Saturday, January 30, 2010

Paradise Lost II: The Movie

The marketing of the Inferno as a video game made me wonder how Milton's epic might fare. Which led to thinking about Book II of Paradise Lost visually. Apart from the spectacular spaces and places -- the ocean of confusion, anarchie and eldest Night outside the gates of hell, the pavilion of Chaos and more -- there's Milton's cinematic use of close ups, middle shots, pans, and long shots.

The council scene (1-505) consists of tight head shots of each speaker in turn. After the meeting breaks up, the narrator pulls back to stage Satan's triumphant exit (506 - 520), then, via the blare of the "sounding Alchymie" the narrator pulls back to pan the fallen angels at their liberal pursuits (521 - 628). (One notes that there is nothing we normally associate with "evil" here - they joust, play, discuss philosophy, sing - indeed, they are probably partaking of the same pleasures they once enjoyed in Heaven.)

The long description of their exercises in killing time until Satan's return has its own structure. From mid-shots of Hell's Angels at play the narrative pulls back and up, following those who choose to explore their new homeland, beginning at 570:

     Another part in Squadrons and gross Bands,
     On bold adventure to discover wide
     That dismal world, if any Clime perhaps
     Might yield them easier habitation

The "camera" surveys the Angels surveying their world, and the farther they go, to their dismay, the grimmer, more inhospitable and monstrous, it becomes:

     Where all life dies, death lives, and Nature breeds,
     Perverse, all monstrous, all prodigious things, [ 625 ]
     Abominable, inutterable, and worse
     Then Fables yet have feign'd, or fear conceiv'd,
     Gorgons and Hydra's, and Chimera's dire.

The narrative then moves back to a middle shot of Satan making his way to the gates of hell -- where the confrontation with Sin and Death will call for more close-ups as well as dramatic camera angles.

Milton's cinematic effects here produce a remarkable variety. From the very first line of Book II, that superb establishing shot:

HIgh on a Throne of Royal State, which far
Outshon the wealth of Ormus and of Ind,
Or where the gorgeous East with richest hand
Showrs on her Kings Barbaric Pearl and Gold,
Satan exalted sat,

 to "dire," the narrative is at pains to give us a pretty firm idea of where the characters are, and where we observers stand in relation to them. But when Satan stands 

    on the brink of Hell and look'd a while,
    Pondering his Voyage: 

he "spurns the ground" to waft into a vast abyss which defies stable point of view, and standard ideas about motion, direction, space. We, following along, will find no firm ground for a while -- and will have every right to feel confused.

"We took liberties - there's no doubt"

Dante's Inferno -- the video game

The heresy canto from Inferno - the Electronic Arts version of Dante's hell:

Monday, January 25, 2010

Milton's Sin and Shelley's Medusa

While it's tangential to our interest in Milton's Sin, the iconography of Medusa does offer a few suggestive parallels -- a beauty who was turned into a snaky horror, who also became, in some legends, the protectress of the fruits of an earthly paradise:

 Originally a beautiful maiden, she was raped by Neptune in the temple of Minerva. That goddess of culture and society, outraged, transformed Medusa's famous golden hair into a nest of serpents and decreed that anyone looking on her would be turned to stone. Medusa was then banished to an ambiguous place in the west, where Perseus later went to slay her with the help and encouragement of Minerva especially.

…certain received facts in the myth of Medusa suggest her association with poetry and the earthly paradise. Some traditions assert that when she was cursed by Minerva she became the guardian of the golden apples of the Hesperides, the fabulous western islands of the earthly paradise. All the legends agree, moreover, that at her death the winged horse Pegasus, traditional symbol of poetic inspiration and energy, sprang forth from her body.

Apollodorus tells us that she had two blood systems and that the physician Asclepius* collected some of each after her death. The one he used to revive the dead, the other to destroy his enemies. 

Minerva as well recognized this deathless Medusan force and sought to appropriate it for herself: the aegis of her power, represented on her famous shield, is the Medusa's head. 

The above excerpted from "The Beauty of the Medusa," by Jerome McGann. The piece looks at Mario Praz's view of Romanticism, using Shelley's poem about the above image, which was thought to be by da Vinci

*This story about Asclepius also turns up in the tale of Ophiucus.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

From Christ's College Old Library

Charles Grignon (engraver) after Francis Hayman, illustration to Book II of Paradise Lost (1749), engraving.
© Christ's College Old Library

Many other illustrations are to be seen at darkness visible, including some interactive resources.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Two quotes from Brecht

GALILEO: Overnight the universe has lost its centre, and by morning it has countless ones. So that now each -- and none -- is regarded as its centre. For suddenly there is plenty of room.


THE VERY OLD CARDINAL: Are they still in there? Can they really not dispose of this triviality more quickly? Clavius ought to understand his own astronomy. I hear that this Signor Galilei banishes mankind from the center of the universe to some where at the edge. He is, therefore, plainly an enemy of the human race. And he should be treated as such. Man is the crown of creation; every child knows that, God’s highest and most beloved creature.

How could He place such a miracle, such a masterpiece, on a little remote and forever wandering star? Would He have sent His Son to such a place?
How can there be people so perverse as to believe in these slaves of their own mathematical tables? Which of God’s creatures would submit to such a thing? 

Thursday, January 21, 2010

On the track of Cerberus

The most ancient prototype of Milton's Sin is probably Echidna -- half woman, half serpent, mother of Cerberus and a boatload of other notorious monsters (whose father usually was Typhaon):

In the most ancient layers of Greek mythologyEchidna (Greek: Ἔχιδνα, ekhis, ἔχις, meaning "she viper") was called the "Mother of All Monsters". Echidna was described by Hesiod as a female monster spawned in a cave, who mothered with her mate Typhoeus (or Typhon) every major horrible monster in the Greek myths,

the goddess fierce Echidna who is half a nymph with glancing eyes and fair cheeks, and half again a huge snake,[1] great and awful, with speckled skin, eating raw flesh beneath the secret parts of the holy earth. And there she has a cave deep down under a hollow rock far from the deathless gods and mortal men. There, then, did the gods appoint her a glorious house to dwell in: and she keeps guard in Arima beneath the earth, grim Echidna, a nymph who dies not nor grows old all her days.[2]
Usually considered an offspring of Tartarus and Gaia, or of Ceto and Phorcys (according to Hesiod) or of Chrysaor and the naiad Callirhoe, or Peiras and Styx (according to Pausanias, who did not know who Peiras was aside from her father), her face and torso of a beautiful woman was depicted as winged in archaic vase-paintings, but always with the body of a serpent or having two serpent's tails.[3]. She is also sometimes described as Karl Kerenyi noted an archaic vase-painting with a pair of echidnas performing sacred rites in a vineyard, while on the opposite side of the vessel, goats were attacking the vines:[4] thus chthonic Echidnae are presented as protectors of the vineyard.

 In Hesiod, Cerberos had more heads:
Men say that Typhaon the terrible, outrageous and lawless, was joined in love to her, the maid with glancing eyes. So she conceived and brought forth fierce offspring; first she bore Orthus the hound of Geryones, [310] and then again she bore a second, a monster not to be overcome and that may not be described, Cerberus who eats raw flesh, the brazen-voiced hound of Hades, fifty-headed, relentless and strong. And again she bore a third, the evil-minded Hydra of Lerna, whom the goddess, white-armed Hera nourished, [315] being angry beyond measure with the mighty Heracles. And her Heracles, the son of Zeus, of the house of Amphitryon, together with warlike Iolaus, destroyed with the unpitying sword through the plans of Athena the spoil driver. She was the mother of Chimaera who breathed raging fire, [320] a creature fearful, great, swift footed and strong, who had three heads, one of a grim-eyed lion, another of a goat, and another of a snake, a fierce dragon; in her forepart she was a lion; in her hinderpart, a dragon; and in her middle, a goat, breathing forth a fearful blast of blazing fire. [325] Her did Pegasus and noble Bellerophon slay; but Echidna was subject in love to Orthus and brought forth the deadly Sphinx which destroyed the Cadmeans, and the Nemean lion, which Hera, the good wife of Zeus, brought up and made to haunt the hills of Nemea, a plague to men. [330] There he preyed upon the tribes of her own people and had power over Tretus of Nemea and Apesas: yet the strength of stout Heracles overcame him. And Ceto was joined in love to Phorcys and bore her youngest, the awful snake who guards [335] the apples all of gold in the secret places of the dark earth at its great bounds. This is the offspring of Ceto and Phorcys. link

Herakles, Kerberos and Eurystheus

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The serpent handler

Satan's confrontation with Death, II.704 ff:
So spake the grieslie terror, and in shape,
So speaking and so threatning, grew tenfold [ 705 ]
More dreadful and deform: on th' other side
Incenst with indignation Satan stood
Unterrifi'd, and like a Comet burn'd,
That fires the length of Ophiucus huge
In th' Artick Sky, and from his horrid hair [ 710 ]
Shakes Pestilence and Warr.

It takes a Milton to pull an Ophiucus out of the sky, but why this constellation in particular? The more one learns about Miltonic allusions, the richer they become. Here are a few elements:

 Ophiuchus is depicted as a man grasping a serpent; the interposition of his body divides the snake constellation Serpens into two parts, Serpens Caput and Serpens Cauda, which are nonetheless counted as one constellation.

The supernova of 1604 was first observed on October 9, 1604, near θ Ophiuchi. Johannes Kepler saw it first on October 16 and studied it so extensively that the supernova was subsequently called Kepler's Supernova. He published his findings in a book titled De stella nova in pede Serpentarii (On the New Star in Ophiuchus' Foot).Galileo used its brief appearance to counter the Aristotelian dogma that the heavens are changeless.

There exist a number of theories as to whom the figure represents.
The most recent interpretation is that the figure represents the healer Asclepius, who learned the secrets of keeping death at bay after observing one serpent bringing another healing herbs. To prevent the entire human race from becoming immortal under Asclepius' care, Zeus killed him with a bolt of lightning, but later placed his image in the heavens to honor his good works. It has also been noted that the constellation Ophiuchus is in close proximity in the sky to that of Sagittarius, which has at times been believed to represent Chiron (the mentor of Asclepius and many other Greek demigods), though Chiron was originally associated with the constellation Centaurus.

With tragic irony, then, the myth tells of a demigod healer who discovers a way for mortals to overcome death; his reward from Zeus is to be struck dead. More mythological material from another site:

Chiron raised Asclepius as his own son, teaching him the arts of healing and hunting. Asclepius became so skilled in medicine that not only could he save lives, he could also raise the dead. On one occasion in Crete, Glaucus, the young son of King Minos, fell into jar of honey and drowned while at play. As Asclepius contemplated the body of Glaucus, a snake slithered towards it. He killed the snake with his staff; then another snake came along with a herb in its mouth and placed it on the body of the dead snake, which magically returned to life. Asclepius took the same herb and laid it on the body of Glaucus, who too was magically resurrected. (Robert Graves suggests that the herb was mistletoe, which the ancients thought had great regenerative properties, but perhaps it was actually willow bark, the source of salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin.) Because of this incident, says Hyginus, Ophiuchus is shown in the sky holding a snake, which became the symbol of healing from the fact that snakes shed their skin every year and are thus seemingly reborn.

Hades, god of the Underworld, began to realize that the flow of dead souls into his domain would soon dry up if this technique became widely known. He complained to his brother god Zeus who struck down Asclepius with a thunderbolt. Apollo was outraged at this harsh treatment of his son and retaliated by killing the three Cyclopes who forged Zeus’ thunderbolts. To mollify Apollo, Zeus made Asclepius immortal (in the circumstances he could hardly bring him back to life again) and set him among the stars as the constellation Ophiuchus.

It will not come as a surprise that there is much, much more about Ophiuchus if Googled.

Monday, January 18, 2010

New points of view

The Council scene in Book II leaves the impression that all the "rational options" have been presented, discussed, and decided upon. The joint decision is to suspend any final decision while Satan makes a solo voyage from hell through Chaos and old Night to the backside of the new, pendant world, and on to the Sun.

Each stop in his journey brings new characters who raise questions about tone and perspective, and pose interpretive difficulties. How does Sin, the dual figure, woman and serpent, complete with barking hellhounds, relate to what is fundamentally a theological concept? How are we to take the new elements (and back-story) of the plot, e.g. the encounter between Satan, Sin, and Death? What do the placement of Chaos and Satan's scene there say about the universe, the setting in which this whole drama unfolds, and about Satan himself? Why does the fate of the demons appear to hang upon the outcome of Satan's "success?"

After reading Book II's narrative of Satan's odyssey, it's worth taking a look at the Devil's own account of the same in Book X as he regales the demons upon his return.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Worden on Milton, Marvell, and Nedham

Jutta forwarded this review of a book that attempts to read the literary and the political works of Milton, Marvell, and Nedham in relation to each other, and to the major political figures and events of their day.

The book, by Blair Worden, is Literature and Politics in Cromwellian England: John Milton, Andrew Marvell, Marchamont Nedham.

With regard to Milton, the blurb says:

In Milton's case we explore the profound effect on his outlook brought by the execution of King Charles I in 1649; his difficult and disillusioning relationship with the successive regimes of the Interregnum; and his attempt to come to terms, in his immortal poetry of the Restoration, with the failure of Puritan rule.

According to the reviewer:

In Worden's words, from the beginning, "Cromwell's government was divided ... between statesmen who hoped, and those who feared, that the inauguration of the protectorate would be the first step in a return to hereditary--though now Cromwellian--monarchy," and he succeeds admirably in conveying the sense of betrayal experienced by men like Milton, Marvell, and Nedham as the Cromwellian juggernaut gained ground.

Paradise Lost II.284-292

With regard to the interesting simile at the end of Mammon's speech in Book II:

He scarce had finisht, when such murmur filld
Th' Assembly, as when hollow Rocks retain [ 285 ]
The sound of blustring winds, which all night long
Had rous'd the Sea, now with hoarse cadence lull
Sea-faring men orewatcht, whose Bark by chance
Or Pinnace anchors in a craggy Bay
After the Tempest: Such applause was heard [ 290 ]
As Mammon ended, and his Sentence pleas'd,
Advising peace: 

Dartmouth editors and others say there's a probable allusion to Virgil, Aeneid 10, 96 ff:

Thus Juno. Murmurs rise, with mix'd applause,
Just as they favor or dislike the cause.
So winds, when yet unfledg'd in woods they lie,
In whispers first their tender voices try,
Then issue on the main with bellowing rage,
And storms to trembling mariners presage.

Both poets are using similes to describe, and perhaps comment upon, an audience's response to a speech -- in Virgil the speech is Juno's justification for wishing to destroy Aeneas and his people; in Milton it's Mammon's urging a policy that would lead to an independent Republic of Pandemonium.

It's helpful to look the differences in the similes. Virgil's winds are "voices" - they begin fairly weak, stirring in the woodlands, then, strengthening, reach the sea and build to a terrifying storm. A natural process of amplification, along with a movement from land to sea, with the mariners in the simile facing the oncoming storm.

Milton's winds are quite different. In his image, the murmur is an acoustical illusion*. The storm has abated, the sound of it is captured and prolonged in the hollow rocks -- these "winds" are the aftereffect, the echoic mimicry of the sounds of a storm now over. Instead of sailing in the open sea about to face a growing storm, Milton's mariners are oerwatcht from having experienced the tempest, and "by chance" have anchored their Bark or Pinnace (there's Milton's inevitable "or") in a bay. They appear to have weathered the storm, and now, wearily hearing the after-echo of the winds, they are lulled. (A pinnace could be one of two sorts of boats, both relatively small, often used by smugglers or pirates. We will see other similes involving Satan and ships, fleets, clouds, etc.)

Milton's murmuring Angels are then compared with a sort of acoustical image of winds -- a peculiar caprice (a trompe l'oreille?) of nature, rather than a common, naturally occurring event.

While our annotated texts reflexively refer to the classical poets, as if Milton were simply being derivative, he's actually produced a fairly intricate little scene, complete with aural illusion, and one that seems to wander from its point: by the end of it, we can't be entirely sure we understand how the complex image illustrates, enhances, clarifies or even relates to the sound of the applause the fallen angels are making in response to Mammon's counsel. Were they making a strong sound, or a relatively weak echo? Instead of building to a terrifying roar, it seems to have the effect of lulling, mesmerizing, tired mariners. Were the demons enthusiastically applauding, or mesmerically echoing a claque that triggered a crowd effect?

We seem to be dealing with a self-estranging simile: Subtly the authenticity of this applause is put in question -- something that is usually considered a spontaneous expression of the self, or soul, may now perhaps be neither spontaneous, or expressive of actual selves or souls.

And what about these mariners? Instead of skillfully surviving the storm, they've anchored "by chance" in a craggy bay. Their status as "safe from the storm" seems to have depended not on skill or courage, but on pure chance. Pandemonium is full of chance, including chance sonic effects.

While we're talking aural illusion, mimicry, what do we make of "oerwatcht"? As the mariners are probably weary from too much watching and care in the face of the storm, the angels are presumably tired from the strenuous exercise of this debate. Or, are they oerwatcht in another sense -- as in, watched over, over heard, spied upon -- their secret Conclave transparently audible and visible to the Enemy, as they call him?

There is enough dynamic ambiguity here to remind us we are not in Kansas - or in any stable, simply intelligible place - anymore.

*Speaking of acoustical illusion, Milton seems fascinated by this phenomenon. See this complex blend of sounds:

Oft on a Plat of rising ground,
I hear the far-off Curfeu sound,
Over som wide-water'd shoar, [ 75 ]
Swinging slow with sullen roar;

Il Penseroso

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

No snow in Eden

A poem, found here

No Snow Fell on Eden

as i remember it – there was no snow,

so no thaw or tao as you say

no snowmelt drooled down the brae;
no human footfall swelled into that of a yeti
baring what it shoulda kept hidden;

no yellow ice choked bogbean;
there were no sheepskulls
in the midden –

it was no allotment, eden –
they had a hothouse,
an orangery, a mumbling monkey;

there was no cabbage-patch
of rich, roseate heads;
there was no innuendo

no sea, no snow
There was nothing funny
about a steaming bing of new manure.

There was nothing funny at all.
Black was not so sooty. No fishboat revolved redly
on an eyepopping sea.

Eve never sat up late drinking and crying.
Adam knew no-one who was dying.
That was yet to come, In The Beginning.

by Jen Hadfield

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.