For Paradise is Hell is Paradise
A programmatic approach to the art project “Paradise Found”
Art in the present day, or at least what attempts to be art in the present day—since it often amounts to no more than that—is in danger of virtually being suffocated by its own conformity and harmlessness. For the most part, it hardly seems above catering to a widespread interest in decoration, representation and entertainment. Correspondingly, those who have dedicated themselves to art would be well advised to save art, or what is left of it, from its own shallowness, harmlessness and babbling.
Good art has, and has always had, a subversive, irrational and incommensurable element. The nearly-forgotten author Rudolf Borchardt—who has been delivered, to some extent, from relative obscurity of late by Botho Strauß—summarized this phenomenon some one hundred years ago as follows: “One can do a person no greater disservice than to lead them to believe that there are easy ways of achieving what is difficult, or that what is difficult is actually easy, or: that the incommensurable could actually be somehow subsumed under a mensura.”
An art project with a title like “Paradise Found” is in great danger of sinking into these implied depths. Both the title and topic tempt one to blindly pursue a desire for harmony and fantasies—particularly one’s own—of a world that is intact. The “Found” in the title marks a conscious departure from a nostalgic-regressive or utopian-escapist understanding of access as gained by expressly emphasizing the presence of a perspective in the here and now.
Yet once one accepts this, the question immediately arises as to what relevance the myth of paradise has with regard to contemporary questions, if one is not to become lost in each and every patheticism and sentimentality?
The tale of paradise is essentially the original myth of all utopian thought. It is perhaps the first of all of the great tales. It is inscribed, in its significance and relevance, into our collective memory—whether we are aware of it or not. The dream of paradise and, perhaps to an even greater extent, the trauma of being driven out of paradise thereby become the initial agens et movens of all forms of utopian intentionality. Everything desirable and every horizon of hope seems to be imbued with at least subliminal metaphors of Paradise—in whatever fashion or hue.
Although there are good reasons for drawing this sort of a line in terms of the history of mentalities, it can be observed and conceded in one and the same breath that the dimension of paradise hardly plays a role in social discourse in its expressive form, except in its commercially perverted functionalization. And this describes a mysterious paradox: The metaphor of paradise oscillates in an idiosyncratic manner between what is a nearly nonexistent level of phenomenality and extreme hyperphenomenality.
Facing this paradox and these uncertainties was the objective and the topic of the art project entitled “Paradise Found” undertaken at the Hochschule für Gestaltung Offenbach am Main.
In order to provide some small degree of insight into how complex the topic of paradise can be, it may be instructive to pursue indices, references and related contexts. In this sense, the dimension of paradise is approached as a subject of discussion in three ways in the following.
At the beginning of 2006 the Palestinian-Dutch film “Paradise Now” opened in German cinemas. This film—which had already received prizes at numerous festivals—tells the story of two young Palestinian suicide assassins, who are told that their deed will ensure them entry into “Paradise”. In impressive scenes that provide an indication of the conditions and methods that enable the recruitment of young men to act as suicide bombers, it becomes clear how suicide bombers who see the promise of Paradise on the horizon can be employed as weapons of war. The plot is based on real events that, in some parts of the world, are an everyday expression of an “ultima ratio” of war—or what might seem to occidental ears to be more of an “ultima ratio irrationalis”. Whatever the case, numerous questions arise: In the face of one’s own death and the death of numerous innocent victims—doesn’t this type of vision of paradise mutate into what seems to be a real vision of horror? It seems as if paradise and hell are able to serve as interchangeable quantities. Or is what is promised there perhaps the only “paradise” that really does exist?
In dealing with absolute metaphors—in this case the implication of paradisiacal or utopian potentials—is there not always a danger of the totalitarian?
“Attempts to amplify idylls and experience them” , can inadvertently cause them to become undecidable figures, perversions of the first degree.
In April 2005, an art action or performance was staged at the New National Gallery in Berlin by the contemporary American artist Vanessa Beecroft. Those who attended the opening found themselves confronted with a group of 100 naked women in an enormous hall. These women, who were only wearing transparent stockings, were standing or squatting nearly still, and all of them were looking in the same direction. Nothing more. A strange exercise.
Yet what was the image conveyed by this mysterious scenario, what should or could the nakedness of these naked women mean? The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, who is one of the most widely discussed European thinkers of our day, and surely above any suspicion of harbouring a penchant for pathetic glorification, formulated a very clear-sighted thesis in the face of this performance:
Nakedness did not and could not have taken place in this performance de facto. And what does this mean?
Agamben began by ascertaining that in the Book of Genesis Adam and Eve never noticed that they were naked until after the original sin. According to theologians, this was not just a result of ignorance. Since “despite the fact that Adam and Eve were not covered in human clothing before the fall, they were still not naked. They were covered in the dress of mercy, of tight-fitting glory. Sin robbed man of this supernatural dress, and, in his nakedness, he was forced to cover himself—first with fig leaves, and then with animal skin. The dress with which he now covers his body is no long the dress of mercy and of innocence, but the dress of sin and hypocrisy. This dress belongs to him as a necessity, because it is at the same time a reminiscence of the lost dress of Paradise and a promise of the new dress that will be given to him through redemption.”
This means, from the viewpoint of Christian theology—and Agamben anticipates Beecroft’s performance as if he were in secret or subconscious complicity with her—human nudity is possible, if at all, only temporarily and therefore negatively.
However, in the end, this interpretation is again transformed when Agamben argues that it must again be a question of rediscovering Adamitic nakedness, before the dress of glory is donned again. Since “according to a Gnostic parable, the saved one will, on the very last day, take the dress of light that was given to them by God on the last day and tear it off their bodies. They will show themselves to each other in a nakedness that knows neither of sin nor of glory.”
What seem to be fixed images, clichés and ideas of paradise—and certainly not only these—should always be questioned and called into doubt. A somewhat puzzling yet exciting means of doing results from attempts to come to terms with Franz Kafka’s aphorisms, many of which deal with the topic of paradise and can be found in the so-called “Oktavhefte”, which were part of his legacy. The following aphorism may initially seem like a mere trifle, however, it has the potential to convey an entirely new understanding of occidental concepts of paradise. Quoting Kafka:
“Why do we complain about original sin? It was not why we were driven out of Paradise, but rather because of the tree of life, in order to keep us from eating of it.”
Kafka states tersely that it was not about the tree of knowledge. It was, instead, about the tree of life. One might be inclined to ask why it is of decisive importance whether it was the one tree or the other that caused us to be driven out of Paradise.
On closer examination it becomes clear that it was by no means only a nominal difference, but rather a profound difference.
Kafka sees the grounds for the expulsion not in Adam’s having actually made himself guilty. Instead, he questions the motive for the expulsion, claiming that the actual reason was that Adam had enjoyed the fruit of the tree of life, and not of the tree of knowledge. He considers the reason cited for the expulsion, the breaking of a rule—with regard to the tree of knowledge—to be a ploy that was arbitrarily determined. Since, in essence, it was a question of preventing man from gaining equal standing with God—which could have been guaranteed by the tree of life. God did not want to be an equal among equals. Hence, the question of guilt is virtually eliminated or turned completely around.
It was not man who burdened himself with guilt and thereby lost paradise, instead it was God who caused man to become “guilty”, so that he could take paradise away and reserve immortality solely for himself. The question of guilt is thereby commuted to a different level. It is no longer a question of whether someone who was (still) without knowledge, and therefore without insight and a sense of right and wrong, was even capable of being guilty, but rather a question of whether the guilt can be attributed to another instance, namely God.
Tales of paradise, including the myths related to them, thereby prove not only to be extraordinarily complex, as it was attempted to demonstrate in each of the three implied contexts, but ultimately also as unwieldy and nearly inaccessible. One is almost inclined to say that that is exactly the point. The question is again raised—quasi as a case of circular semantic reasoning—as to the actuality of the concept of the myth.
It can easily be claimed that contemporary consciousness displays a degenerated relationship to all things mythical. It is, so to speak, a relationship that has been subjected to the overwhelming influence of the Enlightenment. If one hears the word “myth” at all in everyday speech, then it is only to refer to an illusion or a fiction. It would, however, be shortsighted to suggest that mythic tales and depictions might serve as an antidote or to compensate for the shortcomings of a thoroughly technical, objectively rational and demystified world. It is a question of something far more fundamental. Originally, man created myths as a means of coming to terms with the threats that Nature posed. They also served to establish the communicative composition of society based on its highest significance. A significance that is so completely undisputed can only be something that is considered holy in a radical sense—i.e. incontestable and omnipotent. If that is even possible in the present day, or whether it must necessarily be individualized, is another question. In myths—and also in rites and works of art—human ideas, images and emotions are represented by means of a non-discursive and yet meaningful symbolic mode that cannot or can only insufficiently be expressed. “Mythical representation—structurally related in this aspect to artistic activity—also generates the conditions of its own evidence in this process. Mythical images create a truth that demands to be measured against itself. The persuasive power and probable truth of its elucidation and its representational powers are a medium and guaranty of truth.” Myths can be understood as highly complex systems of symbolization that are processed via metaphorical and narrative-poetical messages. They thereby represent forms of association and self-assurance of what affects man in a contingent and incommensurable manner. The subversive and contestatory element is directly related to a seemingly impossible reference, i.e., the power of the myth to call existing social structures into question, including the myth of Paradise. The “sense of reality” is called into question in order to gain a sense of the normative-utopian power of the “sense of possibility”. The confrontation with the phenomenon of paradise harbours a potential—and therein lies the subtle volatility—for acting as a timely, productively explorative source of confusion.
Prof. Christoph Loos (2.5.2007)
- ^ Rudolf Borchardt: Das Gespräch über Formen und Platons Lysis, Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1987, pp. 27–28.
- ^ Dietmar Kamper: Unmögliche Gegenwart. Zur Theorie der Phantasie, Munich: W. Fink Verlag, 1995, p. 74.
- ^ Giorgio Agamben: Das verlorene paradiesische Kleid, FAZ, 12 April 2005, p. 37, a translation by Christian Nilsson accessible under www.16beavergroup.org/mtarchive/archives/001902.php.
- ^ Giorgio Agamben: Das verlorene paradiesische Kleid, FAZ, 12 April 2005, p. 37.
- ^ Franz Kafka: Beim Bau der chinesischen Mauer und andere Schriften aus dem Nachlaß, Oktavheft G, Frankfurt: S. Fischer Verlag, 1994, p. 194Other aphorisms from Oktavheft G: “If what is supposed to have been destroyed in Paradise was indeed destructible, then it was not of decisive importance; however, if it was indestructible, then our beliefs are wrong.”“We were driven out of Paradise, for the most part, eternally: We were driven out of Paradise eternally, and life in this world is inevitable, the eternal nature of the process, however, makes it not only possible that we might be able to remain in Paradise forever, but also that we really always are there, regardless of whether we know it or not.”
- ^ Gottfried Boehm: Mythos als bildnerischer Prozess, in Mythos und Moderne (ed. Karl Heinz Bohrer), Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1983