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.