Eliot’s Inferno

In The Waste Land, Eliot observes, “Unreal City / Under the brown fog of a winter dawn, / A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many” (lines 6o-3). The last line is a quotation from Dante’s Inferno 3.56-7, and considering it in context is striking: Dante is here describing “the Neutrals” (as the Hollanders call them), “the wretched souls of those who lived / without disgrace yet without praise. / They intermingle with that wicked band of angels, not rebellious and not faithful / to God, who held themselves apart. / Loath to impair its beauty, Heaven casts them out, / and depth of Hell does not receive them / lest on their account the evil angels gloat” (Inf. 3.34-42). The Neutrals, despite not properly belonging to Hell, are nonetheless suffering torment, stung by wasps and devoured by worms, forced everlastingly to follow a nameless banner (3.52, 64-69).

Theologically, this is an odd notion, inspired perhaps by Christ’s words to the lukewarm Laodiceans that he would vomit them from his mouth (Rev 3:16), but otherwise without much grounding that I’m aware of, either biblically or in patristic speculation. Aren’t we slaves either to sin or to Christ? (cf. Rom 6:16)

It provides a perfect resonant chamber for Eliot’s “Unreal City,” however: the crowd that flows through it is not a crowd of the damned, but rather of those too indifferent even for damnation. They are the “last men” of whom Zarathustra warned: “‘What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star?’ thus asks the last man, and blinks.”

This entry was posted in Dante, Inferno, Nietzsche, T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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