by Nick Lakowski
“And of that second kingdom will I sing
Wherein the human spirit doth purge itself,”
I’m loitering in Limbo, beset by a nagging, contradictory thought: In spite of my character’s reflective precision as spiritual doppelganger I am temporarily unwilling to relate to him.
He’s in a pickle, lost and alone. I’m in my underwear, relaxing in my home office. I don’t want to leave. I like it here. But should I? In theory, he’s searching for his sister. She represents the way out, and clearly the way out is through. I, on the other hand, know where my sister is. She has a stable, respectable career in another city. She is focused and responsible. She’s already worked it out and I ought to be doing the same – the way out is through? My character and I have both been dropped into a frighteningly bleak world, a scrolling landscape soaked with belligerent ambivalence. Only he’s a small child, a scrawny, agile agent dwarfed in a menacing environment. I am an adult, significantly less scrawny and agile who is taking yet another break from navigating said environment to play some video games. I lean forward and tap the keyboard. My character’s footsteps scratch through the dust, amplifying our insignificance. We arrive at a precipice and I decide to let us linger. He looks down at the trou de loup with an empty stare. I reach over and pull back the curtain. Why is it so dark in here? It’s only noon. It’s an easy jump. We could do it together with minimal effort. Those sticks look sharp and I know he ought to hustle. He needs to catch up with his sister after all. So we jump. A shiver of gleeful anticipation clambers up my spin. Nuts to her, she can wait.
Delight in Limbo is delight in failure. My principle motivation quickly became willful miscalculation. My character falls on the stakes and succumbs to death with a delicious squish and a tastefully gothic squirt of blood. Each moment of death is a compositional masterpiece with just enough realism pinched into the comic-noir mix to keep me simultaneously giggling and cringing. There is no grunting, moaning, or whimpering. There is no vocalization of any kind. My character clearly knows better than I the deep ennui of the misplaced and aimless. He reappears at the edge of the pit, blinking – neither refreshed nor rejuvenated – merely there, again. And what he endures with Sisyphean resolve, I experience with facile excitement. But don’t get me wrong. I love it, as condemning as that sounds. We jump again and once more he leans into it, fists clenched in heroic effort. I lean back smugly. This time it’s me who knows better.
Together we give complexity to the otherwise banal shape of what I imagine is our shared root. Yet while he squares off, dead-set on persevering and working his way through, I’m filling up with a giddy, morose fascination in the abundance of opportunities available to not succeed, receiving for the first time ever a lasting gratification in getting stuck (or in some cases impaled). Nevertheless, we approach each obstacle carefully, stopping momentarily to work it out. The puzzles in Limbo are easy to unravel, despite their compounding complexity, and inevitably more enjoyable to fail.
In Dante’s Purgatorio, the author and his guide negotiate their way through ascending levels of suffering, growing spiritually in the process. The conventional lesson of the limbo allegory is clear – one must struggle through a no man’s land between despair and joy in search of inner peace. Compounded in degrees by other clichés – it’s the journey that counts. Every cloud has a silver lining, stop and smell the roses, etc. Sure my career, my self-satisfaction, my inner peace, my sister, are all off somewhere in the distance. It’s invariably going to be a long hard road to reach them, and I guess I ought to suck it up and learn to smell the roses. But today, fuck it. I’m jumping in some bear traps.