Book review of Paradise Lost by John Milton
Been cast into Hell for eternity? Look on the bright side. That’s what he does:
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n . . .
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.
Whose side are you on, Milton? You seem to have framed the Devil as an admirable Stoic. Of course Milton has to pretend to side with insipid, old God and his goody-two-shoes son, Jesus, but the scenes of those two sedatives chin-wagging are about as compelling as the dinner table conversation at the Flanders’ house. We can disregard the boring bits. Paradise Lost is an epic poem in iambic pentameter about literature’s most fascinating and maligned character, the one who dared to stand against God himself. He may have a bad reputation but the Devil seduces from us our curiousity.
Milton opens his verse in the midst of the drama, with Satan having been driven out of heaven and finding himself newly arrived in the Place Without God together with those fallen angels who were on the wrong side of history. He gives a speech to his minions, demonstrating the stiff upper lip which probably got him the leadership role in the first place:
Live to our selves, though in this vast recess,
Free, and to none accountable, preferring
Hard liberty before the easie yoke
Of servile Pomp.
My devout reader might not yet have warmed to Satan’s view so I present him with this conundrum. Which would you prefer?
Spending your life in a luxury prison in Thailand where the other inmates are nice people, not criminals. You are free to travel around as you wish, visit beaches, eat fine food and swim in the pool. WiFi is super fast. The only drawback is that you have to follow the Ten Commandments. If you sneak off for a cheeky night in Pattaya, illegally download music or complain about your mother’s nagging you will be immediately and permanently thrown out into . . .
Being the Heavenly Emperor of Calcutta. You can do anything you want there. Anything. Except leave.
Hands up who chose Option 2? Ah, you devils. I know whose side you’re on.
So the demons spiffy up Hell and plan to fight against Heaven by messing up God’s latest pet project – Earth.
Meanwhile, the as yet uncorrupted Adam and Eve are living it up in Eden, doing soft work and strutting around naked. This section of the poem is terribly dull because the pair have no problems and, in the edition I have, there are not even any Eve tit-and-bum illustrations to bide us over. After a while the weary reader becomes anxious for Satan to make his entrance, just as an irritated movie-goer watching Titanic yells, ‘Bring on the iceberg!’ when it becomes clear there will be no further nudie portrait scenes.
In this sterile world, God prefers his innocent creations to live in a heavenly state of ignorant bliss:
But Knowledge is as food, and needs no less
Her Temperance over Appetite, to know
In measure what the mind may well contain,
Oppresses else with Surfet, and soon turns
Wisdom to Folly, as Nourishment to Winde
In other words, too much knowledge is like eating too many beans and farting a lot. Scientists and philosophers beware.
Think onely what concernes thee and thy being;
Dream not of other Worlds, what Creatures there
Live, in what state, condition or degree,
Contented that thus farr hath been reveal’d
Not of Earth onely but of highest Heav’n.
Curiousity is bad, mkay. What is it, exactly, God’s worried we might find out? Hmm? In any case, Adam at one point replies:
How fully hast thou satisfi’d mee, pure
Intelligence of Heav’n, Angel serene,
And freed from intricacies, taught to live,
The easiest way, nor with perplexing thoughts
To interrupt the sweet of Life, from which
God hath bid dwell farr off all anxious cares,
And not molest us, unless we our selves
Seek them with wandring thoughts, and notions vaine.
I again offer my reader a bifurcated path: would you prefer to be taught all the deepest secrets of the multiverse (its origins and meaning, the nature of any extraterrestrial life or intelligence, the future, and all that lies beyond), OR . . . a billion dollars, excellent health and reliable erections for another century? Knowledge, or comfort? And if you choose the first option, would it fry your brain, like trying to charge a 120V appliance from a 240V socket? I don’t know. You’d just have to take that risk. It goes without saying that you would be unable to profit or benefit from that knowledge in any secondary way because that would mess up my neat little thought experiment. Don’t make my life difficult.
Thankfully our fiery fiend soon escapes from Hell (magnificent story there) and flies across the chaotic abyss towards our stultified Earth. He picks the hoochie mama as an easy mark and convinces her to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. Adam, thoroughly cuntstruck, realizes Eve’s going to be turfed out of Eden and lose her immortality so he, too, eats the fruit in order to share her wicked fate.
Guys, don’t do that. It’s almost as bad as letting a BPD girlfriend move in with you.
Certain my resolution is to Die;
How can I live without thee, how forgoe
Thy sweet Converse and Love so dearly joyn’d
To live again in these wilde Woods forlorn?
Should God create another EVE, and I
Another Rib afford, yet loss of thee
Would never from my heart
That’s the true Original Sin right there: oneitis. Had Adam read my blog world history would have turned out very differently. He’d be banging a stable of hoes until he ran out of ribs and was reduced to flopping around Eden like a slug. Oh and the drama’s not done yet. Who does Eve blame for her predicament? Going to give you three . . . two . . . one . . . that’s right! She blames Adam for being foolish enough to let her out of his sight:
Being as I am, why didst not thou the Head
Command me absolutely not to go,
Going into such danger as thou saidst? . . .
Hadst thou bin firm and fixt in thy dissent,
Neither had I trangress’d, nor thou with mee.
And here Adam finally stands up for himself. Must be that Knowledge fruit he ate because he now seems to have smelled the coffee:
. . . Thus it shall befall
Him who to worth in Women overtrusting
Lets her Will rule; restraint she will not brook,
And left to her self, if evil thence ensue,
Shee first his weak indulgence will accuse.
Ain’t that the truth. Even God’s angel agrees when he arrives to deliver their punishment:
Was shee thy God, that her thou didst obey
Before his voice, or was shee made thy guide,
Superior, or but equal, that to her
Thou did’st resign thy Manhood [?]
And they are expelled to live in the world, to work hard and to suffer mortality. On a brighter note, the reader is relieved of his grinding boredom. Until Satan rocks up Eden seems a rather dreary place. Dare I suggest, somewhat like Adelaide on a Sunday.
The scene in heaven, too, is remarkably dull when Milton takes us back in time to before the attempted coup d’état. Everyone is behaving themselves and talking about wonderful, good, goody goody good things. Again, the reader rejoices when our hero first rebels. Rock and roll! Satan refuses to serve anyone, demanding instead freedom. I can relate. The bootlicking angel Abdiel defends God’s rule thusly:
Unjustly thou deprav’st it with the name
Of SERVITUDE to serve whom God ordains,
Or Nature; God and Nature bid the same,
When he who rules it worthiest, and excels
Them whom he governs. This is servitude,
To serve th’ unwise, or him who hath rebelld
Against his worthier, as thine now serve thee,
Thy self not free, but to thy self enthrall’d
Which also makes a pretty good argument against democracy. The ensuing war is quite silly, with both armies made up of immortals. All they can do is hurt each other – basically it’s a slap fight. At some point writing this, did Milton think, ‘This is rubbish. Clearly this never really happened’? He doesn’t tell us. Is he sneakily pointing out the ridiculousness of the Biblical account by fleshing it out in this way? Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men. But anyway, Heaven’s amusing upstart loses and cops his penalty on the chin:
Heav’n casts thee out
From all her Confines. Heav’n the seat of bliss
Brooks not the works of violence and Warr.
Hence then, and evil go with thee along
Thy offspring, to the place of evil, Hell,
Thou and thy wicked crew; there mingle broiles,
Ere this avenging Sword begin thy doome,
Or som more sudden vengeance wing’d from God
Precipitate thee with augmented paine.
Who knew God was the kind of guy to hold a grudge.
So there you have it. Milton was a Satanist in the literary sense – he portrays the Devil as a Joker-like villain who prevents us from dying of boredom. Milton does so very carefully in order to avoid 1667’s powers-that-be warming his toes. On the other hand, perhaps he is an earnest but hopelessly incompetent advocate for the Lord who inadvertently turns his readers against him. Or maybe normal people are not so easily bored as I am, and do not favor evil and debauchery over middle class virtues and white picket babies. Who knows.
Further reading: My realistic plan for freedom