LONDON -- As one who once wrote a book titled "The Golden Age Is in Us," I took myself off on a Saturday to see Paradise, an exhibition at the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square. The traveling show had already been shown in Bristol and Newcastle, attracting 160,000 people, apparently double what they would have expected normally in those galleries. People want to know the lineaments of paradise, whose earthly possibilities utopians used to spend much time usefully describing, though not much anymore.

            The show turned out to be patchy, with the curator scraping together a show from available ingredients, such as a Boucher, a Gauguin, a Constable, a Monet, a Rothko, a couple of Renaissance paintings and so forth. But making my visit entirely worthwhile was one marvelous painting, one of Stanley Spencer's Cookham paintings about the Last Judgment, done in 1934. It shows a dustman resurrected in his beefy wife's arms, she in "ecstatic communion with the dustman's corduroy trousers," as Spencer put it. Other dustmen and women, plus a cat, surround the couple.

            "I feel, in this Dustman picture," Spencer wrote, "that it is like watching and experiencing the inside of a sexual experience. They are all in a state of anticipation and gratitude to each other. They are each to the other, and all to any one of them, as peaceful as the privacy of a lavatory. I cannot feel anything is Heaven where there is any forced exclusion of any sexual desire . . .

            "The picture is to express a joy of life through intimacy. All the signs and tokens of home life, such as the cabbage leaves and teapot which I have so much loved that I have had them resurrected from the dustbin because they are reminders of home life and peace, and are worthy of being adored as the dustman is. I only like to paint what makes me feel happy. As a child I was always looking on rubbish heaps and dustbins with a feeling of wonder. I like to feel that, while in life things like pots and brushes and clothes etc may cease to be used, they will in some way be reinstated, and in this Dustman picture I try to express something of this wish and need I feel for things to be restored. That is the feeling that makes the children take out the broken teapot and empty jam tin."

            Small things these, but there was also a big new thing in Spencer's life, namely his attraction to a new arrival in Cookham, Patricia Preece. Patricia was famous as having been the cause of the death of W.S. Gilbert, the librettist of the noted team of Gilbert & Sullivan. Aged 17 in 1911 and under her birth name of Ruby, she caught the eye of randy old Gilbert, who invited her to come for a swim in the lake at his Harrow home. As she splashed about, he conceived, or professed to conceive, the notion that she was out of her depth and might drown. Swimming out, no doubt planning to clasp her in a savior's embrace, he had a heart attack and died in front of her. The press had a fine time describing her as a "fair-haired 17-year old schoolgirl."

            It's the presence of Patricia, though not her image, that suffuses the painting with sexual ecstasy, even though it's Spencer's wife, the ample Hilda (who'd fled from Cookham to her mother in Hampstead), who is in ecstatic communion with the corduroy trousers.

            It's as earthy and beautiful an expression of the paradise of carnal passion as Joyce's pages in "Ulysses" about Bloom looking at Gertie. Though Spencer was a member of the Royal Academy and had the right to hang four paintings in the annual show, it was rejected, prompting his furious resignation. This great painting was without a purchaser till a Liverpool gallery bought it in 1947.

            Whoever thought to put Spencer into the Paradise exhibit got it right. In ancient times, death in the Golden Age was always incorporated into life as a sensate pleasure, followed immediately by an improved life, the way most folks, including all those flocking to the show in Bristol and Newcastle, would like it. In those earlier times, they had Saturnalia, which meant not so much drunken sex sprees as subversion of the conventional moral order.

            For Saturnalia, senators and slave owners would put aside their stately togas and kindred marks of rank and don shapeless garments known as syntheses (the dialectic-made cloth). The prime metaphor of the Saturnalia was freedom from all bondage -- the bondage of poverty, of wealth, of the laws and, above all, time. Slaves set up a mock king and were served delicious fare by their masters. Such delicacies, given to the powerless by the powerful, were called "second tables," because temporarily, at the level of palpable fantasy, the tables were turned. Each household became a mimic republic, in which slaves held first rank. The law courts were closed. Gifts were exchanged. The Lords of Misrule reigned. There was always something dangerous about jovial Saturn, an element of the hooved and the horned. Later, debauchery gained the upper hand, and the revolutionary element began to drain away. Witness the rituals of Comus and Rex at New Orleans' Mardi Gras.

            So paradise, the golden age, is fun and it's subversive, which means for us on the radical/left/libertarian end it should be our goal and our sales pitch. We don't want a paradise conceived of by Quakers, or social-democratic engineers, or by John Donne, who prophetically conceived of paradise as a modern airport waiting lounge:

            "Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening into the house and gate of heaven, to enter that gate and dwell in that house, where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light; no noise nor silence, but one equal music; no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession; no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity; in the habitations of thy glory and dominion, world without end."

            Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at COPYRIGHT 2003 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.