Thursday, August 25, 2011

Interpreting The Garden of Earthly Delights

The Garden of Earthly Delights fascinates me because it is a sort of sensual paradise. A Garden of Eden, but where carnality replaces innocence. There is a wealth of intriguing detail to be studied in Hieronymous Bosch's thusly-titled triptych, but I'd like to address its overarching interpretation. It is popularly seen to be a warning about the sin of lust. That embracing a hedonistic lifestyle leads one down a slippery slope to total chaos and anarchy - and that such indulgence will inevitably be punished.

The left panel of the triptych seems to depict the Garden of Eden, at the moment that God introduces Adam to Eve. This is the genesis of man's carnal desire. The central panel depicts the Garden of Earthly Delights, which seems to be the logical progression from Eve's seduction of Adam, in which all kinds of people engage in carnal pleasures, plain and profane. Then, in the right panel, we see these people being punished for their sins of indulgence in a frightening nighttime hellscape.

The implication is seemingly clear, but I like to approach it from a different perspective - not as a progression from sin to punishment, but as a warning about the line where indulgence crosses into anarchy, as well as an illustration of the path (back) towards paradise. In the left panel, in the Garden of Eden, mankind is still young, and has yet to populate the earth, but the animals are abundant. Some of them are hunting and killing one another, as is the natural way. In the right panel, in Hell, demons taking on the distorted forms of animals violently punish men for various sinful activities. Only in the central panel, in the Garden of Earthly Delights, where man and animal alike are distracted by the pursuit of pleasure, is there a seeming harmony of sensual enjoyment.

In my view, sexual indulgence does not necessarily lead to unrestrained hedonism. Sex is a source of joy and happiness, and it brings people together. It distracts us from our other instincts - our selfish, dominating instincts, that lead us to inflict violence and suffering upon one another, and to pursue our own interests at the cost of others'. This is what's going on in the hellish right panel, and it's why we're being punished. That is what the world is like today. We shun positive expressions of sexuality, yet we glorify violence. We live in an earthly hell because we've forgotten paradise, and we'd rather hurt than love one another. Is it too late to go back? To return to the garden? I don't know, but we can try. All we have to do is lay down our weapons and redirect our aggression towards the pursuit of carnal pleasure. Then maybe someday we can again walk naked and happy across the land, at one with nature and at peace with all of mankind, pure though not innocent.

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