Sunday, January 03, 2010

Satanic promises, corrosive ironies, and final judgment

At the end of Book I of Paradise Lost, Milton made it clear that hell's powers were not all democratically equal - there were the pygmy masses, and the great princes and potentates who are about to meet in secret conclave at the opening of Paradise Lost II.

Satan's speech to the council, then, is the occasion for frank and open consultation -- he's talking to his peers -- at least that is the understanding -- and there's no need for spin, social media tweaking, or talking points:  he's speaking in confidence as he solicits his advisors' advice. It's a scene that echoes the great council scenes of the Iliad and Odyssey,  the Aeneid, the Book of Samuel, and more. It's a moment of crisis that's going to require the collective wisdom of the best and the brightest to forge a way forward, when all around seems shrouded in darkness and despair. Satan begins:

Powers and Dominions, Deities of Heav'n,
For since no deep within her gulf can hold
Immortal vigor, though opprest and fall'n,
I give not Heav'n for lost. From this descent
Celestial vertues rising, will appear [ 15 ]
More glorious and more dread then from no fall,
And trust themselves to fear no second fate:

Does Satan drink his own swill? At what point does irony here begin and end? On an initial level, we have Satan as pitchman, rallying his inner circle. "I give not Heav'n for lost" - easy to say, but what is this other than sheer marketing bravado - "stick with me, I've only begun to fight," etc. It's not long before Satan drops this pretense of regaining Heaven in favor of a scheme to drag mankind to hell.

Then there's the satanic version of the felix culpa, the fortunate fall (as we talked about last time) -- from descent, failure, disaster, come "celestial virtues" -- but from where, one might deflatingly inquire -- hell? And of course these virtues "will appear more glorious and more dread" -- enabling Satan to justify his sound bite by claiming that he's talking about appearance, which will lamentably but quite predictably fall somewhat short of the reality. Anyone for a spot of triumphalism?

Thanks to a still further turn of the screw, the alleged higher destiny of the demons resulting from the fall will in fact become the literal truth revealed to Christian interpreters of the Old and New Testaments as sacred history: the tragic fall of man, the loss of Eden, ends in a comedic reversal. The messiah's sacrificial act of redemption opens eternal life to the race of men, who had been merely destined for earthly happiness until Adam and Eve fell, occasioning the possibility that "one greater man restore us. . .."

Packed into Satan's address, then, is bald lie, coupled with subler marlarkey about a far-fetched promise, interlarded with a kind of bowdlerized prefiguration of literal scriptural truth, an exact template of the core of Christian faith, hope and (literally far-fetched) redemptive promise. A diabolical compounding of truth and lie indeed. In fact Satan's address at the opening of Book II is almost a parodic inversion of the opening lines of Book I, which encapsulate in miniature the beginning, middle and end of sacred history:

Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat, 

Where do the ironic reversals end? Is Satan doomed to enact an absurd parody of the Messiah? Or will Satan's master narrative of rising higher for having so deeply fallen act as a corrosive poison, silently seeping into the foundational core of Christianity? Does scripture voice the authority to reduce Satan, his legions and all the countless evils of life to elfin figments of pygmy size? Who will judge where the ironies begin or end -- where, in point of fact, does anything end in the porous cosmos Milton gives us? Who will be on hand to judge these questions if not Milton's reader? Felix culpa indeed.

No comments: