The Inferno of the Living

There’s a cyclicalness to the world that makes us uncomfortable. We in the west prefer to think that things are neatly stacked, one idea upon another in a glorious edifice of success; eschewing the crumbling waste which is not to last as it disintegrates away leaving the foundations solid and enduring, mortared as they are by the good qualities of upright men.

Civilization, we call it – the abiding construction ever upwards in a richness unto glory.

But things are not lasting, not eternal nor stable. They rise and fall and rise again – like the cities of Italo Calvino’s novel “Invisible Cities”.

Worse still, things are not even consistent. Like Calvino’s cities – Kublai Khan’s surprise that his guest is just describing Venice over and over and over; future and past, wealth and ruin, death and rebirth, destruction and renewal; the traveler afraid to say the name of his own home: “Memory’s images, once they are fixed in words, are erased (…). Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it. Or perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little.” We are all afraid of losing our home; afraid to say the names of the things which we love lest they fade away, ephemeral in the light we shine upon them. And we too are afraid to speak about what it is that we love, lest our enemies notice that which is in our hearts and target their evil toward its destruction.

As if they already don’t; already aren’t.

The irony is not lost on me that I came to learn of Calvino’s masterpiece in an article about Aleppo – that oldest of Mesopotamian cities. That place where Abraham milked his sheep to feed the poor. Important in the Babylonian Empire, the Assyrian as well – the Amorites and the Hittites and the Persians. The capital of Sham; the center of civilizations rising and falling and recurring. The end of Kublai Khan’s silk road; visited by Marco Polo to be sure, and described to the Khan in all its ancient glory.

“Aleppo has fallen” – how many times has that gravid phrase been repeated since the misty days of prehistory? From the days when writing was done upon clay taken from the Queiq River using a stylus carved perhaps from wood taken from the ancient forests of Lebanon. Will it rise again, after its recent destruction? Time will tell.

Yes, history rises and falls – and it is for those of us who fear to utter the names of our own cities, lest they too fall away and are spoken of no more – to understand why, and to announce to the world that which is good and true and abiding. For, “…the inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”

I, for one, do not accept the inferno – nor will I become a part of it.


About Joel D. Hirst

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright, author of "Lords of Misrule", a novel about jihad in the Sahara. Joel has also written "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" and its sequel "The Burning of San Porfirio" about socialist Venezuela's collapse, and rebirth. His fourth novel is "I, Charles, From the Camps", the tragic story of Uganda and the LRA, coming out in April.
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