Allums, a former jet pilot with a face as hollow as Abe Lincoln’s, started talking about why our dreams scare us so much. For one thing, he says, as we get older, we get used to heading in a different direction. “People midway through their lives see that the idea of progress has disappeared,” says Allums. “The best that they can hope for, if they want to move ahead, is to go deeper into their soul’s dark pool, where even footsteps disappear. After a certain point, there is no path to follow.”
So, in the early 14th century, Dante wrote “The Divine Comedy,” a poem that still resonates.
“Dante learns that life’s most important journey is not a straight line upward,” Allums says. “Important journeys follow the soul’s path, such that down becomes up. To descend into your deepest thoughts is the true way. Up here, on the heights, is the light of your joys and successes — but that is not the true way. If you want to get to the light, you have to turn your back on it and go in the other direction. It’s all reversed. That’s a pretty shocking idea.
“Dante, in midlife, answers a divine call to write this poem. If he doesn’t write it, the world is impoverished; he will have failed this world. The same holds true for each one of us. Each one of us is called to a task. If we fail, we somehow fail the world.” We fail the world — not just ourselves.
Beatrice, Dante’s great love, dies as a young woman. In his poem, she appears before Dante on Mount Purgatory and rebukes him. He has a vision of her asking, “Why aren’t you writing the poem about me? What’s wrong with you?” She reminds him that she has descended from paradise and has left her footprint in hell, at the starting point, so that he can follow her path and eventually journey to her in paradise. “That vision focuses him more than any biographical incident does,” Allums explains.
Though Dante knows what he must do, he resists. He says that he’s not going, that he fears his venture may be wild and empty. He’s afraid — afraid to try, afraid to fail, afraid of what may happen in the course of his journey. He acts the role of a coward in the face of his own life’s work. “He may not succeed, and that frightens him,” Allums says. “He is a little bit like Achilles, who refused to take part in the battle against Troy. But in Dante, you’ve got an ordinary person, a mere poet, not a brave warrior. Dante asks himself, ‘Why should I pursue something so strange and so speculative? I’m just going to fail.’ We each have to make a hero’s journey. We postpone it at our peril. Dante shows us that.”
“Hell is the place for people who have lost the good use of their intellect,” Allums says. “It’s not the place for those who have enormous passions, but rather for those whose passions consume them — which happens after they’ve lost the good use of their intellect, which is the divine presence within us. It’s our capacity to make one choice as opposed to another choice.”
Allums is saying that if you know what you really want, and you don’t pursue it, you’ll be consumed by it. You will lose your capacity to make clear commitments as long as there is that one major commitment that you avoid. He says, “It’s better to choose and to choose wrongly than not to choose at all. Fence-sitters of this world have the worst of every fate.”
Hell is the place for people who did not live their lives according to the best that was in them.
Five of the world’s greatest poets — Homer, Horace, Lucan, Ovid, Virgil — live together in a nice air-conditioned area of hell. They live in desire of something, without hope of ever attaining what it is that they desire. That’s their hell. They can see the object of their want, but they are not able to appropriate it. They will always be great poets — and they will always be painfully aware of their shortcomings. “It’s just terrible,” Allums says. “For all of the great conversations that they have there together, they know that they are not in the realm of the blessed. They know that they have missed that realm.
“Just as we think of heaven as the place where we will become perfect, hell is the place where our vices will become perfect. So, if you were a total wheeler-dealer in this life, you’ll be a perfect thief in hell. If you were angry, you will be lodged with those who egg on your anger.
“Look at canto 15. Dante meets up with Brunetto, his former teacher, who is in hell for sodomy. The canto is not a diatribe against homosexuality — it is a diatribe against being one thing and then teaching another thing. There is a great disjunction between the ways that many of us live our lives and what we really believe in. We live during an age in which it is very difficult to have beliefs and to live according to those beliefs. For example, you may believe that your task in life is to go to Italy and study. But you live in New York and work in the media. Italy is a wild dream. A modern, successful person fears that believing in something is a submission to and a giving up of something else. If you submit to something, then that means you’ve given up your control over it. To submit to something means to become one with that thing, to suspend your scornful attitude about the world.”
Pursue your dreams, even to the point of suffering — that’s the message. “Dante tells us that the most basic reality is to suffer,” Allums says. “None of us can expect to go through life without suffering, and yet we all try to escape it. Instead, we should try to avoid it in the right way. Suffering should be accepted as a gift that we are given for a reason.