When I was a kid my mother introduced me to some pretty dark (and cool) comics…one of those was Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula...mid-to-late 70s dark, atmospheric comic books with heavy-handed storylines and great art–odd-angled panels thick with mood and menace. The star of this comic was, of course, Dracula–an anti-hero masquerading as a villain. One blogger says he was “…a pontificating killer with an out-of-control ego and equal parts misogyny and misanthropy, but Wolfman imbued him with charisma.”
One of the story lines I remember most was about Janus, the son of Dracula and Domini, who was possessed by an angel. In one issue, Janus took Dracula back to a Dante-like hell and (in a moment that would have made Freud proud) bested him in an arena-style match in front of an audience of demons. Later in my childhood comic education I encountered hell again… in the fourth Uncanny X-men Annual, “Nightcrawler’s Inferno.” That was a great comic that chronicles the descent of Dr. Strange (another HUGE favorite of mine) and the X-Men into a facsimile of Hell based on Dante’s Inferno. All of this peaked my interest in Dante and the Inferno…luckily, my grandfather had a set of Harvard Classics (which I still own) on his bookshelves, so I could pull them down and figure out a bit more about this set of ideas…Dante’s Inferno was fascinating to me. Although, as a version of hell, it was familiar…because it was written in another place, in another time by someone of a distinctly different culture, it also was very strange and foreign feeling.
One thing that intrigued me from the beginning (well, since that X-Men annual pointed it out) is that the last circle of hell was reserved for traitors…specifically those who have betrayed a particular trust. The Ninth Circle is ringed by classical and Biblical giants, who perhaps symbolize the pride and other spiritual flaws lying behind acts of treachery. The traitors are distinguished from the “merely” fraudulent in that their acts involve betraying a special relationship of some kind. There are four concentric zones of traitors, corresponding, in order of seriousness, to betrayal of family ties, betrayal of community ties, betrayal of guests, and betrayal of liege lords.
As a person (and future anthropologist) who lives his life with special attention to the intricate web of social relationships that make me who I am, I was very attracted to this idea…this was a new concept (the traditional protestant stuff I got at church emphasized murder, adultery, theft, etc.), but it was a concept that intuitively made sense to me as a “social person”–the worse thing you could do is transgress the bonds of a social relationship of a family member, the community or a guest (I do not think we hold “liege lords” in as high a esteem as they did in Dante’s day)…lately The Inferno has been on my mind for two reasons…first, I’ve been getting into Dorothy Sayers novels (I’m going to use them in a future Anthropology of Popular Culture class)…I knew she was a popular detective novelist in the 1920s, but I did not know (until recently) that she is also responsible for an important translation of Dante’s Inferno.
The second reason is much more sad…and serious…that is that I have recently betrayed a special relationship… In which I was both a close friend and a house guest…thus assuring myself a place in Dante’s Ninth Circle (should such a place prove to exist). This fact, however has made me philosophical and acutely aware that the tangled web of social relationships we weave sometimes cannot help but be upset. I used to do this on a regular basis when my second wife would get angry because I chose a colleague’s needs over hers (she was strong, he was not…that was my faulty reasoning then)…and now, I have committed a grave betrayal…But I didn’t do it simply because I could, or because I wanted to–on the contrary I did not want to betray that trust. I did it because my needs (and wants) were greater than the ties that held that relationship together. I wish that I did not have to sever that tie…but I would still make that same decision again, if given the opportunity…and I would make it again and again. I am sorry that a relationship is over…I am sorry that the act was a betrayal…but I cannot be sorry for the act itself.
Life is complicated…