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The Punitive City (Inferno, Canto V)


Sing me a song, you’re a singer…do me a wrong, you’re a bringer of evil,” Dio yowled, the shrill tang of his voice resounding off the scorched black walls of Dis, the City of Damnation and walled circler of the coils of Nether Hell. “The devil is never a maker,” he sang apace, his voice now warming to his words, but at this last I hushed him with a wave.

We crossed the acrid Acheron by bridge, a spindly iron thing, ornate, suspended in the murky gloom. Below us surged the swollen, sullen waves, their froth dispersed ‘cross ebon embankments. “This place is vast,” I said as we approached the gate: “And yet I feel an emptiness within its walls.”

“You speak truth,” quoth Dio, “for did not Anchises’ son with Sibyl’s aid adventure here, and did he not then sing of the ‘desolate halls and vacant realm of Dis?’” “In truth,” I said, “I do not know, for lo, I was as high as fuck when last I read ‘The Golden Bough.’”

“Shameful,” sighed Dio, and shook his head. “No fallen angels wait you here, no crowds of splendid demons – merely emptiness and structure, endless and without seeming point. These gates have ever stood ajar, unharrowed by a Mighty One and open as an honest lie.”

“That,” said I, “is scarier yet than the torments I had feared.”

John Martin, Pandemonium (1841)

(NOTE: the views here expressed are those of the author)

Afterlives – nether worlds – are one of humanity’s earliest and most enduring fictions. Almost without exception, human cultures include some conception of religion, and in almost every case, religions exist primarily (or, at least, initially) to square the circle of human mortality and the unthinkable concept of death’s finality, of the inevitable total annihilation of self. Whether through reincarnation or some form of posthumous judgement and sorting, these afterlives generally posit the continuation of human “life” after life – the immortality of an ineffable “soul” of some kind (there are, notably, exceptions to this rule).

As Feuerbach said, “God did not make man in His image; on the contrary, man made God in his image.” Likewise, and inevitably, the afterlife: it is a story we tell, and thus can tell us more about ourselves than it can about what to expect after we’ve breathed our last. In this regard, the non-Judaic Abrahamic religions – Christianity and Islam – developed a particularly baroque and grotesque vision of Hell, a realm of endless torment waiting for sinners after their deaths. Throughout Europe and the West in particular (and in the far-flung colonies subjugated to the religious and political ideologies thereof) an idea of Hell began to develop that bore a startling resemblance to concepts that were just emerging in politics and economics. In his dense, masterful, and influential book Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison, French philosopher Michel Foucault sought to answer the question of how in a very short time span (80 – 100 years) the model of crime and punishment moved from one of public torture and execution to one of confinement and “correction.” His answer is convoluted, but has to do with the emergence of so-called “disciplines,” specific regulations of the human body’s movements and position in time and space which allowed for the coordination of large, technically complicated and time-centered operations like factories, modern armies, and (eventually) prisons and classrooms to produce or correct citizens who could function as, essentially, cogs in the capitalist machine. The concept of the Panopticon is Important to the development of any discipline in this telling of history.

The Panopticon was a model for a prison in which, essentially, the prisoners could be observed at all times without observing their observers, leading to a sort of “internalized watchman of the guard.” This is a theoretical framework that was startlingly ahead of its time when Bentham developed it. The larger conceptual framework was even ahead of its time when articulated by Foucault, who wrote about it in1975, before the age of Google Earth, of Total Information Awareness, surveillance capitalism, a London populated by 691,000 CCTV cameras and the widespread deployment of facial recognition software – any of it. There is a horror particular to being watched – I’ve written about it here when discussing “Airbnb Horror” – that is built into both God-the-observer and Government-the-observer; it’s no coincidence that one of the early proponents of the Panopticon other than Bentham was one Thomas Hobbes, the philosophical progenitor of Leviathan and a thinker who sketched a brutal conception of both human existence and the humanity-crushing overpower of the State.

Leviathan was published in 1651, during the birth pangs of a revolution in human thinking in Europe that would eventually be known as the Age of Enlightenment. By the end of the 18th century, the Panopticon had evolved into a conceptual framework that Foucault called “the punitive city:”

‘Let us conceive of places of punishment as a Garden of the Laws that families would visit on Sundays’…  This, then, is how one must imagine the punitive city. At the crossroads, in the gardens, at the side of roads being repaired or bridges built, in workshops open to all, in the depths of mines that may be visited, will be hundreds of tiny theatres of punishment. Each crime will have its law; each criminal his punishment. It will be a visible punishment, a punishment that tells all, that explains, justifies itself, convicts: placards, different-coloured caps bearing inscriptions, posters, symbols, texts read or printed, tirelessly repeat the code. Scenery, perspectives, optical effects, trompe-l’eil sometimes magnify the scene, making it more fearful than it is, but also clearer. From where the public is sitting, it is possible to believe in the existence of certain cruelties which, in fact, do not take place. But the essential point, in all these real or magnified severities, is that they should all, according to a strict economy, teach a lesson: that each punishment should be a fable. And that, in counterpoint with all the direct examples of virtue, one may at each moment encounter, as a living spectacle, the misfortunes of vice.


Later in the text, Foucault – discussing the transition from what we might call early Church Time to what we might call modern Work Time – writes that “for centuries, the religious orders had been masters of discipline. They were the specialists of time: the great technicians of rhythm and regular activities.” For centuries before the punitive city of the Enlightenment, the Christian religious orders were also the great technicians of horror, gifted engineers of fear and dread and exquisite physical anguish who built flaming towers in the clouds – or, rather, beneath the Earth’s surface – and peopled them with the damned. They were the great technicians, and Dante Alighieri was their 14th-century scribe, a poet of pain propelled to profundity by the politics of posthumous punishment.

In the Middle Ages, long centuries before the Panopticon or the punitive city, Dante conceived his Divine Comedy including its Inferno, a taxonomy of damnation and the damned that was as thorough and petty as it was hideously inventive. During the Renaissance that separated the Middle Ages from the Enlightenment (a vast oversimplification, but good enough for our purposes), an explosion in natural science was preceded by a resurgence in hermeticism and ritual magick. Part of that attempt to wrangle control of the world of “powers and principalities” was a detailed taxonomy of the fauna native to Hell. Of particular note was a 1577 appendix to Johann Weyer’s De praestigiis daemonum known as Pseudomonarchia Daemonum, most directly translated as “The False Monarchy of Demons,” although it is often known as “The False Hierarchy of Demons.”

The Pseudomonarchia depicted Hell as, quite naturally, a monarchy, since that was the only way that Europeans of the time could conceive of a realm being governed – or at least a divine (or infernal) one, at any rate. Indeed, as the name of Weyer’s condensed and reprinted grimoire suggested, Hell was conceived of as an inverted hierarchy, a perversion more obscene that simple anarchy. A horrific and eternally instructive tableau of morally edifying torture and an example of “let the punishment fit the crime” writ in the largest and most grotesque sense, Hell is a staggering concept, a truly perverse vision of the afterlife that has in modern times lost a little bit of its oomph even in certain fundamentalist circles. Circle back next week as we examine how Hell evolved from a palace of eternal and morally instructive torture to a vague (but incredibly persistent) modern echo of its former ghastly, blood-stained horror.

“Alas,” said Dio as we neared the edge of Dis, “here I must leave your side. For deeper than this well’s edge, the rim of Nether Hell, I cannot pass.”

“My thanks,” said I, and clapped old Ronnie James upon the arm. “Comrade-in-arms, I wonder, though – am I to be alone in my descent?”

“Oh no,” declaimed a voice from dark and swirling depths below. “No, child. Alone you shall not be.”

It was with rare delight I then beheld below within the well a form of shifting flame and alabaster androgyne repose, a feline majesty of sexy, graceful cool.

David Bowie said “Come, see.”

It is important to note that the content created for this blog is the work of disparate, brilliant authors and contributors. But that said, content does not necessarily reflect the opinions or beliefs of Madness Heart Press. — John Baltisberger

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