• John Diamond-Nigh

Heavenly hell

I thought I’d be sent to my bedroom for heresy.

Perhaps I was kicking back against some parental remonstrance–I hadn’t mown the lawn, or had been less than impeccably polite to a toddling church lady who had come for tea, I dunno. But in a flash of youthful bravura, out it came. . . Hell, Pa, is a rotten fantasy and the sooner religion gets rid of it the better religion will be.

Pause. Then a ghost of a nod, ghost of a chuckle. Might he secretly agree?

As any art history teacher will do, I’ve thrown some images of hell up on the screen, from those beautiful doll house depictions of heaven and hell above the doors of Gothic cathedrals to the far more famous works of Michelangelo and Hieronymous Bosch to recent works by Warhol and Faith Ringgold. In the case of the gothic images we discount the ghoulish hermeneutics in the same way we dismiss pedophilia in Plato’s Symposium as so far away, so particularly contextual, that it’s irrelevant to us, leaving us to enjoy the imaginative scope of the work. (Dante’s Divine Comedy is the most famous case in point.)

For most of us, hell is a metaphor for any nadir of human misery. Or an expletive for losing your keys. For some, of course, it is still a literal destiny. For those of us in the arts, it remains one of its most visually cinematic, morally complex, and still pervasive icons.

One Friday afternoon I found in my high school locker a paper bag with a small bottle of Campari inside as well as a copy of Susan Sontag’s book Against Interpretation. And a note: couldn’t make heads nor tails of this: the booze may help.

That book and others like it (many French) stepped me beyond the either/or of heaven and hell to a hazier notion of life. As the great French painters discovered, the world is impressionistic. It looks different at two o’clock than it does at six. Things aren’t as black-and-white as the codes of our interpretation would have us believe. As Sontag observed, our compulsions to encode, to interpret or punish (not just in religion) deplete this shivering, crazy, resplendent world.

Monet, in fact, removed black from his palette.

But of course the French were hardly the first. The Talmud always amazes me. Graphically, it is a wonder, with its shaped texts, its boxed musings, accrued over time, surrounding the oldest text like flourishing new suburbs of ideas. Faith is not a pin through a butterfly, it’s a buoyant, dubious, struggling, adaptive evolution.

My students never fail to point out just where the eye goes, looking at all those Last Judgement images. Not to heaven, with its tiers of shopworn saints who look like several hundred Mitch McConnells at a Kennedy Center concert. No, it goes to hell, where transgression and punishment whirl like a scarlet bra in a clothes drier. Where delirious monsters dance. Where Michelangelo pulls out all his best tricks.

Call it an erotics of hell.

A psych major once observed, looking at Bosch, that under the picturesque guises of torment, hell is a pretty accurate depiction of just what being human is all about, that free-range, troublesome side of us that institutions obsessively seek to stamp out. Jung would go a step further: evil often comes from suppressing, too much, that free-range side of ourselves, leading to this paradox: our worst destruction often flows, not from the ‘devil’, but from under the heel of our most ardent pieties.

Dante’s Inferno far outsells Paradiso, and as such is a convincing polemic against the very morality that invented it in the first place.

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