Personal Hell

Eric Dean Wilson

¶Let’s begin: we’d been gone for a week. (Vacation?) We returned, I ran into the backyard, I touched the bark of the oak that stood in the center, and, gradually, as my eyes adjusted to the light, I became aware, inches from my face, a broad spot on the trunk, covered in bright worms, worms a color I’d never seen before or since—a kind of alien red-orange or cinnabar, though I didn’t know that word then—so vibrant I seemed to feel its shaking, the even radiation of its sinusoid, the tree pulsing, a clenching and unclenching fist, pulsing with waves of worms, pulsing the sunlight glinting from moisture moving with each peristalsis, a pulsing as if driving blood through an orifice, blood from a torn intestine. I threw up. ¶The undulating bodies had somehow penetrated mine. I felt their pulsing at my esophagus. I tried to run. I was rooted. Like the oak. The brilliance of their color staked me there—a hypnotic adhesion. The repetition of their movement. The nausea was and then was more. In the relief that followed the vomit, I broke. I was free from its orbit. I ran inside. ¶The next day: no worms. Had I imagined it was the sense of the not-exact sentence I held to my thinking self. The absence of an evidence worked to cultivate my fear. Worse, I worried I’d created this, this horror I now couldn’t stop showing to myself within my own mind. Whatever I’d seen then—that day—worked, worked—a repetition, appearing to me grown from banalities un-rotted, since, forever since—like little worms, into my brain. I thought I’d seen, for the first time, a thing for how it really was.


¶Let’s begin again: when I was ___, a youth minister described to us what Heaven would be like. He’d conducted (he said) extensive research. He’s found (he said) the answers. In the basement of our church, he drew a map on the whiteboard: a thick (concrete?) wall (the exact dimensions noted in ft) surrounded the New Jerusalem (the ramparts studded with gems). Here the zone for children. Here the zone for pets. Everything (he claimed) was accounted for. Zoned. ¶What did I know? Then, as now, little—but enough to recognize the arrival of a soul in the divine realm—if it existed at all—would have to be an abolition of zones, a bleeding through bounds of being. I said nothing. We were meant only to absorb, like a bath towel. ¶The next week, the minister described Hell—a description I was looking forward to with deviance—but here, the minister offered senseless abstractions. Few of them scared me much. Few offered anything I could imagine with the senses. Hell (he said) was darkness without the light of God—but didn’t I know this already? Had I not catalogued this already as part of my library of experience? Hell might also be (he said) eternal melancholy. But hadn’t my thoughts conditioned me to this, too? Was Hell just more of the same? ¶But then the minister defined a certain kind of hell more tangible than the others, an idea new to me: Hell (he said) was forever watching your life as you had lived it, from birth to death, objectively, perhaps on a small tv screen in an off-highway motel room by yourself. The screen played a life—yours—on loop, and you were forced to watch it forever. ¶Unlike the others, this Hell haunted—still haunts—even after I left my belief. In this Hell of Endless Repetition, your life becomes a ritualized callusing for the thrill of life. You become a stranger to your own life as you’d lived it, more distanced from your life with each viewing. This Hell of Endless Repetition is an emancipation from life, but in its emancipation of your life from yourself, a wicked emancipation. Here, I think, is the scariest way of imagining Hell: the freeing of your life as no longer yours—your life as anyone’s life, as disassociated and impersonal. Everything you think you know is atomized and spread over the universe with indifference. The knowledge you had carefully acquired disassembled and dispersed. Lines between stars broken, unconstellated. ¶We met like this on Sundays. The minister lectured to us and sang at the front of a small, carpeted room under fluorescent lighting, and we sat in crammed rows, so many bath towels drawing into us parts of whatever spilled our way. I was ___ before I finally gained the courage to articulate clearly the words in my own thoughts directed not to God but to myself that this was its own kind of hell. These words worked like a performative utterance. Once formed and heard within my head, the obligation to attend vanished. I entered heaven.


¶Let’s begin again: Andy Warhol’s “Orange Car Crash Fourteen Times” offers two orange canvases. The left is fourteen repetitions of a violence, the tabloid image of a car crash, the dead driver slumped over the wheel. The silkscreening of this same photo, same photo, same photo is excessive—machinistic yet imperfect. Considering that it shows a life so recently lost, the execution is careless, car-full, the driver re-executed fourteen times. The canvas is emptied of empathy. In its place is glee in proclaiming the Gospel of Nihilism. Borrowing Lacan’s idea of trauma as a missed encounter with the real, Hal Foster argues that, in this Warhol series, repetition serves to screen the real understood as traumatic. But the very need also points to the real, and at this point the real ruptures the screen of repetition. It is a rupture less in the world than in the subject—between the perception and the consciousness of a subject touched by an image. ¶The right panel is pure orange. No, not “orange”—vermillion, real hell the heat of this vermillion, a word meaning “little worms.”

Eric Dean Wilson’s work has appeared in Heavy Feather Review, DrDOCTOR, Music & Literature, Seneca Review, and Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. He’s currently finishing a book-length essay on refrigerant, climate change, and personal comfort in America (Simon & Schuster, forthcoming). He teaches undergraduate writing and studies at the CUNY Graduate Center in NYC.