Hell on Earth – My Journey Through Inferno
345-BXH-DW: Moral Choices in Literature
I have long hesitated to tell this story, for my mind cannot fully recall the things my eyes have seen during this journey. To tell the truth, the visions I have had, which no rational man could fathom, are so hideous and horrifying that their mere retelling sends me into madness.
My descent into insanity began more than a year ago, as I was walking downtown late at night. I was in a bleak period of my life, wherein my heart felt no joy nor pleasure, only pain. That night, I had drowned my sorrow with alcohol, my only form of escapism. I walked with no destination or purpose. The clouds obscured the sky as misery veiled my soul. I strolled through the city for hours, until the first ray of sun pierced the dull February sky. Ashamed of what I had become, I sat on the ground and wept until my eyes bled. I closed my eyes and fell asleep.
When I woke up, mist had enveloped the city and the sun was nowhere to be seen, yet I felt warm. There was no car on the road, nor passersby on the sidewalk. I was alone in the world. “What difference does this make?” I thought to myself. “I have always been alone.” In my life I have known nothing but suffering. Though I had long abandoned God, I saw this as a sign of fate. I walked to the nearest bridge, ready to end my pain. The mist grew so thick I could no longer see the waters below my feet as I stood on the bridge. I stared down into the abyss and the abyss stared back at me. I closed my eyes and reminisced about my life, desperately hoping to cling onto a memory that could bring me back, but I was too far gone. “Are we not all condemned to death from birth?” I reasoned.
As I was about to end it, I saw a shadow on the other side of the bridge. Unsure whether the apparition was merely a folly of my mind, my curiosity got the best of me, and I walked toward it. I recognized the shape of a man, though his face was indiscernible. As I drew closer to him, I heard his voice as he spoke to me:
“You who dwell in these lands, follow me and you shall meet your fate.”
“Who are you?” I replied quietly, almost as if I spoke to myself. He turned around and started walking, and in confusion I followed him. After mere minutes I found myself in a field with no civilization in sight and a growing hopelessness in my heart. “I must have jumped” I concluded, “and the man is the collector of souls. At long last, my suffering shall end”. I saw the ghosts of men from afar, talking to each other, and I felt the urge to join them.
“These souls over there, their hearts have been foreign to God’s light, and now they must forever languish in this hopeless space. I am one of them,” the man said suddenly. He turned to me so that I could see his face. “I am Nikola Tesla. In my life I have been a genius inventor, and a renowned engineer. In my vanity I have refused to accept God as the supreme intelligence. My earthly ambitions have defined me, for in my brilliance I have thought the laws of physics needed no creator. I was agnostic, I refused to embrace faith, and I have maintained that the Universe needed no divine intervention to come into being. And thus, for eternity I have been banished here, in the vestibule, with those who refuse to believe in anything.”
“You have been an inspiration to me”, I replied. “I, too, was once a man of science, and looked up to you, Tesla. You were my idol, you who in your benevolence provided mankind with the gift of your genius, and with your undying dedication you rejected relationships for they would have distracted you from your work. It was you who created alternating current, and in your generosity declared “Let there be light!”. Tell me, what have I done to deserve your companionship in the kingdom of the dead?” And he to me:
“Do not be mistaken, for you are alive, and your presence in the world of the undead shall last no longer than our journey together. I have been instructed by the stars and the light that moves them to guide you along this path. Follow me, and I will show you eternal pain, for your soul has moved away from the kingdom come.”
Thus began our journey through Inferno. Soon, we passed a gate, with these ominous writings over it: “Through me you go into the city of weeping; through me you go into eternal pain; through me you go among the lost people.” (Inferno III.1-3)
“We have reached the second circle of hell”, explained Tesla. “Here dwell the lustful, those who have been slaves to their desires and in their incontinence have lost sight of God”.
Violent gusts of wind swept the souls that gathered in this circle. I saw from afar Cleopatra, whose beauty was to die for, and Alexander the Great, who expanded his empire from the Aegean Sea to Persia in a desire to become a god. Sitting alone against a wall, I saw a young man, no older than I, seemingly lost in thoughts.
“Brave soul, who are you, and what is the nature of this place?” I inquired.
“My name is Évariste Galois”, the soul replied. “In my life I was an idealist and an intellectual. I was a child prodigy, and at 18 years old I forever changed mathematics. I had for equal none but the greatest to ever walk this Earth. My name forever shall be remembered for my life’s work, Galois’ theory, has solved centuries-old problems and enshrined me as one of the most brilliant minds to have ever lived. Alas, I have let passion sweep over me, and challenged in duel he who claimed the woman I loved. Perhaps for the only time in my life I have miscalculated, for I could not foresee my own demise. I took a bullet straight to the heart and found myself in this place soon after.”
“Why should a man have to suffer for loving?” I asked, appalled at the unfairness of his situation.
“Love”, he began, “is inherently good. When directed to others in a benevolent and selfless way, love is the key to happiness and the heavens, but love can be corrupted. It can be perverted, or insufficient. Look at me: my love has been marked by bodily desires, and in doing so I strayed from pure, unadulterated love. I have directed my love toward the wrong things and let the sins of the flesh control my being, leading to my downfall.”
“Tell me, Galois, I began, why is it that despite all the good you have done on Earth and your contributions to mathematics and the advancement of mankind, you are judged by a single mistake? It seems to me that there is no justice in this place, for good men suffer eternally for a moment of weakness.”
“Sin”, Tesla interjected, “is not an action but rather an inclination. It is not the mere enactment of one’s desire that seals their fate but a constant lack of self-control and repentance. Souls here have been judged not on their actions but on their lack of remorse and efforts to better themselves. The great philosopher Aristotle was suspicious of extremes, for he believed that virtue required a balance. Too much love, just as too little love, leads to sin. The further you stray from this middle-ground, the more you are inclined to fall into vices.”
“He tells the truth”, said Galois. “In my earthly existence I have not once looked heavenward, and not even on my deathbed have I regretted fighting for my love at the cost of my own life.”
“That woman whose love was worth dying for, what happened to her?”
“Her name was Stéphanie-Félicie Poterine du Motel; she was my guiding star, my muse and my everything. Her father promised her hand to some countryman, and thus we fought for our lives and her heart, and alas upon my death they married. Now, if you will excuse me, I must go, and so shall you, for no living man should bear witness to the suffering in this place.”
For the next few hours, Tesla and I did not exchange a single word. We walked in silence toward the center of the Earth, as I watched, terrified, the creative ways in which souls were tortured for their sins. I thought of my own life and the sins I have committed. Looking back at my conversation with Galois, a song was stuck in my head, “Only the good die young, all the evil seems to live forever”. Finally, after an eternity – time passes differently in hell – Tesla spoke to me.
“We have reached the sixth circle of hell, that of the heretics. Soon you will be freed from this journey, but before, look around you, all those sinners condemned to remain in fiery tombs.”
I gazed with horror at the souls imprisoned in their coffins set ablaze. I ventured close enough to one so that I could see the face of the sinner, and I spoke to him.
“Who are you, you who dwells in these scorched lands, and why have you been sentenced to suffer in this tomb of fire?” And he spoke to me.
“I am Pythagoras of Samos, mathematician, and philosopher of legend whose work has been fundamental for millennia after my passing. I was obsessed with numbers and shapes, whose properties to me were sacred. A brilliant geometer, it was I who first proved the theorem which today bears my name.”
I quickly glanced at Tesla and noticed a childlike amazement on his face. He listened carefully to Pythagoras, absorbing each word with all the passion a dead man can be imagined to feel.
“O great Pythagoras”, he exclaimed, “you have been an inspiration to so many. Copernicus, Newton, and Ptolemy all read your work on natural philosophy before coming up with their theories. You were the first to claim that music is mathematical by nature and that the Earth is spherical. Why is it that you are now in this place and not in limbo with your contemporaries, and the other great scholars of ancient time?”
“It is true, I have discovered many things in my life, but I have spread even more lies. I believed that upon death the soul reincarnated in another body, and I practiced divination and prophecy. I have gathered a following, they called themselves the Pythagoreans. It was according to my orders that they renounced their lives and joined me in a secluded and frugal communal life, for I believed the soul to be buried deep in the body and that these strict rules to which I subjected them and myself to would purify our souls, readying them for another life. For this reason, I have been sentenced to burn like witches at the stakes.”
“How could God punish you for heresy if Christianity did not exist in your lifetime?” I asked, confused.
“Just because I was born before Jesus does not mean that his presence was not felt. God is in the waters, in the skies and in the hearts of men. These virtuous pagans your master Tesla spoke of, they prayed to the wrong Gods, but they prayed. They recognized that the Universe is divine by nature. Me, in my egocentrism, I rejected the sacredness of the body, created in God’s image, and mistook it for a mere vessel of life. I have believed that the Universe could fit in mathematical books. I have been the puppeteer, enchaining my followers and forcing them to gaze at shadows on the wall, blinding them to the divine light shining outside the cave.” He started to cry, the tears evaporating on his cheeks as they were pouring down. “I have challenged the Old Gods and the new, and look what it brought me: only pain.”
My master Tesla, after thanking Pythagoras for his time, urged me to leave this place and continue our journey.
We found ourselves in the middle of a forest. There was a gloomy, depressing aura emanating from the cyclopean trees whose canopy entirely blocked any light from coming in.
“Where are we”, I asked Tesla, “and why is there no one here?”
“This forest is known as the forest of suicides. Look around you, for I have been instructed to bring you here. Look around, feel the air, hear the souls’ lament which echo in this forest and whose pain you too feel. We are in the seventh circle of hell. Here lie those who have committed the sin of violence – and this forest in particular is the abode of those sinners who have committed violence against themselves.”
As he said this, I heard a faint scream coming from one of the trees, and approaching it, realized a man was stuck inside. Unlike the souls I had met thus far, he seemed to be in immense physical pain. I spoke to him.
“Who are you, you who dwell in this forest of doom, and whose suffering stains this tree with blood?” I asked.
“My name is Alan Turing”, the soul replied. “Born in 1912, I have decrypted the Enigma machine and allowed the English army to intercept communications between Nazi regiments. I have been a saviour of the free world and a mathematical genius, whose work in encryption and cryptography has been instrumental in bringing mankind to a new age of technology: the age of computers and artificial intelligence. Hailed as a war hero, I was then persecuted for my heart and my desires were directed toward men. For all my merit, I had the misfortune of being born a homosexual. Upon being sentenced to forced chemical castration, I covered an apple in cyanide and ate it. Upon biting this forbidden fruit, I found myself here, as a martyr.”
“Why is it”, I began, “that you are punished for what others have inflicted onto you? Did Socrates not voluntarily drink poison hemlock to end his days in dignity? Yet he does not reside in this forest.”
“Socrates”, he explained, “has died for his ideals. His death was his sole option, for renouncing your beliefs is a fate worse than death. In ending his life, he has shown a fortitude which few men can invoke. I, for one, have merely given in to my weakness. My death was an escape from the prosecution, not a virtuous sacrifice for an idea. My suicide was the sign of my cowardice, as I could no longer bear living as an outcast. In doing so, I sealed my fate, for I insulted the sacredness of existence, of the life which God blows into the bodies of men. I decided to die rather than fight for my ideals, and now I pay the price, imprisoned of this forest of suicide.”
Tesla asked him several questions about his work and seemed ecstatic to learn how technology has advanced. After explaining in detail how the algorithm he used to decode messages worked, Turing began to shout uncontrollably, burdened by the immense physical pain he was going through. Tesla and I took our leave and continued our journey.
I reflected on what Turing had told us. Is faith worth dying for? I thought of Antonius Block, the holy knight who came back from a crusade only to find plague and desolation. By living his life according to ideals, he missed out on happiness, and ultimately all his fortitude was in vain. Is it not more holy to live not for abstract ideals, but to bring happiness into this world? We can play chess with death, but we cannot beat it, and when inevitably the game ends, there remains nothing but memories as we join the dance of death.
When at last we exited the forest, I could not believe what my eyes saw. I was a few meters away from the bridge where it had all begun. The sound of silence still resonated in the bleak city street. The nightmarish symphony of my own heart beating in my chest echoed in my head. Tesla spoke to me:
“Do you see now, why I have brought you here? Go on the bridge and meet your fate.”
“I am afraid, master.”
“Fear not, and listen to these words, which Beatrice told Dante: “One has to fear only the things which have the power of hurting others; for the rest, they do not matter, they are not to be feared” (Inferno II.88-90).
In the middle of the bridge, stuck in its foundations, I saw myself, half-man, half-tree, screaming in agony. I began crying, realizing the wrongs I have done in my life. I kneeled and begged God to save my soul.
“I have been instructed by the stars to save you from yourself,” explained Tesla. “Death is the only condition one cannot escape from. You hate your life, then so be it, but have you tried to better it? Nothing is permanent, except for eternity. You can find another world, another chance at happiness. He who pulls the trigger condemns himself to never feel love again. Is that your legacy? Have you forgotten your restless dreams of youth when your ambitions knew no bounds? Have you lost all fortitude, all hope, and all faith? Remember the voice of your mother, her tears of joy when you took your first steps and her smile as you held her hand during her dying breath. Remember the sun shining on your face in summertime, and the warmth of the fireplace after a long day in the snow. Remember the faces of all those you have loved. Is all this not worth fighting for?”
“You are right”, I replied, my voice shaking as I tried to stop the flow of tears. “Yes, I look back fondly on those memories, but time has passed, and I must move on. These words from Dante came to mind: “There is no greater sorrow than to think backwards to a happy time, when one is miserable” (Inferno V.121-123). Life is short, and the years are passing me by as I stand idle and waste my life away in my self-indulged misery. What an idiot I have been! Never, never again will I listen to the call of the abyss. On the heavens and the Earth, I swear never again to find myself in such a state of mind.”
“Do not make promises you cannot keep”, advised Tesla. “Being happy is too much of a task to expect any living man to do, but promise me you will try your best.”
I felt as though a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I was reborn.
“I promise, master”, I said solemnly.
“Then my work has been done. Our path ends here, for I must rejoin the place where I will remain until the end of time, the vestibule. And you, you shall go back to the world of the living, and may I never see you again.”
“Thank you, master, for showing me the way. I am forever in debt to you.”
I closed my eyes and when I opened them again, Tesla was nowhere to be seen. I heard a car engine roar in the distance and the chatter of passersby from the other end of the bridge. I looked at the place where I had these visions of myself imprisoned in a tree, and instead saw a flower growing from a crack in the concrete. Though it was the middle of the day, I saw four stars shining high in the sky. For the first time in years, I smiled.
 Friedrich Nietzsche – Beyond Good and Evil
 Iron Maiden, “Seventh Son of a Seventh Son” – Only the Good Die Young
 Plato’s Allegory of the Cave
 Ingmar Bergman – The Seventh Seal