Articles

Germs from Hell

Covid infographic and William Blake’s illustration, ‘Buoso Donati Attacked by the Serpent’, Inferno XXV

Some of the images that have circulated over the course of the Covid 19 pandemic to illustrate the importance of face coverings are reminiscent of a scene in the 25th canto of Dante’s Hell, where a human sinner is transformed into a serpent (and vice versa) by a cloud of smoke it emits. Here is my rendition of the scene in Gehenna: a novel of Hell and Earth.

‘Before Alexander and the author could take it in, another little serpent darted furiously onto the scene. It hurled itself at one of the remaining two sinners, biting his belly button before falling to the ground, stretched backwards out in front of the thief like a right-angled mirror image. The thief stared dumbly at the serpent, and yawned as if nothing had happened. The serpent simply returned his gaze before emitting a cloud of smoke from its mouth, just as another cloud emerged from the sinner’s punctured navel, and the two merged into a single almighty fug.

Alexander had seen both versions of The Fly and read Kafka’s Metamorphosis. He was dimly aware of classical tales involving transmutation. But none of that had prepared him for what happened now. As the sinner and the serpent gazed at one another through the fog, the latter’s tail split into a fork while the former’s legs closed tight until you couldn’t see the join. The serpent’s scaly skin softened while the thief’s hardened. Then his arms receded into his armpits as the serpent’s four stumpy feet were transformed, the upper pair stretching out to become a man’s arms, and the lower pair twisting together to form his manhood. The author and Alexander winced as the sinner’s own member split down the middle to form two little legs. Amid the smoke they could just discern that his skin was turning serpent-green while the thing on the ground took on his previous complexion. He went bald, the thing sprouted hair; it stood up, he fell to the earth. Only their dead eyes remained constant, fixed on one another as they swapped forms. The flesh on the standing thing’s face tightened, the slack forming ears as the soft centre formed a nose and lips. The crawling thing’s nose lengthened like Pinocchio’s, but he was no longer any kind of boy. His ears retracted like a snail’s tentacles, and his lying tongue became forked just as the other’s forked tongue fused together, so as the smoke subsided he was able to curse the serpent that now slithered away.’

To read more, buy Gehenna from Amazon (UK).

Taking conscience seriously

In an essay published as part of the Academy of Ideas’ Letters for Liberty series, I write that we must not simply defend conscience from overt censorship, but champion it as a bulwark against groupthink and moral conformism.

Letters on Liberty: Taking conscience seriously

From debates about abortion to Black Lives Matter, Brexit to gay cakes, there is little belief that some deeper questions are best given space away from the hurly-burly of politics – even if that’s never easy in practice. Conscience is not an alternative to public debate, but an invaluable supplement to it, and one we should cherish – not even when it challenges a moral and political consensus, but especially when it does.

Read Taking Conscience Seriously.

Taking Dante’s Hell seriously

Seven-hundred years on, the first part of the Divine Comedy continues to express a very human sense of justice.

Why we still take Dante’s Hell seriously

Imagine Hell were real, and you were condemned to suffer eternity there. Just for the sake of argument, where exactly do you think you would end up? We’ll assume you haven’t done anything truly monstrous. Not yet. So would you join the lustful? The gluttonous? If you feel strongly about the non-existence of Hell and turn out to be badly mistaken, maybe you’ll burn with the other heretics. Or is it something worse than that? Are you capable of complicity in unspeakable horrors? Could you betray a sacred trust?…

Continue reading “Taking Dante’s Hell seriously”

The last hot dogs

Zoe looked anxiously into her cupboard. There was one more tin of hot dogs. That was it. And then? Then she would just have to do without. The authorities regretted it if current restrictions made it difficult to obtain food, but food was hardly a priority in a time of crisis. According to some who were more strident in their beliefs, this was an opportunity for Zoe and others like her to ‘evolve’, to grow out of their primitive belief that they could not live without food. They would have to recognise the supremacy of the spiritual life, even if it led to a deterioration in their ‘physical health’. Continue reading “The last hot dogs”

Alexander’s hat: a cautionary tale

When Alexander was married to Laura, he had been untroubled by demons. Looking back now, he remembered those years as an altogether simpler and more innocent time. But really he knew that was an illusion, or at least an exaggeration, and one he could sustain only by blocking out certain memories – and in particular the memory of the night he had stumbled on something very much closer to the truth. Continue reading “Alexander’s hat: a cautionary tale”

A comedy of Eros

You don’t fall in love with ‘the girl on the bus.’ It just isn’t done. Maybe you look at her chest, maybe you chat her up even. But to fall deeply and silently in love with a stranger who just happens to be a regular on the same bus: that would just be sad. And there is nothing worse than being sad, right?

Steph was never sad. He never took the bus either. Steph’s and Alexander’s schoolboy friendship had been consolidated during the time the two had spent in uniform together as police recruits. Steph’s indestructible cheeriness seemed to complement Alexander’s own dour demeanour. Alexander used to call him the laughing policeman, and in return Steph called Alexander ‘Taggart,’ after the dour TV detective, which only served to flatter his considerable ambition. Steph’s ambition was rather more modest, as is generally the case with happy people. Continue reading “A comedy of Eros”

The weaponisation of political language

battleofideasFamously, the names of the two great parties of 18th century British and North American politics began as insults. In the 17th century, ‘Whig’ was a disparaging term for supposedly uncouth Scottish Protestant dissenters, while ‘Tory’ referred to similarly uncouth Irish Catholic outlaws. When the not-at-all-uncouth English establishment divided over the question of whether the Catholic Duke of York should be allowed to succeed his brother Charles II as king, these religiously-tinged insults proved convenient. They were eventually worn as badges of honour, and stuck even as their political significance was transformed over generations and continents. If only the etymology were little more obscure, you could just about imagine American politics a century or so from now divided between the Deplorables and the Nasty Women. Continue reading “The weaponisation of political language”

What is existential freedom?

Earlier this year, historian Mary Beard got involved in a Twitter spat after she suggested that it was not all that shocking that Oxfam workers had used prostitutes, while on a disaster relief mission in Haiti. She noted that people often behave badly in extreme situations and suggested that it might be a mistake to judge them too harshly. There was a predictable outraged backlash. Writing about the controversy afterwards, Beard reflected that people often have unrealistically high moral standards, even of themselves. She gave the example of a discussion she’d had with a group of students, about Nazi-occupied France. She’d asked what they thought they would have done in those circumstances. “They all said they would have joined the Resistance,” she recalled, before noting, “The truth is to judge by any statistics you can get that most of them would have been collaborators or keeping their heads down.”

It’s a salutary point, and I don’t dispute it, but, at the same time, there would have to be something seriously wrong with anyone who answered the question by saying, “Well, statistically speaking, I’d probably have helped the Nazis.” Continue reading “What is existential freedom?”

Whose mythical past?

In February 2018, scientists unveiled a reconstruction of the face of Cheddar Man, who died around 9,000 years ago, and whose skeleton was found in a cave in Somerset in 1903. DNA analysis has now revealed that ‘the earliest known Briton’ – part of a population from which modern white Britons are thought to descend – probably had dark to black skin and blue eyes. Continue reading “Whose mythical past?”