A Beastly Comedy Canto 1.16

The pilgrim cries out: “…for I have reached a limit of compassion and relief”. I’d like to pay attention to the indefinite article there. It sounds grammatically incorrect because we’re so used to thinking that there must be one definite limit in anything, and there is nothing beyond. Much like the title “A Beastly Comedy” implies that it is only one such thing, and that many other comedies are, in one way or another, beastly, having teeth that bite, being living creatures with their own motivations and desires.

So the pilgrim has reached a limit, but has already learned that what he once thought was his absolute limit wasn’t it at all. There’s a feeling that beyond this point there is no relief, and that he cannot feel compassion for these creatures anymore, but then again he’s been proved wrong before. Deeper pain is possible, but so is deeper compassion. So using the indefinite article means that there’s still a smidgen of hope, some belief that the suffering can end and that the pilgrim is at least a little in control. He acknowledges his current feelings of hopelessness, but admits that it may not be the whole story.

What we perceive to be the limit today is only that, a perception. This goes not only to compassion and relief but other things that are abstract, emotional, relative. And what are such things is also open to debate.

The pilgrim is also starting to question the point of it all, wondering who should be punished, who is innocent and who is guilty if a whole system within our society is corrupt and keeps regenerating itself as people always have difficulty opposing or questioning practices that others take for granted. If everyone is guilty, does it mean everyone should be punished or absolved. Or just a few of them? Who are responsible, and are we to expect that those with the highest authority understand better what they’re doing? Questions of accountability are complex even from a legal perspective, and when it comes to philosophy, things are muddled even further. Certainly there’s often a sense of injustice when those who are supposed to be accountable walk away without any consequences.

I don’t know. I’m inclined to think that people who do evil don’t fully understand the consequences, can’t empathise with the suffering or are just too distanced from the emotional fallout. That doesn’t take away the accountability, but it might be easier to think that people are inherently good, and that evil mostly comes from lack of understanding rather than a deliberate attempt to hurt people.

There are some people who truly lack compassion and who are excited by the thought of others suffering, and if they get into positions of power, the results are ugly. One may ask to what extent they understand the consequences in the way that normal humans do, but I’m more interested in how they get into those positions in the first place, and how ordinary, compassionate people go along with diabolical plans that others have come up with in the name of something good. There is no one obvious answer, but it’s important to ask the questions: who is to be condemned: the leader, the strategist, the engineer, the labourer, the soldier, the writer? Where do we draw the line if we do not want to lose our own humanity?