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Saturday, 29 April 2017

Books in Hell

It may surprise you to hear me speak of books in hell, but you will soon perceive the fitness of things, it being neither more nor less than this—whatever is bad must come to hell, so of printed matter whatever is morally evil or arrogantly stupid tends hitherwards, the books arriving first, the authors following, and their publishers along with them. You will understand then that we are well off for literature, of a certain description, that is to say.

Polite literature, for instance, has provided us with countless novels, very popular, if trashy and sometimes immodest. There is no civilised nation or country that has not produced its share, varying in quantity or quality. They seem represented by two species chiefly—one can hardly call them schools—the purely sensational and the sensationally impure; the former being content to hint where the latter touch boldly, the former often supremely worthless, where the latter are wickedly ingenious. Many authors, and especially some authoresses, appear to find their life's duty in pandering to depraved taste, or worse, in fostering it. I might mention names, but I refrain. Only let me assure these experts of the pen, ladies and gentlemen, that they are well known here. No doubt it will create quite a flutter in their bosoms, adding not a little to their sense of fame, to learn that their talent is so extensively appreciated and that their books are fashionable, not only in polite society on earth but even in hell! There is this drawback, to be sure, to damp their spirits, that for the present they must be satisfied with mere honour—pay being withheld until they themselves join their circle of readers here. Then their reward shall be given them in this matter also.

But to proceed—there is no lack here even of theological writings—especially of modern commentaries, but also of the dogmatic and homiletical kind. To speak plainly, how many a book of fine sermons or of religious comfort arrives here, preceding the hireling shepherds! With casuistry too we are thoroughly provided. The Middle Ages are represented chiefly by a vast amount of priestly falsehood, systematised into all sorts of fanatical quibbles and sacerdotal inventions concerning the deep questions of religion. The more modern school may be said to have reached a climax in the days of Voltaire and the encyclopedists, taking a fresh start with Kant and his followers. You observe I speak broadly, in a European sense, refraining from particularising or quoting nearer home. You may judge for yourself, and be sure that no literary means are wanting here to advance the interests of atheism. For, mind you, even in hell those who believe and tremble' may be brought to a worse state. For the rest, since I never troubled myself about theology, either as a science or otherwise, I am not likely to study it here.

Besides this so-called true theology, there are found with us the writings of those puffed-up, half-crazy fanatics—the false prophets of every degree, who make a sort of trade of religion. Their literary effusions are generally laughed at, even here; but in most cases, the author himself arrives before long, and laughter for him turns to weeping. These curious divines have a special corner assigned to them in this place, differing greatly from the paradise they believed themselves heirs of in virtue of their singular calling.

Philosophy too is well represented. Philosophers, on the whole, are a harmless tribe. Some of them may be groping for wisdom which includes goodness and piety, and others are merely the victims of some peculiar mania which hurts no one. We get the writings of those only whom conceit of intellect drives to the front. I might quote some curious instances, showing how, within a professor's den, some ten feet square, the universe may be grasped, the mystery of life solved, eternity gauged; in fact, how the ocean of the infinite may be got into the nutshell of a finite brain.

In passing merely I mention the literature of the law. If I ignored it altogether it might be taken for disrespect, and I am sure I would rather not offend the gentlemen of the robe. Let me state the plain fact—I reverence justice, but I feel doubtful about lawyers. Did not some sharp-witted urchin make the discovery that the devil was a lawyer from the beginning? I would rather wash my hands of them, not understanding them in the least.

Last, but not least, I turn to the literary geniuses of the reviewing department, at the risk even of most dreadfully offending them. No reviewer, I presume, would flatter himself with the conceit that his dissertations could have any but the most ephemeral value; I feel loth to disabuse their laudable modesty, but I am bound to let them know that some do live—live in hell! I have made the startling discovery that of reviews not a few appear to be written in ignorance, or inspired by envy and even downright malice. Reviewers form a species apart, not nurtured in babyhood, it would seem, with the milk of human kindness. I was assured once that in order to review a book properly, one had need to be something of a misanthrope—something of a cynic at any rate, since barking and biting seems to be the great delight. Be this as it may, I have always maintained that reviewers, as a natural curiosity, may be divided into two classes—those who are capable of passing judgment, and those who are not. The former, strange to say, cautiously, and indeed rarely, advance their criticism, and nothing of theirs is ever seen here.

By dint of numerous reviews, then, we are kept au courant with the events of the book-market. Whenever a specially mordant piece of criticism arrives here we know that it has been called forth by a publication which is probably good and certainly harmless. It is the caricature only which reaches us; but it is so, alas, with most things!

As for newspapers?—it stands to reason that much of the daily food provided in these quarters cannot fare any better, since ambition of gain, private or public, unblushingly presides at the board. How many a journal has but the one object in view —the making of money? How many others have actually sold themselves to further the paltry interests of this or that party, not caring in the least, in their hardened consciences, how far astray they lead the public mind?

And what shall I say of the appalling amount of despatches, notes, and official memoranda interchanged between the various Cabinets for no other reason, it would seem, but that of misleading?—specimens of ambiguous phraseology, ever appealing to truth and justice but heeding neither truth nor justice wherever a chance of gain or even the interests of vulgar passion come to the front. This sort of political documents are rarely got hold of by newspapers even; on earth, they are the things that walk in secret, but they fail not to furnish us down here with many a curious explanation of historic events. I have come to suspect that nothing is more outrageously false, and cruel, and opposed to every will of God, than what goes by the name of higher politics.

You see from this sketch that we are not at a loss for reading, but you will also perceive that the vile productions reaching us can nowise tend to edify or even really instruct us. If they enable us to follow events in the world, it is a kind of inverted effect, suggesting, in fact, the very opposite of what they assert. There is here no pleasure in reading; on the contrary, the more one peruses, the more one sickens; but nauseated though we feel, we are unable to get out of the intellectual slough, the mire of a lying literature.

Letters from Hell, L. W. J. S., Richard Bentley & Son, London, 1889