- The Death of Paradise
There are two principal human sins from which all others can be derived: impatience and laziness. Because of impatience they were driven out of Paradise, because of laziness they do not return. Or perhaps there is only one principal sin: impatience. Because of impatience they were driven out, because of impatience they do not return.Franz Kafka, Notebooks 1
Problems of paradise. The very notion of the death of paradise raises obvious problems. Is it possible for paradise to die, does the image make any sense? Countries can die, of course, but what about a country that is already lost, probably imaginary? There are good grounds for wondering about this, and the complications the question arouses are very much part of my topic. The short, brutal answer, the one I thought I wanted, the one that gets into such trouble in what follows, or begins to seem hopelessly shallow, is this: paradise can die, and I mostly wish it would, but it hasn’t.
Another obvious problem is more empirical, at least ostensibly. It has to do with the ubiquity of paradise, or at least the ubiquity of talk of paradise. How can we even think of the death of paradise when paradise is everywhere? In valleys in Switzerland and in a suburb of Athens; in a town in Chile. In perfume advertisements (“Eden: the forbidden fragrance”) and the name of nightclubs (“Latin Paradise,” Le paradis latin, and another Parisian place offering a paradisiaque floor show) and department stores (“Ladies’ Paradise,” Au Paradis des dames). In all the travel literature you pick up: “paradise preserved,” “paradise of timeless beauty.” That’s Turkey. A beach in Cornwall, recently bought by the National Trust to save it from desecration by holidaying mortals, [End Page 245] is said to be “as close to paradise as you’ll get in England.” In popular songs from George and Ira Gershwin (‘S’awful nice/’S’paradise’) to Randy Newman, to say nothing (yet) of Laurie Anderson and Phil Collins. In movies from Les Enfants du paradis to Cinema paradiso. In the ordinary language which makes paradise, in that first movie title, the gods or the gallery. There is an English cake called a Paradise Slice—a dark irony if ever there was one. The French for a tax haven is un paradis fiscal. Toni Morrison is about to publish a novel called Paradise; but she is joining a considerable company. Abdulrazak Gurnah was shortlisted for the Booker Prize with a novel of that title; Donald Barthelme published a Paradise in 1986; Philippe Sollers another in 1981; Hervé Guibert another in 1992. There’s Paradise News, Paradise Postponed, The Dogs of Paradise, A Perfume of Paradise, The Paradise of the Blind, many more. I haven’t yet read all of these books, but in all the ones I have the notion of paradise is ironic; and I shall be surprised if it’s not in the others. But is irony a form of death? Maybe it is. When Humbert Humbert, in Lolita, speaks of setting all paradise loose, the idiom tells us which other place he has in mind. 2
It surprises me that gender doesn’t come up more often in these casual examples, given its importance in the Genesis story—or even apart from the Genesis story. I’m also surprised it doesn’t come up more often in the literary material I’ve been looking at. It’s true that Proust and Benjamin and others are interested in the lostness of paradise, not in how it got lost; in the joint exile of Adam and Eve. But our first parents did have different roles in the garden, and they can be seen to have had different roles since they were expelled. It may be that the story of Eve is a different story from the story of paradise. But then that separation, if that is what it is, would be interesting, a good question for another day.
So: can paradise be dead, if there is all this activity on its behalf? A smart answer is available. Paradise could be everywhere and also dead. There are lots of ubiquitous...