On Writing A Heaven of Others


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In the summer of 2004, I wrote a novel I called A Heaven of Others. Any synopsis makes it seem even more like the millennial fable I’d hoped it would be: A young Jewish boy is exploded by a young Muslim suicide bomber on a Jerusalem street. Through chance, divine error, or because the assailant embraced the boy so violently, Jonathan Schwarzstein (a German surname meaning “blackstone,” here meant to invoke the Ka’aba, the black stone of Mecca, and, also, a whiff of American magic) is whisked into the Muslim Heaven. He’s rewarded—as if a martyred murderer himself—with the virgins known as houris, and is pursued as an infidel by creatures torn from the bestiary of night; ultimately, he attempts to find the man named Mohammed, who is rumored to be able to restore him to the heaven of his own belief. Which is to say, the Jewish Heaven, just past “the Valley of Nails”… It’s still uncertain, though, both to the character and to me, his Jewish creator now three years older and wiser, whether that heaven, or any other, exists.

Before writing this book, the study of the afterlife (I’m sure there’s an exact Greek term I’ve not yet found) fascinated me. I borrowed books, bought what I could, and read for hours. I realize now that my research speaks to my fear of death, and my fear of dying without believing in anything next. On the recommendation of no one, I read through the works of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), who claimed to have talked nightly with angels, and to have had total, unsupervised access to heaven—to the afterlife, at least, of Christian belief. His De Caelo et ejus Mirabilibus et de Inferno: Ex Auditis et Visis (known in English as Heaven and Hell, because Swedenborg was equally familiar with the Inferno) is a vast account of these journeys. Here is an unfortunately typical passage: “The angels taken collectively are called heaven, for they constitute heaven; and yet that which makes heaven in general and in particular is the Divine that goes forth from the Lord and flows into the angels and is received by them. And as the Divine that goes forth from the Lord is the good of love and the truth of faith, the angels are angels and are heaven in the measure in which they receive good and truth from the Lord.” Swedenborg is readable for an occasional metaphysical beauty: There is no notion of time in heaven, he tells us; there is only one language there, and all the angels speak it (“angelic language has nothing in common with human languages”; Swedenborg spent years searching for a universal language, until he discovered that language was the universe itself); according to Swedenborg, every heaven has its corresponding hell, some forested, others of desert; “in some of the hells there are nothing but brothels, disgusting to the sight and filled with every kind of filth and excrement.”

I found the Muslim heaven to be more sanitary, not a brothel but sensual, if still misogynistic. This is because the ideal of the Muslim heaven—fountains, feathery pillows, and goblets of non-intoxicant wines—evolved from a time and tradition of poetry or imaginative writing, whereas that of the Christian heaven evolved from the purgatorial dictates of theology. The explicit accounts of Arabic poetries and Hadith or homiletics as derived from the Koran, the Book of Books, have since been usurped by the filmic mirage of a Scheherazade Theme Park, with hackneyed harems and sleepy oases, plastic-palm-treed and amply outfitted with camel. Abu al-Ala al-Ma’arri (973-1058) was a poet heretic, as he did not believe in the afterlife about which he wrote. His masterpiece, The Epistle of Forgiveness, sends a friend of his, referred to as the Sheikh, to heaven, where he encounters a host of signs and wonders, not least of which are unveiled virgins of his own (“houri” is said to derive from hour al-in, meaning that the whites of their eyes, in, contrast with exceptional purity, hour, with the blacks of their irises). Al-Ma’arri, regarded as the Muslim Lucretius, writes with a bitterness not to be found in more popular Arabiana; his is not the world of the 1,001 Nights or the travelogues of Marco Polo, but of the liberated satire of Swift: “After this the Sheikh, wishing to satisfy his curiosity concerning the creation of houris, was led by an angel to a tree called ‘The Tree of the Houris,’ which was laden with every sort of fruit. ‘Take one of these fruits,’ said the guide, ‘and break it.’ And lo! there came forth therefrom a maiden with large black eyes, who informed the Sheikh that she had looked forward to this meeting four thousand years ere the beginning of the world…" (translated by R.A. Nicholson, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1900, reprinted in Night & Horses & the Desert: An Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature, ed. Irwin, 2001). An irony here is that earlier, a handful of houris had revealed themselves to the Sheikh in their worldly incarnations: “Being one of the ugliest women in Aleppo, I renounced worldly vanities and devoted myself to the service of God… Hence I am what you see.”

The Christian writing had given me the breath of Swedenborg’s Hyperborea, the cold wind of a moralist north, sternly theological, and the Muslim texts had seduced me with their southerly heat, honeyed rivers, overripe fruit, and poetic refinement, which left for orientation only east and west—the most difficult of the directions, or allegiances, to reconcile. Judaism, a historic attempt at such reconciliation, I did not have to read about. It was the tradition that raised me—mystical, and yet at the turn of a page practical, dogmatically mundane. Jews believe, or should believe, in olam haba, literally translating as “The World to Come,” which is, accurately, this world if and when Messianically perfected, and not “The Next World,” or any other world, past or future. Because Jews have this world and only this world, they have been particularly sensitive to the lives they live on and of it. It is in this spirit that Judaism forbids martyrdom by suicide; the only way a Jew might become martyred is if he or she is killed, not if they kill themselves. For Jews, heaven is on earth, or of the earth; reality and perfection are considered synonymous terms, per the philosophy of Spinoza. Judaism’s conception of heaven is much like its conception—until the 20th century, and its genocide, intervened—of Zion: expressively metaphorical, or symbolic. For Jews, especially those after Spinoza’s Enlightenment, heaven is not the attainment of souls, but the work of the living embodied. 

Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism, meaning “the handed-down,” or “tradition”) often seems its own religion, though. Its conception of heaven, unlike Torah or Talmudic Judaism’s, is concrete, as it is sevenfold: According to Kabbalah, the Seven Heavens telescopically expand from Shemayim (a plural in Hebrew, often translated as “sky,” “firmament,” or “heavens”) through the seventh, Arabot, which serves as the dwelling place of Yahweh, or His presence: “As for Arabot,” the Zohar tells us, “one would need one thousand five hundred years to cover its whole length, and the selfsame number for traversing its breadth. All the heavens are lighted from the radiance of Arabot.” Islam also believes in seven heavens, though it has its own mystical tradition that distinguishes between heaven (as-samawat, where Allah dwells), and what might be called “paradise” (al-janna, itself sevenfold and four-gardened, which is where the souls of the righteous live when they die). The heavens of these septenary hierarchies seem to be posthumous versions of Creation cosmology given belief, or strict theological system: There are any number of religions that believe the earth—whether created by Chaos, or by the wind inseminating an original egg—is not held up or in place by an Atlas or the Law of Gravity, but by animals arranged in an infinite regression, stacked into the ether, as if in the eternal assembly of an immense Russian doll. There are Native American tribes that believe the earth is balanced on the back of a great snake. India has it that the world is held by four elephants that stand on the back of a turtle. There is that probably apocryphal story of Bertrand Russell, whose science was challenged by a woman who said that the world was balanced on the shell of a giant tortoise. Russell asked her what the tortoise itself was standing on. The woman answered him it was “tortoises all the way down.”

A Heaven of Others begins as a novel, but ends half in poetry’s east, and half in philosophy’s west—as if straddling the ocean that separates New York's Diaspora from Israel's representation of Zion. These are the texts that floated me safely between: besides the writings already mentioned, the fictions of S.Y. Agnon and Franz Kafka, the poetries of Paul Celan, Nelly Sachs, John Milton, and Saul Tchernichovsky (the lattermost of whom gave his name to Jonathan’s Jerusalem street); the cosmogonies attributed to Orpheus and Hesiod, Thomas More’s Utopia, science-fiction from Voltaire’s to that of modern “minority interests” (I’ve enjoyed not as much reading as reading about Hebrew and Arabic sci-fi) and, if they can be called texts, the Saturday evening cartoons I’d watch at my Nanny’s house, especially those in which a certain coyote would plunge from a cliff and yet, never die. In the novel’s earliest pages, ladders are climbed, pigs are flown (in this world, heaven exists “when pigs fly,” though I’m also referencing the common characterization of infidels as porcine and so, unclean), houris are befriended, and Jonathan undertakes a pilgrimage not to Mecca or Medina but to Mohammed Himself, only to abandon this search and so his posthumous future at a decisive moment that involves, perhaps too obviously, a serpent. The book’s latter portion—it was written heavenly, in seven chapters—is occupied with questions such as the following: Are people still religious in Heaven? Does a Sabbath exist in Heaven? Do dead people pray, why, and for what? The absurdity of such an inquisition marks the corpse of my own politics and religious belief like the tape around a police scene.

A Heaven of Others violates Judaism’s Second Commandment: It represents the human form, made in the image of God, and does so lovingly, though that form is here disfigured with nail-packed-explosives. And though the book significantly depicts the Muslim heaven, I’m not sure Mohammed Himself is depicted: Though “He” is never physically described (this, I am told, is what would get me killed, were I to be interested in such publicity), he is, certainly, a presence. Too innocent of zeal to engage with news tickers’ timely Apocalypse, I set out to make not propaganda but literature, and so a secular art, an art of peace. A Heaven of Others attempts to put to rest the idea of an afterlife established exclusively for one religion or race—which in turn might cast doubt on the idea of our mortal lives lived to such exclusion; behind borders, fences, or walls. At the end—I’m giving nothing away—Jonathan remains where he is, in “a heaven of others,” and, in remaining, becomes an “other” himself. The author, too, became changed. I wrote this book in three weeks, and didn’t sleep much. I wrote it by hand in a black notebook currently in the possession of the artist Michael Hafftka, who did the book’s respectfully dark illustrations. Then, I had no money as I had no job, no love and no Internet (and doesn’t the Internet seem like an afterlife for those still alive?). I finished writing on Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day. Thinking back to that summer, I’m reminded of the verses of Dante, and his own description of Paradise:

Nel ciel che più de la sua luce prende
I was in that heaven, which receives

fu' io, e vidi cose che ridire
more of His light. He who comes down from there

né sa né può chi di là sù discende;
can neither know nor tell what he has seen,

perché appressando sé al suo disire,
for, drawing near to its desire,

nostro intelletto si profonda tanto,
so deeply is our intellect immersed

che dietro la memoria non può ire.
that memory cannot follow after it.