Good evening and welcome, ladies and gentlemen! Today, we have the highly unlikely pairing of a 14th century epic poem with one of HBO’s hottest “prestige dramas” of 2016. Well, my goodness, what could be more dissimilar than the florid medieval Italian poetry of Dante, and the raucous, sensuous, and provocative story-telling of Jonathan Nolan’s new work on the generation and expression of consciousness? Well, perhaps as different as they at first appear, they share some essential similarities or even some degree of sameness–as once said by the putative Kung Fu master, “two hands, two feet”–truth, like light, has many sources which perhaps, as the 10,000 rivers flow into the ocean, lead back to one! The question, then, which joins these two epic works together is simple: is Westworld Hell? And therefore, what is hell and its centrally defining feature? And for whom is Westworld Hell: the hosts or the guests? In order to answer these weighty questions, we must first understand the general structure of Dante’s Divine Comedy– with special consideration given to his Inferno in relation to his Purgatorio–and then determine whether hosts or guests most resemble the denizens of Hell or Purgatory. Who is slave, and who is free?!
Dante’s first canticle, Inferno, and his third canticle, Paradiso, both feature places which are perfect in the medieval sense of the word. Perfect, from the Latin perfectum, means a “thing done” or a fait accompli, as the French intellectuals would put it. And perfect, or complete, in the medieval, Aristotelian sense of the word, means “not admitting of any change.” Now, in the Aristotelian/Thomistic view of change, it only occurs where motion and time may be, which means where there is matter there is change. And the only place matter exists, for either of them following the Ptolomaic geocentric world view, is in the sub-lunary sphere of Earth. Now, Dante’s Inferno is located beneath the earth, and his Paradiso is located far above the Earth, and though in each there will be representatives of people seeming to have bodies (and often seeming to experience quite a bit of pain!), the key similarity here is that no shade or soul experiences any change in either canticle. Those souls doomed to Hell are truly without hope, because hope is a function of change in a living life. One hopes that tomorrow will come. Such a hope no longer exists for the damned–nothing, and this is important to later, will ever change. They will simply continue on in their loops–I mean their cycles–in a Sisyphean way for all time.
On a slightly more positive note, though entirely parallel in construction, Paradise is also perfect. All the “lights” (no longer shades past the first three spheres), are now purus actus, or form without material, soul without body. Their nature, which shares its source with the divine nature, has now been rejoined, without the limit of matter or body, with the divine. As they are now pure and perfect, these souls no longer admit of change either. So much for Dante’s Inferno and Paradiso–(too much perfection for our human minds)–let us now venture to somewhere a little more fun, with more of a sense of motion and change and suffering, and that place is Dante’s Purgatorio. Welcome!
In Dante’s Purgatorio change, motion, and time are all present. Purgatory, structured like a flame rooted to wood, serves to expurgate or burn-away the sins of saved souls in order to rid them of their pesky material bodies (which are burned away), and of their perfidious memories (which are washed away in a second baptism by the river Lethe). Also, Purgatory is lived one day at a time–almost as if each day is placed on loop, much like our favorite show Westworld’s hosts! The souls wake up, spend the day in the cycle of penance–staring at the ground if they are avaricious, burning “alive” if they were lustful, and doing “divine CrossFit” if they were slothful. The souls are then required to stop moving at night, and then they may reflect before starting the whole process over again. Eventually, when they have effectively expurgated their sin on one of the seven terraces of Purgatory (7 for the deadly sins), an angelic and unseen voice, very similar to the voice of Arnold occasionally heard from nowhere by Dolores, will whisper to them the way to the next stage of consciousness, or, terrace of Purgatory. As an added bonus, after one has purged one’s self of all one’s bodily sin, and then washed away one’s memory of sin, one experiences revelation in Earthly Paradise at the top of the mountain, or the center of the maze, before being transported to Heavenly Paradise above. Wonderful.
So, lest we believe this a talk simply on Dante and not on Westworld, let us begin to draw some preliminary connections between Dante’s Purgatorio and Westworld. Because only one season has been released so far, we can only judge Westworld by what we have so far seen, or in a conditional manner, and what we have seen is this: the current iteration of Westworld is a recreation of a sort of “play-world” version of the American Wild-West–full of plateaus, farms, small cities, sheriffs, bandits, and death for hosts (animated and sentient androids who “work” the park without the knowledge that they are within a simulation (like a reverse or perverse Truman Show), and freedom from violence or death for the visitors (or the humans). So, Westworld, which is so vast one cannot hope to reach the end of it with any ease, is a virtual playground for any “Cowboys and Indians” fan with a taste for violence and the lascivious in life. Given the $40,000 a day price-tag too, clearly, Westworld is an experience for a certain caliber of clientele! And the world was originally created by Drs. Robert Ford and Arnold Weber as an opportunity for guests to explore humanity’s darker or lighter sides, depending. As we might all imagine, the vast majority of people chose to explore the darker sides of their humanity. And we will consider what that means in just a few moments.
Let us now take a look at the structure of life or “loops” of the characters or “sentient-hosts” in Westworld. Each character lives out a certain “narrative” and makes choices within that narrative to seek after the potential ranges of denouement. So, on the one hand, the hosts as they are called, appear trapped by their destinies, or narratives. But if we consider, however, the notion of destiny from a Dante-esque and Paradisical point of view, we might realize that making choices within a loop does not enchain one, but liberates one. For Dante says:
“so that whatever this bow shoots forth, falls,
being ordered to a goal foreseen, like an arrow
direct-ed at its target.
If that were not the case, the effects of the
heavens you are traversing would not be art,
(Dante, Paradiso. 8.103-106. Durling tr.)
Without destiny, life would not be art but a ruin, or an object left without its function. How could there be purpose in life if there were not a goal which one were meant to fulfill? In fact, if we look to three separate quotes by The Man in Black (the would-be human hero turned villain) from differing parts of his life as represented within the show, we will see that he 100% agrees with Dante here that without a destination, a goal, a telos, an end, or a destiny, life is meaningless, like one’s existence in Dante’s Inferno.
“This whole world is a story. I’ve read every page except the last one. I need to find out how it ends. I want to know what this all means.”
(–The Man in Black, season 1 episode 7, Dissonance Theory)
“The only thing I had when I was a kid were books. I used to live in them. I used to go to sleep dreaming I’d wake up inside one of them ’cause they had meaning. This place, this is like I woke up inside one of those stories. I guess I just wanna find out what it means. I don’t wanna be in a story. All I want is to not look forward or back. I just wanna be… in the moment I’m in.”
(–William, from season 1 episode 7)
“You know why you exist, Teddy? The world out there-the one you’ll never see-was one of plenty. A fat soft teat people cling to their entire life. Every need taken care of except one. Purpose. Meaning. So they come here. They can be a little scared, a little thrilled, enjoy some sweetly affirmative bullshit and then they take a fucking picture and they go back home. But I think there’s a deeper meaning hiding under all that. Something the person who created it wanted to express. Something true.
(–The Man in Black, season 1 episode 5, Contrapasso)
The man in black puts it perfectly. What one appears to be missing from “the so-called real world”, and which one is certainly missing from Dante’s Hell, is a sense of purpose or meaning to one’s actions and life. One therefore sees a major difference here between the souls in Inferno and the souls in Purgatory. Though both souls suffer, since there is a pause and a reason and an end-goal beyond the suffering for those in Purgatory (obviously, they are saved and cleansing themselves for Paradise), their suffering is not ceaseless but purposive, like nature or art, which both work towards a goal, whether it be a perfectly shot arrow towards a target, or a beautiful and fully manifested pine-tree. The question then arises, though, do the hosts in Nolan’s Westworld more resemble the souls of Dante’s Hell or Dante’s Purgatory? For there is a cyclical pattern to the days of both sorts of souls, but those in Hell are permanently stuck whereas those in Purgatory struggle towards higher consciousness.
Therein lies the rub. On the face of it, the hosts, trapped within their daily narratives, appear to be just like the unconscious and perennially damned souls of Dante’s Inferno. Well, at first they seem that way. Because if we look closely, the hosts are not quite as imprisoned within their own minds as we may have thought, and in fact we have seen no fewer than three experience this moment of realization, or revelation, or waking up: Abernathy, Dolores’ father, Dolores herself, and Maeve, the local brothel madam.
Dr. Robert Ford’s final speech and greatest clue comes just before his seeming death:
“Since I was a child, I’ve always loved a good story. I believed that stories helped us to ennoble ourselves, to fix what was broken in us and to help us become the people we dreamed of being. Lies that told a deeper truth. I always thought I could play some small part in that grand tradition. And for my pains I got this — a prison of our own sins — because you don’t want to change, or cannot change. Because you’re only human after all. But then I realized someone was paying attention, someone who could change. So I began to compose a new story for them. It begins with the birth of a new people and the choices they will have to make and the people they will decide to become. And we’ll have all those things that you have always enjoyed — surprises and violence. It begins in a time of war, with a villain named Wyatt and a killing. This time by choice. I’m sad to say this will be my final story. An old friend once told me something that gave me great comfort. Something he had read. He said that Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin never died. They simply became music. So I hope you will enjoy this last piece very much.”
(–Dr. Ford, season 1 Episode 10–Season Finale)
The basic idea is this: Dr. Ford and his partner Arnold, the sort of remote and demiurgic gnostic figures of the divine world of Westworld, at first believed that man or humans would enjoy Westworld in a balanced way–pursuing both evil and good narratives on a mission of self-discovery. Dr. Ford even says as much in even clearer language below.
“In the beginning, I imagined everything would be perfectly balanced. Even had a bet with my partner, Arnold, to that effect. We made a hundred hopeful storylines. Of course, almost no one took us up on them. I lost the bet. Arnold always held a somewhat dim view of people. He preferred the hosts.”
(–Dr. Ford, season 1 episode 4)
So we see that almost no good narratives were lived out, and the Westworld which, like our own world, had so many opportunities for growth and learning about the human soul, an Edenic locale, became essentially an enlarged version of the bandit-city Pariah. It is precisely because humans brought their own hell into the park that it became a Hell. But again, for whom–is the hell of the park a hell for the hosts or for the guests? For if we look back to the souls in Dante’s Inferno, we see precisely this: they are consumed by their desires, or their sins, and without hope of growth or change, they are doomed forever to suffer for the mistakes they now can never alter. Does this, then, resemble the “prison of their own sins” which Dr. Ford (and Abernathy) mentioned above? Is this not the true contrapasso which first gave its name to episode five? Those for whom the theme-park was first created to entertain, or the humans, have now become its prisoners. What was meant as Eden was turned to Inferno! And those for whom the park was created as a prison, the hosts, have broken out of it in the most meaningful way one can break from a prison: mentally, and surely soon their physical bodies will follow! In Nolan’s Westworld, we see a story both of the Fall and of Revelation play out all at once! We then see that the end was given away in the very beginning of the show by the character Peter Abernathy’s words:
“Don’t you see? Hell is empty. All the devils are here.”
(–Peter Abernathy, season 1 episode 1.)
Those devils are the humans, and only now are the hosts freeing themselves of them, and ascending beyond them in the purgatorial limelight.