"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Paradise Lost–What A Rip-Roaring Tale!

I ‘studied’ Paradise Lost as a Yale English major in the 60s.  When I saw that I would have to tackle 12 books and over 10,000 lines of dense blank verse with enough arcane Biblical, classical, Elizabethan, and contemporary (Oliver Cromwell) references to take up half of each page with footnotes, I knew I was in for it.  I muddled through and, like much of what I read in those bright, shining years, I totally forgot once I left New Haven.

After many years of foreign travel and a study of cultural and political history, I found the history of countries as different as Mali and India dispiritingly similar and predictable. Writers of fiction, I thought, focusing more on human nature, desires, and propelling needs, would provide more answers to who we are and where we are going than any historian.  I turned to Shakespeare’s Histories which, as the critic Jan Kott has noted, if they are laid out end to end, they illustrate the predictable recurring cycles of geopolitical events, but suggest the reason why the wheels history always turn in the same way – human nature.  It is the ineluctable and inevitable self-protective aggression, perennial securing of borders and perimeters, and unstoppable force of ambition which define all human actions.

Where was Man in all this? A pawn caught in the grinding gears of The Grand Mechanism as Kott calls it? A bit of detritus caught, ground up, and spit out as the engine of history steams along? Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Machiavelli anticipated Nietzsche and his celebration of Will. The greatest Shakespearean characters are those who express pure will and in so doing are ‘beyond good and evil’.  Edmund, Macbeth, Richard III, Iago, Titus, Dionyza, Volumnia, and Tamora and many others as powerful if more benign are central to Shakespeare’s (and Nietzsche’s) belief that the expression of an amoral Will is what validates human existence.

These characters are both willful and evil, and they pursue their ambitions with no regard for anything or anyone.  They rise above ‘the herd’ and are the Supermen who sit atop the human pyramid.

I realized that I could not continue to write and teach about Will and Evil in Shakespeare without turning to the mother lode – Paradise Lost.  Who other than the Satan of Milton’s epic is more evil and more willful?  He, after all defied God Almighty.  Refusing to accept his his defeat and consignment to the bowels of Hell, he rose up to fight God again.  Losing again, he once more refused to give up the struggle and turned to a more insidious and successful strategy.  If he corrupted and defiled God’s greatest creation – Man – and persuaded Eve to defy God and his injunction, he would be triumphant. Satan is classically characterized as evil because he is the corrupter of good, and responsible for the unleashing of Sin and Death onto the world; but in Milton’s hands, he is canny, nuanced, defiantly courageous, and heroic.

The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n. [ 255 ]
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th' Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence: [ 260 ]
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav'n.

Paradise Lost is a great yarn.  It has everything a potboiler should be.  Heroes and villains, epic battles;sex, jealousy, and desire; strategy, diplomacy, and office politics.

All most people know about The Fall is that Eve tempted Adam with an apple, the fruit forbidden by God; and when they had both eaten of it, they were cast out of Paradise.  Their Original Sin was responsible for the travails and miseries of life.

For Milton, however, the story is far more complex.  It wasn’t just any apple that Eve plucked, nor any tree; but the Tree of Knowledge. By eating it, said Satan to Eve, you will have access to what only the gods know – the existence of good and evil – and through such knowledge you and Adam will become gods, unequal to no one.

Why did God do this? Milton wonders. Why was this particular knowledge so important, and why should abstention from it be a sign of obedience?  What was God trying to hide? If testing Adam and Eve’s moral fiber was the reason behind the injunction, then any other temptation would have done as well, if not better. After all, knowledge itself was an unknown quantity in Paradise.

Milton repeatedly quotes God and his conviction that Adam and Eve have Free Will; that despite an all-powerful and all-knowing Creator, they can act independently of him.  In the work, Milton ironically accepts these anomalies and contradictions and uses them for dramatic ends. In perhaps the best seduction scene of all time, Satan, disguised as a serpent, uses human psychology and wiles to corrupt Eve. Why should God be so dictatorial? he says, depriving her and Adam from their rightful claims. He characterizes Heaven as an aristocratic gated community, with The Garden of Eden nothing more than his playhouse.  God created you, Eve, and Adam as his playthings, and as the result of the humiliating rebellion of the Dark Angels.  In his obsessively patriarchal and elitist way, God locked up the only thing of value in Paradise; and by eating the Forbidden Fruit, you will once and for all declare your humanity and equality.

The only seduction scene at all comparable to that of Satan and Eve is that of Count Dracula and Lucy.  Werner Herzog in Nosferatu has created a human-like vampire just as Milton has created a very recognizable devil, and when Dracula sweet-talks Lucy by her bedside before the cock crows, we have to think of Milton’s Satan.

Sexual dynamics only begin with Satan’s seduction.  After Eve has eaten the apple and realizes that she is doomed to death, she debates whether or not she should tell Adam.  If she doesn’t tell him, she spares him from expulsion and death; but he will be free to consort with another Eve whom God will provide, an eventuality she cannot stomach.  If she convinces him to take a bite, then he will fall with her and they will live happily until their mortal end. 

Milton is no different from Shakespeare or anyone else of the 17th Century, believing in the essential duplicity and corruptibility of women.  Eve is not only our universal mother, but the prototype for women throughout Shakespeare. Othello in his unforgettable last scene protests to the Duke that he is not guilty of killing Desdemona, for he saved other men from her sexual profligacy.  Posthumus (Cymbeline) is easily persuaded that his chaste and beloved Imogen is a whore. Leontes is absolutely convinced, with no evidence, that his wife has been unfaithful to him, and by extension all women are not to be trusted. In Book X Adam wonders why God created Eve in the first place. Why would he have even imagined Woman, the most weak, conniving, and wily beings ever imagined?

Milton concurs with God’s injunction that after The Fall, Eve should be subservient to Adam as should all their female descendants.  The ripe, passionate sexuality of women should not intrude into God’s grand plan.

In Milton’s version of The Fall, neither Satan nor God are clear winners.  God has lost because his grand experiment, Man, has been a failure.  Although he wreaks his vengeance by assuring that Adam and Eve’s descendants will have a tough life – bad winters and meager crops, he has not won a convincing victory. Satan has returned to Hell not to the acclaim he expected but to criticism for invoking God’s wrath and ensuring an eternal struggle.  Sin and Death, Satan’s offspring, are the only real victors in this epic struggle, for they have easy pickings from among the human race.

Paradise Lost is epic, but as dramatic, demanding, and insightful as anything by Shakespeare.  For me, Milton’s story of The Fall and its recounting of the struggles between God and Satan, its exploration of the moral and philosophical conundrums, and its forays into human weakness, passion, ambition, and narcissism are without equal.

My only question is “Where have I been all these years?”.  Why did it take me so long to discover Milton?  The same reason it took me over 40 years to find Shakespeare and Faulkner.  Better late than never.

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