Paradise Lost: “Eves, Apples, Adam Smashers!”

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Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does a bunch of other stuff.

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46 Responses

  1. Avatar Jaybird says:

    One thing that I have been told, but cannot believe due to my prejudices (which are legion), is that people read Faust, at the time, to read the arguments given by Doctor Faust himself. The lines given by Mephistopheles were glossed over as obvious lies.

    Today, of course, we skip over Faust’s lines as being dull and dim and naive. Mephistopheles is who we pick up the book for. Indeed, we point out, Mephistopheles has the best lines.

    As is his due.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      Right, this is something I meant to say there and forgot- the thing about living in a culture steeped in Christianity is people already find Christ compelling so you don’t have to do as much to dramatize him: just hit a few notes that everyone knows and the audience will light up. Reading it today, in a culture that is, let’s say, less steeped in Christianity, it’s harder not to think Milton should have given Christ some better lines!Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        So I’ve been mulling this over and mulling this over.

        When I think of “evil” art, I think about (YES I’M BRINGING HIM UP AGAIN) Duchamp.

        What Milton did with Paradise Lost was try to make people understand the story better. One thing discussed by the children in Sunday School was how Eve was tricked in the first place and then Adam was tricked and how TRANSPARENT the trickery was. Various Sunday School teachers tried to fill in plot holes. “The Fall happened very soon after Eve’s creation. Adam had not yet gotten around to telling her that animals couldn’t talk.” That sort of thing.

        As such, I imagine that Milton was trying to address the tough questions. Why did Eve listen to the snake? Well, because the snake was a smooooth talker because he was the Devil Himself. Why did Lucifer leave his job? Well, because of overtowering ambition.

        One of his goals was that he was attempting to answer childish questions.

        (Additionally, in Milton’s defense, Lucifer starts out as the noble tragic hero and, as the story progresses, becomes more bestial and less sympathetic until, towards the end, he’s a black ball of alien rage. We quote Satan from the first half of Paradise Lost. We don’t quote him from Paradise Regained.)Report

        • Avatar Rufus F. says:

          Right, but that sort of happens to most tragic heroes- they get less and less noble and more and more like black balls of alien rage. It also sounds a bit like King Lear by the end. Still, you look and say, ‘There but for the grace of God…’ It’s hard not to do the same with Satan there.Report

          • Avatar Fnord says:

            There but for the grace of God go I is rather the Milton’s point, isn’t it? I mean literally. If the message you get from Paradise Lost is that, without God’s grace, even the best will fall, that’s very much in keeping with the intended message, right?Report

  2. Avatar Glyph says:

    Hey Rufus, as we’ve discussed ol’ Satan a bit over at JB’s place on the Sandman re-read (and why aren’t you participating there? Sounds like it’d be right up yr alley, from this post), I have had sympathy for the devil from a fairly young age, ever since discovering that it’s not just that he’s not “compelling” in the Bible – he is largely absent (at least as regards his origin story, and at least in the current Western Bible). Humpty was most definitely pushed.

    I also had a teacher put forth that same sort of Miltonesque theory of why Adam ate the fruit – that Adam knew that Eve, having eaten, would now die; and he did not want her to do so (or himself to be) alone. Adam’s eating of the fruit was a gesture of fatalistic romantic love and solidarity with Eve.

    Doesn’t make the story any more modern, but hey, neither is Romeo & Juliet. As myths and metaphors go, Adam and Eve and the Garden and the Apple and the Snake have a lot to recommend them, adaptability and ambiguity not least.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      Right- the Satan story largely comes later. I wonder if there’s a good history of Satan writing out there. I’ve listened in on the Sandman posts, but I hate to say this (because it’s sort of embarrassing)- I’ve never been able to follow the stories in graphic novels for some reason. My wife reads them by the ton, but I lose track of what’s going on by about ten pages in. I’ll see about Sandman- I think she’s got those and I’ve heard good things about it.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        I’ve only read excerpts, and it sort of sucks to say “do some homework so that you can read comics”, but Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics might be helpful to you (and I have even seen PDFs of this online).

        I have heard a similar complaint from a few people, and I wonder if (no idea is this is true for you) people who did not read a lot of comics as a kid did not internalize comics “grammar” – the way the panels/layouts/sequences are used to convey motion/elapsed time. Without that, I would think it gets gibberish-y.

        Patrick or JB probably have enough knowledge to explain it; I probably can’t explain it but I at least usually understand it (the same way I can’t diagram a sentence to save my life, but I can read/write just fine).Report

        • Avatar Rufus F. says:

          I think that’s probably it. I always feel like I’m missing a lot with graphic novels. Probably a lot of it has to do with the iconography- you have to train yourself a bit. I’ll see if my wife has it and then maybe she can tell me if I’m getting the story. I have wanted to read more of them because she gets so much out of them and I feel left out. I’m actually the same way with television shows. I know that HBO has some fantastic programs and have really wanted to find out why everyone raves about the Wire, but I zone out after about one episode of each and forget who everyone is. No idea why.Report

          • Avatar dhex says:

            “I have heard a similar complaint from a few people, and I wonder if (no idea is this is true for you) people who did not read a lot of comics as a kid did not internalize comics “grammar” – the way the panels/layouts/sequences are used to convey motion/elapsed time. Without that, I would think it gets gibberish-y. ”

            this is likely true – i never read comics as a kid (they cost money; library was free) so even trying to slog through the invisibles because my bro knew i’d get all the references and whatnot was downright painful. it’s confusing and kind of exhausting to try and figure out what to read next, when you look at the pictures, THE INCREDIBLY ANNOYING FONT CHOICES, etc.Report

  3. Avatar NewDealer says:

    I question the whole idea about whether art can be immoral. Or whether we should be concerned with immorality in art.

    Art is a manifestation of how an artist or collection of artists view the world or a particular theme of the world. The theme can be emotional, physical, sexual, religious/spiritual, etc.

    All people are capable of both moral and immoral thoughts and actions. Hence all artists should be capable of producing art that is moral, immoral, and possibly both at the same time. Some artists because of their biographies might have a world view that most people would consider a bit to very warped and damaged. Harvey Darger comes to mind here.

    To say that a piece of art is immoral is to imply that it should not have been produced or needs some kind of correction for it to be good. I am not sure that this is the case and I find it interesting that you pick out high art/older art for your examples. How about something like a Black Sabbath album or art that is purposefully meant to shock and challenge. For example, Robert Mapplethorpe photographs, the plays of Sarah Kane, Brecht, etc.Report

    • Avatar Glyph says:

      NewDealer, I am mostly on your side, except when it comes to something like “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” If a piece of art is produced with both knowing deception, and the intent to incite pogroms, then to me that is a clearly immoral piece of art.

      Both criteria must be satisfied, for me. If the artist believes he is telling the truth (regardless if he actually is), or if he intended no harm (even if harm results), then I cannot call the work itself immoral. Only art which is both knowingly-untrue, and produced with ‘malice aforethought’.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        Jay and I have had this conversation several times, and I’m not sure we’ve ever ultimately agreed. It is possible for the act of producing a piece of art to be immoral (the Protocols would be a great example, but so might plagiarized art, to take a completely different type of immorality). The work itself, I have a hard time saying it’s immoral, because I have a hard time attributing morality to objects.Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. says:

        Ah, okay- the Protocols is an interesting example. It’s a terrible work of writing. I totally agree that it’s immoral, although I’m not even sure I’d call it art.

        I guess my example of an immoral work of art is The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith. I don’t mean that its aim is immoral; only that it asks us to identify with the mindset of an immoral person committing immoral acts. It’s also a great work of fiction in my opinion. So, I do think you can have a great work of art that takes the side of immorality.Report

        • Avatar greginak says:

          Perhaps another example is Lolita. Great book. Creepy as all hell. Some people see it as excusing molestation. Is it moral? Well i don’t think Nabakov was trying to excuse or promote molestation so i don’t have a problem with it, but i understand why many do.Report

          • Avatar Rufus F. says:

            Exactly! Lolita is disturbing for exactly the same reasons it’s a great work of literature- because it puts you so seamlessly into the mind of this self-deluded man who is doing terrible things.Report

        • Avatar Chris says:

          We can probably think of a whole hell of a lot of examples of good art that portrays this group or that group in such a negative way that it could be construed as immoral. The Birth of a Nation is an obvious example, but hell, you could probably say this of some of Conrad’s books (the way it treats Pacific Islanders, for example), or a hell of a lot of works of fiction in the way they treat women.

          Also, if art can be immoral, then it can be moral. I’m sure we could come up with some examples of this as well.Report

          • Avatar Rufus F. says:

            I think you’re absolutely right that it’s an immoral work of art. I almost want to say that works of art that denigrate a group of people are de facto bad art, but I can’t quite go there. I still can’t decide if Triumph of the Will is an aesthetically great but immoral piece of art, of if it’s just bad art because of its aim and viewpoint.Report

            • Avatar Chris says:

              A friend of mine, a feminist, though hardly a radical one, maintains that sexist/misogynistic works cannot be good art. I have trouble wrapping my head around that perspective, and not only because it leaves me with very little to read, but I don’t think it’s a nonsensical perspective, at least.Report

              • Avatar Kim says:

                They are certainly not -realistic- art…Report

              • Avatar Rufus F. says:

                This might not be much of an argument, but I think I’d make a distinction between sexist and misogynist because I can think of some great works of art that strike me as being fairly sexist in spots, but I’m drawing a blank on outright misogynistic works of art that weren’t pretty horrid. I realize that a lot of people think of sexism as being misogyny and it might be hard to distinguish in many cases. But it might be an interesting question to explore. For the record, I think of Paradise Lost as being more sexist than misogynist.Report

            • Avatar Kim says:

              “denigrate a group of people are de facto bad art”
              Oh, that is SO not true!
              Denigrating someone because they deserve it is GOOD art.
              Holding up a mirror to let people see who they truly are…
              (remind you of Blazing Saddles?)Report

          • Avatar NewDealer says:

            I think Birth of a Nation is a better example of immoral art than the Protocols of the Elder of Zion.

            D.W. Griffith produced many innovations in that movie. The use of existing music, long-form epic films, close-ups, etc. But it is a highly racist work. Of course it is our modern sensibility that renders it immoral. The original audience probably largely agreed with the racist sentiments.

            For moral art? Night by Elie Wiesel? Christ Stopped at Eboli? Native Son? Invisible Man? To Kill a Mockingbird? Angels in America? Johnny Got His Gun? Slaughter House Five? Beethoven’s 9th Symphony?

            There are many pieces of art that I consider moral. Interestingly they have also been frequently banned.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          One of my profs told a story of one of his students who took his Existentialism course and then dropped out, got hooked on smack, and died of an OD.

          He said that that haunted him pretty much forever.

          When I started this comment, I had a point. I swear to atheist god.Report

          • Avatar Chris says:

            The story is that Heinrich von Kleist killed himself after reading The Critique of Pure Reason. Obviously, an immoral work (the prof who told me this story, by the way, suggested that he was disappointed we weren’t so passionate about philosophy).Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        So art that kills people? Moral? How about the person who distributes such art?
        Art that debases people (by which we mean the Audience, and not people in the artwork)?
        Is that moral?

        If I was to give you the opportunity to go to a haunted house so creepy you stood a 1 in 3 chance of peeing yourself, would you go? Would you defend someone else’s right to go? Would I be immoral to just tell you “it’s really creepy” and leave the icky parts out?Report

      • Avatar NewDealer says:

        I don’t consider The Protocols of the Elder of Zion to be art. I consider it to be propaganda issued by the government of Czar Nicholas II.

        The same goes for things like The Turner Diaries.

        Maybe this is a bit self-serving but whatever. Now Will Eisener’s graphic novel on the Protocols and how they helped spur modern anti-Semitism and the Holocaust is art.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      Ah, I was going in a somewhat different direction. My opening question was probably too unclear.

      I do think there are plenty of great works of art that express an intentionally immoral or intentionally amoral viewpoint and don’t find that diminishes them. I would argue that great works of art have some viewpoint on moral issues, but I’m fine with ones that take a viewpoint that is critical of or even attacks morality as it is understood. There are many fine existentialist works of art whose creators would probably be offended if you said their art upheld traditional morality (as something given prior to being). I can also think of some great works of art that argued for immoral things. I don’t really think that art that intentionally challenges morality or takes an immoral viewpoint is the problem.

      I guess what I was getting at was this: Milton intends his poem to be morally elevating- to convey what he sees as moral truths. And yet, the art is flawed in a way that the poem becomes dull right about the point those truths are supposed to be coming across. So, is this simply an aesthetic failing, or is it a moral failing too? That’s what I was interested in.Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. says:

        Speaking of immoral works of art, I have to go and record a vocal track on a demo with my band. Back later- not ignoring anyone!Report

      • Avatar NewDealer says:

        I have yet to read Paradise Lost but as I have heard you and others say: The Devil is the more compassionate, cooler, and sexier character.

        I don’t think this is the fault of the artist even if Milton intended otherwise. Rather it is a problem with humanity on a psychological and philosophical level. Most people want to think of themselves as being good, not cruel, etc. Maybe for the most part, most people do lead lives where they treat their fellow humans very decently. However, sometimes the “bad” people just seem like they are so much cooler and have so much fun that it is intoxicating.

        We are all attracted to the outlaw somewhat. I don’t think most people want to be sociopathic murderers but something more on the scale of a slightly to moderately amoral perpetual prom king or queen.

        It can be very hard to write characters who are good but also interesting.Report

        • Avatar Rufus F. says:

          Yeah, totally. I think it has a bit to do with the Romantics. Before them, you so have a lot of books about Virtuous People Confronted by the Cruelty of the World that are, to be blunt, dull as dishwater. But people loved them back then. The Romantics really make irrationality and passion and madness and all of the less-than-civilized behaviors a real focus of the writing, and absolutely those things make for more interesting characters. We’re living a few centuries hence and I think there was something to Harold Bloom’s line that we’re all Romantics now.Report

          • Avatar Rufus F. says:

            Rethinking this a bit, of course the tragedies were all about compellingly screwed up people (well, or demigods). But the idea that compelling figures are going to be outside of society in some way seems a lot more Romantic than Classical.Report

  4. Avatar Chris says:

    Rufus, thanks for this post.Report

  5. Avatar Christopher Carr says:

    Rufus, nice to have Blogging the Canon back, and already up to “Paradise Lost”! I can’t wait until you make it to “The Pelican Brief”!

    “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.”

    Are you sure Milton didn’t really intend this? Or was Milton just cleverly going along with the necessary tropes of his given culture?Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      Well…. I’m honestly too scatterbrained to go in anything like a chronological direction. Don’t be too surprised if I loop back a bit. It just occurred to me today that I’d really like to do a few things by Saint Augustine soon.

      I guess my theory is that Milton had to flesh out Satan as a character because his audience would hate him from the start and, if he’d just left him as the cartoon bad guy, it would have been a boring poem. I think he was right about that.Report

    • I have two, almost completely contradictory thoughts on Christopher Carr’s point. (Disclosure: It’s been more than 20 years since I’ve read Paradise Lost).

      First: I agree (maybe!). Maybe (and here I might be straying from Carr’s point) Milton wanted to seduce the reader into identifying with Satan. A temporal, fallen creature (the reader) would of course find the eternal but dying, fallen creature (Satan) to be more interesting than the actual glory of God as it works through the ages.

      I’m going out on a limb (and a tangent) here, but has anyone read Herman Hesse’s “Demian.” At least one scholar has claimed Hesse was doing something similar. The essay is by Stephen Roney, and can be found here [PDF]: http://www.gss.ucsb.edu/projects/hesse/papers/demian-roney.pdf

      Basically, Roney claims that Hesse tricks the reader to root for the main character as he (the main character) is seduced by a demon, and in the process, the reader, being sympathetic to the demon, is also seduced.

      Second, I disagree (maybe!) Maybe the interest and preference for Satan is an artifact of our post-1776/1789/1848 world in which all “humans are brothers” and in which a high value is placed on individualistic revolt against the oppressor. I realize that England of Milton’s time had its own small-d democratic movements, but I also wonder if that ethos would have then been strong enough or popular enough for Milton’s intended audience to embrace his rendering of Satan that way.Report

  6. Avatar Wardsmith says:

    Unintended humor – Satan is… Demonized?Report

  7. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    I loved this post; if we stickied posts, I’d sticky it.

    Not the question you asked, really, but the one it brought to my mind is to what degree is Milton’s being Devil’s advocate Milton’s fault? Or to be more broad, how possible is it, really, to make Good and Righteous more interesting than Evil & Cunning?

    If I think of most stories that I know (folk tales, books, movies, TV shows), the heavy is often far more interesting than the hero. Those cases where the hero is more interesting (for examle, Bruce Wayne vs. Bane in the latest Batman) it is the dark side the hero wrestles with that makes him or her more compelling.Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

      And if so, why is that? And what does that say about us, really?Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. says:

        I wonder if it’s just how different they are. I could imagine a story about someone like me, but nobody else would want to read it!Report

        • Avatar Glyph says:

          This is a story about Pretty-Good-Man.

          PGMan is usually pretty nice to people (except when he’s tired, or hungry); PGMan had an OK childhood; PGMan likes to unwind with a beer and some TV, or by talking to friends online, at the end of his normal workday.

          He’s prettay, prettay, prettay good.Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      I could read one hundred stories about a Chessmaster Hero. However, few people actually write those.

      Stories are all about struggle, and conflict.But it’s perfectly plausible to be struggling against an inanimate object, and for that struggle to be perfectly compelling (hell, that’s a lot of sci-fi right there!).Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      Coyote Heroes are always interesting.Report