Heaven and Hell
Pessimism seems to be a newly popular theme in American cultural discourse. Having written a bit about worst-case scenarios, I was interested to get a review copy of Karen Cerulo’s Never Saw It Coming: Cultural Challenges to Envisioning the Worst. Perhaps because I’m naturally optimistic by temperament, I’m finding Cerulo’s relentless pessimism a bit annoying, and, not coincidentally, finding a lot to disagree with in the book.
One point particularly struck me. Cerulo claims that “positive asymmetry” is demonstrated by the fact that, in theology and art, Heaven is given a detailed and appealing description, while hell is described only in vague and non-specific terms. She mentions, as an illustration of the latter point, an etching inspired by Dante’s Inferno.
My recollection of Dante is that the descriptions of Hell, and the various categories of sinners, were detailed and intricate, making the Inferno a fascinating book, while Purgatory was less distinctly graded and the Paradiso was unreadably dull. I haven’t read Paradise Lost or Paradise Regained, but I get the impression that the same is true. Correct me if I’m wrong here, but I thought this was one of the standard criticisms of religious art – Hell and the Devil are made much more interesting than Heaven and Hell.
Cerulo focuses mainly on paintings, and maybe she’s right on this score, but even here I’d hazard a guess that the work of Hieronymus Bosch is much more widely reproduced than any detailed representation of Heaven.