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Go Deeper Happy Hour on the Fringe: Alexandra Tatarsky and Mario Sassi

Happy Hour on the Fringe: Alexandra Tatarsky and Mario Sassi

Posted March 5th, 2020

Health and safety are our number one priorities here at FringeArts, and in compliance with CDC recommendations for staying safe during the Covid-19 pandemic, we will be postponing our 2020 High Pressure Fire Service presentations. More information will be available soon about when HPFS will take place. Happy Hour on the Fringe will continue to come out with podcast episodes about our artists and community partners, so don’t fear — FringeArts is still kicking! Community is crucial in this time of crisis, so please do not hesitate to reach out. 

In this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe, the artist and brain behind our upcoming High Pressure Fire Service show, [SIGN FELT]: Sad Boys in Harpy Land Alexandra Tatarsky sits down with University of Pennsylvania Professor and PhD candidate Mario Sassi. They talk about the running through-line of Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedies in Alexandra’s April 2-4 piece, and the contemporary relevance of Dante’s world view today. For tickets and information about [SIGN FELT], visit the show page here, or call our Box Office at 215-413-1318.

Listen to the episode and read the transcript below!

Tenara: Hello, and welcome to Happy Hour on the Fringe. FringeArts is Philadelphia’s premiere presenter of contemporary performing arts. My name is Tenara, and I’m the Community Engagement Manager at FringeArts. In today’s episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe, you’re going to hear something a little bit different. For episodes for our upcoming High Pressure Fire Service series, we like to connect our artists to community members and advocates who are thinking about the same questions the artists explore in their HPFS pieces.

Today’s episode features the artist and brain behind our first HPFS show, [SIGN FELT] Sad Boys in Harpy Land. Alex Tatarsky is a renowned clown and solo performer, and her work has been featured at La MaMa, MoMa PS1, Vox Populi, and Abrons Art Space. Alex sits down with UPenn Ph.D. candidate Mario Sassi, whose research and background is in Italian literature and Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedies. Listen up to Alex and Mario chat about the running through-line of Dante’s The Inferno in Alex’s piece and the contemporary relevance of the Divine Comedies today. Tickets are now available for Sad Boys in Harpy Land, coming to FringeArts April 2nd through 4th.

Alexandra: It’s very exciting to be here. We’re now drinking a cold bottle of red wine that we randomly rummaged from the FringeArts fridge because this is Happy Hour, baby.

Mario: It sounds perfect. It sounds premiere probably.

Alexandra: We just learned that Mario’s dad really likes cold red wine.

Mario: Yes, but don’t say that too often because Italians don’t like that.

Alexandra: Okay.

Mario: So, yes, he do prefers… I’m sorry, father. You’re never going to listen to that, but-

Alexandra: Sorry, Daddy!

Mario: I’m sorry, Daddy. You’re not going to listen to that, but yes. He likes that, so we’re now drinking cold red wine.

Alexandra: My name is Alex Tatarsky. I’m working on a show partially set in the woods of the suicides in Dante’s Inferno, and so I’m here talking to this real live Dante expert.

Mario: Okay, I’m Mario Sassi. I’m actually a Ph.D. student at Penn, and um – but this year, I’m teaching Italian. I’m from Italy, and Naples, which is the best, and also I’m teaching Dante’s Divine Comedies this semester, and my specialty is general Italian Middle Ages, literature of the Middle Ages, and law of theories. But recently I’m working on Dante’s reception through the centuries, so it’s seemed pretty perfect. When we had our first conversation a month ago or so to see this, the meeting of two, the past… Something I say often is, next year, 2021, it’s going to be 700 years since Dante.

Alexandra: Exactly.

Mario: Yeah, since he was dead. So it’s-

Alexandra: Even more relevant.

Mario: Even more relevant, so it’s pretty appropriate talking about… What?

Alexandra: Yeah.

Mario: Hell.

Alexandra: That’s exciting. I was reading, earlier today, about the way that the idea of the devil shifted over time, and I’m super interested in talking to you about the devil, if you don’t mind starting there.

Mario: I actually taught about Satan yesterday.

Alexandra: Oh my God, you taught about Satan yesterday?

Mario: Yesterday. Yesterday was the last day of Hell, actually.

Alexandra: I’m very curious… My sense is that there was a more ambiguous or complex kind of devil figure. I was reading Sylvia Federici, who I’m a huge fan of. I’m very interested in her relationship to history and historiography, talking about how the devil that we meet in The Inferno, or the devil of that moment in time, had a certain submissiveness or complexity, passivity even, different logic and relationship to thinking than the devil that we sort of think of now in popular imagination, who’s like all-powerful, full, total evil. So when we met last time, and we talked about the devil being in this lake of ice and actually immobile, that was very interesting to me, what it might mean to think about the devil in a different way.

Mario: Yesterday, we were discussing with my students, because something that happens oftentimes, if I remember correctly, it was T.S. Eliot, who was pretty disappointed when he reached the end of the Hell because he was expecting, probably, this image, this creature that you were depicting, which is sort of closer to Milton’s idea. Satan is, in Dante’s was, and in some ways, is super disappointing.

Alexandra: I love this.

Mario: Not for me, but for those who were expecting, because Dante is very good at building up, for 33 cantos, he’s basically saying, “He’s coming. He’s coming. He’s coming. We’re going there.” And then, towards the end, he hears sounds. He hears this wind, and he says, “There should be no wind in Hell, so what’s happening?” And the guide, who was Virgil in Hell, is saying, all the time, “You’re going to see it. You’re going to see it.”

And then you see him, which is, in a way, it’s astonishing. He’s gigantic, nothing is so big as he is. He’s stuck in a lake. He has three pairs of wings, bat wings, and the movement of the wings is actually what is freezing the lake. He’s himself being the prisoner of himself. He’s freezing him. But also, he has three faces. He has three people in the mouth, in each one. But what everybody finds puzzling, at least, is he’s crying.

You go to the bottom of Hell. You have Satan, and he’s crying. So what’s going on? So if you see, at the same, you have this wonderful fresco by Giotto in Padua, the Scrovegni Chapel that is a masterpiece, and he represents Satan, and he represents the way that he was usually depicted in, say, the Middle Ages. So gigantic, blue-ish, black-ish creature with snakes everywhere. He is the King of Hell. Here, Dante is looking at him and saying, “You’re not that powerful. You’re crying. You’re pure pride, but there’s nothing you can do. You are a loser, in a way.”

He’s playing with this concept of, “You are defeated.” What Dante cannot imagine, cannot accept in the idea of Satan as the opposite of God. They are not the same, not even the same league. So that kind of, that we are accustomed to, is super powerful and sometimes even beautiful, aesthetically-speaking, because he used to be the best, the most beautiful angel of God. So Dante-

Alexandra: So you’re telling me that the devil in Dante’s Inferno is basically a sexy loser?

Mario: In a way. Here, he has three faces. It’s not exactly very, very sexy, but he used to be. He used to be so beautiful. I mean, Lucifer is the bringer of lights. I mean, what’s best image, and he’s so disgusting now, that even the Earth, and Dante has this wonderful idea that when he fell into the Earth, the Earth was so disgusted, basically, it opened up for him. They didn’t want to touch him. In fact, the Earth doesn’t touch him. It’s the lake that his own wings are basically freezing. So that, for me, was an incredible, incredible image.

Alexandra: Right, this is really interesting to me, specifically in the context of today. And I’m curious about your research in terms of the continued resonance of this imagery because I do perceive that there is a desire for the devil to really be evil and all-powerful, and that’s so interesting to me that we are disappointed or your students are disappointed by a sad, kind of a sad, sweet loser devil imprisoned by himself, as you say. And this image of the sad boy is kind of at the heart of my investigation. My show, my show, my show opening April 2nd, is called Sad Boys in Harpy Land.

What is this figure? And I had been thinking about a lot of classic sad boys. Hamlet, Jesus, but actually, the devil in this description is sort of the ultimate sad boy, and this sense of being trapped by and in the self is really fascinating and complex, no?

Mario: It is. It actually is. And I think it’s also sad but, the fact that he’s crying out of six eyes, is definitely a symbol of that. But what Dante in his specific way doesn’t want, you shouldn’t feel any pity towards him, that creature, because he’s the embodiment of the sense of the traitors because he’s the traitor that’s… Can you betray, in Dante’s vision, can you betray someone more than God Himself, literally? So he’s a sad boy who deserves that kind of punishment. Dante has spared no words to… There’s no second in which he has any doubt about that, which is, made me think a lot about the suicides we were talking about.

And it’s just very different from the treatment that he has with those that we find in the woods of the suicides. Dante never really discusses about the sin described there. It’s someone who has been unjustly accused of being a traitor, and Dante doesn’t believe in that, although he’s still punishing him for suicide. So I see the fact that we were talking about the bottom of Hell and then sort of halfway through it, this gigantic wood of suicides, and Dante’s participation, pity, towards those sinners, some of them, he has very kind words, especially for one of those.

Alexandra: Yeah, there’s something I’m trying to understand about gender that I wonder if you could also shed some light on in terms of the, what I understand to be the masculine presence of the devil, and the feminine presence of harpies in terms of thinking about different kinds of mythological, mythical creatures in different realms of Hell. And so, in some way, I’m trying to follow a line of thought that has to do with this shifting image of the devil also in relation to gender, so specifically, this Federici passage I was looking at earlier this week was talking about the politics changing over the centuries from Dante’s Inferno to, let’s say, the 15th century.

And alongside colonialism and enclosure, so the partitioning off of what had been the common land, alongside that, a kind of rebranding of the devil and these projects going hand-in-hand, that now the devil is more powerful, is more clearly a big bad presence in a certain way that then also goes hand-in-hand with a submissive female witch or harpy kind of figure who is in a league with the devil. But even in their evil pact, the male presence is all-powerful, in a way, and demanding the submission of the female presence in a way that was a different configuration of bad, basically. And so, I don’t know if I’m following this line of thought, or if… I don’t know as much about kind of the political situation surrounding Dante’s moment, and so I don’t know if that sparks anything for you.

Mario: Well, Dante’s, basically, what is interesting to me, what you were saying, is that Dante is basically the embodiment of what is the medieval man, but Dante is towards the end, at least in Italian tradition, of what we consider to be medieval period. Because, of course, there are many discussions of where you move it, but everybody agrees that a big turning point is going to be 1348, when there’s the Black Plague, the Black Death, the plague, in Europe that is going to create, completely shift, for better or for worse, of course, completely shift into the way of thinking in many.

And then we have the humanism, when the idea of evil changes completely because evil doesn’t, at that point, is not anymore a gigantic, monstrous creature. But evil is temptation so that’s the worst period for, in representation of women, because that’s the period when you have many descriptions and many… Always been, unfortunately, misogynistic literature, but that period of humanism presents some moments in which women really have to struggle even more to have their own, to show their own voice. And if you think about it, many creatures of classical times that Dante was incorporating in the Inferno are women, and the harpies are some of the sort of half-women, half-birds, but if you think of mermaids, which have a bad connotation, or the Erinyes, which are basically the furies. Vengeance is always depicted as women.

So this is like the pseudo-revolution that would, I think, change a lot later, so 15th, 16th century, even, even more. And then, when we arrive to, again, Milton, and all the other literary traditions, this shift is going to be even stronger, in that sense. But if you look back at the comedy, and in the Inferno, specifically, there’s one woman that speaks, and she’s one of the best characters, but she’s also condemned for lust, basically.

So the only female character that speaks in the Inferno is someone that is stereotypically described as… I mean, there’s also Dido, so most of the characters are connected either prostitutes or a slut, victim of lust, so there’s this sexuality idea, sexual idea, that women prone to lust while men are condemned for many more reasons, mostly political. That’s the society. Right? Men were taking all the space in society, politically-speaking.

Alexandra: So there is still a sense that women embody or represent this temptation that is then the downfall of man, even at this stage, in a way? They’re associated with-

Mario: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, Dante on that is almost, is way better than many others in the Middle Ages because what I work on now is preachers, and preachers are definitely even worse, as you can imagine, because they oftentimes write for monks or friars, and therefore the biggest sin is obviously destroying celibacy, and therefore, women need to be demonized. And there’s the tendency to describe women either as a saint or as prostitutes, and that’s the whole, oftentimes, you have that.

So even at a few years after Dante, this other great writer, Boccaccio, The Decameron guy, has many stories in which women are feminists, but you can find a tendency to describe the best kind of women are virgins and saints and therefore… So there is still this strong idea of femininity kind of as the temptation because oftentimes, they talk to, their audience is men. They can read, and they can write back. There’s this wonderful person, Christine de Pizan, and she’s a wonderful person because she was a noblewoman who became a widow pretty early, and she found out she was very good at writing.

And she writes some incredibly wonderful texts, from the medieval age, one of whom is called The City of Ladies, and her job is basically defending women all the time. I mean, she is known for that, is called one of the proto-feminists because of course… Now, we wouldn’t say that, but she definitely struggled all the time with the fact that she was the woman writing, so she was a woman first, considered a woman first, and then a writer. So that was the exception, in a way. And she writes this wonderful texts. For the first time in sort of European tradition, at least continental tradition, you have this idea of, “I’m finally writing as a woman for other women.”

Alexandra: It’s really amazing to me that sex work is demonized since such an early time period. It makes me, in my head, as you were speaking… I was imagining mythical creatures monologuing, like, “Fuck you. Of course, I’m going to charge for this. What are you, crazy? You’re trying to tell me this is a sin? This is bullshit. I see right through this whole scheme. Who came up with this?”

And it’s sort of the main thing that’s being hammered home in The Inferno, from my understanding from you, is that the women characters, by and large, embody this, so it’s just so exciting, actually, to hear that because in a way, it’s so clear how constructed that idea is, how manufactured. This must be, this type of behavior, must be framed as sin because it’s actually so powerful, and it has such potential to destabilize the set of power relations that are at play here.

Mario: When women take men’s place, which is usually power, therefore, you need to demonize them. Again, we’re, of course, talking in a very broad sense of this idea of Dark Ages and Middle Ages is not always the same, and sometimes, I mean, the Inquisition is not a medieval thing. It’s a Renaissance thing, but sure. Obviously, there is a sort of problem. And Dante has this middle ground in which there are not so many women very purely independent, but it’s full of women, also in Purgatory, and even so, more so in Paradiso.

Actually, the whole action of the Paradiso, of the trouble of Dante, is actually thanks to three women, Mary, St. Lucy, and Dante’s beloved Beatrice. Those are the three women that, they intervene. They physically intervene, and Dante indicates, opens up, actually, opens the last canto of the Paradiso completely dedicated to Mary. He opens with words that he can use for the Virgin Mary, so Dante has this very complicated, I would say, relationship with women. We’re talking 700 years ago, so some aspects are obviously wrong, would obviously be wrong for us, and some other aspects are complex.

And Dante is the embodiment of this complexity. Women can perform such a huge, wonderful act, and Dante seems to recognize in many points of his career, that women should have more space to speak. And yet, on some other aspects, he seems to have women as the connection between the poet and God. But in a way, you’re still objectifying women. The connection between man and God, yeah, but without women by themselves.

Alexandra: It’s interesting to hear you say more space to speak because, in a way, this exploration of speaking in space is what performance is about to me and also is the realm in which feelings about that come up, so I’ve been using this project as a way to examine my relationship to speaking in space, taking up space, taking up space to speak. And in a way, Harpy Land has become a metaphor for thinking about self-attacking voices, for thinking about harpies as the embodiment of the world, in some way, pecking at you, telling you that you don’t deserve space.

But so lovely to me is this very disturbing but also rich image in Dante’s Inferno, and correct me if I’m wrong, in the woods of the suicides, if you have ended your own life, you’re considered a self-murderer, right? So it’s an act of violence that is punished, and you become a tree, and then harpies, these bird women, peck at you, and you bleed from your bark, and your thoughts become increasingly splintered by this act.

But what I really enjoyed thinking about is this part of the text that discusses speaking from the wound. So the harpy pecks at the tree, and with the blood flows words. And this is very interesting to me. What is the kind of language that flows out of a wound? And so I’ve been thinking about that, really, in relation to this idea of taking up space to speak and also feeling bad or feeling complicated, feeling conflicted about taking up space to speak, particularly in my form, the form that I inhabit, the body that I inhabit as a female-presenting person in this world. Why is that often so painful to really stand there and take up space and let the words out? And so if it is painful, what can flow along with that wound?

And I’m curious about the work being called The Divine Comedy, right? Because I think, in fact, this sounds quite heavy or dark in some way, but I think, for me, it’s very exciting and very funny, actually, to go into the space of flow. Like, “Okay, well, the wound opened something up, and now we can find a new way of speaking. We can let things out. We can let feelings out into the space and play.” This analysis, in a way, of trauma or of a way of alchemizing one’s pain through language is very exciting to me.

Mario: There are actually two points that I really liked of what you just said because it made me… So the description that you did of the wood of suicides is perfect, and for me, it’s even better if we consider that at the very beginning, when Dante reaches this woods, he starts hearing sounds, but he thought that somebody was hiding behind the trees. He didn’t know that the trees were actually the souls turned into those… By the way, we say, “trees,” but they basically are dead trees. They are completely contorted, and the image is terrible, and there’s no way you can really move easily. There’s no path.

So Dante doesn’t understand, and what Virgil, who’s the guide, and who actually sort of invented this image because he used this image already in The Iliad, he asked him to break a branch first. So what the poet does, destroy, basically, a branch, and this tree starts talking for the first time, which is basically the point. He’s doing what the harpies do all the time by destroying the branch. The harpies allow, basically, those trees to complain, and it’s the same thing that the artist, or in this case, the poet, but this is why I was connecting that to you. It’s the same thing that the poet is doing.

In a way, the harpies and the poet are doing the same job. The only difference is, in that sense, is that Dante’s starting a conversation while the harpies are exacting, basically, a way out for them. They’re suffering, but by opening these wounds, I allow you to… not to scream, but definitely to complain, to lament. So in a way, that works perfectly.

And the woods in Hell, those are the second woods that we see. The first one is the very beginning, the very first tercet, he says that, “I found myself into dark wood, and I didn’t know where I was.” So the whole journey of Dante starts in woods. Find in this specific moment an incredible moment of self-reflection in which the poet is literally giving voice to trees, which are… Except they don’t have a voice, and then you’re going to see, again, this wonderful nature in the last place that you can imagine on Earth because in Paradise, where here, trees are… Well, we have the tree, the one with the apples. We have the nature, let’s say, the living trees.

So it’s, in a way, we can connect the three roads to the poet and the artists’ creating from a place that doesn’t have any sound, because there’s no sound of animals in the first woods, to a place where there’s pain, so the poet is basically conveying this pain to the best place that you can imagine, that is the last place on Earth that Dante’s going to visit because after that, there’s only Heaven. So we start playing a very different game at that point.

Alexandra: That’s very interesting. It’s nice to have that kind of triadic image because it’s encouraging. The way that I view it, as a person who’s very interested in words and making words and doing things with words, is that you have to keep going through the woods to get to a place where you’re able to put that experience into words, meaning if we think about being lost in the woods as some kind of crisis of meaning, crisis of purpose, you have to keep going. I guess it’s this cliched phrase that we have, which maybe links back to some of your research about the continued relevance of this, but right when you’re going through Hell, keep going.

When you get into the woods of Hell, keep going, and there comes a point when you’re able to use this experience as material for speaking, for creating, for writing, and then maybe if you keep going, you reach the earthly paradise or whatever, but I’m less interested in this place.

Mario: And yes, but you were talking about Satan. Satan is in the last canto, as I was saying, but he’s not the last thing that he talks about. What Dante says is, “Okay, we don’t care about Satan anymore.” Because the very last thing he does is basically going through the Earth, and the last word of Hell, the Inferno, was also going to be the last word of Purgatorio, which was also going to be the last word of Paradiso, is “stars.”

So Dante ends Hell, the struggle through Hell, not with bad. This is why comedy. Now, we go there. Not without hope. Imagine being in a cave. You don’t know how to go out, and you finally see the stars. Can you imagine the hope that, suddenly, you find yourself? And this is what Dante uses as comedy. It’s not the comedy that we can imagine right now. We’re not going to watch some silly movie or even the silliest comedy of theater, but it’s in this way, the idea, is basically, he explains it a little, is the idea that you start from bad, but you end good.

You start with doubt. You start with fear, with pain. But then, he has a happy ending. That’s Dante’s idea of comedy. It’s like the classical idea of comedy. You go through a series of difficulties. You go through a series of… Dante faints three or four times because he feels too much. He almost cries for some of the sinners. Sometimes, he’s violent with some sinners because he meets his political enemies, and so he’s extremely resentful with them.

So Dante goes through Hell, not only writing as a poet, as an artist, but he leaves it. He embodies every single moment. He’s human, and in all the Cantos, you can see… You can even judge his own actions. You say, “Why is he doing that?” And then you say, “Oh, because he has been exiled from his beloved city, so he’s a human being resentful.” He’s very different from Dante as we can see in the Paradiso, who is extraordinary. But at that point, he became more a preacher than a – he’s an extraordinary, still creating some wonderful work, but at that point, he has a mission.

In Hell, you have the honesty of the person, not only the poet. “Yeah, I can write.” He can write wonderful verses, but he’s there. He’s going through every single movement of his path, and this is why, I think, it’s brilliant, the fact that you’re thinking mostly on that because in Hell, it is basically passion, one after the other. He cannot control it, and definitely, we cannot control it, either, while we’re reading it.

Alexandra: Mm-hmm, yeah, I also love the connection between poetry and complaining that you draw. This is really lovely. I think people don’t talk about this enough. The value of complaint, I mean, and it sounds more lovely, more elevated to call it a lament, right, which was then the second word that you used, which I love thinking about the word “lament” itself. It has a bit of the song inside of it la-la-la-la-la-la-lament. You turn your complaint into a lament, and it sounds a little better. That’s what I meant to say. I meant to lament. La-la-la-la! So this is really juicy to read, to me.

But also, yeah, the power in complaining about one’s circumstances, that the harpy, this woman creature, this woman-bird creature, is able to cause pain in order to let pain out, which gives you an opportunity to complain, which is a way to mount a critique, potentially, of your circumstances, which, I mean, this is perhaps a bit of a spin, but it’s the way that I find really generative to enter the work. What is the potential of complaining?

How unfortunate our circumstances are, and especially, and maybe this can lead into you speaking a little more to your research about the continued relevance of this imagery, this Inferno space, but I suppose that it feels, often, like we are living in Hell, right? So to me, it seems like that’s… The Inferno keeps coming back because it feels very helpful to people, to contemporary readers, as a way to navigate experience, inner hell-scapes, the ways in which being alive right now feels rather hellish. And so in this woods of the suicides, Harpy Land head space, the complaint is quite important to declare, “I’m in Hell. And it sucks. And I feel like I’m in a lot of pain. And I feel like my situation is impossible. I can’t move. I’m trapped here.” There’s a real feeling of paralysis that needs to be articulated, I think, in order to find movement, again, in order to build movement.

Mario: Movement, I think, is exactly one of the main points of the whole journey, first of all because it’s a journey, so therefore, in itself, it’s a continued movement. But the deeper we go in Hell, the less is the movement of the sinners. So we start with a group of sinners who are those who never took any decision in their lives, so they basically are forced to run behind a banner because in their lives, they didn’t care about anything, so we see sinners running.

And when we reach, we were talking about Satan stuck into a lake, but he’s not by himself there. There are, the last four groups of sinners, which are the traitors, whose entire concept, I think, even now, to modern readers, are when you think of Hell, you think of fire. But actually, the deepest section of Hell, there’s no movement.

Because for Dante, and, I mean, we can imagine that what’s worse than being trapped? You can’t move. Those sinners are basically stuck into a frozen lake, and some of them have just the face that they can basically move, but some others, they even have the face covered by ice because… Sorry, it’s gruesome, but they’re crying. So they’re crying. It’s so cold there that even when they cry, their face, they’re hidden by ice. And the idea is that they do not move. And they’re going to stand there. I mean, others are punished apparently harder, harsher, but it’s not that the case.

The punishment, for Dante, the worst kind of punishment, is that you don’t have any movement. And that’s, for me, extremely striking because it’s, first of all, your only thing is not people screaming, it’s the silence. You have the silence. You have the wind, the movement of the wind, the useless moving. Satan is uselessly moving his wings, creating this useless wind, and there’s nothing else. While all the others, even before we were talking about crying and lamenting, at least they are putting out something of their pain.

And you were talking about the relevance that the Divine Comedy had. Dante was inspiration, inspirational, to so many artists throughout time. As we have Milton, of course, we have Blake, we have Botticelli. We have so many names, and it’s going to be used in politics because the fascist era is going to turn him into a sort of hero for, obviously, wrong reasons, but what I always find the most touching moment in which Dante inspired a person is a book that is called Se questo è un uomo, I think in English it is If This is a Man who was written by Primo Levi who was a prisoner of one of the detention camps in the Nazi era. I don’t know which one specifically, but in one of the chapters, while he was describing his life there, he says that there is this strange person asking him to teach something of the Italian language.

And he says, “For some reason, I went back to Dante, and I actually went back to the canto of Ulysses, who was one of the guests of Hell.” He starts describing and talking about thinking about Hell in a place like a detention camp, and this idea that he wonders, will I ever… And of course, when he writes, he knew it, but he’s like, “When I was there, will I see the stars Dante is talking about in the end?” Because of course, it’s something incredibly touching with you and something that puts upside down your entire existence.

Alexandra: I’m thinking about this imprisonment that you mentioned, detention camps, the way that this story is used and utilized in moments, I would say, distorted, but utilized in moments when, perhaps, people in power crave certain clarity about good and evil and positing the other as evil and thus the self as good. And it seems to me that there’s great danger in this kind of binary opposition and insistence on, “We are fully good. They are fully evil,” and so then there’s actually a distortion of The Inferno of Dante to suit these ends, but that what we find in The Inferno is a more complicated reading or approach to perhaps the intertwining, in some ways, of good and evil, of regret, of transformation, of desire for movement outside of the stillness and the captivity of the final circle of Hell.

But also, I’m really curious, and maybe we can kind of end on this note, about the connection to Carnival as a space of dance and celebration and movement where precisely, this clarity of a divide between good and evil is turned on its head and confused and made upside down through the beauty of clowns and kind of this sort of acrobatic, topsy-turvy somersaulting and reversal of roles. And specifically, I was really struck – last week, two of my good friends, Leah Hennessey and Emily Allan who are these two brilliant freaks, made a video discussing contrapasso, and everyone should watch it. It’s on DIS Magazine. But discussing “the gentrification of contrapasso” through this kind of exaggerated Mark Fisher critical drag, but in relation to this TV show Russian Doll where the main character has to repeat her life again and again, right?

And so, thinking about what is a punishment that fits the sin, and what is the kind of desire for this, for contrapasso, which is this concept of the satisfying exactitude with which a punishment fits the exact sin that was committed. And I love this phrase that they use in the video, “the gentrification of contrapasso.” And again, which seems to mean like a distortion and a utilization of a Dantean worldview for ends which are different. And specifically, they talk about a scene in Russian Doll, the concluding scene, sorry everybody if you haven’t seen it, where the character kind of overcomes this eternal recurrent punishment cycle in a parade through the street. But they’re saying that, instead of the Carnival parade which is about losing the self within the collective, it is about, here, and this is the gentrification aspect, finding the self, finding the neo-liberal individual salvation rather than finding salvation through dissolution of self in the collective.

And so, as I was watching this very funny, short video that everyone should watch, it kind of blew my mind how relevant, how we continue to circle around the circles of Hell and both find in them grains of truth that really resonate with us and then also observe how the mechanisms of punishment can be used as a form of control, right, and kind of misused and mis-conveyed for other ends.

Mario: That’s a sort of Purgatory, in a way, because Purgatory is basically Hell with a hope, that eventually, you will leave that place. And what I think, and that’s the reason why I started to read these texts and to do this career, is because Dante, even after so many years, gives to everybody a different point of view, even by saying and doing the opposite of what he’s going to do. But he’s still provoking a reaction, especially in a world like the world we are right now where it’s so easy to say, “This is good, and this is evil,” as you were saying, and even a medieval man is showing you that bad and evil, bad and good is definitely harder to determine, and that even for somebody that was so concentrated about, “Let’s look for a future,” but he still has the time to kick his enemy in Hell and to put even the pope in Hell because he didn’t like this person.

So the idea that even someone that for us seems to be so distant both artistically and on the human side, is still human deep down, is still like us. We still hate people and love some people and love humanity. At the end of the main point is that, actually, you know what? We have so many defects, but as people, we can accomplish some wonderful, wonderful masterpieces, and I think it’s exactly what we should aim at.

Alexandra: Well, maybe as just a closing moral, then, is, to quote Mario, “even a medieval man was trying to tell you that good and evil are not so easy to distinguish.”

Mario: Let’s move from… Let’s go from there.

Alexandra: Yeah.

Mario: Thank you very much.

Alexandra: Thank you so much.

Mario: It’s been lovely.

Tenara: Thank you for joining us for this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe, [SIGN FELT] Sad Boys in Harpy Land is an ecstatic explosion of melancholy that embraces the insights of splintered thought. In this new work, Alex Tatarsky collages narratives of art-making and despair into a deranged meditation on derangement, drawing on sources from Goethe to Seinfeld to Dante. This new work is a highly-calibrated mess that journeys deep into the Dantean hell-scape of the mind to ponder what we might learn from our own monstrosity, coming to FringeArts April 2nd through 4th.

For tickets, visit www.fringearts.com. Make sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram, and download the FringeArts app. Thanks, and we’ll see you next time.