Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Milton's garden of unfallen roots

Jutta points us to a recent story in the Wall Street Journal that suggests that religion is a natural, biologically significant part of the survival equipage of the species.

Lionel Tiger writes:
 there is a strange but durable connection between surviving in this world and contemplating another. There may or may not be such a world, but our sapient brain finds the idea easy to learn and entertain. Religion tastes sweet to the brain
Milton's vision of Paradise certainly seems richly sweet. Take the passage commented upon by Professor Rogers in Lecture 14 that begins at line 233:

And now divided into four main Streams,
Run divers, wand'ring many a famous Realm
And Country whereof here needs no account,
But rather to tell how, if Art could tell,
How from that Sapphire Fount the crisped Brooks,
Rolling on Orient Pearl and sands of Gold,
With mazy error under pendant shades
Ran Nectar, visiting each plant, and fed
Flow'rs worthy of Paradise which not nice Art
In Beds and curious Knots, but Nature boon
Pour'd forth profuse on Hill and Dale and Plain…

And a little further on:

        Thus was this place,
A happy rural seat of various view;
Groves whose rich Trees wept odorous Gumms and Balme,
Others whose fruit burnisht with Golden Rinde
Hung amiableHesperian Fables true, [ 250 ]
If true, here only, and of delicious taste:

Edwards observes that Milton, in attempting to represent an unfallen world, resorts to a strategy of using words whose roots remind us of their original, "innocent" sense even as the "fallen" sense -- as in the word "error" in the first passage -- insinuates itself:
Now of course, "error" is one of the most resonant words in the entire poem. Error is the moral category, or we can think of it as the theological category, most often applied to the Fall and to Adam and Eve's eventual sin.. . . But Milton, of course, is using the word "error" in a special sense. He's doing what he does so often: he employs a word solely to evoke its etymological root sense, which in this case simply means "wandering.". . . Milton will remind us of the Fall with his use of such a word as "error," but at the same time, of course, he's attempting to create in us -- and it's a remarkable move -- to create in us a memory for a time in which a word like "error" had not yet been infected by its morally pejorative modern connotation.. . . but it's as if a memory is being instilled in us by means of Milton's poetry. He condenses into a single word what is essentially the entire poetic problem besetting the description of unfallen Eden.
With this hint, one might probe other roots in the passage -- for example, the "pendant shades" might suggest the suspenseful state of humankind, for whom everything hangs in perfect balance, and whose pending tilt will only be decided by the actions flowing from free will; the "mazy" error predicts the ambiguities and complexities of the maze of the fallen world, in contrast to the simple clarity of this unfallen realm; and the "nectar" visiting each plant derives from the Greek for "overcoming death":

1555, from L. nectar "drink of the gods," from Gk. nektar, which is said to be a compound of nek- "death" (see necro-) + -tar "overcoming." Meaning "sweet liquid in flowers" first recorded 1609.

There's plenty of sweetness in Paradise, and Milton manages even to tune the loaded verb, "fall," to an innocent note:

to thir Supper Fruits they fell,
Nectarine Fruits which the compliant boughes
Yielded them, side-long as they sat recline
On the soft downie Bank damaskt with flours:
The savourie pulp they chew, and in the rinde [ 335 ]

Still as they thirsted scoop the brimming stream;

The sap of plants and trees has its roots in Latin, sapere, which means "to taste, perceive," and ultimately is linked with sapience, knowledge. If "religion tastes sweet to the brain," its nectar runs through the tree of knowledge.

Monday, March 22, 2010

BOOK IV - Satan in Eden

Here's a brief outline of Book IV - our first view of Eden, Paradise, and our human ancestors. (A full outline can be found here).

At last on terra firma, Milton can allow his sensuous powers of description and rich palette full play. But note that our entrance and gaze are complicated by the fact that we do not enter the garden on our own, but rather as voyeurs looking over Satan's shoulder as he furtively sneaks in.

A. Satan enters Eden [1-287] 
  • . . .  1. His passionate speech to the Sun [32-] 
  • . . .  2. He approaches Paradise [114-] 
  • .  . . 3. He enters the Garden [172-287] 
  • .  . . . . . . . a) He hides in the Tree of Life [172-] 
  • .. . . . . . . . b) The Garden of Eden described [205-] 

B. Satan discovers Adam and Eve [288-539] 
  • . . . .1. Satan sees the human couple [288-] 
  • . . . .2. He expresses jealousy of them [358-] 
  • . . .  3. Taking the forms of various animals, Satan eavesdrops on them [408-] 
  • . . . .4. He plots their ruin [502-] 

C. Uriel warns Gabriel of Satan's presence [540-] 

D. Satan is banished from Paradise [598-1015] 
  • . . . .1. Adam and Eve retire [598-775] 
  • . . . . . . . .. a) Their discourse on the night sky [610-] 
  • . . . . . .  . . b) They go to the bower and say evening prayers [689-] 
  • . . . . .. . . . c) They lay together in conjugal love [736-] 

. . . .2. Satan is discovered [776-1015] 
  • . . . . . . . . .a) Gabriel sends his angels to patrol the Garden [776-] 
  • . . . . . . .  . b) Satan is found near the human couple and is apprehended [797-] 
  • . . . . . .. . . c) Gabriel banishes him from Paradise [864-1015]

Light on, or at least in, Book III

Looking back at Book III, one could very well call it the "book of light." It begins with the invocation to light,

Bright effluence of bright essence increate

.and rises to a climax on the source of worldly light:

The golden Sun in splendor likest Heaven

This being Milton, there's more to light than first appears, and we're not bathed in the neutral, evenly distributed fluorescence of the observational laboratory of scientific reason. 

The invocation in Book III addresses primordial holy Light, not the sun. If we think of "light" as a spectrum from the highest holy light to the dimmest light of "darkness visible," we discover that at the high end, we see nothing: God's beam is blinding, even when in a cloud. And material light is not invariably revealing: Satan manages to hide his actual identity from the sharpest-eyed archangel, Uriel, precisely at the brightest spot in creation.

Clearly (no pun intended) Milton is trying to establish light's importance even as he suggests critical ways in which it can fall short. Light does not show us, our eye -- everything we need to see, to understand. We learn of God and the Son's plan to counter Satan's schemes via a difficult, tightly coiled verbal maze of an argument; nearly all of it deals with supersensory concerns, like Justice, Mercy, and Grace.

Light can also lead astray. Satan sees the ladder to Heaven, but is attracted like a moth to the Sun, a shiny new bauble.

All of which is to suggest that there's more to what is going on in Paradise Lost than meets the eye. The power of light to carry or to reveal knowledge, truth, is shown as compromised, less than all-sufficient, fallible. When Uriel describes creation, first comes an act of the word:

I saw when at his Word the formless Mass,
This worlds material mould, came to a heap:
Confusion heard his voice, and wilde uproar [ 710 ]
Stood rul'd, stood vast infinitude confin'd;

One might ask, what was it that he "saw", and how could he see it? Only at the Word's "second bidding" did light cause the world to appear. We're dealing with something more - or other - than purely a solar system.

For the reader, it's perhaps illuminating to sense the reservation, the skeptical brackets, being put around light in the poem. This may resonate more when Lucifer seduces with his promise to enlighten Adam and Eve.

Monday, March 15, 2010

One tweets, the other doesn't

jillybobwwHey ... lookee there. The word "Ides" is trending, and a certain pubescent vocal performer is not. Who says Twitter doesn't have cultcha?

This morning on Twitter, one of the hottest topics is "Ides." It seems everyone must take time from their day to tweet the fact that it was on this day 2054 years ago (give or take a bit of calendar tweaking) that a band of Roman conspirators ended the life of Julius Caesar (and two years later, deified him).

Twitter seems to partake of such short-lived conversational modes  - whatever is occurring in the moment becomes a hot topic, and, a moment later, belongs to oblivion.

One might call such linguistic environments "modes of the short now" - the preoccupation is of the instant, tending to the trivial, the ephemeral, the next fashionable thing, the hyped meme, or nano-meme. These stand in contrast with the long now, the now found in theological and philosophical notions of eternal consciousness, godlike, synchronic apprehension of all time, past and future, within one pervasive, perdurable, uninflected NOW.

I mention this just to briefly note that Milton does a stunning thing with these very different kinds of temporality in Book III. It's quite clever, and easy to summarize. The last we see of Satan is at the very end of Book II, when he's crawling out of the realm of Chaos like a waterbird from oil sludge, sees the pendant world hanging by a golden chain:

Thither full fraught with mischievous revenge,
Accurst, and in a cursed hour he hies. [ 1055 ]

Then comes Book III's soaring invocation to light, followed by the first appearance of God:

Now had the Almighty Father from above,
From the pure Empyrean where he sits
High Thron'd above all highth, bent down his eye ...

And it's in this now that he spies Satan:

Coasting the wall of Heav'n on this side Night
In the dun Air sublime, and ready now
To stoop with wearied wings, and willing feet

Satan's now is the now of finite movement, of step after step as he clambers out of the abyss and onto the backside of the universe. He's approaching, he's not yet landed. Look what Milton now does: he presents the dialog of God with the Son, in which is foreseen and foretold the outcome of Satan's efforts, Adam and Eve's fall, the resulting impact upon mankind, and the provision of a new plan that involves the son's volunteering to become the new Adam, and to die for man and for Justice, leading to an eventual resurrection, day of doom, transformation of the world in refining fire, and elevation of the Son as God/Man to eternal sanctity in a Paradise in which God is "all in all."

Milton has compressed the entire "Satan problem" and its solution, and with it the entirety of human history and God's sacred plan, into a few hundred lines, ending:

unexampl'd love, [ 410 ]
Love no where to be found less then Divine!
Hail Son of God, Saviour of Men, thy Name
Shall be the copious matter of my Song
Henceforth, and never shall my Harp thy praise
Forget, nor from thy Fathers praise disjoine. [ 415 ]

At which point the narrator takes up the thread from the moment that Satan "lights" on the world:

Mean while upon the firm opacous Globe
Of this round World, whose first convex divides
The luminous inferior Orbsenclos'd [ 420 ]
From Chaos and th' inroad of Darkness old,
Satan alighted walks: 

In the interval between Satan's approach and his actual alighting, Milton has pinched the Now of God, in which Satan's future, and that of mankind, are decided. Indeed, a future is literally provided for humanity: an alternative to the now of finitude and Death. The architecture of Milton's narrative dramatically gives us two kinds of time, two kinds of now. Satan tweets; Providence...provides.

Sunday, March 14, 2010


Jutta shared this illustration of Uriel, from this site:

The image is an engraving in The Poetical Works of John Milton by W. Harley, 1794. The site also offers some of the accumulated lore about Uriel, including the information that:
"He (or she) is the keeper of the mysteries which are deep within the planet, underground and in the hidden depths of the living world."
Which is interesting in "light" of Milton's making clear that the sun touches not merely surfaces, but depths as well:

What wonder then if fields and region here
Breathe forth Elixir pure, and Rivers run
Potable Gold, when with one vertuous touch
Th' Arch-chimic Sun so farr from us remote
Produces with Terrestrial Humor mixt [ 610 ]
Here in the dark so many precious things
Of colour glorious and effect so rare?

A pointer on the site takes us to South America, where Uriel's connection with ripening grain gives us this image:

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Waking to interpretation

Gerry forwarded two notes from a Finnegans Wake List, which draw on the difficulties of grappling with the Wake to address the larger question of how to read literature:

1. (From Jack Kolb) March 11, 2010
Finnegans Wake, Chop Suey

On this day in 1923, James Joyce wrote to his patron, Harriet Weaver, that he had just begun "Work in Progress," the book which would become Finnegans Wake sixteen years later: "Yesterday I wrote two pages -- the first I have written since the final "Yes" of Ulysses. Having found a pen, with some difficulty I copied them out in a large handwriting on a double sheet of foolscap so that I could read them. . . ." Though increasingly plagued by eye problems -- ten operations, and counting -- Joyce's lifestyle had improved from the Ulysses years, thanks to Weaver's continued support, and money given by Sylvia Beach against future royalties. He and his wife, Nora, were able to get new clothes, a new flat, even new teeth: "The dentist is to make me a new set for nothing," wrote Joyce to Miss Weaver, "as with this one I can neither sing, laugh, shave nor (what is more important to my style of writing) yawn. . . ."

Nora was not fond of her husband's style of writing, and not usually content with a yawn. When she discovered that he was "on another book again," just a year after the misery of Ulysses, she asked her husband if, instead of "that chop suey you're writing," he might not try "sensible books that people can understand." Although she did not tighten her purse, Weaver was also unimpressed by those sections of "Work in Progress" which Joyce sent her, and by his explanation that he was attempting to go beyond "wideawake language, cutanddry grammar, and goahead plot":

I do not care much for the output from your Wholesale Safety Pun Factory nor for the darknesses and unintelligibilities of your deliberately-entangled language systems. It seems to me you are wasting your

Ezra Pound agreed with her -- "nothing short of a divine vision or a new cure for the clap can possibly be worth all the circumambient peripherization" -- but Samuel Beckett did not:

You cannot complain that this stuff is not written in English. It is not written at all. It is not to be read.... It is to be looked at and listened to. His writing is not about something. It is that something itself.

2. (From Richard Stack:) Many thanks to Jack for bringing this remarkable sentence from Beckett to light:

"You cannot complain that this stuff is not written in English. It is not written at all. It is not to be read.... It is to be looked at and listened to. His writing is not about something. It is that something itself."

Over the past year I have returned to teaching, and have become increasingly convinced of the truth of this view. My students have great difficulty reading poetry, and the reason, I have come to believe, is not that they read badly, but too "well", that is, too fluently, too habitually. Confronted by the difficulty of the poetic text, it is their fluency as everyday readers which becomes an almost insurmountable obstacle.

They seem to find rereading, pondering, working through a difficult text almost impossible to imagine doing. I have found myself trying to get them to imagine the text as great food - something to be chewed, savored, something which sets the mouth to work:

while the nigh thatch / Smokes in the sun-thaw;

(Coleridge Frost at Midnight)

rather than something to be merely "understood".

By the same token, I have found that the text of the Wake - or at least the handful of bits I know well - is best approached in the same sort of manner, not as something to be "understood" but rather as a wonderful piece of "music, something to be rehearsed, played, enjoyed, learnt by heart perhaps. I performed Anna Livia once, and by the time I knew it by heart I could not remember what it was that was supposed to be so difficult about it.


Can we relate their discussion to Milton, and more generally, to our experience of classic works? Below is a rudimentary first stab:

 Beckett's description, marvelous as it is, evokes the idea of the poem as end in itself - not unlike the tradition of "art for art's sake," which, since Kant, has brought to the fore the notion that art (poetry, sculpture, painting etc.) need not be about something - need not be burdened with a message that aims to inform, persuade, teach, or inspire. In Kant's memorable formulation in the Critique of Judgment, pure art stems from an activity that can be described as "purposiveness without purpose."

The idea of the art object as "autotelic" -- from the Greek, telos, cause or end -- is particularly associated with Modernism. In earlier periods, art was conceived to serve various purposes, and to bear various messages. For Aristotle, tragedy was a mode of medicine, a purgation of civic ills; for the Greeks, Homer was the teacher of civilization; for Lucretius, whose poems intended to teach the findings of science, his poetry was also a mode of medicine, in which beauty made more palatable the bitter truth:
Lucretius compares his work in this poem to that of a doctor healing a child: just as the doctor may put honey on the rim of a cup containing bitter wormwood (most likely Absinth Wormwood) believed to have healing properties, the patient is "tricked" into accepting something beneficial but difficult to swallow ... WP
The Old Testament similarly stages scenes that provoke, move, and entertain, but also dramatize the act of interpretation -- as when Joseph's life turns upon dreams and his explication of them, or when David, falling for Nathan's parable, discovers that the story he's been hearing works on a different level, and carries a potent bit of news aimed directly at himself.

These are texts that don't just invite interpretation; they incorporate acts of interpretation into their narratives. They demand it.

Where does Milton stand (or, fall) along this spectrum? Insofar as his stated aim is "to justify the ways of God to man," he's declaring his purpose. Yet the poem is also full of rich sound, structural complexity, allusive richness, varied levels of style, musicality, and rhythm. It's difficult to quickly absorb, or to read "too habitually." These lines too are "to be chewed, savored, something which sets the mouth to work."

We are considering the artistic meaning of Milton's poem, but what about art in Paradise Lost? One might well ask, as we join Satan on the backside of the Universe, what purpose is served by the glorious art of the gate of heaven:

 farr distant he descries
Ascending by degrees magnificent
Up to the wall of Heaven a Structure high,
At top whereof, but farr more rich appeer'd
The work as of a Kingly Palace Gate [ 505 ]
With Frontispice of Diamond and Gold
Imbellisht, thick with sparkling orient Gemmes
The Portal shon, inimitable on Earth
By Model, or by shading Pencil drawn. P.L. III

Milton evokes a rare image of a human artist making art in order to deny that what he's describing could be imitated; (interestingly, Dante also gives us a vignette of himself writing his poem at the very end of Purgatory -- and running out of space -- before he ascends to Il Paradiso) -- yet in the next "breath," we're given the vision of Jacob:

The Stairs were such as whereon Jacob saw [ 510 ]
Angels ascending and descending, bands
Of Guardians bright, when he from Esau fled
To Padan-Aram in the field of Luz,
Dreaming by night under the open Skie,
And waking cri'dThis is the Gate of Heav'n [ 515 ]

From the moment of seemingly pure, disinterested aesthetic beauty, the scene has shifted to something far more disturbing, even terrifying: the moment in Genesis 28 when Jacob wakes to the  shock of the meaning of his dream:

And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the LORD is in this place; and I knew it not.
And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful  (Grk: φοβερός; Latin: terribilis) is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.

It's worthwhile remembering Jacob's terror -- at the advent of his dream's meaning -- as we observe Satan's apparent lack of interest at the foot of the ladder, despite the fact that
Each Stair mysteriously was meant

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Verity's Notes to PL

If anyone is seeking a richer set of notes for PL, a 1907 edition edited by A.W. Verity of Trinity College, Cambridge is available via Google Books. It has useful glosses and notes on nearly every line of the poem:

Books I and II

III and IV

V and VI

VII and VIII are apparently not available.

IX and X

XI and XII

Wright on Philo

Today, a public conversation with Robert Wright. His book The Evolution of God charts an intellectual path beyond the faith-versus-reason debate. Wright takes a relentlessly logical look at the history of religion, exposing its contradictions. Yet he also traces something revelatory moving through human history.
Mr. Robert Wright: The basic direction in which social organization moved, that is, from hunter-gatherer village to chiefdom, ancient state, empire, and now we're on the verge of a globalized society, I'm arguing that the affect that that's had on our conception of God's compassion has tended to be a good one. That as the world grows, a social organization gets more complex, people get more inter-dependant, you see an adaptation on the part of God, and it does become a God of broader compassion.

One of Wright's heroes is Philo (20 BC - AD 50), a Jew living in cosmopolitan Alexandria, who, according to Wright, 

 Philo was trying to reconcile the Greek philosophy that he was encountering, which had a kind of a scientific aura, with his Jewish heritage. Trying to reconcile the Torah with a kind of scientific outlook. And I think that's why he talks about a God that's not anthropomorphic and talks about a God that imparts this order to the universe. So the laws of nature are manifestations of Divine Will. And a really interesting thing about Philo — we're getting around to the non-zero-sumness part — Philo saw the world as moving towards greater and greater interdependence and ultimately, as history is culminating, in a giant global society and, in fact, a democracy. And he saw that driven by the interdependence of people, but that society would congeal on a global level he saw as being driven by the kind of need that people have for one another as a practical matter. They have to get along. And this brings us to the term "non-zero-sum."

Philo, Logos, and Non-zero from Speaking of Faith on Vimeo.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Newton, Alchemy, and the Counterfeiter

Since alchemy has come up a few times -- in hell, and again in heaven, and soon the Sun, here's a book about Newton that has a good chapter on Isaac Newton's efforts at transmutation. The book is actually about Newton's job at the Mint, and how he corraled a master counterfeiter, but it spends a chapter going into some detail about the physicist's alchemical obsession.

A new book

Readers of this blog might find a new book of interest -- The Book of Firsts: 150 World-Changing People and Events from Caesar Augustus to the Internet, by Peter D'Epiro.

The book employs the brief essay form to explore a far-ranging look at moments of firstness across the past 20 centuries: the first world-class Chinese poet, the first philosopher king, the first caliph, the first modern political scientist -- all memorable characters, set into their historical moments with style, vividness, and genuine learning, the fruits of a curious mind. Take, for example, Ivan the Terrible -- the essay the first czar offers an unforgettably surreal portrait of the Russian power structure of the mid-16th century.

(Disclaimer: I wrote several essays for the book -- learned much in the process, and had great fun with my subjects, ranging from Medieval and Renaissance figures (Masaccio, Alberti, Brunelleschi etc.) to Freud and the Internet.)

Pete's previous book, Sprezzatura, 50 Ways Italian Genius Shaped the World was well received -- in fact, it's been consistently featured in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's bookstore for the past several years.

Reading through The Book of Firsts' 150 essays, I kept thinking how I wished I'd had such a book in college, either as a student taking history and lit, or as an instructor, to provide some palpable historical flavor. D'Epiro's essays are meticulous, focused, witty and beautifully written, and he gathered a good group of folks to contribute. Firsts just came out on the Kindle, but the paperback is available at pre-publication prices for a little while longer.