December 28, 2020 | Brian Chappell

On Hell

In the general syllabus for this series, I discussed two aspects of the title “Hell.” On the one hand, I wanted to nod to the frequency with which we tend to invoke the idea of hell, often to refer even to mild inconveniences. On the other hand, I wished to check that cultural phenomenon by reminding us that many around the world already live in conditions and situations that one might describe as hell, and that “hell on Earth” may well be the destiny for all people who will come after us. 

In either case, the language and imagery of hell are very much with us.  Indeed, from Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Milton (much more so than even the Bible) we derive our imagery and language of hell. This idea alone speaks to the power of literature to shape consciousness.

In the general syllabus I introduced two key concerns for our reading. On the one hand, there is the idea that hell is an actual place, somewhere “away” from Earth (or, often, deep beneath its surface). Through this lens, we see how the authors in question express cultural beliefs about what comes after death. They are both creating and expressing a mythology. In contemplating this idea we can ponder another idea: that it is quite possible that we are the first culture in human history not to believe in some kind of world of the dead, not to believe therefore that contact with the dead is possible. What does the dominant culture gain from having us believe that this short, precious life is ultimately all there is? What does the dominant culture gain by cutting us off from our ancestors, by rejecting the idea that it is our destiny to join them? What would it mean to regain contact with the world beyond, which, these texts remind us, may not be “beyond” at all, but rather very close indeed? 

If the first question on the syllabus points to hell as an actual place, the second question points to hell as a condition, an internal state. And in fact, each text in this series addresses one aspect or another of the “hell within,” whether it is Odysseus’ and Aeneas’ longing for a home, Dante’s bereavement and terror, or Satan’s jealousy and ambition. As you read, keep track of how various characters express the particular hell that they are going through, whether they live in hell or not.

I can conclude by offering a connection between these questions. Namely, by cutting ourselves off from ancestors, from myth, from ritual, from belief, we exacerbate the “hell within.” I am by no means advocating a return to superstition or religion as we know it. Rather, I continue to ponder vastness and wholeness, which these texts attempt to address. The idea that there is a cosmos of which we are an integral part, alongside anyone who has gone before us. I also continue to ponder the extent to which we, in an age dominated by scientific and capitalistic thinking, banish such ways of being, uprooting ourselves from our place in the vastness and wholeness. To be adrift in this world we have created is to end up like the characters in these stories, who have been severed from their roots in one way or another.