Thursday, March 8, 2007


I think the stuff we've all written about Paradiso is more interesting than anything else. I guess i feel like it's easy to imagine hell, and then we seem to think Purgatory is like life on earth, with hope as the main ingredient. But what about heaven? What we seem to think is that it's either boring, or too far above our understanding. I confess I feel this way sometimes, not while reading Dante but while reading the Bible. I can't imagine what it's like to experience everlasting joy (the eternal Godgasm, whatever). When I read the Bible, I always like to read Ecclesiastes and the Psalms. I also like Song of Solomon because of its eroticism and devotional aspect :)
For those unfamiliar with the Bible, Ecclesiastes is a portion attributed to Solomon, among others, scholars believe. It was written in the heyday of the "wisdom literature" movement that swept the ancient middle & near east. Roughly contemporaneous with Proverbs. Basically, Ecclesiastes is a philosophical poem. It reflects on life, on different modes of life, and how God made us for one life, but we're living another. It's kind of glum, but in a way that I can relate to. My favorite line is "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity." Another translation is "Futility of futilities! All is futility." If anyone thinks I am a cheery person, beware, you're about to be disburdened of the notion. At heart, I get Ecclesiastes. I understand what it means to say that everything is vanity, or futility. Doesn' t life often feel that way?
Psalms is a collection of poems, many of which were written in David's exile (his son coordinated a coup. David didn't want to fight his own son, because he loved him, so he fled.) The Psalms I love because they speak of the pain of existence, yet there is a child-like, pure faith in God's goodness. Trying to reconcile the goodness of God with the meanness and horror of life is difficult at times, and so I read the Psalms. They're also interesting for their poetic descriptions of God's might. You don't read stuff like that much anymore, which is part of why I love the Old Testament. People had a simple view, they believe in animism and so you get to hear things like "trees clapping their hands in joy" or "God will smash all the teeth out of my enemy's mouth." it's kind of charming. But essentially I think the psalms catch on the constant pain of existence. Life is suffering... but we have hope. Even hope is kind of depressing, because it just sounds like the last paltry resort we cling to. It's at the very bottom of Pandora's box, tiny and unattractively desperate.
So back to Heaven. I just wonder what you all think of this. I want to ask out of pure curiosity, not because I want to judge any of you but because I think this book, the Commedia, and especially the Paradiso, raises the question: What is heaven to you? the afterlife? what do you imagine is the purpose for all this suffering? what 'justifies' the ways of the world, or what binds them together? is it even definable?
i read the Psalms and Ecclesiastes, and I think, yes I understand this. It's like Purgatorio. it makes sense. it sounds good. it is, as betsy pointed out, comfortable.
Hell also makes sense. If you don't believe me, imagine someone punching your mum in the face. You'll be thinking of flames and pitchforks in no time flat.
but Heaven? a Heaven that's really open to all comers? a Heaven in which people I hate are going to be singing God's praises, completely pure and holy? what does it look like when all the bad stuff is stripped away from us, and all the good is left?

For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity. -Ecc. 3:19

this I find especially valid right now, for us students:
Of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh. -Ecc 12:12

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