On Heaven and Hell, and a few other matters

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

Detail from the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan and Hubert van Eyck, in the Cathedral of St Bavo, Ghent

Detail from the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan and Hubert van Eyck, in the Cathedral of St Bavo, Ghent

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

Detail from the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan and Hubert van Eyck, in the Cathedral of St Bavo, Ghent

Detail from the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan and Hubert van Eyck, in the Cathedral of St Bavo, Ghent

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!

whisky-dram

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13 responses to this post.

  1. You, like me, are getting older and not liking what you see the world is coming to. Since I am farther along (toward heaven or hell) than you, let me reassure you. Our concerns don’t become less, but we learn to live with them when we realize that the time for us to change things is past and we must now leave it to others. I don’t like the world my children and grandchildren will have to deal with when I am gone. It seems to me much darker than the one I knew at their ages, but that may be me. They probably don’t see it that way. It is what they know, whether dark or light, and they must figure out how to live in it.

    And yes, heaven strikes me as boring. Blissful is good, but it is not a long term state. I prefer the economy of the transmigration of souls. Why waste a perfectly good soul when you can recycle it?

    Reply

    • Hello Nancy,
      Sadly, what may (or may not) happen in the hereafter is in no way related to our personal preferences! We’ll just have to wait and find out, I guess!

      As for the state of the world, it is difficult arguing against the contention “‘Twas ever thus”. No doubt the instant transmission of news and images via the internet colours our perceptions: I did not, after all, see the pictures of the Khmer Rouge atrocities when they were taking place in the 1970s.

      Another difference is that in my younger days, I could still believe in the concept of a moral progress in humanity; but when, after all that mankind has been through, after all the elevated thoughts, after all the enlightenment, I still find myself assailed with images of sex slavery, beheadings, crucifixions, burning alive, and so on, I find myself thinking, rightly or wrongly, that we humans will never be able to rid ourselves of such grotesaue evil, and that the very concept of moral progress had been a delusion. Maybe I am wrong: certainly, Stephen Pinker, in his latest book, thinks there is evidence that, despite everything, human beings are less violent and less irrational than they sed to be. Let us hope so. Life seems almost too depressing to live otherwise.

      Best wishes, Himadri

      Reply

  2. Posted by David Cooke on July 25, 2015 at 4:25 pm

    Many theologians would say that Eternity is intended as quality, not quantity. Endlessness may run in parallel. Perhaps artists imagine Hell more easily than Heaven because they recognise it – while happiness – or bliss, which we hope for in Heaven, is lost the moment it is examined, like sand between our fingers.

    If Tolstoy is correct,we can identify and relate to the differences of unhappiness, while overlooking the sameness of happiness.

    I blame Milton, for his sublime poetry promulgates an execrable puritan theology! How heroic is Satan! How praiseworthy his determination to continue the struggle! And what of others, who brought the pagan Nordic/Germanic Hel into English- speaking thought and praxis…

    Somehow we long ago went astray from the pre-medieval concepts of a new heaven and earth, and our place in them.

    Perhaps Hell is easier to recognise than Heaven on earth, because we are diligently involved in building it, a sardonic thought from someone else who is getting older. Now where is that whisky?

    Reply

    • Hello David,
      We do indeed seem diligently to be building various types of Hell here on earth. Whether that is the cause of our greater ability to imagine Hell rather than Heaven; or a consequence of it; or whether the two merely feed into each other in an ever descending spiral; I really wouldn’t like to speculate.

      I used to be a great fan of Milton, but it’s been a long time since I picked up his works. Milton’s world is a God-centred world, rather than a Man-entred: the Word of God is paramount. In one of his greatest works, Samson Agonistes, the protagonist, Samson, is effectively a suicide terrorist, killing both himself and many others indiscriminately; and he does so because this is the Will of God. Of course, Milton, being an intelligent man, questions; but the consequence of his questioning seems to be unconditonal submission to the Will of God, whatever that is. He remains a supremely great poet, but I must admit that I find what I see as his anti-humanist outlook increasingly difficult to take. But maybe that’s for another blog post!

      I think I need that whisky as well now!
      Cheers, Himadri

      Reply

  3. Posted by kaggsysbookishramblings on July 25, 2015 at 4:35 pm

    Definitely – this is why happy endings are dull, and we never quite like the idea of things being resolved as that means boring normality. Art suffers this particularly – off the top of my head, I always feel that The Master and Margarita struggles because once they’ve experienced the magic of Woland’s world, how can they copy with a dull eternity of bliss? Forgetting is essential…..

    Reply

    • The Master and Margarita is a work I don’t think I quite understood. I found myself fascinated, but it seemed to be going above my head. Certainly one to re-read.

      If there is indeed a Heaven, and if we are to enjoy it, we need certainly to be very radically changed from what we currently are. I’m afraid my imagination is too This-Wordly even to contemplate such changes!

      All the best, Himadri

      Reply

      • Posted by kaggsysbookishramblings on July 28, 2015 at 6:21 pm

        I thin M&M definitely needs more than one read – I didn’t pick up the analogies between the Russian experience and that of the Jesus character first time round!

  4. Thinking of heaven as boring only shows our own fallen nature. I believe what the Bible promises in Revelation 21:4: every tear will be wiped away and there will be no more mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore. It says that the heavens and earth declare God’s glory so we do get glimpses, from nature, but mostly through those we love. Do we not love them endlessly? How much more so in heaven?

    These assertions fill believers with great hope. I mean, what exactly got Sartre or Camus out of bed each morning? What did they have to look forward to?

    As for recycling of souls? Who wants to relive fallen humanity more than once?

    Reply

    • Hello Sharon, I was trying to focus in my post not so much on Heaven itself, but on the difficulty we seem to have in imagining Heaven, and the comparative ease with which we can imagine, and for that matter create, Hell. As you say, this is no doubt due to our fallen nature, whether or not we take the story of the Fall literally or metaphorically.

      I agree with you that I wouldn’t fancy being reincarnated either!

      Best wishes, Himadri

      Reply

  5. Posted by Janet Long on July 25, 2015 at 7:41 pm

    Probably it boils down to the devil you know. If we imagine heaven and hell as static places, where there is merely suffering in one and the absence of suffering in the other, people tend to relate better and feel more comfortable with the familiar state–suffering. It is interesting that in Dante’s Hell, the damned simply go through the same motions for eternity–chewing on heads, and being chewed, and so forth–and yet we perceive their continued existence as dynamic somehow. At least it is a state of active resistance. In Purgatorio, there is quite a lot of activity and upward mobility for all, but it can also be seen as that very process of erasure that you find off-putting. Heaven, to any but a devout person for whom Heaven has a purpose, is an alien environment. For religious people who go to be with God, it isn’t a place of perpetual inertia where all you do is stand around not wiping tears away and waiting for something interesting to happen. But for people in the main, there just doesn’t seem be anything fun on the agenda. For many people, Limbo would be the ideal afterlife–hanging out with people like yourself, chatting and taking walks and not having your head gnawed on–except that you can’t really get out and DO anything.

    People used to be surrounded by death and disease and hunger–such an extraordinary level of suffering. And even the stuff that wasn’t outright suffering was still hard. All the afterlife had to do was offer rest. The presence of God was benign. It was enough to imagine being with one’s multitudinous dead loved ones and singing your heart out, knowing you were never going to have to heft another ax or birth another baby. As earthly existence has gotten more pleasant and long, we are maybe a bit sated and would prefer a heaven without God, who always sucks the air out of the room anyway. To understand the anguish of hell is human at a primal level. To understand the appeal of Milton’s or Dante’s Heaven, I think you really have to understand the appeal of God, and that is a religious question.

    But I’ll attempt to counter your gloomy musings with a reminder that, however potent the forces of darkness may seem at the moment, things have been much, much worse–so tough that in drafting an Eternal Bliss, the notion of boredom didn’t even come into it. You are blessed with penicillin and whiskey and an internalized fireside bliss. Enjoy your vacation and find delight in the fact that those things that make for dark times are considered appalling and even someway stoppable, rather than inevitable and a burden to be borne without complaint.

    Reply

    • Hello Janet,
      Indeed, I am blessed with penicillin and whisky and the fireside warmth and all the rest of it. nd by any measurement – mean, median or mode of any metric you may think of – life has got better. But in the lower centiles, life, I fear, is as hellish as ever. Who would have thought that in our modern age we should see the return of sex-slavery and crucifictions! Anyway – let,s leave all that aside for now: I’m on holiday, after all!

      As for religion, it’s one of those topics one should really avoid unless one wants to avoid being embroiled in controversy, but so much of literature involves religion so deeply, it is not, I think, possible to keep away from it altogether. I have flirted with the topic a number of times on this blog, but in my next post, I am going to dive in headlong. Maybe I should wait till I am back from my holidays and am a bit more sober! 🙂

      Best wishes for now, Himadri

      Reply

  6. Posted by alan on July 30, 2015 at 7:23 am

    A nerdy observation: A consequence of a vastly increased human population over time means that even if you reduce the percentage of people suffering, the absolute numbers can still increase.
    This is why I am not comforted by certain kinds of statistic, and I think it is a good thing that our cognitive biases prevent us from seeing the horrors of the world as being diminished – it’s a good defence against complacency and I don’t think we need to be any more indifferent to our fellow sufferers than we already are.

    Reply

  7. […] right. Human beings can’t imagine heaven (the subject of an interesting recent post here) and we can’t imagine a world without striving and searching. So although we follow the […]

    Reply

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