The Auditory Configuration of Hell
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Nearly seven years ago, we took a brief art historical look at the "landscape architecture of Hell," quoting critic Adrian Searle's description of the medieval abyss:
Terraced, pinnacled, travelling forever downward, the ledges, cities and basements of hell are furnished with sloughs, gorges and deserts; there are cities, rivers of boiling blood, lagoons of scalding pitch, burning deserts, thorny forests, ditches of shit and frozen subterranean lakes. Every kind of sin, and sinner, is catered for. Here, descending circle by circle, like tourists to Bedlam, came Dante and Virgil. Following them, at least through Dante's poem, came Botticelli.In a recent issue of The Wire, writer and composer David Toop, in a short article about the various cultural uses of bass, comes to this topic from a different angle, asking what the netherworld of the damned might sound like.
He calls this, citing the Aeneid and Paradise Lost both, the "auditory configuration of Hell": "The auditory configuration of Hell is an opposition of low homogeneous moan and confused Babel, of deep tones and threnodic shrieks, as if combining the outer extremes of human perception is the most authentic expression of damnation." There is acoustic "distress," Toop writes, somewhere "between roaring water and the tumult of the wandering helpless unburied," where dogs howl and angels whirling to their doom are deafened by "the bellowing of the Earth itself."
Toop refers to the recent work of Hillel Schwartz, who has pointed out, in Toop's words, that "Hell was largely silent until Virgil"—a place of total silence—not the pandemonium of noise it seems in popular imagination to have since become.
So let's hear it for a much longer paper cataloging the shifting sounds of Hell—an interesting thesis topic for an comparative literature department somewhere, at the very least.