“this is hell, nor am I out of it”: Donald Tusk and the classical tradition

Donald Tusk has put the wind up some Tories by saying there is a special place in Hell for no deal Brexiteers.

He is drawing on the great traditional image of hell that has come down to us from Dante.

 

Dante’s Hell

In his three part epic poem in the everyday language of Italy, Dante expressed something about what it meant to be alive in those times. The hopes, fears, desires and sins of the worldly Italians. The Divine Comedy is an immediately translatable piece of art, even for those who no longer believe in a heaven and hell.

Anyone who has read the first part of the poem can tell you that it is a highly allusive work which makes (now) arcane references to well known politicians and public figures of the time. Tusk’s references to the special circle of hell, obviously draw on this parallel.

 

Vergil’s Hell

Dante was inspired by Vergil. In the poem the narrator, Dante himself, is guided by Vergil who as a venerable non-Christian exists in an inbetween stage of salvation called Limbo. The reason that Dante choose Vergil as the guide was because Vergil described the world of the dead in his epic poem The Aeniad. Vergil also points out that going to the land of the dead is not actually that hard. Afterall we will all make the journey one day. Rather it is returning from the land of the dead which is the hard bit.

Dante’s hell is a descending circle of increasingly worse punishments for worse sins from concupiscence to betrayal and treason. It is hard not to think that all of us will belong, if only a little bit, somewhere in several of these circles. Only someone with a sure sense of salvation, or no belief at all, would think they were safe.

It is a glib, throw away comment, yet in his analysis Tusk is missing an important insight into the English psyche. The major vision of hell that survives in English literature is not Dante’s, but Milton’s.

 

Milton’s Hell

John Milton wrote his epic Paradise Lost after the fall of the English Republic, in which he served. Following the reintroduction of the Totalitarian regime of the Stewarts, Milton felt the loss of power keenly. At this time he also lost his sight. His image of a bitter Satan has haunted the English imagination since.

What though the field be lost?
All is not lost—the unconquerable will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to be overcome?
That glory never shall his wrath or might
Extort from me. To bow and sue for grace
With suppliant knee, and deify his power
Who, from the terror of this arm, so late
Doubted his empire—that were low indeed;
That were an ignominy and shame beneath
This downfall; since, by fate, the strength of Gods,
And this empyreal substance, cannot fail;

Although Milton was a devout Christian, Blake said that there was something of Satan’s side in the poem. Yet the lines quoted above are not just high words of insolence and defiance, they are the fragile hardened threats of hurt or a sulky child. Beneath Satan’s hard shell, Milton wants us to believe, is a soft yoke seeking love. This ultimately was the position of all sinners in a Puritan worldview.

These words above are the closest analogy we have to some Brexiteers who “with high words, that bore, semblance of worth, not substance”  defy the EU even whilst they crave it. The Tory serpents who “whose guile, Stirred up with envy and revenge, deceived” many with their buses and Facebook ads.

Where does this leave the rest of us? Perhaps some consolation may be found in closing lines of Paradise Lost. Adam and Eve, the first parents, have been cast out of paradise into a world of pain, death, hunger, cold and hard work.

They, looking back, all the eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late their happy seat,
Waved over by that flaming brand; the gate
With dreadful faces thronged, and fiery arms:
Some natural tears they dropt, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.

Even as they are forced into a fearful new reality, there is still hope. In Milton’s worldview it is at this moment that salvation and redemption begins, which for him is what it inherently meant to be human.