Saturday, December 18, 2010

From "Who saw?" to "I see"

This post is a bit long, and not finished. Just trying to tie together several threads that emerged from our close look at Book 5 of Paradise Lost this fall.

We noted the other day a contrast in the poetics of the book: on earth, the rich, full-blooded Keatsian bounty of Eve's table:

fruit of all kindes, in coate,
Rough, or smooth rin'd, or bearded husk, or shell
She gathers, Tribute large, and on the board
Heaps with unsparing hand; for drink the Grape
She crushes, inoffensive moust, and meathes [ 345 ]
From many a berrie, and from sweet kernels prest
She tempers dulcet creams,

In heaven, the somewhat anodyne, music-box routine of the angels:

Forthwith from dance to sweet repast they turn [ 630 ]
Desirous, all in Circles as they stood,
Tables are set, and on a sudden pil'd
With Angels Food, and rubied Nectar flows
In Pearl, in Diamond, and massie Gold,
Fruit of delicious Vines, the growth of Heav'n.

On the level of sheer poetry, the book is already arguing that to be human is to share Satan's impatience with too much passive ease and involuntary order.

Book 5 looks at how we got from paradise to humanity -- the problem of the fall, and of knowledge -- from a variety of perspectives. As Professor Rogers has noted, the poem opens out to multiple models of the world that are not necessarily in agreement with each other:
As a poem, Paradise Lost places all of its divergent theories and all of its competing ideologies and visions of the way the world works -- places them all side by side on something like a level playing field, the playing field of the poetic line.
We've looked in particular at the complex imagery of stars and sun, dawn and eclipse interwoven throughout the book. With regard to the theme of mind, of knowing, they offer an entirely consistent model of human understanding as illumination: a power of seeing, clarifying, distinguishing:

know that in the Soule [ 100 ]
Are many lesser Faculties that serve
Reason as chief

This is science, and it's entirely rooted in nature and compatible with the classical model of education, of paideia in Plato's sense as a turn from darkness to light, shadow to truth.

So from the root
Springs lighter the green stalk, from thence the leaves [ 480 ]
More aerie, last the bright consummate floure
Spirits odorous breathes: flours and thir fruit
Mans nourishment, by gradual scale sublim'd
To vital Spirits aspire, to animal,
To intellectual, give both life and sense, [ 485 ]
Fansie and understanding, whence the Soule
Reason receives,

Via the alchemy of conversation, or dialog, one communes, questions and consumes, digests, ruminates and refines in the manner of the chain of being:

one Almightie is, from whom
All things proceed, and up to him return, [ 470 ]
If not deprav'd from good, created all
Such to perfection, one first matter all,
Indu'd with various forms, various degrees
Of substance, and in things that live, of life;
But more refin'd, more spiritous, and pure, [ 475 ]
As neerer to him plac't or neerer tending
Each in thir several active Sphears assignd,
Till body up to spirit work, in bounds
Proportiond to each kind.

As Raphael's narrative continues, God, invisible in brightness, puts something new into this order -- his only begotten Son. The dawn of this Son, unlike the natural sun, is not something that simply rises out of the order of things. It is new, and it confounds the sense of reason that has been developing throughout the book. How can the Son be new if, as Word, He created the angels and all else? Is he the same as the Father or different? The new Son disturbs, runs counter to all that can be "understood" through natural light. It's going to take more than conversation, observation, and rumination to digest this new being.

At the same time, ignorance is not an option: all are under orders to actively acknowledge and obey this power, or be forever fallen:

him who disobeyes
Mee disobeyes, breaks union, and that day
Cast out from God and blessed vision, falls
Into utter darkness, deep ingulft, his place
Ordaind without redemption, without end.
[ 615 ]

Satan will invoke reason in his resistance to this mandate:

Who can in reason then or right assume
Monarchie over such as live by right [ 795 ]
His equals, if in power and splendor less,
In freedome equal? or can introduce
Law and Edict on us, who without law
Erre not,

Satan is using all the resources of logic and rhetoric to persuade his followers. Only Abdiel remains unmoved, and intuitively goes to the question of origin, generation, primacy:

But to grant it thee unjust,
That equal over equals Monarch Reigne:
Thy self though great and glorious dost thou count,
Or all Angelic Nature joind in one,
Equal to him begotten Son, by whom [ 835 ]
As by his Word the mighty Father made
All things, ev'n thee . . .

And it is this that Satan seizes upon, because he can summon reason to assist him:

who saw
When this creation was? rememberst thou
Thy making, while the Maker gave thee being?

If Abdiel can't provide empirical evidence, Satan suggests, then isn't it more likely, more"reasonable," to understand that we are self-generated?

We know no time when we were not as now;
Know none before us, self-begot, self-rais'd [ 860 ]
By our own quick'ning power,

But as he immediately goes on to say, to understand this sort of origination is to invoke a model of the world as determined, a natural system guided by Fate:

when fatal course
Had circl'd his full Orbe, the birth mature
Of this our native Heav'n, Ethereal Sons.

We are all sons, but natural offspring of an order that runs on its own, without any Maker. No one created the program, it just runs -- always has, always will, nothing new under the sun.

Abdiel wastes no time arguing the issue. Instead he responds to Satan's "Who saw?" with "I see":

I see thy fall

For Abdiel, it's not reality that's determined, but Satan. By choosing to deny the Son, he denies the Father, and in choosing that, he commits to an understanding -- "reasonable," to be sure -- that removes all freedom, not from the world, but from himself. Abdiel doesn't just "see" this, he hears it:

other Decrees
Against thee are gon forth without recall;

Against the visual, differentiating, communal, scientific world of reasoned knowledge -- which Milton and Raphael both value as the pinnacle of human being -- this introduces another kind of knowing. Abdiel here is neither seeing Satan literally falling, nor hearing audible decrees. Yet he "sees" that Satan's passport to paradise has been cancelled, just as Adam and Eve, in a sudden revelation that has nothing to do with argument, evidence, or the light of the sun, will see that they are naked. The book ends:

And with retorted scorn his back he turn'd
On those proud Towrs to swift destruction doom'd.

Abdiel turns away from a world that is doom'd by its knowledge that actively ignores power or knowing that might lie beyond the sun.

For Milton, as for Dante, all that the human mind can learn from itself and about nature falls within this doom. This is the natural world of science, the seasons, the rising and falling sun, the arc of life, the inevitability of death.

In Dante's Purgatorio, what lies outside that system arrives with Beatrice in the garden at the top of the mount. Here in Book 5, what lies outside that system is what Satan rejects: the Son and the inexplicable obligation that is imposed with Him.

Abdiel rejects that rejection, and foretells the eclipse of Lucifer. It's interesting to note that untold millions of angels, including other Seraphim (Abdiel is "among the Seraphim" in Satan's retinue), are swayed by Satan.

Rogers argues with some detail that Paradise Lost is not coming down finally on any side of this. He says, for example:
it's not absolutely clear to me that Satan is wrong to claim that the angels are "self-rais'd / by their own quick'ning power." I think on some level this has to be seen as true, at least according to what we know of the dynamic processes in Milton's account of the monistic Creation.
More than ever, then, we as readers are Adam, hearing a story that seems to have justice on both sides. So it'll be worthwhile to look at the horrific destruction of the War in Heaven in Book 6, and at the Creation in Book 7, with these complications in mind.

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