Purgatory Mates

My one true culture hero, the poet W. H. Auden, invented something that he called a “parlor game,” though it strikes me as something more like a moral exercise. He called it Purgatory Mates, and it works like this.

First, you think of two people who despise each other, or, if they’re dead, despised each other, or, if they never met, would have utterly loathed each other had they been given the chance. The last category is the most fun. Auden preferred historical figures — artists, poets, philosophers — but the game works with all sorts of folks. The key thing is that the Mates need to have something in common, some shared passion or profession. After all, we’re more likely to hate people who care about the same things we do than people whose lives don’t really overlap ours. Thus Auden’s favorite Purgatory Mates were Tolstoy and Oscar Wilde: each of them a greatly gifted writer, but with radically different ideas about what writing is for and what the vocation of author is all about.

So, once you’ve chosen two people, you plop them in Purgatory. Now, as every reader of Dante knows, the purpose of Purgatory is to train people in love: once people learn to what they should in the way that they should, they may ascend to Paradise. And every Christian knows that we are commanded to love our neighbors. So: each of these Purgatory Mates has a new neighbor, a neighbor he loathes, but the only way that they’re going to get out of Purgatory is by learning to love each other.

Now we get to your chief task, as a player of this game: You have to figure out how this could happen. What would these two figures have to correct in their thinking and their affections? What impulses would they have to resist, and what counter-impulses would they need to cultivate? Where can we find the seed of charity that can be tended and cultivated until it becomes what it should be, so that these two former enemies can walk hand-in-hand into Paradise?

I commend this game — to myself as well as to others — as an excellent diversion in this presidential campaign season.