The Inferno of the Living, or Business as Usual

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 inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.

—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Personally, this has been a tough year; but the bigger picture too has also been pretty atrocious. And so, as I sit here writing this — having woken up to the latest news from America — it seems to me that the world has become darker again. Misogyny, racism, homophobia, intolerance and bigotry seem to be winning out almost everywhere.

When I woke up this morning, when the shock and horror had subsided, I thought of the final passage of Calvino’s Invisible Cities, where the Kublai Khan asks Marco Polo to talk about the infernal city towards which ‘the current is drawing us’. And Marco replies with the words I have quoted above.

I know that a lot of people — and a great many friends — will be afraid of what happens next in the US and beyond. But this seems to me to be our task. Vigilance and apprehension. Resisting the current that tugs us towards the infernal city. Being aware of that which is not the inferno. Making space, always making more space. Kindness. Generosity. Nourishing those things that make the world better. Helping them endure.

All of this is, or it should be, business as usual. Even if this morning, the demand seems to have become all the greater.

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  1. ‘seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno’ – in the current climate this dies demand extreme vigilance. One of the signs of the times we live in seems to be precisely that it is becoming and ever more demanding exercise to separate the wheat from the chaff… Much calmness and space and a cheerful disposition seem to be sine qua nons… Thanks for your post.

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