Via negativa and the road to hell

Inside the exclosure, a bed of wildflowers. Outside: the deer park. Well-intentioned nature-lovers and humanists of the 19th century won government support for the elimination of all large carnivores from Penn’s Woods.

1. In time, any paradise would grow cloying; one would long for the imperfect and the unpredictable.

2. But paradise by definition is a place uniquely capable of satisfying desire. If it were imperfection and unpredictability the mind craved, it would find them there.

3. Then how does paradise differ from the present world? Solely in the incommensurability between desire and its realization. If only one could learn to learn to desire whatever time and chance send, one would find a paradise in the present.

4. But for that to happen, something would have to change in the way one desires. It could no longer consist of longing for something else, something beyond or outside the present moment.

5. How do we know that the category “desire” is as singular as human languages suggest? A craving for food is very different from a craving for sex, for truth, for music, for possessions, for an addictive drug, for excitement, for the sublime, and so forth. Paradises begin to multiply faster than fruit flies.

6. A whole family of related desires aims at something short of paradise, as traditionally conceived: comfort, security, tranquility. These cannot be trivial, since they seem to be the focus of a great deal of church- and temple-going.

7. “As traditionally conceived”: etymologically, a walled garden. And intrinsic to the idea of paradise, heaven, Buddha-realm, etc. is the notion that it has limits. It cannot be universal. Any attempt to make it so presumes the destruction of the present universe and everything in it. If history teaches anything, it is this: hell hath no fury like a utopian scorned.

8. Augustine thought that the chief joy of souls in heaven would consist in the contemplation of the suffering of the damned below, in hell. From the extremism of his youthful Manichaean beliefs, according to which spirit and matter, saintliness and sinfulness have absolutely nothing in common, he grew to see these things as in some measure symbiotic.

9. Without the possibility of evil, how can the good be good? If one fails to commit evil acts simply because the option is unavailable, how could any action be considered good? Those who long for a universe in which evil would be impossible, and those who fault Whomever for allowing evil to persist: aren’t they simply longing for totalitarianism?

10. Unlimited perfection is a logical impossibility, because for something to be understood as perfect, it must be commensurate with the limited human imagination. No matter how intricate and well working, a machine lacks soul: which is to say, the ability to transcend and defy its apparent purpose. A perfect world, as we understand such a thing, would be devoid of life.

11. At this point, the maze of arguments begins to seem endless. It seems to me that the harder one tries to find a solution that satisfies all cases, the more blind alleys one wanders into. That’s because the very premise of the search is flawed. If life is not machine-like, then it cannot have any comprehensible purpose or meaning.

12. But to stop there and declare that life is meaningless is equally foolish, because it simply reinforces attachment to the feeling that things should have easily comprehensible purposes. Life transcends all considerations of meaning or non-meaning. I could state that existence is inherently mysterious, but at this point, all essentialist statements begin to seem vacuous. Paradox is the only way forward – if forward is indeed where we want to go.

13. This fundamental capacity of nature to elude our grasp is precisely what makes this seemingly archaic notion of paradise or heaven so attractive to me: heaven not as an afterlife destination, but as something basically “at hand,” as Yeshua ben Yosef preached.

14. “Hell is other people,” said Sartre. But suppose one gives oneself up: not as a surrender, but as a conscious gift. This is the bodhisattva’s vow, to forestall one’s own transcendence until all sentient beings have achieved similar transcendence. “For the love of God,” Meister Eckhart advised, “get rid of God.”

15. Paradise is others. Paradise is the world in the midst of creation, which is on-going. The sabbath is not-yet.

16. Only hell is self-sufficient and bounded by walls that cannot be breached: the autonomous ego writ large. To those who inhabit it, it looks very much like paradise. It is safe and tranquil and every bad deed is punished, every good deed rewarded. All hearts beat as one, burning in the fires of unquenchable desire.

Image Hosted by


There are no limits to this life.
The cup can be brimming over with pain
but there are always more chalices.

Don’t speak to me of soil when you mean shit.
Don’t exalt sacrifice
in the slaughterhouse.
Speak the truth if you can:
that the gods draw their strength
from the dead alone–like mushrooms,
like mold, like the must
that turns water to wine.

Listen you lovers of youth, an augury
Apollo would have me suppress:
Know others as thyself
if you crave ambrosia.

I leave you
intimate communion
with every breath.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.