Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Tropical Paradise?

Paradise has come down to us across the millennia in many guises, with varied topographies. However clumsy or deliberately vague or downright silly, every religion has its own version of Paradise.* While the torments of hell have never been very hard for people to imagine** - being merely an expansion of the torments of life - Paradise has been cast almost invariably in the form of earthly pleasures: feasting, drinking and fornicating. Whatever its particular location or the nature and number of the pleasures to be enjoyed thereabouts, one aspect that all these paradises share is that there shall be no variation and that all the sensual pleasures shall continue without end.

This is precisely at which all descriptions of paradise fail to engage the imagination - let alone the libido. And not simply because eternity can only be grasped in the abstract. One of the peculiarities of human imagination is its inability to represent perfect happiness except in terms of contrast - in other words as a condition that is a temporary respite from suffering, if not exactly a reward for it. Leisure has value only in contrast with labor, plenty with want, feast with famine, etc. If one looks at some of the more specific descriptions of paradise, the Muslim one, for instance, with its promise of 77 virgins, it only makes sense if one is living in a culture in which women are largely invisible and untouchable.

Perhaps to its credit, the Christian paradise is so preposterous as to be completely unbelievable. Why is it that some of the most primitive visions of paradise are so much more attractive? This was summed up in a brief exchange between Daniel and Father Laforge in that splendid film Black Robe:

Daniel: They (the Algonquins) believe that in the forest at night the dead can see. The souls of men hunt the souls of animals.
Laforge: It is childish, Daniel.
Daniel: Is it harder to believe in than a paradise where we all sit on clouds and look at God?

The very concept of an earthly paradise is a political - and a heretical - one, born not only with the French Revolution but with the discovery, in 1768, by a French ship no less, of an island in the South Pacific called Tahiti. A society in which the fruits of the earth and the sea were so plentiful as to make labor unnecessary, in which "marriage" was exogamic and non-binding, and in which a pleasant - though constant - climate made clothing optional must surely have seemed like heaven on earth to 18th-century Europeans, particularly ones who had spent several months at sea. But, of course, it only took a few decades for Christian missionaries to utterly spoil Tahiti forever - their revenge for the presumption of realizing a paradise without God.

But having lived in one for a year, without the advantage, I confess, of nude Tahitian girls, a tropical paradise leaves much to be desired. Just now, the never-ending heat (a characteristic of the other final destination) is relieved by daily rainfall. But the dry season, which locals regard as their summer, is only a few months away. The very constancy of the heat is enough to disqualify the tropics from any such status as paradise. And for all the expats who were so quick to assure me that after several months of living here I should become acclimated to the point where I wouldn't sweat so much, I have some bad news: unless you have had your sweat glands surgically removed, your body and mine responds to the heat the same way it always did. The only thing that has changed after several months of sweating is that by now we've grown accustomed to it and now we aren't so annoyed by the runnels of sweat behind our knees or having our shirts permanently glued to our backs.

It is now late autumn in what's known as the Norther Temperate Zone, where the hardwood trees like oaks, birches and maples have already shed their leaves, and the days are perceptibly shorter. In Alaska, where I came from, it has been snowing already for a month. From now until March the temperatures will rarely rise above freezing. And it is a measure of how ultimately enervating the climate in the tropics can be that I miss the snow and the darkness almost like I miss my youth. It is too bad that I can't retrieve my youth as easily with a one-way plane ticket.

* Hinduism and Buddhism have simply replaced paradise with transmigration: a return trip to another life.
** Tertullian explained that one of the pastimes in heaven is watching the torments of the damned.

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