What good is perfect reason if it can be tricked? Or is perfect reason imperfect without knowledge of good and evil? Or is perfect reason imperfect without death? Adam, shortly before the fall, tells Eve, “Firm we subsist, yet possible to swerve, / Since reason not impossibly may meet / Some specious object by the foe suborned, / And fall into deception unaware, / Not keeping strictest watch, as she [reason] was warned” (9.359-63, Modern Library Classics edition) Though perfectly reasonable, we may still be tempted, but why? Is perfect reason lost when tempted? Then what was the good of being given it to begin with? I just cannot help wonder what good being free is, whether it is worth celebrating at all, if this is what it means. But our reason, i.e. the reason of we fallen, is naturally imperfect, anyway. And Adam and Eve can only be but projections out from ourselves into that past from which we do not know ourselves to come, but know from which we must have come. Adam does not know whence he arises – he posits God as a solution to the conundrum, but we are born as infants, and the human race, the human community, is born more as a child is than Adam. We posit not only God but Man, as well. This is why Nietzsche had someone pronounce the death of God, and why Foucault presaged the death of Man. What I want to do is read Paradise Lost without arguing with Milton over theological matters, but how can one avoid it? I’d like to just deal with his poetry, or re-read his poetry through the lens of my continually evolving perspective, but though Milton was a great poet, he was not necessarily a great philosopher of the soul, and this his poetry is bound up with everything he seems to get wrong in ways that I cannot just float past.
Eve proclaims herself free to despise God were it not for Adam, who she loves, and for whose sake alone she sought God (9.877-8). It is clearly wrong to call Milton a misogynist, but nor does he prefigure feminism. Nevertheless, Eve has her moments. This one, of course, comes after her fall, after she has eaten the most delicious apple man will ever have eaten, and yet it seems like stunning honesty, not guile, nor self-delusion. This seems to fit Eve’s character and feelings from her very birth. In the metaphysics of the poem, she is not actually “free” to despise God, for she would be punished for such an infraction. I submit that freedom is not absolute, that our actions and decision are themselves caused and conditions and will in turn create the causes and conditions for further contexts and contents of mind. Nevertheless, that we are called “free” within the metaphysics of Paradise Lost seems pretty clearly a joke to me, and it’s hard for me to take it seriously, or to take it unseriously enough not to be annoyed by it. E.g., God takes responsibility for everything, sort of. And it’s both the move to take this responsibility, and the move to shirk it, that bug me. “He [i.e. Adam, fallen] sorrows now, repents, and prays contrite, / My motions in him” (11.90-1). I may be misreading this kind of statement, but, for example, when the Son proposes man be saved, God quickly explains, “All thy request for man, accepted Son, / Obtain, all thy request was my decree” (11.45-6). If it really is all his decree, then what’s the use of this so-called freedom? I wish I didn’t feel like belaboring this point, but it seems so fraught throughout this poem, and yet the irony I thought I saw throughout the first few books seemed but a trick played upon me, the unsuspecting reader. I, however, have not come around and mended my ways and done away with the arguments Satan inspired in me, rather I have done away with Satan’s pettiness and taken his logic as my own, much as Eve did, and with it I question the ways of God, or rather, the ways of man through the description of the ways of God. I am curious about the worldview that presents this particular vision of freedom earnestly, as if it makes any kind of sense. My beef, that is to say, is not with the Almighty, who can do as he pleases ;), but with Milton, and with anyone who might read Milton’s metaphysics sympathetically. On the one hand, God punishes man; on the other, he seems to argue that he cannot do otherwise. “I make the rules as I go along, that doesn’t mean I can break them.” I’m maybe being unfair by focusing in on this poem in this particular way whatsoever, and I guess it belies my larger interests and betrays my lower ambivalences. Perhaps I can gain some perspective on that by paying attention to what catches my attention…? Damn, it’s hard to write about this poem. I am beginning to regret not logging my readings of each book as I went along. Waiting for the end has resulted in a storehouse of concerns and quotations of interest, which are possibly spilling out into a not-so-interesting analysis. Let’s focus for a moment on a specific matter:
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