A Beastly Comedy Canto 1.9

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We’re getting into truly upsetting territory in many ways, and the feelings involved are complex and a bit contradictory. The topics in themselves are unsettling, slavery and how other animals are also mistreated in the name of what some people call just or a natural right.

But then there’s also a growing recognition that the narrator is not an innocent bystander, and that in fact being a bystander makes him guilty as well. It’s easy to pass moral judgment, and yet the guilt remains. How often we are aware of atrocities committed all over the world, yet we keep doing nothing. One can always say that it’s not our responsibility, appealing to lack of a singular moral authority. But then actually witnessing the things that happen it becomes very hard not to feel responsible for the suffering of others. Who can just stand idly by while others are enslaved and slaughtered?

Also, the punishments themselves are becoming so cruel that there’s a growing recognition that this is not right either, no matter what these people did, and the narrator is starting to hate himself for going through this. There’s an ever growing feeling that the narrator is the one who is both the punisher and the one being punished. I rarely state it as directly as here, with the final line about the brander and the face burnt; usually it’s merely implied with the feelings of guilt and the comparisons made to the narrator’s own indiscretions. Often they aren’t even named, but I’m hinting that such things exist.

The first page of the canto in its current form describes a dream of happy times and love. I wrote it as a kind of relief, and it only came into existence in the last round of rewriting when I scrapped the original beginning. In the original I jumped straight into the more theoretical ethical problems and how Dante describes them later in the canto, and I do believe this works better.

As to why it became a dream of love: I may have thought it as a relief, but if I remember correctly, my partner of many years left me the previous week when I was due to rewrite this canto. The scene describes nothing that has actually happened, but there’s a wistful feeling of love lost, gratitude and regret. Impermanence. The sadness I was feeling at the time isn’t fully expressed in the canto, nor would it have been pertinent, but I’m sure the recent break-up affected how the lines turned out. I kept working on the book with a regular schedule, and of course it was already the fourth or fifth version, so usually it didn’t require extensive rewrites. Only now, without a relationship to keep me grounded, I wrote more fiercely, day and night, diving deep into this world which was very upsetting to live in.