Pen Ultimate / One Hell of a Story

Seasonal soul-searching yields some intriguing questions that cannot always be answered.

New Year is the time for new decisions about new beginnings. Whatever the year has in store for us, we will try as best we can to go through it armed with the best intentions. Such is the nature of our soul's reckonings, and we can only hope that the balance will be in the black. (I'm not sure that "black" is the right word here, but that is another matter.)

Anyway, a few admissions are in order. One day I got a phone call from a reader who wanted to know which character in Dante's "Inferno" says, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." I told him that I didn't know, but would be happy to find out for him (and for myself). Some readers believe, mistakenly, that I know a lot of things. I mainly know that I don't know, and in those (too many) instances when I thought I did know and did not check my facts with reliable sources, I found out (with my readers' help) that I was mistaken. But usually I know whom to ask, as those many persons who have received strange calls from me can testify.

The Web is a paradise for question-askers like me, provided you know how to formulate your query and do not take the answers for granted without cross-checking them with an independent source. The answers provided by the search engines sometimes work, in my case, like the sides of a pool table do with the balls, when they deflect my question at an unexpected angle and lead me to other, unasked questions that then yield some very interesting answers. That is how I learned the definition of a "bear hug" - that which smothers the hug-ee with the bear's best intentions.

Making inroads

Thus, I have been smothered with tons of invaluable information. Among many things, I found after reading through all 34 cantos of the "Inferno" that nobody there says a word about the paving of hell's floor or the road to it. Canto 18 starts (in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's translation): "There is a place in Hell called Malebolge, / Wholly of stone and of an iron color, / As is the circle that around it turns. / ... Right in the middle of the field malign / There yawns a well exceeding wide and deep, / Of which its place the structure will recount / ... Round, then, is that enclosure which remains / Between the well and foot of the high, hard bank, / And has distinct in valleys ten its bottom."

Searching through Hebrew sources did not make me any wiser on the subject at hand. Ecclesiastes (9:10) says: "Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave [in the Hebrew original "sheol," meaning also "hell"] where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom."

Ecclesiasticus (the writings of Jesus the son of Sirah, written in Hebrew in the second century B.C.E., translated into Greek sometime later by the writer's grandson, and incorporated by the Catholic Church into the New Testament), also says (21:10): "The way of sinners is made plain with stones, but at the end thereof is the pit of hell."

My forays into other language sources brought to my attention: "Hell is paved with priests' skulls" (St. John Chrystosom, fourth century C.E., Greece); St. Bernard of Clairvaux (12th century) coined what was called the "queen" of proverbs - "L'enfer est plein de bonnes volont?s ou d?sirs" ("Hell is full of good wishes or desires"); St. Francois de Sales (16th century) advised Madame de Chantal in a letter: "Do not be troubled by St. Bernard's saying that, `Hell is full of good intentions and wills'"; there is an old Portuguese saying that goes, "Hell is paved with good intentions, and roofed with lost opportunities"; and on April 16, 1775 Boswell wrote about Dr. Johnson: "No saint, however, in the course of his religious warfare, was more sensible of the unhappy failure of pious resolves, than Johnson. He said one day, talking to an acquaintance on the subject, `Sir, Hell is paved with good intentions.'"

The nature of the hell's floor can only be a matter of a working hypothesis, as none have returned from there to testify about it. Orpheus, however, does tell us a lot about the road back from there being slippery. If we choose to disregard our intentions (and thus follow the advice of the New Criticism school of thought) and evaluate them according to the results of actions that are taken (or not taken) - well, that can really be done only when we are already in hell. But then it might be just a little too late, and anyway there would be hell to pay.

"The safest road to hell is the gradual one - the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts," wrote C.S. Lewis.

The road to hell was paved with good intentions probably by a 16th-century proverb, and is not attributable. And if the space here were any larger, my own good intentions would likely carry me away. Luckily, I stumbled on a saying from Jewish fountain of wisdom to the effect that even he who has plenty of wisdom and good intentions but succumbs to vanity, will inherit hell.

Happy New Year.