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N a new book, "The Quest for Paradise: Visions of Heaven and Eternity in the World's Myths and Religions," John Ashton, the Bible scholar, and Tom Whyte, a former BBC journalist, include as an illustration a beautiful 17th- century Iranian painting of a woman standing in a garden. She is a houri, they suggest, one of those pure, black-eyed virgins awaiting the righteous in the Garden of Paradise, according to the Koran.
Paradise, like righteousness, is a concept about which opinions clearly differ. That is one of the truisms of Sept. 11. Not all cultures even imagine paradise as a place like a garden. For some paradise has been a state of enlightenment; for others it is the distant past or future liberation or eternal life on earth. It can even be endless fighting: Valhalla, Odin's palace in Asgard, where the gods lived (a myth derived, Mr. Ashton and Mr. Whyte remind us, not from German mythology but from the Icelandic Edda sagas), was reserved for dead warriors, who every evening would be fed supper by the Valkyries so that every morning they could wake up ready to joust in preparation for the Ragnarok, doomsday, when they would all be gleefully slaughtered as they battled giants.
Whether it is pictured as a kind of heavenly boot camp leading to annihilation or as a garden of ready virgins, paradise has been widely considered to entail as an entrance requirement some kind of physical renunciation. The Vikings carved pictures of warriors sailing to paradise after dying in battle; the Chinese painted Kuan- Yin of the Thousand Arms, the Bodhisattva of compassion and spiritual son of Buddha Amitabha, who is the keeper of the Pure Land, paradise for the faithful. The art of Western civilization, until a few hundred years ago, was just about synonymous with Christian images of martyrs who occupied Heaven.
We take for granted that paradise should entail sacrifice, if not martyrdom otherwise, what would be the point of guilt, suffering and penance? but many ancient peoples made it much tougher to enter than you might think. The Aztecs called paradise Tlalocan, eternally warm and abundant, but open exclusively, or almost exclusively, to people who drowned or were struck dead by lightning.
Paradise might also be a state of eternal remembrance. Gilgamesh survived death, according to an ancient Sumerian tablet, because his name (it was Bilgames in Sumerian, Gilgamesh in Akkadian) would "never be forgotten" although it was, for about 3,000 years, until Sumerian and Akkadian cuneiform scripts were decoded during the 19th century.
That was fortunate, because the afterlife was no paradise to the Sumerians: it was a dark state like Hamlet's "undiscover'd country from whose bourn/No traveler returns" in contrast to heaven for the Egyptians, where royalty went. Other Egyptians could aspire to the Field of Rushes, beyond the horizon to the east. The field was encircled by water (not the River Styx, which was a Greek myth) over which a ferryman guided the dead. They had to answer correctly various questions before being allowed into what different accounts described as a realm of barley, canals, breezes and excellent sex. The Book of the Dead shows painted images of the blessed farming, rowing and reaping paradisiacal bliss in the field.
As for Greece and Rome, paradise, a word that derives from the Persian pairidaeza, meaning walled garden, was not in the vocabulary of Homer or Hesiod. They imagined instead a long-lost Golden Age, remote from the wretched present, like the lost Hindu age of krita, except that for Hindus the cycle of ages is repeated endlessly. The Greeks also had Mount Olympus, where the gods lived, although the deities fought so much that it hardly seemed like paradise. Then there were the Elysian Fields, which Homer said were open only to heroes but in other accounts awaited initiates to the Eleusinian mysteries.
"The Quest for Paradise" (HarperSanFrancisco, 2001) ends with American Eden, which, strictly speaking, is not paradise but utopia. For the founding fathers and several generations of Americans, America itself was the promised land in a New World unsullied by civilization: earthly heaven as virgin nature.
"As a true patriot, I should be ashamed to think that Adam in paradise was more favorably situated on the whole than the backwoodsman in this country," Thoreau wrote during the 1860's. But, Mr. Ashton and Mr. Whyte observe, this thought implied a paradox: that "American Adam wants to be back in the garden, but clothed rather than naked, innocent yet equipped with the knowledge of good and evil." Utopian innocence was only a pose in other words, a mirage.
A word coined in 1516 by Thomas More, "utopia" was originally a pun, meaning both a good place and no place. No place is a perfectly good place, More implied. Utopia began from this pessimistic assumption, and one could argue that it has remained on some level a negative idea. Utopias inevitably slouch toward dystopias. Hitler imagined Nazi Germany as a utopian society.
The unspoiled American West, a territorial clean slate for hopeful settlers from the Eastern States, was Manifest Destiny's utopian fantasy before it became another market to exploit. Utopia is never paradise.
But we still keep concocting new utopian schemes, maybe because, as Frederik L. Polak, the Dutch sociologist and utopian philosopher, wrote not long ago for the catalog of an exhibition about utopia at the New York Public Library: "If Western man now stops thinking and dreaming the materials of new images of the future and attempts to shut himself up in the present, out of longing for security and for fear of the future, his civilization will come to an end.
"He has no choice but to dream or to die, condemning the whole of Western society to die with him."