On the Impossibility of Paradise

March 23, 2012

But I don’t know and I keep on not knowing, and I hang on to that as to a redemptive handrail.

 – Wislawa Szymborska


Once, long ago,there lived a girl whose grandfather told her that the world couldn’t be changed. That the poor would always be with us, and that we had a duty to care for them. But what of a world where no one would ever have to be poor? Such dreams, for him, were unthinkable.

Meanwhile, on other occasions, this same grandfather liked to express the opinion that the world was getting worse. Conditions were deteriorating all the time – not just in terms of the environment and people’s material well being, but socially, spiritually. A crisis of meaning, if you will. He argued that the only possible solution was to try to revert to a previous time. His granddaughter didn’t know how to tell him that the worsening of conditions that he so greatly feared was itself a change, and that any attempt to recreate the conditions of the past would be yet another alteration of the natural order of things. The world is constantly changing, but the truth is that these changes occur so quickly that often it does not seem to be changing at all. You can’t step into the same river twice, said Heraclitus. No, Parmenides corrected him. You can’t step into the river even once.

Many, many years later, this granddaughter grew into a woman who lived in a world that truly could not be changed – a cookie-cutter paradise made of milk and honey, a solitary realm where all living things were as immobile as the sky above them seemed to be. No one knew that the sky was moving, the stars were moving – everything was moving except for that tiny patch of ground upon which their paradise had been engineered. Of course, those in power knew all the truths of the universe, but they were completely on the side of Parmenides – even the planets’ orbits were nothing but an illusion. In some respects the universe was moving, but in the ways that mattered it really wasn’t moving at all.

Meanwhile, the inhabitants of this place were aware on some abstract level that the former world – indeed, the world that most of them had entered hungry, cold and screaming as naked primates – had been very different from the motionless realm they now inhabited. Pain had still existed then, along with time and change, death and decay. Now, at least a trillion years had passed since the last human death, and these celestial beings who’d come to replace their primitive ancestors had built a world that could make the lush landscapes described in the biblical creation stories seem like the most barren desert, a graveyard filled with all the world’s past injuries. And yet, despite the fulfillment of this long-expected promise, many of this paradise’s inhabitants were not satisfied with the strange island that their beautiful globe had morphed into.

The woman – if she could still be called that – barely recalled the life she’d led before being transformed into a robotic angel. She vaguely recalled being a child – a young girl who ran around a crowded schoolyard playing tag with the other children, who relished the touch of her mother’s hand braiding her hair, or her grandfather enfolding her in an embrace. Then again, she also  — just as vaguely – recalled the pain of trying to stand up on the soccer field and finding she couldn’t, only later to learn that her ankle had been twisted, or else lying in bed for two weeks in eighth grade while recovering from an ear infection. She remembered womanhood and the first delights of physical love; meanwhile, she recalled the excrutiating pinch that consumed her entire body as she gave birth to her first and only child. She also remembered the changes brought on by old age, the constantly aching knees, the sagging and unfurling of skin, the frequent back pain. But then, just before she could leave this world for the beyond that she still believed in, paradise was made, and before she could protest she was given a new body that would never need to know suffering, and a new mind that would know better than to hope for the existence of any world beyond what a telescope could see.

Nevertheless, even after trillions of years, she had not given up her belief in that other world. She knew that it still existed, and she was determined to find it. The fool’s paradise where she had complacently existed for so much time was not enough for her. She was tired to stasis. Once again, she recalled her father’s words, his conviction that the world could never be changed. What would he say if he were here now – if he’d lived to see his description become the only reality? Then, she remembered another story that he’d told her – that of a woman whose insatiable curiosity had first granted death a foothold in the world. Now, it was time to do it again. To open the box, to let in the ghosts, to take a bite of the once-again forbidden fruit.




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