Beyond Monotheism — 7. When hell freezes over

In this chapter Schneider really shows off her writing chops. On one level, the uncharitable reader might argue, this is due to the material. Hell is, after all, as much the writer’s delight as it is the sinner’s. If you cannot write rouge-lipped, florid prose about eternal damnation, you should stick to writing insurance actuarial documents or something. Ah, but that’s the great thing about this chapter. It is as though Schneider realized her crushing vision of science’s ideology of the One was on the verge of crippling her reader, and that we needed a breather. She, in essence, then, breathed in our exasperation at the really shitty hand we as inheritors of Christian ontology have been dealt, and in this chapter exhales fresh air — albeit, fresh air tinged with sulfur. (E.g., a sentence like “He has, one could say, removed the blinders on his mundane life and glimpses, through the porosity of dream, vision, and the poet’s pen a closely abutting world of difference” just kind of sings, no matter the context in which it is used.)

Here, to my absolute delight, Schneider turns her attention to Dante’s La Divina Comedia. Like Milton’s Paradise Lost, La Divina Comedia‘s place in Christian theology is a curious one. Both have long captured the popular religious imagination, even amongst those who have never read neither. Both epics are, by now, encoded in the Western Christian’s religious DNA, what for their poetic depiction of the sublime things people really care about, fallen angels, hellish torment, and heavenly splendor — about which the Bible is, in its best moments, mealy-mouthed. More to the point, though, both also have a curious way of undermining the orthodoxy that, with varying degrees of integrity and success, appropriated them. For her part, Schneider clearly and provocatively exposes the extent to which Dante’s epic, whether it was his intentions or not, for what work of art can maintain its interpretive longevity purely on the back of where its author wanted it to go, resists this appropriation.

Schneider wastes no time in telling us where she intends her reading to take us:

Throughout the world, fables and parables have often borne the most startling and dangerous messages, wrapped in cloaks of poetry, art, and story-telling. In the case of Dante’s inferno, the difficult truth lies quite literally in the center of Hell, namely, that the metaphysics of absolute and eternal stasis on which the monotheistic doctrine of God is founded, is a lie. [emphasis hers]

The rest of the chapter is an impressively dense explication of the lie, and the shocking truth it perhaps doesn’t deny so much as it distracts us from.

Orthodoxy is right, she notes, in recognizing the tortures of Hell in Dante’s vision. The punishments meted out are deliciously appropriate to the choices the damned made while alive. Rude bosses, horrible neighbors, etc., they all get their comeuppance. Indeed, arguably the popularity of La Divina Comedia, throughout its long history, has been the ribald fun in identifying even ourselves amongst the damned — a dark, ironic exhortation of our own depravity. A You-get-what-you-deserve system (what Schneider calls “a vision of intimately embodied consequence,” another great turn of a phrase) is, in a way, kind of harsh, but it is not especially cruel. “What is unspeakably cruel,” Schneider notes, “is the unendingness of the consequence. Indeed, the theme of eternity is the only truly horrifying dimension of Dante’s journey through Hell.”

Schneider’s observation regarding Eternity is crucial. Contrary to popular thinking, eternity is not an indefinite extension of temporality — a timeline endlessly extending into the horizon. Rather, eternity is pure stasis, “devoid of change and so devoid of the punctuations in sameness that temporality bestows on the living with such generosity.” This is the horror of Hell’s punishments. Significantly, though, in Schneider’s reading the horror of Hell are ultimately indistinguishable from the promise of Heaven. This is because, in Dante’s vision, Heaven, residing deep in the bowels/the womb of Satan, is ultimately contingent on the stasis of Hell’s eternity — a (literally) chilling stasis, Schneider notes, that is manufactured by the billowing wings of God’s purported Adversary. Schneider writes:

The stunning assertion here is that Satan is the foundation of the universe. His position is pivotal not only as an axis in the world, but the hairy place where hip meets thigh is apparently the point upon which the edifices of Purgatory and Heaven–the whole realm and creation of God–are built.”

That this is a “profound critique of the metaphysics of Christian monotheism” is, I should say, a significant understatement. But, significantly, it is a critique that emerges from the very logic of Christian monotheism. If this is the case, summoning her best Altizerian Southern drawl, Schneider concludes: “God is Satan, who is the repressed body, mess, and worldliness of divinity.”  (I should note, though, that while this is a very Altizerian sentiment, it is pretty obvious that Schneider is not reveling in this identification dialectically or apocalyptically.)

The upshot: those damned to the eternal reaping of what they sow in Hell, they are not the opposite of the placid, bleary-eyed citizens of Heaven bored-to-tears by their heavenly blessings. They are, rather, the repressed flip-side. The latter have been “liberated” from the body, and thus from the tortures of Hell; but at what cost and to what reward? Hell is, for Schneider, where Heaven’s disembodied repress all that is abnormal, different, and, in short, particular about themselves: their race, class, sex, gender, desires, etc.

Thoughts for Reflection: For Schneider, the ice at the heart of Hell is both a metaphor for the “disease of stasis at the core of Christian metaphysics (and theology) and a dismantling of it at the same time.” She describes the disease quite well. But I wonder about the dismantling. She will unpack this in the remaining sections of the book, but one must wonder at this point whether the solution is primarily a product of knowledge or will. That is to say, is there power in knowing the lie around which monologic operates — is the lie still operational if nobody believes it, even if it is still told?

Is there something to be said for maintaining the vestiges of a lie of our choosing, in light of the seeming recalcitrant currency of monologic? Or, and this is certainly the direction Schneider heads, is the solution more a matter of whether we have the will to, as it were, thaw out hell, and let Heaven be damned?

7 thoughts on “Beyond Monotheism — 7. When hell freezes over

  1. Really though, I don’t know how one can refute what she’s done here. I know of a few attempts to over-Thomasize Dante and re-inscribe him into, using Schneider’s language, the logic of One that characterizes radically uncritical orthodoxy, but don’t see how it can stand up to what is written here.

  2. What appealed to me, too, was how it also cut against De Man’s reading of Dante, in which the more materialized Hell becomes, the less coherent and intelligible it comes. Schneider’s reading asserts the exact opposite. It (Schneider’s reading) is in line with the classic readings by C. S. Lewis (et al), and even those that find parallels with the hypersphere, in which “up” is now “down,” “down” is now “up”, and as a result the materiality/contingency of Hell (previously “the down”) does not issue merely into noise, but actually expands the possibility of coherence and intelligibility.

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