They say a human body becomes lighter by twenty one grams, once it has ceased living. This is how much a soul weighs. Although no science would confirm this, and although not all people believe that God ever breathed on Adam, most of them probably feel at one point or another that there must somehow be an ‘essence’ of life, something more than a mere body, something that encapsulates all that we are.
This therefore then becomes a metaphor for the intangible, that which is there and makes something be more than a sum of its parts, but can never be isolated, never separated as an ingredient. Thus ‘soul’ is what we have left when everything else is gone, ‘soul’ is what can carry us through seemingly insurmountable difficulty, ‘soul’ is what makes music more than a string of disparate sounds, a performance more than an articulation of actions. Far more than a religious notion, ‘soul’ may represent our belief in everything that matters, everything that deserves to continue.
And continue it does, apparently forever. Whether it is the eternal cycle of reincarnation or the everlasting Kingdom, whether it is the heights of Mount Olympus or the vastness of interstellar space, mankind has always struggled and still struggles with concepts of the very durable and the very large.
Very rarely has mankind been able to cope without some concept – be it religious or political – of an ‘end’ or a ‘limit’, after which all will be constant, harmonious, balanced, and at rest. Yet, in the vastness of eternity the awe-inspiring and the frightening go hand in hand: what can be conceived as harmonious and in balance, can also be conceived as static and unchanging, a terrifying suspension with no end.
The notion of an ‘end’ or a ‘limit’ applies to politics insofar as most progressive ideologies and socioeconomic theories presuppose a certain ideal state of coexistence. In this respect they identify lived experience as an imperfect struggle, which should lead to something either as yet unlived or long abandoned.
This state that has either been left behind or would be reached in the hereafter, what comes after the ‘end’ – whether the end is the Judgement day or the Revolution – is, in terms of iconography, often identified with the Garden. The Garden is of course the place of plenty, and therefore ‘heaven’ as contrasted with a life which in most cases is full of want and deprivation. However, particularly in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the Garden has a clear time-based function, as it signifies also the harmony and peace once enjoyed but now lost – a concept very close to notions of Arcadia.
Modern ecology often alludes to an Arcadia which mankind should strive to return to, although most of the time this movement is conceived as going forward and not backward. An interesting observation might be that ecology as a distinctly modern phenomenon is bound to the modernistic notion of progress, while at the same time it must allude to the notion of a ‘return’ to a time when harmony between all living things was a reality.
The notion that we have all been there, that even the suffering, the fallen or the dead were once in Arcadia is reminiscent of the 18th and 19th century reading of the famous memento mori: Et in Arcadia ego: Once I too lived in Arcadia. It spells out a call for a return to innocence, once prevalent but now lost. Innocence is identified with childhood. Childhood – however inaccurately – is endowed with a presumed lack of malice, and therefore represents that which we should all strive for. To be a child again is a powerful symbolic proposition, an appeal to what is conceived as a timeless morality, as yet not perverted by ablactation and civilization.
Yet, in the 20th century, things took on a distinctly different feel: “I exist even in Arcadia”, says Death, according to our current interpretation of the phrase. Death is now for us inextricably bound to Arcadia and our lost innocence. And, in fact, how could Death be absent from any dissertation on the hereafter?
What is death? Modern medicine conceives of death not so much as an event, but as a process. There is substantial difficulty in many cases to define the exact threshold, to say in certainty when precisely someone has ceased to live. This modern problem somehow echoes the way in which humans have faced death for millennia, equipping their dead for the journey ahead, putting them on boats and sailing them out to sea, or imagining that a boatman would do that – for a price. Death has been thought of as an evil, but also at times as a consolation, and it has always signified not only an end, but also a beginning. And although humans have always feared it, tried to resist it, or have even sought victory over it, they have also invented innumerable ways to glorify it, embrace it, celebrate it, or plainly come to terms with it.
Heaven, however, also embraces that eternal companion of death, love. From the concept of Christian love, becoming finally fulfilled in Paradise, to countless beliefs, pagan as well as monotheistic, that place carnal love at the centre of afterlife rewards, the idea of love has always been associated with the hereafter. Yet, the association works also in reverse: whether in the case of deep sexual gratification or love in the sense of true companionship, the more successful love-stories are always said to have reached ‘heaven’. One additional interesting element might be that although all religions have attempted to regulate carnal relations since time immemorial, love has the capacity of bringing to the concept of ‘heaven’ a very secular and temporal flavour.
And while the distinction between love and lust is often drawn, lust is perhaps the most important part. For lust is a residue, lust is what can be expressed in truly secular and temporal flavour as “pleasure”. And pleasure is really the meaning of heaven, or at least of heaven on earth. Contemporary life is constantly informed by the ‘heaven metaphor’: You can achieve heaven here on earth, right now! Your life is your project: improve yourself, get a degree, loose weight, wear sunglasses, choose your company, meet people, you look good in jeans, make friends, move flat, go on holiday, change your mobile phone, get an mp3 player, send your photo, get an suv, rent a speedboat, drink a cocktail, fly wherever, taxes included, get a double caramel machiato, also a fresh juice, authentic sushi, top design, take care of your skin, find the best biologically grown turkey, get a better job, vote for who you trust, get a mortgage, a large lcd screen, buy a house, travel, order a pizza, rent something by the sea, have an ice-cream, get married, go to the beach, king-sized bed, champagne by the pool, let’s dance, buy, choose, come here, be yourself, this is heaven, what do you want?
XYZ, March – June 2008