Commentary On HellWard By David Russell Part 5: Concourse of the Damned

In Canto VIII, entitled Neighbour Murderer, we travel further down the path of horror: “he finds an ex-neighbour of his who murdered his own wife.” The crime is complex: “. . . not just murder but the depths of the betrayal involved. And for what? Sordid cash from an insurance policy.”

Dante, who is there at his recovery from Dobbin, gives a stern admonition:

“You know your being is to be defiled, 

So why require the master intercede 

On your behalf, or block what you self-willed?”

So initially he blocks any intercession on James’s behalf, as James must take the consequences of free will: “Real heroes determine, make their true way, / Which you so failed to do.” But then he saw the ‘special grace’ of Dikè. “Heaven cannot be held in check”, whatever the depth of misery. And what misery indeed! James is in despair; his soul has not been purged of its propensity for evil; the universe is a faltering dirge sinking into deathly silence. But Dante comes back with compassion: in his younger days, he was in the grip of pride. He gives the ultimate admonition and pep talk:

“But those who seek salvation simply must 

Face every deception to which they’re tied; 

“There is no other way ahead, the dust 

Awaits, and before you sense its covering 

Divest yourself of greed and pride and lust. 

“Look deep, my son, your weeds are there, flowering; 

But where you go, if there you truly want – 

Your heart must find the seeds of love’s real gathering – 

“For that ís the antidote for all rank plants, 

Such that you’ll weep to even think of them, 

While thinking cuts itself to end up blunt.”

They proceeded, to a corridor like an alley leading to the underworld – which contains many aspects of earthly life – toiling neighbours, and the anomaly of elegant houses surrounded by piles of rubbish and detritus. Then the next encounter – with Peter, who eerily shuffles his papers. Peter is anxious to acquire a woman’s inheritance, and contemplates procuring her decease. “The paper slips – the sums made up his wife” – they had a quality of menace: “Blades freed from the soul – dark – where they indwelled” – also “like magnetic pointers”. Then focus on his wife; Peter contemplates the fatal blow. His depravity knows no bounds; he longs to kill the dead.

Li, the wife, lets out a primordial scream, which disturbs even Dante – “Suddenly felt again the mortal depths / From which heaven itself had been his buffering, / Till now”. The fatal blow falls; James is petrified. But Li prevails: “her voice had paralysed / Through its high-pitch the power of this conman”. She intones, like a mass of bees; it nails down, it penetrates his guilt. Peter is in pain; he aches for absolute nothingness – a variety of Nirvana – “Where cursing One who never was or is /Provokes no payback, or endless mishap”. Peter makes a last, failed attempt to wrestle with fate; he disintegrates. But there us something fascinating about his demise: James feels somewhat drawn in. Dante reappears, harsh and discriminating; there is some sense that he resents having left his seclusion in Paradise. He ushers James on to someone, somewhere, more extreme: “Where I might revel in some deeper vice.” 

Canto IX leads us to something far worse: from the individual to the mass.

“Here not only the murders are repellent, but the self-justifications that go along with them. Being ‘sincere’ and ‘sincerely believing’ prove convenient covers for those wishing to perpetrate evil, and without any real remorse.”

James flees in terror from Peter’s rage, wondering how many ‘levels’ he missed in his flight. He is awoken to the horrors of dictatorship, and the lot of its victims – “Their portion, part, to always live in death, / Unleashed from flesh, then from the source of love.” He laments the failure of countermanding factors. There is a switch to the legend of the Exodus – the drying up of the Red Sea, the salvation of the Jews, and the terror this struck into their enemies – “the dread of Him (Moses) on them / Broke out like plague – some mad infection spread / Faster than light . . .” Even some of the Children of Israel panic. Another encounter with Dante. In spite of his severity, James feels some bonding with him because he has suffered in the course of his descent to mortality. In a very human, mortal way, he asks for forgiveness.

Even for someone as exalted as he, old wounds can be reopened, even sub specie aeternitatis:

“Bless you,” he said, “Forgive that lapse I had 

When at that sound once more the human hurt 

Pierced through the spirit realms with all its bad, 

And stirred remembrances that heaven purged 

When I cast off my flesh and was remade.” 

Dante recognises that, going on this mission under the orders of Will (God), he too is vulnerable to being scourged. Their next Ward, port of call, is a sarcophagus, a huge cavern. Then the encounter with ‘Bliar’ (Tony Blair?) – indictment of “socialist ‘woke’, Poured forth as if thinking had never been . . .” an innuendo of ‘hushed-up’ mass murders. The author is equally trenchant about Korbutt (Corbyn?). Indication that Bliar wanted the author to be his propaganda journalist. Bliar claimed that the deaths in the wars he promoted were the lesser evil – casualties lower than they would have been if he had not acted. With recognition “. . . wonder turned to fear, And fear in turn gave way to horror’s sign.”

Even Bliar has a conscience battle:

“This concourse of the damned, as no surprise 

But shocking all the same, and to accuse 

Purveyors of its truth, which meant its lies: 

There, there, in something like swirling black holes, 

Which Bliar understood full well – his eyes 

Reeled back into their sockets as his soul Struggled to free itself from his own mind; 

But blackness – that bright tar – gravity’s pull 

Began to exercise its force and bind.”

James feels drawn towards annihilation, but Dante holds him back. No such backing for Blair. The following exposition goes beyond Physics, proclaiming quintessential contrariety:

“I’d moved an inch and saw the black so bright 

Because it burned existence at its core, 

Then feeding on its melt – the trapped-in light – 

So nothing living fled its one-way door. 

Light blackened as it touched its surface, lost, 

And scorching the while darkness screamed for more 

No matter what was destroyed, how steep the cost; 

But if not light could escape, at least sound’s 

Agony, baking in its basted roast 

Emerged in beats of pulverising wounds 

Across the void in pulses that replaced 

Heart beats. Instead, there where senses – spellbound 

Gripped reality’s superficial face, 

I saw their arms drag down the bleeding masks 

Which one by one succeeded in that place.”

The guilty parties struggle desperately to cover up their atrocities, but the kernels of truth remain. There is a vision of massed victims wreaking vengeance on their persecutors. Reference to Bin Laden and Hitler. 

James challenges Bliar on his actions. Bliar is choked for words. He is “always image and never the deed.” He puts on the hypocrite’s front: “My mask won’t slide; I know what power’s for.”

He meets his come-uppance:

“But fighting evil in himself had failed: 

The arms had him, so down he shot to hell.”

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