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Forever Elsewhere

Cranach Digital Archive/Wikimedia Commons

Lucas Cranach the Elder: The Garden of Eden, circa 1530

Cranach Digital Archive/Wikimedia Commons

Lucas Cranach the Elder: The Garden of Eden, circa 1530

At the beginning was the Garden. Call it what you like: Eden, the Garden of Earthly Delights, Childhood—“Other than childhood, what was there in those days that no longer is?” wrote the Poet.1 The Garden was inhabited only by a young couple, a forever young couple (but these days the word certainly calls for precision: a couple, yes, I mean: a man, a woman). They were named Adam and Eve, him, Adam, her, Eve. The Garden had been grown for them alone, a bespoke Garden. Everything was at their fingertips, the most delicious fruits, golden grapes, vermilion or crimson berries. There was nothing to do in this Garden, the orchard provided abundant fruit without anyone tending to it, and their diet must have been largely vegetarian; the animals, the peaceful lion and sheep, served only as decor. They had nothing else to do in the Garden but go for walks, circling around and around, bathe in the large pool of the fountain, expose their innocent nudity to the endless sun, and then perhaps, somehow, indulge in chaste passions.

Sometimes they strode to the very end of the garden, up to the fence, a high wall covered with espalier trees whose fruit, apples and pears, gorged on the sun’s glory.

It’s the Greek bible that gave the Garden the name Paradise (paradeisos). According to scholars, this word was borrowed from the Persian language and denoted a protected garden, constructed for the enjoyment of nobles or the king. So, shall we imagine something like what we call a Jardin de Curé, or even a Clos Normand, lined with apple trees? In any case, it was written there in black and white: NO LEAVING THE GARDEN.

We know the end of the story and how our forever young couple was banished from the Garden by the irascible landowner. They permitted themselves to taste the fruit that was absolutely forbidden to taste. What a story! A bit formulaic, always the same. So, in keeping with the inalienable rights of the Storyteller, allow me to invent a different fall from grace. We’ll let Imagination, that Madwoman of the house, roam about the Garden.

*

Right in the middle of the Garden is a tall tree, maybe two, depending on the version. Our young people, fairly bored of their comings and goings between the walls of the Garden, decide to climb the tree. Who has not, as a child, dreamed of a little tree house on the highest branch? The landowner is angry: “Don’t climb trees, you little rascals, or you’ll end up getting hurt! You aren’t monkeys.” The rascals pay no mind, they scale the tall tree, from branch to branch, up to the top. The birds of paradise, whose colorful feathers reflect, it is said, the fiery wings of seraphs, greet them with their joyous trumpets. The top of the tree where our intrepid climbers swing is higher than the wall. They discover that beyond the wall there are vast landscapes with hills, forests, gleaming white mountains, and perhaps the sea. They discover that beyond the wall there is an Elsewhere.

Must the story’s fall inevitably be Adam’s and Eve’s? Of course not! Adam, and especially Eve were impertinent. Surely they said to their old bearded landlord:

We’ve had enough of your garden. It’s always the same! We’re bored! We want to explore Elsewhere.

Well, answered the inflexible owner, do what you like, take a hike to this Elsewhere. But if you do, you’ll lose all your privileges: no more guarantee of immortal life, no more promise of perpetual health, no more endless holiday vouchers. And don’t come crawling back to me. I’m shutting the Garden. I’ll put an archangel security guard in front of the gate. His instructions will be: “No one enters!”

We’ll see for ourselves, says Eve, maybe there is always something else beyond the horizon. So, we can go?

And our first couple departs forevermore, heads high, from the Garden of Eden.

When they ran to the horizon and behind the horizon, they discovered another horizon and after each horizon, they spotted a new horizon to reach. And this is how the human species, as curious as rats, populated the entire earth.

Having, they believed, gone beyond the final horizon, there were none left for them except that unattainable horizon of Utopia.

*

Theologians of all stripes rushed to send Paradise to seventh heaven, behind the insurmountable obstacle of death. But nostalgia for the lost Garden, for the ineradicable earthly Paradise, has haunted mankind’s imagination for a long time. The Garden was empty but it still existed somewhere, at the far reaches of the world, in an Elsewhere that evaded us each time we thought we were drawing near. For centuries libraries have overflowed with books on this inexhaustible subject, since Eden is not in any Elsewhere to be found.

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Where is Eden located then, if not at the borders of imaginary empires like that of Prester John, “illustrious and magnificent king of the Indies”? We could thus estimate that heaven on earth was located in Central Asia, behind very tall mountains, at the end of a merciless desert, and always out of reach. But Prester John didn’t stay in one place and he was found, two centuries later, in Africa, emperor of Ethiopia; his domains, populated with monstrous creatures, not far from the sources of the Nile, were of course always located near the inaccessible Garden of Eden. But in the sixteenth century, intrepid Jesuits dispelled the myth and a Portuguese task force saved the Negus and his kingdom from an Islamic invasion. Ethiopia “went down in history,” according to Western standards.

The Edenic Garden had not, however, finished its peregrinations. Of course the sixteenth century brought what were called “the great discoveries.” The Garden disembarked with Christopher Columbus in the Americas. He notes in his journal of the third voyage, referring to the mouth of the Orinoco: “For I believe that the earthly Paradise lies here, which no evil can enter except by God’s leave.” And isn’t it possible that those unknown rivers are the four rivers originating in Eden, and the massive river that will later be called the Amazon, isn’t it the Gihon that, according to the Bible, encircles the earthly Paradise in its meandering?

The American paradise soon turned to hell for all of the Africans who, thrown by the cargoload onto coffee, sugarcane, or cotton plantations, were subjected to the damnation of slavery. They were promptly baptized: they could put up with suffering on earth if their masters granted them the possibility of a prudently celestial Paradise. The slaves listened to the preaching of pastors, some could even read their Book. The King James Bible spoke of Ethiopia and Ethiopia was all of Africa. The Book of Exodus was rectified: Moses was black, married to an Ethiopian woman; after killing a white overseer, he liberated his people and led them to the Promised Land which, for the deported Africans under the yoke of slavery, could only be the ancestral land, Mother Africa. Numerous were the back-to-Africa endeavors, a few under the aegis of slaveholders who seized the opportunity to get rid of black people who had become dangerous or too numerous, others organized by African Americans like Marcus Garvey who, at the beginning of the twentieth century, founded the shipping company the Black Star Line, or the Jamaican Rastas who established their Promised Land in Shashemene, Ethiopia. And Bob Marley sang of the great return:

We’re going to our Father’s land
Exodus
Movement of Jah people
Send us another brother Moses
From across the Red Sea

In one of my books I imagined that Sister Deborah, African American prophetess and thaumaturge, designated Rwanda the Promised Land for all black women, “a thousand years of happiness for the women!”2

Today a sad Mother Africa mourns the exodus of her children, bewitched by the mirage of lands of abundance. But on the shores of the Mediterranean or the English Channel, there is no Moses to part the sea with his magic staff. The overloaded dinghy or fishing boat risk submerging them along with their dreams in the belly of the ocean.

But what ocean, what rampart could stop those for whom a life finally worth living exists Elsewhere? The Promised Land, so close and so far, forever Elsewhere.

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