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Gwenyth Hood on Descent

Part 1:  Purgatory and Hell

Our new play, Descent, was inspired in part by Dante’s Divine ComedyIn this article, Gwenyth Hood draws out the links between the play, and Dante's work - and analyses both through a Jungian lens.  The result may be seen, not simply as a critique or analysis, but as a creative hermeneutics of the text.

In Part 1 of the article, she discusses the characters of Ishmael (the poet, who finds he can no longer write), and the portrayal of Hell, Purgatory, Limbo, and the Earthly Paradise. Gwenyth is the author of Dante’s Dream: A Jungian Psychoanalytic Approach. (You can find more details about the book here.)


In Descent, the character Ishmael represents both Dante and Virgil from The Divine Comedy, according to David Calcutt (the play’s author). He is both the poet who makes the journey, and the guide.  His interest in words, and specifically his interest in finding meaning amid horrendous events, shows that he is (in Jungian terms) a Logos figure, but as a poet, he must be involved with Eros and seeking wholeness.  For Jung, Logos and Eros were, respectively, the masculine and feminine aspects of the divine, and thus of the god-within the human psyche, which he called the Self, that is, the center of the human personality, encompassing conscious and unconscious (Jung, Psychology and Alchemy 41; par. 44).

Jung stated: “By Logos I meant discrimination, judgment, insight, and by Eros I meant the capacity to relate” (Jung, Letter, 464-5).  Although males supposedly specialize in the one approach and females in the other, Jung acknowledged that in fact that both sexes must use both, and if all goes well, they become more expert as they age in integrating both into their personalities.


In fact, we see that Ishmael the Poet, in Descent, is concerned with establishing and maintaining relationships, though making sense of the disasters which have befallen the burning city also preoccupies him. He wishes to combine the experiences of the other characters into some coherent understanding, some shared experience.  He also directs the audience to follow them on their journey, to make them part of it.  Though Ishmael seems unconscious of any directions from Divine Eros, represented in Descent by the Shadow who becomes the Goddess of All Being (in Scene 7), he does, nevertheless, seem to respond to her direction, perhaps unconsciously, through intuition.


In the end, he senses that the journey he and the others have taken does supply some potential meaning.  At that point, he seems to be in the state of not yet quite grasping it, while Dante, by the end of Paradiso, has had his vision, only to have it leave consciousness, although “the sweetness born of it” (il dolce che nacque da essa)  (Paradiso 33.63) remains with him, along with “the Love which moves the sun and the other stars” (l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle) (Paradiso 33.145). (The translations from Dante here are from Longfellow; they are also nearly literal.)

Dante’s journey extends from the mouth of Hell, through Hell, and then through Purgatory, to the Earthly Paradise, where he is guided by his mentor, the Roman poet Virgil; then Beatrice, his youthful sweetheart, who has died and gone to heaven, leads him to Paradise.  Beatrice represents Divine Eros in the form with most personal meaning for Dante, but she is instigated and acts in harmony with the greater figures of Saint Lucia and the Virgin Mary, who represent Divine Eros for the whole human race. 

In Descent, the journey encompasses both Dante’s Inferno and his Purgatorio, going through Limbo, and implicitly through Hell, and then ending in the Earthly Paradise.  Interestingly, this may represent further progression in Dante’s own creative vision, where seemingly, his imagination took up an idea of purgation and purgatory which, by his time had come to be imagined as similar to the sufferings of Hell and located near to it.  His vision transformed it, as Le Goff explains in his book The Birth of Purgatory, into the vision of a mountain quite separate from Hell, with a different purpose, aimed at overcoming sin and training souls in virtue, rather than merely punishing (272-73; 346-47). In fact, it became an “antechamber of Paradise” (Le Goff 358). 


In modern times imaginative writers, such as C. S. Lewis, have also tended to see Hell as perhaps the dark side of Purgatory, rather than Purgatory as the hopeful side of Hell. In his Great Divorce, the protagonist learns that Heaven and Hell, to those who finally reach them, became “retrospective,” and they will perceive that whatever happened, they were always on their way to Hell or to Heaven, wherever it is that they ultimately find themselves (67-8).

Click here to read Part 2 of Gwenyth's article.

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