The Plains of Heaven

An Introduction to
Paradise Engineering

'The Plains of Heaven' by John Martin (1789-1854)

On February 1st 1829 a passionately religious citizen of York went to evensong in the Minster. When the service finished, he waited until the church had emptied and then climbed over the iron railing into the choir and set alight to a velvet cushion and part of a curtain. To stoke up the blaze, he added more cushions and hymnbooks and escaped by climbing a scaffold in the north transept, knocking a hole in the window and lowering himself down to the ground on a bell rope.

Now the Minster roof was ablaze and it looked as if the whole structure was doomed. About midday, the huge oak roof timbers split apart, lead melted and poured down from the roof and the burning wreckage crashed down into the ruined choir. This accident, disastrous though it was, made the conflagration accessible to fire fighters and it was eventually put out.

Once order had been restored, everyone asked who had wreaked the appalling damage? Finding the arsonist did not turn out to be a problem as three anonymous letters had been written over the previous weeks, one of which had threatened, “Your greet Minstairs and churchis will cum rattling down upon your gilty heads!” One of the letters bore the signature JM and an address: number 60 Aldwark. The arsonist - a religious fanatic called Jonathan Martin - was captured within days and brought to trial in York on April 2, 1829. The courtroom was so crowded that the lawyers could barely find room to sit down. Martin was found guilty but not of sound mind and was consigned to Bedlam or Bethlehem Asylum in London. The citizens of York would have preferred to see him hanged.

Earlier Jonathan had been inspired by an appalling dream in which “a wonderful thick cloud came from the heavens and rested upon the cathedral” and then moved over to rest upon his lodging. He asked the Lord what it meant and was told “that I was to destroy the cathedral, on account of the clergy going to plays, and balls, playing at cards and drinking wine, so fulfilling the will of God, that old men should see visions and the young men dream dreams…”

What I was fascinated to discover was that Jonathan Martin, arsonist, was the brother of John Martin, the Victorian painter who specialised in highly detailed paintings of biblical doom and gloom offset by equally striking paradisial compositions. Martin's paintings (several are in the Tate) depict ruined cities and thousands of unfortunates consumed in a fiery hell as the earth opens and swallows them up. These works were often regarded as bombastic illustrations of the book of revelation but admired for their handling of light and space. “No painter has ever,” a critic wrote in 1828, “like Martin, represented the immensity of space - none like him has made architecture so sublime, merely through its vastness: no painter, like him, has spread forth the boundless valley, or piled mountain upon mountain to sky - like him has none made light pour down in dazzling floods from Heaven; and none like him painted ‘darkness visible’ of the infernal deeps.”

Savage Gods
Do we have here a simple Jeckyll and Hyde analogy, two fervent brothers, fascinated by catastrophe and ecstasy, mapping out the topographies of Heaven and Hell? But why should Jonathan Martin turn his wrath on a building of such beauty and endurance? Why should his devotion conceal a raging violence? Martin was a certifiable madman yet other religious figures have shown a similar antagonism, such as the Puritans, smashing up the ‘Popish’ statuary in medieval churches and cathedrals. Martin Luther positively smouldered with fury and defiance and so did other preachers and religious leaders, no doubt emulating Jehovah himself, who was never short of a thunderbolt or two to inflict on long-suffering humanity. In fact, so many centuries had people spent worshipping gods full of ire and thunder that, when Jesus came along open-handed, his message was speedily malformed it into a manifesto of cruelty and oppression, literally ‘killing for Christ’ in countless crusades and religious persecutions. The offer of heaven was quickly transformed into hell.

Dialect of Suffering
If man is not shaking his fist at the sky like Jonathan Martin, he is dumbly enduring suffering and celebrating that, too. This attitude pervades Western European culture. As a child, I spent a great deal of time enjoying my reading matter. Richmal Crompton I found hilarious and the Dandy and Beano equally uplifting (despite their stubborn conviction that nothing in the world was funnier than a radish-faced teacher slippering a boy’s upturned rump: hence nearly all stories ended on that motif accompanied by shouts of ‘Yaroo!’ or ‘Aaargh!’), but as I grew up, I was told to read works like Hardy, Shakespeare and Eliot. Initially I found them not to my taste - vastly inferior to the ‘Just William’ stories - but I was told to study them in order to pass exams. At first I found their catalogue of pledges and disavowals dispiriting and tedious, but I wanted to understand literature. So I persisted until I was able to appreciate the psychological mechanics behind these works. I started to translate the dialect of suffering, viewing narrative as little more than an escalating catalogue of fatalities, an inexorable advance of the gathering Furies. Later I read Steiner on tragedy and stuff about the great European tradition in which the oppressed hero holds his head high as he nobly endures the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. By then I had lost my juvenile sense of fun. Steadily a gallows humour replaced it and a concomitant cynicism. I had been educated into a tragic view of life by a society who translated culture in terms of the portrayal of noble but flawed humans endlessly bringing down on themselves long vigils of agony and torment. And religion itself only appeared to underline this view, for the primary symbol it offered was that of a bleeding man crowned by thorns impaled to a cross. The second great symbol was of a knight in armour belabouring his non-Christian foes with a broadsword. No other effective ikon lay between the poles of masochism and violence, save for the Virgin Mary, but she was passively presented as a dewy eyed comforter - a woman who, after the men had returned from killing ‘infidels’, would stroke their brows and soothe their perspiration-riddled vendettas.

A New Blueprint
Of course, Colin Wilson blasted a deep hole in this shibboleth. In book after book, starting with (now reprinted) The Age of Defeat, he chiseled away at the idea of this age being too pessimistic and unheroic and needing to be spiritually tempered. In several of his studies, he took a long look at the worst, chronicling the antics of murderers and sex-maniacs, delving among their mental detritus to find a grain of hope in man’s enduring will and capacity to convert dull states of mind to surging peak and highs. His idea - familiar to all Abraxas readers - was that man was amply endowed to tackle his own intrinsic flaws, but that he was intellectually lazy, too easily bored and depressed, and that he should bestir himself and self-evolve by fine-tuning his mind to achieve a succession of peak experiences or, more ideally, one extended peak that would grant him the wherewithal to transform reality into a joyful, fascinating, permanently absorbing phenomenon, almost like Plato’s realm of archetypes. In a sense, his work beats an important route through the traditional paths leading us up to the next evolutionary corner. Taking the present-day model of man, he suggests the key to self-betterment lies in higher states of consciousness.

Naturally other thinkers are interested in the same problem, many having an approach like Colin’s, choosing to utilise what is given rather than working on the human blueprint so to speak. All of them are interesting if not strikingly radical in approach. But then, a few weeks ago, came an email from the distinguished psychiatrist, Professor Bruce Charlton, who had earlier contributed a fine article on the peak experience (Abraxas 14). He urged me to look up a website created by a “visionary genius” called David Pearce which “includes a variety of intricately linked sites on the general topic of technologies for human fulfilment - the possibilities of a next step in human evolution facilitated by psychopharmacology and genetic engineering, a project broadly similar to Colin Wilson's, although the means to the end are different.”

Brave New Dystopia
I was advised to enter the site by way of a 35-page article on Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World which Pearce, while acknowledging its literary skill and pervasive irony, designated as an ‘insidious’ influence that cast a shadow of foreboding over the exciting new science of genetic engineering. (For a more positive view, one should read Huxley’s Island) In BNW Huxley’s heaven was built upon the old model. He showed it overrun with refugees and trace-elements from hell.

Wondering how he would qualify this challenging judgment, I read on and was immediately absorbed and fascinated. Well, maybe not immediately because I must to confess to an initial difficulty in absorbing some of David’s high-octane, jargon-spiked, irony-streaked freak-speak which nevertheless becomes extremely catchy and effective as one succumbs - and one inevitably does - to its pulsing, polysyllabic skirl. Take this for a sample:

“Whether pain takes the form of the eternal Treblinka of our Fordist factory farms and conveyor-belt killing factories, or whether it’s manifested as the cruelties of a living world still governed by natural selection, the sheer viciousness of the Darwinian Era is likely to horrify our morally saner near-descendants. A few centuries hence - the chronological details are sketchy - hordes of self-replicating nanorobots armed with retroviral vectors and the power of on-board quantum supercomputers will hunt out the biomolecular signature of aversive experience all the way down the phylogenetic tree; and genetically eliminate it. Meanwhile, depot-contraception, not merciless predation, will control population in our wildlife parks. Carnivorous killing-machines - and that includes dear misunderstood kitty, a beautiful sociopath - will be re-programmed or phased out. Down on the farm, tasty, genetically-engineered ambrosia will replace abused sentience. For paradise-engineering entails global veganism. Utopia cannot be built on top of an ecosystem of pain and fear. Unfortunately, this is an issue on which Brave New World is silent.”

Designer Drugs
The attack on Huxley is not a literary analysis but a head-on demolition of the premise of BNW. Utilising his superior knowledge of bioscience and mind-transforming drugs, David Pearce points out that BNW was a piece of “ill-conceived futurology” that wielded satire to promote the ancient regimen of pain, endowing the ideal society with features bound to alienate and annoy the majority of readers. Huxley shows open sympathy for John Savage, the exiled outsider, who vigorously defends his right to die, suffer pain, hardship, disease cold and wet. He contrasts such rugged individualism with the drearily benign routines of the utopians. He does not even equip the occupants of BNW with an effective drug to transform their lives, only soma, a banal, boring euphoriant which endows its imbibers with a kind of empty-headed bliss rather than a heightened ability to engage and direct their talents. Society in BNW is hierarchical and stratified, the intellectually superior Gammas contrasting with the docile Alphas who cheerfully taken on all the menial tasks:

“In BNW, there is no depth of feeling, no ferment of ideas, and no artistic creativity. Individuality is suppressed. Intellectual excitement and discovery have been abolished. Its inhabitants are laboratory-grown clones, bottled and standardised from the hatchery. They are conditioned and indoctrinated and even brainwashed in their sleep. The utopians are never educated to prize thinking for themselves. In BNW, the twin goals of happiness and stability - both social and personal - are not just prized but effectively equated.”
What Huxley portrays, David argues, is a puritanical libel on the real thing. With modern bioscience, we have the ability to draw up a new heaven and earth, where there is no need for any Alphas to come into existence or perform dreary, slavish tasks. The form of things, as we know them, can be re-moulded to plunge us into states of ecstasy and fulfillment that our present-day, selfish, DNA-dictated minds are utterly incapable of grasping. As for drugs, they are not the moral pollutants but self-empowering gateways that will open up “revolutionary new space-states of thought and emotion.”

As the dark age of the Darwinian era recedes into history, the magic trinity of chemicals - empathogens, entactogens and entheogens - will take us into ardently intensified, utterly purified, eternally extending echo-chambers of joy. “In time,” he warns us, “the deliberate re-creation of today’s state-spectrum of normal waking and dreaming consciousness may be outlawed as cruel and immoral.”

Upgrading the Neural Software
Unlike Colin Wilson’s prognosis, that people are too lazy to harness their full range of mental resources, David Pearce maintains that, were people to summon every shred of willpower and self-discipline, things would go wrong because their neurotransmitter are adjusted so as to subvert their exalted aims. The human mind is faulty not because it does not control or discipline its disruptive elements but because it is enwired in a primitive limbic network that naturally and inevitably generates conflict, violence, jealousy and competitiveness. Furthermore, it’s no use sitting still for eternity and trying to meditate the structure away; that would be like asking a tiger to will its fangs and jaws to vanish. In order to improve ourselves, we have to re-design the temple and, what’s more, we now possess the technology to initiate a bold start. In other words, to make a truly ‘Brave New World’, man has to re-assemble himself on different lines emerge as homo sapiens correctus or homo sapiens sympathico.

Mad Martin
But to go back to where this article began, with Jonathan Martin and his brother, John, I should point out that the latter was far more than a painter of Biblical epics. He too, like David Pearce, was interested in altering social reality, but sought to obtain change through working on the environment rather than the body of man. Born in 1789 at Haydon Bridge, amid a landscape of lead pits and spoilheaps, he grew up in a one-roomed cottage with his mother, Isabella and his brothers, Jonathan, William and Richard and a fourth one who has not been traced. As a child, he was scared of the dark which he saw peopled with ghosts and hobgoblins and he feared that he might one day fall into the pits outside his home. When he grew up and developed his ideas, he came to be nicknamed ‘Mad Martin’ by some of his contemporaries, on account both of his brother’s antics and the weirdly advanced solutions he offered to problems like sanitation and the traffic that was suffocating the arteries of Britain’s industrial cities. His first major paintings appeared in an academy exhibition of 1812 and showed a series of ‘apocalyptic cityscapes’ which substituted the rational law of perspective with what the artist called “a perspective of feeling”. One of his works was entitled Marcus Curtius and showed the legendary Roman leaping into a chasm, knowing it would soon close over him, committing suicide in order to save his city. This was read as symbolic, for Martin poured ten years of his life and a small fortune into schemes for re-designing London, so that eventually he was rendered almost bankrupt. A paradise-haunted man, he saw the answer to social problems largely in terms of technology and goodwill reshaping the environment. Probably he saw human physiology as sacrosanct. As for his brother, Jonathan, sadly he was both God-inspired and demon-haunted, begging for some ministering angel to re-sculpt his psyche, so that he might occupy the heaven of his dreams rather than remain abandoned in the dysfunctional, misery-ridden brain of his genetic inheritance.

Paradise Engineering
If he were alive today, how could Jonathan be changed? The spearhead of David Pearce’s international campaign, launched in 1995, is what he styles “paradise-engineering”, a staggeringly ambitious global project which aims “to abolish the biological substrates of suffering…in all sentient life.” For the project does not stop at human beings. In David’s BNW, the more vicious carnivores of the animal kingdom - members of the cat family, for instance - would be genetically reprogrammed to socialise with mice and gazelles or else humanely phased out of the bio-system. One’s immediate reaction is to scoff at this, call it ridiculous, irreverent or impossible, but no, he says, not only is the concept simple, but technically feasible and morally urgent:

“At present, life on earth is controlled by self-replicating DNA. Selfish genes ensure that cruelty, pain, malaise are endemic to the living world. Yet all traditional religions, all social and economic ideologies, and all political parties, are alike in one respect. They ignore the biochemical roots of our ill-being. So the noisy trivia of party-politics distract us from what needs to be done. Fortunately, the old Darwinian order, driven by blind natural selection acting on random genetic mutations, is destined to pass into evolutionary history.”
David goes on to declare that third-millennium bioscience has provided us with the skill and insight necessary to “rewrite the vertebrate genome, redesign the global ecosystem and deliver genetically pre-programmed well-being.”

Redesigning Jonathan
What does this mean in practical terms? If one could locate Jonathan Martin, one would open up his body like a map and re-programme the neurotransmitters, fine-tune the adrenaline, dopamine and serotonin levels, so that he would permanently inhabit the Eden his brother so beguilingly depicts in several of his major compositions. Adrift on a chemical cloud, he would be able to glide across the plains of heaven with those angelic hosts from whom he felt cruelly separated on earth. He would have no need to kick against the pricks or burn cathedrals. While in the archaic Darwinian order, he had to endure a simultaneous heaven and hell raging in his skull - all those rebel angels fighting against each other - now there would be only heaven left, for he would be have been bio-engineered into an exciting post-human phase. And if he were ever to feel a shiver of the ancient violence stirring in his loins, he could harmlessly enact the deeds of any psychopath, world conqueror or stalking despot he chose, through virtual reality mechanisms that would provide an experience thousands of times more thrilling than those felt by Genghis Khan or Alexander the Great (though, of course, ideally speaking, such urges would never manifest themselves in a ‘corrected’ individual as the vastly increased voltage of empathogens would forestall such ignoble longings.) And if anyone says that such an ideology is pure fascism, one must answer that the smoothest-running Rolls or Mercedes Benz is fascist in the sense that all weak links and faulty parts have been replaced. By contrast the human engine runs on an erratic fuel supply and is prone to sudden breakdowns followed by amazing, uncontrollable surges of acceleration as it hurls itself over precipices of war, revolution, famine and chaos - a bit like Marcus Curtius plunging into the depths of the abyss.

Obliteration of Anguish
“The ethical importance,” David Pearce’s manifesto emphasises, “of the decisions we take can scarcely be exaggerated. For soon we'll be forced to choose how much suffering in the living world we want to conserve and create. Or whether instead we wish to abolish pain completely.”

Immediately at this point, an objection is heard. If you remove all sense of hell and pain from people, how can they function as human beings? Surely you need a little suffering and anguish in order to experience joy and ecstasy. But is that true? Probably not, for it leans heavily on a linguistic rather than a biological polarity. You see, the bandwidth of any chain of sensations is infinitely variable, infinitely textured. In the same way that there is a graph of suffering, ranging from petty ills and toothaches to soul-splitting anguish, there is an equivalent domain of pleasure from bovine contentment to the topmost pinnacle of bliss. In previous millennia, mankind has concentrated its practical and cultural skills on alleviating and exploring pain and suffering, and now it is its duty to wipe out the latter and open out a vast and hitherto untrodden range of positive, pleasure-giving, life-enhancing emotions and sensations. And this dialectic, it needs be emphasised, is not rooted in dumb hedonism or unabashed sex - though that too will be available should the subject desire it - or even a fixed state of serene contentment. Pleasure will be boundlessly amplified by a heightened curiosity about the world, a more immediate, tactile grasp of textures and tones, a profounder engagement and empathy with all sentient and non-sentient forms.

Mythic Validation
What about religion? Is not such an idea blasphemous? Is not this the ultimate Frankenstein scenario? Not at all - in actual fact David Pearce’s ideas are spiritual. Few people appreciate the distinction between the soul and spirit. Whereas the soul is a murky mixture of the good and bad things in men and women - sharing the common pool of lechery, greed, love, desire, hate and protectiveness - the spirit is the distilled essence of all the best qualities humankind can summon. Like any good Catholic, Christian, Jew, Hindu or Moslem, David Pearce is striving to subdue and eliminate the worst elements in human nature and take the best forward. He is in fact attacking ‘original sin’ at its neural root and clearing the decks for the next stage of ascent.

Eros Unbound
And, naturally, love, an important word in all religions, is not excluded from David’s radically compassionate system. The medical journalist Rita Carter likened romantic love to a ‘hormonal storm’, an impulsive surge of brain chemicals, a giddying furore of the senses and a quite hopeless basis on which to establish anything solid. David Pearce would agree with her. He wishes to take the jealously competitive Darwinian thrust out of this primal emotion, to expunge the cruel criterion of physical appearance and quell the selfish gene with its obsessive self-replicating urge, its wanton ravishing and planting, and replace it with something deeper, more mystical and satisfying. I am sure empathogens would be recruited to do some serious digging here - namely to broaden the obsessive beam of erotic concentration to embrace a universal banquet of the senses. At this point language is bound for falter, for we are invoking a phenomenology of responses that will have to evolve a huge new vocabulary in order to facilitate discourse.

People have argued that, even if the details are faulty, the essential vision of religion must be right. No one could have concocted a plethora of sacred texts, rituals and testament if there was not an essential nugget of truth there. Dare one say that perhaps that truth is actually what David Pearce is hinting at? Look inside yourself, find the Kingdom of Heaven there, is an oft-repeated dictum. Seek out the inner Christ. Is there not an analogy here with finding an Eden or paradise in the body? Admittedly, it may be presently surrounded by snake-haunted lianas and festering weeds, but it is there and perhaps all the visceral, operative imagery of Christianity - all those bleeding hearts, sacred hemorrhages and lacerated flesh - is a pointer to re-writing the vertebrate genome and separating inversive traits from those which can be creatively developed to accelerate our progression into the new post-human phase.

Equally pertinent are the ancient dragon legends. In a typical scenario, the knight rides forth and confronts the fire-spouting monster. A fierce and terrible combat ensues but eventually he subdues the beast and cuts off its head (or disconnects the primitive driver from its hardware). Next he splits open the head and finds inside a precious stone known as draconita or the philosopher’s stone, the flawless orb of knowledge, the jewel in the crown of existence.

To untangle this legendary metaphor, the dragon is the ancient Darwinian self-serving beast-in-man while the knight is a genetic surgeon who performs the necessary operation to bring the monster to perfection. The draconita stone plucked from the discarded carcase of the ancient limbic system is Homo Sapiens Sympathico - what David Pearce more radically refers to as ‘post-human’, implying a being so different from us that many of our traditional reference points - an unsightly litter of ailments and anguishes - will be barely recognisable to him. He will have to use his imagination to stretch out and embrace our antediluvian vocabulary of stoic endurance in the same way that we are barely able to sense a glimmer of the heights and gradations of joy and delight that he will experience on a daily basis.

A Failure in Heaven
“Anyone found using public transport over the age of thirty must be deemed a failure,” a titled lady once pronounced. That quote was going through my head as I completed this article and then took a bus journey amid the death-white clayhills and topaz lakes outside St Austell. It was early in the morning; there was a delicacy and lightness in the atmosphere that suggested a world stealthily creeping toward the solidity of being. Round a bend in the area of St Dennis, I came across a sudden vista. On one side a clayhill loomed like a Matterhorn, white-snouted and serene against an amethyst sky, and in the valley itself, misty green and deep as a volcanic lake, an immense flotilla of swanlike clouds were gliding and drifting. I knew I was looking down on The Plains of Heaven as envisioned by John Martin and thought that maybe nature had stepped in to accord with my train of thought.

NOTE. The foregoing, dragging in the Martin brothers, dragon-slaying, the literature of misery and other analogies more pertinent to the concerns of the editor, is akin to a mad ramble around the cellars and backdoors of the Taj Mahal. Now it is time to sample David Pearce undiluted. Tap in to or for illumination.

Paul Newman

first published in
ABRAXAS (2001)

Aldous Huxley
Huxley Hotlinks
The End Of Suffering?
The Abolitionist Project
DP interviewed in NeoFiles
Paradise-Engineering Websites
Who's Who in Brave New World
DP interview in SonntagZeitung
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Universal Utopia? by Charles McCormick
Aldous Huxley's Brave New World Revisited
Critique of Brave New World by David Pearce