September 19, 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?””

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