Of course at the outset it has to be understood that I don’t believe in either of them. Still, as concepts they are interesting, and what is particularly interesting is that all the minds that have been bent to the task over the centuries have made a much better job of imagining Hell than they have of imagining Heaven. So far what I’ve seen of Dante’s Hell fits into the usual patter of tortures and torments, but it is more subtle, more ingenious, and more detailed. Dante, like the Mikado, has made the punishment fit the crime — which is, I think, philosophically acceptable. I wrote a short story once (it never saw the dark of print) in which Hell was a place where some power gave us the giftie of seeing oursel’s as others see us. The sinner was doomed, in my Hell, to reliving endlessly the least savory moments of his past, with the added pleasure of being able to perceive, as if he were audience as well as actor, how mean and petty, vicious and cruel he had been. In a Heaven to match, I suppose, one would be allowed to fit one’s most inflated self-image.
I find Heaven, however, unimaginable. The traditional clouds, wings, and harps are preposterous; and as for the eternal picnicking and fish frying of Green Pastures, well, I have never cared that much for picnics. The idea of a perpetual summer vacation repels me. Nasty as it is, the world seems more interesting and more suited to man’s psychological make-up, though perhaps in Heaven man is relieved of his earthly psychology and can therefore tolerate tedious and eternal bliss.
Struggle is a natural factor in man’s relationship with his environment, his fellow man, and himself. Where would be the joy in growing a garden if there were no weeds, if sunshine and rain came in the required amounts, and everything were bound to flourish even if you did nothing about it? I am not much of a gardener, so let us suppose that in Heaven a writer needed only paper and pen (easily requisitioned from the angel in charge of office supplies) and knew that all he had to do was set one to the other and a work of genius would automatically result. My reaction would be — why bother? You would find me sitting on some primrose cloud, disgruntled and miserable and bored to tears, with nothing to do that seemed worth doing.
Happily ever after is really a ghastly ending to any story. Besides, happiness is nothing absolute; it requires unhappiness to make it palpable. Food is useless without hunger, sleep demands fatigue, and accomplishment is the lofty mountain that rises from the plain of inactivity and failure. In a perfect world, what opportunity would there be for the exercise of wisdom, of tolerance, of pity, of charity, of fortitude? We would have to shed all these like so much excess baggage and sit in beatific contemplation of the beauties around us, rather like a stupefied and inert television audience.
To turn to Hell — could absolute torment remain torment forever? Or is torment torment only when one entertains some small hope of escape or release? The souls immersed in Dante’s river of blood, boiling in it to the end of time — why do they struggle to get out? In Hell is the soul forever reactivated in its human desires while in Heaven it is relieved of them? Or if in Hell it is cunningly contrived that each tormented soul shall know short periods of relief in order to keep the torment sharp and stinging, is it likewise ordered in Heaven to provide enough misery and disappointment, enough hunger, fatigue, cold, and pain, to make pleasure pleasurable?
My coffee is fine, and so is the gorgonzola spread on the tiny crackers. I like it so moldy that it makes my ears sing as if they were full of gnats. Is there mold in Heaven, or only for those who love mold? Would my cheese become moldy and my neighbor’s not?
A Jehovah’s Witness once asked me in syrupy tones if I didn’t want to like in the Kingdom where the lion would lie down with the lamb, flowers would be everywhere, and all would be perfection. I said no, it sounded tiresome; and I shut the door.
I am still waiting for somebody to come up with a Heaven worth getting into.
from Adventures of an Ordinary Mind, by Lesley Conger (pseudonym of Shirley Suttles)
New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1963