Nothing in Heaven functions as it ought:
Peter’s bifocals, blindly sat on, crack;
His gates lurch wide with the cackle of a cock,
Not turn with a hush of gold as Milton had thought;
Gangs of the slaughtered innocents keep huffing
The nimbus off the Venerable Bede
Like that of an old dandelion gone to seed;
And the beatific choir keep breaking up, coughing.
But Hell, sleek Hell, hath no freewheeling part:
None takes his own sweet time, none quickens pace.
Ask anyone, “How come you here, poor heart?”—
And he will slot a quarter through his face.
You’ll hear an instant click, a tear will start
Imprinted with an abstract of his case.
— X.J. Kennedy
I’m not much for poetry. I’m a story-driven reader and my preference is for prose. I’m also one of those tiresome people who likes their poems to rhyme. Otherwise, it just seems like flash fiction with lots of line breaks.
This poem hooked me, years ago, when I was still in college. My college years numbered more than most. I could have gotten my PhD for all the time I spent there. But finances dictated that I must go part time. Fortunately, I landed a job at the university, and in those golden days one of the staff benefits was the opportunity to take classes for free. So I browsed the catalog and followed my interests. Nearly eight years later I finally graduated with a BA in Philosophy and English with a minor in Religious Studies. That last one might seem odd for an atheist. I wanted to make sure I understood what it was I didn’t believe in.
I expect it was in an English class that I encountered “Nothing in Heaven Functions as it Ought.” And it resonated with me. Counter to theistic myth, with its perfect, omniscient and omnipotent god presiding over paradise, the poem presented version of Good that rang true, that reflected the stumbling, imperfect struggle of good people in the real world, their ideals constantly scuttled by circumstances. Good people and institutions, whose very compassion and gentleness, forgiving of weakness, tolerant of imperfection, makes them vulnerable.
Then there’s Hell, pitilessly cranking in well-oiled, dehumanized efficiency, like the machines of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Hell is the Corporation, cutthroat and fiercely competitive, with no patience for the weak or slow, indifferent to suffering, concerned only with results and profit, human needs and frailty be damned. Hell is data points, high-stakes testing, winners rewarded and trap doors opened under the losers.
Many in my circles joke that they must certainly be going to Hell for their sins, but they don’t mind a bit since all the most interesting people must be headed there, too. We feel we’d be in very congenial company, especially if Heaven is populated with the righteously intolerant who are constantly judging the rest of us and finding us wanting. It has also been said many times that a Perfect God who would damn His creations to eternal torment because of the flaws He created them with is not worth our worship. I think most of us find idea of a mysterious God who is to be feared and sacrificed to, who regards us all as wretchedly unworthy sinners who can avoid eternal punishment only through His grace, is jarringly incompatible with what we understand to be the essence of Goodness. Many believers are on board with this, and have re-imagined God into a very different deity from the genocidal maniac of the Old Testament.
I recall my class discussing the X.J. Kennedy poem, speculating that it was a commentary on the industrial revolution and mechanized society, possibly even an indictment of Law or Science, or secular institutions. Good cases can be made for all these assertions. For me the meaning in the poem is much broader. Significant, I think, is the lack of mention of either God or Satan. Heaven and Hell are states of being, not mythological destinations post mortem, ruled by complimentary dieties. They are attitudes, philosophies, ways of looking at the world and judging what matters.
By placing the highest value on success, accomplishment, efficiency, perfection and zero tolerance for any deviation from the path towards the goal, we achieve Hell, sleek, smooth and shining. By placing the highest value on happiness, tolerance, compassion, creative expression and acceptance of humanity, warts and all, we achieve Heaven, where nothing functions as it ought.
I know where I’d rather be.