This Could Be Heaven or This Could Be Hell

by | Apr 13, 2012 | Uncategorized

Cruise Flikr image by Flavijus
Cruise Flikr image by Flavijus

Cruise Flikr image by Flavijus

What does hell look like?  For me, it’s a seven-night Caribbean cruise.

No fire, no brimstone, no wailing–just a paradisiacal seven-night Caribbean cruise.  David Foster Wallace planted my distaste for shipborne fun in the Caribbean sun in his essay A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.

I have seen sunsets that looked computer-enhanced [and] 500 upscale Americans dance the electric slide.  I have heard steel drums and eaten conch fritters and watched a woman in silver lamé projectile-vomit inside a glass elevator.  … I have smelled suntan lotion spread over 2,100 pounds of hot flesh.

For Wallace, what’s supposed to be paradise is really a ton of sweating flesh on a barge.  Indeed, what does he remember after returning from what’s promised to be a trip of relaxation and regeneration?  Vomit oozing down the side of a pane of glass.

And why is that how he remembers his cruise?   Because when someone promises you ultimate fulfillment, you can bet it’s a lie.  And believing lies make us despair.  Listen to Wallace as he discovers that believing the cruise will meet all of his desires condemns himself to hell:

For this–the promise to sate the part of me that always and only WANTS–is the central fantasy the [cruise] is selling. The thing to notice is that the real fantasy here isn’t that this promise will be kept but that such a promise is keepable at all. This is The Big One, this lie.

Yet, even knowing that it’s a lie, Wallace gets so sucked into this promise that he can say without irony, “The ship has Dr. Pepper but not Mr. Pibb; it’s an absolute [gosh-darn] travesty.”   Being stuck in this never-ending spiral of wants is, well, hellish.

Hell is believing that I can make myself happy just as soon as I have everything I want.  Hate to break the bad news, but there is only one thing that’ll give you ultimate fulfillment, and it sure as hell doesn’t involve a metric ton of sweaty flesh.


Perry Petrich, SJ   /   @ppetrich   /   All posts by Perry