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Midpoint – Dante’s Inferno

6 Mar

So let’s start at the beginning. The beginning. Now where is that? There is always a before and always an after to the beginning. Every beginning starts in the middle of something – in medias res. For Dante, in medias res meant in the middle of a forest:

In the middle of our lives’ way,
I found myself in a Dark Wood
Where the straight way was lost

What kind of middle of the way is this where forward motion hits a dead end? Where life’s vital energies come to a terrifying standstill? Where every step you take could be your last step?

This is the midpoint.

The midpoint is a strange and uncanny place. It’s not the half-way mark on a straight, finite line. It’s not equidistant from the beginning and the end. No, it’s a sentiero interrupto, a path without issue. It’s a place where all footing is lost and where, if there is to be any resumption of motion, it will have to be on a different footing altogether. That’s what it means to begin in the middle of the way: to find a new footing and, in so doing, to undergo a turn, a swerve, rather than continue on the same rectilinear course.

The midpoint marks a turning point. Look! There is the mountain. There is the path that leads upwards to the light. But the way is blocked by those three Beasts. If you don’t turn yourself around at the midpoint, if you don’t turnaround the midpoint, you’ll stand there, petrified.

The midpoint crisis can happen anywhere along the way. It can occur any age in the life of an individual. Or at any stage in the history of a nation. The Civil War was one such midpoint in American History. Perhaps we are at another one now.

Most of us will not be lucky enough to avoid losing our way on a path without issue, at least once, either in our personal lives or as a citizen of a state. When it happened to Dante, when he found himself in a state of spiritual paralysis, he realized that he was not going to overcome his debilitation on his own, and that he was in need of help.

This was the turning point: His recognition that there was nothing he could do to help himself; that he depended on an act of grace – some intervention from the outside – to save him from his cardiac arrest and to put things back into motion again.

No experience reveals what it means to be human more decisively than being in need of help. “Desperately in need of some stranger’s hand.” And in Dante’s universe, only those who know how to appeal for help have a chance of receiving it. Dante’s conversion at the midpoint of the journey begins with a turn for help.

In Dante’s case, rescue came in the guise of a ghost: the shade of the Roman poet Virgil who had been dead for over thirteen hundred years. Appearing to him at the base of a mountain in Inferno I, Virgil tells Dante that if he wants to reach the summit of that mountain, the Mountain of Salvation, he will have to go down to the very bottom of the earth, the center of all gravity, and begins his climb from there. The only way up is down. You must convert your perspective such that what appears before to you as up, now appears as down and vice versa. Indeed, it is only by turning the whole world upside down or inside up that you can “break on through to the other side” and that “things will appear as they are: infinite.”

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