by Kleitia Vaso

“Hell is other people,” wrote Sartre, implying that the hell we create is closely connected to others’ perceptions of us or what we think these may be. Our hell, then, is not created by others but with our own hands, through our own minds, though other people are always there to help. To go just a tiny bit deeper, our own personal hell is our reflection in others, the refraction of this mirrored image, and the return of our behavior to us.

My own version of hell on earth can take multiple forms but one, undoubtedly, is the physical or, rather, psychological sensation of being stuck without a possible escape. That these options exist suffices and whether I use them matters little; their existence provides the necessary assurance and comfort to make any difficult situation bearable, whereas their lack obliterates any pleasure even in seemingly-enjoyable situations.

My reflections on hell sprung from an uncomfortable lecture in a large hall where someone interesting was discussing an equally interesting topic which was rendered incomprehensible to the devastating majority of the audience as a result of an insurmountable language barrier. The chasm between the two worlds created by the content as much as the language – the foreign speaker was much more advanced than the listeners in terms of intellectual baggage and neither party was trying to adapt to the other – generated perceptible noise and constant movement in the hall. This chaotic state visibly disturbed the speaker – a real diva but perhaps deservedly so- who finally turned towards us with the ferociousness of a wild cat and ordered us to choose between staying in the room, immovable like statues, or bravely leave at that very moment, never to return again. Until that very point, I really wanted to stay and keep listening despite the less-than-ideal conditions but as soon as staying became imperative (as to leave would have been a clear dismissal of someone who was at least prepared), I stayed but all I wanted to do was run as fast as I could.

Unfortunately, in the following remaining hour of the lecture, I heard nothing; I could only feel the rising room temperature as a result of the heating and our many stressed breaths, my vision became blurry, and I repeatedly imagined myself crawling on my hands and knees outside the room. During this moment, short concretely speaking but endless in a metaphysical sense, no one real was able to rescue me from my own hell. Fortunately, Dante emerged from the depths of his own hell to help me, much like the thought of Andromache relieves Baudelaire’s loneliness in his poem, The Swan. It may happen that in certain moments, one may feel closer to fictional heroes who are spatially and temporally removed but still closer than the people surrounding us.

More than relief, Dante’s help came in the form of a lesson which at least provided a meaning for my torments. While barely able to sit in the room, I started to become aware of the reason for my current punishment as I gradually thought of the episode I had just lived through before entering the lecture hall. While in a room, irritated by the incessant whispering of others, I insisted several times that they either stop it or leave the room. The ceaseless hum was driving me crazy and without trying to understand its cause I unleashed all my fury on the guilty party by humiliating her and then asking her to leave.

Then, at the height of my own discomfort I sympathetically thought of the person I had just publicly mistreated without considering what might have caused her to speak. The incomprehensible speaker did exactly the same thing to us; he did not consider that the fault for our lack of concentration might be partly his. Similarly, although the girl’s talking showed a lack of consideration for the others, my own bullheaded insistence on absolute silence created an atmosphere of palpable tension. And, stuck in the hall without escape, in no better position than the girl I berated, a co-sufferer of mine in the lecture hall, I imagined Francesca and Paolo in Dante’s second circle of hell, that of lust, caught in a whirlwind, tortured and assailed by the wind, a metaphor for the illegal passions which guided them in real life. “Karma is a bitch,” I thought, “a really quick one,” and forgetting myself and my troubles, finally distracted, I started to pay attention to my surroundings.

by Kleitia Vaso