â€œI stare at the gleaming black surface, at the red soil beneath my feet, at the dry eucalyptus leaves, curled into the shapes of letters as if they had been shaken from a tray of type.â€
– Cees Nooteboom, Lost Paradise
This is a story without pictures. So it must be a story about Paradise.
It is a retreat, a refuge, a quiet place of natural beauty and extended view, where victims of the â€œmodern madness, mere maniacal extension and motion,â€ find a place to nurture the â€œinner life,” to regain â€œthe uncontested possession of the long, sweet, stupid day.â€
Seated at a bench above a â€œwide, far-reaching garden,â€ comfortable in the good place of serenity and peace, the old man recalls his former life, outside in the world, where he had â€œlost possessionâ€ of his soul, â€œsurrounded only with the affairs of other people, and the irrelevant, destructive, brutalising sides of life.â€ Out there, he tells his sympathetic bench mate, he thought he would never recover: â€œThe wild waters would close over me, and I should drop straight to the bottom where the vanquished dead lie.â€ That thought precipitates this exchange:
â€œI follow you every step of your way,â€ said the friendly Brother. â€œThe wild waters, you mean, of our horrible time.â€
â€œOf our horrible time â€“ precisely. Not, of course â€“ as we sometimes dream â€“ of any other.â€
â€œYes, any other is only a dream. We really know none but our own.â€
You suspect those are not the words of our time? They are from Henry Jamesâ€™ story â€œThe Great Good Placeâ€ published in 1900. It could have been another story from any century running back to much earlier times. This, the one at hand, because I read it yesterday.
A couple of ideas about Paradise.
We envision it behind us or in front of us. Even in the best of times, the blest of times, Paradise is some place or time other than ours. It is the place we left or the one we are headed to. Meaning the Garden we were thrust from, or the crystalline palace beyond the abstract gate of the unknown. In the Pacific Northwest the idea of Paradise tumbles like a stream out of the Cascades. Our natural world is Eden if unspoiled or Heaven if it is transformed into a rose garden. Rivers, wild or flood-controlled. Notice that the bench mates look out over a peaceful garden and shiver at the thought of drowning in wild waters. Metaphorical experience, of course.
Paradise is lost or not yet found. Paradise misplaced, mistranslated. Thatâ€™s it. Paradise is words. Words we’ve fumbled, or lost. A place of words within words. We read a landscape the way we read a book, though perhaps no as literally as the woman in Lost Paradise reads the eucalyptus leaves. All we do is read. Unlike the animals in James Dickeyâ€™s poem, â€œThe Heaven of Animals,â€ the place at which they arrive, â€œbeyond their knowing,â€ where â€œTheir instincts wholly bloom / and they riseâ€:
For some of these,
It could not be the place
It is, without blood.
These hunt as they have done,
But with claws and teeth grown perfect,
More deadly than they can believe.
They stalk more silently,
And crouch on the limbs of trees,
And their descent
Upon the bright backs of their prey
May take years
In a sovereign floating of joy.
And those that are hunted
Know this as their life,
Their reward: to walk
Under such trees in full knowledge
Of what is in glory above them,
And to feel no fear,
But acceptance, compliance.
Fulfilling themselves without pain
At the cycleâ€™s center,
They tremble, they walk
Under the tree,
They fall, they are torn,
They rise, they walk again.
Weâ€™ve all been there! â€“ In metaphorical exhalations. Now is the heaven of animals. Now for us is before or after as we think about it.
Home is where the words are, and they are buried deep. Ronald Johnson found his book Radi Os (1977) by digging words out from words. He picked up an 1892 edition of Miltonâ€™s Paradise Lost in a Seattle bookstore and erased or â€œetchedâ€ away most lines and words on each page, leaving a core of images, in the same place on the page of his published book: PARADISE LOST.
Radiating out. A book, a Paradise, a place of words within words.
Choose your words carefully.