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Dante and the Yellow Submarine

David Cowles

Apr 15, 2024

“Yellow Submarine did for the Divine Comedy what West Side Story did for Romeo & Juliet…but I very much doubt the Beatles had any idea what they’d done!”

“In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straightway was lost. Ah, how hard a thing it is to tell of that wood, savage and harsh and dense…So bitter is it that death is hardly more.” (Dante, Inferno, Canto I) 

“Liverpool can be a lonely place on a Saturday night… and this is only Thursday morning.” (Ringo Starr, Yellow Submarine

650 years after Dante Alighieri completed his Divine Comedy, a rock and roll band from Liverpool retraced his steps. In 1968, they released a modern, ostensibly secular version of Dante’s epic. Yellow Submarine (YS) did for the Divine Comedy (DC) what West Side Story did for Romeo & Juliet…but I very much doubt the Beatles had any idea what they’d done! 

Still, the resonance between these two works is inescapable. Dante lived in the theocratic Middle Ages while the Beatles rose to prominence in the hyper-secular ‘60’s. Apparently, “the fundamental things (do continue to) apply as time goes by” (Casablanca). 

Fittingly, YS opens with a Beatles’ favorite, Eleanor Rigby. It is hard to imagine a song better suited to accompany Dante’s evening in the woods…or Ringo’s morning in Liverpool: “Father McKenzie, writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear… No one was saved…Eleanor Rigby died in the church and was buried along with her name. Nobody came….” 

Not exactly Christmas music! But it certainly prepares Dante, Ringo, and us for what’s ahead. As we shall see, Eleanor Rigby describes the World, not only as it is but as it must be…provided it lacks any transcendent dimension (i.e. provided it is wholly self-contained). 

Dante meets the Roman poet Virgil who offers to be his guide through Hell: “Thou must take another road if thou wouldst escape from this savage place.” (Inferno, Canto I) Back in Liverpool, Ringo meets his own ‘spirit guide’, Admiral Fred. Virgil takes Dante, not through Tuscany but on a path perpendicular to spacetime itself – a path normally traveled only by the dearly departed. ‘Young’ Fred does the same for Ringo and his pals.

We are familiar with the Egyptian and Tibetan Books of the Dead, the Jewish Kadish and the Christian Last Rites. These are prayers recited or texts read aloud at the time of a person’s death. The purpose is to facilitate the transition from mortality to eternity. 

While neither recited nor screened bed side, DC and YS should both be considered part of our multicultural funerary tradition. Both offer detailed images of the stages connecting the angst of Liverpool/Florence with the joy of Pepperland/Paradise. 

“Abandon all hope, ye that enter here,” reads the sign posted above Hell’s gate. The souls in Hell no longer have the capacity for change. They cannot repent and they cannot influence events in the spatiotemporal world. They are defined now by their sins, and they are compelled to live out those sins eternally. They are expressions of determinism.

Dante’s Hell is a spiral; all roads, all rungs, lead to Satan. It is a perverse version of Frost’s Two Roads. As Dante and Virgil descend lower and lower in the narrowing gyre, Hell starts to ‘freeze over’, quite literally. At bottom, they encounter Satan, encased in ice; here is the nadir of all being, a metaphor for Absolute Zero, a foretaste of the cosmic ‘heat death’ that awaits us all.

Note: Satan and God share an unusual ontological feature. God is Good per se…but also the Agent of Good in the World. Likewise, Satan is the Agent of Entropy (disorder)…as well as being Disorder itself. This is not to suggest any sort of ontological parity between God and Satan, but that is a topic for another day!

This is not the end! Immediately, Dante and Virgil discover that their direction has changed. They are no longer descending; they are starting to ascend Mount Purgatory on the way to Paradise. The first and last verses of Paradiso sum it up: “The glory of him who moves all things penetrates the universe…the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.” 

Back in England (1968), the Beatles are preparing to embark on their own mystical journey. Pepperland has succumbed to an invasion of giants known as “Blue Meanies”. Young Fred, the Beatles’ Virgil, recently appointed Lord Admiral of the Pepperland Fleet, has just escaped in, of course, a yellow sub (what else?).

Its idyllic tranquility shattered, its population “bonked” into a zombie-like state of suspended animation, Pepperland land itself is laid waste (as in the Grail legends). The once rainbow-colored countryside is now a monochrome gray. Just as Paradise was lost but later regained (Milton), so Pepperland has been captured and must now be liberated. 

Ringo, led by the Admiral and accompanied by his three musical pals, proceeds through a gate of his own. The sign atop this gate simply reads “The Pier”…apt, for this is the launch site for the Beatles’ triumphant Free Pepperland campaign. 

The Pepper Path runs through a series of “seas” (or branes) that challenge every preconception our travelers have regarding the nature of reality. The first three seas deconstruct the phenomenal world into its basic elements: Time, Space, and Stuff (energy manifested as matter and force). 

Each of these Seas in turn undergoes its own particular deconstruction. First, the Sea of Time. Our time appears to flow one way (from past to future) at a steady rate – so steady that we hardly notice it. Real time flows at a variable rate and it flows backwards as well as forwards. In New England they constantly talk about ‘the weather’; in Olde England, apparently, they constantly talk about ‘the time’. The plodding phenomenal time that we take for granted turns out to be a very particular expression of multifarious noumenal time. 

Of course, if time is reversible, then whatever exists can be erased, retroactively…all of which leads to what I call, the Nihilist Conjecture: “Anything that can happen does happen; what can be will be and what cannot be won’t be; everything can be erased and all erasure is retroactive; therefore, everything that ever will be erased has already been erased; and nothing that has been erased ever was; therefore, nothing is, and since nothing is, nothing was and nothing can be, since nothing can come from nothing (Parmenides et al.).”     

This Nihilist Doxology challenges the competing Christian version: “As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.”

“To be or not to be” was never the question; the question has always been, paraphrasing the jazz favorite, “Is there is or is there ain’t a world?” Because if there is a world, then the Nihilist Conjecture (‘no world is possible’) has been falsified. So is there a world?

The second sea, the Sea of Science, does for space what its predecessor did for time. As with time (clocks), human representations of space (Cartesian grids, Platonic solids) determine what space is. Dimensionality is flexible and not an essential aspect of ‘extension’. 

The third sea, the Sea of Monsters, deconstructs the material world including the phenomenon of life. It shows that what we consider ‘variety’ in our world is, in fact, a very limited and highly selective subset of all the structures and qualities that spacetime could support…and, according to the Beatles, does support. YS anticipates Stephen Gould’s Wonderful Life.

In the Sea of Monsters, all possible ‘life’ forms flourish: “Let 1,000 flowers bloom” (Mao). Shape is continuously and indefinitely mutable. All boundaries separating the organic from the mechanical have been dissolved. Platonic forms have replaced by a Chinese menu of customizable combos: “My partner and I would like to order Combo #3, Combo #7, and Combo #12…and we’ll be sharing everything.” What we accept as ‘our prix fixe world’ is the artifact of a limited imagination. 

This third sea is aptly named. All the creatures are indeed ‘monsters’, not because of how they look or how they are made but because of how they behave (like some children I’ve known – not mine, or yours, of course). Without exception, they are involved in activities that are destructive to themselves and to others. One might question the adaptive advantage of such behavior, but Darwin is not on trial…at least not today. 

The Beatles’ monsters act exactly like the souls in Dante’s Inferno. Their natures are hard-wired, and they don’t have the capacity to overcome their ‘programming’. They are well outside the ‘state of grace’. 

Among the various monsters in this sea, one stands out: the Vacuum Monster (VM). As its name suggests, it is the nature of this creature to suck up whatever it encounters. In the “monstrous sea”, creatures threaten other creatures, but the VM threatens everything, first its fellow monsters, then spacetime, and finally, itself alone

The Vacuum Monster is the personification of entropy. In YS, the inexorable process of dematerialization is accelerated. Dante’s Satan, like Evil (deliver us from…) in the Lord’s Prayer, is the personification of ‘negation’; and nothing negates like entropy. 

Sure enough, VM sucks up all the other monsters. Then, seeing that there are no other monsters to suck, it sucks up spacetime, then itself, tail first, like an ouroboros, “into oblivion…or even further”. Like the souls in Hell, the monsters in Yellow Submarine are compelled to act out their destructive personae, even though that activity per se is the source of their desolation. Been there!

If any proto-World must self-annihilate, then that World does not exist, never did exist, and never will exist, cannot exist. According to this model, unless anchored to some objective reference point beyond itself, it is inevitable that any possible world would self-annihilate; and if all possible worlds are doomed to annihilation, then no World can possibly exist…ever. Yellow Submarine begins ostensibly as a secular ontology, but it ultimately proves that no consistent secular ontology is possible, other than hardcore Nihilism, which is really an anti-ontology.

We are faced with a modern version of Pascal’s Wager. Granted we cannot know for sure whether or not there is a world, we have to put our chips somewhere. At this craps table, the Don’t Come pays Zero; so a Pass Line bet is the only rational option, however distasteful that might be.

“I set before you Life and Death, therefore choose (even crappy) Life.” (Deuteronomy 30: 19)


Of course, VM does its worst, and predictably we are left with no time, no space, and no stuff. Like Dante before them, our lads have reached the nadir of being, an empty state which the Beatles appropriately call, “Nowhere Land”. This would seem to be the end of our voyage…the end of all voyages in fact…the end of us.  But no! It turns out to be just the beginning. As Mary Tudor said, “My end is my beginning.” 

Nowhere Land may be located at the nadir of Being but, as Dante discovered, your very next step takes you in a different, more positive direction, in his case up Mount Purgatory toward Paradise. But first, it turns out that Nowhere Land isn’t exactly empty after all. It’s not a void. It’s more like the world, as the Book of Genesis describes it, just before creation: "…The earth was without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind sweeping over the waters.” Not much of a vacation destination to be sure (I’ve been to worse), but not quite empty either. 

In ‘nearly empty’ Nowhere Land, there remains an irreducible proto-being by the name of Jeremy Hillary Boob, Ph.D. The Beatles aptly call him “Nowhere Man”. Dr. Boob (‘JHB’) is quite literally what’s left of a world after its total annihilation. JHB, you see, is pure information – but that information is so disorganized that it cannot know that it knows what it knows…and it cannot be harnessed to do any sort of ‘work’. 

So it does not pass the ‘Bateson/Whitehead Ontological Test’: it is not a difference that makes a difference. So JHB does not exist in any accepted sense of the word; he’s Being’s ghost. Stephen Hawking showed that black holes have the power to annihilate everything that falls through their event horizons; but he also showed that these same holes radiate that information back into the cosmos. The Boob is that information. He’s all hair, no head.

According to the oldest-known Western philosopher, Anaximander, ‘actual being’ comes about only when two or more ‘potential beings’ grant each other “reck”. Unlike the souls in Dante’s Inferno and the creatures in the Monstrous Sea, Anaximander’s proto-beings avoid the allure of mutual self-destruction and decide, independently of one another (that’s essential) to let each other be (Let it Be – Beatles). They do not do this out of any hope of personal gain or out of any expectation of reciprocity; they do it out of agape, non-thetic, unconditional Love.

Here's how Disney would portray the moment of creation: Our hero is a disembodied voice on the edge of the abyss, crying out, “I grant you reck. I know not who you are or even if you are. Would you mean me well or ill? ‘Here’s no great matter’ (Eliot). I grant you reck, unconditionally…come what may, just because it’s the right thing to do.” Being is Value.

This is a decision that all of us in the living world make every day. Every time we treat another as we would want to be treated, with no consideration of ‘results’, and no expectation of ‘reciprocity’, we co-create the universe with God. The souls in Hell do not have this opportunity; by their unrepented sins they have forfeited it. Neither do the creatures in Sea of Monsters; they are destined to destroy themselves and everything around them. 

There is no native Love in Hell, nor in the Seas of Time, Science and Monsters. So, where does totally selfless Love come from? What is its origin? In a universe powered by mutually assured destruction, the decision to let a potential adversary exist, placing your own existence at risk in the process, is utterly unnatural. Therefore, it has to originate outside the ‘natural’, spatiotemporal, material world. 

The Love that drives the universe cannot originate inside that universe. (It might have done, but that option is ruled out by the Nihilist Conjecture.) Love is a precondition of World; World cannot be a precondition of Love. The source of Love must be transcendent. For Dante, that means Paradise; for the Beatles, Pepperland. Take your pick! 

JHB does not (actually) exist, but he does have the potential to exist. He is in a coherent quantum state. He needs someone (or something) to grant him reck. Enter the Beatles! They choose to befriend the Nowhere Man: “Mr. Boob, you can come with us if you like…we’ll take you somewhere.” 

As a member of the crew, JHB finds purpose and, with that purpose, he begins to organize his information so that he can use it to ‘make a difference’…which, ultimately, he does. He exists! He becomes a full-fledged ‘person’ after all…Pinocchio, a ‘real boy’. But note: he does not organize himself; he is dependent on something outside of him: Value manifested as Purpose.

The Beatles and the Boob grant each other reck and, as Anaximander predicted, ontogenesis ensues (2500 years later)! But to be born out of mutual reck, out of Love, is not to exist merely in the spatiotemporal, material realm; it is to exist in an eternal realm as well. Being is transcendental. To be is to transcend space, time, and matter/energy. It is our thesis that a cosmos limited to space, time and materiality, i.e., a secular universe, is impossible; it cannot exist.

Sidebar: It may not be possible to prove directly that there is and must be a transcendent dimension to the World. But it may be possible, using a reductio ad absurdum, to prove that a Universe without a transcendent dimension cannot exist. In that case, the debate must shift to Descartes’ question: Is there something rather than nothing? Is there anything that can justify my saying with complete confidence, “Sum” or better yet, “Est”?  (According to Descartes, there is: it’s “Cogito”.)

The Beatles have dealt with Time and Space and Life itself; so what’s next? You guessed it, Mind: the Foothills of the Headlands, the land of disembodied thoughts. Its inhabitants want to help the Beatles on their journey, but they can’t. Like Dante’s souls in Purgatory, these creatures are immaterial and powerless to bring aims to fruition.

Sleeping yet. Put on some coffee because here’s where things really get interesting! Our next stop is the legendary Sea of Holes, the realm of ‘negative space’. The usual relation of figure/ground is reversed. The sea itself is now the ground, and the holes in that ground now constitute the figure. Nothing has become concrete, so concrete that Ringo is actually able to put a ‘hole’ in his pocket. 

The topology of this sea is non-orientable. There is no consistent sense of direction, no spatial ordering. It’s like an Escher drawing on steroids. But if the Sea of Holes is non-orientable, then the entire universe in which it is embedded, including Liverpool and Pepperland, must also be non-orientable, albeit less obviously so. 

We may say that the universe is locally orientable but globally non-orientable because it has the Sea of Holes embedded in it. Think of the world we live in: Earth appears flat (locally) but I’m told it’s round (globally). 

Dante had his experience of non-orientability on the threshold of Purgatory. “I raised my eyes and thought to see Lucifer as I had left him; and I saw his legs held upward.” (Inferno, Canto XXXIV) Just as Dante and Virgil turn to leave Hell, Dante looks back and is surprised to see Satan upside down, a reversal of orientation that is the trademark of non-orientable spaces. 

The Sea of Holes leads to Pepperland…but not so fast! You may only enter through an infinitely thin membrane (an event horizon?) called the “Sea of Green”… and only one of the holes in the Sea of Holes connects to the Sea of Green…and there are innumerable holes to choose from. 

One could easily spend ‘a lifetime’ searching for the one hole that connects to the Sea of Green and on to Pepperland…and never find it. Neither Dante nor the Beatles can reach their goal without the intervention of grace

Fortunately, our Argonauts do find the Sea of Green, and when they do, they immediately find themselves in Pepperland. Remarkably, Pepperland looks a lot like Liverpool, i.e., it’s drab…and lonely.  But the Beatles quickly “unbonk” the Lord Mayor with “a snatch of a tune” and “ready the land to rebellion”. 

It is only now that they discover that they bear an “uncanny” resemblance to four of Pepperland’s permanent residents, the members of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

In fact, the Beatles are the Sergeant Pepper Band!  ‘The Beatles’ under the aspect of spacetime, they are ‘Sergeant Pepper’ under the aspect of eternity. 

Together, the historical Beatles and the eternal Pepper Band use music to restore Pepperland to its former glory. The Battle Hymn of their Republic: All you need is Love! The Blue Meanies are routed. But in the spirit of Love, the Beatles offer reconciliation: “Hello there, blue people. Won’t you join us?” And of course, they do: “Yes, let’s mix, Max!” 

Pepperland is restored. Welcome to Paradise! And a special thanks to Dante and Ringo for being our ‘spirit guides’ along the way. 


David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at


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