I recently gave a talk on Dante’s Commedia, commonly known as The Divine Comedy. I consider this the greatest poem ever written. Dante was not just a poetic genius who invented an entirely new form of poetry called terza rima, he was a spiritual and psychological genius (the two may be the same). Everything is in this poem. Everything.

With this poem, Dante redefined comedy. Up until then, everyone in the Western world pretty much went with Aristotle’s definition of comedy, which was basically that comedy is a light-hearted work that ends happily. Aristotle thought comedy a “lower” kind of work compared to the great tragic plays and epic and lyric poetry, mostly because the comedies that played in Greece were low-brow stuff, raunchy and clownish with pratfalls and fart jokes – not unlike the comic movies of today made by the likes of Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn and Adam Sandler that appeal primarily to teenage boys through their extensive reliance on toilet humor, naked boobs, and the F-word. If Aristophanes were alive today, he’d be writing for them.

But Dante realized that comedy can be dark, epic, or lyrical too, and that’s exactly how he divided his Comedy. The first section is Dante’s trip through Hell, the Inferno; the second is his climb up the mountain of Purgatory, and in the third he is in the blissful world of Paradise. In so doing he set the bar for subsequent authors and even our current cinema.

Infernal comedy is not funny; it’s gritty, frightening, and involves a journey through a dark landscape with lots of evil people and monsters and dangers that often can only be traversed with some kind of divine aid. Evil is a separate, active force and the people who dwell in this Hell are either in collusion with it or passively acquiescent to it. At the end, while the hero survives, it’s usually at great cost.

The Lord of the Rings has a lot of infernal comedic qualities. Frodo travels through soul-searing landscapes, bearing the soul-searing Ring, in a Quest that everyone believes is going to fail but has to be tried anyway. There’s almost no hope. Frodo does destroy the Ring, but not in the end of his own volition: fate takes a hand at the last second. So his victory is more bitter than sweet, and although he survives and the world is saved, he has lost all his joy. In the end he gets in a boat and sails away to the angelic realm where his only hope of healing lies.

This is just one example of many movies out there where the protagonist has to battle his or her way to an ending that is mostly marked by the fact that everything that needs to be destroyed has been. A lot of war movies end that way, I suppose because that’s what war is, ultimately. We say we fight for freedom, but really, we fight to destroy the thing that threatens freedom. And the cost is always high . . . just not quite as high, we hope, as the cost of not fighting. These days we have a lot of movies about taking on the corporations. Again, not much hope or joy, just a sense of “it has to be done” no matter what the cost, because it will be worse for all if we don’t. Most of our sci-fi movies, which are the way we imagine what the future might be like, are also infernal, which says to me that we don’t have much hope for the future.

But at the same time we make TV shows like Star Trek and Farscape and Doctor Who in which people are generally more ethical and more prone to act out of love and faith in each other, at the same time that they use their wits to solve problems. Or as talk show host Craig Ferguson put it in his tribute to Doctor Who, “it’s all about the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism.”

These shows are examples of purgatorial comedy. In Purgatory there’s hope, but only at the end of a long road of trials where the protagonist has to own up to his or her responsibility for why they are in the situation in the first place. In Dante’s vision, those who are in Hell are there because they never took responsibility for their behavior. Those who make it to Purgatory may have done wrong, but they recognize it and accept that they must do something to make it better. They have to vanquish the evil within themselves. Once they do that, they are able to create a community with others. Usually there’s a marriage, a union of opposites, to mark this ending.

I believe one of the differences at work in our political situation is the difference between people who think we’re in an infernal situation and those who think it’s purgatorial. Do our divisions reveal a split between those who think the answer to destroy all those who oppose one so as to preserve one’s individuality no matter what, or to look within and heal our own evil so we can build a stronger community?

The third kind of comedy is paradisal, in which things are pretty blissful right from the start and stay that way. The wonderful screwball comedies of the 1930s and many Disney movies (although lately, they’re more laced with purgatorial elements) offer this vision. Field of Dreams is a paradisal movie.

We tend to dismiss movies in this category as escapist and “fluff,” but I think they serve a valid purpose. We can never realize a future that we can’t imagine, someone said, and paradisal comedy allows us to imagine a happier future. We see this at work in our society in the New Age folks who are convinced that we’re all evolving to a higher consciousness and the future will be a better place.

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