Everyday epiphanies from Milton's Eden and beyond

Month: November 2019

Postlapsarian Good vs. Evil

While reading Book XI, the lines that initially stood out to me deal with the concept of good and evil:

O Sons, like one of us Man is become

To know both Good and Evil, since his taste

Of that defended Fruit; but let him boast

His knowledge of Good lost, and Evil got,

Happier, had suffic’d him to have known

Good by it self, and Evil not at all (84-89).

I found this particularly interesting because Milton appears to argue in Areopagitica, however, that we know good by evil:

“And perhaps this is that doom which Adam fell into of knowing good and evill, that is to say of knowing good by evill. As therefore the state of man now is; what wisdom can there be to choose, what continence to forbeare without the knowledge of evill?”

So are these two ideas of good and evil by Milton at odds with each other, or is there a way that they can both be true? It is interesting to consider that we could have once known good simply for the good itself and not in comparison with something evil. Perhaps Milton is suggesting that this kind of perception of good is a result of the fall (we are now subject to only know good by its opposite) and that prelapsarian good is a privilege we no longer have.

Milton & Metanoia

Hello, fellow classmates! Hope you’re enjoying this week of Thanksgiving. Just popping in here to give you a little recap of my presentation because I know having stuff in writing can be helpful. I presented on the last part of Book X and emphasized the idea of action-based repentance that we see from Adam and Eve after the fall.

Then let us seek

Some safer resolution, which methinks

I have in view, calling to minde with heed [1028-1030]

These lines demonstrate that the kind of repentance Adam and Eve are experiencing is not purely mental assent but based on action; they truly have a change of mind that drives them to a place where they believe action can change their situation. This is the metanoia that I touched on and Professor C. elaborated on during his lecture. While Satan had moments where he was “struck stupidly good” the defining difference between him and man is that Adam and Eve actually acted on their conviction, resulting in forgiveness and redemption. This taking of responsibility is the first of its kind in Paradise Lost and something Satan could never do.

Judas-NOOO! (R.I.P. Vine)

Something that really struck me in Book X was Milton going out of his way to explain that the serpent is innocent:

Are to behold the Judgement, but the judg’d,

Those two; the third best absent is condemn’d,

Convict by flight, and Rebel to all Law

Conviction to the Serpent none belongs (81-84).

It seems pretty obvious that the physical serpent played no role in the temptation of Eve but that it was Satan who possessed him who takes the blame. However, I’m wondering if/how this speaks into the common interpretation of Judas the Iscariot and his betrayal of Jesus. The gospels say that “Satan entered into him” (John 13:27) much like we see Satan entering the serpent in Paradise Lost, but we see Judas feel terrible about what he has done and eventually commit suicide from the agony. It is commonly accepted that while Satan was guiding Judas to sell Jesus off to the Romans for His crucifixion, he is ultimately responsible for the decision and will be judged accordingly.

This now goes into the territory of free will vs. predestination, but what I’m really asking is what warrants judgement; is it because the serpent is an animal that it has no control or responsibility as opposed to Judas who is a rational being with a soul? It makes sense, but just how much Judas was able to resist Satan despite the possession is something I’ve always wondered.

Read-A-Thon Lite

I was surprised by how enlightening of an experience reading Book XII and XIII were out loud as a group in class. I think this is due, in part, to the multiplicity of voices and the forced reality of having to read both carefully and slowly. It brought to my attention vivid details, specifically about creation, where I actually began to envision the garden with bushes of “frizl’d hair implicit” and “clustring Vine” that made “Earth now [seem] like to Heav’n.” These are details that I would quickly read over and miss to merely get to the “good stuff” or action within the plot.

The significance of enjambment and punctuation (or lack thereof) also became very noticeable when reading the epic out loud. It brought emphasis to words that would otherwise be lost in the mere wordiness of Paradise Lost such as this example in Book XIII:

Of Earth before scarce pleasant seemd. Each Tree

Load’n with fairest Fruit, that hung to the Eye

Tempting, stirr’d in me sudden appetite

To pluck and eate; whereat I wak’d, and found (306-309)

The word “tempting” followed by a comma is quite menacing, no doubt a foreshadow of the tragedy to come and all the more emphasized when properly read out loud.

Lastly, something every Milton scholar knows yet its implications dawned on me during our reading was the fact that Paradise Lost was composed orally. It was a poem created by the spoken word and therefore is, arguably, in its truest form when read out loud. This in itself makes the tradition worthwhile and I feel better off for having experienced it.

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.

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