I am currently reading a book by Bill Bryson called Notes from a Small Island. It’s a book he wrote about England back in 1994. So long ago that he could include references about meeting Princess Diana on this one road in London that only royalty can drive on, the commoners are allowed walking rights but that’s it. It’s so long ago that a meeting with that particular princess isn’t tinged with sadness and nostalgia and pain at the death of youth but happiness at a stunning smile and the admission that charm can excuse us all for wastefulness(apparently she spent a shitload of money on clothes.) this was so long ago that there was a mention of i-max theatres, ok those seem recent but they aren’t, there have been i-max theatres for decades apparently but those days they showed such boring documentaries as space, our destiny. Which I’m sure was about the eventual destiny of men in the stars but from his description seems like its highlight was the drying of the paint on Apollo 11.
I love reading his travelogues. They are quite simply hilarious. Also you learn a lot. He’s not what you would call a lazy traveller, he will read up on the places he wants to go to and imbue his writing with research about all these people who lived there, people who did all these foolish things before he walked down those paths. It’s a great way to travel, with him as your companion, ten laughs a minute and as much information as obscure-Wikipedia which would be an interesting encyclopaedia to visit, full of links to all these barely known but nevertheless true facts.
Currently I’m on a passage where he visits a town called Saltaite. It was built from the ground up by an industrialist called Saltaite who, “was one of that unattractive brand of tee-totalling, self-righteous, God-fearing industrialists in which the nineteenth century seemed to specialise-a man who didn’t want to merely employ his workers but to own them.” He ruled the town with the kind of rules that allowed no one to have more fun than him: no drinking, strict rules on smoking, playing games, and noise in the park. He wouldn’t allow people out on the lake if there were already four boats on it. On the plus side he was socially enlightened. He made sure that they had good houses to live in, well furnished with all the modern amenities, “ from bleak and grimy back-to-backs Salt’s workers came to airy spacious cottages, each with a yard, private gas supply and at least two bedrooms. It must have seemed a very Eden.”
And this got me thinking about the nature of paradise. Of heaven and Eden and the different interpretations of them we have in the two big world religions: Christianity and Islam. The Christian heaven is described as this place where all the souls gather in communion with God. For eternity they worship and praise his name until… well when eternity enters the picture the word until is the first one dropped from human vocabulary. You have to respect a religion that promises you this as a reward for believing. But, from a cursory read of the bible you have to respect Christianity. This is a religion that tells people the truth about who they are worshipping, variously calling the Israelites the chosen people and the 144, 400 who have a special place in the heart of God. Calling everyone else in effect second class citizens of heaven, second thoughts of God created in order to bring back the children he really loves back to him or at the very least to make them jealous of all they are losing out on. The Old Testament reads like the diary of a conqueror, at the beginning plagues happen, wars are fought, the sun doesn’t go down until Jacob’s children spill enough blood, an atom bomb is dropped on the city of Jericho because they wouldn’t just give up their land. Despite all this the tone changes dramatically as we read on.
The conquerors become the conquered and the long, long history of anti-Semitism begins with slavery and forced deportation. They refuse to listen to the prophets sent their way and finally we find ourselves in a book filled with all the epithets of love that we consider a part of religion nowadays. Peace is preached and we are asked to turn the other cheek. We are called to a life of such ascetism that an exception is put there to make us feel better that we can never measure up to the standards asked of us, “we all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Forgiveness is promised on every corner just as long as we confess and our reward for stopping ourselves from doing all the things we want to, or at least having the decency to feel guilty about it and offering up our guilt? More of the same. We get to pray, praise and worship until….Those are guts.
The Islamic heaven sounds like much more fun. I read up on it and everyone is the same age. You have your appetites for the things you loved in life and you get to eat food that has a different highly exquisite taste for up to forty years. You spend your days reminiscing on days past with your family, friends and lovers. Every wish you have is fulfilled. It is true though that nearness to Allah counts for so much more than any of the material things you are provided with, the happiness you derive from being near the source of love and life is more than anything you can imagine and thus wish for. The best part of the Islamic heaven is the part that most closely resembles the Christian heaven. A place of eternal worship and praise, a place where you are close to your creator and doing what you were created to do, finally at peace in your soul because you know, every fibre of your being knows, that what you are doing is what you should do.
Admittedly that sounds, to me, more awesome than I had intended it to be. I would like to be at peace. I would like to leave behind the nagging doubts that accompany every action I take; I would like to know things instead of just believe them. Even science which puts knowledge up on this pedestal only has laws until they are disproven, it is the constant reckoning of follies and if we live long enough we may just find out that Newton’s laws really don’t matter.
But then I love being human. I love my indecision at times, I love the way I am never sure what’s going to happen or if the path I took was the wrong one. Ok, maybe not love but it’s all I know. All the beauty in the world is shot through with ambiguity; it comes from a place of pain or is created in order to deal with sorrow. We only notice the rainbow because the rain soaked us through to the bones and I can’t imagine not having something shake me out of taking things for granted. If we had been left in the Garden of Eden, if we had spent out entire lives in paradise there would have been no art. There would have been no great books or amazing songs, there would have been no movies that show us how it feels to be someone else, there would have been no Bible, no Quran, no Talmud, no Gita. We wouldn’t have needed all these things. In a Garden of Eden we would never have felt the sweet pleasure of being drunk, never have known the sweet pain of having lost a love. All our lives would have been the rainbow with no rain. The pleasures with no pain. The happiness with none of the work needed to get there.
I have no idea how having lived in paradise could have been because there would be no need for empathy there. None of the skills that arise from empathy would have been born in such a place; none of the talents needed to transport human beings into each other’s hearts would have been sharpened. There would be no beautiful statue; there would be no haunting painting. There wouldn’t even be nostalgia which has been described (by Don Draper another man whose skills would have been completely out of use in paradise) as the pain from an old wound. Because, no old wounds. No roads not taken, no need to exercise the imagination. In actual fact the only thing that would bring out any curiosity at all would be this tree whose fruit we couldn’t partake of. It was the only thing that Adam and Eve saw that could bring uncertainty to their lives, the only thing that could make them feel alive. We blame them for it all the time but who amongst us would have been able to resist a prize like that. Who would turn down a life?