It is very human indeed that we spend so
much time thinking about Hell when we could be thinking about Heaven,
but in the words of Agent Smith from The
Matrix: “I believe that, as a
species, human beings define their reality through suffering and
misery. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum
kept trying to wake up from.” We are fascinated by the concept of
eternal suffering because, in some way, it is more within the grasp
of our imagination than bliss is.
But there is more to it even than that. Hell
has deep psychological roots. Carl Jung, the eminent disciple of
Freud, and who largely contradicted much of his research, is a bridge
between Dante and Atheists in the modern world. From a Jungian
perspective, the tripartite division of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven
represent psychological states on our journey to self-actualisation.
So, to be in Hell is to be in a state of
complete denial about reality.
“Denial… this is our
most understandable, most primitive defence, which, if continued
indefinitely, proves to be the only truly pathological state of
being” – James Hollis
In Hell, no meaningful communication is
possible; the damned merely talk to themselves or to each other,
repeating the same cyclical stories of pain (in the same way that the
Ancient Mariner from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem repeats his
woe-begotten tale) but despite their re-iterations, these hell-bound
souls never to develop in any meaningful way. This is very
psychologically true of many people in the real world, trapped in
cycles of addiction, trapped in cycles of behaviour, unable to
progress because they lack the ability to to accept reality and to
accept their own fault. Many souls in Hell waste much of their breath
justifying their decisions and actions to Dante rather than actually
accepting their own fault. Auden puts it startlingly:
would rather be ruined than changed.
would rather die in our dread
climb the cross of the present
let our illusions die”
W. H. Auden, The Age of Anxiety
Notice the metaphor of ‘climbing the
cross’, or in other words, accepting punishment for our sins.
Whether you believe in the concept of ‘sin’ in the spiritual,
metaphysical sense, it applies psychologically too. We all, at times,
make mistakes, or bad decisions, and we can either change or be
‘ruined’ by them. Most, unfortunately, would rather be ruined, as
Auden harrowingly observes, than admit they’re wrong.
The classic symptom of this state is
repetition of pointless activities. Sisyphus rolls the boulder up the
hill. Tantalus reaches for water he can never access. Again, we can
observe these traits in real life: people who perform the same
self-sabotaging tasks, who stick to the same debasing jobs, trapped
in psychological compulsions.
Purgatory is where self-awareness begins to
occur, and repentance for what one has done awry or failed to do.
Work still needs to occur in order to progress further:
“It has kept them stuck
in the meaninglessness of purgatory and so they finally let go of the
idea that someone else is to blame and look inside” – Dr Alan
In therapy, they say that the first step is
self-awareness before healing can occur. We have to recognise that we
have a problem in order to get rid of it. Returning to the ‘hell
mindset’, so often people in hell-states deny that there is a
problem, which is part of their denial of reality. They are the kind
of people who might say: ‘I can quit smoking any time I want’,
when in fact the opposite is exactly true.
When we reach Purgatory, however, we begin
to see self-awareness. Therefore, we suffer, but in a different way.
In, perhaps, a therapeutic way. Carl Jung observed:
inhibits fullness of life and is therefore equivalent to illness.
Meaning makes a great many things endurable – perhaps everything”
– Carl Jung
Meaning, and discovering meaning, is only
possible when we confront reality. However, it empowers us to do so
and make the pain ‘endurable’.
“Yet each of us is
obliged to find out personal path through the dark wood. In the
mediaeval Grail legend the knights, having seen the Grail, and
intuiting that it symbolised their search for meaning, undertook the
challenge and began their descent into the dark wood. But the text
tells us that each one chose a separate place of entry ‘where there
was no path, for it is a shameful thing to take the path that someone
has trod before.’ Your journey is your journey, not someone else’s.
It is never too late to begin it anew” –James
This chimes beautifully with Dante, whose
journey also begins in the ‘dark wood / wherein the straight road
no longer lay’ (Peter Dale translation).
But what is meaning? James Hollis remarked
that: “The gods want us to grow up, to step up to that high calling
that each soul carries as its destiny”. Yet, destiny is a slippery
thing, something we have wrestled with as a species for millennia. Do
we have free-will? Can we choose? If we can
choose, then how can we also have a
pre-determined destiny? How can we know our own destiny? These
philosophical debates tend to go round and round, in themselves like
hellish cycles. The reality of our weird, wonderful world is that
both are likely true simultaneously.
But the important lesson is that we are all
on a journey, and that there is an ‘end point’ to that journey.
That, perhaps, can be what we call ‘destiny’. And what is the end
point of any psychological journey? Catharsis.
“When we have accepted
this journey, truly accepted it, we will be flooded with a strong,
supportive energy the carries us through all the dark places. For
this energy we have an appropriate word. It is called ‘love’. It
is love not only of the other, but love of this life, this journey,
and love of this task of soul” – James Hollis
So, through suffering and self-awareness,
Hell and Purgatory, we might finally arrive at Heaven. Heaven is
where the shadow side of our selves or our soul is fully integrated
into our personalities. This means not that we purify ourselves and
shed the ‘bad’, purging it, but actually that it becomes an
accepted part of who we are. Rather than self-condemning, we use the
negatives of our personality as strengths and to feed other
strengths. Writers commonly say that they use their negative
emotions: anger, shame, lust, to fuel their work. They don’t deny
the emotions exist, that would be a Hell-state, but rather embrace
them and harness them. The same is true, I’m sure, of top athletes,
musicians, dancers, actors, you-name-it.
Dante’s journey can be understood not just as a spiritual one, but
as a psychological one too towards self-actualisation and wholeness.