Saturday, August 22, 2015

A Short Stay in Hell

A Short Stay in HellA Short Stay in Hell by Steven L. Peck
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Angst is not a mere intellectual exercise. Existentialism is not just a philosophical movement. Steven L. Peck's A Short Stay in Hell drives this into the heart of the reader like no other existentialist work.

I've been eyeball-deep in readings on existentialism lately (research for a novel and for my own despair edification), including William Barrett's outstanding Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy and Sartre's play No Exit, among others. But while I've enjoyed Barrett's study, it is just that, a study in existential philosophy. And Sartre's play seems just a touch contrived (I mean just a touch, too - it did not spoil the play).

But this . . . this little novella kicked my emotional depths right in the crotch. What could have been a work buried in academic gymnastics turns the rational boundaries by which one anesthetizes ones real self completely inside out. And it hurts. Oh, Ahura Mazda, it hurts! This is a novella which, if you have ever been in love and have then been involuntarily separated from the one you love, will tear your heart apart! If you are sensitive to the injustice of the world, your short stay in hell with Soren Johannson is going to be rather unpleasant.

This isn't your typical conception of Hell. Hell here is modeled after, or at least pays homage to, Borges' "Library of Babel". And unlike the Christian hell, from which there is no escape (without a guide's help, at least), there is a way out. You merely need to peruse the 7.16^1,297,369 light year wide and deep library and find the one book that contains the complete story of your life, from beginning to end. How long can it take, really? Really . . . wrap your brain around that number. This is the size of the library that contains the books through which you must look to find your escape from Hell. This might take a while.

The upside is that you live forever! And you can never die! Or, rather, you can die, but you always come back the next day. This is not without pain, however, and Johannson experiences pain in spades, especially when he finds himself (view spoiler).

But physical death, painful as it is, is nothing compared to the emotional pain of falling deeply in love and losing your lover (not that hard in a place as vast as this). You know that the one you love is there, somewhere, because they can't die, either. But, once lost, what hope do you have of finding that one person again, really?

"Anticipation is a gift. Perhaps there is none greater. Anticipation is born of hope. Indeed it is hopes finest expression. In hope's loss, however, is the greatest despair."

Taken out of context, this quote seems hyperbolic or even pithy. But in the context of the story, I can think of no more gut-wrenching, heart-twisting distillation of existentialism than this. It physically took my breath away when I read it. I gasped aloud and had to remind myself, for a split second, to breathe. It is that emotionally-charged, and a reminder of angst really feels like. A Short Stay in Hell won't give you the intellectual finesse of an examination such as Barrett's or the breadth of understanding that comes with a critical analysis of the philosophy and its history, but it will plunge you face-first down the heartbreaking abyss of what it means, what it feels like, to lose all hope.

Dante's Inferno (which I love, by the way, so don't take this as too derogatory) is a childrens' amusement park, in comparison. No need to abandon hope while entering Peck's Hell: It will be stripped from you whether you want it to be or not; just give it time. You've got all of eternity. Or, rather, all of eternity has you!

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