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THE MISSIONARY TIMES



 

THE SEARCH FOR ‘VISIONS OF J’
(Part Two: Ain't Gonna Go To Hell For Anybody)
by J. R. Stokes
 

It’s not much of a comedy, and it’s hardly Divine, but according to an Italian poet from the 13th Century, when you die, you go straight to Hell. It gets worse: depending on how good you’ve been up here in the daylight, you get graded, so if you’ve been bad the further down you go. And if you’ve been good, well good for you, but you’re still gonna go to hell anyway. As to who exactly decides what’s good is good or what’s bad is bad is really not certain, but I guess you’ll find out when you reach whatever level you happen to find yourself in when the roses fade and your in the shade. 

Actually this poet from the 13th Century wrote about his Visions of Hell in the early 14th Century but don’t let’s argue about a couple of decades because Dylan probably got the century right when, in Tangled Up in Blue, he sings about that book of poems that the topless pole dancer handed to him after she lit a burner on the stove. Of course it may not have been a book of poems written by the Ialian poet Dante Alighieri at all, but when you think about those words that ‘glowed like burnin’ coal’, doesn’t that bring to mind an inferno, or even Dante’s Inferno? 

All is not however as it seems in hell because it’s not all fire and burnin’ coals, not according to Dante Alighieri anyway. The fire only occurs at about level seven where there is a wood and:

‘Beyond the wood is scorching sand where those who committed violence against God and nature are showered with flakes of fire that rain down against their naked bodies.’

And level 8  where: 

‘The simonists, wedged into stone holes, and whose feet are licked by flames, kick and writhe desperately.’

Clearly, if you are a simonist, level 8 is not going to be a barrel of laughs but above level 7 you should be safe from those glowing, burnin’ coals. On the other hand, if you have been very, incredibly bad, you hit the basement, at level nine. A place that Dante calls ‘Cocytus’. The squeamish better turn away now, for this is how the Italian poet describes ‘Cocytus’. 

‘This is the deepest level of hell, where the fallen angel Satan himself resides. His wings flap eternally, producing chilling cold winds that freeze the thick ice found in Cocytus. The three faces of Satan, black, red, and yellow, can be seen with mouths gushing bloody foam and eyes forever weeping, as they chew on the three traitors, Judas, Brutus, and Cassius. This place is furthest removed from the source of all light and warmth. Sinners here are frozen deep in the ice, faces out, eyes and mouths frozen shut. Traitors against God, country, family, and benefactors lament their sins in this frigid pit of despair.’ 

What came to my mind, when I read that description of level 9 was the following extract from Isis:

‘We came to the pyramids all embedded in ice
He said, “There’s a body I’m tryin’ to find.
If I carry it out it’ll bring a good price.”
’Twas then that I knew what he had on his mind.

The wind it was howlin’ and the snow was outrageous.
We chopped through the night and we chopped through the dawn.
When he died I was hopin’ that it wasn't contagious,
But I made up my mind that I had to go on.’

With all those chilling cold winds and bodies embedded in ice,  perhaps this section of ‘Isis’ could relate to the efforts of trying to release someone from the depths of hell before he returns to the daylight ‘with the sun in my eyes’. 

On our recent summer holiday to Italy there was a great deal of sun in our eyes. Wall to wall sunshine for a fortnight, a constant 30 degrees, clear blue skies: fruit ripening weather: bliss. It was on one of those hot summer days that I got to thinking about hell and, in particular, Dante’s various levels. During a sightseeing trip we came across an old hill village called Campli which was situated on a steadily climbing and winding road about midway from the coast (where we were staying) and the Gran Sasso mountain range, (where we were headed). It was mid-summer but there was snow on the peaks of the Gran Sasso which was in driving range, and this mix of boiling hot and freezing cold was certainly something to behold. We had no intention of dallying in Campli but the views from the village square across the valleys and the hills of the Italian countryside were breathtaking. We disembarked and joined some old men with broken teeth as they sipped their mid-morning double expressos in the shade of a sleepy café. The entire world could have been in a state of post traumatic stress syndrome, but no one in Campli would have noticed. Text messages probably wouldn’t each here for months, if at all. 

Having refreshed ourselves we walked around the village in the heat of the day when we noticed a large direction arrow pointing to ‘Scala Santa’. We followed the arrow and found a small group of people looking into a narrow dark doorway. Fortunately one of the group, who seemed like some kind of guide, spoke English. He firstly asked me if I was a Catholic, and when I answered in the negative he asked me if I was a Christian. I was a little perplexed at this religious inquisition so I enquired what was going on. The following explanation I gathered from him and from subsequently reading literature about this sleepy and picturesque place in the hills of Italy. 

A ‘Scala Santa’ is a sacred staircase and inside this small dark doorway in Campli we found a narrow staircase of polished oak. There were 28 steps and legend has it that if you climb this staircase on your knees on the 18th or 19th September then you will win a plenary indulgence from Purgatory. That means a free pardon. Apparently this small opening is jam packed with pilgrims on those special September days and the whole thing has been authenticated by the Pope. 

This is where Dante Alighieri comes in because Purgatory is one of his levels of hell. In this particular level of hell, which is in fact the highest level, you join with the souls of previous times in repentance until you are cleansed and then move on to eternal paradise where the trout streams flow and the air is nice. You could be hanging about in Purgatory for years but the location of the place is summed up nicely thus: ‘There’s only one step down from here baby, it’s called the land of permanent bliss’. 

Now here’s the thing: in my hand I held four aces, each representing a possibility and a chance. The Ace of Spades represented hell and all its damnation as described by Dante Alighieri; the Ace of Hearts represented the situation that the entire notion of heaven and  hell is complete bollocks and that once you’re gone man, its over – no matter how you’ve lived our life; the Ace of Clubs represented the nonpartisan stance that it could go either way – a kind of ‘on the fence’ and ‘love the one your with’ possibility; and the Ace of Diamonds was a pass straight to paradise, you could leapfrog Purgatory -  all you had to do was climb 28 steps on your knees. Three of these cards were fakes, and only one represented the true situation – I had 60 seconds to choose the right card. If I chose the wrong one I was stuck forever with the situation represented by the card: to be damned in hell; to be damned in ignorance; to be damned by uncertainty or to be damned by sore knees for half a day. Many a gamble has been lost and won by prevarication so I smacked that Ace of Diamonds hard down on the bottom step and started to climb…on my knees. Well, wouldn’t you? 

There were just two problems, the first was that it wasn’t mid- September and the other was how would we get confirmation of our feat? Would we get a badge or a stamp on the back of the hand to see us into that everlasting disco above the clouds? Whatever, we made it to the summit. 

I have to say that the splendor of what greeted us at the top of the ‘Scala Santa’ equaled the beauty of the surrounding hills and valleys: a small chapel covered with florid frescoes of natural colour. No doubt, hand painted centuries before, the place came alive with Renaissance art that could never be captured in any air conditioned gallery. This was the real heaven of the artists imagination giving a sense of creativity that made you feel that you ain’t gonna go to hell for anybody. Like EVER. And as for those 28 steps… well you never know. 

We did find an actual road of hell whilst in Italy, and that was on the A14 autostrada that took us from our beachside resort to a vineyard about 90 miles north. My big mistake I suppose was to venture on to this race track in my hired 1500cc Mazda, which was great for poodling but horrendous for autostrada traveling as the Italians in their Mercs, Audi’s and Beamers would just tailgate you along at 120 miles an hour with their lights full on. If I had a euoro for every Italian driver who was chatting – non-hands free- on a mobile whilst screaming down the fast lane, I would be able to buy one of those silver machines for myself, in euros! The long, dimly lit, tunnels and the high bridges with low sides didn’t make the journey much easier. 

That nightmare on the road of hell was well worth it though when we arrived at our destination. It was a Bob day on our holiday in Italy; an adventure in search of ‘Visions of J’, that infamous bottle of wine produced by Antonio Terni who has now linked up with Dylan to produce a new wine, ‘Planet Waves’, the label of which will bear Dylan’s signature. It was a long, and fraught journey from the Abruzzo to the Le Marche regions in Central Italy but as we left the autostrada and headed towards the vineyard at Numana the hills came alive with the sight of sunflowers. That stark yellow of the petal, much loved by Vincent and Blake, against the unbroken azure of the sky made us pilgrims sense that there was a kind of paradise here on earth, if you just had the time to dwell. Even on holiday the clocks don’t stop for anyone. 

I had previously written to Antonio about my proposed visit and we had subsequently exchanged emails. The vineyard is in a beautiful location, about a mile from the sea and is surrounded by hills planted with olive trees and vines. What an incredible place to appreciate Dylan’s art –Senor Terni you are one lucky guy! If you wish to make a virtual visit to Antonio’s vineyard then paste www.fattorialeterrazze.it/pages/home.html into your search engine and look out for Antonio – he is the one wearing the Dylan t-shirt! 

Anyway, we got to meet Antonio and we chatted for a while: about his vineyard and  how he got into Dylan and how he also likes Billie Holiday and other things. He told me he was just about to journey to Spain, to see all the seven Dylan gigs in that country…and then to Portugal for the same purpose. I say again, Senor Terni you are one lucky guy. We eventually shook hands in farewell and I was left to browse in Antonio’s cellar. I didn’t want to be a fool, starving for affection and I didn’t want to drown in someone else’s wine. But it was the end of the chase and the prize was nigh. I had climbed those 28 steps at the Santa Scala so, for me, there was the possibility that the night would never come falling from the sky. Then I saw that bottle of red with the magic label ‘Visions of J’. 

The best is always yet to come, that’s what they explain to me. Just do your thing and you’ll be king. If dogs run free. So I did my thing. Took the bottle and made off! As we were leaving that beautiful vineyard under a clear blue sky, I swear I heard some locusts singing with such a sweet melody. Yeah, that’s right.  The locusts sang… and they were singing for me.



Holiday Schnapps

Schnapp 1   Schnapp 2

A bottle of ‘Visions of J’

 

‘Planet Waves’ label with Dylan’s signature
 

Schnapp 3

Me and Antonio (left) at the vineyard

 
 
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