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Limbo Philosophers

An Essay on Dante’s Inferno Canto IV

I woke up with someone clapping their hands in my face. It was Mr. Dante. We were still on the Steamboat, slowly chugging its way down – ferrying the dead.

I sighed and got up and we wandered the decks, Dante talking and talking away, I listening, passing through the crowds of ghosts gambling at the slots where nothing there was to win.

The Steamer stopped for us.

I was let out and Mr. Dante led me through a blank shore, a wide hill, and a great forest to a castle glowing like a candle on a hill upon the night. We reached its gate.

Mr. Dante knock knocked.

– Who’s there? A voice asked from within.

– Dante.

– Dante who?

– Dante Alighieri!

No response. No opening.

Frustrated, Mr. Dante again knock knocked.

– Who’s there?? A voice asked from within.

– Dante!

– Dante who?

– Dante Alighieri sir and I demand you open this door!

– That’s not the password! Said the voice.

-What password!? Demanded Mr. Dante.

No response. Mr. Dante sat down to think, but no password could he retrieve to his head, so much he tried. After a minute, having an idea, I ‘knock knocked’.

– Who’s there?

– Beelzebub.

–  Beelzebub who?

– You’ll ‘Beelz-be’ opening the door, bub!

The gate opened.

– That nonsense worked? Asked Mr. Dante

– Yes of course…

– How did you know?

– I recognized the voice…

Diogenes was there on the other side. That clever crazy cook. Half-naked he lay in his barrel by the gate. He smiled as I went over to him.

– What are you in for, Diogenes?

– You yourself might know. Said he. You guessed Ali Baba’s grinning gate, and the name of this nameless thing now named. Said he, tapping his head.

– Surely a man of vision would be in heaven? Asked I.

– Not when I’d mind to man the grinning gate. Said he, laughing.

– Let us move on. Said Mr. Dante angrily. This man is not so wise as he’d pretend to be. I know of a man farther ahead who can more delight the mind than tickle the liver.

– I did no such tickling Mr. Durante di Alighiero degli Alighieri! Shouted Diogenes laughing. Here, bring this ‘man’ to the man you pine to see. Said he, handing me, of all things, a plucked and shivering chicken, which I put under my hoody.

We moved up through the ward of the castle and into the keep. There was a fine and shady garden in its midst. Where men and women were arranged about, lounging on the green, with faces somber and voices quiet – sad and longing in soft cold light.

I could hardly believe my eyes for there was Cicero and Aurelius, Hippolyta and Theseus, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine and Hypatia. Grand men and women of philosophy all. They were all of them centered around the one in their center – he who composed on his papyrus what he’d have them all speak – actors for his dialogs, talkers to his tendentious Vision.

– You know this one in the center? Asked Mr. Dante.

– Yes. Said I, approaching, listening.

– Now you must say this better. Said Plato, grabbing poor Epicurus by his toga, and shaking him. You must say, ‘Does Love desire that of which it is the love, or not?’ And then we all must raise our hands, as though holding goblets of fine wine, and tilt it back unto our heads, as though in drinking this question, there flowed, into our heating brains, my implication’s simmer, and then you, Aristotle, you must nod like a cork on sea…

He stopped, for he had seen us watching him.

– All honor be to the pre-eminent Poet; his shade returns again, that was departed… Said he, sarcastically, raising his hands in welcome to Mr. Dante.

Who walked forward to him and introduced me, and told him of my quest. After saying hello, I showed him the plucked chicken, saying Diogenes had asked me to give this to him.

On seeing this, Plato’s whole face turned purple in rage; he flapped his arms like that chicken and shouted at me, demanding I leave, saying he did not want to see me here again, that this was a place for noble philosophers and not comics, and that I was unworthy of philosophy and his plays, and that I should go to Hell.

– Well as I said that’s indeed where I’m going. Said I wryly, turning away and moving off, Mr. Dante, very embarrassed, following me through.

I did not know why he had such an intense and unmannerly reaction to the chicken, the featherless bipedal ‘man’. But I suspect some prank of Diogenes had returned unto Plato and taken all the wind out his curtains. I thought then that it might be rather dull to spend eternity with him. And I thought that his Muse of Memory did not like to remember Diogenes.

– You’ll be stuck here forever! Shouted Plato.

– I’ll be moving forward. Muttered I.

None of them were moving anywhere at all. They went back to their play – to retell it again and again and again.

We left the castle and came to a place where nothing shines.

Cheers to your Sunday morning…

J Christian

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