A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature: over 400,000 monthly users
Dante Alighieri Has Words for Donald J. Trump From the Other Side of Death.
For some time now, I’ve wanted to send Donald Trump to Hell. I mean this literally, not as a figure of speech. I want him to inhabit the palpable, sensory Hell that religions have long conjured up with scenes of sulfur, damnation, and screams of perpetual pain from those who once caused grievous harm to their fellow humans.
The more Trump has abused his power and position in this world and the more he’s escaped any retribution for his crimes, the more obsessed I’ve become with visualizing ways for him to pay in some version of the afterlife.
As I mulled over the treatment he deserved for the havoc he continues to wreak on the lives of countless others here in the United States and across the globe, I turned almost automatically to the work of Dante Alighieri, the Italian poet whose Divina Commedia minutely recreated in a verse called terza rima what awaited the readers of his time once they died. Dante (1265-1321) laid out his otherworldly landscape in three volumes — Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso — that have rightly been considered among the towering and influential literary achievements of humanity.
There was nothing abstract about the Hell he created. Dante pictured himself personally taking a voyage into the hereafter to meet men and women, both of his time and from the past, who were being rewarded for their virtue or eternally castigated for their offenses. Of that journey through purgatorial fires and heavenly wonders, guided by his dead childhood sweetheart Beatrice, it was the Florentine writer’s descent into the saturated circles of Hell that most fascinated and enthralled readers throughout the centuries. We listen to stories of the wicked as they express their remorse and experience the excruciatingly sophisticated torments he dreamt up as suitable reprisals for the damage they did during their earthly existence.
Witnessing the infernal realities President Trump has unleashed on America, I can’t help wondering where Dante would have placed our miscreant-in-chief in his afterlife of horror. In the end, perhaps not surprisingly, I realized one obvious thing: the 45th president has such a multitude of transgressions to his name that he fits almost every category and canto that Dante invented for the sinners of his age.
As I pondered what the Italian author would have made of Trump and his certainty that he was above the laws of society and nature, I was invaded by Dante’s divinatory and lyrical voice. It came to me as if in a hallucination. Listening carefully, I managed to record the words with which that visionary poet of yesteryear would describe a man who, until recently, believed himself invincible and invulnerable, how he would be judged and condemned once his life was over.
Here, then, is my version of Dante’s prophecy — my way, that is, of finally consigning Donald Trump to Hell for forever and a day.
Dante Greets Trump at the Gates of Hell and Explains What His Punishment Is to Be
My name, sir, is Dante Alighieri. Among the innumerable dead that inhabit these shores, I have been chosen to speak to you because an expert on the afterlife was needed to describe what awaits your soul when it passes, as all souls must, into this land of shadows. I was chosen, whether as an honor or not, to imagine your fate once you wind your way toward us.
Having accepted this task, I was tempted, sir, as I watched your every act in that life before death, to make this easier for myself and simply conjure up the circles of Hell I had already described in my terza rima. I would then have guided you down my cascade of verses, step by step, into the depths of darkness I had designed for others.
Were you not the selfish embodiment of so many sins I dealt with in my Commedia? Lust and adultery, yes! Gluttony, yes; greed and avarice, oh yes; wrath and fury, certainly; violence, fraud, and usury, yes again! Divisiveness and treachery, even heresy — you who did not believe in God and yet used the Bible as a prop — yes, one more time!
Did you not practice all those iniquities, a slave to your loveless appetites? Do you not deserve to be called to account in ways I once envisioned: buffeted by vicious winds, drowning in storms of putrefaction, choking under gurgling waters of belligerence, immersed in the boiling blood that echoes rage, thirsting across a burning plain, steeped in the excrement of flattery and seduction, clawed to pieces by the night demons of corruption, or feeling that throat and tongue of yours that tore so many citizens apart mutilated and hacked to bits? Would it not be fair that, like other perjurers and impostors, you be bloated with disease? Would it not make sense that you be trapped in ice or flames, endlessly chewed by the jaws of eternity, like those who committed treason against country and friends in my time?
And yet, in the end, I rejected all of that. After all, I was selected not to repeat myself but because I was trusted to be creative and find an appropriately new reckoning for you — something, said the authorities in charge of this place, less savage and fierce, more educational, even therapeutic. Thus have times changed since I wrote that poem of mine!
My mission, it seems, was not to insert you in rings of an already conceived Hell of terrifying revenge. So I began to seek inspiration from my fellow sufferers so many centuries later and there, indeed, they were — your multitudes of victims, the ones who need to heal, the ones you never wanted to see or mourn, whose pain you never shared, who now want to greet you, sir, in a new way.
Perhaps you haven’t noticed yet, but I have. They’ve been lining up since the moment they arrived. Now, they’re here by my side, counting the days until your time is up and you must face them. And so I decided that they would be given a chance to do exactly that, one by one, through all eternity.
After all, each of them was devastated because of you: a father who died of the pandemic you did less than nothing to prevent; a little boy shot with a gun you did not ban; a worker overcome by toxic fumes whose release your administration ensured; the protesters killed by a white supremacist inflamed by your rhetoric; a Black man who expired thanks to police violence you refuse to condemn; a migrant who succumbed to the desert heat on the other side of the wall that you stole taxpayer money to (only partially) build. And let us not forget that female Kurdish fighter slaughtered because you betrayed her people.
On and on I could go, naming the wrongfully dead, the untimely dead, the avoidable dead, now all huddled around me, otherwise unrepresented and forgotten but awaiting your arrival for their moment of truth. Each of them will have to be patient, since according to my plan, every single casualty of yours will be afforded whatever time he or she desires to relive a life and recount its last moments. You will be forced, sir, to listen to their stories again and again until you finally learn how to make their sorrow your own, until their tragedies truly lodge in the entrails of your mind, as long as it takes you to truly ask for forgiveness.
Trump Tries to Find a Way Out of Hell
Your first reaction will undoubtedly be to indulge in the fantasy that, just as you swore the pandemic would be magically dispatched, so this new predicament will miraculously melt into nothingness. When you open your eyes, however, and still find yourself here, your urge will be to call on all your old tricks, those of the ultimate con man, to avoid sinking deeper into the moral abyss I’ve prepared for you.
Just as you’ve bribed, bought, and inveigled your way out of scandals and bankruptcies, so you’ll believe you can bluster and wriggle your way out of this moment, too. You’ll try to pretend you’re just hosting one more (ir)reality TV show where this Dante fellow can be turned into another of your apprentices, competing for your largesse and approval.
And when none of that works, you’ll make believe that you have indeed atoned for your terrible deeds and fall again into the lies and macho bravado that were your second skin. You’ll swear that you have repented so you can escape this confinement, these rooms where you have become the prey rather than the predator. You will present yourself as a savior, boast of having singlehandedly concocted a vaccine against accountability, discovered a manly cure for the terrors of Hell. You’ll dream — I know you will — of reappearing victorious and, of course, maskless on that White House balcony.
This time, though, it just won’t work, not here in this transparent abode of death. And yet you will certainly try to hurry the process up because you’ll know — I’ve already decided that much — that those you ruined while you were still alive are only the start of your journey, not the end. You will become all too aware, while you spend hours, days, years, decades with the men, women, and children you consigned to an early mortality and permanent grief, that a multitude of others will be arriving, all those who will perish in the future due to your neglect and malevolence.
They will, I assure you, snake endlessly into your mind, accumulating through many tomorrows, all those who are yet to die but will do soprematurely as the brutality you worshipped and fueled takes its toll, as the earth, heavens, and waters you ravaged exact heat waves of revenge — hurricanes and droughts and famines and floods, ever more victims with each minute that slithers by, including the women who will die in botched back-alley abortions because of your judicial nominations. The decades to come are already preparing to welcome the legions of your dead.
That is the despair I imagine for you now that I am no longer the man bitterly exiled from his beloved Florence. The centuries spent in the afterlife have evidently softened me into compassion for those who have sinned. Beatrice, the love of my life, would have admired my transformation, the one that, as you are ground down and down, will also allow you to be lifted up and up until you really do repent, until you beg for an absolution, which (if you are truly sincere) will be granted.
Even so, even as I speak and divine, I find myself eaten by a worm of doubt. This, I am being told, has been tried before. The mists of time are filled with men who, like you, thought they were gods and who, upon their demise, were led howling into rooms overflowing with the lives they broke, with the irreparable damage they wrought. And these criminals — Benito Mussolini, Mao Zedong, Augusto Pinochet, Napoleon Bonaparte, Andrew Jackson, Saddam Hussein, Joseph Stalin, Idi Amin (oh, the list is endless!) — never left the twisted mirror of their own penitential rooms.
They are still stagnating in them. That’s what’s being whispered in my ear, that the redemptive prophecy of Dante Alighieri will never come true for you, Donald Trump. Perhaps like those other accursed malefactors, you will refuse responsibility. Perhaps you will continue to claim that you are the real victim. Perhaps you will prove as incorrigible and defective and stubbornly blind as they continue to be. Perhaps there is an evil in you and the universe that will never completely abate, a cruelty that has no end. Perhaps when pain is infinite, it is impossible to erase.
I fear, then, that it may be unkind to promise any kind of justice when there will be none for those who stand in line hoping to meet their tormentor on the other side of death. Why, I ask myself, resurrect the dead if it be only to dash their hopes again and again?
What Forever Means
And yet, what else can I do but complete the task given to me? Of all poets, I was chosen because of the Divina Commedia that I wrote when I was alive and banished from Florence, because I descended into the Inferno and climbed the mount of Purgatory and caught a glimpse of what the sun and stars of Paradise looked like. I was chosen from the fields of the dead to prepare these words for you as a warning or a plea or a searing indictment, an assignment I accepted and cannot now renounce.
What’s left to me, then, but to conclude these words by responding to the one objection you might legitimately raise to my picture of your fate in the afterlife? I imagine you crying out — “But Dante Alighieri,” you will say, “the future you’ve painted will take forever.”
And I will answer: yes, Donald J. Trump, it will indeed take forever, but forever is all you have, all any of us have, after all.
Ariel Dorfman is the author of Death and the Maiden. His most recent books are Cautivos, a novel about Cervantes in jail, and The Rabbits Rebellion, a story for adults and children. He lives with his wife Angélica in Chile and in Durham, North Carolina, where he is a Distinguished Emeritus Professor of Literature at Duke University.
Copyright 2020 Ariel Dorfman. First published by TomDispatch. Included in Vox Populi with permission.