As Dante’s tour guide through hell, the Roman poet Virgil introduces the former to the nine circles of torment that will face the condemned upon death. These concentric circles roughly correspond to the seven deadly sins, but are extended to include such innovations as heresy, violence, fraud and treachery. As a new entrant to the fiery underworld, one can expect to endure a different mode of eternal suffering depending on the category and gravity of one’s sin throughout earthly existence. The arrogant, conceited, greedy and lustful can expect their own personal and unique sufferings, as befitting a life lived in self indulgence. As the author himself notes, the suffering of hell is thus reserved for those sinners who have ‘sacrificed their reason to their lust.’ (Inf. 5:38-9)
Yet as horrifying as Dante’s depiction of the brutality of Hell is, it overlooks the subtler forms of torment that, if not as physically punishing, are nevertheless psychologically unrelenting. Like God, the devil works in mysterious ways, and his tortures are not always blatantly violent. Imagine, for example, being stuck in a doctors waiting room with crying kids for all damn eternity? Sure, your body might survive but your mind will eventually fall to bits. Or imagine that you were stuck in the Woolworth’s express check out aisle for millennia? Just as you approach the counter you are magically transported to the back of the queue and are forced to repeat the process again. It is these milder forms of eternal punishment that I honour here today. As a thought experiment, I offer you six alternate circles of Hell based on my own fear and loathing.
Circle 1: Minor Annoyances
Circle 1 is the entry point for those entering Hell. Not matter the severity of the evil committed by individuals on earth, all are lumped together in circle 1 for an observational period lasting several thousands of years. Consider it a holding cell in which people are tested according to what they can endure. Those who hold their nerves the longest are given a concession: they will stay in circle 1 for eternity, thus avoiding the tortures that will eventually face the weaker of the lot. Even the devil, it seems, operates with a modicum of grace.
In this circle, individuals are forced to endure the constant noise of construction sites; hammering, circular saws, gruff voices yelling and so forth. Nothing ever actually gets built, mind you. It is always a construction project in progress without any hope of completion. Over time, the construction noise is supplemented with the additional annoyance of a small dog yapping continuously.
There is no night or day in this level, just a soft glow emanating from the reflected light of the fires burning further along the cavern. This gentle glow shines off the surrounding rock, occasionally illuminating the pained and irritated faces of the newly arrived.
Circle 2: Narcissist Plague
Those who have not secured their place in circle 1 are ushered into the toxic world of circle 2. Before they arrive, however, they are forced into a deep sleep. Upon awakening, they find themselves getting ready for work in their former homes. All memory of dying and arriving in Hell is wiped from memory, and for all intents and purposes the individual in question resumes their former life with little more than a faint and vague sense of being in a dream like state.
The only change to their lives? Well, from now on everyone they encounter- be it family, friends, co-workers or service staff- will be either a pathological narcissist or sociopath. All future romantic relationships will also be marked by the presence of these troublesome personalities. Over time, these people wear the afflicted down and destroy their sense of peace and self-esteem. The afflicted lives a life of fear, constantly wondering what might happen to them. Like a parasite, when one narcissist saps all the energy from the afflicted they move on, only to be replaced with another. There is no end to this cycle for all eternity. One may pray for death, but these prayers are but empty words cast into the abyss.
Circle 3: Dance Music Festivals
Through the process of observing an individual’s earthly life (as well as a pre-hell questionnaire), Satan has gathered in-depth knowledge of his subjects least favourite style of music. For those who detest dance music and hip-hop, the devil has a special torment in mind- although it is only reserved for the very worst offenders.
Similar to Circle 2, the afflicted is put to sleep via a type of sedative gas unique to hell. Upon waking, the afflicted find themselves in the middle of a huge, open-air concrete arena. There is a stage set-up at one end, and the floor of the venue is filled with a mass of shirtless people on steroids. A DJ is blasting the infernal sounds of electronic dance music. Every 3 seconds the music stops and he bellows ‘get your hands in the air.’ The temperature gauge on the arenas scoreboard states that it is 41 degrees Celsius. There is no shade, and the sun is beating down relentlessly.
You find yourself sweating and overheating. Unable to think, your friends approach you. You have taken a bad ecstasy tablet. They don’t know this, and they keep encouraging you to come up the front and party. You eventually overheat. Vomiting and dizzy, you are rushed to the St. John’s ambulance tent where they try to revive you. You pass out. With the help of the St. John Ambulance crew you eventually come to, only to relive the horrible experience over and again, ad infinitum.
Circle 4: Work, Health & Safety Seminar
Upon arriving at circle 4, the cursed minions are led down a passageway through the caves and led into a large auditorium lit by piercing fluorescent lights. At this point the remaining stragglers are herded through the door which is locked behind them for all eternity.
What awaits the afflicted is a repeated death by boredom, but a boredom of a particular variety. Just when it appears that nothing of significance will happen, a group of corporate types in suits emerge from behind an oversized white board. They are but ghosts, but this scarcely matters in the present context. Their presence both feels real and invokes terror and obedience. The gathered masses are now forced to sit down with paper and pens at the ready (provided courtesy of Hell). They are told that they will now be subjected to an eternity of Work Health & Safety lectures. All they can expect for millennia, they are told, are endless lectures about the importance of fire and safety, identifying hazardous substances and the appropriate posture when working at a desk. At the end of every lecture are a series of exam questions which must be passed. Failure means automatic enrolment in a second series of classes, the topic of which is ‘creating safe spaces in the work environment.’
Circle 5: Sydney Trains Debacle
It is peak hour in the Sydney CBD, and you are waiting on a crowded platform at Town Hall station. There is barely room to move. The air is oppressively hot and sticky, a fact made worse by the smell of sweat. The station manager has indicated via the loudspeaker that your train to Bankstown is running 25 minutes late. Everyone is frustrated, and you wonder how much more it would take for a violent riot to break out.
Eventually your train pulls up. You see the lights approaching from the other end of the subway tunnel. You breathe a sigh of relief, only to tense right back up again: it is an old unairconditioned tin sweat box model from the 1970’s. You groan and feel close to murder. You have no choice but to enter the sauna alongside all and sundry.
The train soon starts moving, but at a snails pace. Somewhere between Town Hall and Wynyard station it comes to a complete stop. The train guard comes over the speaker in a raspy voice: ‘Passengers, we are experience mechanical difficulties. We’ll keep you updated as we know more.’
As you sweat profusely you ponder your earthly decisions and wonder what you could have done differently to avoid this suffering. Not that such self-reflection matters. After several hours of being stuck between stations you are transported back to the platform to relive the entire experience over and over and over and over and over and over again.
Circle 6: The Eternal Church Service
Let it not be said that the Devil lacks a sense of humour.
Amidst all the suffering of hell, some poor souls see it fit to complain to the devil about the conditions. Grievances about the heat and lack of space are especially common, as is a disgust with the standard of lavatory facilities (a reality too revolting to repeat here). Amongst the more popular laments was the expression of regret for allowing themselves to be cast into hell in the first place. ‘If only I listened to those weird Christians on the street,’ they moan.’ Popular also: ‘I should have gone along to Church with my parents instead of playing FIFA on my PlayStation, maybe then I would be in heaven.’
To these people the devil reserved his most severe contempt. This contempt was, admittedly, born out of a sense of hurt; Hell wasn’t actually so bad, he reasoned. Sure, it was hot. But there were plenty of different activities to do. Constant music festivals and all that. Why did everyone hate on him so much?
In his anger, the devil decided to give these complainers exactly what they wanted: the chance for redemption. The best way, he thought, was to subject them to an eternity of stifling Church services. Although these services varied in style, they all had one thing in common: four hour sermons on Levitical law. During these expositions the congregation members were forced to remain in their seats, unable to even shift their posture. Following these epic sermons the congregation were forced to sing the contemporary praise and worship song ‘Indescribable’ a minimum of 20 times. The only sustenance they received was the post-service milk arrowroot biscuits and Nescafe instant blend.
Observing these poor souls enduring such torment, the devil couldn’t help but chuckle to himself. Maybe he would let them out in a million years or so. Then again, maybe not. In the meantime he grabbed a beer and listed to some Deep Purple.