Parsing Paradise

Everyday epiphanies from Milton's Eden and beyond

On Beauty and Being Wrong

I find Elaine Scarry’s concept of beauty and truth interesting yet ultimately undecided. She acknowledges at one point that beauty without a higher purpose is too heavy for the beautiful thing or person to bear:

“It sometimes seems that a special problem arises for beauty once the realm of the sacred is no longer believed in or aspired to…. If the metaphysical realm has vanished, one may feel bereft not only because of the giant deficit left by that vacant realm but because the girl, the bird, the vase, the book now seem unable in their solitude to justify or account for the weight of their own beauty” (47).

She goes on to explain that this would mean that the beauty with no destination beyond itself is too self-centered and too fragile for our immense regard. However, she goes on to say that the metaphysical behind beauty and lack thereof still have the same affect: they allow the perceive to have a more capacious regard for the world.  This leads Scarry into error within beauty. She states:

“This liability to error, contestation, and plurality–for which “beauty” over the centuries has so often been belittled–has sometimes been cited as evidence of its falsehood and distance from “truth,” when it is instead the case that our very aspiration for truth is its legacy. It creates, without itself fulfilling, the aspiration for enduring certitude” (53).

It appears as though Scarry is proposing that error within beauty demonstrates our desire for truth or enduring certitude. But does this error in beauty negate the beauty of things less than that perfect standard? And does that error stem from an inability to reach that more fully accepted form of beauty or something else? What even constitutes as an error, as the plasticity of beauty here appears evident?

Scarry touches on all of these things but ultimately leaves them unanswered. I personally cannot help thinking of Plato and his Theory of Forms that argues the physical world and its beauty is only a shadow or reflection of the metaphysical world where the ultimate form of Beauty resides. The closer the beauty we experience is to Beauty itself is what makes it more beautiful, therefore affirming some sort of absolute standard. This, however, seems like an oddly spiritual perspective in secular criticism. Scarry also distinguishes beauty as allied with truth and that they are not inherently linked which would be in opposition to Plato’s theories.

I am ultimately left thoughtful albeit thoroughly confused as to where Scarry stands on the relation of truth and beauty. I think this is due in part to her comment on the metaphysical world yet the virtue of error. Does this error point to the truth that lies outside our physical experience and our desire for it? I might be interpreting her argument wrong, but as I already mentioned, this seems oddly objective for a 20th/21st century critic.

Nature Gave a Second Groan

I find the concept of creation “groaning” interesting in Book IX after the fall:

In pangs, and Nature gave a second groan,

Skie lowr’d, and muttering Thunder, som sad drops

Wept at compleating of the mortal Sin (1001 – 1003)

Both Adam and Eve’s choice to “eat of death” obviously had serious spiritual ramifications but cannot be removed from the very physical action of consuming the fruit nor the consequence of physical death, which in return is not isolated to only them but all creation. This appears to be referring to Romans 8:19-23 where Paul writes,

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.

The fall, in this context, is the point at which the earth becomes subject to decay. This simple personification of Paradise and the rest of the created realm groaning in physical pain because of original sin somehow amplifies the significance of what has just happened beyond the spiritual implications.

Cerastes and C.S. Lewis and Centipedes: Oh My!

After class, I couldn’t help but look up what the cerastes was. Apparently it is a serpent of Greek legend that is most likely based off the habits of the horned viper. It is not actually a creature found in Book VII of creation but appears in Book X when Satan and the other fallen angels transform into different variations of serpents:

But hiss for hiss returnd with forked tongue

To forked tongue, for now were all transform’d

Alike, to Serpents all as accessories

To his bold Riot: dreadful was the din

Of hissing through the Hall, thick swarming now

With complicated monsters head and taile,

Scorpion and Asp, and Amphisbaena dire,

Cerastes hornd, Hyrdus, and Ellops (517-525)

What I find extremely interesting about this is that this is event that my favorite author C.S. Lewis refers to in his Screwtape Letters. It is one of my favorite works by Lewis who takes the position of a demon named Screwtape who writes letters to his nephew Wormwood, a demon and tempter-in-training. Dr. C has mentioned Lewis before in class and it is clear that his writing, specifically the Screwtape Letters, is influenced by Milton’s epic, whom he explicitly mentions in Letter 22:

  “In the heat of composition I find that I have inadvertently allowed myself to assume the form of a large centipede. I am accordingly dictating the rest to my secretary. Now that the transformation is complete I recognise it as a periodical phenomenon. Some rumour of it has reached the humans and a distorted account of it appears in the poet Milton, with the ridiculous addition that such changes of shapeare a “punishment” imposed on us by the Enemy. A more modern writer-someone with a name like Pshaw-has, however, grasped the truth. Transformation proceeds from within and is a glorious manifestation of that Life Force which Our Father would worship if he worshipped anything but himself.”

Here, Screwtape randomly turns into a centipede. I always thought this was such a strange occurrence reading this as a kid but now reading Paradise Lost and knowing exactly what Lewis is referring to, this fascinates me all the more. We as readers understand that the transformation of Satan and the fallen angels into serpents is a curse, but Lewis takes the interesting position of one fallen angel who sees it a “glorious manifestation” of the transformation within from the “Life Force” which ought to be worshipped.

So here you see a typical Milton blogpost: looking into one word exposes the persistence of Paradise Lost and the world of influence Milton had on literature. I also highly recommend the Screwtape Letters for someone who wants an incredibly entertaining yet insightful novel that compliments our current reading! You won’t be disappointed.

Matter Matters: Insight From Milton the Material Monist

I find it extremely interesting that the fallen angels’ expulsion from heaven where “headlong themselves they threw” can be compared to defecation in which “disburdened Heaven rejoiced.” I did not pick that up during my first read of Book VI by myself but looking at it now through the lens of Milton as a material monist makes a lot of sense; if Milton believes both spirit and manner stem from one first matter or corporeal substance, then spirit and matter to him are going to differ in degree but not necessarily of kind or quality. Therefore, in this light, heaven “defecating” out the fallen angels which can no longer be “digested” by Heaven appears much less like a toilet joke and more like the exemplification of a greater theme: spirit and matter are linked to some capacity, and no material process is arbitrary but actually has spiritual implications.

A Macabre Milton

After reading some secondary sources on Milton, I found a New Yorker article on the enduring relevance of Milton that covers a lot of what we’ve talked about in class. There was, however, a particularly striking bit of new information: the haunting episode involving Milton’s body after his death.

Milton died in 1674 and was buried in the church of St. Giles Cripplegate in London. In 1790, during the renovation of the church, Milton’s grave was a dug up in order to pinpoint his exact burial location in order to erect a monument in his honor. A group of men hauled his coffin out of the ground and knocked out his death, took chunks of his hair, and whatever bones that remained. The desecration of Milton shocked the country, and the notable poet William Cowper wrote about it:

“Me too, perchance, in future days,

The sculptured stone shall show,

With Paphian myrtle or with bays

Parnassian on my brow.

But I, or e’er that season come,

Escaped from every care,

Shall reach my refuge in the tomb,

And sleep securely there.”

So sang, in Roman tone and style,

The youthful bard, ere long

Ordained to grace his native isle

With her sublimest song.

Who then but must conceive disdain,

Hearing the deed unblest,

Of wretches who have dared profane

His dread sepulchral rest?

Ill fare the hands that heaved the stones

Where Milton’s ashes lay,

That trembled not to grasp his bones

And steal his dust away!

O ill-requited bard! neglect

Thy living worth repaid,

And blind idolatrous respect

As much affronts thee dead.

The article goes on to say that a man named Philip Neve managed to buy up the relics from participants of the desecration and returned them to the coffin, which included one of his ribs.

How’s that for a little Halloween spook?

Sugar and SPICE and Everything Nice

I mainly wanted to touch on this subject because of the title that I came up with in class during our discussion of Book IV’s spiciness.

Eve’s “conjugal attraction unreprov’d” certainly was a controversial claim in in 17th-century puritanical England where any kind of physical desire was seen as irrational and linked to the corrupt body. In fact, Milton celebrates this connubial love or “Perpetual Fountain of Domestic sweets” and does not codify desire to men but extends it to females, demonstrating that this is not a sin in the context of a “bed undefil’d and chaste” as it is in Paradise.

My question now, however, is how this complicates the curses after the fall in Genesis 3:16 where God says to Eve, “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” I’m no Hebrew scholar but the original word for desire here is teshuqah which essentially means “to long for” and is the same word used in Song of Solomon 7:10 that says, “I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me” which we understand in a sexual context.

I am curious to see if Milton addresses this in Paradise Lost and what a potential argument for the desire we see before versus after the fall. Are they even one and the same, synonymous terms? There is certainly debate about what the rare word teshuqah actually means in scripture, but I’m curious to know Milton’s understanding of it.

Self-Begotten Made Him Rotten?

While reading Satan’s soliloquy again in Book IV, I noticed an interesting contradiction between Book V on the concept of his existence:

From me, whom he created what I was

In that bright eminence, and with his good

Upbraided none; nor was his service hard

What could be less then to afford him praise,

The easiest recompence, and pay him thanks, (43-47)

Here in Book IV, Satan seems to acknowledge that he is a created being who owes God a great debt for creating him. However, in Book V he states:

Doctrin which we would know whence learnt: who saw

When this creation was? rememberst thou

Thy making, while the Maker gave thee being?

We know no time when we were not as now;

Know none before us, self-begot, self-rais’d

By our own quick’ning power, when fatal course

Had circl’d his full Orbe, the birth mature

Of this our native Heav’n, Ethereal Sons. (856-863)

Satan is taking the position that angels are “self-begot” or simply “self-raised” not through the power of God but by the natural course of things. He knows that God says He created them all, but who was there to witness it? By posing this question (and therefore assumedly being sarcastic in Book IV) Satan attempts to diminish God’s authority in a very interesting way that removes himself from any need to feel gratitude towards God. If he had any gratitude towards God, then that would result in some form of subordination which Satan distains, therefore rendering no place for himself in the virtuous cycle of gratefulness which appears to be the reciprocal relationship between God and His creation.

The question I have then is this: is Satan’s belief that he is self-begot one of the driving factors that had a role in his rebellion? If he never at any point felt gratitude, then he could not be a part of the virtuous cycle. And perhaps more importantly, was this of choice or consequence? If Satan never found himself indebted to God from the start, then he never had the opportunity to feel gratitude and therefore no compulsion to be subordinate towards Him, which would inevitably lead to his fall. This, however, could have been an active choice Satan made to not take God for His word.

Is any of this heresy? Probably most of it, but then again what is new when trying to parse Milton’s paradise.

Concluding the Conclusus

The implications of the Garden of Eden as a hortus conclusus are extremely interesting. As we discussed in class, hortus conclusus literally means “enclosed garden” in Latin and is often represented in art by the Virgin Mary in a walled garden to symbolize her purity. This immediately got me thinking about Eve in Paradise Lost and the Lady in Comus. Why is it that Eve succumbs to temptation within her hortus conclusus whereas the Lady displaced in the dark wood resists temptation? This seems quite contrary to the idea that a hortus conclusus symbolizes something that is pure.

I read that real gardens designed in hortus conclusus fashion do so in a way that protects something precious like a sculpture or plant that is placed in the center. We know that the walls did not serve to keep Satan out, but they did frame the Garden of Eden in a way that centered the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

My brain is just running away with different potential implications Milton is making here. Is this really Adam and Eve’s garden at all? While sufficient to have stood but free to fall, the garden as a hortus conclusus does nothing to protect their purity and certainly does not represent impenetrable purity. Whereas we have the Lady, far removed from the likes of the garden, through her knowledge of good and evil who withstood.

I’m interested in everyone’s thoughts and hope for insight on this!

Pop Culture Pandemonium

This is probably my least substantive post to date, but I just got caught up with The Good Place and the final episode of Season 3 entitled “Pandemonium” makes an explicit reference to Paradise Lost. How could I not share?

Eleanor: “The word ‘Pandemonium’ is from Paradise Lost. Milton called the center of Hell ‘Pandemonium,’ meaning ‘place of all demons.'”

Eleanor continues:

Janet, a walking database and NOT a girl, who reminds us of this frequently, replies:  “Oh, no. That’s very on brand for you.”

Eleanor then concludes: “I guess all I can do is embrace the pandemonium, find happiness in the unique insanity of being here, now.”

I wonder what Milton would think about Eleanor using his concept of Pandemonium in this way. I find it interesting that the word “trick” is used in reference to Chidi getting Eleanor to read the poem, and perhaps even more interesting that Eleanor adopts in a way the attitude of Satan who was placed in the actual Pandemonium. Needless to say, I highly recommend this show not only for its humor and lovable characters but constant references to both philosophy and literature!

The Worst Possible Use of Free Will

I recently watched an episode of one of my favorite shows, The Good Place, that tackles the concept of free will and determinism in a mere 20 minutes. For those of you not familiar with the show, I’ll get you up to speed: it is a comedy series that explores the afterlife, focusing on Eleanor (the deceased) and Michael (a spiritual being on whom I will not elaborate for the sake of major spoilers). In this episode entitled “The Worst Possible Use of Free Will,” Eleanor argues that everything she’s ever done is not a result of her choice but Michael’s manipulation of her circumstances. Michael, however, counteracts that argument by saying her choices in the afterlife confounded him and subverted any kind of plan he had devised, therefore defending her free will.

This argument, of course, only extends to Milton’s Arminian theology insofar as the idea of choice, but abruptly stops as we understand his perception of God to be both omniscient and unthwartable.  I think it is interesting, however, that the concept of free will vs. predestination is positioned as diametrically opposed. We clearly see BOTH concepts textually supported within Scripture, so what’s up with that? Are we supposed to accept only parts of the Bible and ignore the whole? I would think certainly not.

A better way to phrase this argument might be the sovereignty of God vs. sovereignty of humanity. Sovereignty can be defined as having ultimate control of everything and is the true heart of this argument. For the sake of brevity, I won’t dive into that, but what I would like to suggest is that God can be sovereign (actively controlling everything) without completely negating free will. What if God uses our conscious choices as a conduit to His predestined plan? They aren’t mutually exclusive but actually run parallel to each other?

I could theorize about this for hours, but want to hear you all weigh in.

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