This is a bizarre hybrid, the last of a long series of curatorial essays, but also a completely autonomous argument, which will be posted on counterforces.blogspot.com as well as the Facebook event page of the exhibition.
The Garden Of Earthly Delights: My Own Interpretation, Which I Have Figured Out At Long Last, Too Late To Do Anybody Any Good
written on the day after the quincentenary of the funeral Mass for Hieronymus Bosch, and five days after the opening of the Whitespace Gallery exhibition “The Garden of Unearthly Delights: Hieronymus Bosch in the 21st Century”
I indicated in an earlier essay that I thought that there was something wrong with the art historians’ insistence that Bosch was a good Catholic, therefore he could not have approved of the things going on in the central panel of the so-called Garden of Earthly Delights, and therefore this must not be a Garden of Earthly Delights at all, but rather an allegory of depraved humankind before it was wiped out in Noah’s Flood. (To quote from the International Standard Version of Matthew 24:38-29, “In those days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage right up to the day when Noah went into the ark. They were unaware of what was happening until the flood came and swept all of them away.” Note that whatever the inhabitants of the Garden of Earthly Delights are doing while being blissfully unaware, their behavior is not anything like the business as usual that Jesus describes in these verses of the Gospel.)
I indicated in that same essay that I was impressed by Hans Belting’s notion that the painting is a speculation about what would have happened if Adam and Eve had never eaten of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Belting thought that the whole central panel was a fantasia on how the world would have been populated if there had never been shame at nakedness and sexual attraction; the Church Fathers in the West of Europe had to cope with a Latin mistranslation of Genesis that described Eden as a Paradise of Lust. (That’s Belting’s translation, and apparently the meaning assumed by the Church Fathers; but “voluptas,” in the dictionary, means “pleasure,” and the classical novelist Apuleius makes Voluptas, the daughter of Cupid and Psyche, not the Goddess of Lust but something like the Goddess of Delight or the Goddess of [generalized] Sensual Pleasure—and the text of Apuleius printed in 1469 derives from manuscript copies made by medieval intellectuals in monasteries.* Hmmm….) The austere Saint Augustine proposed that sexual congress would have taken place in an unfallen world without the desire to possess or conquer the other. But he wasn’t happy about his hypothesis; Augustine had had ample experience of the pitfalls involved in sexual relationships, and he probably couldn’t really imagine how any one of the Seven Deadly Sins could avoid involving all the others.
And since pain in childbirth was part of the fallen human condition, presumably birth in a vast unfallen world outside of the enclosed Garden of Eden would have to be something quite different…Belting doesn’t quote any Church Fathers on this topic, nor on what the Earth would look like if a sinless form of lust were allowed but greed, envy, pride, gluttony, sloth, and anger were not.
Bosch is definitely down on those particular deadly sins; his other paintings are vicious satires on unconscious, sloppy and excessive consumption of all sorts, and of the competitive instincts of a merchant class bent on accumulating wealth, but also of the type of lazy behavior typified by clerics and monastics more interested in food and sleep than in prayer or the study of Scripture. His wary pilgrim through the world looks back at a tavern-brothel where a degraded two-bit version of pleasure is the chief commodity. But the world through which the pilgrim goes is a pretty dismal place overall; there are no flowers, and mostly the trees turn out to be dead, or devoid of leaves because winter is coming on. The choice is between an austere virtue and a sinful realm of pleasure that really isn’t very attractive. Beauty is not an option.
So what would a world look like in which voluptas was allowed but the other deadly sins were not? (And is voluptas even a deadly sin? The word for “lust” in the Latin version of the deadly sins is luxuria.) I think that whether Bosch really believed it or half-wished for it or just set himself the task as a whimsical joke to please his aristocratic patron, he set out to make a picture of what would have happened if humans hadn’t eaten of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and thus remained innocent of the consequences of excess or even the possibility of it. The goings-on in the central panel certainly would be grounds for damnation in the world as we know it; but at the same time the inhabitants are so innocent that they fail to notice any anomalies in the strange paradise they dwell in, or reflect upon it no more than they reflect upon their innocently transgressive behavior. They are uniformly unaware, and live in some alternate universe in which birth takes place by peculiar means if it takes place at all, but their cluelessness means that they do not experience envy, greed, pride, or anger, and all of them seem too blissed out to make their active indolence into sloth or their pleasure in gobbling up gigantic fruit into gluttony. Nobody is demanding a more interesting form of gourmandizing. Naked women are wearing birds on their heads without making this interesting form of minimal attire into competitive couture. Everyone seems delighted by what everyone else is doing, although it looks like the boisterous behavior of the males cavorting on odd animals might be on its way to upsetting the applecart.
The central panel has retained the naïve pleasure shown in the left-hand panel of the Garden of Eden, which shows Adam’s bewildered delight at finding that a God Who looks like Jesus has provided a female companion, who also looks baffled but rather pleased at the arrangement. Perhaps the God Who appears in human form is pleased to know that because His newly created beings will avoid self-destructive desire for more than is good for them, He will not have to be born in Bethlehem or suffer death on a cross. (This is the paradox with which church intellectuals tortured themselves: if God could know all possible futures, why didn’t He simply make it impossible for beings who were created with the power of choice never to make the choice He didn’t want? But then God would be incapable of creating “choice” at all, and God can create anything He chooses. But then God cannot both create choice and create the inevitability of the outcome He would prefer, which means that God prefers choice and thus prefers the possibility of the outcome He would prefer not to have happen, and thus He prefers to make something despite the prospect of thereby not getting some other thing that He really wants, and we are in that downspin of mythology masquerading as theological logic that will lead, half a millennium later, to Carl Jung’s weirdly mythological Answer to Job.)
Assuming, after that parenthetical excursion into church history, that Bosch portrayed a sinless Paradise of Lust in the left-hand and central panels, this is not the world we live in; our forebears ate of the tree of knowledge, and therefore we have the option of self-awareness to keep us from the excess that leads to the deadly sins; and thus the right-hand panel shows the doleful consequences of a life spent in idle gambling, persistent drunkenness, continuous lechery, and the elaboration of liturgical music far beyond the simple plainchant that produces spiritual depth instead of pride at one’s own sophistication.
Excess leads to torment of one sort or another. One wonders if Bosch was aware of the excessive pleasure he was taking in producing his own form of the worst aesthetic excess imaginable. I like to think that he did, whether he chortled at the conundrum or felt guilty at his own sin of imagination run rampant.
I am quite certain that I am projecting thoughts and emotions into Bosch that are probably impossible for a fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century painter in northern Europe, no matter how many books he read in the library of that business-friendly religious brotherhood, and that the art historians’ plodding explanations are closer to the truth. But we never know our own minds, or the ultimate consequences of our fantastic notions, and I wonder if in The Garden of Earthly Delights we are not witnessing the birth of a concatenation of ideas that will lead, three centuries later, to Heinrich von Kleist’s imaginary dialogue “On the Marionette Theatre,” with its proposition that self-awareness is the original sin that leads to the fall from Paradise, and that only awareness of the problems caused by self-awareness can bring us back to Paradise again. If I may conclude by quoting from the translation by Idris Perry:
“’Misconceptions like this are unavoidable,’ he said, ‘now that we've eaten of the tree of knowledge. But Paradise is locked and bolted, and the cherubim stands behind us. We have to go on and make the journey round the world to see if it is perhaps open somewhere at the back.’ [….]
"’Does that mean,’ I said in some bewilderment, ‘that we must eat again of the tree of knowledge in order to return to the state of innocence?’
"’Of course,’ he said, ‘but that's the final chapter in the history of the world.’"
*This speculation wasn’t supposed to be a scholarly essay, but it seems to have turned into one in the parenthetical digressions. I got the textual transmission of Apuleius’ tale of Cupid and Psyche from a quick online reading of bits of Robert H. F. Carver, The Protean Ass: The Metamorphoses of Apuleius from Antiquity to the Renaissance (Oxford University Press, 2008). Hans Belting, Hieronymus Bosch: Garden of Earthly Delights, 2003, 2005, new ed. Prestel, 2016. C. G. Jung, Antwort auf Hiob, 1952, English tr. Answer to Job, 1954. Idris Perry tr. of Heinrich von Kleist, “On the Marionette Theatre,” http://www.southerncrossreview.org/9/kleist.htm