Other worlds and ours: James Cameron, Gene Roddenberry, and Dante Alighieri

You may have heard this report about some fans of James Cameron’s new movie Avatar who have become depressed and even suicidal over the realization that this world can never be as wonderful as the movie’s fantasy world of blue-skinned elves living in harmony with nature.  It brought to my mind an old boast I used to hear:  that whereas people in the Middle Ages were indifferent to their actual lives and their actual world because they’d put all their hopes in an imaginary afterlife, we brave, secular moderns put all our hopes and energies into this life–and, by golly, it’s helping us make progress.  (Whereas in the Middle Ages, centuries would go by without major changes.)  Now, not only is this claim not true, in some ways it seems to have gotten things exactly backwards.  People in the Middle Ages did dream about another world or worlds, and so do modern people.  There is a big difference, though, in how the dreamed world relates to our current one.  For medievals and other traditional peoples, other worlds tended to enhance the significance of this one.  For moderns, the meaningfulness of the fantasy world is contrasted with the meaninglessness of the real one.

One of my favorite television shows as a kid (and still today, actually), was Star Trek.  Now, like most fans, what attracted me to the show was the entertaining stories and a few fairly likeable characters.  Numerous interviews with Gene Roddenberry, the actors, and others involved all insist that there was another motivation behind the show besides entertainment.  Celebratory documentaries always tell us that Star Trek was supposed to give us hope by showing us a better future where all the problems of 1960s Earth have been overcome.  It’s not about Captain Kirk battling space lizards; it’s about a vision.  Now, honestly, I find Roddenberry’s vision–if that’s what it was–terribly dull.  His utopian Earth has no cultures, no religions, no national loyalties, none of the things that would make a people interesting or endearing.  These are the things that men of the future are supposed to have overcome; they’re also essential parts of our actual world.  I remember in one episode of The Next Generation, Picard and Riker are musing over how silly it was that people once fought wars over things like economic systems.  Of course, it’s easy to turn your nose up at economics in an imaginary world where scarsity has been overcome.  The interesting thing, though, is this assumption–a crucial part of the show’s vision–that the conflicts that engage people in the actual world are really meaningless.  They’re distractions that keep people from assending to the Olympian perspective of the ideal world.  Now, I don’t agree that the interests and conflicts of the real world are silly.  For me, Star Trek really was about the space lizards and salt-sucking vampires.  But this is a common feature in science fiction–the quintesentially modern genre literature:  the imagined world becomes meaningful by sucking meaning out of the actual world.  The more meaningful one finds one, the less meaningful one will find the other.

To see a very different kind of relation between the worlds, one should go back to those oft-criticized Middle Ages.  When I first began reading Dante’s Comedy (I’ve now been through Inferno and Purgatorio twice, and Paradiso once), my expectations were shaped by my experience with science fiction.  I had expected that when Dante started interacting with souls in the other worlds (including hell and Mount Purgatory as “other worlds” for these purposes), that the other worlds would be made to seem much more real and important than the regular world.  I had assumed that we would be invited to see the affairs and concerns of our world as petty from the perspective of eternity.  Nothing could be farther from what I actually read!  The first thing that surprises readers like me is how anxious the souls, both damned and saved, are to talk about Italian politics.  The affairs of their cities, the authority of the Holy Roman Empire, and the reform of the Church all passionately interest the dead, and the complaining about Pope Boniface goes on all the way up to the Empyrean.  In fact, damned souls often seem more anxious to get news from Dante about their home towns than Dante is interested in finding out what will happen to him if he doesn’t get his act together.

Does this show a lack of imagination on Dante’s part?  If it’s this life that interests him, why not just write about that?  The thing is, for him, it isn’t an either/or matter like it is to science fiction writers, i.e. if the future life is meaningful, it doesn’t follow that the current life is petty.  In fact, as an orthodox Catholic, Dante doesn’t believe in a “future life”; he believes in an afterlife.  For the Catholic, as for the atheist, we have only one life.  The afterlife is a sort of prolongation of this life to its ultimate moral consequence, a shadow cast by this life onto eternity.  Many commentators have pointed out that the punishments of the souls in the Inferno are actually representations of the true natures of their sins.  Perhaps it’s not so surprising that the damned souls are stuck in the consequences of their particular past lives,  but surely it would be different in heaven?  These souls have been good; surely they should be able to just forget about the trials they faced in this life.  Indeed, at the end of Purgatorio, Dante drinks water from the river Lethe and loses the memory of his sins.  Immediately after, though, he drinks from Eunoe and regains the knowledge of his past sins insofar as they were occasions for God’s grace and forgiveness.  In heaven itself, the souls have places assigned to them based on their merits on Earth or the trials they overcame.  Such, for example, is Piccarda, seen on the moon to represent her humble place in heaven.  The souls of those unable to fulfill their vows because of force are able to submit to God’s will in heaven in a way that was denied to them on Earth.  The point is that the things that happend to the souls on Earth–both good and bad–isn’t forgotten.  Even in heaven, we can’t just get past all that.  In fact, only in heaven (and purgatory and hell) is its full significance revealed.  If one were to make a criticism of Dante, it wouldn’t be that he’s deflected attention from this life.  More credible is the other (and contradictory) accusation hurled at the Middle Ages–that they thought the Earth was the center of the universe.  (In the Comedy, it’s literally true that the Earth is, although a tiny part of the whole, at the center of the universe, until the end of Paradiso, when Dante’s eyes are truly opened, and he sees that God is the center of the universe.)

Cameron and Roddenberry show us the visions of profoundly alienated men.  Most of the world they live in seems to them sordid and petty, just things we need to overcome and forget about if we are to get on to the serious business of exploring space communing with nature.  In our time, we actually think that a man of imagination should feel alienated.  Looking at the literature of earlier ages shows that this doesn’t have to be the case.  These ages used the idea of other worlds to add significance to our own, rather than to take it away.  We can imagine aliens or angels dismissive and indifferent to our affairs, but we can just as well imagine them as a chorus which is quite concerned about, say, whether socialism will rule the world, or whether a Florentine poet will find his way on life’s journey.

One Response

  1. […] worry can be answered by recovering older generations’ sense of the afterlife.  I was surprised when reading Dante’s Comedy that the souls blessed, damned, and in Purgatory were all still passionately interested in events […]

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