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The Seven Heavens Over the Hawaiian Islands

Kahoiawa Bay on the Island of Hawaii
Kahoiawa Bay on the Island of Hawaii

Russians have now seen images of the Hawaiian Islands on television, and in magazines and newspapers. Still, it is not really possible without having been there, especially from Russia with its serious winters, to really imagine the wonderful feeling of being in the Hawaiian Islands. Because this set of islands – eight main islands made up of “shield volcanoes” (those that form from quiet lava flows, rather than explosions) – is in the center of the Northern Pacific Ocean, its climate and weather are determined predominately by the ocean. I recall arriving in Hawaii in mid-December, at the main International Airport near the state capital of Honolulu, and being amazed that some walls at the airport do not exist! The average annual temperature there was about 23.9° C (about 75° F) year-round! It was so very pleasant.

Americans often casually tend to talk about Hawaii, the Hawaiian Islands, as “paradise”, “paradisiacal”, “heavenly”. And though such common popular notions and related images are used, even by commercial travel agents, state tourist bureaus, and advertising agencies, there are, in fact, very deep beliefs and ideas behind them. Rarely clearly understood or conceived – these are ideas which are very revealing of the meeting of “East” and “West”, and especially of an aspect of Western cultural psychology: a tendency to “materialize” the spiritual, to imagine it in physical and earthly terms.

America was named not after Christopher Columbus, but after Amerigo Vespucci, in part because Vespucci recognized that it was a novum mundi, and not the earthly location of the East’s “Eden”, which Columbus died still believing he had come near to discovering at the mouth of what would come to be called the Amazon River. Throughout the “Age of Discovery and Exploration”, there were the mythical “cities of gold”, or “paradisiacal life” in the quest of the Europeans. Most often they had gone eastward to find the East; Columbus had gone westward to find the East.

The United States of America – in activities extending back into the 19th century, and still legally disputed to this day – incorporated the Hawaiian Islands as the 50th state on August 21, 1959. While Hawaii had long been popularly mythologized as a “paradise”; it was only after the conclusion of World War II, and the growth of mass, middle-class tourism, that a trip to “paradise” became possible for people other than the rather wealthy, sailors, adventurers, Christian missionaries, or American soldiers stationed in the US Territory of Hawaii. (The Christian missionaries had often seen the Hawaiian native culture as sinful, and set about eradicating it, as was common practice in many of the colonized areas around the world.)

An intellectual from New York City, also a friend of mine, had located his ideal of “paradise” – his true, pure, good, natural, real, authentic, “home” and ideal condition of mankind, in his imagination of Hawaii. Such an idea – of an imagined, pure condition of man, in some sort of primeval blessed state, has been labeled “primitivism” or “neo-primitivism” by cultural anthropologists; and such is a real part of daily, collective, American national psychology (at least for a large portion of the US people, even if not in a very reflective manner). My friend placed his ideal in the image of the life of the “noble savage” living in peaceful harmony with nature – not the brutal savage à la Hobbes, or Darwin. Man was – he asserted – supposed to live “naturally”, in the peaceful jungle, eating (with no Biblical “sweat from his brow”) the bountiful fruits growing there; living “harmoniously” in a hand-made thatched hut, naturally with a beautiful companion, “in communion with nature”, and, presumably, since he was an intellectual – discussing great ideas with his jungle neighbors in the pure, true state of man and community. For, in the need and search for the ideal of man, nature and society, the best, “true” way for man to live, being “natural” (or, as the hippies restated it, “back to nature”) was thought by them to mean physical nature. And here we have a symptomatic cultural example of how an idea can be “materialized”, brought down to a different, more earthly level.

In California, and in many places in the USA (in some portions of the society) one notes a tendency to believe that one can almost eat one’s way to heaven, to a pure human condition. “Organic, natural food stores” filled with “chemically-free” produce and products, natural cotton-fiber clothing (now “certified organically-grown”), pure water, physical health, pleasures and exercise, “getting into touch with one’s body”, “one’s true self”, “living in harmony with nature”, in peace with others, are aspects of widely-held ideals – almost always conceived and imagined physically. Though it is common in the world’s spiritual lores and religious traditions to speak of man as being of body, soul and spirit – such traditional distinctions were seldom clearly drawn, recognized, or understood, in a place like California, and the physical-bodily life, with a peaceful soul, has come to carry all of the ideas and ideals usually divided over the three. (And the distinction between soul and spirit, and personality, is usually hopelessly confused, and blended also with the physical-bodily life, so that one can in California today often hear of, for example, the “spirituality” of exercise (such as jogging, sex, eating, etc.).

Though this is most all laudable in itself; this direction shows a naiveté, an ahistoria, and the “folly of self-learning” (Jefferson). For physical pain, suffering, death and violence in nature, man (history and society) are not answered by the sweatless brow of the striving for a physical earthly paradise. This is a mass cultural presumption, that Hawaii is an earthly paradise. But this shows a materialization, an “earthification” of heaven – very popular in American psychology.

“You can’t eat your way to heaven”, I said to my somewhat dreamy intellectual friend. “Paradise is not earthly”, I argued time and again, supporting my arguments with texts and references from the origin and history of the ideas of “paradise” and “heaven”. He espoused a popular Japanese naturalists’ idea that not only was nature naturally good, but that it should be allowed to grow naturally, with little or no interference by man. In such a system, there is no “fall of man” or nature – both are inherently good, harmonious and benevolent. Yet brief but full quote from the American philosopher Emerson holds a very different view of man and nature. As Emerson wrote in one of his essays: The moon never shines so brightly, as when it shines on your necessary journey.

The argument with my friend continued over the years – resurfacing many times directly and indirectly. He always espoused the image and ideal of a natural-physical paradise as the true state of man – explaining evil, social problems and death, in ways I repeatedly said were hopelessly inadequate.

Finally I had my own first occasion to travel to Hawaii. From California – especially during the tourist “off-season” – one can fly from San Francisco for example, to Hawaii and back, for about $200 dollars! So off I flew to my first visit in “paradise”, where I decided to stay on “the Garden Island” of Kauai. It is the oldest island, with a population of only 51,000, and the state park where I pitched my simple tent and had a restroom facility (toilets and showers for men and women) donated by a periodic vacationer Sylvester Stallone (who probably has a nearby vacation mansion). While land prices have made it difficult to live there simply – even (or especially) for poor native Hawaiians, due to land taxes – now there are supermarkets full of produce and products from the mainland (add about $1.00 for everything from the mainland, due to added transportation costs), one can still camp on a beautiful beach, with the huge Pacific Ocean waves crashing (safely) just 20 meters away, for about $7.00 per night.

My Hawaiian vacation took me, eventually – amidst my other pursuits – into Kauai’s small public library to read up on native Hawaiian lore. I wanted to know what Hawaiians themselves thought of their “paradise”. E. S. C. Handy’s Polynesian Religion (1927) was a real delight to read, and soon it not only answered my questions, but also contained materials which addressed the idea of Hawaii as a “paradise”. A scholarly work, it clearly presented the ideas of the Hawaiian (and “polynesian” – many islands) cosmology and anthropology. Within two days of reading, the naturalistic, physical, earthly – “materialistic” – manner in which America had imagined the originally immaterial idea of “paradise” was absolutely clear. For what did the native Hawaiians think about paradise, and their islands?

What they, the native Hawaiians, thought was profoundly deeper than the Hollywood films (sentimental and shallow, or not), the rich and superrich with their exclusive hotels (or private vacation mansions) on one island or other; or the middle-level tourists (labeled “tourist-, economy- and budget-class” travelers) who went to “paradise” for the pleasures of swimming, scuba diving, sight-seeing, eating, relaxing, shopping, sex, etc. For the native Hawaiians – and these “ideas” were hinted at all over the islands in their temples, myths, language and lore, their legends, native mores, etc., (though the tourists seldom knew much about the “exotic” Hawaiian beliefs) – “paradise” was not only not their islands, but was located, they believed, seven immaterial worlds above their “paradisiacal” islands. And not only that, but the true home, the true inner being of man, was understood to have some seven invisible, immaterial aspects, for which the physical body and its life were the lowest, merely earthly parts! And it was not the natural fruit which grew abundantly in the jungles, in the often calm and cool trade winds, but the beautiful ethereal worlds of light above which were the true paradisiacal home of the inner being of man.

The mysteries of human existence, before birth and after death, are seemingly permanent features of our lives, and our need to understand the world and our places in it. But it is a mistake to seek on earth, even in the wonderful and pleasant islands of Hawaii, for realities which are held to be otherworldly. For many centuries Western Man understood himself to be just a visitor on this earth; the idea of the Hawaiian Islands, or some place near the Amazon River, as “paradise” shows not only a confusion of ideas, but a lost sense and understanding of the true inner being of Man, whose home, as the Hawaiians also held, is not in this world . . . no matter what the tourist ads and Hollywood films might show!

First published in the magazine English, #2, January 1999, p. 14.