VISIONS OF HELL.*
M. DELEPIERRE, one of the most diligent and learned members, we believe, of the Philobiblon Society, has reprinted a few copies of a curious and interesting essay, which he prepared for that society- of a narrative of all those visions of Hell and Heaven which the visionary in good faith healed himself to have seen, not in dreams or through his imagination, but by direct vision. Most of these occurred while the visionary was in a state of catalepsy or apparent death, and while therefore his soul was believed to be temporarily absent from the body and actually in a condition to witness what it afterwards reported. Of more de- scriptions,—some of them pretending to scientific knowledge,—of Heaven, and of Hell especially (with the details of which the average mind appears to occupy itself more eagerly than with those of Heaven), there are thousands to be found in the early centuries of Christianity and the Middle Ages, to say nothing of those which preceded the Christian era. But the number of those affecting to rest upon actual clairvoyance,— for that is what visions of this nature would, we imagine, now be called,—was comparatively limited, until the mesmerists and spirit- rappers of the present generation began to discover that catalepsy was not essential for the purpose of making people believe that the spirit could see what was invisible to the eye of the uninitiated. However, M. Delepierre's collection of visions is curious, as resting upon a profound credulity and good faith in the visionary which is at least indispensable to any interest at all in narratives of this description. It is curious, too, as showing the extraordinary limitation of human ideas on this subject, the wonderful absence in these visions of anything like subtlety, or elevation of thought, or solemnity even, in the conceptions of suffering,—elements the deficiency in which never even suggested either to the visionaries or their confidants that the whole succession of pictures which they had seen was but the grotesque invention of nightmare,—of an oppressed and tortured brain. M. Delepierre mentions but one of these visions—that of a certain Godfrey in 1321—which repudi- ated even the most vulgarly physical conception of Hell. He alone says that "one must not imagine that the disposition, the kind, and the mode of punishment have any resemblance to that which the preachers and painters represent to us. All things in these places are seen, heard, and felt spiritually, and not at all as is generally conceived. Space and time disappear." But this is a single exception amid centuries of opposite notions. For the most part, till in quite modern times, when the vision of Hell has faded away into as colourless and vague a dream of suffering as that of Heaven has almost always been of joy, the pictures of Hell have always been the same. The misers drink molten gold and are plunged into it by demons ; the sensual and impure have swarms of hideous and monstrous reptiles preying on their vitals and gush- * Le Liore des Visions en l'Enfer et le Ciel decrils par aux qui lee oat ous. Par Octave Delepterre, doeteur en droit et eOcrotaire Ce Idgation, Loadrea. Tird 41 25 Exemplairee ing from their mouths ; the proud are clad in robes of fire ; lakes of fire or burning pitch are ready for the sacrilegious ; the envious are beaten with poisonous serpents ; the tyrants are tortured by the melicious rule of demons. Monstrous and loathsome beasts, too, play a great part in the pains of Hell,—which is one mode, we suppose, by which the imagination unconsciously expressed for itself the evil of allowing the physical mature of man to take the rule over the intellectual and moral nature. Here, for instance, is a part of the vision of Tondal, an Irishman of noble birth and profligate habits, who in the year 1149 is said to have had one of these visions of Hell, during a trance caused by the foul blow of a companion. Tondal is supposed to be conducted by an angel. (We conjecture that one explanation of the horrible beast's crunching teeth and jaws is, that the phrase "There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth" was deeply impressed on Tondal's imagination, and took shape in the nightmare vision of his catalepsy.) "They gouda and the angel] arrived at a winding road covered with shadows, and suddenly the glance of Tondal was caught by the view of a monster of incredible size and the most horrible aspect. His mouth seemed able to contain ten thousand armed men ; his teeth, like pillars, formed as it were two immense wheels, and flames issued incessantly from his gaping jaws. Two giants, one with his head downwards, the other standing on his feet, were placed before this gulf, from which a horrible corruption was exhaled. The damned souls were forced to enter this abyss. The body of the monster echoed with groans and dull cries and lamentations. Before this open mouth were a multitude of impure spirits, who pushed the souls before them, covering them with blows and wounds. Having for some time considered this hideous spectacle, the soul of Tondal, full of terror, says to the angel, 'Why have I been brought so near this monster?" We cannot arrive at our destination by any other route,' answered the angel, continuing to approach still nearer. The soul followed him, in spite of itself ; soon he dis- appeared, and it remained alone, abandoned to its misery. The demons then surrounded it, and had soon dragged it into the mouth of the monster. There was felt at once the heats of fire, the severity of cold, the most poisonous smell, the bite of un- known animals and of hideous reptiles ; there was nothing but tears, gnashing of teeth, and tortures of all kinds. Tondal be- lieved himself eternally damned, when, without knowing how, he found himself thrown back out of the monster to a great distance, and raising with pain his aching eyelids, he saw once more the angel of light at his side." Such are the mildest kinds of tor- ments with which these pictures of Hell usually abound,—torments often wanting even in ingenuity. They are, too, purely retributive ; for purification, though it is supposed to have resulted in the case of a not yet disembodied soul like Tondal's (and how even Tondal could have been any purer for bad smells and worse companion- ship inside a beast's ftetid mouth it is not easy to see), was no part of the idea of Hell,--and even as retributive only, altogether wanting in significance and no better connected with the sin than a child's fault with a whipping. Perhaps the most natural, the most striking of all the horrid punishments described in these visions, is one mentioned in a story of Plutarch's, belonging to the first century of the Christian era, and not a product of Christian ideas at all. Indeed so little warrant did Christ give for these conceptions of Hell, that the Christian literature which grew up about it was a mere literature of fairy tales, with no further hint from the New Testament than the one para- ble (in Luke's Gospel) of the rich man who wanted Lazarus to be sent to cool his tongue with water. There is something deeper and more striking about one of the punishments mentioned in Plutarch's story of Thespesius than in all the other visions of Hell which M. Delepierre mentions :—" The souls," we are told on the authority of Thespesius, "which had been guilty of sins whose pun- ishment had recoiled during life on their posterity, were punished by their children. The,spesius saw a crowd of these souls grouped like bees or bats with those of their descendants, who did not cease to murmur words of grief and anger in remembrance of all that they had suffered for the crimes of their fathers." There is something natural in that retribution. That the consciences of men will become like a sensitive retina to the indications of the suffering, pain, and sin which their own sins have produced, we can well ima- gine to be a real part of the discipline of God. And the conception of being condemned to hear cries of blind regret and lamentation and reproach for miseries which you have caused, but cannot relieve, hovering above and around you for ever, and answering to the reproaches of your own heart, has an effect of terror almost sublime, which is most rare in these visions of purgatory and Hell.
What certainly would seem strange, is that these visions, spring-
ing as they seem to do from the nightmare of a stifled conscience, should be so full of physical tortures imagined to be the mere outward penalties of guilt, and quite without any vital connection with the guilt itself. Man-traps and spring-guns, if sincerely believed in, may no doubt deter very effectively from trespassing; but as they do not even tend to deter from the wish to trespass, we may fairly infer that if the mind of the trespasser involuntarily dwells with more trouble on the man-traps and spring-guns than on the act itself of which he has been guilty, or wished to have been guilty, it is not so much any burden of guilt which oppresses him, as a lively fear of the possible consequences of transgressing an arbitrary law. The vision of Hell which contemplates with 'Thes- pesius the pain of being haunted by the evil fruits of your own crimes looks very much more like a vision due to the workings of conscience, than the common mediaeval visions which, like that of Tondal, only summon up pictures of boiling pitch, inconceivable beasts, and unclean demons as the retributive agencies. Hence the medieval visions of Hell can scarcely be ascribed to the vigour of the conscience at all, but rather to the vigour of the imagination excited by belief in subordinate and finite supernatural agencies specially entrusted with the duties of spiritual police or spiritual executioners. The ages of failing belief have often been, like the last age of pagan- ism in the Roman Empire, ages of the keenest and distinetest moral feeling. Marcus Aurelins, and even Plutarch, show a far more dear discrimination between the intrinsic evil of sin and mere fear of consequences, than was shown in the age of Dante. The moment Christian faith got a real hold of the world, it created for itself a crowd of secondary and arbitrary moral agencies, which far outran that Christian conscience into the service of which they were supposed to be pressed. But now that we are again trying to reduce the notions of moral retribution to their purely moral signi- ficance, there is but too much danger of stripping off all the ideas of personal government which have been bound up with such arbitrary dreams of Hell, and coming back to the bare pagan con- ception of moral suffering as one of the were intrinsic attributes of evil, and quite independent of God. The modern ideas of future punishment, so far as they are clear at all, are very much nearer to the more refined pagan ideas than to the mediasval ; perhaps be- cause the former were, of the two, much nearer to Christ's own teaching,—but not a little also because there is a real disposition in the present day to shrink from any appeal to the divine judg- ment except that which leaves us to judge ourselves. We still probably could believe in Hell so far as our own indulged passions can make a Hell. We could believe in a Hell for the tyrant which should consist in his indulging the full madness of tyranny, with none but the shadows of his own mind for slaves. We could believe in a Hell for the proud which should consist in being out loose from all dependence on the love or help of others. We could believe in a Hell for the treacherous which should consist in never being able to inspire trust or confidence. We could believe in a Hell for the cruel which should consist in a memory occupied solely with the pangs of victims. We could believe in a Hell for the sensual in • which they should lose all perception of the higher beauty that alone gives charm to the beauty of the senses. We might even believe in a Hell for the sceptical devotees of physical science, in which they should be condemned to study all their fellow-creatures as were bundles of phenomena, whose antecedents and consequents they were com- pelled to analyze without recognizing any more personality in them than in a hill, or rock, or changing cloud. In all such purely natural retributions as these the modern world, like the ancient world when it was near its close, can believe. But in rejecting with contempt the grotesque and arbitrary notions of Hell which haunted the mediaeval visionaries, and representing to ourselves all retributive punishment as the mere abandonment of the mind to the authority of its own evil passions or exclusive tendencies, we have let the faith in divine judgment slip, and substituted for it the notion of judging ourselves. The difference is that while, on the pagan system, our character remains by mere natural law in the evil world of its own preferences, and breathing the close atmosphere of its own bad acts,—and while, according to the mediaeval notion, it is imprisoned in a world of artificially enhanced evil, by divine decree,—the Christian teaching is that in all conditions of punishment we are shut up in our own evil by God only to teach us what that evil really is, and what the divine power which would always draw us away from narrowness and evil, if we would only follow its attraction, to the larger and brighter world of good. On the highest pagan theory of Hell, Hell is the natural and inevitable pain created for us by our own evil actions ; on the mediaeval theory of the visionaries, it is the pain inflicted on us by the decree of God ; according to the Chris-
tian doctrine, it is the pain to which we are condemned only that we may better know the divine force constantly drawing us away from it, drawing us out of our own sins, passions, and prejudices, and narrow theories, into the wider and brighter world from which we shrink. It is curious enough that all the ' visions ' of Hell ignore that overruling force against which the gates of Hell cannot prevail.