Saturday, March 18, 2006


Hellish Noise

Most people, I suppose, have their own mental picture of hell. To me, being confined to a crowded, smoky bar and being forced to listen to loud rock 'n roll music for all eternity would be a terrible punishment. Yet many people voluntarily spend lots of their free time on earth doing just that. Suum cuique.

The first thing that Dante notices when he enters the gates of hell is the noise (Inferno 3.22-30, tr. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow):
There sighs, complaints, and ululations loud
  Resounded through the air without a star,
  Whence I, at the beginning, wept thereat.
Languages diverse, horrible dialects,
  Accents of anger, words of agony,
  And voices high and hoarse, with sound of hands,
Made up a tumult that goes whirling on
  For ever in that air for ever black,
  Even as the sand doth, when the whirlwind breathes.

Quivi sospiri, pianti e alti guai
risonavan per l'aere sanza stelle,
per ch'io al cominciar ne lagrimai.
Diverse lingue, orribili favelle,
parole di dolore, accenti d'ira,
voci alte e fioche, e suon di man con elle
facevano un tumulto, il qual s'aggira
sempre in quell'aura sanza tempo tinta,
come la rena quando turbo spira.
Charles Singleton explains "sound of hands" thus: "The damned smite themselves and each other with their hands."

On a reconnoitering expedition to the gates of hell, this is what the angel Raphael and his mates encountered (Milton, Paradise Lost 8.240-244):
                       Fast we found, fast shut,
The dismal gates, and barricadoed strong;
But long ere our approaching heard within
Noise, other than the sound of dance or song,
Torment, and loud lament, and furious rage.
After he successfully tempted Adam and Eve to disobedience, Satan returned to hell to report to his fellow demons. He expected applause after his speech, but instead heard "a dismal universal hiss, the sound / of public scorn" (PL 10.508-509) and realized that he and his followers had been temporarily turned into serpents: "dreadful was the din / of hissing through the hall." (PL 10.521-522).

Milton coined the word "Pandemonium" to mean "the high capitol / of Satan and his peers" (PL 1.756-757). Its meaning soon shifted from that particular noisy place to any noisy place, and is now used of noise pure and simple. The etymology of this word is an apt reminder of the hellish, diabolical nature of noise.

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