Skip to content

Hell.

And its abolitions.

By ALAN WALL.

Hell on a wall.WHAT IS HELL? It is either a spiritual state or location, which is the domicile of demons and damned human souls, or it is a projection of the psychic darkness which exists inside the human imagination. In Roman Catholic churches there is an option whether the Nicene Creed is used in the service, or the Apostles’ Creed. Only the latter declares that the Messiah was crucified and killed, and then ‘descended into hell’. These days, in public worship, there is frequently an ellipsis where that harrowing might be spoken of. Often enough he is simply dead and buried, and the next line would inform you: ‘On the third day he rose from the dead.’

The fact is that a great deal of western Christianity, in many of its public performances, has become nervous of propounding a God who could condemn anyone to eternal suffering. In modern terms it started to seem a little harsh, even for an omnipotently judging deity. So dare we hope that all may be saved, and even the demons too? Or, at worst, burn away to a cinder when confronted with the brightness of the light? That at least, if not the happiest of career moves for one enamoured of redemption, still sounds a better option than eternal damnation. One way of seeming to resolve the matter, frequently employed by subtle theologians, is to declare that there undoubtedly is a hell, but that there is not necessarily anyone in it. Which begs a questions, surely: what’s it for, then? A hell without even Hitler or the Kommandant of Auschwitz starts to look like a football stadium without any goalposts, players or even a ball. Can it really be, in the formulation of post-war power-bloc politics, a credible deterrent? Could the Almighty have torn an ontological hole in the very fabric of being simply to make all intelligent beings think twice?

Everything is straightforward here only for those zealots for whom everything is always straightforward anyway. In Paradise Lost Satan exhorts his fallen companions with this assertion:

The mind is its own place, and of itself can make
A heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.

THIS IS A specific heresy that for a while might have travelled under the name of psychologism. It was favoured, Alastair Fowler tells us in his magisterial notes to Milton, by Amaury de Bene. It should be distinguished from another heresy, propounded by Mephistopheles in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus: ‘Why this is hell. Nor am I out of it.’ That perversion of doctrine was for a time known as ubiquism. The first heresy asserts that hell is no more than a state of mind; so change your mind and you will find that you might well be in heaven. It’s all psychological anyway. This seems remarkably close to certain self-help philosophies of our own day. Dale Carnegie reminded us in the invaluable How to Win Friends and Influence People: ‘Two men looked out through prison bars/One saw mud and the other saw stars.’ It’s all a question of attitude, then. As for Satan, he is (understandably) trying to look on the bright side, given the way the war in heaven has finally turned out. One can’t help but think of W. C. Fields: ‘Been reading the Bible again today, looking for loopholes.’

The Harrowing.The descent into, and the harrowing of, hell, still feature prominently in many liturgies, including the eastern orthodox variety, and their iconographic itineraries carry considerable force. By descending into hell, in one version of Jesus’s Sabbatarian immolation, the Messiah goes to the lowest place in life and in the afterlife, and finally expresses his redemptive power even there. The metaphors of verticality appear unavoidable here. No one ever ascends into hell. Whenever Milton employs the word ruin he is always aware (astute etymologist that he was) that ruinare in the Latin means to fall or collapse. If Jesus is to assert his power throughout the whole of creation, then even hell must presumably require his grave sojourn. No zone of experience is to remain untouched. In one legalistic gloss, Satan wrongly claims Jesus as his sanctioned prisoner, assuming the Messiah has been justly imprisoned in the Prince of Evil’s posthumous bailiwick, and then the injustice of this seizure of the one man after Adam who was ever entirely without sin, splits open the hermetically sealed gates of hell for ever. Harrowing is a breaking of the surface, whether of the field or of the carceral spaces of the Inferno. Once Jesus has accomplished his harrowing, the righteous dead (even though not entirely without sin themselves) can now at last be released. They troop out of Hades with Jesus in the vanguard, those old patricians and prophets: Abraham, Moses, Isaiah. One of the medieval mystery plays was entitled The Harrowing of Hell. In the version in the York Plays Satan recognises Jesus. I know you, he says, you are the son of the wright (maker, carpenter perhaps) in Galilee. What’s supposed to be so special about you then? One could describe the early Christian tradition as a lengthy attempt to answer Satan’s question.

This is the domicile of those who have severed themselves from the source of any and every meaning.

There is also a more dramatic, and for modern tastes perhaps more psychologically convincing, version of what happened during that dead day between crucifixion and resurrection. This was described in various ways by the theologian Hans Urs von Balthazar, who was dependent in his turn on the visions of the mystic Adrienne Von Speyr. Jesus here is utterly cancelled, quite God-bereft, at the end of his experience on the cross. In the only words of Aramaic in the text, he expresses his abandonment thus: Eloi, eloi, lama sabachtani?, which is to say, My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me? This cancellation continues in his ultimate descent into the region of the hopeless, those who have freely renounced all communication with God. In this act of voluntary self-annihilation, Jesus enters into the anti-world of the negation of all meaningful experience. He accepts the vastation of meaning and value that constitutes damnation itself. This is the domicile of those who have severed themselves from the source of any and every meaning. The dead Jesus is here translated into the cosmic region of nullity. Thus does his redemptive power touch even that darkness, before he finally embarks on his ascent out of darkness once more into the light of redemptive meaning.

A number of papal bulls in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries made the matter plain: you were either destined for heaven or hell. This is the eschaton, the final thing, that provides us with our eschatology. Purgatory becomes a staging-post for those destined for salvation. But the four last things, as spelt out in the catechism, are these: death, judgment, heaven and hell. Purgatory was a relatively late invention, and one which the reformers saw fit to abolish, as a papist superstition, which led inevitably to those degraded forms of negotiation with the Almighty represented by Brother Tetzel and his sale of indulgences, in order to finance the building of Saint Peter’s. So we all have one destination or the other. The obverse and the reverse of all our destinies carry only two names: heaven or hell. Pursue the matter vigorously, and you will still frequently find this belief articulated in Roman Catholic pronouncements. But Jesus’s descent into hell has managed to vanish from much of the western liturgy, as it is publicly uttered. It appears to have become one of those truths better left unsaid. Times have certainly changed since Dante.

Angra Mainu.JEFFREY BURTON RUSSELL, in his multi-volume study of Satan1 points out that there are only four world religions that have ever had a Devil; many more have demons, but the notion of a singular embodiment of the principle of transcendent evil is restricted to this quaternity: Zoroastrianism (or Mazdaism); ancient Judaism, though not the modern variety; Christianity and Islam. By propounding an agent of darkness and destruction set over against the divine will, any creed lays itself open to the charge of dualism. This has become a lethal insult in theological or philosophical discourse, though it is worthy of note that there is no satisfactory antonym to dualism here. What is the alternative to a dualistic or binary view that finds a struggle between forces of light and forces of darkness? Holism? That doesn’t sound right, somehow, hinting at homemade sandals and dark proteinaceous bread. Monism? That feels tricky too. The problem with any monistic solution here is that the darkness will presumably have to be situated inside God Himself; otherwise from whence precisely did it arise? Well, Milton has Chaos, out of which all is made, and this allows for the possibility that there is something unregenerate in it which will not quite be coaxed into redemptiveness. Burton Russell highlights the problem with a picture of a limestone sculpture of Quetzalcoatl, on one side the creative god of life and on the other a skull-faced bringer of death and destruction. Obverse and reverse here appear to overcome the dilemma of dualism; or do they merely foreground it?

Lucifer by Petrus de Placiis.Christian orthodoxy has tended to favour a strand of thought going back through Aquinas to Augustine: the privatio boni. On this basis everything created is good; what ends up as evil is privation or warping into negativity of that which was initially wholesome. So, Satan starts off as Lucifer, the lightbearer, the brightest of the seraphim. It is his sin through pride which corrupts that glorious being into the most inglorious agent of all. But this notion of evil as pure negativity generates its own problems. Evil can be proactive, programmatic, remarkably forceful. It is hard to see where all this energy comes from, out of pure privation.

This tempts some thinkers towards simplification, even vulgarisation. In a recent issue of the London Review of Books Terry Eagleton said of Brian Levack’s book The Devil Within that ‘it could do with a touch more theology’.2 He then went on to say: ‘Satan is the image of Yahweh as judge and patriarch – as an irascible prima donna of a God who needs to be kept sweet. Jesus, by contrast, is the image of God as lover, comrade and counsel for the defence.’ This exhibits that characteristic breeziness which seems to endear this writer to so many. But given the twinning of the word ‘image’ here, and the link to Jesus, Eagleton appears to assume that Satan can be seen as an ‘aspect’ of God. He cannot. The tradition, to be sure, is befogged with confusions, misprisions and dubious etymologies. Lucifer the light-bearer arises out of Isaiah, who would seem to have been apostrophizing Nebuchadnezzar at the time, as the son of the morning, now ‘fallen from heaven’. This is what will subsequently provide the association of the word Lucifer with the morning or evening star, Venus. The church fathers, including Jerome, often employed this nomenclature.

Lucifer by Doré.SATAN THE ADVERSARY makes appearances in many of the books of Hebrew scripture, including Numbers, Job, Chronicles, Psalms and Zechariah. In most of these instances, the figure portrayed is an angel filling an office, most certainly not an ‘aspect of God’, as Shekinah can be seen as an aspect or manifestation of the Almighty. Nor is this angelic personage in any way fallen, a notion unknown to Hebrew scripture. In New Testament times the confusion begins in earnest; it never goes away. Dante, Chaucer and Milton are all confident that Lucifer is the name of the great light-bearer in heaven, but after his rebellion he becomes Satan for ever after. There is no scriptural warrant for this.

Satan, according to the Talmud, was created on the sixth day of Creation. He was usually thought, as we have said, to be the head of the seraphim. Seraphim, the highest order of angels, had six wings, but Satan is often portrayed with twelve. In the Summa, Thomas Aquinas insisted that Satan must have been of the cherubim. This insistence he based on the false etymology which claimed that the word cherubim was derived from knowledge, and was therefore compatible with mortal sin. He contrasted one false etymology with another, which derived the word seraphim from charity, an attribute he believed incompatible with mortal sin.

‘Angels are bright still, though the brightest fell’ we are told in Macbeth. And the notion of the brightest angel of all who then becomes ruler of the darkest kingdom starts to play its part in New Testament texts and polemics. It features in subsequent Christian art, literature and music, right through to the present day. The darkest and most potent leader of the damned is often hybridised with ancient figures like Pluto, who also ruled the realms below and liked to gather up unsuspecting humans for infernal purposes. The extent of this fallen angel’s power has provided a lengthy and confusing intellectual tradition, in which can be traced a struggle between monism and dualism in Christian thought through the centuries.

Walter Benjamin was fond of recalling a particularly specialised genus of angels whose sole function was to come into being, chant halleluiahs to the Almighty, then promptly disappear into the angelic black hole Providence had prepared for them. But even they exhibited free will. Even these ephemerids of the angelic orders weren’t simply aspects of God, employing preternatural smoke and mirrors in order to let Yahweh congratulate himself on being so splendiferous.

It is possible to read the Satan of Numbers as a periphrasis for Yahweh, but once we enter the post-Exilic period, we are dealing with an independent supernatural being. From this point on, whatever else he is, Satan can only be regarded as an image or aspect of God by certain Gnostic creeds, and by Satanists. And of course by Terry Eagleton, whose prodigious flow is rarely halted by fastidious scruple.

H. Bosch.WHAT EXACTLY THE Jesus of the gospels meant by the fires of judgment, and by ultimate condemnation, is a matter for ceaseless debate. ‘The gehenna of fire’ seems to be as close to his actual words as we are likely to get, and that refers us to the civic dump outside Jerusalem, Gehenna by name, linking back to the Valley of Hinnom, the origin of which is unknown, but it is possible that it was once a place of human sacrifice, dedicated perhaps to Moloch. More informally and subsequently, it seems to become a place where rubbish was incinerated. That allows for the notion of simply ceasing to be, in a final puff of smoke. But other gospel passages and parables insist on continued suffering as the price of disregarding the will of God. That will soon transmute into ‘eternal punishment and suffering’ in the Christian tradition. And once Christianity seizes on the idea of a place of eternal suffering, and the busy grinning demons that are its grim wardens, it is very reluctant to let go. Shrieking devils with tridents represent a more vigorous iconography than seraphically smiling angels with harps. We might all prefer to live in Mr Brownlow’s house in Oliver Twist, but we undoubtedly prefer reading about Bill Sikes as he eyes up Nancy for her final beating. Even in the surrealist landscapes of Hieronymous Bosch, God the Father in the Garden of Eden looks like a disconsolate Welsh preacher on a wet Sunday, whereas hell is where all the life is. Nothing damp and disconsolate about Bosch’s demons; they rage excitedly. Exactly the same pattern is repeated in Paradise Lost.

James Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man cobbles together his own damnation sermon during the retreat which Stephen Dedalus attends. It is not a copy of any single sermon, but it rings true in its grisly imaginings. Generations of Catholics had a very dim sense of heaven, but a sense of hell so viciously potent that it was psychically ineradicable. In many of the great buildings of Christianity (the cathedral at Pisa, for example) the portrayal of damnation is somewhat more absorbing than the portrayal of salvation. Most readers prefer Dante’s Inferno to his Paradiso. Everyone prefers Paradise Lost to Paradise Regained. And if this is so, we might pause for a moment and wonder why. If the non-believer insists that hell is a projection out of the darkness of the human psyche, neither more nor less, then we must come to a melancholy conclusion: the amount of darkness within us appears to be infinite in dimension. There is at least as much darkness inside us as there is light outside. So where precisely does that leave us?

Bacon's triptych.Two notable twentieth century artists went out of their way to re-instate hell at the centre of their work: T. S. Eliot and Francis Bacon. There is even a triptych of Bacon’s which is named after an unfinished dramatic work of Eliot’s, Sweeney Agonistes. (We should note that the title of this work was not provided by Bacon himself, but by the Marlborough Gallery, after Bacon had informed them that he had been reading that text of Eliot’s while painting his triptych.) Eliot came to believe that the greatest poet of the last thousand years was Dante, and that the greatest modern equivalent to him was Baudelaire. Both of these masters, we might note, were much preoccupied with hell. As Eliot abandoned the vestiges of his youthful Unitarianism, a religion as indifferent to the notion of damnation as it is to the concept of the Trinity, he found an undoubted comfort in a doctrinal position that included the choice of eternal damnation as the ultimate expression of human freedom. He had no time for versions of Christianity which sought to abolish hell, accusing one interlocutor of trying to turn God into Santa Claus.

It is easy to forget now that the Inferno of Dante was regarded with horror by many in the nineteenth century, as a relic of that medieval superstition…

It is easy to forget now that the Inferno of Dante was regarded with horror by many in the nineteenth century, as a relic of that medieval superstition which modern churchmen had repaired at last with their more enlightened views. Dante Gabriel Rossetti translated parts of the Inferno into English (his grandfather had translated all of Paradise Lost into Italian), and there were versions produced throughout the Victorian age, before Binyon’s magisterial version in the early twentieth century. But such a vision of hell, of eternal suffering, vouchsafed by the poetic imagination, made people uneasy. All those visions of hell appeared so antiquated; they belonged to another age. Perhaps the most brilliant critique of the Inferno of Victorian times was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Here we have an infernal realm without any real infernal powers. The Reverend Charles Dodgson did not believe in hell. He kept quiet about it elsewhere, since it was still the official doctrine of the Anglican faith, even if it was starting to gather a certain amount of dust in the theological muniments room.

Whatever Dodgson might have thought, Eliot did not believe in a Christianity without hell; it smacked of that Unitarian smudging of boundaries which had come to so appal him. Emersonian self-reliance; the making of one’s own paradise: he was having none of that. He often referred to such intellectual manoeuvres as ‘liberalism’. His work often portrays quite specific infernos, little side-chapels to the nave’s great theme. Sweeney Agonistes, the unfinished drama that so intrigued Bacon, is set in a kind of hell on earth, with Sweeney reminiscing about his friend who ‘did a girl in’; we are left reasonably convinced that the murderer must have been Sweeney himself. But the vision of life in death that he conjures seems no worse (and a great deal more real) than the social rounds of fake joy and spurious bonhomie that the London of the time has on offer, in the social life celebrated by the other characters in the drama. One can find a curious parallel to Sweeney Agonistes in the film In Bruges, which also has people reminiscing about those they have killed, and also seeking momentary pleasure in seemingly hellish conditions. Both are dramas of confinement; in both cases the places of confinement are arenas of damnation. These are infernal translations, as are Bacon’s silently screaming figures inside their vestigial cages and cells.

BLAKE HAD BEEN commissioned to illustrate Dante in the last year of his life, and he said something of the greatest relevance here: that Dante’s Inferno was real, not despite the fact that it was imagined, but because of it. Nothing is real that is not fully imagined. Blake himself seemed to feel that hell and the demons were a projection of the human mind when in thrall to that most invidious of all human projections: Old Nobodaddy (aka God). That appears to be his argument three decades before in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. He himself did not believe there was any such place or state as hell, where the sinful were eternally punished. Nevertheless, he was in no doubt of the reality of Dante’s vision. And he once saw the Devil on the stairs, and subsequently drew him. He found the experience fearful.

Thieves in Blake's Inferno.So we have a curiosity worthy of remark. One believer, Eliot, and one unbeliever, Bacon, situated the infernal experience at the very centre of their art. Whatever theology might have to say on the subject, the imagination insisted on retaining the kingdom of the damned. Eliot was unrelenting in his seriousness regarding damnation. He roundly told off his old friend Ezra Pound for the latter’s ‘Hell Cantos’ (XIV-XV). What you have created, he said, is a hell for other people, and that makes it unreal. It is a mechanism for denunciation, not the terrifying place of dark spiritual realities envisioned by Dante. Make it real, he told Pound: put me in your hell, then it will be real. Sweeney in Sweeney Agonistes, and Harry in The Family Reunion, are real and compelling precisely because we sense so much of Eliot in them.

Those entirely enamoured of the version of Eliot’s first marriage propounded in the play and film Tom and Viv should read Ronald Schuchard’s Eliot’s Dark Angel. Eliot went through his own version of hell, that’s for sure. And it was while undergoing it that he realised the importance of Dante and Baudelaire, and the necessity in his imagination, most of all his religious imagination, for there to be a place of ultimate damnation, to secure the realities of human experience at all. Otherwise there was nothing serious in mortality. In attempting to parenthesize hell, Macbeth and his wife end up trapped inside that same sealed parenthesis: they have locked themselves into the earthly hell that is now their castle and their lives. In fact, their castle becomes one of the most powerful recuperations of the claustrophobia of Dante’s Inferno in western literature. Why this is hell; nor are we out of it.

Disney films have death at their hearts, and a menacing sense of evil, which requires real moral and physical courage to overcome.

The comic and the cartoon have become so central to our culture that we are entitled to ask a question: can hell be meaningfully represented within them? We should note that in Tex Avery-style cartoons – the Loony Tunes school – there is no death, and there is no hell. However appalling the catastrophe, Tom getting run over by a steam-roller, say, the character will finally rise up from the asphalt, shake himself free of his stigmata, and walk off towards the next adventure. Tex Avery’s world is one of universal redemption, where we may not only hope that all men may be saved, but all cats, mice, budgerigars and road runners too. Not so in Disney. Disney films have death at their hearts, and a menacing sense of evil, which requires real moral and physical courage to overcome. The fire in the forest kills your mother; the treacherous enemies kill your father. Disney’s is a complex moral world, and the evil characters are truly evil. They pass one of the crucial tests of the representation of evil: the ability to generate childhood nightmares.

BUT NOW A most curious phenomenon has come to visit: the comic book world of supermen and spidermen, batmen and spacemen, has returned with full moral force in the form of the graphic novel. And one of the most potent preoccupations of the graphic novel is evil and damnation. There is now a highly acclaimed graphic novel version of The Inferno, using Doré’s images. And there is also, unavoidably, From Hell, the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, which explores the world of Jack the Ripper, and the East End of London in which his appalling (and unsolved) crimes were committed. The streets of Whitechapel are portrayed as a version of hell, monochromatic, overwhelmed with darkness, both physical and moral. Dickens often portrayed them that way too; so did Conan Doyle in The Sign of the Four. Baudelaire saw Paris as a vision of hell, though occasionally of paradise too. Walter Benjamin said that capitalism, in the capital city, was an infernal phantasmagoria, whose only antidote to hellish repetition was fashion.

As for the comic format, in one sense it might be closer to Shakespeare’s theatre than the printed book without illustrations. After all, when you watched Shakespeare, you saw scene after scene, with figures (frequently caricatural in gesture, and thereby troubling Hamlet) making their utterances, and then disappearing from the frame. Just the same with a comic novel. John Berger once criticised Francis Bacon for creating cartoons of tortured images; he compared some of Bacon’s tortured figures in highlighted frames to Disney. He was to return to this theme in a later essay. There he said he had been wrong: Bacon did indeed use the caricatural form of cartoon images for his painting, often all too vividly aware of the frame in which they were imprisoned, but it was that which gave the work its strength. Berger admitted he had previously missed the point.

From Hell panel.The images in From Hell are beautifully drawn. The visual world conveyed is remarkably convincing. Looming out of the Victorian world of London are the extraordinary structures of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s churches, and the hermetic designs they are sometimes supposed to have imposed upon London. Here we need to pause for a moment. Nicholas Hawksmoor and his London churches have become the centre of a certain dark concentration. Now, the churches are weirdly distinctive, and Hawksmoor (a Mason like his master Wren) was known as the devil’s architect, because of a fondness for incorporating pagan and hermetic details into his buildings. But the great leap into the dark regarding him came in 1975 with the publication by Iain Sinclair of Lud Heat. This work, in verse and prose, contains the essay: ‘Hawksmoor, His Churches’. This appears to make the claim that the five significant London churches constructed by Nicholas Hawksmoor figure a pentacle over the city; that they shape a hermetic design which focuses dark energies in specific parts (specific moments) of the city. Sinclair even provides us with a diagram so we can see the uncanny urban geometry he is adumbrating. It should be pointed out immediately that Hawksmoor did not choose his sites: they were assigned to him. And Sinclair seems to have become a little less literal about this diagrammatic purposiveness of the siting of Hawksmoor’s churches of late. The configuration has effectively become metaphoric.

But there it was now, situated in the psyche of our myriad students of psychic darkness, and there it has remained. Peter Ackroyd wrote Hawksmoor in the shadow of Sinclair’s psychogeographic mappings, and From Hell follows suit. The thesis here is that Sir William Gull, Queen Victoria’s physician, sets out on a mission to remove the sources of a threat to the throne: certain women, all of whom are on the game, who know that Prince Albert (Eddie) has fathered a child with a Roman Catholic woman, and has even married the mother. This could undoubtedly represent a threat to the throne, and Gull takes it upon himself to execute all of them, using masonic butchery, and his own considerable anatomical knowledge. All the senior police figures of the time are on the square (Masons), as is Gull himself, and a certain amount of connivance goes on, but Gull still takes it upon himself, as they would say in the army, to exceed his authority. His trusted coachman Netley is in on it, since he has to set up the assignations and then remove the perpetrator to safety immediately afterwards. Netley has a stab at maintaining his humanity by vomiting copiously, but he does his duty by his masonic master all the same. And the master is convinced he is operating within the hermetic shadows of the Hawksmoor pentacle. These are killings performed for a higher destiny. Jack the Ripper is securing the future of the kingdom.

Jack, "from hell."The title comes from one of Jack’s rare communications, which is signed as emitting ‘from hell’. So once again we are situated in infernal darkness, this time on the streets of London in 1888. Moore is a shrewd and non-simplifying writer. He concludes about the Jack the Ripper killings that we cannot in truth come to a conclusion about them. We are obliged to construct a fiction in which certain of the facts may achieve concord; that is as far as we can go. In this he is with the Don DeLillo of Libra, and against the Oliver Stone of JFK, where Jim Garrison’s final lengthy speech explains everything that happened in Texas that day in 1963. DeLillo has called such comprehensive explanation a form of nostalgia; nostalgia for the overarching narrative which can situate every last little fact in its explanatory schema. Libra concludes that we will never know all that happened regarding the assassination of JFK; and From Hell seems to come to a similar conclusion regarding Jack the Ripper. The only thing we can be certain of is that some great evil was taking place among us. Certain urban spaces were metamorphosing into hell.

We are left, for better or worse, with our own fascination with the infernal. Why are we so imaginatively enamoured of the darkness? What is it about The Exorcist that cinema audiences (videlicit ourselves) still find so compelling? The book, which was written by William Peter Blatty, who also scripted the film, had been based originally on ‘an actual case of possession and exorcism’. The details are recounted in the book Possessed by Thomas Allen. The events recounted here are troubling enough, but in the book and the film they rainbow into hellish Technicolor. The spectacular vomits, the sexual shenanigans involving the young girl, the death of the old archaeologist exorcist played by Max Von Sydow – none of these have any basis in the original chronicle. People in the auditorium would frequently puke and pass out, so the queues, it goes without saying, grew longer. One recalls Psycho, and the dire vicarious sufferings of those who had paid but an hour before to get in.

All of the spectacular effects of The Exorcist were in fact unnecessary. What terrifies about Satan and the demons is intelligent cunning and damnable determination, not the multi-coloured yawns of the possessed. It is that which makes them uncanny and terrifying, and it is that quality of hellishness which connects them with the goings-on in From Hell. This quality of transcendent and merciless intelligence is what intrigues us about infernal agents. In Jaws the Great White shark is endowed with a vengeful intelligence, something no shark has ever been observed actually to possess in nature. This is a shark with a plan; it is a revenger. It is this which connects him up with the demonic intelligence which inhabits the young girl in The Exorcist, and this which connects him too with Satan in Paradise Lost. A transcendent intellect among the ruins of morality and restraint: that is the one unifying factor in all visions of the terror which the infernal agent can bring.

It is not the darkness that terrifies in infernal narratives and images; it is the darkness with the preternatural intelligence present inside it; the ravenous cunning that lurks in the dark.

IT IS THIS quality of supreme intelligence which has fascinated modern writers: Glen Duncan in I Lucifer, Robert Irwin in Satan Wants Me, and supremely, Jeremy Leven in Satan: His Psychotherapy and Cure by the Unfortunate Dr. Kassler, J. S. P. S. In each of these works, all remarkable in their own way, the devil tends to be astoundingly superior in intellect to all his interlocutors and antagonists. It is not the darkness that terrifies in infernal narratives and images; it is the darkness with the preternatural intelligence present inside it; the ravenous cunning that lurks in the dark. Here we might permit ourselves some prehistoric speculation: that what is incised so ineradicably in our psyches was scored there in a time seemingly before remembrance. When the darkness outside the cave (or, before the mastery of fire, even inside it) contained cunning and ravenous beasts that sought to devour us and ours. In that case, our terror of (and fascination with) ‘the powers of darkness’ is the vestige of a survival mechanism activated at the beginning of our species history. In the dark lurks the enemy. Its intelligence is different from ours; with him there is no apparent pause between thought and physical enactment; there is no gap where the planning takes place.

Those whom we would predate are predators too, and they have a quickness of reaction and movement which is beyond the ponderous bimanous bipeds we have already started becoming. The Fall of Satan is an enactment of how that ferocious beast encountered his come-uppance in his fall into the pit during the battue, but we know that there is always another creature where he came from. So the demons still emerge from hell, with bright eyes, and swift manoeuvres. They can still lead us to our doom. We are revisiting the primal scene of our earliest and most terrible dangers. In permitting our early enemies to travel so freely through time and space, we render them preternatural. And we also (it needs to be said) render ourselves less bored. Nothing fascinates more than an intelligence outside the precincts of our species, an intelligence capable of reaching beyond our own. This is the fascination of HAL in Kubrick’s 2001: we might have made him up, but now he can go way beyond us, and not just in the playing of a chess game.

Deal-maker.Adrian Leverkühn in Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus signs his infernal pact in order to avoid the repetition and pastiche which appear to be the only option open to the modern artist who has not signed an equivalent treaty with the infernal powers. He is seeking an escape from representational repetition. He is prepared to stake his soul on achieving something new. Baudelaire appears to do the same at the end of Le Voyage. Even Freud seemed in need of powers from below to refresh his psychological studies into pertinence. The epigraph to The Interpretation of Dreams informs us: Flectere si nequeo Superos, Acheronta movebo. If heaven can’t be moved, then I’ll raise hell instead.

Hell has not been entirely abolished yet.


LandC150aAlan Wall was born in Bradford, studied English at Oxford, and lives in North Wales. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor Placebo. Jacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester and a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. His book Endtimes was published by Shearsman Books in 2013, and Badmouth, a novel, was published by Harbour Books in 2014. A collection of his essays has now been issued by Odd Volumes, The Fortnightly Reviews publishing imprint, and a second collection, of his Fortnightly essays on Walter Benjamin, is in preparation.

NOTES

  1.  The Devil (1977)
    Satan (1981)
    Lucifer (1984)
    Mephistopheles (1986)
    The Prince of Darkness (1988)

    All available here for US readers, and here for EU/UK readers.

  2. London Review of Books, 9 May, 2013.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *
*
*

You can add images to your comment by clicking here.