The Secret Meaning of Paradise is That it Too is Hell

In Cynthia Ozick’s The Puttermesser Papers, the remarkable Miss Puttermesser is introduced in an ironic tone that announces the mayhem to come. In reading this book, one discards the realist mode of interpretation for the surreal. Puttermesser is an erudite figure who is extraordinarily learned in almost everything from philosophy, history, to the arts. But intelligent as she is, Puttermesser languishes in the lower rungs of the city bureaucracy until she creates a female golem that helps her become mayor of New York City. From her rise to the limelight, the reform and beautification of the city, up to her fall from power, a futile love affair ala George Eliot, and her adoption of a cousin from the Soviet Union, The Puttermesser Papers become more Bizarre with each turn of the page. It all reads like an absurd dream, a senseless carnival. But just as one gets used to this logic of the episodic rise and fall, the last chapter arrives. The ironic tone is then replaced with a melancholy one. We are told that she was in fact in paradise already, a state of mind where she can conjure the “lost, the missing, the wished-for. The unfinished and the unachieved. Not the record of her life as she had lived it, but as she had failed to live it.”

Timelessness does not promise the permanence of any experience. Where there is no time, there is no endurance. Without the measure of clocks, what is lastingness?


In Paradise, where sight and insight, inner and outer, sweet and salt, logic and illogic, are shuffled in the manner of a kaleidoscope, nothing is permanent. Nothing will stay. All is ephemeral. There is not long and no short; there is only immeasurable isness. Isness alone is forever; or name it essence or soul. But the images within the soul shift, drift, wander. Paradise is a dream bearing the inscription on Solomon’s seal: this too will pass.

And that is the secret meaning of Paradise: Solomon’s truth. It is the other reason for the notorious cold-heartedness of Paradise; it is why everyone who is supernally happy in Paradise, happier than ever before. A dream that flowers only to be undone will bring more misery than a dream that has never come true at all.

The secret meaning of Paradise is that it too is hell. ■


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