Infernal Geographies: Virgil, Sartre, and Schur.


Welcome to Hell, where geography is no accident of nature. In katabasis, the geography of the underworld is a major tool for challenging and remaking characters on their journey; common landmarks are generally impediments to movement, like gates or bodies of water. Each katabatic geography represents a different conception of life after death, and the characters’ exposure to this geography reveals to us, through their experiences, the narrative’s value system. 

The journey down is a process of spiritual transformation, but only those who successfully navigate the underworld experience growth: some stay trapped forever. The ability to overcome obstacles often depends on whether the would-be traveler is dead or alive. The implication: the dead do not change. This belief is enshrined in katabatic geographies from antiquity onward. 

Modern narratives have received katabasis and transformed it to suit each narrative’s philosophical argument. In this paper, I will begin with the Aeneid, and discuss the generalities of katabatic geography in antiquity. I will then explore how Sartre’s No Exit and Schur’s The Good Place adapt the trope. No Exit features characters whose spiritual stasis is embodied in their environment. Conversely, Schur’s The Good Place subverts the schema established in No Exit by allowing its dead protagonists to destroy the world they inhabit by forming a community and improving their treatment of one another. The Good Place sets up the established schema of death as stasis, then takes it apart, brick by brick. 

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