A fresh vision of hell, the old dead scanning the new

First, read this:

Euston. All the way down the train doors burst open while the inky ribbon of platform still slipped by. Nobody could wait for the train to stop; everybody was hurling themselves on London as though they, too, must act upon some inhuman resolution before it died down. She, now it came to the point, was to be the last to leave the carriage; she stopped to stare at herself, as thought for the last time, in the mirror panel over the seat. Picking up her suitcase, stepping out onto the platform, she looked from left to right, then began to walk along the flank of the train. The few blued lights of the station just showed the vaultings up into gloom; toppling trolleys cut through the people heaving, thrusting, tripping, peering. Recognition of anybody by anybody else seemed hopeless – those hoping to be met, hoping to be claimed, thrust hats back and turned up faces drowningly. Arrival of shades in Hades, the new dead scanned dubiously by the older, she thought she could have thought; but she felt nothing – till her heart missed a beat, her being filled like an empty lock: with a shock of love she saw Robert’s tall turning head.

It is from Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day, the first book of hers I’ve read, and one that I wrote about here. A struggle at times, I’ll admit, in its density – aptly exemplified by the paragraph above – but shot through with writing of such luxurious intelligence that it made scanning your average contemporary novel feel like drinking dishwater.

Let me pull the line out for you, that in particular struck me:

Arrival of shades in Hades, the new dead scanned dubiously by the older

Now, firstly, this may be an idea, or an image, that has appeared elsewhere before this. (I haven’t read Dante through even to the end of Hell, for example.) But certainly it is a pointedly modern twist on traditional conceptions of damnation.

Hell here is not the flame-grilling of old time religion, nor the more existential crisis of definitive knowledge of one’s banishment from God; no, here it is simply the boredom of transit, become torment through extension ad infinitum.

Bowen’s novel is set during the Second World War, when air travel was not yet common, but still it’s easy enough to transpose the scene from railway station to airport. Easy enough, but still there is some elucidation needed. The damned, here, are in Arrivals, whereas we all know that it’s the Departures Lounge that most equates to our contemporary idea of purgatory: an unliveable public/private space that is merely the physical manifestation of dead time; designed only to keep us from the Paradise of our holiday destination; comprehensively fitted out with worthless and useless distractions; and peopled with hordes of people just like us whom we hate by virtue of their showing, objectively and unanswerably, quite how bored and badly behaved we, too, are.

So we’ve got to somehow merge those two places, Destinations and Arrivals. The boredom of Departures, plus the disappointment of Arrivals. The moment of arriving in Hell is one in which the passage from the plane, via Customs and Immigration, and leading to that first glimpse of the Arrivals lounge, with people leaning on the angled metal barriers, some of them holding up cardboard signs or clipboards with names on… but the realisation that we are not about to be released and set loose into the free but dirty post-plane world of holiday or home, but that we will never leave, that our arrival is into another Departure Lounge, but one from which we will never depart for anywhere…

…and in which the only entertainment is watching the newcomers arrive – perhaps we make the trip especially to meet those we loved, back on earth – and to see their expressions drop from anticipation, through realisation, to despair.

Thank you, Elizabeth Bowen.

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3 comments

  1. Max Cairnduff

    It’s an interesting passage. The use of commas seems almost French. Does not the sudden shock of recognition of Robert undo what went just before? It’s Hades, drowning souls, but then suddenly it turns out it was just purgatory after all because she sees Robert and the moment is transformed from one of confusion and dreary indifference to one of love.

  2. Jonathan Gibbs

    Max, you’re quite right – there is a reversal at the end (“her heart filled like an empty lock” – wonderful!) but that didn’t change – for me – the immediacy and impact of that brief vision of hell. It struck me as so modern, so apposite, it made me wonder if anyone had written, for instance, a short story, in which hell is an airport departure lounge. partly i wanted to put the post out there to see if anyone knew of one, or else to warn writers that, if they were thinking of writing it, then Bowen was there before them!

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