Friday, January 21, 2011

John Milton after paradise

There are two shorter pieces by John Milton which round out the set of his poems in English.  They are Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes.  The former is the spiritual and intellectual successor to Paradise Lost, so essential that separating them into two pieces almost does them a disservice.  Revisiting my earlier, slightly embarrassing comparison of John Milton to Allen Ginsberg, one does not read Howl without reading Footnote to Howl.  Neither ought one fail to read this conclusion to Paradise Lost.  The latter work is a stage play in verse comprising the last day of Samson's life.  I shall start with that piece because I, and I daresay Milton would most likely agree, feel that the last word should go to Paradise Regained.

Samson Agonistes, while a compelling piece of theater (one that I would probably produce if I ever had a windfall large enough to fund my pipe-dream of The Chico Classical Theater Company.  You might even get away with an Evening with Milton: Act I: Comus, Intermission, Act II: Samson Agonistes.  They're only about 40 pages each), struck me as a fairly transparent metaphor for Milton himself in winter.  As I mentioned before, Milton was a vocal and prominent Puritan with leather patches on the arms of his coats from all the elbow rubbing he did with Oliver Cromwell's political elite.  Milton shrewdly went into a little more than retirement and a little less than hiding in the country after the restoration of the monarchy.  Milton was blind.  Milton famously had difficult relationships with women, possibly exacerbated by what modern eyes would find a "low view" of females.  Also, he was reported by his peers, even his sympathetic ones, to have been a difficult man.  His first wife left him after one month of marriage, returned, gave him two daughters, and died.  His daughters had a difficult time being around him.  His second wife died almost 20 years before he did.  Add to this the view of chastity that Milton once held in his early life (as seen in Comus) and his later, apparent view of male superiority (as seen in Paradise Lost) and it's not difficult to connect the dots to the scenes between Samson and Dalila (sic).

As blind Milton dictated these later works, it's difficult for me to refrain from imagining him laying on a leather couch while a bearded analyst writes it down on a notepad.  Samson talks about the curse of blindness, Samson is in a state of humiliation in the country of heathens, Samson's woman has betrayed him, Samson is impotent, infirm, and powerless.  Of course, then, there is the finale of going out in a blaze of glory, a hero's death, mixed with the elevated tragic figure (which Milton, in the introduction, made sure to point out is elevated, classical, and heroic.)  All of which would sound like hubris on Milton's part were it not for the delightful fact that the verse is masterful and absolutely sublime.  In other words, a lot of people can go around saying they are the greatest poet in the English language, but only one person isn't going to look like a fool when they say it.

Initially, I had assumed that Paradise Regained would deal mainly with either Christ's crucifixion and resurrection or the Second Coming.  Instead, the poem deals with Christ's temptation by Satan in the wilderness.  It is a microcosmic signpost pointing to the holographic defeat of Satan in the Son of God.  Indeed, one could make a credible argument that Satan is the main character in the Paradise series.  It certainly ends up being a story of his defeat and, I think, this later work should lay to rest any scholarly speculation of Milton's sympathetic view of Satan.  Sadly, that is not the case.

I think the piece also establishes the answer to a question we may have had at the end of Paradise Lost: Who is the protagonist in this piece?  Regained establishes Christ as the cosmic protagonist.

Milton employs his strong ability to flesh out stories from scripture.  The more cynical in their traditionally minded view of theological rhetoric might accuse him of eisegesis.  I, for one, was a little surprised at the near omission of the parts of the story where Christ counters Satan with scripture quotations (if memory serves, only employed once in the poem whereas thrice employed in the Gospel account.)  This did not bother me so much, however, because the point of Christ's supremacy and Satan's defeat is in no way compromised and, more importantly, it is an intensely beautiful piece of poetry.

It has been a long walk with Milton.  I've profited a great deal from it.  In the end, I think, for the time being, and like so many great authors who I admire, I think that Milton is, indeed, one of the, if not the, greatest poets in the English language.  I am also glad I will never have to go on vacation with the man himself. 

Quick note

Just a quick note to tell you that I've started yet another blog.  This one is entirely for photographs that I take.  Just as the poetry professor or art teacher inevitably dabbles themselves, among my enthusiasms is photography.  I don't have any lofty aspirations in the form, but it's something I enjoy and thought it might be fun to have a place to house my own photos.

So go check it out, follow it if you'd like, and enjoy!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Paradise Lost by John Milton

Rarely, but occasionally, I set before myself something so huge and grand that I shudder at the prospect of having to employ words due something so great, especially to attempt to cram it into the length of one blog post.  I will state outright here at the beginning that this will not be a satisfactory post on the piece that I've just read.  In retrospect, I could have broken Milton's Paradise Lost into sections and talked about it that way, but afterthought is a cruel tyrant to those of us locked into the illusion of linear time.  Instead, I thought I would do a brief fly-over of the text, highlighting a few points of interest in hopes that it may serve as a catalyst to other readers, but mainly focusing on what the work meant to me.  I shall tell you up front that it is a work, like so many so far in this series, that has changed my life for the better.

John Milton was a Puritan in the days of Cromwell, but also lived into the Restoration (in a bit of entirely understandable fear if I understand correctly.  One of his famous and arguably injudicious political tracts was a defense of regicide after the beheading of Charles I.  This provided him with a bit of apprehension when the monarchy was restored.)  I wrote a bit about young Milton in the post about his early works.  Paradise Lost is Milton at the full height of his power and maturity.  It is, in fact, the work that transcends his legacy from a great 17th century scribbler to one of the, if not the highest watermarks in the history of the English language.  And, yes, coming out the other end, I can attest that this is, without a doubt in my mind or heart, entirely the case.  It is, quite simply, one of the finest pieces of literature ever written.

Paradise Lost is an epic poem retelling, well, a lot of things, but primarily focusing on The Fall from the book of Genesis.  It also spans some pre-history and, in some jarring later passages, peeks in on the times to come (I had a chilling, unexpected meta-fiction moment of seeing myself in the book) and beyond.  A few points of interest are that Milton dictated the poem, being entirely blind at the time of composition (a fact which his detractors used against him.  "Look at how God has judged Milton by striking him blind!"  Which Milton, I am told, turned on its head with the interpretation that he went blind from seeing too much truth for a pair of fallen eyes to handle.  Well played, Milton!)  Also a major point of interest, this was the first non-theatrical poem in the English language which did not rhyme.

One of the major take-aways I have from Paradise Lost is on the subject of faith and, specifically, my struggle with same.  There was a scene in particular, the scene where Eve approaches Adam with the fruit, where I was suddenly struck by an aspect of the story I had never considered before.  When Eve presents Adam with the fruit, he sees that she has not died from eating the fruit and, in fact, may have some great, new knowledge from having eaten.  He misinterprets the information before his eyes, discarding the faith he once had.  I very much thought of the disciple Thomas and Christ's words at the end of John's Gospel, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."

And certainly also Abraham and Isaac came to mind, as well as Noah.  All of which I think Milton would appreciate, if not anticipated.  I have to say that one of the more troubling aspects of belief for me is what can sometimes appear as being called upon to 1) never question the belief and 2) don't believe your very eyes.  I have never, and I daresay probably will never, be satisfied with those two versions of faith.  I think that seeking knowledge is always good and that we ought to seek answers to questions.  I also think that we should refine our beliefs to constantly get closer to truth.  In some variations of the Judeo-Christian faith that I've encountered in my experiences, this is a subject of great discomfort.  Occasionally, I find that it is rejected without question.

But I think it's a misunderstanding of faith to believe it calls for eternal hiding of one's head in the sand.  I think that true faith cannot be shaken by further knowledge of the truth because it does not conflict with truth in any way.  A phrase I find myself repeating often is "Solomon sought wisdom and pleased the Lord."  Which is an idea I think I lifted from Thomas Browne, which I think may question whether or not Milton would have agreed with me in this.  Although I would hasten to add that his presumed acceptance is immaterial to what I'm about to put forth.

Milton, I think, provides an unexpected way of seeing which illuminates my point.  Adam beholds Eve while presumably, not to be coarse, the fruit is still making a progress through her guts.  As I said, she is not dead, she's talking about some snake that said it ate the fruit and now had a human level of consciousness, and she too seems to have some new knowledge about her.  All of which is true, but the conjecture which follows is false.  Adam chooses to run with the inference that the words of God are false when it is entirely possible that both may be true at the same time.  The lesson I draw from this, and don't miss this, for me and for everyone else, the one I want to shout from the rooftops, is that Christians (I daresay all of humankind as well, but I speak to Christians here) would do well to walk around with this phrase in the forefront of their mind and the invisible (or spoken!) preface to any statement of belief that issues from their mouth: I COULD BE WRONG...

Of course, I could be wrong about any of this being Milton's intention to relay such a relativistic and doubtful message.  To that I would say three things.  First, Milton also gives Satan some solid arguments about divine tyranny which he never really answers.  This is not to say that Milton sides with Satan by any means, but Milton does not shy away from a refreshingly honest stream of doubt in the piece.  It is probably needless to say that I side with C.S. Lewis in rejecting outright the suggestion that Milton was at all sympathetic to the character of Satan.  That is a common reading in contemporary literary criticism.  I found this to be a gross misreading of the piece and, frankly, entirely unhelpful in understanding or gleaning anything useful from the work.

Which brings me to my second contention.  People of faith need to accept the existence of doubt in others and within themselves.  I say this as one who previously bought the line that a person of faith must never show a moment of doubt and in this past year when everything came crashing down on my head, it nearly ruined my faith.  Doubt is there.  That's why it's called faith.

And third, taking a completely different tack, even if I am completely at sea with the interpretation of the passage I posited above, I am by no means alone in possibly reforming Milton in my own image.  Upon first reading, I was shocked by what appeared to be Milton's view of women.  He seemingly outright advocates the patriarchal subjugation of women in several passages in ways that horrified my modern eyes.  But the professor in the Yale lectures performed a very creative set of gymnastics in an attempt to rescue Milton from some of the more regrettable beliefs he may have held.  The professor, if I understood him correctly, put forth a theory (unclear if he held it himself or if he was just offering one different interpretation that exists with scholars who adore Milton otherwise) that those passages express Adam and Eve through the eyes of Satan and therefore, in Milton's view, the manufactured inequality in the sexes is infernal in origin.  I wasn't buying it for a moment until he took it a step further.  He suggested that in the Garden it was clear from the text that the two are entirely equal in every way.  There is nothing suggested in the text to give reason for the natural superiority of the male.  Then, suddenly, there is a seemingly arbitrary hierarchy imposed, almost an aristocracy of gender, based upon nothing.  Given such an imbalanced, unnatural, and arbitrary view of the sexes, and given a social order entirely void of reason, a Fall is inevitable.  Therefore, the Fall of humankind stems from an inequality.

Which is a reading of that portion of the text that I really like.  I would love to get behind it and for my own personal purposes I think that I do.  Although one immediately wonders if one could get in the time-travel phone-booth and bring Milton into that classroom what the man himself would think of such a hypothesis.  Still, regardless, I find it is a reading which has merit in its virtue (although possibly not a virtue shared by the author.)  I too include it in a hopeful attempt that this one facet of Milton will not dissuade anyone anywhere from reading him.

I found the end of the piece absolutely sublime.  The Progenitors are being expelled from the Garden.  I jokingly told Laurie that the mean, harsh, Puritan God finally shows up when Adam is given visions of the enormity of the fruits of his actions in the future history spanning before them like a freshly banged-out universe.  At first it almost seems like lemon juice in an open wound, almost a cruel act of torture to show the shadows of all of the evil to come on this wretched planet to our Pandora.  But, there is a through-line, there is a hope to look toward, and there is the tenderest of mercies expressed by that same God, once again illustrating my earlier point of not misusing facts to extrapolate in the false direction.  The through-line is the hope of the savior to come and in that perhaps grandest of all these visions that did appear, Adam, like us, finds his rest.  Like a hologram of all of existence, the terrible experience reveals itself to be a remarkable comfort in growth.  The hope gained, even when going through destruction, is to be found in the core attribute of all things divine: Love.  In this moment, Adam is, indeed, all of humankind.  The piece is called Paradise Lost, but it doesn't end nearly as badly as the title would suggest as next we look forward to our penultimate Miltonic poem Paradise Regained. 

Monday, January 10, 2011

In which I throw out a few more photos for the illusion of maintaining this blog

For want of any real blog-worthy material, I thought I might indulge in one of my photo updates.  The video above was my accidental discovery of the video recorder function on my new camera while attempting to take a still photo.  If I'm not mistaken, it is the first time I've ever uploaded a video onto the internet.  In it, you can see what Ginger and Lil' Chompy are like if you were to look at them on our couch for approximately 1 second. 

Napoleon was kind enough to pose for a piece I'm calling Cat Owner's Nightmare.

 But the real news of the week is our new dining room table.  You may ask, "Didn't you have a dining room table already?" 

Funny thing about that.  As all glassmakers know, one of the interesting properties of glass is that even a very sturdy, well made, and heavy piece of glass tapped just in the right spot with the right force will break or shatter.  Anyone with the most rudimentary eduction in slapstick can probably fill in the rest of the story for yourself.  I would add that I was always on the fence about that glass table anyway.  It was nice, well made, and slick to be sure, but there was something in the design that always struck me as being dated specifically in the 1990s.  This modest mahogany piece is a bit more timeless in my eye and, I daresay, more copacetic to the established flow of our home's decor.


Sunday, January 2, 2011

der Jahresanfang

This is what a wild party at my house looks like.

"There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." - Wm. Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act II, Scene II
Daybreak on a new year always puts me in a reflective mood (as does illness and, at present, my white blood cells and a rhinovirus are going at it like Aias and Odysseus.  The good news is, at present, smart money seems to be on my white blood cells, but the war has not yet ended.)  I thought it might be wise to seize the blessing of my weekend falling at the advent of 2011 and devote the time to a bit of assessment and, if I might be so quotidian, resolution.

I've noticed a new trend of people having "a word" for the new year as a focal point.  My waggish side wants to respond, "My word for 2011 is: Mozart."  Which is true in a way, but not exactly in the spirit of the experiment if I understand it correctly.  As trite as pat and simplistic goals may seem on the surface, in playing with the concept in my brain, I stumbled upon a surprisingly valuable truth.  While bantering more humorous ideas for "my word" around, The Tiny Psychoanalyst that lives inside my brain spoke up and said, "Your word for the year should be 'peace.'  It's what you lack."

That would be scanned.  I recalled a conversation I recently had with someone who told me that they would like to see me have more confidence and, when they said that, I was instantly aware of exactly to what they were referring.  My compulsion for precision (and, I'll admit, desire to be loved) often leaves my confidence floundering.  The other night I said to Laurie, "You know, 2010 was not a good year, but I feel like I'm a better man for it."  Which is also true, however, I think I find myself at the end of a year of "sledgehammering" where my paradigms have been shattered.  Now it is time to rebuild.

I realize that I lack the peace I used to have.  I think somewhere in the years following what I now can see as my injudicious drift from Quakerism, the Existential Ticking of my Quietus Alarm Clock has drowned out the Still, Small Voice.  The result is a very neurotic, panicked, hypochondriacal, anxiety-ridden man.  I need to find peace.  I need to infuse myself with peace.  In doing so, I think I will be able to exhibit the confidence, joy, and compassion that befits a virtuous life.

So, How does one obtain peace?

1. Be silent.  Listen more.  Observe. Get out in the wild and other calm spaces so you can fill yourself with with it and bring it back within you when you have to return to urban places.  One of the primary reasons for the persistent illusion of the triumph of the boor and the bully in American culture is that the boor and the bully are loud about it.  The good are content with peace and quiet.  I used to have a history book written by a Quaker professor about the "peace times and cultures" in history in response to the overwhelming trend of human history being a chronicle of violence.  It was a terribly, delightfully boring book.  Join the Good.  Be more quiet.

2. Love everyone unconditionally.  While I am unapologetic in my hopelessly Western theology, there is a concept in Eastern traditions that I find quite beautiful (more than one, actually, but one that specifically speaks to my purpose here.)  It's the concept of the Buddha nature which is, if I understand it correctly, that potential that is within everyone to become enlightened.  Therefore, the most crass, brutal, violent, greedy, pig-headed, lecherous dolt you meet has the potential for perfect enlightenment.  This appeals to the "all created equal" American in me.  It's also a doorway to finding love for everyone individually.  This one actually isn't one of the common manifestations of my problem (except when I'm driving.)

3.  Work on one's faith.  Providence is still in play regardless of how much I feel like a rat in a sinking life-raft in the middle of the sea.  One way to do this is to focus on the blessings one has and the needs that have been met in one's life.  Another is to face each turn in life with gratitude.  On a very basic level, I would point out, no matter how bad life gets, it is still life.  In other words, optimism is the domain of the victorious.  There is always a way.

4. Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum.

I have other goals for the year as well.  In the Harvard Classics reading series, I would like to reach Cellini by the end of the year, but find that an absolutely unreasonable goal as it is over 20 volumes away.  Especially as I imagine I will take a few "breaks" from the series or, at least, not read the series exclusively until I complete it.  I think more realistically I will be reading the volume of fairy tales around this time next year (or possibly Cervantes.)  That suits me fine.  It's looking like the primary function of gaining a Harvard Level education through this series is more a financial advantage (savings on tuition) than anything to do with less time and energy.

I find resolutions involving the nouns and verbs of our lives (job goals, possessions, body work, etc) tend to butt heads with the unforeseeable mutations required in life.  While I do have some goals in those categories, I shall spare my future self the embarrassment of stating them on public record.

I would like to spend the year stuffing my senses with greatness in hopes that greatness is what will come pouring back out of me, but never to the preclusion of virtue (I am of the camp which believes that seeking wisdom where e'er She may be pleases The Lord.)  In short, I want to continue to grow and strive toward being a better human.  Should the Moirae apportion a good year or a bad one matters little really so long as one is able to grow and maintain one's hope of home.