Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Echoes of Eden

There are many things in art and nature that evoke a lost and longed for golden age. 

I. Historic Eden

Gen 2 is the locus classicus. Elements include:

• An orchard with fruit trees, watered by a river

• A fertile couple

• Nudity (perhaps related to the climate)

• Tame animals

• The tree of knowledge

• The tree of life

• Some sort of barrier with an entrance (Gen 3:24)

• Located in upper or lower Mesopotamia

In popular imagination, Eden was an idyllic tropical paradise, but in reality it may have been a hot, rugged place in general, like an oasis with shade trees hugging the river banks. It would be up to Adam, Eve, and their posterity to use the river to irrigate Eden beyond a natural green strip along the river banks.  

II. Literary Edens

1. Ezk 28

This is the other biblical account of Eden. A fascinating version of Gen 2-3. Ezk 28 is poetic while Gen 2-3 is prosaic. It this Ezekiel's inspired interpretation of the original, or did he see it in a vision?

2. The Promised Land as new Eden (Isa 11:6-9; 51:3; Ezk 31:9,16,18; 36:35; 47:1-12; Joel 2:3).

3. Song of Songs

Combines a garden motif with romantic love

4. Rev 22:1-3 

The Eden motif comes full circle

5. Atlantis

Plato's legend of Atlantis, in the Timaeus and the Critias, captured the imagination. It may be a myth of Plato's own devising.

However, it's intriguing to consider that one of the two candidates for the location of Eden is lower Mesopotamia, at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. Perhaps it's just coincidental, but maybe the legend of Atlantis is a dim memory of Eden, now submerged in the Indian sea. Likewise, it may just be coincidental that the Persian Gulf is a source of pearl oysters, but perhaps that's reminiscent of Gen 2:12.

6. Dilmun

Like Atlantis, the legendary island of Dilmun might reflect a dim memory of Eden.   

The other candidate for the location of Eden is upper Mesopotamia, around Armenia or Anatolia.

7. Purgatorio

Dante's evocation of Eden in the Purgatorio (cantos 28) is one of the loveliest things in his trilogy. In addition to literary allusions, it was colored by memories of the lagoons and  pine forest of Ravenna, by the sea. 

Like the Song of Songs, it unites a garden with romantic passion. The seductive figure of Matelda seems to be a type of Eve. It's concrete appeal is more paradisal than the Paradiso, which is inhumanly disembodied. 

8. Primavera

I wonder if Botticelli's Primavera was influenced in part by Dante's Eden, blending motifs of Matelda, Eve, and Properina as a spring goddess. 

9. Paradise Lost 

For a drama centered in Eden (with excursions to heaven and hell), it's strange that Milton makes no effort to make it realistic. He gives the reader a literary construct (Book 4). Why is that? Several possibilities come to mind:

i) He's flaunting his Classical erudition.

ii) He was blind by the time he composed Paradise Lost. Perhaps he had a poor visual memory (unlike Turner).

iii) He's suggesting that legendary gardens of pagan mythology are dim memories of Eden.

iv) He has no eye for natural beauty. He's not turned on by bucolic landscapes.  

10. Ruskin

i) As a young man, nature was Ruskin's cathedral. Through the medium of Victorian typology, communion with nature was indistinguishable from communion with God. But after his crisis of faith he turned against nature. I wonder if Turner's postlapsarian view of nature collided with Ruskin's prelapsarian view of nature, giving Ruskin a darker vision. 

ii) Ruskin's aestheticism blinded him to the greatness of Rembrandt. Beauty was never central to Rembrandt's art, whether people or places. Rembrandt has an interest in the richness of ordinary life. Rembrandt is Shakespeare in a different medium.     

11. Perelandra

In Perelandra (the floating islands, gilded firmament), as well as The Voyage of Dawn Treader (the Silver Sea, last wave, Aslan's land beyond Narnia), Lewis pictures his sense of sehnsucht

Although his direct knowledge of the natural world was provincial, Lewis had a keen appreciation for scenic beauty. He enjoyed long country walks and mountain views.

Ironically, although his his literary Edens are as unrealistic as Milton's, they are far more compelling. That's because they are direct products of his intense, yearning imagination rather than an artificial literary pastiche. 

12. The Garden between Dawn and Sunrise

I wonder if the garden in James Branch Cabell's Jurgen is partly modeled on Dante's Eden. In both cases, the garden seems to be frozen at dawn. 

13. Lord of the Rings 

The character of Goldberry, as a spring goddess, is reminiscent of Dante and Botticelli (see above). Is that coincidental? 

14. Burnt Norton

The garden in T. S. Eliot's "Burnt Norton" (from The Four Quartets) is a postlapsarian vision of autumnal Eden rather than the primaveral Edens of Dante, Botticelli, Tolkien, Lewis, Cabell, and the Song of Songs.. 

15. Garden of the Finzi-Continis

Bassani's walled garden is post-lapsarian and legendary. There is no such place in Ferrara. It exists only in his haunted imagination, like the lost world of his youth–the Jewish community that perished in the Shoah. 

III. Artistic Edens

1. Da Vinci

i) Some of his art is a pretext to paint an evocative landscape in the background. Take the mountains in The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and the caves in The Virgin of the Rocks.

ii) In addition to these serene paintings, da Vinci was troubleld by visions of an anti-Eden. The cataclysmic power of nature in his Deluge drawings. In that respect he anticipates Turner. 

2. Constable

Until he fell into irrevocable melancholy, his simple landscape paintings (e.g. Willows by the stream) reflect a prelapsarian Eden. 

3. Hudson River School

Some paintings from the Hudson River School, like Thomas Cole's Expulsion from Eden, symbolize virgin America as a new Eden. The New World counterpart to the Promised land.

4. Turner

Although he may be best-known for his Venetian sunsets, Turner was strongly drawn to the wild side of nature. Mountains, gorges, cataracts, turbulent seascapes, thunderstorms. The exhilarating violence nature. The destructive power of nature. The overwhelming scale of nature, dwarfing human beings. A postlapsarian perspective. In that regard he's the flip side of Constable's pastoral landscapes. 

That raises questions about what we regard as paradisal. The expulsion from Eden exposed Adam's posterity to a vast range of natural scenery. And some artists celebrate landscapes that are the polar opposite of a tropical paradise or lush valley. Take Georgia O'Keeffe. Or all the Westerns with Monument Valley in the background. Or Westerns set in Montana, with untamed rivers, prairies, and the Grand Tetons looming in the distance.                                                                                    
5. Impressionism

i) Jean-François Millet's Spring is Edenic in a prelapsarian sense. But the best-loved impressionists are Monet and Renoir, who influenced one another. There's a difference in emphasis. Monet takes a greater interest in natural scenery while Renoir takes a greater interest in people and social life. However, Monet is a great painter of people while Renoir is a great painter of natural scenery. 

ii) Both Monet and Renoir escape into Edenic nostalgia. Monet's beaches and lily ponds, Renoir's flower gardens and bathers on the banks of the Seine. The results are a delirium of life at its best. But by the same token, it's one-sided and inhuman. Turning a blind eye to the ugly, tragic side of nature. No evil, sickness, suffering, poverty, deformity, or mortality. To some degree their art is an exercise in extended adolescence. An artistic effort to cling to the charms of youth. 

iii) In addition, the obsession with the play of light and sensuous color carries the risk of sight without inside, light without enlightenment. Turner suffers from some of that as well. The greatest art is an interpretation of man's place in the universe. What if anything makes human lives important.

IV. Musical Edens

Classical music (e.g. Baroque, Mozart, Haydn, Mendelssohn) is fairly symmetrical whereas seascapes and landscapes are asymmetrical. Some (mainly French) 19-20C composers developed an atmosphere style that parallels the paintings of Turner and the impressionists. A pre- or postlapsarian Eden set to music, viz. 

• Berlioz, Les nuits d'été (Régine Crespin/Ernest Ansermet)

• Chausson, Poème de l'amour et de la mer (Montserrat Caballé)

• Debussy, Pelléas et Mélisande

Clair de Lune; "Trois Chansons de Bilitis" (Régine Crespin)

La Damoiselle Elue (Montserrat Caballé)

• Duparc, "L'invitation au voyage" (Régine Crespin) 

• Ravel, Shéhérazade (Régine Crespin/Ernest Ansermet)

• Ralph Vaughan Williams, The Lark Ascending

These embody common grace. But as a steady diet, this is deficient. Christian music (e.g. hymns, anthems, passions, cantatas, oratorios) are ultimately more satisfying because they carry the hope and promise of something better and more enduring than this life has to offer. Many unbelievers settle for the remnants of Eden in a fallen world. But Christians look ahead to a new Eden. Indeed, surpassing the original. 

V. Eschatological Edens

1. Human life began in a garden. But as punishment for their disobedience, Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden. Their posterity is born in exile. And because they were banished, they lost access to the tree of life. They lost the opportunity for immortality. 

In Christian tradition, human life ends in a garden. Cemeteries are typically designed and landscaped to resemble park-like gardens. Gardens for the dead. 

The symbolic justification for cemeteries is that the dead are buried in the hope of resurrection. At the return of Christ, cemeteries will come alive as the dead in Christ arise. 

So the story comes full circle from garden to garden, life, death, and life restored. 

2. Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

He achieves his effects through simple well-chosen brushstrokes, in contrast to Milton's ponderous pilings on. One difference is that Gray is a lyric poet whereas Milton aims for heroic grandeur, which is too heavy for a parklike garden. Gray is more domestic and down-to-earth. His churchyard is a postlapsarian Eden, chastened by pervasive mortality. 


  1. Replies
    1. I suppose Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine might be evocative of Eden too.

      Also, we could consider other cultures. Take Spanish or Latin culture. El Dorado. The fountain of youth. Darren Aronofsky's film The Fountain seems like it's along these lines too, though it's more like a photographically inverted image of Eden. It's a darker and grittier quest for immortality and paradise. Perhaps it's more about keeping death at bay than finding eternal life. I wonder if Aronofsky is drawing on Sephardic Jewish traditions rather than Ashkenazi.

      There are, of course, mythologies about paradise in Asian cultures too. As seen through Western eyes, I have in mind exotic places in the Orient like Shangri-La, Kunlun, Xanadu, Shambhala.

      I think nostalgia is about the sense of loss. Not only loss of people, places, and things that we once had, but also loss of ourselves. It's as if we're fractured pieces, spread across time and space, longing to be put back together and made whole again.

  2. The Taj Mahal, with its waters that divide the land into four quadrants. Influenced by Persian pairidaeza (walled garden), which itself is possibly influenced by the Eden concept (Eden might be related to Akkadian edinu, plain - the Garden of the Plain).