Dante’s Forgotten Sub-Circle of Hell

The Vexed Man, Franz Messerschmidt,

“The Vexed Man” of L.A.’s Getty Museum was likely just one of the city’s countless freeway drivers.

As Phlegyas labored us over the fell river Styx I spied a tributary that ran still deeper into the abyss. Its ashen waters, gurgling with the voices of sullen spirits imprisoned within its murky depths, licked the high walls and turrets guarding the city of Dis. Never did it enter there nor ever did it end, yet vessels still relentlessly crowded its dusky waves from bank to bank and from bow to stern. Each craft, piloted by a lone figure made grotesque by fits of rage, roiled on that foul water but moved not forward. And I, who stood intent to gaze, saw vile serpents with ruthless fangs and rubber necks spring from the dead channel to torment all who sought passage beyond the gates of steel and stone that marked this dismal stream 405.

I turned me to the Sea of All Wisdom and asked “Were doth that path lead?” Virgil, long he pondered that rough and rutted way, said to me “Souls caught ceaselessly between anger and violence travel that hateful road. It leads everywhere and goes nowhere, except on to others like itself. That way we can not go if ever we hope to leave this place. ”

– Lost stanzas from Canto VIII of The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri


Six hundred years after Dante prophesied the I-405 freeway, Dorothy Parker described Los Angeles as “72 suburbs in search of a city.” Had she lived today Dorothy might demote her assessment of L.A. to something like “four million motorists in search of an exit.”

Of course the two observations are related. The sprawl that prompted Dorothy’s remark also prompted creation of the twelve lane freeways that now connect it all. But in this regard, L.A. is not so unlike other American cities. We’ve seen similar, if lesser, sprawl everywhere from Austin, TX to Raleigh, NC. Constant congestion is, after all, the logical conclusion to America’s obsessive car culture. Los Angeles is just further down that road, so to speak, than most.

Anger, Hans-Siebert von Heister

Anger by Hans-Siebert von Heister, LACMA Museum

It’s not that we don’t love Los Angeles. We do; just only so much as it will allow. In L.A. we found world class museums, stunning beaches, terrific food, great hikes and much, muchmore. While at any one of these locations we loved it as intensely as any place in the world. Often we felt like we never wanted to leave; if only because leaving meant once again confronting the city’s traffic. It was enough to sully many of our best experiences.

We admit we’re particularly sensitive to this topic. It’s one of our few travel prejudices. For us, sitting in gridlock with so many cultural and geological treasures just a few miles up the road feels like the kind ironic torture The Divine Comedy excels at. We adore cities and everything they have to offer but we hate needing to drive. Our ideal urban environment is built up, not out. It’s walkable with robust street level retail and a good subway system. It’s a place where an automobile is a superfluous luxury. It’s something diametrically opposed to L.A.

To cope we started arranging our schedules around rush hour, which often meant leaving late, returning early and cramming our weekends full to the point of breaking. Many times that wasn’t even enough. Who’d have thought that six lanes of traffic could be brought to a full stop at 11:00 PM on a Saturday night or 3:00 PM Sunday afternoon? And who knew that fender benders were so captivating to so many? The irony is fitting, though. Sitting in endless gridlock is just the kind of punishment Dante would devise for those who enjoy gawking at other’s automobile wrecks. 

To be fair, we could have given L.A.’s public transportation system a harder try. We got only so far as the Long Beach Transit and Visitor Information Center where we sought help planning our itinerary around metro stops. We abandoned that effort, though, after the transit agent offered us this advice: “You guys should probably rent a car.”

LA Traffic

By all means, rent a car.

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15 Comments on “Dante’s Forgotten Sub-Circle of Hell”

  1. John March 25, 2013 at 7:37 am #

    Was there on the 405 recently, what fun!


  2. Touring NH March 25, 2013 at 8:41 am #

    I haven’t been to LA in over 25 years. I get frustrated driving in Boston and NYC, I can’t imagine driving in LA again.


  3. writecrites March 25, 2013 at 2:33 pm #

    When I first moved to Oahu in ’73 we had no freeways and no traffic jams. Now we have 3 freeways and even so, gridlock is common, especially if there’s an accident, and those are happening more frequently because people seem to be more impatient these days. We’re not nearly as bad as LA (where I lived before moving here), but what a shame this kind of mess has come to Paradise.


    • Brian March 25, 2013 at 9:40 pm #

      Paradise lost, a shame indeed.


  4. theindianajames March 25, 2013 at 5:40 pm #

    (Anger and Violence)…”It leads everywhere and goes nowhere, except on to others like itself.” Very powerful and yet very true.


    • Brian March 25, 2013 at 9:42 pm #

      Thanks. I did my best to honor Dante’s epic.


  5. Liz March 25, 2013 at 9:34 pm #

    I’ll still take LA freeways over driving in the DC area.


    • Brian March 25, 2013 at 9:47 pm #

      That’s interesting. I don’t recall having much problem driving around D.C. I suspect that is because when in the city there wasn’t any reason to drive. We walked or took their great metro everywhere.


  6. morristownmemos by Ronnie Hammer March 26, 2013 at 10:20 pm #

    I’ve never been to LA, but my son recently moved to La Jolla, so I think a visit may be in my future. I would love to see the Getty Museum; does it require driving through this kind of morass to get there?


    • Brian March 30, 2013 at 11:06 am #

      We drove to the Getty. Don’t know if public transportation serves the museum or not.



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