A Few Thoughts on “Paradise Lost”

Or:

Taking Advantage of the Early Dismissal of my Aesthetics Class to Organize Convoluted Thoughts While Awaiting the Beginning of my 11 o’clock Speech Class

I.  The beginning books of John Milton’s Paradise Lost contain a paradox that has plagued every reader since it was published: that of Satan’s heroism.  When I first perused those pages, I was consciously intent on avoiding this admiration of the devil that everyone seemed to feel; I don’t think that I succeeded.  However, as the months passed after reading it for the first time, I began to notice something in the work as a whole.  The first two books display Satan in such a manner that there is no way in which you can not at the least understand if not experience the admiration for the devil.  The first half of Paradise Lost, the heroic epic, is constructed with Satan at the center.  He is dynamic and fascinating.  Hell is organic and even beautiful in its terror and awfulness.  While I might have tried to stubbornly resist the attraction of the devil, I was fully conscious of the work’s shape that encouraged if not necessitated that attraction.

And then, around the fifth book, this all changes.  The epic gives way to a quieter genre and Satan’s appeal dwindles into revulsion and, perhaps, even pity.  There is left nothing grand in him whatsoever.  But it would be a mistake to view this transformation as a change in the character or characterization of Satan.  Instead, we are given another point of view and we see that there was never anything admirable or adoreable in that infernal prince at all.  But this moment of revelation is not simply a moment of recognition of something in the work; it is a moment of terrible recognition of the sin that has been accompanying us throughout the first half of the work.  I realized that all that attracted me to Satan was that selfsame stuff that stirs up the pride and lust and wrath in myself every moment of every day.  It is that selfsame nature that I am in a constant struggle with for the vitality of my soul.  The recognition of one’s misplaced attraction to Satan is the recognition of the sinful human nature.  It is the recognition that I let that sinful nature rule me for the first few books of the work.  Paradise Lost is not only able to convict you of your sinful nature, it draws you into that conviction, makes you a part of the work in a manner that is scarcely accomplished through any other work so that by the time that Eve takes the fruit from the tree and gives it to Adam, you have already fallen and from this fallen state can only beg them not to partake of your guilt.  In a way, the Fall is reversed in Paradise Lost.  It is only after the reader has fallen and recognized his allegorical nakedness that we watch Adam and Eve give into the devil.  It is only after we have recognized the evil in man that Adam and Eve partake of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

I have read extensively, but I can think of no other work that accomplishes a profound recognition as effectively as this other than the Bible.  The feelings that were aroused in me upon this recognition in Paradise Lost were of the same stuff as that horrific guilt that is present in me every time I recognize that my mouth, my sins, and my sinful heart all stand with that crowd crying “Crucify Him!”.

II.  I think one of the greatest aspects of both the Bible and Paradise Lost is that, of course, neither leave you be in this state of guilt and shame.  The consideration of this shall have to be for some other time though.

III.  If there is a more vital and powerful purpose to Story, I am hard-pressed to think of it.  The allegorical potency that allows for this recognition is at the heart of what Story ought to be.  I wonder whether I could ever accomplish this.

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  1. #1 by Edwin McAllister on September 8, 2010 - 8:11 pm

    hey. Have you read C.S. Lewis’ book on Paradise Lost? This is his argument in a nutshell – it’s all about how Milton expected his readers to respond. I am certain that Milton was aware of the classical heroic ideal and of how closely Satan’s behavior fit the pattern. Christ is offered as an alternative, and Adam is instructed in the same pattern of passive heroism. But I wonder if the pattern is intentional, or if Milton were not himself growing clearer and clearer on his theme as he wrote. He’s much more explicit and didactic in the later books, but it’s not as if there weren’t lots of explicit condemnations of Satan on nearly every page of the first four books.

    • #2 by Angmód on September 8, 2010 - 10:29 pm

      I have not read Lewis’ book yet (excepting that one excerpt we read for Renaissance Lit last semester) but I have been desirous of doing so for a while. I should try to find it. Regardless, it has always seemed to me that Milton was conscious of the pattern that we pick up on. While I agree that Satan is explicitly denounced even through the first books, it doesn’t seem to belie the heroic portrayal at the beginning. Perhaps my rather elevated opinion of Milton’s intellectual stature makes it difficult to conceive of him being unconscious of this pattern. I’d have to re-read “Paradise Lost” and give it significantly more thought to come to any clear conclusion.

  2. #3 by Cosmo el Franco on September 9, 2010 - 1:23 pm

    I wonder if the factor that Satan is becoming progressively more fallen also plays a factor.

    I think Satan’s brashness is particularly appealing to the American spirit — the image of the old “Don’t Tread on Me” flag comes to mind. He reminds me particularly of the atheist/antitheist heroes of “300” and the new “Clash of the Titans.” I always imagine those movies were written by disgruntled anti-Christian Marines — The kind that make crazy and extremely rude facebook posts.

  3. #4 by Stephen on September 10, 2010 - 2:11 pm

    Very interesting. I do think, though — with reference to point #3 — that perhaps the worst way to write stories is to start with a “point” or “goal” and craft the story around it. Not, of course, that you were suggesting that. I’m responding more to a related suggestion that you could have but (fortunately) did not make.

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