Published online by Cambridge University Press: 06 December 2010
In an old New Yorker cartoon, two signs offer to send the newcomer to heaven in two opposite directions. One points to “paradise,” the other to “lectures on paradise.” To be sure, a collection of scholarly essays on ancient perceptions of paradise, such as this one, falls short of a promise to regain long lost paradise. And yet, from Dante's Paradiso to Baudelaire's Les paradis artificiels, powerful attempts have been made, time and again, to reclaim paradise through writing. The central human experience of paradise, it seems, is double: that of nostalgia for an irretrievable loss, and that of the unquenchable expectation for regaining it; what one could call the tension toward paradise, the epektasis of paradise. Indeed, paradise never disappeared from Western consciousness, and, despite Entmythologisierung, real or imagined, the concept retains in late modernity its force of attraction on earlier generations. “Work on Myth,” (Arbeit am Mythos, to use the apt title of the German philosopher Hans Blumenberg's powerful study of Western culture): the history of paradise in Christian culture may be compared to a kaleidoscope, where images, symbols, mythologoumena and concepts play a major part, and can be rearranged in a series of formations, at once similar and different, but always stimulating.
The word “paradise,” as is well known, stems from Iran. The concept's career in the cultures issued from the biblical traditions, however, starts with the first chapters of Genesis. Soon, in early Judaism, the paradise from Genesis “blows up,” as it were.