Paradise Lost: “Eves, Apples, Adam Smashers!”
[Note: Oh, hey, how’s it going?]
Brother Jaybird has an adage about never mistaking matters of aesthetics for those of morality when forming public policy. But I wonder if it goes the other way too: can an aesthetic flaw make a work of art immoral? This comes to mind with Milton’s Paradise Lost because it really is a great and powerful work of art with a visionary sweep used to tell a tale reminiscent of the classic tragedies, and yet it fails right where it shouldn’t: Satan is simply a much stronger character than either God or Christ in the poem, and probably a bit more sympathetic to readers, an effect quite the opposite of what Milton intended.
At least, that’s how I respond and I find this response a bit disturbing because it calls my own moral judgments into question.* Maybe the problem lies not in Milton’s stars but in myself. Milton’s stated intention is to “justify the ways of God to men,” but he seems more of a Devil’s advocate. I am not the first to get the feeling from the poem that, as William Blake’s infamously put it, Milton“was a true Poet and of the Devils party without knowing it.”
Certainly, by the time of the English Civil War, Milton was not of Charles I’s party. He was not there for the King’s beheading, but sent a nice treatise approving of it and wrote political pamphlets throughout the 1640s and 50s. He had already upset Parliament by writing pamphlets in favor of legal divorce after marrying badly with Mary Powell and fell out with the Presbyterians over their supposed timidity in dealing with the King. His orientation was, by the time of Paradise Lost against political authority as constituted. It was possibly only his near-blindness that saved him from the noose.
Because of this, the temptation has been to see God as a substitute for the King and Satan as a rebel against a tyrant when he launches an “impious war” against the Lord; a war that is, after all, a civil war. It’s wider than that though. Satan’s famous line that it is better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven looks forward to doomed individualist Romantics, including plenty of our own time, but backwards to the stubborn pride of Achilles. Satan, as Milton writes him, is a compelling character in a way that he simply is not in the Bible. The “hot Hell that in him burns” is fiery envy for all the pleasures that were denied him for stupidly contesting the supremacy of God. He is shut out, alienated, shunned, exiled, and demonized, the underdog of the piece.
He is also, in a sense, Adam’s competitor for the first woman. In Genesis, the serpent is simply the craftiest creature created by God, but Milton hews to the version in which the serpent was the form taken by Satan after his own fall. There is a great scene, among the best in the poem, in which Adam tries to coax the headstrong Eve from venturing off without him, possibly to be seduced by Satan. Measuring his words, he says it’s not that he distrusts Eve, who is free “from sin and blame entire, Not diffident of thee do I dissuade/ Thy absence from my sight, but to avoid the attempt itself, intended by our Foe.” Best not take any chances! “The wife, where danger or disorder lurks,/ Safest and seemliest by her husband stays.” (ix) We can see right through this false bravado to Adam, the nervous husband threatened by the other man who can lure his wife away. The adultery theme is clear, but seduction here borders on the vulgar and burlesque: lured from her husband by a smooth talking serpent looking to get into her fig leaf!
Not persuaded by his chivalry, Eve leaves to prove her mettle but is tricked by the serpent. Adam is chilled to realize she is now, “Defaced, deflow’red, and now to death devote… And me with thee hath ruined, for with thee/ Certain my resolution is to die.” In Genesis, Eve takes the first bite and shares with Adam, both falling for the serpent’s trick at about the same time. Here, he sacrifices himself for love, which is more dramatically compelling, although the theme of female naivety remains.
The toughest problem with Satan’s plot against Adam and Eve in the poem is that it’s seemingly God’s plot too. At the least, God speaks of man’s fall beforehand, at a time when He could have easily prevented it. It is foreordained, but then also has to be the result of a free choice on the part of Adam and Eve. There’s something strange and arbitrary about making death, the cruelest punishment conceivable for pure and immortal beings the price for eating a piece of fruit from a tree. This also seems cruel because Adam and Eve are basically children, in spite of how they’re usually depicted. After eating the fruit, they become adults who are awakened to lust, and the story seems to be both an explanation of the development of agriculture in human history, but also a parable about puberty and leaving behind childhood- one that highlights the trauma of passing to adulthood.
Now, of course, after the fall, man will be eventually restored by Christ to a higher state than he held before the fall. But this suggests even more strongly that God needed Adam and Eve to sin, in order to demonstrate His ultimate mercy, and was therefore rooting for the Satanic team.
To be sure, Milton and God assert the free will of Adam and Eve. God claims, “Foreknowledge had no influence on their fault.” (iii,118) They made the false step on their own. At the moment they chose to do what was forbidden they were free not to do so, and if they had not been, man would lack freedom and reason altogether. Maybe so, but this raises the question whether Adam and Eve really had the knowledge to know what they were doing, naive as they were, unaware of death, birth, or even their own nakedness. They are even unaware of the meaning of their crime before committing the crime.
They and all their descendants are condemned to death and to one day return to dust, “Horrid to think, how horrible to feel!” And it is horrible and inconceivable for a rational being to imagine one day not being, it seems almost crueler than dying to know that we will die. The punishment, however, has to be hashed out and the last books are structured like a trial with Christ winning a sort of pardon for his clients: Eve, as the mother of humanity, is both the bringer of death and all human life. She and Adam will be eventually given eternal life after death, something not mentioned, of course, in Genesis. The last books of the poem are sweeping and cinematic, encompassing the rest of human history; but they’re also a diminishment from the drama and pathos of the earlier books. There remains the lingering sense that Adam and Eve transgressed without knowing what transgression was and all future generations were punished for that transgression. Christ and God seem to just go through the motions. There’s a touch of Kafka to it all.
I suspect the real problem with those last books of the poem is exactly the problem with critics who have seen God as a proxy for Charles I: a deity is not a king, nor vice-versa. Trying to portray vice as a seduction drama works well in the earlier books; trying to depict the ineffable as the judge in a courtroom drama? Not so well.
Let’s return to the classical tragedies for a moment, however, as Milton’s original intention was to write a theatrical tragedy, and the poem most closely resembles Prometheus Bound, at least to my mind. Quite frequently we have this sense, in the Greek tragedies and the Hebrew Bible, that mankind takes it in the neck from cruel Gods. How many times are mortals put in situations in which they must obey deities that are capricious, cruel, wanton, and seem only to be demonstrating who’s in charge? And yet, they must obey. I think even those of us who are of neither God’s party nor the Devil’s gain with time the tragic sense of human life with time that Milton borrowed from the pagans: we can try to get above our mortal condition and skirt the natural rules as best we can- in fact, we can hardly not do so- but in the end we will take it in the neck.
Be it God, gods, ethical truths, or simply the laws of mortal existence, we must obey. And whether we express this obedience as the fear of God being the beginning of wisdom, or Islam as submission, the point is we obey even prior to understanding. Saul Bellow put it wonderfully at the end of Mr. Sammler’s Planet:
He was aware that he must meet, and he did meet—through all the confusion and degraded clowning of this life through which we are speeding—he did meet the terms of his contract. The terms which, in his inmost heart, every man knows. As I know mine. As all know. For that is the truth of it—that we all know, God, that we know, we know, we know.
* All writing on art being, after all, autobiography.