Dismal Shores of Acheron: Touring Hell with Penguin Classics

By Ed SimonSeptember 8, 2019

Dismal Shores of Acheron: Touring Hell with Penguin Classics

The Penguin Book of Hell by Scott G. Bruce

This is Hell, where there is neither rest, nor consolation, nor hope.

— Fr. John Furniss, The Sight of Hell (1874)  

Where do bad folks go when they die?
They don’t go to heaven where the angels fly
They go down to the lake of fire and fry
Won’t see ’em again till the fourth of July.

— Meat Puppets, “Lake of Fire” (1984)


WHAT YOU WON’T UNDERSTAND, at least until you go there, is just how beautiful Hiroshima is. All pearled glass and hopeful steel, because all of the buildings are relatively new, of course. Six channels of the Ōta River divide and recombine on their meander toward the sea, leaving behind a hilly, green archipelago. Situated on an island in the Ōta is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park — serene, quiet, and almost supernaturally peaceful. There is the cruciform, bell-like Children’s Peace Monument to Sadako Sasaki, a young girl whose leukemia took her as an early victim of radiation, and who dreamed of making a thousand origami cranes before she died. There is the massive, curved cement Memorial Cenotaph that looks not unlike a folded card, and then of course the sobering Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. The singular building to survive August 6, 1945, when the US government incinerated Hiroshima, is the Genbaku Dome. Meant to serve as an industrial promotion hall, it was built of sturdy wrought iron, and withstood the bomb dropped almost directly overhead at 8:15 in the morning, which led to the deaths of 140,000 people. Genbaku’s concrete is broken, and the melted, twisted girders of its dome are like a skeleton found in the woods, its flesh ripped bare — a mute, horrified, silent testimony. When I visited it in 2005, I found it to be one of the most beautiful places that I’d ever been to.

Such was an apocalypse anticipated by Hesiod in the Theogony, where he notes: “The awful heat reached chaos. […] Broad Heaven were coming down upon the Earth.” As if some sort of apocalyptic spear, piercing that permeable membrane of reality, punctured the skin of time and space and spilled out the entrails of perdition into the world of the living. Briefly, we pulled something upward from subterranean bowels to produce literal hell on earth. As historian Scott G. Bruce writes in the introduction to The Penguin Book of Hell, “modern technologies and rational ways of thinking that supposedly mark our progress over earlier generations now allow us to commit mass murder and replicate infernal landscapes at the touch of a button.” Nuclear Armageddon and the Holocaust both signify a new horror, where “in an ironic reversal, we have become the very demons our ancestors trembled to meet when death foreclosed on their lives.” I’d also add the demonic irony that these new hells are prepared by sinners to punish the innocent, for in rational modernity the heat of hell is indiscriminate in who it punishes without cause.

When Martin Luther King Jr. won the Nobel Prize in 1964, he said of nuclear destruction that humanity had achieved the ability to “transform his earthly habitat into an inferno such as even the mind of Dante could not imagine.” King’s language mirrors that of the Soviet journalist Vasily Grossman, who upon seeing Treblinka noted that “[n]ot even Dante, in his Hell, saw scenes like this,” underscoring the ways that if our ancestors feared hell, it’s the modern world that has created it. What Theodor Adorno said about poetry after Auschwitz is true of Hiroshima as well; no need for The Divine Comedy to encapsulate such horrors, for we have survivors’ accounts, such as Yoshitaka Kawamoto interviewed for the Voices of Hibashuka exhibit. Only 13 when the bomb hit, he recounts that “[t]he water was full of dead people. I had to push the bodies aside to drink the muddy water. […] I stood up in the water and so many bodies were floating away along the stream. I can’t find the words to describe it. It was horrible.”

Finding language to describe the indescribable is the paradox of hell. Bruce supplies a brief for the possibility of approaching this null point in The Penguin Book of Hell, which includes Kawamoto’s testimony. Whether conceiving of Gehenna, Sheol, Hades, Hell, Treblinka, or Hiroshima, at the core of the collection is the ineffability which all writers harrowing the underworld have had to confront, what Dante bewails in Inferno by saying, “I cannot write it, / Because all language would be insufficient.” As with all sacred things, humanity hasn’t stopped trying to find words. The author of the 12th-century Visio Tnugdali has the Irish knight who is the main character of that poem exclaim that the “abundance and array of unspeakable torments that he saw there he could never reveal, even if he had one hundred heads and in each head one hundred tongues.” The writer’s contemporary, Caesarius of Heisterbach, declares that “if the leaves of every tree were turned into tongues, they still could not describe my torments.” Yet Bruce’s anthology is 254 pages of torments described, even while the describers declare that it’s impossible to do so.

Much of The Penguin Book of Hell is idiosyncratic in selection; obviously Dante is there, as is his guide Virgil. Classical pagan sources are rounded out with accounts from Homer, Plato, and Seneca; Bruce includes a hefty (and fascinating) selection of readings from medieval manuals, and there are substantial entries from the medieval Visio Tnugdali and the Victorian Catholic priest John Furniss’s macabre The Sight of Hell, designed to terrify children into obedience. Bruce’s most fascinating section is his final, which examines how the rhetoric of hell has utility in the contemporary era, including the observations of Kawamoto and Grossman, an astounding essay by an American prisoner in solitary confinement with the unlikely name of William Blake, and the track list for torturers at the Guantánamo Bay detention center whose “enhanced interrogation” techniques included repeatedly blasting at ear-splitting decibels songs like Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People,” Britney Spears’s “…Baby One More Time,” and the “Meow Mix” commercial jingle.

Any anthology is — by virtue of what its editor has decided to include and exclude — an argument, even if the terms aren’t blatantly stated. As I interpret The Penguin Book of Hell, Bruce’s selections make a series of interrelated claims about “the most powerful and persuasive construct of the human imagination in the Western tradition.” Threading through all of these excerpts, from Hesiod to Grossman, is an argument not just about hell, but about the language we use to describe hell. Specifically, the selections demonstrate how hell’s rhetoric can be attractive, ineffable, subjective, and current. On some level, like a crowd drawn to a fire-and-brimstone preacher, we thrill to hear about punishment and torture. We’d be amiss if we admit that there can be something tantalizing in hell’s description. Kawamoto described how he “saw the cloud, the mushroom cloud growing in the sky. It was very bright. It had so much heat inside. It caught the light and it showed every color of the rainbow. Reflecting on the past, it’s strange, but I could say that it was beautiful.” If even a victim of atrocity can be drawn to its aesthetics, it’s not surprising that the rest of us might want to take a peek upon the devil’s face (or the mushroom cloud).

Testimonies of hell were designed to instill fear and contrition, but they can also inculcate sanctimonious sadism. Consider the sentiments of Thomas Aquinas, who in his massive Summa Theologica argued with unassailable logic that “whoever pities another person is a participant in their misery. But the blessed cannot participate in any misery. Therefore, they do not pity the miseries of the damned.” As a testament to Aristotelian syllogism, Aquinas carefully lays out how citizens of heaven can’t commiserate with the subjects of hell, for such pity would introduce an impossible distress into the souls of the saved, and would question God’s judgment. Aquinas goes even further, arguing that not only do the redeemed have no empathy for the punished, but they actually watch the tortures in hell, enjoying the torment-afflicted murderers, heretics, simoniacs, hypocrites, thieves, liars, usurers, fornicators, drunkards, and traitors being burnt below. His book is clear: one of the great joys of heaven is to enjoy others’ pain. Syllogistic validity or not, this seems rather the reasoning of a sociopath.

Be suspicious of anyone who can crack a smile while listening to what the minister William Dawes described in a sermon before Queen Anne and King William as the “perpetual weeping, wailing, sighing, howling, and loud outcries” of hell. There’s a fine line between cautionary tale and morbid interest, cognizance and sadism. Between justice and torture for that matter. We’ve been drawn to Hades since blind Homer first sang song of Ulysses’ sojourn to the underworld. In our era of casual violence, ISIS beheading videos, and gruesome Holocaust memes shared on the internet, it behooves us to be wary of the rhetoric of hell, as Bruce makes clear.

In a piece that I wrote for The Baffler, I argued for hell’s utility. But there’s a bit of philosophical malpractice if I don’t also acknowledge just how dangerous the idea of perdition can be, the ways in which it has inspired the supposedly pious (whether of the theological or ideological variety) to construct a hell in the name of abolishing it. Bruce reminds us that the “idea of Hell has endured as a dominant metaphor, and frighteningly, as an inspiration for how to treat other people.” Our attraction to the rhetoric of hell can make us “surprised by sin,” as Stanley Fish would put it; to make visible to us our own fallenness. I’ll simply note that there’s no Penguin Book of Heaven yet, and experience has told me that there are way more people who’ve read Inferno than who’ve actually completed the last two parts of the Divine Comedy. The devil, after all, gets all of the good tunes.

Another argument that can be made about language concerns the limited applicability of metaphor, and hell’s irreducible ineffability. The authors describe the very thing which they claim has no applicable words, being forced to fall back on brimstone and bitumen, fire and sulfur. Read cover-to-cover and the effect can often be as tedious as it is terrifying, the omnipresence of fire that is all heat and no light eventually rendered boring, though perhaps that’s precisely the point. When it comes to describing the place beneath our feet, most of the authors engage a trope that could be called apophatic simile. The dominant conceit is to say something along the lines: “Hell is kind of like this, but even more so.” Tyndale writes that he heard the “wailing of an awesome multitude and also the sound of thunder so terrifying that our smallness could not comprehend it, nor could his tongue, as it is said, endeavor to express it.” Caesarius of Heisterbach writes that “no form of torture could be compared to this agony.” And in a nifty bit of Platonist reasoning the 11th-century monk Honorius of Autun writes that the “heat of it surpasses real fire like the heat of real fire surpasses painted flames.”

They approach an ontological absolute zero, a state that isn’t just extreme but abolishes the definition of extremity. What is portended is an implosion of epistemology, a meltdown concerning not just what we’re to say, but what it’s possible to say. Hell is both physical (hot, burning, crowded, fetid, stinking) and beyond human apprehension. Nor has this rhetorical gambit been abandoned when writing about horrors in our secular age. Upon encountering the remains of the Nazis’ victims at Treblinka, Grossman witnessed how the soil had given up green-rusted lighters and shattered perfume bottles, bits of charred fibula and bags of human hair, writing with a sense of enormity — which evokes the medieval theologians — that the “wilderness behind a barbed-wire fence has swallowed more human lives than all the earth’s oceans and seas have swallowed since the birth of mankind.”

As Grossman uses a vocabulary of infinitude to convey the Holocaust, so does Blake (the convict, not the poet) deploy the rhetoric of eternity to explain his two and a half decades of experience spending 22 hours a day in a cell the size of a small closet at the Shawangunk Correctional Facility. Blake writes that “[t]rying to put into words what is so unlike anything else I know or have ever experienced seems an impossible endeavor.” Other than the smell of other prisoners’ shit smeared on walls and the assault of continual obscenities echoing through the concrete cell block, Blake has virtually no outside contact, so that there is “nothing even remotely like it.” As with the scholastics centuries ago, Blake conveys the limitless horror of time, for outside of Shawangunk the “world turns, technology advances, and things in the streets change and keep changing all the time,” while in his eternal cell “there is not a single thing I’d see looking around right now that is different from what I saw […] when I first arrived.” Perhaps that’s why the genre of harrowing accounts remains so popular, from Ulysses crossing the river Styx, to Orpheus in Hades, and Christ in Limbo. They provide a means of squaring the ineffability of description with the authority of the eyewitness, a way of saying, “I can’t fully describe this, but I can assure you that it is real.”

Language pushed to its breaking point provides a means of contemplating the absolute. When compared to mathematicians and philosophers in the Islamic and Hindu worlds, Christendom was hesitant to embrace either nothingness or infinity — with the exception of hell. In the uncircumscribed boundaries of hell, European theologians found a convenient Gedankenexperiment for reality without limits. Furniss imagines it being possible to “[c]over all the earth and all the skies with little dots like these: … Let every dot stand for a hundred thousand millions of years. Is this Eternity? No,” infinite magnitude conjured with an ellipsis. The 17th-century Jesuit Giovanni Pietro Pinamonti, deploying the Ignatian exercises, wrote of “infinite hours, infinite days, infinite ages” which must “surpass all our thoughts to conceive it.” In a disenchanted world, such images appear less in theology than in physics; eternity and infinity are now the realm of the black hole, of the infinitesimal quark, of the random quantum fluctuation which triggered the Big Bang. Mock scholastic concerns about angels dancing on pin-heads all you want, such ways of talking remain commensurate with the sublimity of the universe, whether in hell or a singularity.

A purpose of great literature is the ability to see your own present reflected back at you. Historicists of course blanch at such presentism, yet it’s undeniable that one of the attractions of canonical writing is the illusion that the author is speaking to you from beyond the bounds of time, that what a work “means” is ever changed by circumstances. Bruce writes that despite our supposed secularism, the “idea of Hell has remained tenacious in Western thought.” Indeed, there are repeated instances where the anthology reads us as much as we read it. Such is the spooky mercurial nature of transcendent literature that its interpretive nature shifts as needed with time’s eddies. With tongue mostly in cheek, I thought of current headlines when I encountered an excerpt from The Aeneid which describes “one who bartered his native land for gold, / he saddled her with a tyrant, set up laws for a bribe […] forced himself / on his daughter’s bed and sealed a forbidden marriage. / All dared an outrageous crime and what they dared, they did.”

With less sarcasm, hell’s rhetoric approaches the enormity of our current political and ecological moment, when the twin and mutually reinforcing specters of resurgent fascism and climate catastrophe threaten the continuation of humanity. When Hesiod described the “fertile earth / Being burned, roared out, the voiceless forest cried / And crackled with the fire; the whole earth boiled / And ocean’s streams, and the unfruitful sea […] flame / Unspeakable rose to the upper air,” I hear an eloquent expression of the deadly heat wave now engulfing Europe, of methane gas released in fetid, stinking bubbles from melting arctic permafrost, of uncontrollable wildfires destroying a California town with the typological name of Paradise. When Virgil describes the “enormous whirlpool [that] gapes aswirl with filth, / seethes and spews out all of its silt in the Wailing River,” I taste the poisoned water of Flint, or feel the combustible taps of central Pennsylvania scarred by fracking. When he writes of “[w]ar, right with death / and the Furies’ iron chambers, and mad, raging Strife / whose blood-stained headbands know her snaky locks,” I espy the DMZ and the Strait of Hormuz, while keeping a weary eye toward the imbecilic electronic Sibyl of our president’s Twitter feed.

Apocalypse is the genre that explains what it means when the earth itself is consumed by hell, when those punctured intestines of the netherworld spill out into our reality and paint everything red with blood and bile. Such is the horror of our current moment that we’ve made hell possible and the architects of that place punish the innocent, such as this summer when the United States government started operating an infernal archipelago of concentration camps across our Southern border. Bruce is correct that an apprehension of hell and its significance remains crucial if we’re to defeat such a place, as surely as the Son of God supposedly knocked down its border fence two millennia ago. If apocalypse has always been nigh, well, then it feels a bit nigh-er in the 21st century.

Some 12 centuries ago, and the Venerable Bede imagined what Doomsday would look like in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. He heard an account from a fellow monk named Fursa, who’d been “lifted up on high […] by the angels who were carrying him to look upon the world.” While aloft over the Northumbrian countryside, Fursa had a vision of four fires that would one day consume the world. Bede writes that

one is the fire of falsehood […] another is the fire of avarice, when we place our love of world riches before our love of the riches of heaven; the third is the fire of discord, when we do not fear to offend the souls of our neighbors even in superficial matters; and the fourth fire is irreverence, when we think it nothing to despoil and defraud those weaker than ourselves.

With trembling hand and jaundiced eye, Fursa stared into the future, telling Bede that “[l]ittle by little, the fires merged together and became one immense conflagration.” Hard not to wonder if it was us that he saw.


Ed Simon is a staff writer for The Millions and an editor at Berfrois. His most recent book is Furnace of This World; or, 36 Observations about Goodness.

LARB Contributor

Ed Simon is the editor of Belt Magazine, a staff writer for Lit Hub, and an emeritus staff writer at The Millions. He is a frequent contributor at several different sites including The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, Aeon, Jacobin, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Killing the Buddha, Salon, The Public Domain Review, Atlas Obscura, JSTOR Daily, and Newsweek. He is also the author of several books, including Devil’s Contract: The History of the Faustian Bargain, which will be released in July 2024. He holds a PhD in English from Lehigh University and an MA in literary and cultural studies from Carnegie Mellon University.


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