Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Pontius Pilate: Forgive or Damn?

Here we go, into Hell. Well, not quite yet, merely on the shores of Acheron, the river before Hell. In the poem, we pass through the gates with their famous, previously mentioned quotation at the beginning of Canto III (are my readers at Canto III in their own reading?). Then we see those who, Virgil (in the poem) says, were "neither rebellious to God nor faithful to Him, // Chose neither side, but kept themselves apart-- / Now Heaven expels them, not to mar its splendor, / And Hell rejects them, lest the wicked of heart // Take glory over them." Essentially, video game Virgil tells Dante the same thing. (Sidenote: I always wondered if these shades were the ones Garrison Keillor said "in a time of crisis remain neutral." If so, I don't think this would be the hottest place in Hell. Readers: thoughts on this?)

To the point of this post, though: before getting across the river in the game, at a doorway, we meet the first shade that we must punish or absolve: Pontius Pilate. In a sort of odd-sounding stereotyped Italian accent (Did George Lucas have a hand in this?), Pilate repeats the line, "I find no fault in this just man." That's what we get from him, and then we have to decide, punish or absolve. The on-screen text tells us that he bears the weight of all the souls in Limbo. But he makes no argument for himself, no explanation. Should he be sent further into Hell or lifted to Heaven? Readers, what do you think?

Here's my problem with this part of the game. We're talking about eternity here, the redemption or suffering of a soul (okay, yes, it's just a game, but--insert here something about the psychology of play, maybe something Freudian about how play represents something deeper about us).

Part of me wants to punish everyone I meet in Hell. My scholarly argument for this begins with John Freccero's wonderful introduction to Pinsky's translation of Dante: "...there is no sign of Christian forgiveness in the Inferno. The dominant theme is not mercy but justice, dispensed with the severity of the ancient law of retribution." But I'm not in Dante-the-poet's world, I'm in Dante-the-video-game-crusader's world. So, does that mean that I should judge these souls based on the time of the crusades or the time of the Guelphs and Ghibellines? A third option: a less vengeful New Testament sense of forgiveness--how many times did Jesus say to forgive those who wrong one?

It's complicated, but the game gives you a moment only unless you pause it and walk away for more Cheetos or beer. (Russian River's Damnation seems apt for drinking now--or wait, should I try this one from the same brewery?) This kind of snap decision, instant gratification, ignorance of the complexity of the issue of forgiveness seems as 21st century as it does 12th. Or 14th. Consider it, why? Press a button and you can rip the shade of Pilate in two with your scythe. Press another button and you send him up to heaven on a shaft of light. There's a long way on this journey, so let's move on, whichever it is. I'd be interested to see what readers vote here. And why you make that choice. Comment below.

Two more things, putting the poem and game side by side:

1) Pilate? I don't remember Pilate in the poem. In Canto III, there's a bit about "him who made the Great Refusal." Some have read this as Pilate, refusing to punish or release Christ. The notes to Pinsky's translation only say this person's identity is debated; "The most popular theory is that the soul is that of Pope Celestine V, who abdicated in 1294, only five months into his papacy, when political pressure proved too much for him." I guess Pope Celestine V would be pretty uninteresting in the game, huh?

2) The famous lines inscribed over the gate mentioned earlier? They're spoken here, but the giant head on the giant ship that ferries souls across the river. I guess the head is Charon, so he's not just the ferryman, but the ferry--turning a metonymy into a synechdoche, I guess? Oh, and after beating up on some demons, you tear the Charon-head off the ferry and hurl it into the wall on the shore's other side. Let's leave Hell in a state of destruction in our wake!

Here's what the ride on Charon's back/deck looks like:

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