Entry 24: Just For You and Me- The shadowy hound of death in the poem by Fiona McCloud a.k.a. William Sharp is a wonderful construct where the spectre of mortality is not a grim reaper with hapless humankind withering in helpless stands like the grass and flowers of Isaiah and 1 Peter, All flesh is like grass,/and all its glory like the flowers of the field./The grass withers and the flowers/ fall, but, instead, we find a questing hound leading the lonely hunter, pursuing the lost-loved face, over a green hill. And what lies over that green hill?
Perhaps Aristophanes can give part of the answer. In The Birds, we see two middle-aged men, lost in a hilly wilderness looking for a land where the strife and privation found in Athens are absent. And what do they find? Cloud-cuckoo-land. One of the themes of the play is a revolt against conventional power-structures and this thread comes down through the centuries to us today. In the Middle-Ages we find the Goliardic tradition where the powerful institution of the Roman Church is mocked mercilessly and finds its apotheosis in The Feast of Fools where licentious behaviour scandalised the sober and pointed to the contradictions between the theory and practice of many of the clergy.
The Carmina Burana is the best known artefact from those times. In 1567, Breughel the Elder’s painting of The Land of Cockaigne shows us stock contemporary figures such as a peasant, a soldier and a clerk, semi-comatose from the effects of gluttony. Cockaigne, Wikipedia tells me, was an imaginary place of extreme luxury and ease where physical comforts and pleasures are always immediately at hand and where the harshness of medieval peasant life does not exist…a land of contraries, where all the restrictions of society are defied (abbots beaten by their monks), sexual liberty is open (nuns flipped over to show their bottoms), and food is plentiful (skies that rain cheeses).
In the great depression of the 20th Century, the same impulse is at work in songs such as The Big Rock Candy Mountain where the promise of cigarette trees, chocolate heights and lemonade springs lures a naïve young farmer’s son to follow the burly hobo to search for the land of ease. The denouement of the original song is not the sanitised version that children sing in school performances. At about the same time as the song was being popularised in the 1930s we find Shangri-La, a mystical valley utopia in the Kunlun Mountains, which was long believed to be a paradise of Taoism.
The word, utopia, was coined by Sir Thomas Moore in 1516 from the Greek words not and place or, colloquially, nowhere. What is implied by the etymology of the word has not prevented a host of visionary dreamers, both the benign and the psychopathic, from instituting their version of a heaven on earth. Manson’s family, Jonestown and Pol Pot’s Cambodia come to mind more readily than, say, the Oneida Community that lasted from 1848 to 1881 and which left us a legacy of stylish silverware-much preferable to the mountains of dead bodies and myriad shattered lives left by the others mentioned before.
Which brings me to The Garden of Earthly Delights, a triptych by Hieronymous Bosch, painted around 1500. Depicted are three locales, first; on the left-hand panel, we are in Eden with God presenting Eve to Adam, second; in the larger middle panel we could be in a region of Cockaigne where nude men and women cavort among a selection of oversized birds and fruit; finally, in the panel on the right of the triptych, we are in a chamber of hell where the torments of damnation are vividly on show. We pursue our utopias, wherever they lead us. E.E. Cummings wrote a brilliant poem about this in 1944 during the horrors of World War II, pity this busy monster, manunkind, not/…pity poor flesh and trees…but never this fine specimen of hypermagical/ ultraomnipotence/…listen: there’s a hell of a good universe next door; let’s go.
There is learned speculation about the multiverse where every conceivable story and outcome is endlessly played out. Where, in one iteration of existence, you rule the big rock candy mountain; in another, you are a tortured soul endlessly enacting a scene from the right-hand panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights, and so on, and on. In episode 4, Season 6, of Through the Wormhole, Morgan Freeman discusses the view of theorists from a number of scientific fields who wonder if this universe of ours is not just a vast video game and we are pre-programmed elements within it.
These guys, presumably, don’t wear hats made of tinfoil but they are actively looking for glitches in the program that will prove that we are just epiphenomena inside, it may be, the latest fad of some alien teenage emo gamer. Now, wouldn’t that be something?