Conquering Hell

November 11, 2021 | 15 books mentioned 16 min read

“You have reason to wonder that you are not already in hell.”
Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (1741)

“For the ones who had a notion, a notion deep inside/that it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.”
Bruce Springsteen, “Badlands” (1978)

Charging only a quarter, Joseph Dorfeuille allowed the curious to view Hell itself—admission was half-price for children. Not far from the Ohio River, amongst the steep hills of the Queen City, and from 1820 to 1867, the Western Museum of Cincinnati promised in an advertisement “Come hither, come hither by night or by day, /there’s plenty to look at and little to pay.” Founded by physician Daniel Drake, known by enthusiasts as the “Ben Franklin of the west,” the institution was modeled after the Wunderkammers, “Wonder Cabinets,” of Europe, displaying shells and rocks, feathers and fossils, pottery shards and arrow heads. Even ornithologist James Audubon was on staff. Only two years after its founding, however, and the trustees forced Drake to resign. In his place Dorfeuille was hired, who rather than assemble materials zoological, archeological, and geological, understood that the public was curious about the “occasional error of nature.” In place of Drake’s edifying scientific exhibits, Dorfeuille mounted skeletons that moved by mechanical apparatus, dancing while an organ grinder played. He featured a diorama of wax figurines depicting the local murderer, Cowan, in the act, while also preserving in formaldehyde the head and heart of Mathias Hoover, a Cincinnati serial killer. And with particular popularity, the director distributed huffs of nitrous oxide after his “lectures.” But no exhibit—even the laughing gas—was quite as popular as “Dorfeuille’s Hall.”

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A recreation of characters and scenes from the 14th-century Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s epic religious allegory The Divine Comedy, as well as from the 17th-century British poet John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Molded in beeswax, the hall was mounted by Hiram Powers, who’d eventually become the first celebrated American neo-classical sculptor (Elizabeth Barret Browning would pen a sonnet in honor of his work). Powers was tasked with illustrating our most grotesque visions—it would be among the most talked about exhibits before the Civil War. Powers crafted wax figures of the demon Beelzebub and of fallen arch-rebel himself, Lucifer. Adept in mechanism and sound-effects, his wax statues would shakily move in the darkness while screams emanated. “Visitors…were so intrigued by the realism of the figures that they were constantly touching them for confirmation that they were indeed wax,” writes Andrea Stulman Dennett in Weird and Wonderful: The Dime Museum in America. “To minimize the damage to his sculptures,” she explains, “Dorfeuille had to put an iron grating charged with a mild electrical current.” At the center was the “King of Terrors,” a stock Devil with red horns and pitchfork, smoke swirling about him. Originally Powers played the role, though an automata would after he quit the Western Museum—moving onto a respectable art career in Washington DC and then in Dante’s Florence—after Dorfeuille stiffed him on pay. By 1839, Dorfeuille sold off the Western Museum of Cincinnati, but he took his deteriorating waxworks to New York, where they were latter immolated in a fire, their owner following them into the underworld a few months after. King Entropy awaits us all.

A skeleton at the exit to Dorfeuille’s Hall held aloft a sign with some doggerel on it: “So far we are equal, but once left, /Our mortal weeds of vital spark bereft, /Asunder, father than the poles were driven;/Some sunk in deepest Hell, some raised to highest Heaven,” though highest Heaven was never as pruriently fascinating as deepest Hell. Powers didn’t outfit an exhibit with harp-playing, winged angels and shining halos; no wax figurines of the unassailable, the respectable, the decent. Not that it was ever much different, for people have always been more attracted—in both the neurotic’s fear and the sadist’s delight—with the fires of damnation. We recognized the 700th anniversary of Dante’s The Divine Comedy in September, and while I have no reliable numbers, my hunch is that 10-to-1 more people have read “Inferno” than the remainder about Purgatory and Paradise. Hell is more visual; if asked to envision Heaven we could offer gauzy, sepia-toned cliches about clouds and pearly gates, but if being perfectly honest nothing about it sounds appealing. But Hell. Well, Hell, we can all agree is interesting. The sulphur and shrieks, bitumen and biting, the light that burns eternally but gives off no glow. It all sounds pretty bad. While our curiosity draws us to the grotesque, we also can’t help but be haunted by Hell, traces of its ash smeared across even the most secular mind.

“Understand, I’m not speaking here only of the sincerely religious,” writes Dinty W. Moore in his irreverent To Hell With It: Of Sin and Sex, Chicken Wings, and Dante’s Entirely Ridiculous, Needlessly Guilt-Inducing Inferno, focusing on his shame-filled Catholic education. “The fable of our flawed souls, the troubling myth of original sin, the looming possibility of eternal damnation clandestinely infects even those of us who think ourselves immune: atheists, agnostics, secularists.” Supposedly only the most zealous lives without doubt, but just as such a pose evidences more anxiety than might be assumed, so too is nobody an atheist all of the time. The pious are haunted by absence and apostates by a presence, but the fear is the same. I don’t believe in a literal Hell, a place of eternal torment where our sins are punished by demons—most of the time. Hell is often on my mind, but unlike Moore I think that occasionally there is intellectual benefit in that which is sulphury (or at least the idea of it). Moore writes about the traumas of “depressive guilt brought on by religious malarkey,” and it would be a cold critic to disagree that belief has been used to oppress, persecute, and inculcate shame. Not just a cold critic, but one incapable of parsing objective reality. But even though he’s right, it’s still hard for me to throw the demon out with the hot coals.

Hell’s tragedy is that those who deserve to go there almost never think that they will, while the pious shame-filled neurotic imagines those flames with scrupulous anxiety. My soul is content if God prepared a place of eternal torment for the EXXON executive who sees climate change as an opportunity to drill for Arctic oil, the banker who gave out high-risk loans with one hand and then foreclosed on a family with the other, the CEO who makes billions getting rich off of slave labor, the racist representative who spreads hate for political gain, the NRA board member unconcerned with the slaughter of the innocent, the A.M. peddlers of hokum and bullshit, the fundamentalist preacher growing rich off his flock’s despair, and the pedophile priest abusing those whom he was entrusted to protect. Here’s an incomplete list of people who don’t belong in Hell—anyone who eats the whole sleeve of Oreos, somebody who keeps on pressing “Still Watching” on the Netflix show that they’re binging, the person who shouts “Jesus Fucking Christ” after they stub their toe, anybody who has spied on their neighbor’s home through Zillow, the Facebook humble-bragger talking about a promotion who keeps hitting “Refresh” for the dopamine rush of digital approval, the awkward subway passengers suddenly fascinated by their feet when a loud panhandler boards, and mastrubators. That so many guilty of the little sins, peccadillos, tics, frailties, and flaws that are universal and make us all gloriously imperfect humans so often feel crippling shame, guilt, and depression over these things is tragic. That my first category of sinners almost never feels those things is even more so.      

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Before either Hell or Heaven there was the shadow land of indeterminate conclusions. Neither the ancient Greeks or Jews much delineated out an afterlife. Greek Hades was a grey place, a foggy place, and not particularly pleasant, even if it wasn’t exactly inferno. “Gloomy as night,” is how Alexander Pope describes Hades in his 18th-century translation of Homer’s The Odyssey, a realm populated by “Thin airy shoals of visionary ghosts.” Excepting Elysium—where excellence is more honored than virtue—and everybody has Hades to anticipate, though Homer is content to consign even the glorious to this depressing place. “I’d rather slave on earth for another man,” the hero Achilles tells Odysseus in Robert Fagles’s contemporary translation, “than rule down here over all the breathless dead.” The ancient Jewish conception of an afterlife was originally not much more hopeful, with the Hebrew Scriptures speaking of Sheol, described in Ecclesiastes as a place of “neither deed nor reckoning, neither knowledge nor wisdom.” As smudgy and unfocused as Sheol was, the Bible sometimes draws distinction (and conflation) with a horrific domain known as Gehenna.   

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Drawing its name from a dusty valley where pagan child sacrifice had once been practiced, and which became a filthy heap where trash was burnt in a frenzy of ash and dirt, Gehenna is ruled over by Baal and dedicated to the punishment of the wicked. Both the Talmud and the New Testament use the word “Gehenna,” an indication of how, in the first centuries of the Common Era, a comprehensive vision of the afterlife emerged in Judaism and Christianity. Among the Sadducees, who composed the Temple elite, the afterlife was largely defined by absence, but the Pharisees (from whom rabbinic Judaism emerged) shared with early Christians an interest in charting the geography of death, and Gehenna was a highlighted location. (Worth mentioning that the historical Pharisees bear no similarity to the hatchet job performed on them in the Gospels). As it was, Jewish Gehenna would be understood slightly differently from Hell, more akin to Purgatory, a place of finite punishment cleansing the soul of its inequities. Though as the 13th-century Kabbalistic Zohar makes clear, the truly evil are “judged over in this filth… [and] never get released… the fire remains.”

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Though both Judaism and Christianity developed a complex vocabulary of Heaven and Hell, it’s not unfair to attribute much of the iconography of perdition to Dante. Writing a generation after Dante’s death, and Giovanni Boccaccio predicted that as regards the Florentine poet’s name “the more it is furbished by time, the more brilliant it will ever be.” Boccaccio’s prediction has been perennially proven correct, with the Victorian critic John Ruskin describing Dante as the “central man of all the world,” and T.S. Eliot arguing that “Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them; there is no third.” All of this might seem a tad Eurocentric, a tad chauvinist, and a tad too focused on Christianity—the apotheosis of Dante into a demigod. Concerning prosody—Dante’s ingenious interlocking rhyme scheme known as terza rima or his ability to describe a “place void of all light, /which bellows like the sea in tempest, /when it is combated by warring winds”—he was brilliant. But acknowledging acumen is different—even Voltaire quipped that more people valorize Dante than read him. And yet (there’s always an “And yet”…), there must be a distinction between the claim that Dante says something vital about the human condition, and the objective fact that in some ways Dante actually invented the human condition (or a version of it). John Casey argues in After Lives: A Guide to Heaven, Hell, & Purgatory that Dante’s was “without doubt the supreme imagining of the afterlife in all [Western] literature,” while Alberto Manguel in The Traveler, the Tower, and the Worm: The Reader as Metaphor claims that his epic has “acquired a permanent and tangible geography in our imagination.”

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“Dante’s story, then, is both a landscape and a map” writes Manguel. None of the poem’s unfortunates get out, save for one—the author. Midway in the course of life Dante falls into despair, loneliness, alienation, and The Divine Comedy is the record of his descent and escape from those doldrums. Alice K. Turner argues in The History of Hell that Dante was the progenitor of a “durable interior metaphor.” Claiming that the harrowing and ascension that he described can be seen in everything from psychoanalysis to 12-step programs, Turner writes that “this entirely comfortable and pervasive method of modern metaphorical thinking might not exist if Dante had never written.” “Empathy” might not be the first word readers associate with a book sticky with the blood of the damned—”punishment” or even “justice” would figure higher—and yet Dante feels pain for these characters. That aspect of The Divine Comedy is why we’re still talking about it. Turner explains that “Dante was concerned with history, with Florentine politics, with the corruption of the clergy, with the moral position of his contemporaries, and most of all with the state of his own psyche,” while arguing that at a “distance of seven centuries, we can no longer easily appreciate any of these things except the last—Dante is generous with his emotions.” It’s true that for any contemporary reader, concerns with forgotten factions like the Ghibelline and Guelphs, parsing of Thomas Aquinas, or condemnations of this or that obscure pope can seem hermetic. When perusing a heavily glossed and footnoted copy of The Divine Comedy, it’s his intimate perspective that is the most human.

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Eliot may have claimed that between Dante and Shakespeare there was no third, but that’s the sort of thing that a self-declared “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion” would say, giving short shrift to that bomb-throwing author of Paradise Lost. Earth can be given over to Shakespeare, but Heaven and Hell belong to Dante and Milton. If The Divine Comedy is the consummate expression of Catholicism, then Milton’s epic is Protestantism’s fullest literary flowering, and yet neither of the two are orthodox. Milton’s depiction of damnation in media res after the rebel angels have been expelled from Heaven and the once beautiful Lucifer has been transformed into Satan, revises our understanding of Hell for the first time since Dante. Much remains recognizable in Milton, even if immaculately portrayed, this “dungeon horrible, on all sides round, /As one great furnace, flames; yet from those flames/No light, but rather darkness visible,” a fallen kingdom defined by “sights of woe, /Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace/And rest can never dwell, hope never comes… but torture without end.” Paradise Losts beauty belies the darkness of that sunken pit, for Milton’s brilliance has always been that he acknowledges what’s evocative, what’s magnetic, what’s attractive about Hell, for Lucifer in his intransigence and his obstinacy declares that it is “Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heav’n.” Dante’s Satan is a monster encased in ice, weeping frozen tears as he forever masticates the bodies of Casius, Brutus, and Judas. He is bestial, animalistic, and barely sentient. Nobody would admire him; nobody would want to be Dante’s Satan. Milton’s Lucifer, on the other hand, is a revolutionary who gets all the best lines; certainly, better than God and Christ. As William Empson had it in his vaguely heretical Milton’s God, the “poem is not good in spite of but especially because of its moral confusions.”        

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Milton is a “Puritan,” that wooly category of killjoy whom we associate with the Plymouth Pilgrims (though they were technically different), all belt-buckled black hats and shoes, trying to sniff out witches and other people having impure thoughts. As it goes, Milton may have politically been a Puritan, but he was also a unitarian and a materialist, and on the whole a rather cracked Protestant, not least of all because of his Devil’s thinly disguised heroism. Paradise Lost is honest because it exemplifies a principle that we all know, something expressed by Augustine in his Confessions when filching a pear from a Tunisian marketplace like he was Eve in Eden with her apple, admitting that he wasn’t even hungry but he did it because “It was foul and I loved it. I loved my own undoing.” Doing bad things is fun. Puritans ironically seem more apt to admit that clear truism than all of the Panglossian advocates for humanity’s intrinsic good nature, an obvious foolishness. Just try and negotiate a Trader Joe’s parking lot and then tell me that you’re so certain that Original Sin is old-fashioned superstition. Acknowledging sin’s innate attractiveness—our “total depravity” as John Calvin described it in his 16th-century tome The Institutes of Christian Faith—means that detailed descriptions of Hell can sound perverse. At a pulpit in Enfield, Conn., the minister Jonathan Edwards delivered an infamous sermon in 1741 in which he told the assembled that “Your wickedness makes you as it were heavy as lead, and to tend downwards with great weight and pressure towards hell… if God should let you go, you would immediately sink and swiftly descend and plunge into the bottomless gulf” for God abhors all of us, and is ” his wrath… burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing… but to be caste into the fire.” According to Edwards, all women and men are “ten thousand times more abominable in [God’s] eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.” Historians note that while Edwards delivered his sermon, congregants rolled around in the church aisles and stood on the pews, moaning and screaming. All of this is a bit kinky, honestly.   

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Calvinism’s God has always read more like his nemesis, omnipotent enough that He created us, but apparently not so omnipotent that He makes us worthy of salvation. More than a tyrant, He reads as a sadist, but when God is deleted from Calvinism what’s left is only the putrid, jaundiced, rotting corpse of our contemporary world, where nobody knows the value of anything, but only the price of everything. Nothing better expressed the dark American transition to post-Calvinism than our greatest of novels, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; or, the Whale, of which the author wrote to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1851 that “I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb.” Immature exegetes perseverate on what the white whale means, what he is a symbol of. God? Satan? America? That’s the Holy Trinity, though only one of them has ever kept his promises (I’ll let you guess who). It’s both more and less complicated than that; the whale is the terrifying, naked abyss stripped bare of all our presuppositions. In short, he is the world as it actually is, where Hell is all around us. In Moby-Dick, Ishmael listens to the former harpooner Father Mapple’s sermon at the New Bedford, Mass., Whaling Chapel (with its cenotaphs and its massive cetacean bones), and though the sermon is ostensibly on Jonah, it describes a type of Hell. The congregants sing a strange hymn about the “ribs and terrors in the whale/Arched over… a dismal gloom, /While all God’s sun-lit waves rolled by, /And lift me deepening down to doom.” Mapple preaches that despite how sinful the reluctant prophet was, “Jonah does not weep and wail for direct deliverance. He feels that his dreadful punishment is just… And here, shipmates, is true and faithful repentance; not clamorous for pardon, but grateful for punishment.” You’ll go to Hell—or the belly of a whale—and you’ll be happy about it, too.     

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Not that this rhetoric is limited to Protestantism, for fire and brimstone come just as often from homily as sermon. James Joyce knew that Catholic priests could chill the blood every bit as much as an evangelical bible thumper, with perhaps no more disturbing a vision of Hell ever offered than in The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. His roman a clef Stephen Dedalus attends a religious retreat, and the visiting priest provides visceral description to the adolescents—buffeted by arrogance and hormones—of what awaits them if they give into temptation, for “Hell is a straight and dark and foul-smelling prison, an abode of demons and lost souls, filled with fire and smoke” where all of the punished are “heaped together in their awful prison… so utterly bound and helpless that… they are not even able to remove from the eye a worm that gnaws it.” Drawing upon the Jansenist Catholicism that migrated from France to Ireland, and the priest’s descriptions of Hell are the equal of anything in Edwards. With barely concealed sadism he intones how amongst the damned the “blood seethes and boils in the veins.. the heart in the breast glowing and bursting, the bowels a red-hot mass of burning pulp, the tender eyes flaming like molten balls.” Sin is spoken of in sensory terms—the taste of gluttony, the touch of lust, the rest of sloth—then so too does the priest give rich description of Hell’s smell. That pit is permeated by the odor of “some foul and putrid corpse that has lain rotting and decomposing… a jelly-like mass of liquid corruption… giving off dense choking fumes of nauseous loathsome decomposition… a huge and rotting human fungus.” Heaven can remain vague, because none of us will ever agree on what it is we actually want. Pleasure is uncertain, but pain is tangibly, deeply, obviously real, and so Hell is always easier to envision.       

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After Stephen is convinced to become rigidly austere following that terrifying, he finds himself once again straying. A friend asks if he plans on converting to Protestantism, and Dedalus responds that “I said I had lost the faith… not that I had lost self-respect. What kind of liberation would that be to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and to embrace one which is illogical and incoherent?” Funny in the way that Joyce is, and true as well, though it might only make sense to lapsed Catholics who fumble over the newly translated words of the liturgical preface at Mass. Such Catholic atheism, or Catholic agnosticism, or Catholic what-ever-you-want-to-call-it influenced one of the great contemporary depictions of Hell in Stephen Adly Guirgis’s play The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. Guirgis engages an idiom that could be called “bureaucratizing the sacred,” transposing the rigid elements of our society in all of its labyrinthine absurdity onto the transcendent order. Whenever Hell (or Heaven) is depicted as an office, or a waiting room, or a border checkpoint, a prison, a hospital, or a school, that’s bureaucratizing the sacred. In Guirgis’s play, the action takes place in that most arcane of bureaucratic structures, the court system. “In biblical times, Hope was an Oasis in the Desert,” a character says. “In medieval days, a shack free of Plague. Today, Hope is no longer a place for contemplation—litigation being the preferred new order of the day.” The Last Days of Judas Iscariot portrays a trial of its largely silent titular character, held in a courtroom that exists beyond time and space, where expert witnesses include not just Christ and Pontius Pilate, but Sigmund Freud and Mother Teresa as well. True to the mind-bending vagaries of eternity, both God and the Devil exist in a country unimaginably far from us and yet within our very atoms, for as Christ says “Right now, I am in Fallujah. I am in Darfur. I am on Sixty-third and Park… I’m on Lafayette and Astor waiting to hit you for change so I can get high. I’m taking a walk through the Rose Garden with George Bush. I’m helping Donald Rumsfeld get a good night’s sleep… I was in that cave with Osama, and on that plane with Mohamed Atta… And what I want you to know is that your work has barely begun.” Who does the messiah love?—”every last one.” A vision expansive and universalist, and like all great portrayals—including Dante and Milton who most definitely didn’t think you could breach the walls of inferno by drilling into the earth—Hell is entirely a mental place.

“Despair,” Guirgis writes, “is the ultimate development of a pride so great and so stiff-necked that it selects the absolute misery of damnation rather than accepts happiness,” or as Milton famously put it, “The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”  Like all things in the sacred—that vast network of metaphors, allusions, images, allegories, poems, and dreams—the question of “is it real or not?” is entirely nonsensical. Heaven and Hell have always been located in the human mind, along with God and the Devil, but the mind is a vast country, full of strange dreams and unaccounted things. Perdition is an idea that is less than helpful for those who fear (or hope) that there is an actual Hell in the black waters of the Mariana Trench, or in scorched, sunbaked Death Valley, or near a sandy cave next to the Dead Sea. But when we realize that both Hell and Heaven exist in a space beyond up or down, left or right, any of the cardinal directions and towards a dimension both infinitely far away and nearer than our very hearts, then there just might be wisdom. Such is the astuteness of Dante, who with startling psychological realism, records the woeful tale of illicit lovers Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Rimini, tempted into an adulterous kiss after reading the romance of Lancelot and Guinevere, now caught in a windstorm as they had once tussled in bedsheets. “There is no greater sorrow,” Francesca tells the poet, “Than to be mindful of the happy time/in misery.” Because we often think of sin as simply a matter of broken rules, psychological acuity can be obscured. Drawing from Thomas Aquinas, Dante writes that “Pride, Envy, and Avarice are/the three sparks that have set these hearts on fire,” and the interpretative brilliance of the Seven Deadly Sins is that they explain how an excess of otherwise necessary human impulses can pervert us. Reading about Paolo and Francesca, it’s understandable to doubt that they deserve such punishment—Dante does. But in the stomach-dropping, queasy, nauseous, never-ending uncertainty of their lives, the poet conveys a bit of their inner predicament.    

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“There are those… who, undoubtedly, do not feel personally touched by the scourge of Dante, [or] by the ashen pall of Augustine,” writes Moore, and while I wouldn’t say that I’m so irreverent that I’m willing to lustily eat a rare hamburger on Good Friday without worrying a bit, I will admit that if I make a visit to Five Guys after forgetting that it’s Holy Week I don’t fret too much. A privilege to play with the idea of Hell without fearing it (at least too much), but the concept still has some oomph in it. Returning to an earlier observation, Hell must be the language with which we think about that which divides us, estranges us, alienates us, not for when we despair at having eaten a bit too much or sleeping in on the weekend. If anything, that Puritanical rugged individualism that so defines American culture whether we’ve opted into it or not—You need to be up by 5a.m.! You have to be a productive worker! You must avoid any real joy except for the curated experience chosen for you by algorithm!—is the true wage of sin. In opposition, I lustily and gluttonously and slothfully advocate for eating a bit too much, laughing a bit too loud, and sleeping a bit too long. Preachers once told us that to be alive was a sin, but that was never it at all. Now we have pundits and TED talk lecturers forcing us to weigh our souls instead, but there’s no shame in knowing that the road rises to meet us, in feeling the wind at our back and the warmth of the sun or the cool rain upon our faces. Shame and guilt are utilitarian, but they belong on the other side. Notable that the idea of Hell developed contemporaneously with that of Heaven, and if it wasn’t for the former, then what would we ever struggle against? “Without contraries there is no progression,” writes the poet and prophet William Blake in his 1793 The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. “Attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate are necessary to human existence.” Whether temporary or eternal, finite or infinite, a place of extreme punishment implied another for reward. There’s no Heaven unless there is also Hell, and both places are much closer than might be supposed.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

is the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books. A regular contributor at several different sites, his collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion will be released by Zero Books this year. He can be followed on Facebook, his website, or on Twitter at  @WithEdSimon.

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