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.