There is a joke people used to tell here in South Louisiana. An old Cajun named Boudreaux dies and goes to hell. When he gets there, the devil greets him and says, “So, is it hot enough for you down here?”
Boudreaux answers, “Quite pleasant, actually. Reminds me of sittin’ on my front porch in July.”
The devil goes, cranks up the thermostat, and asks again, “Is it hot enough for you down here?”
Boudreaux laughs. “This ain’t no worse than fishin’ in my pirogue on the bayou.”
The devil, beginning to get rattled, cranks the thermostat up one more time. As the brimstones begin to boil, he asks, “Hot enough for you down here now, Boudreaux?”
Boudreaux wipes his brow and says, “Brings back memories. It’s just like bein’ out in the cane fields in the summertime.”
The devil, determined to make Boudreaux suffer, decides to turn the thermostat down as far as it will go. Icicles begin to form. A snow flurry turns into a squall, and soon all of hell looks like the North Pole. The devil returns to Boudreaux and cannot believe his eyes when he finds the old Cajun dancing and singing for joy. “Aren’t you cold, Boudreaux? What are you dancing for?”
“Mais cher,” returns Boudreaux, “I got to dance. The Saints just won the Superbowl!”
That joke became outdated in 2009 when the New Orleans Saints actually won the Superbowl (and I’m pretty sure hell froze over.) Unfortunately, Boudreaux’s sentiments about the temperature in Louisiana remain quite current. Joseph McDonough recently waxed eloquent on this blog about summer as a symbol of paradise, “as all the poets agree.” He and the poets are certainly correct. However, where I’m from, summer is the season of heatstroke, hurricanes, and disease-bearing mosquitoes. “Paradise” is the opposite of the word that comes to mind.
The problem with symbols is that they are often contranyms. Summer symbolizes heaven, but it also prefigures hell; the color red shows love but also hate; life itself represents both an unquestioned good and an inescapable drudgery through evil. No wonder so many people find literature, with its reliance on symbols, confusing. No wonder the orderly, empirical world of science and mathematics has gained such a hold on our modern intellectual life. Two plus two always equals four, but summer equals paradise equals damnation? Yikes.
Yet it was Albert Einstein who said, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” Fairy tales are little more than a distillation of confusing, multi-layered symbols. Why is this the work of true intelligence? Because the real work of being human is not to pursue the advancement of science for its own sake; the work of being human is to pursue the advancement of humanity. Orson Scott Card said, “We care about moral issues, nobility, decency, happiness, goodness—the issues that matter in the real world, but which can only be addressed, in their purity, in fiction.” (I would add: and poetry.) Literature is the laboratory of the moral life, where truth can often only be expressed in paradox. Only by giving do we receive; only by loving can we know what it means to be loved. Christians take this paradoxical logic to its most extreme conclusion–only by dying can we truly live.
The work of literature is to dare an honest gaze at the experience of being human, to explore our common morality or lack thereof. It would be dishonest if it did not deal in paradox. A symbol that could be directly equated with paradise but not with hell would fail to capture the truth of our human nature; we are creatures formed in the image and likeness of God who are nevertheless fallen, sinful beings. We ourselves are a paradox, and so is our world. Summer will always be warm days of relaxation soured by sunburn and storms. Winter will always be icy and barren, but brought to life by fire and friends. The trick is to be like Boudreaux: defy the devil, and find joy in them both.