Peggy Hazen teaches a hell of a course.
Actually, Hazen teaches a course about literary visions of eternal damnation called "To Hell With Literature."
Hazen's impishly titled course is one of more than 150 to be offered this fall by the Adult School of the Beverly Hills Unified School District.
Unlike the sessions on caring for kiwi fruit and learning to love being single again, Hazen's course is for people willing to invest their time and energy in passionate discussion of such things as the differences between Dante's "Inferno" and Jean-Paul Sartre's "No Exit."
Decade of Teaching
The course is the 22nd Hazen has taught over a decade for the Beverly Hills extension program, which is open to residents and non-residents.
In recent years such Hazen courses as "Shakespeare and Soap Opera" and "Gourmet Reading" have attracted capacity crowds. Eighty people have already signed up for "To Hell With Literature," which will meet every other Tuesday for five sessions, beginning Sept. 15.
"We don't even have chairs for 80 people!" an adult school official said.
Hazen said that she always tries to forewarn those who register that they won't be reading best-sellers.
"There's nothing wrong with reading that kind of stuff, but you don't have to talk about it," said Hazen, a resident of Pacific Palisades.
Instead of assigning unchallenging Jacuzzi books, Hazen almost always selects classic works that become more intelligible after analysis and discussion.
"There is reading you do for a quick snack, and then there is reading that gives you emotional and intellectual nutrition." She said she tries to stick to the latter.
The reading list for the fall course includes Shakespeare's "Macbeth" (because "he creates his own hell within"). The "Don Juan in Hell" section of George Bernard Shaw's "Man and Superman" is on the list for comic relief. Hazen also plans to discuss the vivid depiction of damnation in James Joyce's "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man."
Neither belief nor disbelief in an afterlife is a prerequisite for the course, she said. "This is literature. This isn't theology."
Hazen, who has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Illinois, thinks that writing about hell is a bit like writing science fiction. Because the writer does not actually know anything about it, he is able to fantasize, dealing imaginatively with such basic human concerns as the nature of good and evil.
Hazen said that one of her greatest pleasures is seeing appreciation of a classic work emerge in the course of class discussion.
"Great literature, whether it's exciting or dull on first reading, won't go away," she said. "It keeps echoing and reverberating. It keeps happening."