No Joy In Mudville: Eternal Estrangement and The Abominable Fancy

“The [Abominable Fancy], coined by the 19th-century cleric and writer, Frederick Farrar, refers to a long-standing Christian idea that witnessing the sufferings of the doomed intensified the bliss of the saved. Farrar himself was a believer in universal reconciliation, a position he defended at length in Eternal Hope (1879) and Mercy and Judgment (1881). In his 1963 book The Decline of Hell, D. P. Walker remarks that the idea of eternal punishment in hell (a tradition ‘almost unchallenged’ until the 17th century) was often accompanied by the idea that ‘part of the happiness of the blessed consists in contemplating the torments of the damned.’”

—Patrick J. Keane, A Good Time Was Had By Some: On Assigning & Relishing the Eternal Punishment of Others

“But there are yet other spectacles to come—that day of the Last Judgment with its everlasting issues, unlooked for by the heathen, the object of their derision, when the hoary age of the world and all its generations will be consumed in one file.

What a panorama of spectacle on that day! Which sight shall excite my wonder? Which my laughter? Where shall I rejoice, where exult—as I see so many and so mighty kings, whose ascent to heaven used to be made known by public announcement, now groaning in the depths of darkness? …Then will the tragic actors be worth hearing, more vocal in their own catastrophe; then the comic actors will be worth watching, more lithe of limb in the fire; then the charioteer will be worth seeing, red all over on his fiery wheel; then the athletes will be worth observing, not in their gymnasiums, but thrown about by fire—unless I might not wish to look at them even then but would prefer to turn an insatiable gaze on those who vented their rage on the Lord.”

—Tertullian, On the Spectacles

Question 94. The relations of the saints towards the damned.

  1. Do the saints see the sufferings of the damned?

  2. Do they pity them?

  3. Do they rejoice in their sufferings?

…Nothing should be denied the blessed that belongs to the perfection of their beatitude. In order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned….”

—Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae

“Since the 12th century, there has been in Christian moral theology a notion of taking pleasure in “expectantly waiting in the desire for an object that remains absent because it is inaccessible or prohibited” (Dictionary of Untranslatables, 792). It is not a delay of pleasure, but rather of pleasure in the delay of satisfied desire, that is enjoyed by and in the imagination. In other words, it is the pleasure that one derives from desiring, and it is this pleasure-in-desiring that affirms that there is pleasure inherent in desire itself...

It is important to underline that this ‘morose delectation’ is not the postponement or infinite deferral of pleasure, nor is it entirely divorced from desire. Rather, it is the pleasure that is enjoyed in the very relation to desire. Neither the negation nor the positive presence of the object of desire, delectatio morosa is what we might describe as a neutral yet wholly pleasurable relation to desire.”

—John Paul Ricco, Unbecoming Community

“The sneer is gone from Casey’s lip, his teeth are clenched in hate,
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate;
And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey’s blow.

Oh, somewhere in this favoured land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout,
But there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has struck out.”

—Ernest Lawrence Thayer, Casey at the Bat

Earlier this week I was asked about family estrangement during the Q&A portion of a reading I was giving. I often have less to say on the subject than I might have guessed! Mostly, I think, I have been surprised and gratified to find that — much like transition — it works, by which I mean it is generally effective, achievable, the engine of real and measurable growth, facilitator of new kinds of previously-unimaginable possibilities, available, a source of pleasure, etc. This is not to say either estrangement or transition are automatically or universally possessed of these qualities in equal measure, of course, merely that the type of mental energy required to persuade oneself that either is impossible (if not for everyone, then at least certainly for oneself) is a great deal more taxing than the type of mental energy required to relinquish denial and abnegation.

I have little interest in ethically litigating the Abominable Fancy (which may resonate in many Christian subgenres, but which is hardly mainstream orthodoxy in the same way as, say, the Trinity) as evidence of anything like Christianity’s unique defects. Rather I take it to be one attempt to conceive of an eternal, non-interactive relationship, an imaginative alternative to annihilationism. If two formerly-connected parties are permanently sundered:

  1. so universally that all persons must join one party or the other without any hope of compromise or third option,

  2. and so drastically that where one exists the other cannot approach,

  3. and so irrevocably that the possibility of new knowledge, new relation, or even a change in sentiment is foreclosed-upon,

then how does one solve for the remaining connection? (Show your work.) The illustration of Dives and Lazarus in Luke 16 poses a number of curious snags on a supposedly-clear rift:

There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.

Then he cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.’

(What a lovely, sick little detail in “Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores”!) Here Dives in Hades is given a clear view into paradise, and more than a clear view, a direct line to Abraham himself, though whether Abraham is speaking on behalf of God or merely in his capacity of ancestor-founder remains uncertain. (Might Dives go over his head in hopes of receiving a different answer from upper management?) Whether Lazarus sees or hears anything of their interaction is equally ambiguous. He speaks as little in the afterlife as he did during his life on earth, and no record is made of what he hears or sees. He has once again failed to pay to play. Dives in Hell is more active than Lazarus in Paradise; the gulf is not too wide to shout across, nor to see the other side of, but Dives can only ask, seek, knock, in a partial fulfillment of Matthew 7:7 — nothing is given, nothing found, and nothing opened. Estrangement here is inert, one-sided, and inanimate. Whatever occurred in life can be either replicated or reversed, but not transformed (see ‘Us and A Little Bit of Hell’).

But Abraham’s own assurance that the gulf cannot be crossed raises new doubts, introducing as he does the idea of not only those who “want to pass [to] us” but “those who want to pass from here to you.” Whether those ensconced in Abraham’s bosom might wish to cross to Hades as tourists, as assassins, for the purpose of gloating or to experience novelty, to sharpen their own pleasure with the palate-cleanser of comfortably-removed suffering remains unclear, as does just how many of the bosom-nestled might wish to wander, given their druthers.

The Abominable Fancy, as I experience it in the context of my own permanent family estrangement, is a series of imaginative muscle spasms brought on from a combination of overexertion and underuse. The closures of those relationships have been thoroughly cauterized. But it is only personal future interaction that has been severed, not the shared past, not the rupture itself, not the divergent and independent futures, not the open questions of what might have happened differently had I been granted certain knowledge(s) sooner. I cannot affect further change, either directly or indirectly, either forwards or backwards in time. I can gnaw on my own memories, and I can envision possible futures, and I can seek external, unconnected forms of peace, but the only form of causation still available to me is purely imaginative. And any suffering they might or might not experience is purely theoretical; nor can they verify any suffering of mine, from where they are in relation to me. Is a future where I relentlessly imagine punishments — spiritual or corporal, roughly proportionate or cartoonishly lopsided — a future with much freedom in it?

If Heaven must overlook Hell, it must develop some sort of imaginative relationship to its neighbor, or else close its eyes entirely; the abominable fancy might not be a frivolous or spontaneous function of beatific cruelty but simply an inevitable result of proximity without personal power to effect change, like watching someone cut you off in traffic, then speeding up and disappearing.