morning, I was just moving toward oblivion, toward sleep that would only steal more time.  My mood darkened in step with the sky.

CANTO II

Since my night was already shot, I decided to stop and get gas, despite having more than half a tank already.  Maybe I would buy a Snickers bar or something.  The next gas station I saw was a Shell station with the “S” missing.  How appropriate, I thought.  I pulled up next to the pump and got out of the car to go into the station.  There were no other cars around at the time.  The clerk was a middle-aged man with a thin brown beard, shaved head, and prominent brow.  He gave a prolonged stare and smile as I walked in.  A glance that might otherwise have been friendly was made unsettling merely but its persistence.  I grabbed a Snapple from the cooler and a candy bar from the rack and put them on the counter.  He made no motion to ring up the items but continued to smirk at me.  Now I was starting to get very uncomfortable, but all I could utter was, “Ummmm” before he interrupted me.

“Dante, your life, your job, your house, your routine, they have separated you from the things that truly matter.  You have begun to feel, increasingly, that there is more to it all than the dull work-a-day world you have sentenced yourself to.”

“How do you know my name?”

“You may know me as Les Stroud from TV’s Survivorman where I survive in the wilderness for seven days with no crew or outside assistance.  Not like Bear Grylls from Man Versus Wild with his entire support team.  I carry the damn cameras around myself!  Ah, but I digress.  I was sent here by the woman in heaven who watches over you, you know her.  Betty, your ex-girlfriend.  I will guide you in this journey. ”

“Hold on.  Journey?  Where?  I have to work in the morning I can’t journey anywhere!  And Betty’s not even dead, she can’t be in heaven.”

“Yeah, about that.  She was actually one of the fatalities in that accident.  Ironic, right?  In a way, she guided you here, as I will now guide you through the nine circles of Hell.  So, let’s get going.”  He took out a bathroom key attached to a large piece of plastic from under the counter.  Why are bathroom keys always attached to something bulky, anyway?  To dissuade people from stealing them?  Why would anyone want a key to a bathroom, there’s nothing but plumbing fixtures in it!

“Hell?  That’s just silly!  Even if Hell did exist, it wouldn’t be a physical place that we could just go to!  Besides, I have a life with responsibilities, I can’t just leave!  I have work at 9 am tomorrow and I need to sleep!”

“You sure do complain a lot.  The reason we’re going through Hell is because it is part one of a three part series that ends with your holy union with the deity of your choice.  We don’t discriminate here.”

“That’s very progressive, but again, I can’t!”

“Yeah, yeah, your job.  Listen, buddy, you can get a job anytime but how many opportunities do you have to go to Hell?  Wait, that’s not what I mean.  What I’m saying is this will be an enlightening spiritual experience that will shape you as a human being.  You would give up that chance just to sit around in traffic and answer telephones all day?”

Survivorman was right.  Up until now, I had felt a profound emptiness in life.  Work, traffic, money, rent, everything that my world consisted of had alienated me from the essence of being.  It was time to rectify that.

Les Stroud opened the bathroom door from the outside of the building and ushered me inside.  It was dim, smelly, and plastered with graffiti.  About what you would expect from a gas station bathroom with the exception of a shovel propped against the wall by the toilet.  I couldn’t fathom what purpose that might have served.  Les went over to the sink and unscrewed the mirror with a screwdriver he apparently had in his pocket.  Pulling it aside revealed a hole in the wall large enough for a person to crawl through.  Immediately I knew what I was going to have to do.  If it had been anyone other than Survivorman leading me on, this whole scenario would have been very shady, but this man once ate a scorpion and drank distilled dew from plastic wrap because he was stuck in the desert with no food!  Truly he is the one meant to guide me on this journey.

“So you’re telling me the entrance to Hell is in a gas station bathroom?”

“Of course, where else?”  He took out a small stepladder from under the sink and placed it so as to grant access to the hole.  “Read the inscription first.”

“’FOR A GOOD TIME CALL JENNY’?”

“No, the one above that.”

CANTO III

“’ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE’ That seems awfully familiar.”

“Yes, well, it is a famous literary reference.  Get in,” he said motioning to the wall.

“Shouldn’t we make preparations first?  Going to Hell seems like it might be dangerous.”

“Nothing in Hell can hurt you, although what you see there may be frightening and disturbing.  In truth, I have been there once before.  I had to survive there for seven days with no crew or assistance.  I do fear returning there, but only because of the great pity I feel for the residents.”

“Alright,” I said, mustering my courage, “I’m ready.”  I climbed up on the sink and into the hole.  As I crawled on, the darkness and narrowness of the passage suddenly became very apparent.  I was on the verge of panicking when the passage suddenly dropped off onto a metal grate.  At first I thought it was just the area behind the cooler in the convenience store and Les Stroud had just played a prank on me.  Then I saw that I was in a vast complex of metal and concrete with poor lighting.  Les Stroud fell out of the hole behind me, then stood up and dusted himself off.

“Well, here we are.  Hell.”

“It looks like it could use some renovation,” I said, seeing its dilapidated infrastructure.

“Unfortunately, none of the souls here are condemned to an eternity of repairing things.  It does contribute a sort of unsettling atmosphere though, doesn’t it?”  He walked ahead leading the way to a dirt arena where chalk lines had been drawn into the sand as if in preparation for a race.  Down in the bleachers hundreds of souls sat looking bored and listless.

“Are these souls condemned to an eternity of boredom?” I asked.

“These are the souls of those who live without disgrace and without praise.  They used to get chased by swarms of Africanized honeybees while the other people in Limbo placed bets on the weekends.  The bees all died though since there are no flowers in hell to extract pollen from.  Now the souls just sit there, without disgrace or praise.  A much more fitting punishment if you ask me.”

“Can’t they leave?  Why do they stay here?”

“Actually, I’ve never been all that clear on why people here do things repetitively.  It’s not as though someone is forcing them to do it.  Maybe because the souls here do not require sleep, food, or water to survive there is no reason to pursue different tasks.  Without the struggle for survival, apathy sets in.  Remember that as you watch my show, Wednesdays at 8:00 pm on the Discovery Channel.  Next week, I survive the Serengeti Plains!”

The Survivorman led me to the center of Limbo where there was a circular chasm so vast that I could not see the opposite shore through the haze nor the bottom of the shaft which disappeared into darkness.  I gripped the guardrails as I surveyed the scope of the place.  Giant machinery climbed from the floor and across the walls.  Engines, pipes, pistons, gears, all whose function was unclear to me.

“I can’t believe all this was under the gas station,” I said.

“Technically it isn’t.  That hole was actually a portal to Hell which exists on a different plane of reality than the material world.”  Just as I began to wonder how he knew so much about Hell, the earth began to tremble and I began to feel extremely dizzy.  Keep in mind I was still standing over a giant abyss and I have pretty severe acrophobia as it is.  The last thing I wanted was to feel unsteady on my own feet.  Overcome by vertigo, I quickly fainted.

CANTO IV

“Quite a tumble you took there, champ.  You’re lucky that court-ordered guardrail was put up in 1982.”

“You look frightened, Survivorman.”

“Not frightened,” he replied, “I’m just anticipating the horror we will soon witness when we leave the first circle.  Hell is organized by circles by the way; I may have forgotten to mention that.  This is Limbo, the first circle, and the circles progress downward becoming narrower.  Anyway, I feel very sorry for some of the souls here, hence my apprehension.  Definitely not afraid, no way!  You know what I’m afraid of?  Bull moose during mating season.  The most dangerous animal on the planet!”

“Okay, just asking.”  We moved on to a small city of Romanesque architecture with paved roads instead of just metal grating and old concrete.  It appeared to be a pedestrian-based city as I saw no automobiles.  Can you get an automobile into Hell?  Could they make their own?  Either way, the people here seemed to be at least euthymic in their disposition, wearing no expressions of suffering.

“This is the City of Worthy Pagans.  Really, that’s the name.  The people here lived good lives but they worshipped the wrong god so none of their good deeds really mattered.  Still, eternal torture didn’t sound quite fair so they were sent here as sort of a consolation prize.”

We climbed the stairs into a large state building that Les Stroud informed me was city hall.  There we met the city counsel, which consisted of Mother Theresa, Siddhartha, Jesus Christ, and Obi Wan Kenobi.  Because Mother Theresa doubted Christian theology later in her life, she was automatically denied entrance into heaven despite her great humanitarian efforts.  Siddhartha was here because he was a Buddhist of course.  At first I was baffled as to Christ’s placement here but then he explained that because he was technically Jewish he too was denied entrance into heaven.  He tried reasoning and pleading with Saint Peter at the pearly gates, explaining that it was God’s command that he be in heaven, but Peter insisted that because his paperwork listed Jesus as a Jew that it was out of his hands and that Jesus would have to speak to his manager.  To date, God has not returned any of Jesus’ prayers.  Equally baffling was the presence of Obi Wan Kenobi, a jedi master from George Lucas’ Star Wars films.

“But Obi Wan is a fictional character,” I said to him.  He mumbled something about Aenias being in the original Inferno.  We bade our hosts farewell and set off for the second circle.

CANTO V

A large freight elevator obviously designed to transport hundreds of people at once took us to the second circle where the souls of the lustful were condemned.  The main area of the circle was behind a tall fence crowned with razor wire.  The gate was guarded by former U.S. president Bill Clinton who had inexplicably grown a stereotypical devil tail and horns.  Clinton explained that it was he who determined the placement of souls in the circles of Hell, as if he were now the president of Hell.  He really did say that too, partly in jest.  I inquired why he of all people would be the guardian of the circle of the lustful.  He only had a single affair and surely there were so many more that were much more lustful.

“Everything in Hell can be summed up in one word: publicity.  The amount of attention your sin receives is directly proportional to the likelihood of some writer incorporating you into their ironic vision of Hell.”  I didn’t think to ask why he was here when he was supposedly still alive until he had already let us though.  We passed into the main chamber of the second circle which was an enormous wind tunnel where sinners where blown all around by strategically placed giant fans, colliding with the walls and with each other.  I couldn’t see the irony.  Les Stroud just shrugged and we circled the perimeter of the chamber looking for familiar faces.  I couldn’t discern anyone in particular; there were so very many of them and they were moving around too fast.  Disappointed, Les Stroud and I moved on.  I fainted for no reason.

CANTO VI

“You’re lucky I’m used to carrying fifty pounds of camera equipment with me wherever I go,” Les Stroud’s voice explained as I came to, “Otherwise I couldn’t have picked you up and carried you all the way down here to the third circle, where the gluttonous souls are condemned.”

“You could have let me wake up where I was and we could have walked here.”

“I could have but I carried you.  Is this fainting going to be an issue?”

“Actually, those were the only two times I will faint in the entire journey.”

In this circle, there was a heavy downpour of hail, snow, and dirty rain.  Not all at the same time of course, it varied with the local temperature.  There was also a sophisticated drainage system to prevent the circle from flooding.  In the main chamber, millions and millions of poor souls were bent over wet soil filling baskets with scrawny, frost-bitten vegetables.  At the far end, a giant three-headed dog lay on a quilt on a raised platform.  We ran over there as fast as we could to avoid getting terribly wet and sought an audience with the guardian of the third circle.  He introduced himself as Cerberus and told the story of how he used to slash the denizens of this hell with its claws.  Apparently, now that so many human societies had entered an age of post-scarcity, this circle was overpopulated with people who in life felt no need to restrain their appetites.  Eventually it was no longer prudent or even possible to give each patron equal slashing time, so Cerberus decided to radically overhaul the third circle and had vegetable seeds planted.  Now instead of being slashed, the gluttonous harvest food to be exported to other planes of existence where scarcity is still an issue.

“The beauty of it,” he explained, “is that their punishment is now productive, more humane, and above all, more ironic than before.”  Relieved of the duty of physically torturing everyone himself, Cerberus was now able to enjoy occasional downtime.  The diminished stress, he said, has calmed him down significantly and made him less prone to assaulting visitors.  On our way to the fourth circle we encountered deceased comedian Chris Farley.  The expression he wore indicated that he hadn’t laughed in a very long time.  I contemplated how unfair it was that he was stuck here forever just because he over-indulged a bit.  An eternity in freezing rain seemed less than just.