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Dante, a Girl's Guide to The Divine Comedy
by Shelley Berc (Continued from Cyber Corpse #4)
Virgil's Discourse On Love

There's your good love and your bad
Your happy love and your sad
You can love yourself too much and your friends too little,
You can love distortedly or perversely or out of key
but no matter what, love is the seed of every good and evil deed.
Love is absolutely everything.
The soul responds to everything that makes it happy.
The soul seized with longing
never rests until it possesses that beloved thing.
No Creator and no creature who ever was, was without love.
Love is the seed of every good and every evil deed.
Love is absolutely everything.
     And with that, the worm fell to snoring.
     "But I don't understand," gasped Dante curled up in a ball of reasonable agony, "I thought that in the free market democracy of Purgatory all are created equal. Sins and good deeds all are equal, sinners and saints equal, with everybody having an equal opportunity to get to heaven. Right?"
     "Relative and equal, dear," lisped Beatrice between licks. "One big happy family."
-So, OK...if everything and everyone is equal, how can love, divine or otherwise, be any more important than any other quality?
     "Please Dante," said Virgil, awaking from his slumber and not a little disappointed with his pupil, "love is NOT a quality. Love is the divine principle itself and therefore without limit or definition. Subject to change and interpretation, it is the infinite variable, the reason of reason, the jewel of the chaos theory."
     Dante had reached the point in his pilgrim's progress wherein he was beaten to a pulp. He bled from every orifice, especially his unsewn eyes and he pleaded:
     -Are we finished, dear teacher, with your discourse on love? I think I get it now.
     -Yes, my child, to understand it any deeper you must depend on faith.
     Virgil the worm mouth of reason pointed at Beatrice who still towered over the prostrated Dante, smiling down with her whip.
     Virgil looked kindly upon the couple and said "And with such a faith you no longer need me. Now you have reached the place past which my powers of reason can guide you. Your will is your own now--whole, erect, free. I crown you sovereign all over yourself. I'm going back home to hell. I'll send you a postcard when I get there. Ciao!"
     Beatrice alone at last with her man, crawled into his lap and slipped off his monk's vestments and biting down upon his nipples cooed "I'm going to take you to heaven, big boy."                                             
     "Dear God," implored Dante, falling upon his knees with the Body and Soul of Love hanging onto his bleeding breast:
     -I know from my readings of the Good Book, that to get your ear I better be brief. Well, this is it: I don't want to live anymore God in the United States of Purgatory, where everything is equal in the eyes of the lord money, one nation filthy rich with liberty and justice for all... where I cannot live in this shit. Dear God--
     Send me back to hell where evil and its punishments make sense.
     "Aw," said Beatrice, licking away, "don't take things so serious."
     But it was the hour of day that turns the homesick wanderer weeping for home. And Dante was determined. His beloved guide, Virgil the worm the mouth of reason was gone. His heart was gone. His sins were gone. He had this terrible craving to be a girl again; that is: a mutilated heart, a broken ghost.
     Now, thought he, I am too clearly in the land of shadows. Betwixt and between; In the halfway house of the soul; the house of good intentions; the house of maybe and I hope so; the house of I appreciate your position; the house of both sides now. Having left the murderous hole of black and white, yes or no that has led to so much slaughter, I have found no respite in the gray lands herein. Times like these...I want to be a girl again--someone whose thoughts and decisions in the long run batting average of history don't count.
     These were my thoughts then in the world of Purgatory proper where to make a clear cut choice is to be a coward. But then suddenly my hearing failed me. My sight, as well. And I was moved to move beyond my mind.

     Now keen to search within, to look around that dense forest, he took the plain to the wood. There he came upon a rivers that blocked his advance. Its waters came up from a pure and changeless stream which flows with the power to end one's memory. Dante followed the shaky blue line that is the River Lethe, the waters of forgetting, the road to man's salvation. It led to the turgid River Eunoe, the river of selective remembering, in whose waters you can only recall the good you've done and none of the bad-- a kind of a fluoride system for the soul. These two rivers of forgetfulness and remembering flowed together. He knew he could not wash in one without stepping in the other--that would be like soaping up without the rinse cycle, he decided. Virgil has left him, the monk he was has left him, the constellations in the sky have left him, an eclipse of the soul has hunkered down like smoke stack smoke over his self absorption where no one can make him out. He figures to guide himself now, poor deserted one, by the sound of those rivers--the one senility, the other exaggeration-- the double laned highway to heaven.
     He stood there, paralyzed upon the slippery bank. How he wanted to jump in and forget everything bad thing he'd ever done, anybody else had ever done, anything bad that had ever happened on earth below or in the heavens above. But...he couldn't do it, no he just couldn't make that leap of imagination. Holding himself to the river banks with his teeth, those strict wardens of his vulgar tongue, he called out, a foghorn of himself, with the salt and worms and mica of his shattered life bursting out of his skin.
     "I know nothing," wept the desperate one. "But my heart which no longer exists, still hurts. My heart hurts. It hurts."
     "No it doesn't, dante," called Beatrice from afar. "Its just your imagination, this imaginary heart. Like when a soldier in war has his leg blown off, for years after he still feels like the limb exists. But it doesn't. You can do this, dear Boy, you can. Come one now-jump in."
So he immersed himself and swam the waters of forgetting and selective remembering, his promised salvation. Why not, he thought in cold despair. Beatrice has left him, Virgil has left him, the monk he was has left him, the constellations in the sky have left him, an eclipse of the soul has hunkered down over his self absorption and no one can make him out. He guided himself now by the sound of that river of forgetfulness. He goes with his tongue and tears to find his way out of what he's become--the absence of memory, the travesty of real love. He's soaked in tears, tears define his body and coat the speechless tongue that licks the earth like a blindman's walking stick, tasting out the route that will take him to paradise.
Suddenly under the waters he sunk beneath, he saw before him an enormous electronic book of computer generated images and computer generated sounds in the sea of his tattered memory and he marvelled how similar this virtual reality was to the stained glass illuminations of his monkish middle aged past. But unlike those images, he would reach out his hands to touch these and his hands went right through them as if they were ghosts, as if they weren't really there at all. There before him in sea-light he saw the images of a Book Of Hours For An Earthly Paradise, a book whose pages turned on a spine of invisibility.

A Book Of Hours For An Earthly Paradise

Therein its nonexistent pages that turned imperceptibly was a world of pictures that bled one into another until the time and space between them was nothing and each picture was indeed every picture that ever was-there was a priest kneeling before an altar, his tonsured head bent in prayer, a woman bent over her tax returns sighing, a sun squinting man dressed as a cowboy smoking a cigarette against a wide blue sky, a knight slaying a dragon with a blood dripping sword, a scribe at his scriptorium, a word processor at her monitor, a stained glass window with biblical scenes, a selection of rock video cuts from MTV, a virgin taming a unicorn, her hand outstretched in his mouth, angels, a 50 foot boat with sails like wings, Bruegel's paintings of beggars, a street so terrifying that no one walks it; a bleeding heart, Marilyn Monroe, the scales of justice, the equation for the speed of light, a supermarket, a car wash, a baptism,

     Unable to stand any longer what he could see but never touch, he shot up to the surface of the water and swam to the farther shore. He was alone in the middle of night now. He held a butcher knife in his trembling hands, grasped tightly to his body. In the fat blade he saw the pictures of his whole life, one by one and then all at once. Illuminations. They shone in the silver of the steel, shone and shone until he couldn't see. But he could touch, over and over his fingers slid along the blade. He swore he could hear it singing. Singing like an angel sings.He whispered to the river that had washed him up on the shore. It was he was sure by now, the only thing that would listen to him:
     -Twist the ragged filaments of blown fluorescent tubes and make a seat for yourself in the crushed place where junk has an everlasting peace--a divinity Over and over the question, the same one a child asks: What is good? What is bad?
     Bad must be what's ignored or laughed away or cowered from or beat out of. Good? good? An action that's praised or rewarded? By whom? For what?
     The small questions a child asks.
     Who can say lust is bad when you may never have anyone in your life to love? Who can say avarice and greed are bad when you may grow old and have no money in a country that won't care for you?
     Instead of digging at the core of-----
Dig at your own hands, your own scalp, your ear canals
dig in places that will never betray you. Dear God, here is my prayer:
He tore the knife from his hands with his teeth and clutched it there in his silencede mouth. He stretched out his arms before him. The palms of his hands he lay pointing up to heaven. He slammed the blade down on his two outstretched wrists. The blood made a little trail between the poor severed hands and their body. He grew light headed, the world shifted and seemed to fall away as he reached out for it with his stumps.
The heavens turned upside down now -there's more light in the dirt than in the sky.

     He is looking for the sky everywhere he turns, he's thrown his brush and stylus into the river, he's chopped off his offending hands. The stubs that are left are all that's left of his memory. She's happy.




The Girl Of Maps

Wherein dante has become a child, the girl of maps.
     As upon smooth and transparent glass, or through clear and tranquil waters, yet not so deep that the bottom is lost, the outlines of our faces come back to us.
Canto I, Paradiso
     Down in the world so endlessly bitter and up on the mountain from whose summit i was lifted and above, drifting through the heavens from light to light, i have learned so much that will anger so many men of my time. But if i am a timid friend to truth, i will lose my life there, among those who only call this time a dead and gone one.
Canto XVII, Paradiso

     And so it came to pass after much travail, I had arrived in Paradise. Here I was a girl again, but a different girl now, a Child Who Has Not Yet Bled, that is: a girl before she is really a girl: that is before she is really dead.

     "Oh," gasped the young girl as she surveys her new surroundings. "The constellations are all deranged here. No hunters, no victorious lions, just the saturated creatures--the shark, the sea horse, the coral colony."
     The landscape divided like a red sea and the girl fell through its eye. The Paradise of her fumigated memory opened up and took her in like a freezing kitten at the door stoop. All the sins that ever were hers have been cleaned out just by the accounting for--the slate wiped clean by the soul's self audit.
     A list of her good deeds appeared on the platter of her flapping tongue:
     --the old lady she escorted across the street
     --the alms she gave for the poor
     --the hand me down words she gave away for the wearing.
Everything she ever worked for in her whole life disappeared into the new .....
     Once Upon A Time she cried:
     Because the words were lost and the images disappeared, it was given to a ghost writer, to make them appear again.

     She mapped the world before the world knew its size
with the palm of her hand stretched out to the night sky she figured out the shape of things. She blamed it on the room she was given as a child. A glass room with a glass roof, high up, so that the air was really her earth and the ground below seemed as distant as the sky. She walked the sky with her hands, but only at night, when she could be guided by the hunters and the lions, the fish and the half horsemen that lit it.
She couldn't remember anything about her real family except the dark smell of closets. She was six when she was taken, but the difference in the life before and the one since was so extraordinary that it was if that first child died and a new one lived.     
     Her new parents gave her everything a child could dream.
     A shepherd dog and a pony.
A golden top and a silver ball
A crystal balcony
where she could watch the heavens and the sea.
     A chamber of exquisite clothing
A chamber of illuminated books.
A chamber of the most delectable treats.
"Read these", said the man
"Wear these", said the woman
"Play with these " they told her, pointing to the beasts.
     And with these words, they left her alone in her room until she turned sixteen. She wore the clothes and read the books, ate the food, played with the beasts. Every night and day, watching out her window, she watched the world change. And she grew to be both wise and beautiful.
     She had one vanity, though and that was her hands. She would hold them up to the light and the light would travel through them. She could see their blood and bones and veins because they were translucent. She would stare at these hands for hours on end as if they were beautiful strangers and she did not belong to them. So the seasons passed until she was sixteen.
     When her parents returned in her sixteenth year, they had a birthday party for the girl. All the important people of the land were there. The girl was, for the first time in her life, introduced to people, which was very strange for her as her life had been limited to the glass room, the clothes, the beasts, the books, the food, and the window.
     She didn't know what to do or what to say to them as they looked her over, inch by inch. They extended their hands to her but she didn't understand the sign of welcome. In her confusion she lifted up her hands, too-- not to them but to the firelight. The light shone through her hands and everyone could see all her blood and bones and veins. The people gasped in wonder, but what surprised them the most was that as she held her hands up, a gigantic map of the world was illuminated through them like the sun striking stained glass window panes. There in the girl's hands were the seaways and the highways and the landmarks of the nations of the world and the demarcations of all their boundaries. But there were also whole countries and continents, rivers and seas that the people had never seen before. It was as if the room, itself, held its breath. And then:
     "How do you know such things," they jabbered at the girl.
     "I...I" she trembled, "I know nothing."
     She put her hands down in her lap and the map vanished.
     After the birthday feast, the guests said goodbye and the girl went to sleep. When she woke up, she was not in her own room at all but another glass room and the door was locked and her beasts were gone and her beautiful clothes were gone and her parents were no where to be found, only guards like toy soldiers who brought her meals and cleaned her things. She tried to make friends with this, her new family. But they told her she was their prisoner because to know the whereabouts of the world is always a state secret.
"You must be good," said the old men who came to her window from time to time to check her progress. "You must be good," which they explained meant to draw for them everything she saw that could chart the world. They gave her a large round room, all of glass, the walls, the roof, even the floor, was glass. They gave her sheets of charting paper, a sextant, all of gold, a jeweled compass, and two enormous blank globes on which to record her knowledge. But in one thing, the girl kept her secret. The ones who locked her up, who gave her the measuring instruments, didn't understand that her hands traveled away from her body at night and this was how she gained all her knowledge of the world. At night when the guards thought she was sleeping, her hands would fly away. They went to Africa and wandered its deserts and its jungles. They went to the River Ganges and bathed, they went to the holy city Jerusalem and prayed. By intimate touch, they knew all the wonders of the Ancient and Modern and Future Worlds.When her hands returned to her each dawn, she held them up to the rising day and extracted from their shining veins the web of their journey. And she would transfer their impressions to the transparent vellum sheets that covered the windows, walls, and floor of her glass room. She would take from the hands only that information which would help the old men get where they wanted to be going--the mountain passes, the rivers, the deserts, seas, and plains. She ignored the other knowledge that the hands brought-- the cartography of the far away future and the buried past, the galaxies built up from words like sweet, and free, and hurt, and love; that is the cartography of feeling. She did what she was told and ignored these maps of the soul that the hands were bringing her for those that delineated the lines of latitude and longitude.
When at noontime, the guards appeared, she would point wordlessly to the new charted sheets which they would take away, replacing them with fresh blank ones. She wondered what would happen to her after she completed mapping the world and she was sure it would end, as she was certain that the world had its limits. As she starts to worry--because she knows when her job's over they will kill her to keep her secrets-- she begins to chart the other information the hands bring her--the images, the feelings, the lost histories, the fantasies.
     For the first time, she charts fantasy--trees taller than the sky, giants with tusks, fish with wings and serpents with such powerful tails they sweep aside whole cities. And she maps out feeling--the routes of love and hate, anger and compassion and the distances between them. But she tears these documents up as soon as she makes them.
     She becomes fascinated with mapping cities, present and past, real and imaginary. For she has only lived three places in her life, the closet of her infancy, the square box in the forest of her childhood and now in the mapmaker's tower and all these times, desolate of people. As her hands continued to travel and bring back vast stores of information about the roads and the sea, the landmarks of earth sky and water, she searched them hungrily for just one thing--the image of the city because it was the one thing that destroyed her own lonely exile. She sent the hands far and wide to discover these places of many people and fantastical buildings. Thus, the discovery of the world proceeded at an unexpected pace.
Once she had became a connoisseur of cities, north, south east and west, the girl constructed a model in her mind of a city made up of the finest attributes of each. And during the day as she automatically trudged through the graphing of the maps, she lived in her heart in city after city in many great houses, with a great many friends. The images of cities the hands brought back awed her. The roofs clamoring over each other like a stack of almanacs, the faces of the houses set staring at each other in attitudes of compare across the narrow winding streets. The things she could see in the large plate glass windows--cakes and loaves in one, a shower of fine dresses in another, sparkling jewels in yet another. Then she observed the people streaming in and out of their houses, announced by a ringing set of chimes on each door. Through the moving pictures engraved on her tiny hands, she could almost see their desire and sometimes their despair as they hurried through the honey comb of their city--each as isolated as she, but somehow connected to one another in a way she lacked--as if they were one entity, at least when they bustled through the streets or as they extended arms and goods in their shopping. These new maps she did not destroy, but she concealed.
     As her knowledge piled up and up, it threatened to burst the seams of her tower. So they built her another one--bigger with a great telescope through which she could see the Earth and the stars. She had a great sadness inside this new house for she could sense by the look and feel of her hands as they returned each day that they had mapped practically the entire physical world. And when the job was done, she knew she would be murdered.
When she had been younger, before the hands had brought her the visions of the cities, she had not been so afraid of death, because she believed that when one is dead, one is still simply alone with one's self, and she was quite used to that. But now, she grew lonely for these populated places that came to her in the moving images each morning. And she made up her mind to expand the information of her hands that went into the maps for the old men so she could stay alive just a little longer. So this is what she did to make her work go slower
     She no longer gave them just the charts of the physical world at all. No, she mapped the desire of the heart, the longing of the soul, and the persistent hope that ties people together from one end of the world to the other. No longer did she keep these invisible things secret. She drew them.
     'We don't want this junk," the old men told her angrily, "they make it hard to see the roads. We don't want such things unless they are made from silver or gold. You're not concentrating!". She tried to do as they commanded...but she couldn't anymore--she did not want to die.



It was in Ravenna that Dante saw the hands for the first time. They were laying outside the cathedral. He was old and sleepless and he liked to walk around the church at night, thinking. He thought the hands must have fallen off one of the statues of the saints. And so he took them to his hotel room for safe keeping until he could return them to the priests.
Holding the hands in one hand, he opens the door to his room with the other. He places them on the little table under the reading lamp. He puts one palm up, the other down. He marvels at their definition--the veins, the nails and their half moons, the lines and the wrinkles, the soft round pads under the joints of each finger, the articulation of these joints, the distinctive posture of each of the hands, definitely a pair but highly individual unto themselves.
     He cannot at first ascertain the material of their making. They have a marble quality, but they seem too soft, too flesh to be really stone. He stares at them. He has to pick them up. He has to kiss them. It is the most beautiful kiss he has ever experienced. He turns off the light. He lies down on his poor bed. He sleeps very deeply, breathing hard as if he were trudging up a steep cliff--the hands are in front of him, dancing, they lead him down the muddy terraces of this cliff, down to the sea. With their palms stretched out, they make two little boats, like slippers for his feet and he enters the water on this craft. The hands take him everywhere on earth and in heaven that they had once taken the girl. Night after night, he dreams the girl's hands. They tell him of her discoveries, all of which have vanished from earth--the geography of love, the topography of trust, the many byways of desire and despair and the tangle of routes to divinity.
     In her hands, the old man sees the fear in the young girl's eyes as they throw in her food and slam the metal door on the glass room she cannot leave. He sees her there, centuries ago or ahead, he cannot be sure which-- living as flesh, a picture in her own hands. He sees the old men strangling her and the shock on her face when they tell her it is not for finishing her map of the world that she must die, but for mapping far too much, cities that were too grand, emotions that were too strong, seas that were too deep, galaxies that were too far, ideals that were too ideal. When the man tries to rescue her from her room, the hands he sees her in become opaque. She vanishes inside, where they have already finished her off.
     The old man begins to weep for the dead girl he loves more than anyone. Meanwhile in his dreams, her hands continue to carry him, tugging him by his hands, floating him on his feet, as they sit folded and pretty on his little desk on a sheet of blank paper. They see the whole world-- the old man's dreams and the dead girl's hands--the actual things, and then the outlines of the things. Then they begin to see exactly what the girl was charting when they murdered her--he saw she had been mapping the inside of being--the soul of the earth; the monsters and angels of our breathing; the atomic particles of our hunger. And if we had her map, thought the old man, our world would have a different shape; it would have a different size and many, many other dimensions than what we have now.
     In her hands, he saw a living worm crawl out and the worm said " the world is defined by the makers of its maps and limited by those who control their vision.'
     These are the things he learns at night when he holds up the hands to the lamplight in his little hotel room. The hands that reveal a map of the soul. "Here is love" they say, "the heart of any map".
     "These are not concepts" the girl trapped in the hands says to the old man. "These are real places like Detroit or Washington. You have to experience them like that or you won't get anywhere." The obscura of flesh covers her up and she's gone.
     The old man sitting in his dark room outside a cathedral in Ravenna takes up the dead girl's hands and transcribes what they see for all those without love or home or life--a divine comedy for a homeless humanity.
     Meanwhile-she's dead and the only thing that matters to her poor ghost body is vision. By now mapping is everything to her. She has a job to do in the underworld that is her paradise-- to map the land here, the dead of course but also the millions who have just been disappeared and who are not acknowledged to be dead because they are the land here-- one big charnel house of bone and dirt and flesh--the individual aspects of which can no longer be distinguished. So the Girl moves the memory of her hands that have been lost to her in her own death, over the underworld to measure its tongue and unloose its speech. After we die, she thinks, in her first night in death from where she can see-- our job, like that of Atlas, is to hold up the living.
     And dante the girlghostwriter thinks she knows this girl and those hands and that poet centuries ago dying in Ravenna. She knows them as she knows her own heart beat, as she perceives her own death and destiny. She knows them it could be said, like the back of her own hand. She writes in her eternal pot of ink these words that she knows, seen or unseen, will outlive her :

*I think I saw the universal form
 I think I saw a light stronger than the sun
 and it was running in circles.

one circle reflected the next and the third was a ball of fire.
How incomplete are words for this...
I was like a mathematician trying to square a circle

who cannot find the principle he needs.

I wanted to see the way in which humankind fit in this circle of light on light,

but no matter how I struggled, my senses were too weak.
Suddenly my mind was struck by a light
And I disappeared into the flame of that light.*

     Here my imagination fails me, or perhaps there are neither thoughts nor words for what I saw in that last lost world beneath my city's streets. Nor can I tell you how exactly I resurfaced to the city, the memory of that final journey which destiny washed away from me for I believe had I the choice I would have never come back. I can only tell you in poor conclusion that the journey sent me turning and turning, like a perfect wheel, by the love that turns the sun and all the other stars in the universe. I can only tell you that I can't tell this story. There are no words for it as I follow my worn foot steps day after day down the subway stairs to the train that takes me to my job and resurfaces me two miles hence upon a broken stinking concrete world of endless high-rises and cement streets. But I have never found my way back and I think the story I had lived below makes no sense here. But in my heart, which still beats steadily and tells me a time more truthful than hours or days or years, I know it makes the most perfect of all sense. . . Here on Earth. As it could be.
* denotes a passage from The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri.


(to be continued...)

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