June 18, 2019

The Endurance of Hell

“JAMES JOYCE GIVES HIS READERS a taste of the eternal torments of hell in his 1916 roman à clef A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Toward the beginning of the novel, Joyce’s adolescent alter-ego Stephen Dedalus sits through the fiery sermon of the Jesuit Father Arnall, a scene in which the author marshals his literary genius to convey the full terror of damnation. By the priest’s description, “Hell is a strait and dark and foul-smelling prison, an abode of demons and lost souls, filled with fire and smoke.” So far so good, as that would seem to be the popular depiction of perdition. But with upsetting specificity, Father Arnall remarks that in hell, the condemned are so heaped on top of one another that they have absolutely no liberty of movement, “they are not even able to remove from the eye a worm that gnaws it.” In the Jesuit’s explication, hell is a place of “foul matter, leprous corruption, nameless suffocating filth.”

Moving from sulfury clichés to ever more baroque and intricate descriptions of the infernal hereafter, the priest perseverates before the congregation on this realm which “burns eternally in darkness,” that contains all the “filth of the world, all the offal and scum of the world . . . a vast reeking sewer,” best described as the foul odor of a “jelly-like mass of liquid corruption . . . of nauseous loathsome decomposition.” Hell is a “boundless, shoreless and bottomless” place, where “blood seethes and boils in the veins, the brains are boiling in the skull, the heart in the breast glowing and bursting, the bowels a red-hot mass of burning pulp, the tender eyes flaming like molten balls.” These fetid corpses are a “huge and rotting human fungus,” where a mere whiff of the decomposing bodies of the sinful “would suffice to infect the whole world.” Father Arnall rhetorically asks his charges, including a Stephen Dedalus who is now tortured by his impure thoughts and his even more impure actions, “What name . . . shall we give to the darkness of hell which is to last not for three days alone but for all eternity?””

Read more

JJ Editor's Daily Picks

"At 12:42 a.m. on the quiet, moonlit night of March 8, 2014, a Boeing 777-200ER operated by Malaysia Airlines took off from Kuala Lumpur and turned toward Beijing, climbing to its assigned cruising altitude of 35,000 feet. The designator for..."

"“I hereby sentence you to death.” The words of Judge Clifford B. Shepard filled the courtroom in Jacksonville, Fla., on Oct. 27, 1976. Shepard was sentencing Clifford Williams Jr., whom a jury had just found guilty of entering a woman’s house..."

"The video footage of Jewish Israelis dancing with Palestinians at a wedding should be something to celebrate. It should be an expression of joy and joint faith in the future. Instead, it has brought danger and disgrace to Radi Nasser, the mayor..."

"In 2013, I was executive editor of the NY Daily News, and we, like every other publication in the country, were covering the series finale of Breaking Bad. As one of the most popular and critically acclaimed shows in history, the finale was..."

"Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., tells us that wealth inequality is at grotesque and immoral levels. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has a plan to tax everyone lots and lots to solve this. The slight problem is that the Federal Reserve tells us that..."

"For much of World War I, Sir Phillip Gibbs was one of the few journalists the British War Office permitted to correspond from the Western Front. Gibbs’s mission was to describe, in terms that would be acceptable to government censors, the..."

"In the 1940s, sexologist Alfred Kinsey, who was on the verge of publishing his first major report on male sexuality in the US, enlisted a photographer named Thomas Painter to investigate gay subcultures. Painter, a white, openly gay man, had..."

"What was Postmodernism? In the 35 years since Fredric Jameson’s New Left Review essay “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism” — and the 40 years since the publication of Jean-François Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition..."

"My husband and I are proud fathers of a 5-year-old girl and 1-year-old boy. I was grocery shopping with them last week when I saw a sign that made me cringe. Attached to a basket of free fruit, the sign reminded kids to “Ask Mom” before taking a..."

"Family farms are central to our nation’s identity. Most Americans, even those who have never been on a farm, have strong feelings about the idea of family farms — so much that they’re the one thing that all U.S. politicians agree on. Each..."

"The Big Bang is the defining narrative of modern cosmology: a bold declaration that our universe had a beginning and has a finite age, just like the humans who live within it. That finite age, in turn, is defined by the evidence that universe is..."

"After a protracted siege by the Roman tenth legion, the situation of the Sacarii, the Jewish rebels holed up on the mountain fortress of Masada, became hopeless. The Jewish rebels led by Elazar Ben Yair decided to kill themselves rather than be..."