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.