at the gates
Even those of them who were believers are still surprised upon landing in the queue. After all, one of the main things about hell is that everyone who gets there is surprised that it has happened. If any one of them had been absolutely confident that this fate awaited them after their deaths, they (obviously) would have acted differently, lived more prudently, treated those around them and themselves better. Hell, for the hell-bound, is a story that they each believed only in the way that we all “believe” in fairy-tales or novels, whose morals and messages are true in many senses but never, to our minds, true in the literal sense.
But here it is, there they are, and this is what it feels like for them once they are there. For each of them it is, of course, a bit different. But in other important senses every moment is, for each of them, exactly the same.
Of course it is overwhelming. Just a moment ago many of them were dying in a hospital, while others were driving their cars or sleeping in bed. A stray subset were taking aim at the enemy or drunkenly walking home along a busy road or robbing a small grocery store or strapped into an electric chair. Earthquakes swell the lines, as do campaigns of aerial bombardment and well-coordinated terrorist attacks. And now they are here.
One might think that their first reaction to their arrival would be to doubt the reality of the situation – to attempt to press what is now their only and final situation into a effervescence of a dream, the passing mental tangle of a bad night’s somnolent screenplay. But somehow, none do. The ordinary and binding logic of everyday earthly phenomenology is non-binding in hell, and somehow those perceptions and experiences that on earth we can distance through doubt they quite simply cannot. Whether the mechanism in question that makes this so is biochemical or architectural, electronic or what we might here on earth call magical, makes no difference. There simply is no relief to be had via the usual human means of self-relief through distancing and dissociation. None of that “Wow – this is just like a bad science-fiction movie” or “Fucking christ, this can’t be happening” works down there, here, below.
So what does it look like, this place where they abruptly find themselves? Through the ages, the décor has changed, and in fact for most of history there had to be several separate entrances for the damned of different places and stations in life: the hellmouth of a French king during the early eighteenth century had by course to differ from that provisioned to a particularly sadistic Balinese chieftain from the same time, just so that it would be properly understood to be what it was. If Dante had actually had an experience of hell before he wrote about it, rather than simply fantasized it in service of the young girl he lusted after, he would likely have been granted access only to the portal available to the Florentine nobility and their immediate subordinates, rather than the universal passo che non lasciò mai persona viva that he writes about in the Inferno.
My guess is, given who Dante was and what he was up to, he found this out for himself soon enough.
But latterly, due to the increasing and unprecedented standardization of human experience, efficiencies have become possible. As you might expect, as you’ve been told in countless of the more sophisticated novels and movies and even gnomic if modern everyday metaphors centered on the topic, the current design is most reminiscent of the bureaucratically-organized space, closest perhaps to a particularly grim airport jetway at a provincial airport well past-due for renovation.
Those who were philanderers on earth still can’t help themselves but search the line in front of them for likely targets and possible acquisitions, just as the enviable and covetous alike still can’t help themselves but size up the probable wealth and success of those around them as registered in the way that they are dressed or act or just generally hold themselves as they slowly pace toward their punishment to come.
When the moment arrives when they are stripped of their garments, which is about three-quarters of their way down the passageway, and each is revealed in their infernal corporeal reality – flesh pustulantly swollen in the places where its not sagging, desiccated and patchy hair, a skeletal thinness holding it all together, oozing sores where pores once invisibly dotted the skin – they, each of them, still can’t help but furtively and then less furtively stare at the sexual parts, the real nakedness, of those standing nearest them in the queue. In death as they would have been as children, the sight of the normally unseen, that which is revealed only on special occasions and has often meant love, greets them with a double beat of the heart, a second and then a third look, as horrible as what they’re actually seeing is. They even think, most if not all of them, of which of their hellfellows they might have seduced and those who would have attempted to seduce them in turn. They evaluate, and almost to a one they imagine themselves to be – that they would have been – at the top of the sexual pecking order, were they otherwise and elsewhere than in the giant line that leads to damnation.
And so it goes, for those invested in other forms of earthly pride – and most in this queue are invested in more than one. Despite the viscerally disgusting nakedness around them, and the fact that the game, all the games, seem to be up once and for all and they have finally lost, the wealthy search for signs of relative poverty, the intelligent for stupidity, the violent for weakness, the once-popular for signs of awkward unsociability, and so on.
A minority of the damned who are very literate – though there are more of these than you might have thought – think of Kafka’s parable “Before the Law.” Some percentage of those that do even recall, word for word, the doorkeeper’s final utterance in that text: “No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.” Of course, they don’t all remember it in English but in the language in which they read it, generally their own language. Others of the same group think the phrase non serviam over and over again, like a mantra, but with in each case deep ambivalence, ambiguous effect.
Almost all of them, literate or not, wonder at various points whether this line is in fact hell – whether there really is an end at all. Cleverly, cynically, they try to guess at the joke in store for them, the joke that is hell. A large percentage actually have the phrase “I’ve seen this movie before!” run through their minds. An infinity spent standing in line amongst moldering bodies and their reek, a queue that never quite ends, how appropriate this would be! The perfect hell for a hellish modern world!
But they are wrong, all of these, almost all of those who are in the line. Eventually, after hours or months – the time goes by differently here – they turn yet another of the jetway-style turns and discover, in fact, that they can see the end. It is a dark yawning mouth, and you cannot see what happens to those who pass through it but the sense that you have is that people are falling off into some sort of abyss. There are signs of struggle that can be seen from far away, as far as the final turn. It seems, from what they can tell, that people resist at the end – grabbing on to the walls and the edges of the mouth, and even those around them, but the forward momentum of the line pushes all of them, however much they struggle, over the edge and into the dark place. Panic rises up in those that turn the corner and see what lies ahead of them, a panic only slightly undercut by the relieved curiosity that comes of realizing that the line does in fact end.
But first, before they find out, there is something to read. A few steps past that final corner, there is a small podium positioned on the right hand side of the corridor. On this podium rest printed sheets of paper. Obviously everyone takes one – there’s been nothing like this anywhere along the way. And obviously, as distracting as the sight of what seems to be the hellmouth proper is, everyone takes a minute to try to read what is on the flier that they’ve just taken.
It starts like this:
Welome to hell. The universe into which you were born favors the meek and the stupid, the ugly and the unambitious, the sexless and the boring. You are none or at least not many of these things. You were astute, given all indications, to doubt the existence of this place. Unfortunately, though, it exists and you are here. And though it is deeply understandable that you would, ultimately you were wrong to believe in the just indifference of the world, in the idea that because there was no escaping your genetic and/or socially conditioned destiny you could not be punished for being who who were or doing what you did. There simply was no escaping this fate, not for you. I could explain all this at length, but I don’t have to and won’t, because I am…
None make it further than this in their reading, because all by this point have fully started to grab at whatever can keep them, even for a second or two, from what lies ahead. The document goes on for pages, though none of them get to read it. And as the neurotic panic that has taken the place of cynical resistance gives way to the raw animal fear – just that of the animal in the abattoir at the moment they know that this blissful or horrible, whatever, bovine or porcine life is about the end and end violently – they slip over the edge and fall into a space that is distinctly not the stuff of joke, or Borsch-belt witticism or Catholic school bathroom scrawl. They fall, that is, into the lake of fire, a fire that burns so hot and hard that there literally is not a moment off from pain to formulate a second thought.