Welcome to Hell
Another normal day on the hellsite, where we torture ourselves to death!
It’s been five years since I spent any amount of time on Twitter, but back then everyone kept affectionately calling the place a hellsite. It was one of those obligatory phrases. Normal day on the hellsite! you’d say, as the churning psychic pressures of the hellsite snapped something small but important in the brain of one of your enemies, causing them to post multiple photos of their own shrivelled and abnormal genitalia, followed by vague undirected death threats, followed by a video of themselves crying and begging for mercy. Just twitter doing its thing! you’d say, as you flocked like harpies to impose your unlimited punishments for the crime of being embarrassing. So much entertainment—and this website is free! Ha ha ha! Another normal day on the hellsite, where all of us are devils and all of us are damned, condemned to torture ourselves to death! Who will break next? Maybe me! Apparently, they’re still at it. We’re in Hell! they squeal, rolling around giddy in the filth of it all. We’re dead! We hate every second of existence! We are empty husks whose only joy is to witness the same sufferings we endure, lol lol lol, and we’re literally in Hell!
Are they right? Bede tells us that the Irish monk St Furseus witnessed a vision of Hell in the seventh century: during a trance, he saw angels carrying him into the sky, and once they were up there the angels ordered him to look down on the earth. He saw a deep, dark crevasse at its centre, lit by four floating spheres of fire; one day, the angels told him, those fires would spread to consume the entire world. The first fire was the fire of falsehood, ‘when we do not fulfil what we promised,’ the second the fire of avarice, ‘when we place our love of worldly riches before the riches of Heaven,’ the third the fire of discord, ‘when we do not fear to offend the souls of our neighbours even in superficial matters,’ and the fourth the fire of irreverence, ‘when we think it nothing to despoil and defraud those weaker than ourselves.’ Sound familiar?
Enter the Pit
But it’s deeper than that. Among Christians who believe in Hell, there are two main approaches. The first says that God chooses to punish those who have sinned against him by consigning them to an eternity of suffering. Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica, insists that the blessed in Heaven will be able to see, at all times, their sinful friends and neighbours writhing in agony forever. Not just that; they will enjoy it. ‘The saints will rejoice in the punishment of the wicked, by considering therein the order of divine justice and their own deliverance, which will fill them with joy.’ All this feels unpalatable today. A God who would impose infinite punishment for a finite transgression is not a God worth believing in. A Heaven that comes with Hell-o-vision, where you are constantly assaulted by the sight of human souls trapped in trenches of burning-hot shit, would not be any kind of Heaven: it would itself be Hell. Only in Hell could you look at that suffering and feel joy.
The second version is more subtle. This was Emmanuel Swedenbourg’s thought: that ‘God never turns away his face from man, and never casts man away from himself, that he casts no one into Hell and is angry with no one.’ Hell still exists, but we make it ourselves when we ‘turn away from the Lord toward the densely dark body.’ Even the fire of Hell ‘springs from a like origin as heavenly fire.’ Hellfire is simply the overflowing love of God, but it burns those who cannot return it.
This might be why visions of Hell seem to feature so many ironic punishments. In Dante, the lustful, who were carried helplessly by their own appetites, are blown from precipice to precipice in ‘the infernal hurricane that never rests.’ This is what they chose. The wrathful mud-wrestle for eternity in a boiling swamp. ‘They smote each other not alone with hands, but with the head and with the breast and feet, tearing each other piecemeal with their teeth.’ They could stop, if they wanted to, but they do not want to. In some sense, they are here because they enjoy it. After grappling with the problem of Hell, CS Lewis concludes: ‘I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of Hell are locked on the inside.’ In The Great Divorce, he imagines the inferno as an endless, dreary English town, spread over tens of millions of miles, always twilight, always raining. Napoleon has a house there, fifteen thousand years’ walk from any other human being, its lights just visible through a telescope. He marches up and down for all eternity, muttering. ‘It was Soult’s fault. It was Ney’s fault. It was Josephine’s fault. It was the fault of the Russians. It was the fault of the English.’ Lewis is onto something: this punishment that is no more and no less than your own failings. But the damned in his Hell are only resigned to their suffering, and in the real Hell they love it. CS Lewis had never seen Twitter.
The Hells in Buddhism are of the second type. There is no judge that sends you there; your soul simply sinks to the realm where it belongs. ‘The god of death questions us, but we are punished by our own deeds.’ There is the Hell of Oil Cauldrons, the Hell of the Pool of Blood, the Hell of Tongue-Ripping, the Hell of the Mountain of Knives, and the Hell of Maggots. Chinese sources place these Hells under a kind of infernal counterpart to the Imperial bureaucracy; funerary inscriptions demand safe passage for the dead in the name of the Yellow Emperor, addressed to ‘the Aide of the Mound and the Earl of the Tomb, the Sub-terrestrial Two Thousand Bushel Officials, the Marquis of the Eastern Sepulchre, the Earl of the Western Sepulchre, the Official of Underneath.’ (Recall the Ars Goetia, with all its Dukes and Counts and Marquises of Hell.) In Thailand and Sri Lanka you can see vivid sculptural depictions of Hell, where grinning demons tear human bodies apart by the legs, or slowly force giant screws through their chests, or dunk them into pots of livid diarrhoea. But what’s most horrifying about Buddhist Hell is not the punishments; it’s the duration.
In Christianity, the torture is infinite—but as Lewis saw, the infinity outside of time might be the same thing as no time at all. ‘That the lost soul is eternally fixed in its diabolical attitude we cannot doubt: but whether this eternal fixity implies endless duration—or duration at all—we cannot say.’ In Buddhism, every Hell is only a Purgatory; you are in there for a set amount of time, and then once you’ve paid for your bad karma you can be reincarnated back into the sublunary world. But ancient Indian civilisation had access to decimal numbers, and the Mediterranean world did not; they could conjure up arbitrarily long periods of time just by adding zeroes. If you spend only a week or so in Hell, your punishment is tongue-ripping or maggots. But you might very easily spend a million years there, or a hundred million, or a billion, or a hundred billion. The number itself is your punishment, and you will have to endue it in one second after another of ordinary durational time. More terrifying than the pool of blood or the mountain of knives. More terrifying than infinity. This Hell is the malignancy of the countable.
Borges wrote that the ‘first truly atrocious Hell in literature’ is found in William Beckford’s 1786 novel Vathek. The Inferno in Dante ‘is not an atrocious place, it is a place where atrocious things happen.’ In the end, the Divine Comedy simply ‘magnifies the notion of a jail.’ Dante shows us something to be feared, but Vathek desires his Hell. He spends the novel desperately searching out the palace of fire; he commits terrible slaughters to attain it. ‘There shalt thou behold, in immense depositories, the treasures which the stars have promised thee, and the talismans that control the world.’ And he does behold it. In the palace of fire the floors are strewn with gold and saffron, and the tables are filled with food; there are pleasant-smelling woods burning in every corner, and djinn of both sexes dance to phantasmic music. But for the people who have been sent there, none of it means anything. ‘Every reservoir of riches was disclosed to their view, but they no longer felt the incentives of curiosity, pride, or avarice.’ A voice from the Abyss of Death announces that ‘ALL IS ACCOMPLISHED,’ and all hope is lost.
Twitter is not a place where atrocious things happen; it is an atrocious place. Not boiling oil and not spheres of fire: its evil is abstract and countable: the numbers that must always go up. The system keeps rewarding you, and this is your punishment. You are not being tortured by the things you hate about this website; you are being tortured by the things you like.
The people who live their lives on Twitter know this, but they don’t admit it. Half of them pretend that the problem with Twitter is that it’s full of bad people saying bad things, harassing, abusing, being Nazis. The other half pretend that the problem with Twitter is that it has too much censorship, too many libs in the boardroom, and it’s not being governed according to the dictates of truth and beauty. Everyone acts as if the problem with Twitter is the other people, and the agony of having to look at their terrible opinions, but they keep saying the truth. Hellsite hellsite hellsite. The problem is you. The problem with Twitter is that you are a demon in Hell.
Remember that this gate is locked from the inside. Elon Musk has taken over the site, and he’s already set about accidentally destroying it. All the last dregs of prestige are vanishing from the place, now that it looks set to become Elon’s very own based meme hugbox. Advertisers are pulling out. The walls are caving in. This is something to celebrate! This unwitting Jesus has descended to harrow Hell and set you free. You can leave! But instead, you’re appalled. I’m going to stay, and mount the resistance to Elon Musk, because otherwise this site will be flooded with fascists. This vital communications tool must never be surrendered to our enemies. And why do you hate Elon Musk? Because he has your face, this unbearable fifty-year-old who thinks memes are dope, who developed all his political positions by being yelled at, who keeps trying to be funny and always, always, fails. He loves it! He loves being insane and trying to make other people suffer. Because despite being the richest person in the world he’s still battling, like the rest of you, to reign in Hell.
In the end, I think Borges was wrong, and there is a part of Dante’s Inferno that could be called a properly atrocious place. In the thirteenth canto, we come to the Forest of the Suicides. This is the place for the people who are not condemned to Hell, but who have chosen to come here. This forest, we’re told, is full of harpies; they punish the suicides with their sharp and terrible claws. Dante hears ‘on all sides lamentations uttered,’ the suicides moaning, but there’s no one to be seen. Only branches, an endless trackless mat of branches, ‘gnarled and intertangled,’ in the forest’s dense dusky gloom. Virgil tells Dante to break off a twig from the nearest branch, and he does. The tree bleeds red human blood. It cries: ‘Why dost thou rend me? Hast thou no spirit of pity whatsoever?’ The suicides have been turned into trees, and the harpies torture them by clawing at their branches. But the harpies are also invisible. We never see a harpy; we never hear them scream. The only person who deliberately wounds the trees is Dante himself. The true Hell is the place you cannot go without yourself becoming a demon.
A harpy is a creature from the wide blue sea. It mimics a human face, but it has the body and feathers of a bird.
Abandon hope, all ye who enter your email addresses here