Stephen Greenblatt, the world’s preeminent Shakespearean, has an article about hell in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books that has me thinking about a subject I generally avoid. It’s a smart piece but fairly grim.
For the most part, my view of hell is the one set forth in the first work that Greenblatt cites. In Doctor Faustus,Christopher Marlowe seems to propose a psychological rather than a literal hell, one that occurs in the present rather than after death. If I read Marlowe correctly, it’s an extraordinary vision for someone at the end of the 16th century:
Faustus: Where are you damn'd?
Mephistopheles: In hell.
Faustus: How comes it, then, that thou art out of hell?
Mephistopheles: Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it:
Think'st thou that I, who saw the face of God,
And tasted the eternal joys of heaven,
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells,
In being depriv'd of everlasting bliss?
O, Faustus, leave these frivolous demands,
Which strike a terror to my fainting soul!
In other words, hell is separation from God’s love. No torture devices needed.
A later passage reiterates that hell is not a place in the future but a state of mind:
Faustus: First will I question with thee about hell.Tell me, where is the place that men call hell?
Mephistopheles: Under the heavens.
Faustus: Ay, but whereabout?
Mephistopheles: Within the bowels of these elements,
Where we are tortur'd and remain for ever:
Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscrib'd
In one self place; for where we are is hell,
And where hell is, there9 must we ever be…
Milton’s Satan echoes these lines when he claims,
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.
Seen in this way, we create our own hells, which is far more important than what happens after we die. The corollary is that heaven is also here and now if only we will open ourselves to it.
But however Marlowe himself saw hell, his play still catered to the imagery of the day, and at the end of the play Faustus is dragged away screaming into a gaping hell mouth. Greenblatt reports that audiences were overwhelmed:
There is evidence that Marlowe’s play produced a powerful effect on his contemporaries. During a performance at the Theatre—London’s first freestanding wooden playhouse—a cracking sound caused a panic in the audience; in the town of Exeter the players bolted when they thought that there was one devil too many on stage; and multiple rumors circulated of “the visible apparition of the Devill” unexpectedly surging up during the conjuring scene. In Doctor Faustus, hell may have been a form of theatrical entertainment; audiences paid their pennies to enter a fictional world. But when the performance was disrupted by a surprise noise, the crowd was prepared instantly to jettison the idea of fiction and grant that it was all too true.
Greenblatt is writing about Scott Bruce’s The Penguin Book of Hell, which the Jewish reviewer says should be titled The Penguin Book of Christian Hell. From it we learn the origins of graphic hell depictions, starting with the third-century apocryphal Apocalypse of Paul. There we get
rivers of fire, insatiable worms, swirling sulfur and pitch, stench, and sharp stones raining like hail on the unprotected bodies of the damned. There are adulterers strung up by their eyebrows and hair; sodomites covered in blood and filth; girls who lost their virginity without their parents’ knowledge shackled in flaming chains; women who had abortions impaled on flaming spits. There are virtuous pagans who “gave alms and yet did not recognize the Lord God” and who are therefore blinded and placed forever in a deep pit.
Greenblatt finds an earlier culprit not mentioned by Bruce: Jesus himself. After all, he mentions unquenchable fire and wailing and gnashing of teeth several times. Now, I myself read Jesus’s words as metaphorical. When he proclaims that “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven,” I assume he is talking about the hell we feel that comes from violating our inner divinity and our capacity to love, not an actual place.
In other words, I agree with materialist John Wilmot, English history’s most notorious libertine, who saw a loveless life driven by ceaseless desiring to be the real hell:
How blest was the created state
Of man and woman, ere they fell,
Compared to our unhappy fate:
We need not fear another hell…
But we, poor Slaves to hope and fear,
Are never of our Joys secure:
They lessen still, as they draw near;
And none but dull delights endure.
But whatever Jesus meant by hell, later Christians came along and saw it as mostly literal. Book of Hell often reads as a collection of sadistic fantasies, many directed at people of other faiths or denominations. For example, check out Dante’s description of Mohammed:
“No barrel staved-in/And missing its end-piece,” Dante reports in the Inferno, “ever gaped as wide/As the man I saw split open from his chin/Down to the farting-place.” Dante stares at the grotesque sight—“from the splayed/Trunk the spilled entrails dangled between his thighs”—but in this case he does not have to ask his companion Virgil to name the figure, for the sufferer identifies himself: “He pulled open his chest/With both hands, saying, ‘Look how Mohammed claws/And mangles himself, torn open down the breast!/Look how I tear myself!’”
Mohammed aside, Dante is actually one of the better writers on hell since at least his punishments operate as very smart symbolic representations of the sin–which is to say, they capture the hellish nature of the act when it is being committed. Therefore,
the wrathful are condemned for eternity to tear each other limb from limb, usurers crouch in agony with purses around their necks, lovers who were swept away in adulterous passion are now swept away in a ceaseless infernal wind.
Compared to the their unhappy fate now, these sinners need not fear another hell.
Most people’s hellish depictions are far cruder than Dante’s, especially when you have Victorian teachers threatening children with hell. Bruce’s anthology lists some good examples, but my own favorite has got to be Mr. Brocklehurst from Jane Eyre:
“No sight so sad as that of a naughty child,” he began,“especially a naughty little girl. Do you know where the wicked go after death?”
“They go to hell,” was my ready and orthodox answer.
“And what is hell? Can you tell me that?”
“A pit full of fire.”
“And should you like to fall into that pit, and to be burning there for ever?”
“What must you do to avoid it?”
I deliberated a moment; my answer, when it did come, was objectionable: “I must keep in good health, and not die.”
“How can you keep in good health? Children younger than you die daily. I buried a little child of five years old only a day or two since,—a good little child, whose soul is now in heaven. It is to be feared the same could not be said of you were you to be called hence.”
Surveying Christian hell throughout the ages, Greenblatt concludes it has served two major purposes: to console the powerless, who dream that their victimizers will one day be held accountable; and to provide the victimizers (like Brocklehurst) with a soft power means of enforcing compliance. Regarding the latter, Greenblatt quotes a cynical Voltaire observing,
My good friend, I no more believe in the eternity of hell than yourself; but recollect that it may be no bad thing, perhaps, for your servant, your tailor, and your lawyer to believe in it.
I suspect Greenblatt would agree with Wilmot’s “A Fragment of Seneca Translated” where the poet believes hell to be “devised by rogues, dreaded by fools”:
For Hell and the foul fiend that rules
God’s everlasting fiery jails
(Devised by rogues, dreaded by fools),
With his grim, grisly dog that keeps the door,
Are senseless stories, idle tales,
Dreams, whimseys, and no more.
There are many rogues out there playing God and imagining their enemies in the dark place. Ignore them as you strive to build heaven in the here and now.