A Beastly Comedy Summary

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A poetic journey through contemporary mindscapes, A Beastly Comedy is a modern, independent sequel to Dante’s epic. From visions of despair to scientific pursuits and sensual pleasures, the story is a quest for morals and meaning in a world of doubt.

The modern day pilgrim is guided from ignorance to understanding by Dante, himself disillusioned to not have reached paradise, while images of hell torment and corrupt any seeker of wisdom who must ask when punishments deemed just are just another evil.

By turns dark and ecstatic, visceral and romantic, the distinct parts of the poem – The Underworld, The Sea of Science, and The Mountain of Arts – chart the wide range of approaches used in seeking knowledge, purpose, and happiness. While suffering is common and numbness seems like salvation, the poem is a testament to human curiosity, resilience, and capacity for love.

In this section of the site I will be posting the epic as an audiobook with 100 parts, one canto each Wednesday.

A Beastly Comedy Canto 1.16

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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?

A Beastly Comedy Canto 1.15

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Cracks are beginning to form. I remember clearly the day I recorded this canto, how upset I was afterwards, how frightening everything felt when going out and just seeing ordinary things, kids on their bikes, cars. It’s the moment when the book gets really dark, not that it was fluffy romance to begin with (but there will be time for that too). The next 19 cantos will see the pilgrim descending further into his own psyche, as we’re seeing the toll that comes with witnessing horrible things. The focus is not so much on the descriptions of atrocities but how the pilgrim reacts.

I’ve come to think of characters as holes that the reader fills in, and the writer provides an outline. The character is defined by how others react to it, not so much what kind of physical descriptions I write. And vice versa: the description of events may not even be that important if you see the psychological damage. The rest is imagined by the reader, and it’s up to their imagination how horrible the scene becomes. In this case we do hear the speeches of a demon, and descriptions of the meat market, but the focus is starting to shift elsewhere. Otherwise the horror would be just too much to bear. At least this way it’s up to the reader.

And of course the horrors witnessed are making the pilgrim question his quest, his motivations, even what is the thing he calls himself. Trauma commonly has that effect. You have to wonder what these emotions are, how to handle them, how you relate to the world, what is the self that feels, acts, tries to move forward even when the emotions forbid you to go any further but your brain knows that there’s only one way to progress: to keep on walking.

And what is Dante’s motivation in all this? It will be touched upon later, but oh! how cruel it is to subject the poor little pilgrim to all this. To force somebody to become a witness. It is not as bad as inflicting torture, but as it piles up, it’s not far from it. Yet what do we do voluntarily when consuming the media, the news and entertainment every day, becoming numb to similar scenes? And if what is happening in this canto is happening to other mammals, we might not blink an eye. Maybe the true horror is the willful ignorance. Does the scene describe a greater evil than what is happening in the world just because there’s a demon who despises his victims?

I still feel uneasy thinking about all this, but it’s an important topic. The verses shake my ideas about what punishment means, and how people consider it their right to kill other animals for food, what kind of logic is behind that. And of course there is the question of the sin committed, the parents selling their children to prostitution, slavery or even something worse. It is upsetting not only because the deeds are ghastly but because we don’t really know what to do about it, how to deal with such evil, how to even comprehend it.

There’s evil in the deed and evil in the punishment, and two wrongs don’t make a right. But one of the things I wanted to explore was people’s desire for vengeance, and how cruelty may start to seem like justice. An early reader wondered about the point of everything described here, and that is indeed the issue. Where do we draw the line? When does it start to feel like vengeance loses its point? Here, earlier, later? I have no one answer, and it’s more important that I tried to provide a way for readers to discover their own values and limits within these verses.

A Beastly Comedy Canto 1.11

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The canto is about action, but also about the hunger of the pilgrim as well as the snails and slugs, hunger for solace, for eternity, or just greed. Dante gets to defend the pilgrim and gets frustrated in the process, having perhaps forgotten what it’s like to have mortal desires.

Dante is expressing his disgust at lawyers just because they defended people who had committed heinous crimes, yet he admits his views are imperfect. There is some bitterness in his voice, having seen these scenes over and over again. Comparing lawyers to thieves is a bit of a clichéd idea, but that is precisely why I deemed it a good topic to explore how morals change. Even clichés can be broken down. In the discussion we again see a clash between the medieval and more modern views, yet it’s not exactly a conflict.

The point is not that lawyers would be evil. Rather, Dante feels the urge to judge the snails, yet he too sees that this cycle of destruction, hunger, greed and suffering, is pointless. If there was once a reason for the punishments the pair sees, they’ve largely been forgotten. All that remains is Dante’s memory and the vague guilt the victims themselves might feel. Now there’s just hunger. Does it really matter what these creatures were like in their human forms?

Dante and the pilgrim find they have a lot in common too, as many questions are the same through the centuries. From this process of comparison and contrast, the willingness to understand each other and find common ground, some kind of friendship is forming that transcends the protector/ward relationship they’ve had.

In the end Dante does hold on to his judgment, his bitterness, but admits that his fury is not a measure of truth. In the medieval world moral absolutes were more easily conceived than today, but it is still very human to think in terms of absolutes when you feel the outrage, and to place judgment as if the strength of your feeling was a measure of how right you are.

A Beastly Comedy Canto 1.10

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Dante is being abusive here, and the narrator does recognize it, yet cannot resist anymore. By now he’s distressed by hell and the realization that he is also guilty of wrongdoing by association and by ignorance, feeling responsible for all the evils of the world.

Surely Dante’s being unfair, and his reasoning is unsound. He berates the pilgrim for wanting some solace, equating such a wish for wanting to take drugs. And he blames the pilgrim for wanting to make him a kind of drug peddler when in fact he has much more noble things in mind. Even if intellectual, poetic or religious pursuits are just as much illusions as chasing dragons in drug-fuelled haze, he states it is still more noble to dedicate your life to scriptures and arts.

It doesn’t sound very convincing, and the pilgrim is starting to question his stance, if not his authority. As much as the pilgrim loves Dante, he’s also suffered enough by now to be afraid of angering him further. In the end the narrator does manage to say that he’s already broken and cannot stand his abuse, and Dante does apologize. Yet for the first time cracks are showing in their relationship, some permanent difference in worldview. Dante’s faith in what he pursued is absolute, whereas the pilgrim comes from a modern world which is much more about questioning our values and morals, whatever they are.

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.