Reflections: The Threshold of Hell and Social Media Discourse

In a time of pandemic and cultural disgust, I find myself returning (repenting) amidst current dialogues by looking to old books for a sense of self, and a sense of God. One of the books that I have returned to is Dante’s Inferno. The reason I have decided to read this particular work is because of Dante’s profound ability to raise a sense of moral consciousness; the images employed cause the reader to look at the ravaging effects of sin upon men, and the beauty that fills the mind when one contemplates the grace of God intensified by its ugliest contrast. Dante gives the reader a sense that the existential implications of people’s conduct far outweighs the situations of their lives. The phrase inscribed on the gate of Hell lays heavily upon the reader as virtue is looked for, but not found, in much of current dialogue. Those who engage in social media discourse would do well to hear these words: “abandon every hope, all you who enter” (Inferno, pg. 14).

The threshold of Hell is a place called “Nowhere.” Virgil takes us on a journey to a place that is full of people who have never made a decision to be faithful to God. These people are people who have lived for entirely for themselves, without being characterized by “no blame and with no praise” (Inferno, pg. 15). They are people who have preserved their lives through indecision. In Hell they are doomed to march around a banner that never stops ever leading them on through eternity while being painfully stung by insects to their eternal hurt.

This is Medieval imagery. It is stark and highly punitive. It can, however, delineate a phenomenological reality that often occurs in social media discussions.

Social media has come to be a place where people are defined by their opinions. It is a discarnate technological medium that unites people through what they write and images they use. It is a platform for individual self-expression. This is an effort at unity which often seems to unavoidably separate folks and polarize the people who engage in any sort of political discussion (paradoxically a collective discourse serves to further polarization among the collective). People are more rash, statements are more impatient, and the atmosphere among those who disagree can be characterized by an intense hatred of anything or anyone who is different. Ideology and political affiliation separate us in reality, and social media discourse furthers that separation because our opinions are held out so unaccountably from our lives. Part of this is because so much of conversation is based on a person’s tone of voice, or facial expression which is never a contributing factor in extremely tense and difficult conversations. In this way, a discarnate social media presence seems to be more susceptible to greater emotion and less charitable thought because charity necessarily involves bodily reality with all of its risks, discomforts, and rewards.

What am I talking about?

I am talking particularly about the constant barrage of dissent regarding racial issues and police violence (I do not want to expound on any particular issue now because it is likely to become forgotten among future outbreaks, and because it is important to reflect on the framing of an issue as well as the issue itself); I am talking about an incendiary conversation where patience and love for those who are different from you is obscured by unaccountable emotions of anger and outrage.

As someone who has been aware of social media since its inception, and subsequently aware of the collective outrage regarding social injustice, I have acutely noticed how social media is used to generate collective feelings of rage. What I have also noticed is how those feelings of rage subside and are cyclically rekindled when another social crisis occurs generating a congealed narrative, often resolving nothing. The movement takes priority over the incident and the wrong. People quickly forget what the past injustice was, and eagerly jump at the new opportunity they have to express their outrage. It is an dialogue that is “momentarily bursting into enthusiasm, and shrewdly relapsing into repose” (The Present Age, pg. 3). Hence, the collective forgetfulness of those who use social media for political discord is just as important to notice as its collective outrage when considering this phenomenon objectively. The crisis serves a movement, and the crisis itself is not resolved, but enables a movement to undo the foundations of society without precise direction, or positive terminus.

Rage is generated, and rage is preserved, but memory is not. This is the degeneration of  social consciousness.

Because of this I am arguing that it is plausible to compare Dante’s threshold of hell to social media dialogues about racial inequality and police brutality. People march on to define themselves not by virtue, but by opinion. Opinion alone is something that is deceptively unable to grip with reality. Decisions must be made. Virtue can never be something displayed apart from actual interaction between physical people, and it is the quality of our lives displayed by what we do. Furthermore, the banner that marches us on and on is every injustice, real or perceived, generated by a soundbite or clip. All that is required of us is to passionately agree with what is being said with no specific bearing on our actual day to day lives. Through our participation in this void we have become a people with many opinions, few values, and even fewer virtues because we have ceased to speak and act in reality. No change is required of us when passionate opinion on social media serves as the dehumanized form of cultural currency.

The domain of social media is the “Nowhere.” It is a place where people can talk with little to no consequence for their words. It is a place without deeds. The “feed” marches us on with every new bit of information motivating us by a satisfying release of dopamine when we tell someone off, or get approval for what we post. This is truly an exploitation of the human experience. Jean Baudrillard speaks of “hyperreality” as a phenomenon which replaces the real (Disneyland); what I would call hyperunreality replaces not only the real through a substitution of the real with something purely simulative; through a disembodied experience of that simulation. Quality conversations, thoughts, and self-denial are things that have truly ceased to occur regular interaction because they do not regularly happen at dinner tables, or in living rooms with people we love, but on a digital platform with people that we may know, or may have no relation to at all. The platform has become as infinite as the masses using it. Therefore, the truth is lost in a flurry of voices that have no bearing upon life because the conversation is removed from bodily experience with the ironic goal of self-expression. Interactions like these that separate the mind’s voice bodily, interpersonal expression leave us with unfortunate stings of conscience and conflicting opinions within ourselves, or voiced by others. It is a journey without singular vision, and without beatitude.

What is to be done?

Throughout the Inferno Dante is patiently guided by Virgil. In many instances Dante loses his strength before the sights of horror that he witnesses; often he needs the words and prompting of his guide to cause him to see and understand greater and more terrible things. While painfully witnessing the godlessness of society we are called, like Dante, to leave cowardice and distrust aside in order to see the necessity of good through its most immanent opposite. We are called to seek God with all that we are. People today need guides who can speak to them in the stark reality of life encouraging them to be better fathers, neighbors, and friends. I turn to old books for guidance, to works of literature that have the ability to raise my mind above depersonalized mass movements, and social media contempt. I also turn to my friends who have been my instructors and source of life amidst the chaos of what is happening today and the grief that accompanies it. People need to actually develop a sense of virtue through the instruction of those who have actually pursued it in their lives and implement it in their respective spheres of life.

The vision of Dante requires us to pay profound attention to the end of human experience in order to comprehend its value and meaning in pursuit of the truth. I submit to you that this can only be done through what has long been known by human experience as friendship. Something that existed before the term was redefined in 2004 by social media promulgators and tycoons. Before Dante, there was a Roman statesman and philosopher who in many ways had a profound impact on Dante. The man’s name was Marcus Tullius Cicero. Cicero pointed out in his book, On Friendship, that society is held together by the bonds of friendship — friendship, Cicero noted, is not possible without virtue. A modern follow up to this would be that virtue is not possible in on a platform that stirs people’s passions because the discourse is too shortsighted for sustained conversation, or resolution. Virtue is not discarnate, it is deeply human because it requires bodily experience to enrich all of society. Friendship cannot be a reduction of human experience, or it is not friendship, but something far less. I hope that we can pause, learn, interpret, and decide upon how to live, instead of passively accepting an ever and ongoing sense of the present devoid of both respect for the past, or hope for the future.

 

Grace and the Grotesque

“I do not know You God because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside . . . Please help me to get down under things and find where You are . . . Please help all the ones I love to be free from their suffering. Please forgive me.” – Flannery O’Connor

This prayer was written by O’Connor when she was not yet twenty-one. With everything going on in the world at the moment, its sentiment speaks volumes to my soul. I’ve felt the need to put myself aside to know how to feel, think and respond to what is going on in our nation. My heart aches from the pain, anger, and evil in our world. When the world seems too big, I often turn to literature. Not just as a place of escape (not escapism, which Tolkien argues is very different), but as an ethical guide and teacher of virtue.

Recently, I’ve been reading Flannery O’Connor, who was an Irish Catholic living in Savannah Georgia during the 1950’s. Her insight and experience is different than mine, yet her fiction describes people we all know and have met before. Her writing is factual, not fantastical. As a Catholic novelist of the Protestant South, O’Connor did not try to sugar coat reality. In her letters, she explains that the church and her faith in no way hinder her creative writing or storytelling abilities, but rather enhance them. As she puts it, “The writer learns, perhaps more quickly than the reader, to be humble in the face of what-is. What-is is all he has to do with; the concrete is his medium; and he will realize eventually that fiction can transcend its limitations only by staying within them” (O’Connor’s essay “The Church and the Fiction Writer”).

O’Connor is an expert of the grotesque, grotesque in the gothic sense, and her stories are frightfully realistic, even comical at some points. In her essay “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” O’Connor explains Southern fiction is always considered “grotesque” by those who are not from the South and is only realistic if and when it is in fact grotesque. After all, fiction starts with human knowledge. The grotesque is often covered with compassion as way to excuse human weakness without judgment. But in the South the whole view of man is still for the most part theological. O’Connor explains Southern writers do a better job writing about freaks because they are still able to recognize them.

While the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God . . . it is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature.

O’Connor’s literature does not mirror society to “lift it up” in thought. Instead of giving a mock damnation or mock innocence, O’Connor suggests writing a Dante, a balance of realism and romance. 

I hate to think that in twenty years Southern writers too may be writing about men in grey flannel suits and may have lost their ability to see that these gentlemen are even greater freaks than what we are writing about now. I hate to think of the day when the Southern writer will satisfy the tired reader.

The grotesque and ugly are supposed to shock us because they are signals as to how things actually are underneath. In her final collection of short stories, O’Connor wrote three stories with extreme religious themes: “Revelation,” “Parker’s Back,” and “Judgment Day.”

Revelation

At first glance, the ugliness in “Revelation” is found in the rude white trash Mrs. Turpin comes into contact with while waiting in a doctor’s office. Mrs. Turpin is described as a very large woman whose presence makes the waiting room seem small. She is your typical middle class white woman with the “bless your heart” sarcastic manners of Southern politeness. Immediately, Mrs. Turpin judges everyone by the quality of their shoes. She is the type of woman who, when she can’t sleep, asks herself who she would chose to be if she could not be herself. If given the option of being a n*gger or white trash, she prays God would make her African American, but not a “trashy one,” a more clean respectable kind, like “herself but black.” These are the inner thoughts of Mrs. Turpin. 

While waiting for the doctor, Mrs. Turpin talks to the “pleasant woman” in the room who is her equal while trying to ignore the “white trash woman” and the ugly fat girl, Mary Grace, next to her. The whole time the ladies are speaking, the girl glares at Mrs. Turpin with a look that could kill. The women discuss whether the blacks should be sent back to Africa and agree a good disposition is better than being pretty. Just as Mrs. Turpin thinks how grateful she is that she wasn’t made black, a white trash or ugly, the fat girl throws her book at Mrs. Turpin’s face and tries to choke her. As the girl is being sedated by the medical staff, she sneers at Mrs. Turpin, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old warthog.”

Mrs. Turpin lays in bed haunted by the girl’s remark. Mrs. Turpin tells the black help about the incident, but she is only annoyed by their flattery. She then marches to the pig parlor to argue with the hogs. She yells at them, disgusted that she would be likened to such creatures, then she has a vision of saints ascending to heaven. At the top are white trash cleaned up and blacks in white robes. At the bottom are hard-working average people like herself, yet altered so that “even their virtues were being burned away.”

Mrs. Turpin would rather cry, get angry and defensive than admit her attitude is uglier than the people she comes into contact with. She is like a pig with a ring in her snout (Proverbs 11:22). She is like us if we do not repent of our pride. 

Parker’s Back

“Parker’s Back” is a story about false devotion. O.E. Parker is a profane tatted man who marries a religious woman, Sarah Ruth, who has a talent for “sniffing up sin.” Parker never wanted to get married, her of all people, and he is gloomier than ever. To spite his wife, he decides to get anther tattoo, or as she calls them, a “heap of vanities.” She would say, “At the judgement seat of God, Jesus is going to say to you, ‘What you been doing all your life besides have pictures drawn all over you?'” Dissatisfied Parker decides to get a tattoo not even Sarah Ruth would object to — the image of Christ on his back. At first the tattoo artist refuses. “I don’t put tattoos on drunks,” he says, “You’ve fallen off some. You must have been in jail.” “Married,” is Parker’s reply. Regretfully, the artist draws “a flat stern Byzantine Christ with all-demanding eyes” across his whole back. No one can look at it without trembling in fear. When he shows it to Sarah Ruth, she rejects it as idolatrous and Parker is left sobbing by a tree. Parker discovers God even though his wife does not recognize him or the image on his back.

Judgment Day

The final story is a reworking of her earlier story, “Geranium.” In the story, Tanner, an aged white man from Georgia moves in with his daughter in New York, as long as she promises she will burry his body back in GA. When a young African American couple move in next door, Tanner gleefully calls them n*ggers, which is what he called his black friend Coleman back home. His daughter seriously rebukes him.

“All right now you listen to me,” she said. “You keep away from them. Don’t you go over there trying to get friendly with him. They ain’t the same around here and I don’t want any trouble with n*ggers, you hear me? If you have to live next to them, just you mind your business and they’ll mind their business. Live and let live.”

Of course, the old man does not listen. He tries to befriend the New York natives and greets the man as “Preacher” and assumes he is from South Alabama. Tanner’s motives are misinterpreted and the young man slams him against the wall, causing a concussion and stroke. The final blow is when the old man decides to leave the city and return home, but on his way out the door he has another stroke. The angered neighbor finds him at the bottom of the stairs and Tanner mistakes him for his companion Coleman. Instead of helping him up, the black man stuffs the old man’s head and arms between the spokes of the banister where his body remains until his daughter finds him dead. “Bury me here and burn in hell!” was the curse that haunted Tanner’s daughter, so his body was dug up and shipped back to Georgia. While alive, Tanner was stripped of his pride, but his body finds peace.

O’Connor loves to use symbolism in her writing. In all three of these stories, there is conflict socially and spiritually. A conflict of pride and grace. The characters receive revelations from God and by consequence become images of Christ themselves. Mrs. Turpin has a change of heart only once she has her vision. Parker, who’s real name “Obadiah Elihue” represents a biblical contradiction, experiences awakening even though his legalistic wife, who also has a biblical name, rejects him and the Christ on his back. “Judgment Day” is the most potent of all because it leaves the reader wondering if Tanner got what he deserved, since refusing to work for “n*ggers” in GA is what made him decide to move in the first place. He seems innocent but his manners are a mere appearance of friendship in the traditional black-white relationship.

O’Connor uses what is considered grotesque to reveal what is actually grotesque — the heart of sinful man. Manners and appearances only cover the ugly of “what-is.” How someone appears on the outside does not always reflect what is true on the inside. Man judges based upon outward appearance, but God looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7). O’Connor understood that man is a fallen creature and was not afraid to be honest about the hypocrisy of humanity. Yet she does not leave out hope. There is hope for every sinner in Christ. Her stories are difficult to digest because they are realistic, almost more realistic than reality itself. But extreme examples can reveal truth and cut through our personal deception of what is actually grotesque. Like a Dante, she exposes our sinful hearts by putting aside appearances and opinions to show us what is actually ugly. To know what is truly good and beautiful, we must “push ourselves aside” and learn what is truly grotesque. 

 

A Hidden Life and the Coronavirus

As I reflect back on this time of quarantine in preparation for my return to the real world, or as it is now being called, the “new normal”, I remember how it first began. Quietly and unexpected, much like the film A Hidden Life.

Based on a true story, the film is about Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter, who faces execution for refusing to fight for the Nazis during World War II. Before watching Malick’s masterpiece, I read a review that described it as a film about religion, not war. Instead of picturing Jewish persecution of the Nazi period, the film asks ethical questions about good and evil, right and wrong, and how much one would suffer for what they believe to be right. A line that stood out to me in the film, since they are few and far between, echoes this assessment. When asked by the prison captain if he is afraid of death, Franz responds, “A man worth anything has only one thing to consider: whether he is acting rightly or wrongly.”

Many of us these days have had to ask ourselves if we feel fear in the face of possible death by coronavirus in this global pandemic. Yet the power behind fear is often fear itself. Fear of death, but also fear of pain. No one wants to suffer, but especially if it goes against what is considered the “right” thing to do. 

Power and control through fear and pain are evident in George Orwell’s 1984. Orwell’s novel is a political commentary of totalitarianism in Nazi Germany, but elements of Big Brother are still seen today. In the story, doublethink is the ability to hold two polarizing views at the same time. Love is hate, war is peace, slavery is freedom. We live in a dualistic society that in many ways cannot agree on how to address this crisis. There can be a sense of camaraderie by saying, “Stay safe!” to your neighbor from a distance, but there are also neighbors calling the police on each other if someone coughs or breaks quarantine. We have forgotten how to love one another because of fear. As a dystopia, 1984 may seem over the top and unrealistic, but it still communicates the danger of totalitarian thought and practice in society today. 

Besides the silent suffering of Franz in A Hidden Life, the steadfastness of his wife, Franziska, is most inspiring. When the local priest and villagers can’t persuade Franz to swear allegiance to Hitler, they pressure his wife to try and convince him to change his conviction or ignore his conscience. Unlike Job’s wife who tells her husband to curse God, Fraziska stands by her man and does not try to dissuade him. Despite the struggle and persecution she faces, Franziska never stops loving or supporting her husband, even when she knows his choices will take him away from her loving arms and leave their children fatherless. Franz’s stance for truth is heroic, but Franziska’s loyalty demonstrates how true love casts out fear. 

In 1984, Winston and Julia go against Big Brother by meeting in secret. In contrast to the previous couple, their “love” is selfish and does not pass the test of suffering. When they are captured by the Thought Police and taken to the Ministry of Love to be tortured, they betray each other and their emotions, even to the point of wishing the other would suffer instead of them. To save their own life of simple comforts, they deny that they ever loved, and in fact they never did. In the end, their love for each other is replaced by a love for Big Brother.

When faced with fear and suffering, who are we more like, Franz and Franziska or Winston and Julia? To whom do we swear and in whom do we trust? Would we choose to stay true to love or run away in fear at the first sign of danger? Do we turn away from the sick and poor, or run to them in aid? 

As Christians, we should be citizens most recognizable by our love, not our fear. Let us be an extension of Christ in a scared and suffering world. If we cannot stand for truth and love, we are no better than Judas the betrayer. But like Peter discovered after his denial, there is freedom in Christ. While in prison, Franz’s captors torture and taunt him by saying his actions do not matter, that the war will still go on without him, and that his resistance will soon be forgotten. All he has to do is sign a piece of paper and he will go free. He’s asked, don’t you want to be free, to which he replies, “I am free already.” 

Franz was not just a man of conviction, he was a man of faith. I pray my faith will outshine my fear in the coming days.


PC: IMDB

Wanting: A Literary Analysis of Men in Desperate Need of a Personal God

The monotony of your life lifts a moment.

You look around realizing you are walking past the same graveyard you see on your way to work every day. Since you have never noticed it, it is as if you are seeing it for the first time.

You see a beggar standing at the corner of the graveyard holding a sign which exclaims “wanting.”

With this one word he is communicating the state of his being. You hate him for it. For this beggar has dared to cast his burden of want onto you.

You know you must either throw this ugly burden back to the earth or help him carry his want.

You hate him for forcing you to this decision.

What right has he?

None.

You throw his want to the ground and walk on.

The next day you accidentally catch sight of him holding the same sign, “wanting.”

He is very thin and his clothing is well past worn.

You scoff at his condition and blame him for it. As if it is fault his body compels him to want food, to want water, to want covering.

You kick the burden of want you left there yesterday and walk on.

The next day you see him again holding the same sign, “wanting.”

A twinge of compassion plays at your heart. This time you stop to look at the burden of want at your feet.

It is dirty.  You tell yourself someone else will help him. And on you walk.

For a while you take bliss in ignoring the man and his sign.

Every day you step over the burden and avert your eyes from want.

Slowly the man at the graveyard wastes away.

You know but will not let yourself think that if his bodily needs are not met, he will fall into the grave stretching before him like a shadow.

This time, you trip over the burden and are forced to face the want.

If his want is not met he will fall into the grave. However, there is another want which neither of you know. It is the want of the soul for Christ, and this grave is deeper than the grave his body lands in, for it reaches eternity. If this need is not met, he will sink into a land where his body and soul will never stop wanting.

You quickly get back up and walk on.

Today something has changed. Today he is watching you while you watch him want.

This time you pause. You cannot tear your eyes away from him.

You tell yourself the same things you have before. That he’s not really wanting. That it is his fault he’s wanting. 

But still you cannot tear your eyes away. And so you watch him want. You watch him want to death in this moment.

He gives you one last pleading look and falls backward into his waiting grave.

His sign falls above him and lands at the head of his grave.

That one word which killed his body and his soul is now his gravestone “wanting.” You turn away from the sight with relief, your soul divided no longer.

But what’s this?

You turn to find you are on a corner of a graveyard.

You feel you are holding a sign facing people who you are depending on for your life.

You slowly look down to see that it says,

“Wanting.”

Panic wells inside you. You cannot escape. Your body decays and something else, your soul.

You long for something more than bodily needs.

You are trapped; forced to rely on the mercy of another who might respond to your sign “wanting.” Time passes and you grow weaker. You look behind you to see the grave ready to catch your corpse.

You force yourself to stand so more people will see your sign. You feel the pull of the grave growing stronger.

The hope which keeps you from yielding to its pull wanes.

You look up to see someone watching you.

They move toward you and give you bread, water, and the truth of Christ’s salvation.

You taste the bread and drink the water glorifying Christ.

Right before you succumb to the pull of the grave, you look down at your sign and realize that it now reads,

“Satisfied.”