Paradise is a modern invention. True, before modernity there was Eden, as well as the Elysian Fields, Dante’s Paradiso, the Persian and Muslim heavens, and utopias of every description. But most of these were achieved, the reward of martial or moral virtue or of rational political organization. Eden was bestowed, but only conditionally, to be gained or lost through a test. Paradise, on the other hand, is discovered. One society, forced into civilization by a grudging environment, expands, explores, and in the process stumbles on another society to whom nature has been more generous, cradling it in timeless, effortless, isolated perfection. The classic text of modern paradise-invention is Bougainville’s Voyage by Diderot, a fictionalized account of a real journey to the South Pacific, and its founding act was Captain James Cook’s arrival in Tahiti in 1769.
Tahiti has figured prominently in the European and North American imagination, usually by way of contrast, as an occasion for asking whether civilization is really worth the trouble. Something like this question was on novelist and essayist Larry McMurtry’s mind when he arrived in Tahiti for three weeks last winter. “Civilization,” in this case, meant his parents’ lives, and in particular their long and unhappy marriage. Dry, flat Archer County, Texas, their lifelong home, was not reached by whites much before Tahiti was; but ever since then, however wild ‘n woolly and (like Tahiti) “innocent of history,” it has been highly civilized in at least two respects: the unyielding effort required for economic survival and the strict sexual morality required for social status. Hard work and respectability may be what made America great, but they also seem to have cramped Hazel and Jeff McMurtry’s existence severely.
Paradise broaches these large themes only in passing. It is, perhaps fittingly, an unstrenuous book: part journal, part memoir, part travelogue, and like the trip it records, very pleasant but too short to amount to much. McMurtry, as readers of his fine essay collections In a Narrow Grave and Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen will know, cannot write a slack or a self-important sentence. But he is on vacation in Paradise and seems unwilling to work too hard.
The easy abundance of Tahiti – “a place whose beauty neither writers nor painters nor mariners have ever managed to overstate” – makes a poignant backdrop for thinking about Jeff McMurtry’s near-addictive sense of responsibility and his wife’s simultaneous hunger for and fear of pleasure. The young couple was forced to live for several years with a domineering mother-in-law, and it soured their marriage. McMurtry lightly, deftly sketches their grievances and disappointments, then invokes a past master who might have done justice to their small-scale American tragedy. “Dreiser, better than anyone, understood dollar determinism: how not having enough money to realize even the most modest dreams, such as the dream of having a little privacy with one’s young wife, slowly squeezed relationships out of shape.” McMurtry’s epitaph for the relationship is less sociological, more fatalistic: “Life turned out from under them like a fine cutting horse will turn out from under an inexperienced rider.”
After Tahiti, McMurtry rides a freighter to the even remoter Marquesas Islands with a group of Europeans and Americans. They are mostly paradise-seekers, professedly in search of the rare and unspoiled, though their appetite for snapshots, trinkets, and gossip about other passengers classes them as fairly ordinary tourists. McMurtry observes, drolly and a touch sarcastically, as the fastidious French raise their eyebrows over the clumsily self-assertive Germans and as, one minute, nearly everyone laments that the distant places have become so much less pristine and the next minute proudly recounts his or her own far-flung travels, without ever making any connection between the former and the latter.
And the inhabitants of paradise. There are only glimpses. The women of Hakaheuta, “large, impressive, and impassive,” sit behind displays of their beadwork and shellwork, much as the women of New Mexico pueblos sit behind their silverwork and pottery. The high-school students who perform native dances for McMurtry’s group are utterly convincing, though the author spies them beforehand “sitting in an Isuzu pickup, listening to Sting.”
The payoff of Paradise, apart from the pleasure of its sentences, is a few scattered thoughts on “the problem of perfection.” One of them will have to do here. McMurtry remarks that Paul Gauguin, who has taught most Westerners much of what they know about Tahiti, “looked hard at the earthly paradise … and saw that it was sad. He looked as hard as anyone has at the languor, even the hopelessness, at the edge of the fleshly life. Much as he loved and tried to draw the beauty, he saw, always, the ache within it.” Tantalizing, like the rest of this short, sweet book.