Antipodes of the Mind

“The human mind is inspired enough when it comes to inventing horrors,” wrote novelist Evelyn Waugh; “it is when it tries to invent a Heaven that it shows itself cloddish.” Anyone who has read Dante’s Divine Comedy in its entirety, as I did as an undergraduate, will understand what Waugh was getting at. All Dante’s imaginative powers went into dreaming up tortures for the damned in the Inferno, while his Paradiso is a bit of a bore by comparison. Now I’ll grant you I read the Commedia in translation, so I can’t say whether the Paradiso is redeemed by its poetic language in the original. Yet something similar applies to Milton’s Paradise Lost, which covers some of the same territory. I found the whole thing to be another snooze, with the notable exception of Satan, who emerges as a perversely heroic figure in declaring, "Better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven."

Chained to a lake of for eternity, Milton’s Satan makes a remarkable declaration: “The mind is its own place and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” Heaven and hell cannot be found on any map but exist in a place Aldous Huxley calls the Antipodes — or nether region — of the mind. According to Huxley, this nether region becomes accessible through psychosis, hypnosis or hallucinogenic drugs. He makes a distinction here between visionary experience and mystical experience, the latter of which is entirely beyond the realm of opposites, such as heaven and hell.

Much of Huxley’s essay on the subject is taken up with a discussion of how visionary experience is evoked in various works of art. He does not mention Hieronymus Bosch among visionary artists, but I can think of none who better illustrates the subject, notably in triptychs with side-by-side depictions of heaven and hell. Bosch’s phantasmagorical masterpiece, “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” is meant as a cautionary tale on the corruption of the flesh. A chaste Adam and Eve are joined together by Christ in a park-like paradise in the left panel. This gives way to a riotous orgy of frolicking nude figures in the center panel. Their end is foretold in the bombed-out hellscape at right, with nightmarish creatures preying upon the writhing bodies of the damned.

Bosch is sometimes identified as a medieval precursor of the surrealists. In his depiction of paradise, I see a certain kinship to the primitivist Henri Rousseau’s dreamlike landscapes. However, the hellish tableaux in “The Garden of Earthly Delights” and other of Bosch’s works are entirely sui generis, as if served up directly from the very place they are intended to portray. The only thing I can compare them to is a bad acid trip; indeed, there is speculation that Bosch may have been acquainted with the effects of ergot poisoning, then a fairly common affliction caused by fungal contamination of grain. Ergot poisoning is known to cause hallucinations in some of its victims, and in 1943 a chemist working at the Sandoz pharmaceutical company synthesized LSD from an ergot alkaloid.

Hallucinogens aside, is there some reason why depictions of hell are so much more evocative than their heavenly counterparts? One possible explanation comes from the Christian fabulist C.S. Lewis, who undertook his own grand tour of the afterlife in The Great Divorce. “Hell is a state of mind,” he wrote. “And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind - is, in the end, Hell. But Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself.”

If Satan is determined to make a heaven of hell in Paradise Lost, then the characters in The Great Divorce can’t keep from making a hell of heaven. They are spectral figures who travel to heaven on a tour bus from a “grey town” occupied by lost souls. There is no gatekeeper in Lewis’s heaven and nothing to keep the visitors from staying, provided they are willing to turn from their old ways. But these wraiths don’t like it there. Heaven is altogether too solid for them. The light is too bright, and the sharp grass hurts their feet. One by one, they find excuses for getting back on the bus and returning to the shadows from which they came. In an odd sort of way, this heaven seems to bear out T.S. Eliot’s observation that there is only so much reality than humankind can bear.

Aldous Huxley, Heaven and Hell

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