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. 

Monday, October 04, 2010

Next Up: King Lear, the Heavy Metal Tour?

We owe our acquaintance with this priceless bit of news to Shaw -- who is keeping up with us from Seattle:
Like it or not, Western Civilization's great epic poems are being adapted into testosterone-oozing mega productions. In the past few years we've watched Brad Pitt strut around in a big screen version of "The Iliad" and seen Dante's "Inferno" became a Blockbuster gore-fest of a video game. I guess we can only wonder how "Paradise Lost" lasted so long.

This past week, Variety reported that an adaptation of Milton's epic poem will hit theaters in 2012 under the direction of Alex Proyas, whose credits include The Crow, Dark City, Knowing and I, Robot. More at HuffPo