Infernal Cities (Panel)


Special Session
City of God, City of Destruction / World Literatures and Comparative Studies

Stanley Szczesny (University of Dallas)
stan@****.com (Log-in to reveal)

The idea of infernal cities is a paradox. If, as Aristotle argues, a city aims at achieving and providing "the highest good" for its citizens, then how can a city organize in a hellish place for hellish ends? But infernal cities frequently occur in literature. The Bible abounds with wicked cities, Dante, Milton, Blake, Eliot, and Bishop all include images of hellish cities in their poetry, and the term "Sin City" is often used to describe Las Vegas and other cities, real and fictional, that base their economy around providing opportunity for vice. This session seeks to understand the apparently paradoxical purpose these infernal cities serve in the lives of their citizens.

In his Politics, Aristotle says, "Every community is established with a view to some good," especially the polis, which aims "at the highest good" (1252a1-7). If this claim is true, what are we to make of an Infernal City or a Sin City? What good do such cities aim at? The idea of a city organized for infernal ends is paradoxical, but it occurs frequently in literature. In the Bible, Sodom allows gangs of rapists to prowl about at will, and Babylon is a whore with whom the kings of the earth drink wine of "abominations and filthiness of her fornication" (Rev. 17:1-5). Dante describes the city Dis in hell, where the inhabitants live with the protective walls of a community, but also in "eternal flame burning" (VIII.73-74), and the citizens are murderers and demons. Milton has his Satanic hordes build the city Pandemonium in order to revamp their war against Heaven, and men first learn to build cities in imitation of the demons, by rifling "the bowels of thir mother Earth" for treasures to build with and to store up (I.687). Blake continues Milton's theme of cities created for demonic exploitation when he describes London's "dark Satanic Mills." T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land protagonist, like St. Augustine before him, goes to Carthage in pursuit of "burning" (III.311), and the speaker in Elizabeth Bishop's "Night CIty" looks down on a nightmare of weeping greed and pollution, a city that "burns tears" and "burns guilt." This session seeks to understand the paradoxical purpose of these and other infernal cities.