Quarterly essay ✿ Going to hell (and back) in a handbasket…

Tracey Clement

11 March 2019

Tracey Clement’s hands holding her A Year of Time – 827:24810 basket by Bridget Kennedy, photo Bridget Kennedy.

I’ve always liked the phrase ‘going to hell in a handbasket’ without, until now, giving its subtleties much thought.

I mean, what is a handbasket? Google’s online dictionary offers “a small basket carried in the hand,” a neat piece of tautology. Regardless of how you define one, handbaskets are certainly not a common accessory these days. The use of this archaic bit of kit points to the distant origins of this aphorism, which, depending on who you ask and which version you cite, can be dated to the early seventeenth century.

Going to hell in a handbasket seems to be a catchier, Americanised version of going to hell in a handcart or wheelbarrow. Leaving aside any religious implications, what I like about this image (in both versions) is the sheer labour involved; the determination, the monumental effort needed to reach an undesirable destination. Surely there are easier ways of getting somewhere you don’t want to go than pushing a handcart or lugging a basket down the no doubt long and winding, rutted and boggy highway to hell. Even more importantly, this phrase points to our complicity in our own damnation, for it seems to me that we are not being schlepped to hell the hard way in a basket carried by someone else: the burden we must bear is ourselves. And it is the language of craft and its inherent agency that reinforces this interpretation.

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