Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Encyclopedic Afterlife and Popular Contemporary Images

One of the things that have struck me about Dante’s vision of Hell so far is its sheer medievalism; everything is organized and classified. Not only is there a hierarchy of sin, but each category is thoroughly detailed. To the modern mind, that may seem a rather expedient method of dealing with evil. It is natural to the human mind that there would be punishments for crimes, and it is natural furthermore, that since we have a body, the punishments would be sensual in nature. What strikes me as interesting is how much this vision of the afterlife conflicts with our own pop-culture images of the afterlife. The most surprising conclusion I’ve reached is just how secular our popular images of the afterlife are. The strong image of Hell as a “lake of fire” replete with pitchfork-toting demons is universally accepted. Heaven is usually represented as a sparkling field of clouds, in which haloed and toga-clad angels/saints strum harps and sing phonetically. I’ve noticed that the angelic choir never sings “Alleluiah” or “Gloria” or even “Dona Nobis Pacem.” They always seem to be intoning a Hans Zimmer/Lisa Gerard collaboration. The sinners in Hell are likewise always identified by their sins against common decency or social rules, such as being self-centered workaholics, or suicides. It’s usually not a sin like blasphemy or fornication that lands you in Hell these days.
The best representation of Heaven in celluloid existence is towards the end of Ice Age II. Scrat, the acorn-chasing tree shrew, dies (sorry if I’m giving anything away here). He sees first a light at the end of a tunnel, goes into the light and is confronted by giant gold gates. He passes through the gates and into a glittering no-gravity zone. A choir of dodo-birds fades in (singing phonetically) and out. Heaven is revealed to be an endless field of acorns just lying there for the taking. The clincher is when Scrat sees God: God is a massive Gold acorn. I find this scene crazily touching- I believe if I were a prehistoric rodent, God would indeed look like an enormous acorn. The Great Acorn is the immediately recognizable symbol of all his heart’s desires; more beautiful than he could have ever imagined. I always want to hear the song “I Can Only Imagine” when I see Scrat flying ecstatically towards The Great Acorn.


What’s amazing about this representation of Heaven is that it fits the common perception perfectly. We are a culture that holds to the maxim “Heaven is personal.” That makes sense because we are a very self-centered, individualistic culture. Heaven is a place that has everything you want… it is a personal wish-fulfillment cornucopia. The choirs aren’t praising God, they’re creating a gentle atmosphere for your listening pleasure. I could probably have them singing Cat Stevens songs if I wanted them to. This image of a personal Heaven is in tension with our popular image of Hell as a place where selfishness is punished.
Dante’s Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven make less sense to us today than they did to his contemporaries, but they still make more sense than our popular, secular version of the afterlife. Consider other films that deal with an afterlife: What Dreams May Come is the ultimate “personal Heaven” and “personal Hell,” but it offers a secularized, or shall we say, religiously synthesized set of options. There is a God, but He never shows up. Apparently, He is not the point of Heaven. There is reincarnation, but no other elements of Hinduism or Buddhism. People get to choose what they and their own Heaven look like, and how they spend their infinite time. They also get to journey through various places in the afterlife, some of which (the bad places) are modeled on Dante’s Hell. In PeeWee’s Big Adventure, there is a typical vision of Hell, with dancing demons poking their victim (PeeWee’s bike, oddly enough) down into a flaming pit. Finally, in South Park: the movie, Heaven is a place of naked women for Kenny, who is cast down to Hell. Parker and Stone do their usual satirical magic, and Hell is not only the residence of Adolph Hitler, but of Mohandis Gandhi. Furthermore, Satan turns out to be quite sympathetic when we see he is just doing his job, and the ultimate evil is in fact Saddam Hussein, Satan’s insensitive lover.
All of these images play with our common concepts of the afterlife, but none share Dante’s completeness of vision. The popular images of Heaven and Hell (there never is a Purgatory or Limbo) lack the librarian instinct for categorization and ease of searchability. Almost never are specific people represented in Hell, perhaps because filmmakers aren’t in the mood to make political enemies.


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Deacon Chris said...

Hmmm. Interesting. OK. And what's risked then? What's the point? Where are you in this?