Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Every American knows that these are the unalienable rights written right into the core of our nation’s founding. At first glance, it appears that the founding fathers did a funny thing there- the pursuit of happiness? Why not just life, liberty, and happiness? Surely that would be better! Who doesn’t want an entire nation of happiness? That sounds like Utopia! But actually, the founding fathers did a brilliant thing there. Because, as it turns out, it really is all about the pursuit.
Here’s the thing. We don’t actually WANT Utopia. Not if you look at the history and meaning of the word. Utopia sounds nice, in theory, sure. It’s an untroubled paradise. Where the sun is always shining and no one has any cares. But it’s not what we want, because it’s not what we think. '“Utopia” literally means “no place,” or “not place.” It comes from the Greek ou, meaning ‘not,’ and topos, meaning ‘place.’ And it was first used in the satirical book Utopia by Sir Thomas More in 1516. So really, the entire point of the word from its inception has been to illustrate that “Utopia” as we conceive of it- as a paradise of delights- actually does not exist. Perhaps it cannot exist. It has been suggested that if humanity ever did achieve a Utopian society, we’d just get bored immediately, and burn it down, for lack of anything else interesting to do.
The words “paradise” and “Eden” both bear examining as well. Because, strangely enough, therein lies the answer. See, these days, “Paradise” and “Eden” are interchangeable, with themselves and with “Utopia.” And, in some ways they are the same, or similar. But there is nuance here, and it’s worth exploring.
The word “Eden” especially is a weird one. Currently, Webster’s Dictionary lists three definitions:
See Paradise, sense 2, which reads: “a place or state of bliss, felicity, or delight” (Sense 1 of “Paradise”, by the way, links you straight back to “Eden Sense 2” in a complete loop.)
“The garden where according to the account in Genesis Adam and Eve first lived”
“A place of pristine or abundant natural beauty”
Paradise and Utopia are both listed as synonyms for Eden, as are Never Never Land, Fantasyland, Camelot, and Shangri-la, among others. I find Never Never Land especially curious in this context, as Neverland is famously the place where you go if you refuse to grow up. A place that, like Utopia, sounds great, because who wants to grow up? Adulting is hard. But Neverland has a dark and sinister side to it too, one that is entirely overlooked in Disney’s telling of that tale. And of course, in the end, if you refuse to grow up because it is hard work, then you don’t get to grow up, because growing up is a privilege, too. It’s right there in the book. It’s my favorite line and it’s the very end of the story:
“There could not have been a lovelier sight; but there was none to see it except a little boy who was staring in at the window. He had ecstasies innumerable that other children can never know; but he was looking through the window at the one joy from which he must be for ever barred.”
If you refuse the great responsibility of adulthood, you are also barred from the great joy and meaning of adulthood. You remain stuck in a naive Neverland, play acting, but never actually acting on the world with any meaning or potency. To even believe that there is such a thing as an untroubled paradise where no one has any cares is a naive view of the world. Because of course there are troubles in the world- we have the whole of the world to contend with; the whole of nature. And if you think that’s nothing but sunshine and daisies, you have a rude awakening coming. So no matter how you slice it, to exist in a state of Eden, or Neverland, or to strive for a Utopian fantasy that by definition does not exist, is inherently to be almost unbelievably naive, and therefore powerless. There’s a reason Neverland is for children.
But I digress. I am most interested in the etymology of “Eden.” The conception of it in modern times seems to stem entirely from the fact that the place in Genesis is dubbed the “Garden of Eden.” What then, did those ancient Hebrews mean when they chose that word? Here of course is our fundamental answer: Eden comes from the Hebrew edhen, meaning “pleasure, delight.” So when they wrote the story down, those ancient peoples intended it to mean “Garden of Pleasure,” or “Garden of Delight.”
Which brings us to Hieronymus Bosch, and his circa 1490s painting entitled, The Garden of Earthly Delights. And what a surreal fantasyland this painting portrays. Still almost a complete quandary among Art Historians, not much is known for sure about Bosch or his paintings. They aren’t even dated, so 1490s is an educated guess. All we know is that it first shows up in writings in 1517, right after Bosch’s death. None of the artist’s writings survive, so all we really have to go on is the piece itself, and the title. Even here, things have become muddled, because the piece is a triptych, with three inner panels and two outer panels that are visible when the piece is closed. The inner panels are each basically separate but related paintings. The outer two panels together form one complete image. The largest and middle inner panel is actually the only part of the whole that was originally titled The Garden of Earthly Delights, and yet the entire piece has come to be known by that name, and the names of the other individual panels seem to have fallen away. The left panel is sometimes known as The Joining of Adam and Eve, but individual titles of the rest are not mentioned in any online articles I could find, nor in the information found on the Prado Museum’s website, where the piece is currently housed.
[Note- most of my facts on the Bosch piece have been paraphrased from My Modern Met. Read their excellent article here. I also consulted Wikipedia and Museo del Prado, which has a wonderful interactive online exhibit of this perplexing piece of art. ]
Though we do not have the original titles of the rest of the panels, nor any word from the artist himself but the middle title, the subject matter is generally agreed upon. The outer panels are thought to depict the creation of the world, as outlined in Genesis—specifically the Third Day, after the animals and plants were added, but before the creation of man. Upon opening the panel, and reading it, as it were, from left to right like a book, we can see that the three panels depict in order: Adam and Eve with God in the Garden of Eden, presumably before they are cast out, followed by the central bizarre and surreal panel that is The Garden of Earthly Delights, followed by a hellish landscape that is generally agreed to depict hell itself. And thus this work as a whole shows the progression of creation and the downfall of man, as outlined in Genesis, with a bizarre twist in style that most likely originated with Bosch. Indeed, if it reminds you of the surreal melting clocks or other work by Salvador Dali, that is because it inspired Dali, when he viewed it at the Prado, and could thus be considered the grandfather of surrealism.
Now, we don’t have the time to even scratch the surface on the phantasmagoric collection of figures in this piece of art. Indeed literal volumes of speculation and symbolic interpretation have been written on that subject. So if you are so inclined to learn more about the details, I definitely encourage you to do so! But for my purposes here, suffice it to say that Bosch’s interpretation of the phrase “Garden of Earthly Delights” is downright chaotic at best. While never explicit, it is certainly sensual, lustful, bizarre, surreal, and in many places both confusing and disturbing. Some have even deemed it ‘hallucinogenic.’ This painting pretty clearly depicts human delight…but run completely amok.
The garden that we see in the first panel, on the other hand, while still a bit surreal, comes across more balanced and peaceful, without the chaos and entanglement of limbs and creatures everywhere. The second panel shows us human delight gone way too far, and the third depicts the inevitable result of hell. Curiously, the biggest difference between the second and third panel, at least from a distance, seems to just be the change in color scheme and background. Do we know that the third panel represents hell because it is black there? While the central panel is bright and vibrant and therefore cannot be a hellscape? Remove the color and the depiction looks strikingly similar.
This, of course, is the point. What IS the difference between human delight run completely amok, and hell itself? Perhaps it really is just the coloring we give it. For, whether we like it or not, humans do have a historical tendency to descend into hellish chaos when our delights run wild and undisciplined. We crave structure. We like inherently to put things into boxes; in their “proper place.” And we crave pleasure too. But only pleasure all day every day quickly becomes chaotic, or else it becomes boring and unbearable and we go looking for trouble, looking for chaos, just so that we have some chaos to make ordered. Too much chaos, too much delight, turns out to be as impossible to bear as too much order or burden. So perhaps Eden is not where we find true happiness after all. Perhaps only delight all the time gets boring. Or it gets chaotic. Or both. Perhaps this is why Utopia as Paradise does not exist.
We still have one word left to dissect though, and that word is paradise. Because, though it is listed as synonymous with Eden and Utopia, I would argue strongly that it is not at all the same. We’ve already covered the dictionary definition of the word, since it is so inextricably tied to the definition of Eden, but what about the etymology of “paradise?”
As it turns out, paradise doesn’t appear to have any ties to “delight” except in its use and subsequent entanglement in the Garden of Eden. “Paradise” originally comes from an old Iranian word, pairi-daêza, meaning “walled enclosure.” And is found in the First Persian Empire (330BE- 550BC) to refer to the empire’s “walled gardens.” Further, as the word evolved in Iranian, it curiously lost all sense of walls entirely and became merely a garden or vegetable patch. Why then, is paradise a walled garden?
Here we can only speculate. But I suspect there is something fundamental in this speculation, even if it cannot strictly be proven. So let’s speculate: What is a walled garden? Well, a garden is nature. Nature is a bit chaotic. It’s certainly awesome in the original sense of that word (“extremely impressive or daunting; inspiring great admiration, apprehension, or fear”). And that combination of daunting and inspiring certainly speaks of the call to adventure- the urge to go out beyond the familiar and conquer the unknown, which is always a bit chaotic. If the garden is a garden of delights, then it can obviously get chaotic, because as we have seen, those delights can run amok. Except in this case, the garden runs into a wall—a wall on every side, in fact. Because this garden is enclosed. This chaos is enclosed. It is contained. It is not permitted to spill over into true unbridled chaos, say. Maybe, while still nature and therefore still awesome, this chaos is contained- familiar, domesticated, even just a bit. Maybe a walled garden is the perfect balance of chaos and order. Of delight and structure. Of nature and industry. Of wild and settled. Maybe that’s why it is the optimal place for human beings, we creatures who seem always to be chasing chaos in order to make order out of it; in order that we may integrate wild unknowns into our known domain (another ancient meaning for ‘paradise,’ by the way).
We chase the unknown, so that we can make it known. And then, having made the previously unknown integrated, having successfully enclosed a bit of chaos and gotten it sufficiently in order, say, we get bored with it, and so set off again to seek new and greater unknowns, and integrate them as well. We humans constantly balance the known and the unknown, chaos and order, delight and structure, walking the middle ground like a tight rope, for if we stray too far in either direction, we descend into a hellish existence, either clawing our own eyes out in boredom, completely crushed by tyrannical an immovable structure, or becoming completely overwhelmed and swamped by chaos.
Is it a coincidence, by the way, that “bored” and “border” sound so similar? Etymologically speaking, it would seem yes. A border is “the line between the wild and the settled regions,” while bored comes from bores, which are used to drill holes. Yet they are undeniably similar words. One encloses, draws a line quite literally between chaos and order, and the other tends to be suffocating, a slow torturous rehashing of the same familiar things, like something small slowly boring into your existence. Perhaps the moment when “bordered” slips into “bored” is the moment where there is insufficient chaos available within the current walls, and that insufficiency, that border, bores into us. And so we must cure the boredom with more chaos. We must adventure. So we head outside of the walls, into the wilderness, forever chasing the sun towards endless new horizons.
Because as it turns out, this search for adventure, this continual striving out into the unknown, so that we can make it known, this pursuit, is where we humans seem to find the most satisfaction. The happiest we ever seem to be is when we are balancing the chaos and the order, when we have sufficiently ordered our domains and then set out to chase new horizons, one foot in reliable structure, one foot tremulously stepping out into wild unknowns. We are happiest in the balance. We are happiest in walled gardens. We are happiest in the pursuit.
So, as Captain Jack Sparrow says at the end of his adventure, now…bring me that horizon.