Just as a forward, this is a paper that I wrote for my comparative literature class. It is an essay, not a creative piece. I just figured I’d post it because I really enjoyed writing this particular paper. Instead of feeling like work, it was fun to travel deep into the Inferno and figure out just what exactly was going on down there. Maybe I’m weird, but I quite enjoy reading medieval literature. It’s always a bit surprising to recognize modern struggles in a book written 700 years ago. It really brings the past into perspective and reminds us that our problems have been experienced in many ways by many people over the years. We are not alone. It’s guaranteed that someone, somewhere feels or felt the way you do. Well, here goes.
The epic has a long and storied history in Western literature. Ever since human beings began to record stories, they wrote larger than life tales about heroes who were more than merely human. The epic has appeared in many forms throughout the ages, but it is always unquestionably present. From Gilgamesh through The Odyssey and from The Aeneid to Beowulf, the epic poem is very much a part of the literary tradition of the Western world. Though there are many variations, an epic is generally described as a long poem, often from an oral tradition, that describes the journeys and trials of a heroic figure. Dante’s Inferno, though it does not necessarily fit perfectly into the definition of an epic, is clearly a continuation of the epic tradition. However, the character of Dante is not the epic hero that we have come to expect from this type of story. Though a list of his attributes might appear heroic, Dante is, in reality, a weak, religious, and perhaps overly emotional poet. He isn’t a warrior or a strategist. He doesn’t have the power of a king. Instead, Dante is a new type of hero, created for a new time. Dante’s appearance as the hero of his tale represents a shift in how the western world understands heroism. Instead of following the deeds and trials of a mighty superhuman, we are given a story about a pious, and soft-spoken intellectual.
Dante’s Divine Comedy follows a long tradition of epics through history. Though it is perhaps not quite standard, Dante’s work fulfills the qualifications of an epic and fits neatly into the genre. Like the Greek and Roman poets whom he idolizes, Dante begins his narration by calling on the muses. As he is setting off, he calls out, “O muses, O genius of art, O memory” (Canto II, 6). Dante’s invocation of the muses directly relates the beginning of the Inferno to Virgil’s call of “Muse, tell me the causes” (Book 1, 8) and Homer’s famous first line, “Sing in me, muse, and through me tell the story” (Book 1, 1). With this line, Dante has made it clear that he is following the tradition of the epic poem. Another aspect of Dante’s work that places it firmly within the epic genre is the fact that the focus of the poem is a fantastical, larger-than-life journey. Much like Gilgamesh, Odysseus, and Aeneas, the character of Dante embarks on an epic quest. Dante notes again and again that this is not a quest that the average man could make. He appears to be the first non-condemned man to walk through Hell. As he attempts to cross into the underworld, Charon stops him, saying, “You living soul, stand clear of these who are dead!” (Canto III, 73). Later in the story, when he is traveling through various layers of Hell, the fact that Dante is alive and not condemned is mentioned over and over by numerous characters, including Minos, Ser Brunetto, the Jovial Friars, and Mohammed. Dante’s journey, like those of previous heroes, also has a definite purpose. Like Gilgamesh’s search for eternal life or Odysseus’ search for his home, Dante’s journey does have meaning. He is traveling through Hell in order to find his way back home after becoming lost both literally and spiritually and losing “the true path (Canto I, 10). However, despite his epic journey, Dante himself is not truly comparable to the great heroes of past epic poems.
Although it is clear that Dante’s Inferno itself fits into the genre of the epic, Dante as a hero is problematic. All of the heroes that we have seen so far have had a fairly standard set of characteristics. Heroes are wiser, stronger, cleverer and better looking than the average man. They tend to be warriors or kings. Even Odysseus, who is known primarily for his wit and cleverness, is described as looking “like one of heaven’s people” (Book 6, 258). Dante never describes himself as appearing in any way heroic. In fact, he mentions before setting off that he is “no Aeneas or Paul: / Not I nor others think me of such worth” (Canto II, 26-27). Dante claims here that he is not a hero in any sense. He is most definitely not a heroic warrior like Aeneas, but he also does not claim to be like St. Paul, a hero of the church. As we follow Dante through Hell, it becomes clear that Dante is not just being humble. Again and again, he shows weakness, fear, and timidity that no ‘true hero’ would display. Dante also faints much more than any hero should. We hear about Dante fainting twice by the end of the fifth Canto. The first time he faints, he is in Charon’s boat, entering Hell proper. As he travels across the Acheron, Dante is overwhelmed by what he sees and falls “as though seized by sleep” (Canto III, 112). Later, he is overcome by emotion at the fate of Francesca and Paulo, the lovers, and passes out again. Clearly Dante does not have the strength of character to be a hero in the traditional sense. He is weak, easily overcome by emotion, and he follows rather than leads. As the majority of epic heroes are noted leaders, this is quite the departure from the norm. Instead, Dante follows Virgil, saying at one point, “I like what pleases you. You are / My lord, you know I follow where your will leads” (Canto XIX, 33-34). He is completely willing to follow Virgil, unlike the strong leaders that have starred in previous epics. Dante’s physical weakness is also mentioned often. At one point, Virgil even scolds Dante for being weak after the poet claims that he can’t go on, saying, “so out of breath / Were my spent lungs I felt that I could get / no farther than I was” (Canto XXIV, 44-46). Dante cannot handle the physical exercise that a hero needs to undertake. Ultimately, however, Dante’s weakness does not stop him from completing his journey.
As he travels through the circles of Hell, it becomes clear that Dante does not need supposedly ‘heroic qualities’ to be the hero of his tale. Though his journey is epic in scope, it is not a journey that rewards raw strength alone. After all, unlike those of many earlier heroes, Dante’s quest is not a physical one, but a spiritual one. As he is preparing to enter Hell, Dante says:
While I alone was preparing as though for war
To struggle with my journey and with the spirit
Of pity (Canto II, 3-5).
Here, Dante has chosen to represent himself as a spiritual warrior of sorts, which is an interesting contrast to the rather pathetic image of himself that Dante gives us. He also describes the true purpose of is journey. He is going through Hell to struggle with the “spirit of pity.” Initially his phrasing is rather unclear. Is he struggling to show pity or to hide it? Is the pity that he shows throughout his journey a good or bad quality? This is not made clear until Canto XX, when Virgil says to Dante,
Here, pity lives when it is dead to these.
Who could be more impious than one who’d dare
To sorrow at the judgment God decrees? (Canto XX, 28-30).
Virgil is telling Dante that he should not be feeling pity for those who have gotten what they deserved. Though it might be natural for an empathetic man like Dante to feel for those he meets in Hell, he needs to accept God’s judgment. This is Dante’s heroic struggle. Unlike the heroes of ancient Rome and Greece, Dante is not fighting a physical battle. He is not fighting to be ‘on top.’ Unlike Gilgamesh and Aeneas, Dante is not searching for glory. Instead, his task is to submit to God. This is a very different understanding of heroics than we have seen up until now. The change from the warrior-king heroes of the past to Dante shows a fascinating shift toward a more personal, spiritual ideal. Instead of the glory of society as a whole, Dante focuses on personal growth and an understanding with God. Introspection and faith have become more important than leadership and strength. According to Dante, the ultimate goal is not to be ‘great.’ Instead, we need to look within ourselves and make sure that our understanding of the world is in line with God’s. Although it is true that Dante’s character is weak, emotional, and that he is not a ‘leader’, these qualities are not important for this new type of hero.
Dante’s Inferno, while it is unquestionably a part of the genre of epic poetry, inverts the idea of the hero that is often found in traditional works. Rather than a strong, masculine, larger-than-life hero, Dante, the hero of his take, is a weak, emotional poet who follows rather than leads and is prone to fainting. Dante’s character is quite the departure from the typical hero seen in an epic. Instead of learning about the trials and quests of a ‘great’ king or warrior, we follow the spiritual journey of an introspective, religious man. The character of Dante is a new type of hero for a changed world. Instead of telling us about glory and greatness, Dante has shifted his focus to introspection and spirituality. The ultimate goal, as seen in the Inferno is a personal understanding of God and oneself. This is very different from the heroics that we’re used to, but that does not mean that it is not valid. Dante’s brand of heroism is just as important as that of more traditional epic heroes and it just might be more important. After all, how could one possibly achieve greatness without self-realization?
I’ve never loved fall. I’ve always thought of autumn as a season of endings. Love, freedom, and bare feet give way to school supplies, responsibilities and heating bills. I close my windows to keep out the cold and abandon my near-daily walks. The farmers’ market shifts from tomatoes and berries to squash and eggplant and eventually shuts down altogether. People are busier, more anxious, and more worried about the future. Every four years, autumn is swallowed up by vitriol-filled presidential elections that leaves half the country dejected and the other half tauntingly victorious. Fall is a melancholy season.
My grandma’s birthday was on the first day of autumn. She loved the changing trees and chilly air. She used to say that there was nothing quite like Boston in the fall. She’d visit my aunt there every year in September or October and come back with a digital camera overflowing with pictures of leaves that I would click through while I sat at the kitchen table and listened to her remembrance of her trip. It doesn’t seem like it’s been five years that she’s been gone, but a lot has changed since the last time I talked to her. I’m not the shy fifteen-year-old girl that she knew back then.
I think about her more in the fall. I still occasionally pull out the last birthday card she gave me, signed in her big, loopy handwriting, and telling me how grown-up I was. Looking back, I know I wasn’t grown up at all. I’ve changed a lot since 2008, but she hasn’t had the chance to. In my mind, she exists as she did before her diagnosis: pale blue eyes shining through the thick glasses needed to correct the lazy eye that I inherited. She told me where her favorite spots to see the leaves were, but I rarely visited them.
Autumn has never been my favorite season. I’ve always resented the slowly fading greenery, the slippery dead leaves coating the sidewalk, the sudden and unexpected coolness outside when I woke up early. At the earliest sign of a chill in the air, I would pull out my sweaters and jeans and wool socks and glower at the goosebumps that rose on my arms when I stepped outside. The golden hue of sunlight unique to autumn days and summer evenings only reminded me that it would soon be replaced by impenetrable gray skies.
I would wrap myself in blankets to do my homework and eat too much Halloween candy. Getting out of bed became a chore. Little things set me off far more than they should have. A missed bus, a stubbed toe, a forgotten assignment: these were the sorts of things that could ruin my day. In September, I dreaded October. In October, I dreaded November. I was convinced that nothing was worse than November. At least winter is transparent about how miserable it is. Fall likes to pretend that it’s a good thing. I rushed from class to class with my head ducked against the cold and my hands jammed angrily into my pockets.
This fall has been different. For the first time, I’ve been watching the fall colors with the wonder that I usually reserve for springtime’s flowering crabapples and redbuds. I’ve enjoyed seeing the ombré-ed trees slowly reveal their skeletal frames. I am awestruck, not depressed by the yellow and red patchwork that is visible from the eleventh floor of the hospital where I volunteer. The fat, anxious squirrels that are so prevalent around here make me laugh instead of scowl.
Admittedly, I haven’t been completely won over. I’m still affected by the shorter days and colder weather. I still wear blankets around the house and eat too much chocolate. The angst and depression that creeps up on me every year around this time is here, and I won’t be entirely free of it until around April. I still hate being constantly cold and the persistent cough that comes with this drier weather. I haven’t yet been transformed into a lover of all things fall. You won’t find me playing in leaf piles while clutching a pumpkin spice latte between my fingerless-gloved hands. However, I might just be found inside my favorite coffee shop, sitting by the window, wearing two sweaters, a scarf and a hat, and watching the leaves fall with a smile on my face.
I think about kissing you sometimes.
It’s not, realistically, going to happen.
But, I still think about it.
You have nice eyes.
And I feel comfortable around you.
And getting a snap from you is always a little bit exciting.
And I can’t help but wonder if it would be a good idea.
You see, my feelings at the moment are a bit confused.
Maybe I do actually like you.
Maybe this is the next logical step in our relationship.
My friends certainly think so.
Apparently we already look like a couple.
When I went to that party with you, people kept calling me “your girl”.
Was that supposed to be some sort of date?
I can be pretty oblivious at times.
Or did they only say that because guys and girls aren’t usually just friends?
But we are. At least, I think we are.
At the same time, though, my friends are betting on the odds.
They keep asking me what exactly is going on between us. I don’t exactly know how to answer.
Your friend asked me the other day if you were still hitting on me.
Were you ever hitting on me? And are you now?
Sometimes, I think so. But then, you send me a text saying that you’re really glad we’re friends.
However, I ‘m sensing that maybe that’s not all you’re thinking.
And I tend to be pretty perceptive.
I’m pretty sure that you have some sort of feelings for me.
But where does that leave me?
I’m really not sure.
I could actually like you.
Or, I might just be curious.
And that’s what pulls me back every time.
Because I’m not sure what would happen next.
A kiss is not an isolated event.
Neither one of us could forget that it had happened.
It would be there, between us, from then on out.
And I don’t know what that would mean.
I know that the dynamic between us would change.
Things don’t stay the same once you’ve kissed someone.
Would this mean we would start dating? Would we become a couple?
Because I don’t see that working out.
I’m too stressed. You’re too volatile. I don’t think we could find a balance.
But I’m curious.
And I want to kiss you.
Maybe it’ll turn out well.
But somehow I can’t picture that.
All I see are endings.
I’ll be awkward about it.
And you’ll be hurt that I’m being awkward about it.
Or you’ll be pissed and I’ll look stupid.
Or maybe you’ll give me a triumphant “finally” look and I’ll panic because now you expect something from me.
And I don’t know what I’d do in any of these situations.
So instead, I’ll do nothing.
We’ll remain in murky, confusing limbo.
I might just be lonely.
I don’t want to lead you on.
But I want something, anything, to happen.
It’s close to midnight. I’m walking to the only coffee shop on campus that’s open past 9 pm during the summer. I’m not really paying attention to what’s going on around me, so when I see a guy rolling toward me on his bike, I wordlessly move to other side of the sidewalk so he can pass by. He’s a big guy, blond and fratty. I glance at him as he passes.
“How you doin’ hun?” His voice is low and confident and it chills me to the bone.
I felt violated. He clearly had no intention of actually talking to me. He wasn’t interested in how I was doing. He just wanted to make his presence known. As much as that rankled me, his comment also terrified me. There was no one else in sight. No one would notice if he turned around and came back toward me.
I didn’t run, but I did walk as fast as I possibly could, looking over my shoulder every few steps to make sure that he continued to glide away. I turned on the next street and practically ran two blocks to the coffee shop. Once I was within the warm golden lights of the café, with an iced coffee in hand, I felt safe.
It really shouldn’t be this way. A random guy biking down the street shouldn’t be able to scare me as much as this one did. Even if he didn’t actually mean any harm, there was a chance that he did. Because I’m female, I have been trained to always be careful. I’ve been told that I need to be wary, that I have to watch out, that I’m a potential victim. Last night, I was walking back to my apartment from a friend’s place at around 2:45 in the morning. Despite the fact that I didn’t see a single person, I practically ran home.
I want to be free from all of this. I want to be able to take midnight walks when I need to clear my head. I would love to feel the cool air of early morning without that constant, niggling concern for my safety. I’d rather not constantly eye my fellow travelers when I walk through town after 10 pm.
I want to be free to wander.
I wrote this after a grey, rainy day on campus that I spent almost completely alone.
Loneliness is a hard knot at the back of your throat and a persistent ache in your chest.
Loneliness is getting dressed and walking to the farthest coffee shop on campus, just so you can hear another person’s voice. It doesn’t matter that all you’ll say is “Can I get a small iced coffee?” and “thanks.” Ninety seconds of human contact is better than nothing. The coffee doesn’t drown the lump in your throat and you walk out, wondering what you should do now.
You cross the street and wander into a part of town you’ve never visited. Admiring the ivy-covered houses and slightly decrepit apartment buildings, you imagine living there. You’d probably have a cat. And friends.
While you’re thinking about friends, you pull out your phone to see if anyone’s texted you. They haven’t. You text everyone you might possibly want to hang out with. “What are you up to?” You put your phone back in your pocket and continue walking.
Loneliness is pulling your phone out of your pocket twenty minutes later and seeing that only two people responded. They’re both busy. Loneliness is the blurriness behind your eyes as you pause to reply, “Never mind.”
You walk back home.
Loneliness is spending two hours cleaning your kitchen, even though no one’s going to see it. While you’re cleaning, you think up imaginary conversations with the friends who probably aren’t going to visit you and the neighbors you haven’t met yet. By the time you’ve finished, you’ve chipped your nail polish, rubbed your hands raw, and sweated through your shirt.
Loneliness is sitting on the floor, drenched in sweat, and eating cookies. When the cookies are gone, you open one of the books that you bought yesterday. You read it straight through and feel empty when you’ve turned the last page.
Loneliness is sitting at the kitchen table of your hot, sticky apartment and eating leftovers for dinner. You check Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and your email, knowing that nothing’s changed since you checked them three hours ago.
Loneliness is spending your Friday night alone in your apartment, watching The Hunger Games off of a questionably legal website. When the movie is over and the credits are rolling up the screen, you walk out onto your balcony. It’s raining out, so you spend a few minutes basking in the damp, fragrant air.
You go back inside and open up your computer. The clicking of the keys echoes through the dark room as you mindlessly browse the internet. You’ll be up until your vision blurs and your eyelids start to droop, when you’ll collapse onto your bed and fall into a dreamless stupor.
Loneliness is a deserted campus, an empty apartment, a hollow chest.
There are certain things expected of the students who announce that they are “pre-med” in undergrad. You are supposed to be frighteningly intelligent. When I go to parties or bars and mention the fact that I’m pre-med, guys tend to have the same response. It tends to involve something like this: “oh, you must be smart” and slowly backing away, searching for a more appropriately ditzy girl to dance with.
You’re also expected to have research experience, despite the fact that research has little to nothing to do with clinical medicine. However, because the majority of premeds think that they need research experience, it’s become something that’s expected of us, yet another item to check off the list. You will never get nearly as many weird looks as when you tell a group of pre-med biology majors that you are hoping to go to medical school but that you’re not a biology major and that you’re not working in anyone’s lab this semester.
That brings me to another expectation that straight up bothers me. We’re actually not all majoring in biology and minoring in chemistry. I spent my first three semesters of college studying “Earth, Society and the Environment” and taking pre-med classes on the side. If you’re planning on going to medical school, your major in undergrad really doesn’t matter that much. So many people decide to study biology just because that’s ‘what you do’ if you want to be a doctor. I came into college studying environmental science because I loved it. Of course, once I got to college and started taking the biology classes that I would need to apply to medical school, I realized that I really enjoy as well. After looking at my four-year plan earlier this semester, I realized that I could easily fit in a biology major as well, so I decided to double major. Even with the added validation of a biology major, I still get funny looks when I tell people that I’m studying environmental science as well.
I’ve taken to telling people that, if you’re going to grad school, undergrad isn’t about what you want to do, it’s about figuring out who you want to be. After graduation, if you’ve planned well enough, you can focus on what you want to do with your life, but college gives you a chance to sort out who exactly you are.
After I’ve told everyone that I’m premed, not doing research, and majoring in biology and environmental science, they ask which hospital I’m volunteering at. This is one that I actually think is pretty important. I’ve been volunteering for two semesters at a hospital near campus, and it has definitely been an experience. I’ve given people baths, dealt with patients who are literally crazy, and have tiptoed around family members grieving for their dying relatives. A hospital is not an easy place to be. Almost no one actually wants to be there, and you know that the people you are taking care of are sick in some way. It’s difficult, as a healthy young girl, to stand in front of a patient who can’t walk and ask if there’s anything you can do for them. If I can’t give them their health back, what really matters?
Giving people back their health, or at least doing my very best to do so, is the reason that I want to go into medicine. It’s a very tangible way to make the world a better place, at least for the patients that I’ll be helping. I’m not in it for the money, or the prestige. I just want to end up where I can make a difference in people’s lives. I don’t know where that’ll be, but I really hope it happens. Unfortunately, I’m going to have to get through another two years of nosy questions and silent sizing-ups until I get to med school. I guess there’s some sacrifice involved in everything, right?
I’m sure that practically everyone, regardless of their religion, has been bombarded with news about the new pope, elected yesterday. Even if you’re not Catholic, it’s a pretty big deal. Catholics make up about 1.2 billion of the 6.9 billion people in the world. That’s about 17% of the world’s population. Even if you don’t happen to be Catholic yourself, you probably know quite a few of them.
I’m not particularly showy about it, but I was raised Catholic, went to CCD (which I just discovered stands for “Confraternity of Christian Doctrine”) for all of elementary and middle school, and was confirmed at 13. Even if I’m not the best Catholic out there, and even if there are some things about the Church that I’m not particularly fond of, I still identify as a Catholic and don’t plan on leaving the church anytime soon.
Obviously, I care about the new pope and feel the same mix of nervous anticipation and inexplicable excitement about Pope Francis that I’m sure many Catholics share. Even if he’s supposedly directed by God and the Holy Spirit, every pope has a different way of going about things, and their beliefs and loyalties can change the direction of the Catholic Church. The last two popes, Benedict XVI and John Paul II, were both pretty conservative, favoring tradition. On the other hand, John XXIII was more liberal. He decided to hold Vatican II, which is the reason that mass is no longer said in Latin.
I’m excited about Pope Francis, because he’s a Jesuit, a South American, and the first pope to choose the name “Francis”. For those who aren’t Catholic, Jesuits are an order of priests and brothers that are known for their focus on education (you’ve probably heard of Georgetown, Boston College, etc) and research. Even though the Jesuits haven’t always been particularly popular, they’re known as scholars, and I like that.
I’m pretty much indifferent about the fact that he’s from South America. It’s kind of cool, but location really shouldn’t determine that much about a person. I like the fact that he picked Francis as a name though. I guess he’s cool with being different.
We can’t really tell what’s coming, or what direction things are going to go, but it will certainly be different. No two leaders are the same, and that goes for popes as well as everyone else.
Today, for the first time this semester, I’ll be going home. I haven’t seen my family in person in about 2 and a half months. I’ve talked to them, texted them, and communicated through Facebook, but I haven’t actually seen them for quite a while. This is one of the strangest parts of being away at college. For the first 18 years of my life, I saw these people every day, and now I only talk to them every so often and go for months without seeing them. It’s kind of weird and I never realize how much I’ve missed my family until I see them again. I’m actually incredibly excited to see them all. Even though I’m nearly 20, I still miss my mom.
I’ve also lived right near Chicago for most of my life and the city’s been a big part of my life. I don’t end up going downtown too often, but it’s always been comforting to know that if I really wanted, I could go down to the city for an adventure. In high school, my friends and I really enjoyed taking the train down to the city and walking around the loop, visiting some museums, or just chilling in millenium park. There’s always something interesting to do down there, and I really love getting out of the sleepy, organized suburbs and visiting the city. It just seems so alive down there.
Also… Kanye’s from Chicago, too… and that’s pretty cool.