Commentary On HellWard, By David Russell Part 3: Love Cannot Be Overcome

In Canto IV, James proceeds to a Ward which contains a former boss – apparently benign, but with ‘an underlying and pathological desire for control, recognition and self-aggrandisement.’ He desperately needs to be propped up by his guide. He feels great twinges of guilt about having been a bad teacher. Dante tries to console him, saying he was young then; this does not quite compensate. An interesting digression on the decline of the English educational system: “The mind a slave to idols without heart: Kids sold a mess of pottage . . .”

An exhortation of Dante: “. . . part of his (God’s) nature is / Freedom of the will; we must share it too.” Then the Grand Paradox that ‘love created Hell.’ After this, Dante has a shaking fit, from which he soon recovers. He reasserts the will of god, and resumes the great journey: “There’s One with whom we cannot force a deal.” They head on a downward path with an increasing gradient; there are ghostly footsteps. Dante’s rhetoric continues – if only Adam had not committed the primal sin, there would have been an ideal world. The Poet “Heard only groans, saw filth, and smelt the blood, / Of Adam’s legacy which we all shared.” Dante asked “Don’t you see the good?” Then a mass of empty beds, awaiting restless souls. He goes through the door, and finds one he recognises as Bryan. Robotically, he orders James to lie down. He then discovers that the beds are cluttered with the aftermath of surgery, indicating patients who have not recovered. The Poet senses that Bryan is under a curse. Bryan is very angry when quizzed on this point. It turns out that he is an old, persecuting mentor of the Poet – ‘with nothing learned’. A fraudulent educational manipulator. “Bryan took credit for all I’d made,” but still tries to make gestures of friendship. He tries to tempt James with an offer of an Educational partnership. Dante warns him against this temptation, and urges him to leave. Bryan comes out in his true colours. James is furious, attacks Bryan, and pierces his skull. James remembers a benign mentor, J E Williams. His memory is an ‘avalanche of snow’ to cool the heat of anger. James and Dante venture to their next encounter.

They progress, in Canto V, from the Boss’s Ward to that of some former close friends. One of these is a person he admired as a ‘poet friend’, but then discovered details of his bad character. He still has contradictory feelings about Bryan. 

“I could not reconcile my own two sides: 

Be one person, integrated, together.”

Another indictment:

“So-called learning proving one route to pride 

And not much more: humans puffed up with knowing; 

Not knowing exactly the hell they’re in 

Of endless iteration, pointless doing.” 

Dante embraces James, and affirms their bond: “As if by force he should join my split soul . . .”. James is restored to energy and positivity. He asks Dante again why he left his comfortable Heaven, to be told of someone who loves and cares for him: 

“Through her, Beatrice ordered your relief.”

Great optimism: 

“Love lights, and love cannot be overcome 

Because beauty stops motion at its root. “

Interesting to contemplate the opposition of love and motion. Then he sees Ginty and Marlene, Ginty in bed and Marlene, though sick, tending him. Ginty has gone into terminal decline. He asks James what has brought him here. The answer is that he was prompted by a Muse. Ginty visibly shrinks at the mention of Dante. Ginty then proclaims himself an OBE, and a lover of Literature, then says “It’s nothing, here.” Ginty turns against James, whom Dante again protects. 

“And so I came to see Ginty, reversed 

In image, friend as was, on Dante’s breast”

Enter Medusa, a possible transformation of Marlene; again under Dante’s prompting, he makes a panic-stricken flight. He is in extreme exhaustion and disillusionment: “It seemed to me that all my friendships lied.” Dante pulls him up with “Now learn what liars do.”

He realises his past naivete:

“The folly I had followed lacking doubts, 

Thinking I had friends untested the while 

And here discovering for myself their roots.”

They have completed another phase of their journey. There is much trepidation about the next – “ahead was dread of what I despised.”

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