It is a commonplace observation that it is much easier to imagine Hell than it is to imagine Heaven, but since this blog has no pretension of being anything other than commonplace, it is an observation I am happy to make.
There are a great many works that move from Hell to Heaven, from Inferno to Paradiso, from Dark to Light. And in each of these, how much more vivid in our imaginations is the Dark! Is there anyone, apart, perhaps, from the most devoted of Danteans, in whose mind images of Purgatorio or of Paradiso are as deeply imprinted as those of Inferno? Who in their right minds read of the Regaining of Paradise with the same relish with which they read of its Loss? And even after we have witnessed the triumphant torchlit parade through the civic streets of Athens, is it not the prophetic terror of Cassandra before the House of Atreus that weighs more powerfully on our consciousness? Even when we have made the journey from Hell into Heaven; even when Paradise is Regained; even when we have journeyed from the Dark into the Light; it is still the Dark that continues to oppress the imagination.
Quite frequently, the glimpses we are given of Paradise are just that – glimpses. Mozart allows us to glimpse Paradise towards the end of Le Nozze di Figaro, but it lasts only a few minutes: we know that after the final curtain falls, the Count will return to his usual ways, the Countess will continue to be unhappy, and Susanna and Figaro must continue to fight to protect the sanctity of their marriage. The Heaven we had glimpsed – brought about, incidentally, by human forgiveness, not divine – is but an image of what might be, but isn’t. Shakespeare’s images of Heaven are also compromised: present mirth only hath present laughter, and what’s to come is still very much unsure. Even when, at the end of The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare presents us with an image of the Resurrection itself, what joy there is is subdued. Not much is said, and this very reticence is telling: Perdita is restored, as is Hermione, but Mamilius isn’t; and there can be no compensation for the lost years, for all the grief of separation and the anguish of guilt. No triumphant torchlit parade here: even the Resurrection cannot restore all that has been lost.
The only convincing image of an eternal and triumphant Heaven that I can think of, off the top of my head, is van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, and, apart from the Christian image of the bleeding Lamb at the centre, it is a Heaven conceived in very
earthly terms. The angels’ music-making is not ethereal and effortless: rather, they strain to sing and to play their instruments, much as their earthly counterparts do; the love with which the blades of grass and the leaves are painted bespeak an attachment to the here-and-now rather than a yearning for anything beyond; and it is an earthly light rather than a heavenly in which the gemstones gleam. It is still a matter of scholarly debate how much of this altarpiece was the work of Jan van Eyck, and how much should be credited to his brother Hubert, but whomever we credit, this is Heaven as imagined by artists who were so much in love with this life, that they could not imagine the next one in any other terms.
My own picture of Heaven, not surprisingly, lacks the visionary gleam of the van Eycks, but it too is in earthly terms. I see myself seated comfortably in an armchair before a roaring log fire, a glass of malt whisky in my hand, a volume of the Sherlock Holmes stories open on my knee; once in a while I doze off, as Heaven surely does not impose the tyranny of constant wakefulness; and at other times, good friends appear to share my fireside
and my whisky, filling the air with the warmth of convivial conversation. Outside, I imagine, would be a forest; snow would be falling, and the white ground would be sparkling in the moonlight. Why does that strike me as the very image of Heaven, I wonder? I don’t really need to search too far for the answer: shallow and trivial that I am, my idea of Eternal Bliss is nothing other than Badger’s fireside in The Wind in the Willows. I remember reading that as a child, and thinking how fine it would be to be Ratty and Mole, lost in the blizzard in the Wild Woods, and finding shelter and warmth in Badger’s house And even as a fully grown adult, it strikes me as a convincing image of Heaven – as convincing, at least, as any other I can think of. But could I stand that for all Eternity? Could I stand anything for all Eternity?
We are promised in the Epistle to the Corinthians that we shall be changed, and surely the first change required for us to enjoy Heaven for Eternity must be the removal, by surgical operation or otherwise, of that part of us that makes us bored. Indeed, that single operation may be the sole difference between Heaven and Hell, for the Hell in which we are forced to endure for all Eternity even that which we love, where we cannot even harbour an image in our minds of anything that might conceivably be better, is, it seems to me, more horrific than anything even in Dante’s infernal circles.
And this possibly is why we find Heaven so difficult to imagine; this is why we find the idea so impossible to respond to. For the changes required to enjoy Eternal Bliss are such that we cannot possibly be the same persons afterwards. The Romantics urged us to strive – to discover our humanity, no less, in the very act of striving; but this act of striving implies that which is desired, but which is not present. Heaven, however, cannot be characterised in such terms: in Heaven, all that is desired is, by definition, eternally present. How then can our selves, which find meaning, and, indeed, self-definition, in the act of striving itself, feel at home in Heaven? Even with our capacity for boredom surgically removed, we must surely find ourselves alienated from such a place. Perhaps this is what T. S. Eliot had meant when he said “Teach us to be still.” But then again, who knows what the old boy had meant? His poetry, like the peace of God, passeth all understanding.
However much we may long for Eternal Bliss, the very idea is, it seems, alien to our sensibilities: even Badger’s cosy fireside can but be enjoyed for a while only. But Hell – now, there our imaginations run wild. I’ll refrain from listing all the examples that come all to readily to mind: readers can, I am sure, come up quite easily with their own – from the various Hells depicted by Dante or Bosch or Goya, to the hells that Shakespeare’s tragic protagonists damn themselves to even while alive, right down to the images of unspeakable horrors, real horrors, that, from around the world, are emerging on our very laptops, even in these civilized times of ours. Perhaps because we find it so much easier to imagine Hell than to imagine Heaven, we seem to find it easier also to create Hell. Even as we set out to create Heaven, we create Hell. For we don’t have the first idea, after all, what Heaven is: Hell, however, we don’t even need to stretch our imaginations to picture. It may well be that I am now more aware, or more sensitive, to certain things than I had been before, but I do get the impression, rightly or wrongly, that the times I am living in now are darker than any other time I think I have lived in. I can no longer read of Universal Darkness burying all and study Pope’s imagery with a scholarly detachment. I cannot, even in my imagination, find shelter from the blizzard by Badger’s fireside, as I used to do consciously as a child, and less consciously as an adult. Heaven has never seemed quite so far away, or less capable of being imagined. Possibly Shakespeare’s vision of a sorrowful and subdued quiet is the best we can hope for. If we’re lucky.
Reading through what I have written so far, I see that this post has taken a more serious turn than I had intended. I am, after all, on holiday now, and thought I would while away a few idle hours by writing a whimsical and fanciful post, but the tone has become so serious that I cannot very easily turn it back again. But, while we wait for Universal Darkness to bury all, let me at least invite all of you – metaphorically at least, since my stock of whisky will not stretch so far – to join me at my fireside for a convivial tipple.
Your very good health!