Commentary On HellWard By David Russell Part 4: A Web of Friendship

In Canto VI, the Poet finds another old friend, Saul, whose manipulative aggression still palls, and proves no sound basis for life. More despair of humanity “. . . human nature starved of love, and thin . . . wholly set / On self-assertion, at all costs, to win.” He thinks of the Biblical relationship of David and Jonathan. Dante reassures him that he will find his true love at the end of his quest. They pass what looks like the detritus of an abandoned hospital. There is a room with three-sided screens. James finds Saul behind one of them. Ironic reflection: “He’d beaten me to hell, as he preferred . . . To be the winner.” In the past, James had ignored his blatant sadism. He would crush the human spirit, drag humanity down with him, lure James to join him on the ward. But James will not go under – he retains faith in “that soul’s original identity . . . Which was not love, not power, and sure not knowing . . .” but “pure light . . . one final showing / Of creativity and its delight:” Saul turns on him, and accuses him of never having been creative. But Saul is self-defeated:

“Indeed, to Saul was now a disconnect 

That never again would power his life 

For good . . .”

Saul’s image reminds James of his mother and her Ward. He begins to feel paralysed . . . “my torso now felt more, Like blisters erupting, liquid, then crust, / Hardening my skin to scales, inward to core. / As it did, diminishment taking hold.” Concomitantly, Saul gains in strength, and rises. He brutally crushes James’s index finger. James is utterly dumbfounded: “I addled with a hard-boiled egg for brain.” (one of the finest poetic expressions ever for nervous shatterment). He describes atheists as “those who never know”. Overwhelmed by Saul, he feels he has reached his nadir: “What place left for me, so fallen, so low / / And utterly without virtue, merit?” Dante stood in the background, observing the proceedings. He feels as if he has turned into cement. Then James ‘unfroze’ and finds himself praying. The prayer is answered: the floor opens up, making a passage to a ‘deeper hell’. Saul senses he is going down, and wants to drag James with him. James is on the brink of doing so, when Dante comes to the rescue, and tells him to jump. He has a last view of Saul ‘gripped by his daemon’, sees him rise and fall.

In a sense, James goes ‘out of the frying pan, into the fire’ in Canto VII, meeting someone from further back in his past:

“Here he finds himself in a web of friendship with darker designs on what friendship means, which is the undermining of morality itself – a deep chaos that Dobbin seeks.”

James is smarting from his last encounter, with a broken finger and aching ribs. He has been brought to the depths of disillusionment and despair:

“The years, long years, of friendship and its faking 

Brought my life down till I was bare alive. 

Around me darkness, black as a coal seam . . .”

He is forced to ponder as to whether false friends are better than no friends at all. He was left in deadly silence, super-tense: “Within, a pulse, flawed, as if it were wounded.” He acknowledges that he was late in realising the nature of false friendships. Then his priest/confessor touches him and saves him. He confesses that “all righteous tracks I have derailed my soul.” But then an incredible observation of the essence of language and the human spirit:

“And as I said the word, ‘soul’, 

I felt a tremor – like naming detailed 

Its nature, leaking essence in its spill – 

So small, at least it seemed the word I spoke, 

But then a wave so strong it flushed my ill.” 

He recovered – “Myself became visible to myself” and gains supreme vision:

“Could see itself and everything be known, 

So transparent each human heart”

At the Centre there is one he could not fathom. When he tries to do so, he ‘seeing was undone’. He finds himself again in the hospital, and called on his mentor for aid. Dante then makes a most profound statement of optimism and spirituality:

“Each thought you have, and each desire you nurse,”

He said, “derives from dreams and dreaming’s air, 

And from this invisible and primal source 

What ís solid materialises here; 

In mortal life cause and effect may not 

Always manifest as a conjoined pair . . .”

Dante reminds James of his struggles with Saul, and warns him that he must face greater challenges yet: “Raw strength Saul had, but stronger still ís the lie.” Dante led him on to the next acquaintance – one Dobbin: James ‘knew that he was dead.’ His discourse is cultured and inspiring. But there is a catch: “I could not constrain his genius, / Or guess at how profound he felt his envy.” Ironically, Dante “. . . who’d pressed me so hard, now seemed / Away the while my past found sharp repeats.” Dobbin wants to continue, and restructure their relationship: “Experiment! Our friendship ís on new ground.” He is compared to a spider: the spider’s tapestry reveals the true lives of the Gods. Their all-too-human foibles are laid bare. James wonders about Dante’s whereabouts. But then he hears a voice, just as he is going to fall into Dobbin’s embrace. He then receives a vision of a flawless entity, adored by the cosmos, and entity of supreme power – this turns out to be the Goddess Dikè!

“The Gorgon, from whose face fear itself hung – 

Aloft, whose spear which only she could wield 

Would penetrate beyond the body’s corpse 

And drive to where the human soul is killed.”

Her apparition makes him feel a failure. Abased, he begs her for a revelation: “Undo this veil and show me what you weave.” She comes to the rescue; hope is restored. “Though blind, time stopped – as Dobbin froze and stalled.” Her ‘tapestry’ is revealed. It initially seems completely chaotic, but then appears as an intricate web, beyond his comprehension. Dobbin is dumbfounded, taking away his chair, so that James falls to the floor – knocked unconscious. He recovers – in the arms of someone he knows!

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