Exploring the place where bad souls go

December 15, 1993|By Diane Winston

Lucifer burned in it; Dante yearned in it -- and for thousands of years, men and women fretted over this unmarked piece of real estate where each of us would get exactly what we deserved. Now, in a wry, well-told history of Hell, Alice Turner provides a chronological history of our hell-bent imagination. From the Egyptian "Book of the Dead" to the 1986 film "Aliens," Ms. Turner, the fiction editor at Playboy, tracks our vision of Hell and the torments that await us there.

Ms. Turner became interested in Hell when she took a graduate nTC course in comparative religion, but in this book she undertakes a "geographical" rather than theological tour of the underworld. What does Hell look like? How have its contours changed? Describing the "landscape of Hell" as "the largest shared construction project in imaginative history," she lists Homer, Dante, Bosch and Blake among the artists and poets tantalized by the underworld's "entertainment quotient."

Moreover, it is this salacious -- and at times subversive -- quality that makes Hell a more interesting place to "visit" than that other, more sedate locale of harps and halos.

This book illustrates the powerful lock that the concept of Hell has on the human psyche, with its promise that the wicked will suffer (and suffer and suffer) while the virtuous enjoy eternal reward. For centuries, this retributive formula provided kings and clergy with sure-fire social control: Abject peasants saw no reason to exchange long-term security for earthly enjoyment, much less short-term political change.

According to Ms. Turner, the first stories about the "Land of the Dead" were inscribed on clay tablets baked in the Tigris-Euphrates valley (north of the Persian Gulf in modern-day Iraq) about 4,000 years ago. These earliest accounts contain some of the picturesque elements that marked the underworld for centuries to come: a river, a boat and boatmen, gates and guardians.

Yet it was the early Church -- influenced by Jewish, Gnostic and Manichaean thought -- that really shaped the Hell of fiery furnaces on the psychic map. Christian theology -- from Original Sin to the Last Judgment -- required a creative response to the problem of human evil. That response developed over centuries, including early apocalyptic descriptions that Ms. Turner terms "a form of self-righteous pornography"; medieval mystery plays whose Hell scenes included crowd-pleasing "prat-falls, firecrackers, and crude toilet doggerel," and Renaissance visions culminating in Michelangelo's sublime depiction in the Sistine Chapel of the Last Judgment.

Ms. Turner calls the millennium following the fall of Rome "the richest period in the history of Hell." To illustrate, she includes not only examples of the literary and theological arguments of the era but also dozens of color and black-and-white reproductions of medieval religious art. In fact, one is just warming up to the intricate grotesqueries of eternal punishment when, by the late Middle Ages, Hell takes a comic turn (and a pratfall as well) into festival, replete with Hell parades and theatrical parodies.

One could argue that this humorous undermining of Hell's powers -- as well as the changes in politics, social life and religion wrought by the Renaissance and Reformation -- loosened the underworld's grip on popular imagination. As time went by, more and more Christian theologians became convinced that Hell's terrors did not mesh with the image of a loving God. (This perspective had been around since the early Church but was branded heretical.)

By the 19th century, Victorian horror and Gothic stories had replaced Hell as the locus for fear and trembling. In our time, cinematic visions of aliens, dinosaurs and supernatural killers serve the psychic need that visions of hellfire and diabolical tortures once did. Ms. Turner also suggests that in the post-Freudian era, Hell has been internalized. It can be a metaphor for a personal journey (Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness"), the brutalities of war (Picasso's "Guernica") or an existential wasteland (T. S. Eliot's poems and Samuel Beckett's plays).

In a one-paragraph closing summary -- the only false note in this otherwise entertaining book -- Ms. Turner concludes that despite the waning of religious power, Hell is a "flexible metaphor" that is too valuable to lose. One needs only to scan recent accounts of the atrocities in Bosnia, warfare in Somalia or casualties of the AIDS crisis to see the truth in this statement. It would have been nice if she had taken this otherwise adroit history up to the present.

(A former Sun reporter, Ms. Winston is a doctoral candidate in American religious history at Princeton.)

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "The History of Hell"

Author: Alice Turner

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace and Co.

Length, price: 288 pages, $29.95

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