Saturday, 24 April 2010

Paradise Lost - John Milton

Paradise Lost was first published in the 1600s, and it is actually a poem, though first glance looks a bit like gibberish. A few things on that, the language used is roughly the same as that in the King James bible, only because it's a poem Milton ignores typical grammatical structures and customs. This is the first poem I've read where I think he actually had a purpose to that. Apparently he was blind when he wrote this, and so it was transcribed for him, which meant he had to speak the whole thing out loud. I couldn't read it like I read some books, where I look at the words and understand them sometimes without hearing them. When I started the poem, I had to do it out loud (which was the only suggestion of Pullman's introduction that I appreciated). Reading it first out loud and then letting myself hear the words in my head let me skip the part where I understood the words as parts of a sentence and paragraph, rather in context, and lead straight to understanding the image of the words. That sounds weird, but the majority of the poem, if I read the words as words on a page, I didn't have the first clue what he was talking about. If I let myself hear the words, I would get images in my head that played out a story for me, complete with sounds and smells and tactile feelings. Despite the struggle sometimes, it was actually a rather amazing experience, and I've developed a bit of an obsession for figuring out what he did that caused that.

Unfortunately, partly because of the way you have to read Paradise Lost to understand it, and partly because it written in a fairly archaic form of English, I don't know that many people I know will read it, or if they do finish it. If you can read and understand the language in the King James bible, you'll be fine with vocabulary and word conjugations, but it's the necessity of letting your mind go with the sound of the words that... I don't know, it was hard. Maybe it was hard for me because I'm so used to analyzing words as words and sentences as structures. From what I hear of people who've read it though, it's just a hard book to read, and a lot of people hate it. Jen's comment to me when I told her I was reading it was an immediate "I'm sorry!"

The story is one that anybody with some roots in the Christian or Jewish religions would be familiar with. It begins with Satan's fall, along with 1/3 of the angels in heaven, and goes through creation to the temptation and eventual fall of man. For the first 2/3 at least of the poem, it didn't matter that I knew the story. I was wide-eyed and caught myself chewing on my thumbnail for parts of it (rather embarrassing in public). I think because I took at two week break in reading it, though, it lost its momentum after the temptation of Eve, and the last two books were a challenge to get through. So far I don't have anyone to chatter with about this book, which is disappointing. I've talked to people about it, but nobody's read it, or, in Jen's case, enjoyed it as much as I have.

The beginning of the poem centers on Satan and his demons. It opens with them just recently fallen, and they're in agony and dazed from, literally, falling into hell. Satan is the first to rise and break off the chains. He leads the demons away from the pit of fire they're in onto a continent where they assemble and decide what to do. In the end, Satan heads off to track down the rumored "man," God's new favorite and the new paradise He's made for them. At the edge of hell he finds a gate guarded by two beings. One is a woman with dogs eating her insides, the other is a shade. The woman is Sin, his daughter and the mother of his child, the shade, who is Death. Sin was given the key to the gate and opens it at Satan's request. The key only opens the gate. It can't close it again. He passes through and comes to a void that he must cross. The beings living there let him pass, and God and Jesus watch from heaven as he makes his way to earth. In heaven God predicts the temptation of Adam and Eve and their eventual fall. He announces what the consequences will be and asks who will take their place for punishment. Jesus steps forward for that task.

Satan makes it to earth and takes the shape of a cherub. He asks the way to Eden of one of the angels and is shown, but the hatred on his face when he sees it gives him away, and the angel descends in the evening to warn the angels guarding Eden. They catch Satan inside Adam and Eve's dwelling, whispering in Eve's ear, and throw him out. He wanders the earth for several days before returning just outside Eden. God sends the angel Raphael to warn Adam and tell Satan's story, how he fought God and the battles between the angels in heaven and how Jesus threw him out of heaven. He answers Adam's questions and leaves. Later, Satan disguises himself as a mist and takes over the body of a serpent. The next morning, Eve wants to separate for the day to divide the work, but Adam doesn't want her to go. She insists that they shouldn't be ruled by fear and goes off. Satan catches her, claiming to have eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thus gaining the speech of man. He leads her to the tree and convinces her to eat. When Adam finds out, he eats as well, thinking that Eve is doomed and that he couldn't have any replacement for her once she was gone that would make him happy. They're both in a sort of drunken euphoria after eating the fruit, but once it fades they argue about whose fault it is. They try to hide their nakedness, and when Jesus comes, knowing what they've done already, they hide from him. He clothes them, and when he leaves, the earth begins to change from its original climate into the more violent climates that we have.

Michael is sent to cast them out of Eden, but also to show Adam things that are to come. He shows Adam death in all its forms, the crime of his son, the perversion of man in later years, the flood, men aspiring to be gods and the tower of Babel. He also tells Adam of God's promise, that his descendant will bruise their enemy's head on his heel. They leave, and the angels guard the entrance to Eden against any more incursions by Satan or men.

Phillip Pullman did the introduction to the edition I have and commentary on each book inside (there are 12). I took one good piece of advice from him, and that was to read the book out loud. Aside from that, he immediately discredited himself by saying how much he didn't know about the work compared to others. At the end of his introduction, he turned his biography on the author and history of his own encounter with Paradise Lost into his own speculations on what the story meant, and his ideas on the meanings of the themes.

In my case, I found that my interest was most vividly caught by the meaning of the temptation-and-fall theme. Suppose that the prohibition on the knowledge of good and evil were an expression of jealous cruelty, and the gaining of such knowledge an act of virtue? Suppose the Fall should be celebrated and not deplored? (...)The true end of human life, I found myself saying, was not redemption by a nonexistent Son of God, but the gaining and transmission of wisdom. Innocence is not wise, and wisdom cannot be innocent, and if we are going to do any good in the world, we have to leave childhood behind.
Personally, I find that incredibly interesting, and it's something I've thought about often before, and it's definitely an interesting premise for a story.  However, as the second to last paragraph in an introduction to a text, I thought it was out of place. If I wanted to read arguments and analysis on Paradise Lost, I would have bought a book of essays after I'd already read the poem and formed my own ideas.  After that, I couldn't read his introductions to the books.  They irritated me.  I don't want that kind of input before I have the chance to form my own ideas.  I'll take them after.

There were a few things I noticed throughout the poem that struck me as interesting.  Not that I entirely understand them, or why they're included, though I have my own ideas as to that, I want to put them out here.  The first one is that both Adam and Eve, our perfect father and mother, are blonds.  Yes, this was written in Europe.  Can you tell?  Another thing I noticed, Adam is obsessed with sex.  Maybe obsessed is a bad choice of words, but he talks about it to Raphael and gets warned by him.  The first thing Adam and Eve do after eating the fruit is have sex.  On the other hand, beauty is repeatedly spoken of as dependent on virginity.  I'm curious what exactly Milton was thinking when he used the word "virgin," because neither Adam nor Eve were virgins in the traditional sense of the word, yet he kept calling Eve beautiful based on her virginity.

Purity is also equated with naivety.  They are innocent, not knowing good and evil, and so they don't know that to be naked is something to be ashamed of.  They are pure, virgins if I can venture to guess that's what Milton meant by the word.  Because of this they are both beautiful.  So were the angels who fell.  When they were innocent of evil they were beautiful.  Satan didn't recognize his daughter/lover Sin, didn't know himself how unrecognizable he was after he fell.  This is one of those things that I felt Milton was going somewhere with, and I would need to read it again, preferably with a notebook by me and a hard copy that I can write on to figure out where exactly that was.

There are three main perspectives in the poem, Satan's, God's, and Adam and Eve's.  Satan's is by far the most intense.  His drift into God's perspective, for example when Satan broke out of hell and was traveling the void between hell, heaven, and earth it shifted from his struggle to God watching.  The shift from something so intense to a rather rigidly paced narrative, the shift from the hero's struggle to his persecutor as it were, brought out some interesting thoughts and feelings.  I think that's somewhat what Pullman was talking about in his introduction, or something that maybe helped inspire that because in the beginning, Satan feels like the hero.  You feel sorry for his struggle; you want him to get his revenge.  In a way, you're almost mad at God for causing it.  Then again, at the same time, as a Christian, that felt irreverent, which brought up more questions and thoughts that challenged me as a believer and made me look at what and why I believe what I do.  I wonder if Milton did that on purpose.  At the time, the Catholic church still ruled most of Europe, and the rest was still Christian.  His readers would likely be coming from the same perspective as myself.

Once Satan reaches earth, we have some time in Adam and Eve's perspective, then when Satan gets captured we get another jolt of "Crap! The hero's in trouble!"  Literally up until the point where Satan stops appearing in the story, which I found random..., he's very definitely the hero.  When Jesus and the angels kick their butts in the battle in heaven, it's epic, but it's the hero who looses.  He's a sneaky sucker who keeps getting thwarted and finally gets his revenge.  He's punished, though, and after that he doesn't appear again.  Part of me was hoping he would show up again.  He did win, as far as this part of the story is concerned.  I wanted him to gloat.  I've heard an excerpt from this poem, from the very end, and I've always taken it to have been from Satan and crew, or a representation thereof.  I don't know if it's the contexts I've read it in, or just my misinterpretation, but it's a good line. 
The world was all before them, where to choose Their place of rest, and providence their guide:[...]

Mostly the section "The world was all before them."  It's not at all related to Satan and crew.  It's about Adam and Eve, but part of me expected it to be.  I thought it was weird that the hero just dropped out and didn't make a final appearance.

God's perspective at first seems careful and rigid, in a way that, I think, helps lend to Satan as a hero and the reader's sympathy for that.  Moreso with Jesus' actions and the parts involving him and the higher angels, there also feels like there's a lot of reverence.  It might be less spectacular than Satan's role, but it's no less awe inspiring.  God is definitely not a flat not-quite-there being.  He's a full character with a range of emotions and reasoning behind his actions and decisions.   He's a king and demanding of worship, strong and jealous but also loving.  He knows what's coming, and yet he's bound by the rules he set in place to not stop any of it.  It doesn't make him change, but it does make him sad.

One of the themes I found was of free will.  Can one truly love if one's not free to choose whether or not to do so?  God created angels first and then men with free will, even after the angels showed that their will wasn't necessarily his.  Here's some of what God says to Jesus, talking about giving his creation free will and what they choose to do with it.
[...]I made him just and right, Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.  Such I created all the ethereal powers And spirits, both them who stood and them who failed; Freely they stood who stood, and fell who fell.  Not free, what proof could they have given sincere Of true allegiance, constant faith or love, Where only what they needs must do appeared, Not what they would? what praise could they receive? What pleasure I from such obedience paid, When will and reason [...] Useless and vain, of freedom both despoiled, Made passive both, had served necessity, Not me. [...]if I foreknew, Foreknowledge had no influence on their fault, Which had no less proved certain unforeknown.  So without least impulse or shadow of fate, Or aught by me immutably foreseen, They trespass, authors to themselves in all Both what they judge and what they choose; for so I formed them free, and free they must remain, Till they enthrall themselves: I else must change Their nature, and revoke the high decree Unchangeable, eternal, which ordained Their freedom, they themselves ordained their fall.  The first sort by their own suggestion fell, Self-tempted, self-depraved: man falls deceived By the other first: man therefore shall find grace, The other none:[...]
  The question, then, arises, well what of knowledge?  Why is knowledge of good and evil forbidden?  And that's a question for philosophers, not me.  Apparently not for Milton either, because he doesn't really deal with that question in Paradise Lost.  I think there it's more a simple, easy-to-follow command given not to eat of that tree, maybe a test?

Eve's role throughout this makes the feminist in me a little unhappy, though looking at it from the perspective of the 1600s, I'm actually a little surprised she had as much influence as she did.  When Raphael and Michael come, before and after they've eaten the fruit, she stays out of sight, sometimes goes away completely.  Adam sends her to fetch fruit to give to Raphael while he stays with them and talks.  It seemed to me, though, after Raphael's warning, when Adam wanted her to stay and work by him so she would not be vulnerable to temptation, that she was a bit stronger than she appeared.  I'd say her feathers got ruffled by being seen as weak by her husband.  She insisted on going separate ways.  Granted, she had valid arguments for why they shouldn't stifle their lifestyle because of fear, but the way she reacted struck me as being a bit miffed.

Her argument was something that made me think about the fragility of happiness.  When Raphael talked to Adam, a conversation that covered quite a few topics including sex and pursuit of knowledge (and warnings against obsession with both), he said this:
Son of heaven and earth, Attend: that though art happy, owe to God; That thou continuest such, owe to thyself, That is, to they obedience; therein stand.
Basically God made Adam and Eve happy.  It's up to them and their continued obedience on God to remain happy, but it seems like since Eve's first contact with Satan in her dreams unhappiness found its way into Eden.  They're both disturbed by it.  After Raphael tells Satan's story, Adam's cautious and wants Eve to stay by his side.  This seems to make Eve unhappy.
But that thou shouldst my firmness therefore doubt To God or thee, because we have a foe May tempt it, I expected not to hear.
Adam continues to argue that it's better to avoid temptation altogether, to which Eve answers:
If this be our condition, thus to dwell In narrow circuit straitened by a foe, Subtle or violent, we not endued Single with like defence, wherever met, How are we happy, still in fear of harm? [...]Let us not then suspect our happy state Left so imperfect by the maker wise, As not secure to single or combined.  Frail is our happiness, if this be so, And Eden were no Eden thus exposed.
I think she's right, their happiness was very frail, and I think by that point it'd already begun to break.  Once Adam finds out Eve's eaten the fruit, he chooses to eat it as well, believing that his happiness will never be complete without her.  In this set-up, I don't think eating the fruit was the cause of unhappiness.

Satan is, in turn, also unhappy about the whole state of things.  It seemed to me that he regretted his rebellion but was stuck with the consequences and so made the best he could of it.  Speaking of the earth God created for man, he says:
With what delight could I have walked thee round, If I could joy in aught, sweet interchange Of hill, and valley, rivers, woods, and plains, Now land, now sea, and shores with forest crowned, Rocks, dens, and caves; but I in none of these Find place or refuge; and the more I see Pleasures about me, so much more I feel Torment within me, as from the hateful siege Of contraries; all good to me becomes Bane, and in heaven much worse would by my state, But neither here seek I, no nor in heaven To dwell, unless by mastering heaven's supreme;[...]
He has a sense of pride.  He was second only to God before Jesus came into being, which was the ignition for his rebellion.  He knows what he's lost, and he knows the only way to get it back is to rule heaven, but he can't.  He's tried, and he can't defeat Jesus.  So he's doing the next best thing, he's ruling hell and defiling God's beautiful creation.  In doing this, he's aware of the necessity of lowering his pride, stooping low enough to take the body of a snake that crawls on the ground when he once aspired to godhood.
O foul descent! that I who erst contended With gods to sit the highest, am now constrained Into a beast, and mixed with bestial slime, This essence to incarnate and imbrute, That to the height of deity aspired; But what will not ambition and revenge Descend to?  Who aspires must down as low As high he soared, obnoxious first or last To basest things.
 Once fallen and cursed to pass his guilt on to any offspring, Adam is quick to look for ways around producing any, including suicide and abstinence.  I liked his monologue near the end talking about this.
O miserable of happy! is this the end Of this new glorious world, and me so late The glory of that glory, who now become Accursed of blessed, hide me from the face Of God, whom to behold was then my height Of happiness: yet well, if here would end The misery, I deserved it, and would bear My own deservings; but this will not serve; All that I eat or drink, or shall beget, Is propagated curse.  O voice once heard Delightfully, Increase and multiply, Now death to hear! for what can I increase Or multiply, but curses on my head?
 That's the end of my random observations, in no real order.  I have two other quotes, both belonging to Satan, which I really liked and want to share.  The first one is from when he learns of pain during the battle for heaven.
But pain is perfect misery, the worst Of evils, and excessive, overturns All patience.
That was one of the lines that I thought made him seem more sympathetic.   The last quote continues at the very end of the one in which he talks about reaching high and stooping low.
Revenge, at first though sweet, Bitter ere long back on itself recoils; Let it; I reck not, so it light well aimed, Since higher I fall short, on him who next Provokes my envy, this new favourite Of heaven, this man of clay, son of despite, Whom us the more to spite his maker raised From dust: spite then with spite is best repaid.
With that he stops talking and goes about his revenge.  Aside from being thought provoking, it's a pretty epic last line for a monologue right before the climax.

I would actually like to study this book in depth at some point.  I understand what's going on, and I'm following most of what Milton says, I just can't organize it in my head very well.  It's like I'm grappling with too much at once.  I kinda hope there's a class offered including Paradise Lost.  Apparently there's also a Paradise Regained, which I'll get to at some point.  If nothing else, Paradise Lost at least deserves another read through.  I'd love to hear it read by someone who could read out loud well.  That would be an interesting experience.  And I still just really want to know how gibberish can make such amazing images.  The dialogue, like the quotes, isn't gibberish, but the narrative can really be sometimes.  I could hear the groans of the fallen angles, see the ocean of fire and bodies, hear the sound of the chains being ripped apart by Satan, see and hear the locks in the gate of hell fall open... It's probably something I'd do better to not get overly obsessed with considering how strange some of my English has become just by reading older poetry and narratives as it is... I almost said the word "wroth" in all seriousness the other day... but I still want to know.

1 comment:

Robert Hagedorn said...

Eden garden sex?
The lyrics stink.
But the scandal's about evidence.
So forget about lyrics that stink.