The afterlife is an old room in the house of the human imagination, and the ancients loved to offer the tour. Homer has Odysseus sail through the underworld in search of a way back home, to Ithaca. (As Bruce reminds us in one of his helpful introductory notes, the underworld, according to the cosmological geography of the Odyssey, is “not deep beneath the earth, but on a dark and distant shore.”) “The dead and gone came swarming up around me, each asking about the grief that touched him most,” Odysseus says. Some of the dead, such as Orion, “that huge hunter,” who keeps up his chase on the shadow world’s fields, undergo fates that seem like dim epilogues of their lives. Others suffer extravagantly. Sisyphus can’t get his boulder to keep to the high ground. Vultures peck at the rapist Tityus’ guts. Tantalus stands in a pool of water that flees when he stoops for a drink, and he takes shade under trees whose fruits shy away when he tries to grab a bite. An uncanny mirroring happens when Odysseus encounters Hercules, yesteryear’s great hero, who, in keeping with his half-divine nature, has been split in two after death: the ghost of his mortal side is stuck in the underworld, while “the man himself” lives in bliss on Mt. Olympus. Like an over-the-hill older brother recounting his athletic exploits, Hercules remembers his first turn through the pit. Comparing Odysseus’ deathly journey to his own famous labors, he asks, wearily, “You too?”
The Hades drawn by Homer, and, later, by Virgil, in the Aeneid, is not quite Hell as understood in the post-medieval Christian tradition, but it is one of its ancestors. While all of the dead go to Hades, there are tortures specially designed and individually designated for those who acted badly while alive. (Of course, as in everything Greek and Roman, there’s an unanswered question of agency: just who has done the sorting, and how do we know that this judge has been just?) The “Book of Hell” is determinedly Western and Christian in emphasis: Bruce regards Hades, together with Gehenna—where kings of Judah were said to sacrifice children by fire—and Sheol, the place of darkness awaiting all of us according to the Hebrew Bible, as the forerunners of Christianity’s fire and brimstone. He briefly acknowledges the older and vaguer pagan visions found in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia; Jahannam, Islam’s place of punishment, doesn’t appear in the book at all.
Within this chosen lineage, the meeting between Odysseus and Hercules coaxes a trope into view. From antiquity forward, our stories about Hell often feature some prematurely damned hero—Orpheus or Aeneas, the three Hebrew boys in the furnace or Jesus during his three days dead, the innocent prisoner or the untried detainee—passing through the state of hopelessness, then coming back, blinking, into the light. There’s something practical about this from a storytelling perspective: how better to draw readers or listeners into a godforsaken realm than through the eyes of someone just like them—lost, maybe, but not yet totally toast? (A recent application, and, possibly, a subversion, of this template is the sitcom “The Good Place,” which follows four very flawed individuals—archetypical stand-ins for lots of people you probably know—as they tour a false Heaven, and then the entire cosmos, in a widening rebellion against an overly stringent afterlife.) There is something philosophical in the pattern, too—the idea that the extremities of earthly experience inevitably draw us toward the higher themes of justice, balance, retribution, mercy, and punishment.
The great poetic example of the blurriness between the everyday and the ever after is Dante’s Inferno, which begins with the narrator “midway upon the journey of our life,” having wandered away from the life of God and into a “forest dark.” That wood, full of untamed animals and fears set loose, leads the unwitting pilgrim to Virgil, who acts as his guide through the ensuing ordeal, and whose Aeneid, itself a recapitulation of the Odyssey, acts as a pagan forerunner to the Inferno. This first canto of the poem, regrettably absent from the “Book of Hell,” reads as a kind of psychological-metaphysical map, marking the strange route along which one person’s private trouble leads both outward and downward, toward the trouble of the rest of the world. In the end, Dante’s strayings help him back onto straight street, but not before he looks, literally, into the eyes of the Devil, who is trapped beneath a layer of ice:
The emperor of this kingdom of gloom
Came up out of the ice at the mid-point of his chest…
O, what a marvel it appeared to me,
When I saw three faces on his head!
The one in front was a brilliant red;
There were two others that joined with this one
Above the middle part of either shoulder
And they merged together at the crest of his hair…
Underneath each face sprouted two mighty wings,
All six proportioned for a bird of great size;
I never saw sails of the sea so large.
The masterstroke of this scene in the deepest circle of Hell is in Dante’s depiction of each of the Devil’s awful mouths: in the foremost (the big red one) is Judas, Jesus’ betrayer; in the others are Cassius and Brutus, who worked together to do in Caesar. Pathetic, and almost moving, when you think about it: the worst sinners imaginable, each doomed to everlasting mastication, are guys undone by the successes of their famous friends. Insecurity is a tomb; these are the kinds of midlife crises from which few people recover. “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” is as applicable to certain poisonous habits of mind as to the gates of Hell. One leads, inexorably, to the other.
Dante, writing in the early fourteenth century, drew on a bounty of hellish material, from Greek, Roman, and, of course, Christian literature, which is rife with horrible visions of Hell. Bruce includes an excerpt from the Apocalypse of Paul, an apocryphal third-century text that narrates a Revelation-style reverie experienced by Paul of Tarsus. An angel bids the evangelist to come and view the dwelling place of the sinners; he sees a “river of fire,” in which there are “men and women sunk up to their knees, and other men up to their navels, and . . . others up to their lips, and others up to their hair.” Their varying scorch marks indicate levels of depravity: those all the way immersed “were those who conspired with one another, plotting evil against their neighbor.” Bruce also excerpts the parable in the Gospel of Luke about a rich man and a poor man. Both die, and the beggar goes to Heaven, “carried by angels to the bosom of Abraham,” while the rich man is damned to burn. Suffering, he cries out for help. The cry—which, along with the myth of Tantalus, is echoed in Coleridge’s famous line “Water, water, every where, / Nor any drop to drink”—is chilling: “Father Abraham, have mercy on me and send Lazarus to touch the tip of his finger in water to cool my tongue, for I am suffering in this flame.”
Reading these various prophecies—in particular, reëncountering Dante’s peculiar cycle, from his inner life to universal laws and then, through the unbearable torment of others, back to his inner life—returned me to a very different and much more recent chronicle of spiritual experience, not included in the Penguin anthology. The Catholic activist and writer Dorothy Day, in her autobiography, “The Long Loneliness,” recounts an episode from her leftist, pre-conversion youth: she participated in a protest, in front of the White House, against the poor treatment of imprisoned suffragettes. The picketing led to the arrest of Day and several fellow-activists, and together the group resolved to go on a hunger strike until they were released and their demands had been met. After six days, exhausted and increasingly hopeless, Day slipped out of normal consciousness and into a protracted reverie of worldwide despair. Her mind shuttled away from her vacant stomach and visited every other despairing incarcerated soul. “I lost all feeling of my own identity,” she writes:
I reflected on the desolation of poverty, of destitution, of sickness and sin. That I would be free after thirty days meant nothing to me. I would never be free again, never free when I knew that behind bars all over the world there were women and men, young girls and boys, suffering constraint, punishment, isolation and hardship for crimes of which all of us were guilty. . . . Why were prostitutes prosecuted in some cases and in others respected and fawned on? People sold themselves for jobs, for the pay check, and if they only received a high enough price, they were honored. Why were some caught, not others? . . . What was good and evil? . . . Never would I recover from this wound, this ugly knowledge I had gained of what men were capable in their treatment of each other.
Day doesn’t explicitly associate this meditation with Hell, but her newly deepened association with the poor, and with other people on the periphery of society, has the effect of Dante’s journey through the Inferno: it sets her on the path toward the light. The vision is also, perhaps more harrowingly, characteristic of how the idea of Hell has shaped perceptions of our own time. Torturous places such as the Gulag, the gas chamber, death row, and the detainment site are often comprehended, and depicted, as new iterations of perdition. The tendency predates the twentieth century; several American slave narratives could have served as provocative additions to the “Book of Hell.” The collection winds toward the present with a section called “Hell of Our Own Making,” which includes the journalist Vasily Grossman’s firsthand account of the concentration camp at Treblinka and an essay by an incarcerated man named William Blake, who killed a court official while trying to escape a court date for a drug charge. “Yes, it is all true,” Grossman writes. “The last hope, the last wild hope that it was all just a terrible dream, has gone.” Blake writes about his time in the Special Housing Unit—less euphemistically, solitary confinement. (The essay first appeared in an anthology of such pieces called “Hell Is a Very Small Place.”) Blake’s vision is almost as bleak as Grossman’s: “Dying couldn’t take but a short time if you or the state were to kill me; in SHU I have died a thousand internal deaths.”