Thursday, December 30, 2010

A few sources for P.L. 6

Andrew Marvell admits he had his doubts about Paradise Lost:

When I beheld the Poet blind, yet bold,
In slender Book his vast Design unfold,
Messiah Crown'd, Gods Reconcil'd Decree,
Rebelling Angels, the Forbidden Tree,
Heav'n, Hell, Earth, Chaos, All; the Argument
Held me a while misdoubting his Intent,
That he would ruine (for I saw him strong)
The sacred Truths to Fable and old Song,

One has to wonder if those dubieties peaked with the War in Heaven of Book 6. This action-packed "epic" ("mock epic" seems not right, but nearly just as right as "epic") features sword-wielding angels in cubic phalanxes, mountains flung like mudpies, a novel mode of canon-formation, truly execrable puns, and the Merkabah, a souped-up Chariot that blows away the works of drag-racing enthusiasts.

Some critics pass over Book 6 in as few words as possible. It has to be one of the strangest poetic concoctions ever undertaken, and it's a measure of the poet's confidence that he boldly proceeded with his over-the-top treatment of the war of Satan against the Heavenly Hosts in such detail -- a scene that receives the barest mention in a few scattered places in the Bible. After the quiet meal and contemplative conversation of Book 5, Book 6 is non-stop action. But the strange poetic mode might prod us to wonder: what is action?

Shackling Michael and Gabriel in Homeric garb is one thing -- after all, they are traditionally envisioned as warriors. But the escalation of the techniques of violence from swords to howitzers to mountains seems all Milton, and it risks falling into comic-book bathos as precipitously as Satan and his legions plummet into the gaping maw of hell at the book's end. Once again in the poem, a fall is staged, but here in full military regalia. With Marvell, we might want to ask: what was he thinking?

A few bits of fable and old song to have in mind for Book 6 would necessarily include Hesiod's battle of the Olympians and Titans from his Theogony, Homer's accounts of duels and combat in the Iliad, the chariot of Ezekiel 1 and 10, and the allusions to the war in heaven in Rev. 12. If others come to mind, be sure to share them as we make our way through this strangest of literary depictions of war.

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.

Friday, December 17, 2010


Scientific American:

Can culture be decoded like a genome? A team from Harvard University has teamed up with Google to crack the spines of 5,195,769 digitized books that span five centuries of the printed word with the hopes of giving the humanities a more quantitative research tool.

The Google Books Ngram Viewer, launched online December 16 and described in a paper in Science, allows Web users to query their respective areas of interest based on n-grams (a method of modeling sequences in natural language). The Harvard team is calling their analysis "culturomics" based on the notion that culture "is something you can study like evolution in biology," says Jean-Baptiste Michel, a postdoctoral researcher in Harvard's psychology department and in the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics, who helped lead the charge with Aiden. As a gene or phenotype changes over time, so, too, the researchers propose, do cultural sensibilities.

The Economist suggests that science is invading the humanities:

Reading by numbers
Science invades the humanities

But what if this sort of rich stew of millions of books also manages to humanize the sciences?

Ngram Viewer

Thursday, December 16, 2010

At the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg

At the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Pete:

Theater in Ancient Art: The William Knight Zewadski Collection

This exhibition of approximately 50 antiquities, dating from the sixth century B.C. to the fourth century A.D., celebrates the theater tradition in Greek, Roman, and Etruscan art and culture. The artworks recreate a theatrical experience that was communal, often celebratory, and sometimes erotic. Found here are not only large-scale vases with finely executed paintings, but also objects used in daily life such as oil lamps, loom weights, and a theater ticket. Highlights include the Calyx Krater—depicting Orestes, his sister Electra, and Apollo, the god of Delphi—and two vessels by the Darius Painter, considered the most erudite and important artist of Apulian pottery (present-day southern Italy). These holdings, on extended loan to the Museum by trustee William Knight Zewadski, comprise one of the most comprehensive American collections of its kind and rival similar groupings in the Getty Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Of angels and regicide

A few links pursuant to our discussion today of Book 5 of Paradise Lost:

The author of the treatise on the angels entitled Celestial Hierarchy, is known today as Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. The "pseudo" was added later to distinguish him from an Athenian convert of St. Paul mentioned in Acts 17:34. A bit more about Dionysius is here.

The Celestial Hierarchy in full is here. More about angels here and here.

Mystical Theology, another brief work by Pseudo-Dionysius, is here.

As for our poet's writings on regicide, Milton wrote more than one defense of the actions taken by Cromwell, where the regicide is discussed and defended:

With the parliamentary victory in the Civil War, Milton used his pen in defence of the republican principles represented by the Commonwealth. The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649) defended popular government and implicitly sanctioned the regicide; Milton’s political reputation got him appointed Secretary for Foreign Tongues by the Council of State in March 1649. Though Milton's main job description was to compose the English Republic's foreign correspondence in Latin, he also was called upon to produce propaganda for the regime and to serve as a censor. In October 1649 he published Eikonoklastes, an explicit defence of the regicide, in response to the Eikon Basilike, a phenomenal best-seller popularly attributed to Charles I that portrayed the King as an innocent Christian martyr. A month after Milton had tried to break this powerful image of Charles I (the literal translation of Eikonoklastes is 'the image breaker'), the exiled Charles II and his party published a defence of monarchy, Defensio Regia Pro Carolo Primo, written by the leading humanist Claudius Salmasius. By January of the following year, Milton was ordered to write a defence of the English people by the Council of State. Given the European audience and the English Republic's desire to establish diplomatic and cultural legitimacy, Milton worked more slowly than usual, as he drew on the learning marshalled by his years of study to compose a riposte. On 24 February 1652 Milton published his Latin defence of the English People, Defensio Pro Populo Anglicano, also known as the First Defence. Milton's pure Latin prose and evident learning, exemplified in the First Defence, quickly made him a European reputation, and the work ran to numerous editions.[27]

In 1654, in response to an anonymous Royalist tract Regii sanguinis clamor”, a work that made many personal attacks on Milton, he completed a second defence of the English nation, Defensio secunda, which praised Oliver Cromwell, now Lord Protector, while exhorting him to remain true to the principles of the Revolution. Alexander Morus, to whom Milton wrongly attributed the Clamor (in fact by Peter du Moulin), published an attack on Milton, in response to which Milton published the autobiographical Defensio pro se in 1655. In addition to these literary defences of the Commonwealth and his character, Milton continued to translate official correspondence into Latin. The probable onset of glaucoma finally resulted in total blindness by 1654, forcing him to dictate his verse and prose to amanuenses (helpers), one of whom was the poet Andrew Marvell. One of his best-known sonnets, On His Blindness, is presumed to date from this period.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Milton dictating to his daughters

This image of Milton's daughter taking down the poetry of Paradise Lost is by Swiss-born painter Henry Fuseli. Jutta had shared it some time ago, but Google had a glitch with images on blogs.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Tales told by Socrates and Raphael

As has been mentioned before, Verity's notes to Paradise Lost, some of which are available online, are quite sensible and useful. His notes to Books 5 and 6 can be accessed here.

Of the Father's 16-line decree that begins on line 600 announcing the Son, his rule, his power of mediating the Father's glory, word and will, the editor wisely begs off, saying, "upon the particular theological bearing of this passage it would, I think, be out of place to comment," confining his note to scriptural sources, of which there are several.

Rather than look at the theology (we did, somewhat, in our last session, finding it more subtle, cryptic and complex than its austere brevity lets on), I want to suggest that the shape of Raphael's story might offer some interesting parallels and contrasts with Plato's cave allegory, which Socrates tells in Republic 7. The reasons for the comparison should become clear.

In the Republic, Socrates describes the human condition as essentially benighted. We are bound, like prisoners, fixed in the darkness, compelled to look at shadows of stage props. The props are behind us, between our backs and the fire that projects their images on the cave wall.

The story tells how one of these turns his neck and sees the two-dimensional props, and immediately understands that he's been seeing something of less substance than these. He's then dragged out of the cave into the bright light of day, where he is at first blinded, then gradually becomes accustomed to the sun's illuminating actual things. Socrates assures us that if this fellow were to return to tell his fellow cave dwellers what he saw, they would take him for a madman. But the shape of the story is clear: it's a journey through space, a paradigm of the eye and of light. It moves from darkness and servitude to light and freedom, from illusion to truth, from a kind of dreamworld to a stable, clear and serene upper world where one can contemplate things as they really are. So far, Plato's tale can be said to correspond to the pervasive solar imagery of dawn in Book 5 -- a process of gradual illumination.

If we turn to the story Raphael tells Adam and Eve, we find an parallel ascent, from Nature, the garden, the flower that turns to the sun, upward along a dynamic scale of being which follows the sublimation being described by the Angel as all things are consumed, transformed and refined. At a certain point, prompted by Adam's questions, Raphael has to pause and make clear that he is about to speak of warring spirits and high matter beyond the reach of human experience:

how shall I relate
To human sense th' invisible exploits [ 565 ]
Of warring Spirits; how without remorse
The ruin of so many glorious once
And perfet while they stood; how last unfould
The secrets of another World, perhaps
Not lawful to reveal? yet for thy good [ 570 ]
This is dispenc't,

He is, then, going to speak in allegory, in figure -- we must be wary of taking what is said too literally, it will require interpreting:

and what surmounts the reach
Of human sense, I shall delineate so,
By lik'ning spiritual to corporal forms,
As may express them best, though what if Earth
Be but the shaddow of Heav'n, and things therein [ 575 ]
Each to other like, more then on earth is thought?

One might be tempted here to find a suggestion of Platonism -- the spiritual world is to the physical world as Plato's Forms are to the shadowy figures on the walls of the cave.

But the story Raphael goes on to tell is anything but a journey that ends in gradual, eye-opening enlightenment. Instead we are carried back in time to a prime moment before our world was made. And we hear, rather than see, an act of power. God decrees the rule of his Son, and almost instantaneously Satan conceives malice, revolts, and launches the cataclysm of Book 6. Instead of a tranquil contemplative conclusion, Raphael's tale rises to a moment of perfect order; at God's Word, heavenly order shatters.

Raphael's story is but a beginning -- an enigmatic opening of a story still unfolding. He will go on to speak of Satan's rout and fall, which brings us back to the opening of Book 1. But is this a purely cyclical structure? With the creation in Book 7, another chapter begins; it will encompass another fall, then all of human history, then look beyond history.

The shape of Milton's story strongly diverges from Plato's. Where the cave dweller begins in dark servitude and ascends to brilliant plenitude, the tale of the angel and the poet begins in sweetness and light, and falls into disorder and harsh history. In Plato, knowledge, gained by toil and struggle, is the goal and liberating end of education; for Adam and Eve, knowledge will neither be the goal, nor the means of leaving or repairing the fallen world. Still, the Greek world's highest literary form was tragedy, where the culture of Milton and Dante finds its fullest expression in the comic.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Labor, Science, Adamic Innocence

Jutta sends along a review of a substantial new book about early modern ways of thinking about science, labor, and the public sphere. Labors of Innocence in Early Modern England by Joanna Picciotto is about
"the fertile conjunction between literature and science as it developed in seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century England, offering new discussions on the ideas and texts of authors such as Francis Bacon, Gerrard Winstanley, John Evelyn, Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, Thomas Sprat, Andrew Marvell, William Davenant, John Locke, Daniel Defoe, Joseph Addison, Celia Fiennes, and above all John Milton."
In the Renaissance vision of an unfallen Adam Picciotto finds the roots of a labor that leads to the producing of truth in a disinterested way, which in turn becomes a model for benign experimentalism in modern science, according to the review. More here.

Such a view would seem congruent with the vision of man in nature that emerges in Book 5 of Paradise Lost. In the garden, Adam and Eve are rooted deeply in a natural world whose order the human mind can labor to comprehend, cultivate, and master.

Friday, November 26, 2010

High matter, warring spirits

The natural language and ordering of the world as found in Adam and Eve's morning orison, and in Raphael's description of the system of nature -- essentially a kind of heliotropism, all in keeping with the metaphorics of dawn in Book V -- seem to be jettisoned as the angel, in response to Adam's request, begins to tell the origin of the war in heaven.

High matter thou injoinst me, O prime of men,
Sad task and hard, for how shall I relate
To human sense th' invisible exploits [ 565 ]
Of warring Spirits;

It might be worth asking some straightforward questions about how Raphael/Milton choose to tell this story. For example, while it seems to narrate a tale with a clear beginning, a sharp conflict, and a definite ending (at the end of Book VI, which leads right into the opening scene of Book I), does it reflect the natural ordering of time, space, agency, etc. that belong to nature and science, or is this a different kind of telling? Does it obey what we normally think of as the dictates of Reason?

In the description of the angelic congregation (580 ff), much is made of hierarchies, degrees, flags, a kind of militant order, and geometry is invoked:
Thus when in Orbes
Of circuit inexpressible they stood, [ 595 ]
Orb within Orb
Any observations about this sort of mathematical ordering?

How does the angels' meal compare with that of Adam, Eve and Raphael?

Since all the angels were used to worshiping the Father, why does Satan begin to conceive malice when he hears the decree about the Son?

How odd is it to find God smiling, and the Son joining in his laughter at Satan?

How cogent is Satan's reasoning when he says:
rememberst thou
Thy making, while the Maker gave thee being?
We know no time when we were not as now;
How is Abdiel "seeing" when he says:
I see thy fall
How does he hear/know of these decrees:
other Decrees
Against thee are gon forth without recall;

Why does Abdiel leave the towers of Satan behind?

What other questions come to mind?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

"Happiness is a dangerous word"

A fine essay by Joan Bakewell about reading, the work of contemplation, and the precarious situation of public libraries in the UK. A BBC podcast available for the next seven days here.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A few books Jutta found

Jutta sends a note:

In the latest PMLA they were advisements for several Milton books by Duquesne U P.   (800 666-2211)
Visionary Milton. Essays on Prophecy and Violence.  Edited by Peter E. Medine, John T. Shawcross and David V. Urban   $60
The Divorce Tracts of John Milton. Texts and Contexts.  Ed. by Sara J. Van den Berg and W. Scott Howard   $75
Milton and Monotheism by Abraham Stoll.   $60.

Another currently featured on the Duquesne U.P. site:

The Development of Milton's Thought. Law, Government, Religion. John T. Shawcross. $60.


Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic. By Ingrid D. Rowland. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Dawn in P.L. 5

If we needed assurance that Paradise Lost breaks neatly into thirds, consider the opening of Book 9:

NO more of talk where God or Angel Guest
With Man, as with his Friend, familiar us'd
To sit indulgent, and with him partake
Rural repast, permitting him the while
Venial discourse unblam'd:

The poem that opens with Satan landing in hell with a thud turns, in book 5, to a human state suffused with images of dawn, of flowers and fruits, of the primal world of humanity working the world and conversing with angels. There's a striking difference between Adam and Eve's work in the garden and the harsher world of Virgil's Georgics, where the varied labors of cultivation require unremitting effort as well as study. If labor vincit omnia in Virgilit does so with the qualifier improbus, whose relevant meanings include restless, indomitable, persistent, as well as, connotatively, fierce and violent. One result of the Fall is that we fell into Virgil's world of labor improbus.

The opening of Book 5, the mid-section of the epic, puts enough stress on dawn that the reader would be well advised to consider the manifold chain of images that invariably comes with it: figures of a gradual (rosie steps) enlightening that entails an ever more detailed differentiation of the visible realm; initiation of the temporal realm of hours, of the approach of the sun and the train of things that derive from it, the clearing of mists, the creation of rain leading to the biosphere, where all things consume and are consumed. And Dawn is naturally accompanied by the fairest of stars (166).

Adam's paean to the sun (of this great World both Eye and Soule) greets the day, and Dawn is the "sure/pledge of day" (167-68). Before the hours run, at the very beginning, is Prime - it's worth noting how that word returns four times in Book 5. The first occurrence is when we hear Adam, calling to the still sleeping Eve, we lose the prime (21).

Lucifer precedes dawn, but dawn is followed by the advent of Raphael, who, to Adam
seems another Morn
Ris'n on mid-noon
The angel will speak to Adam and Eve of high things - the appointment of the Son as head, the revulsion of Satan, and the prophetic voice of Abdiel. At this point we are beyond the natural light of the sun, but it would be worthwhile to consider echoes of the first half of Book 5 as they occur in the second half -- Satan's speech to Beelzebub, or words such as "impair'd" and "entertain." Milton seems to not use a word without its interestingly resonating with other instances of the "same" word.

Dawn and primacy resonate throughout: Look, for example, how at the end of Book 5, Satan can't swallow the idea that he was made, authored. Parodying the voice out of the whirlwind of Job (parody is the ultimate in secondary tropism), Satan can't accept that he is not primordial:

That we were formd then saist thou? and the work
Of secondarie hands, by task transferd
From Father to his Son? strange point and new! [ 855 ]
Doctrin which we would know whence learnt: who saw
When this creation was? rememberst thou
Thy making, while the Maker gave thee being?
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, when fatal course
Had circl'd his full Orbe, the birth mature
Of this our native Heav'n, Ethereal Sons.

The speed with which the angels intuit, decide and act is in marked contrast to the gradual taking in and development of knowledge, thought and feeling in Adam and Eve, or for that matter, in the reader of Paradise Lost. For Satan there is no logical argument or intuitable evidence that anything, including the Sun/Son, preexisted him. It is never going to dawn on him that he derives from something more primal than himself. The cogent logic of Book Five's images helps us see how and why no creature other than Lucifer could be the morning star.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

"The Knight-Errant of Philosophy"

That is the epithet assigned to Giordano Bruno by Pierre Bayle, according to this brief account of Bruno's life and thought.

Bruno was born near Naples in 1548 and died in flames in Rome in 1600. In between, he lived a restless life, moving through various Italian cities to Paris, where he interested the king in his famed arts of memory, then to England, where he befriended Sir Philip Sydney, gained the favor of Elizabeth, and published a few key works, including the Heroic Furors, dedicated to Sydney. He visited Oxford while there, and, as he'd done in other locales, he departed in disgust, writing that the Oxford profs "knew more about beer than about Greek."

From England he went to Germany, where he managed to be excommunicated by the Lutherans, then on to Venice, perhaps the most intellectually "open" city of the day. It was there that the Inquisition arrested him and had him extradited to Rome, where he remained imprisoned for 7 years until his execution in the Campo dei Fiori on Feb. 17, 1600. In that Roman square, a statue of the rogue priest/theologian/natural philosopher/magus/satirist/playwright/heretic memorializes the event.

Whatever Bruno's philosophy ultimately has to teach, it's fair to say that it is hauntingly evocative - richly figural and allegorical, tending to meld disciplines and the study of nature, theology, and science as if they were so many elements of a vast Bouillabaisse. Every account attempting to summarize some core of his teaching sounds unlike every other account. The body of Bruno's work, like its earthly equivalent, vanishes within the fires it feeds. Let's hear a bit of what he sounds like (in translation):
It is proof of a base and low mind for one to wish to think with the masses or majority, merely because the majority is the majority. Truth does not change because it is, or is not, believed by a majority of the people.
There is no absolute up or down, as Aristotle taught; no absolute position in space; but the position of a body is relative to that of other bodies. Everywhere there is incessant relative change in position throughout the universe, and the observer is always at the center of things. 
The universe is then one, infinite, immobile.... It is not capable of comprehension and therefore is endless and limitless, and to that extent infinite and indeterminable, and consequently immobile.
In this infinite space is placed our universe (whether by chance, by necessity or by providence I do not now consider). 
Make then your forecasts, my lords Astrologers, with your slavish physicians, by means of those astrolabes with which you seek to discern the fantastic nine moving spheres; in these you finally imprison your own minds, so that you appear to me but as parrots in a cage, while I watch you dancing up and down, turning and hopping within those circles.
My son, I do not say these are foals and those asses, these little monkeys and those great baboons, as you would have me do. As I told you from the first, I regard them [Aristotle; Plato] as earth's heroes. But I do not wish to believe them without cause, nor to accept those propositions whose antitheses (as you must have understood if you are not both blind and deaf) are so compellingly true. 

One can perhaps see in this description how Milton might have recognized a kindred imagination:
Bruno also affirmed that the universe was homogeneous, made up everywhere of the four elements (water, earth, fire, and air), rather than having the stars be composed of a separate quintessence. Essentially, the same physical laws would operate everywhere, although the use of that term is anachronistic. Space and time were both conceived as infinite.. . . 
Under this model, the Sun was simply one more star, and the stars all suns, each with its own planets. Bruno saw a solar system of a sun/star with planets as the fundamental unit of the universe. According to Bruno, infinite God necessarily created an infinite universe, formed of an infinite number of solar systems, separated by vast regions full of Aether, because empty space could not exist. (Bruno did not arrive at the concept of a galaxy.) Comets were part of a synodus ex mundis of stars, and not—as other authors maintained at the time—ephemeral creations, divine instruments, or heavenly messengers. Each comet was a world, a permanent celestial body, formed of the four elements. 
Clearly, Bruno was no Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498). Indeed, had Bruno lived during the time of that rigorous Dominican, it's likely that his furious books, along with his hide, would have fed the Bonfire of the Vanities. It's equally likely he'd have said to Savonarola what he reportedly told the judges who ordered him to be burned:
Perchance you who pronounce my sentence are in greater fear than I who receive it. 

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Constituting happiness

Latent in Milton's rendering of Paradise in PL V is a richly imagined understanding of the world, humanity, the creator, and the purpose/meaning of this inaugural state. Clearly we were meant to be happy; the beauty of the world carried significance; as fallen descendants, we must turn back to understand our present through an imagined glimpse of the world before all went astray.

A few snippets from a multi-faith conversation about pursuing happiness (from Krista Tippett's On Being) might be relevant.

Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks: The definition of a Jew, Israel is as it says in Genesis 34, one who struggles, wrestles, with God and with humanity and prevails. And Jacob says something very profound to the angel. He says, "I will not let you go until you bless me." And that I feel about suffering. When something bad happens, I will not let go of that bad thing until I have discovered the blessing that lies within it.

Most Rev. Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori: There's this ongoing tension between seeing happiness as joining with God, as communion with God, that's only possible in the afterlife, and the insistence that human beings are created to be happy, that happiness is possible in this life. There's the particular piece of Christianity that insists that sometimes suffering is a root to happiness for the larger community. That kind of suffering may not be chosen, but it contains blessing within it. The sense that our goal is this fully restored creation at right relationship with all that is and sometimes the journey there requires us to enter into suffering and to demand, to insist, that there is blessing in the midst of that, wrestling with the angel. It must be there. You have created us to be happy, you have created us to be good, now show us. Show us the way through this. Show us the possibility for which all that is is created.

Professor Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr: First of all, in the Arabic language, the word for beauty and virtue is the same, and goodness, all three. In the Islam — Muslim mind, they're not separated from each other. In the deepest sense, goodness — in the ordinary sense, these were external actions. In a deeper sense, virtue is within us. Beauty can deal also with external forms and it can deal with beauty of the soul, beauty of the spirit, within us. But beauty in a sense is a more interiorizing. Beauty is what draws us directly to the Divine, to the Divine reality.

The Dalai Lama: I always believe and also share with the people, the very purpose of our life is for happiness. Those nonbeliever also they felt that religion — religious faith is a — brings a lot of sort of complication. So without that, they feel the easier to achieve happy life. So I think the very purpose of our existence is for happiness. So that mentioned, your constitution. And then also is equally their right. You see, happiness not come from sky, but we must make a happy life. So we have a responsibility. The government cannot provide happiness. Happiness must create within ourselves and our family. So ultimately, our own responsibility, isn't it?

At the point we are in Milton's idea of humankind's trajectory, Adam and Eve need not wrestle with the angel. See Dore's image here.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Falling through time

A few images about the fall - more here, including works of Cranach, Chagall, Tintoretto, Brueghel and Poussin.

Eve persuades Adam

Hugo van Goes



Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Green Fuse

In honor of Dylan Thomas's birthday:

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.
And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.

The hand that whirls the water in the pool
Stirs the quicksand; that ropes the blowing wind
Hauls my shroud sail.
And I am dumb to tell the hanging man
How of my clay is made the hangman's lime.

The lips of time leech to the fountain head;
Love drips and gathers, but the fallen blood
Shall calm her sores.
And I am dumb to tell a weather's wind
How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.

And I am dumb to tell the lover's tomb
How at my sheet goes the same crooked worm.


Hard to ignore the sound, in "fuse," of phusis, the Greek word for "nature," the root of "physics."

Interestingly (for Milton, if not for Thomas), the first appearance of phusis comes in Odyssey 10, and involves a god (Hermes) explaining the nature of an herb with pharmacological powers to Odysseus:

ὣς ἄρα φωνήσας πόρε φάρμακον ἀργεϊφόντης ἐκ γαίης ἐρύσας, καί μοι φύσιν αὐτοῦ ἔδειξε

Argeiphontes [=Hermes] gave me the herb, drawing it from the ground, and showed me its nature.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

This day...

Book V begins with "Now" and moves from dawn's "rosie steps" in Paradise to Raphael's account of an announcement from God:

Hear all ye Angels, Progenie of Light, [ 600 ]
Thrones, Dominations, Princedoms, Vertues, Powers,
Hear my Decree, which unrevok't shall stand.
This day I have begot whom I declare
My onely Son, and on this holy Hill
Him have anointed, whom ye now behold 
At my right hand; your Head I him appoint;
And by my Self have sworn to him shall bow
All knees in Heav'n, and shall confess him Lord:

As the Dartmouth site notes, this entire scene has its textual roots in Psalm 2, of which Martin Luther says, "In a word this Psalm is one of the most important Psalms of the whole Psalter":

 1Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?
 2The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD, and against his anointed, saying,
 3Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us.
 4He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the LORD shall have them in derision.
 5Then shall he speak unto them in his wrath, and vex them in his sore displeasure.
 6Yet have I set my king upon my holy hill of Zion.
 7I will declare the decree: the LORD hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee.
 8Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession.
 9Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel.
 10Be wise now therefore, O ye kings: be instructed, ye judges of the earth.
 11Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling.
 12Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and ye perish from the way, when his wrath is kindled but a little. Blessed are all they that put their trust in him.

But Christ neither began to be born, nor will ever cease to be born, but is ever being born in a present nativity. He is rightly said therefore to be begotten "today," that is, being always begotten. For "today" implies neither a yesterday nor a tomorrow, but always a present time, a today. As it is said, John 8:58, "Before Abraham was I am."
For what it's worth, here's Calvin on the same verse.

Update: Should have pointed to Milton's verse translation of Psalm 2, in terza rima, Dante's rhyme scheme.

Outline of Paradise Lost Found

A reminder that a nice outline of Paradise Lost can be found here.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Italian Milton

Author and friend Peter D'Epiro (The Book of Firsts, Sprezzatura, What are the Seven Wonders of the World) sends this virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel, which allows movement and close-ups of any part of the interior of the building.

I can think of no Italian work of art that more appropriately matches the ambitious scope and sustained power of Milton's epic than this. Can you?

Pete's books are chock full of learning, style, and the exercise of curiosity with regard to things of lasting cultural value. (And I don't say that because of my meager contributions to them):

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Spring in Botticelli and Milton

 then with voice 

Milde, as when Zephyrus on Flora breathes,

It's possible Milton saw Botticelli's Primavera while in Italy. He surely was familiar with Poliziano's Rusticus -- a poem of country life described as an updated version of Virgil's Georgics and Hesiod's Works and Days -- with which it is often associated. 

Botticelli's painting is understood to be allegorical, with sundry interpretations (here's one interesting example). It's also a literal anthology, with "500 identified plant species depicted," including 190 different flowers. If Emily Dickinson placed flowers and plants amid the leaves of books, Botticelli seems intent on naming Flora, or Chloris, through sheer abundance of example.

Similarly Milton will reel off a litany of floral names, and here, in Book V, the poem is permeated with the names and scents of flowers and herbs, and sounds of birds and water and gentle breezes:

 th' only sound 

Of leaves and fuming rills, Aurora's fan,
Lightly dispers'd, and the shrill Matin Song
Of Birds on every bough; 

For a stupendous virtual reproduction of Botticelli's Primavera, go here. The image is so rich it takes a while to load, then can be zoomed to a remarkable level of detail. A right-click of the mouse allows a full screen image, which itself can be zoomed in and out, or scoured from one edge to the other.

The opening of Paradise Lost V is imbued with the dawn and with spring. Perhaps it's mere coincidence that Hermes makes a cameo appearance both in Milton's garden and in Botticelli's painting. In the Primavera, the god appears on the left. His right hand holds the cadeceus that reaches the clouds; his left rests on his hip inches from his sword handle. 

In P.L. V, he's woven into the initial description of Raphael:

Seraph wingd; six wings he wore, to shade

His lineaments Divine; the pair that clad
Each shoulder broad, came mantling o're his brest
With regal Ornament; the middle pair [ 280 ]
Girt like a Starrie Zone his waste, and round
Skirted his loines and thighes with downie Gold
And colours dipt in Heav'n; the third his feet

Shaddowd from either heele with featherd maile

Skie-tinctur'd grain. Like Maia's son he stood, [ 285 ]
And shook his Plumes, that Heav'nly fragrance filld
The circuit wide

If nothing else, both Raphael and Hermes traditionally are messengers connecting heaven and earth. The conversation between Adam, Eve and the angel will, among other things, depict an intricate and coherent account of that linkage.