Friday, June 20, 2014


Temperatures are reaching 40ºC (or 105ªºF) in my hometown (Córdoba), and all I can think of is hell - both as a place and as an expletive. For me, hell is my kitchen, the only room in the house without air conditioning. But, what was hell for Shaw? Well, there are a few answers to that question in his plays, prefaces, and novels alone. 
Let's start with the quotation that I used for the title of this post. As you probably know, it belongs to the second scene of the third act of Man and Superman - "Don Juan in Hell." What you may not know is that it is a modified line from a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Specifically, it is the opening line of part three (Hell) of "Peter Bell the Third"

Hell is a city much like London --
A populous and a smoky city;
There are all sorts of people undone,
                 And there is little or no fun done;                   
Small justice shown, and still less pity.

Substituting Seville for London makes sense in the context of the play, but does not say much about Shaw's notions about hell as a place of damnation and punishment. To begin with the lighter side, we also catch a glimpse of what Shaw thought of as hell in "Don Juan in Hell;" when the eponymous character says:

"Hell is full of musical amateurs: music is the brandy of the damned."

No wonder that, for a music critic, this should be quite an accurate approach to the concept of hell. 

William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) - Dante And Virgil In Hell (1850).jpg
"William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) - Dante And Virgil In Hell (1850)" by William-Adolphe Bouguereau - Unknown. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

If we look at the way hell is interpreted in folklore, "the road to hell is paved with good intentions," as the proverb goes. However, some Shavian characters beg to differ. First, Augustus (Augustus Does His Bit) refuses to believe in this proverb because he does not want to admit his own incompetence: 

AUGUSTUS. This is perfectly monstrous. Not in the least what I intended.

THE CLERK [explaining]. Hell, they says, is paved with good intentions.
AUGUSTUS [springing to his feet]. Do you mean to insinuate that hell is paved with MY good intentions—with the good intentions of His Majesty's Government?

Some years earlier, Shaw had also reinterpreted this proverb in his fifth and last novel (An Usocial Socialist) in rather different terms but with a similar underlying idea. In this case Smilash argues against Miss Wilson's prejudices that

"You seek to impose your ideas on others, ostracizing those who reject them. Believe me, mankind has been doing nothing else ever since it began to pay some attention to ideas. It has been said that a benevolent despotism is the best possible form of government. I do not believe that saying, because I believe another one to the effect that hell is paved with benevolence, which most people, the proverb being too deep for them, misinterpret as unfulfilled intentions."

In all, perhaps the best thing about hell as a deterrent concept is the fact that it is eternal and unavoidable. That is the way it is presented in "A Treatise on Parents and Children," the preface to Misalliance, in an attempt to demonstrate the impossibility of secular education (?)

"Secular education is an impossibility. Secular education comes to this: that the only reason for ceasing to do evil and learning to do well is that if you do not you will be caned. This is worse than being taught in a church school that if you become a dissenter you will go to hell; for hell is presented as the instrument of something eternal, divine, and inevitable: you cannot evade it the moment the schoolmaster's back is turned."

And yet, hell can be as "real as a turnip" for those who have experienced loss, anguish, or any other of the terrible feelings that make us human. As Margaret puts it in Fanny's First Play

MARGARET. It's no use, mother. I dont care for you and Papa any the less; but I shall never get back to the old way of talking again. Ive made a sort of descent into hell—
MRS KNOX. Margaret! Such a word!
MARGARET. You should have heard all the words that were flying round that night. You should mix a little with people who dont know any other words. But when I said that about a descent into hell I was not swearing. I was in earnest, like a preacher.
MRS KNOX. A preacher utters them in a reverent tone of voice.
MARGARET. I know: the tone that shews they dont mean anything real to him. They usent to mean anything real to me. Now hell is as real to me as a turnip; and I suppose I shall always speak of it like that. Anyhow, Ive been there; and it seems to me now that nothing is worth doing but redeeming people from it.

At any rate, I don't think we should trust any of our preconceived notions about hell. After all, as the Devil reminds us, we tend to take on faith second-hand opinions about hell from people who have never been there: 

DEVIL. [...] Hell is a place far above their comprehension: they derive their notion of it from two of the greatest fools that ever lived, an Italian and an Englishman. The Italian described it as a place of mud, frost, filth, fire, and venomous serpents: all torture. This ass, when he was not lying about me, was maundering about some woman whom he saw once in the street. The Englishman described me as being expelled from Heaven by cannons and gunpowder; and to this day every Briton believes that the whole of his silly story is in the Bible. What else he says I do not know; for it is all in a long poem which neither I nor anyone else ever succeeded in wading through.

I wonder who the Italian and the Englishman may be?

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