Wednesday, May 18, 2005
Book report time.
I finished reading Paradise Lost. I can't say as I actually enjoyed it. The whole enterprise seemed to beg the question: in the end, God feels no more justified than at the beginning. The real problem is not that Satan is so convincing (he isn't) nor that God is what Paul Erdos called him - the Supreme Fascist. The problem is that Milton does not convincingly convey what I would call (for lack of a better way of putting it) God's human qualities. God is not only Father to the Son but to us all. He doesn't seem very fatherly in Milton.
Of the essays and excerpts in the back of the Norton Critical Edition that I read, by far the best was by William Empson, followed by the always enjoyable (because erudite without being in the least obscure) Sam Johnson. Empson finds God intolerable, and thinks Milton found him relatively intolerable; contra Stanley Fish, who seems to think that the Blakean cliche that Milton was of the Devil's party without knowing it was in fact a deliberate strategy, and a reenactment of the Fall, Empson seems to think that Milton himself questioned whether God's ways could be justified to Man, and that the poem is the record of Milton's not-entirely-successful struggle to do so. Empson places great stress on a passage in Paradise Lost that seems to suggest that at the End the Father will abdicate, becoming "All in All" as the one moment when Milton's God becomes tolerable, and that hints at a justification based not on God's transcendant wisdom or benevolence but on His humble surrender to His own creation by becoming wholly immanent.
That's all well and good, but I don't remember that as a particularly humanizing moment in Milton's story since, after all, what's impressed the Father is the sacrifice of the Son. Who is, if I understand this correctly, of the same substance. Or something. I must admit, my problem might just be that the Trinity makes my head hurt.
But there was one such moment that struck me, a moment that, frankly, struck as more Hebraic than any other in Milton, and a moment when (to me) God seemed most like the Father.
Adam is imploring God to give him a helpmeet, someone more fit than the beasts over whom he has been given dominion:
Hast thou not made me here thy substitute,
And these inferiour far beneath me set?
Among unequals what society
Can sort, what harmony, or true delight?
Which must be mutual, in proportion due
Given and received; but, in disparity
The one intense, the other still remiss,
Cannot well suit with either, but soon prove
Tedious alike: Of fellowship I speak
Such as I seek, fit to participate
All rational delight: wherein the brute
Cannot be human consort: They rejoice
Each with their kind, lion with lioness;
So fitly them in pairs thou hast combined:
Much less can bird with beast, or fish with fowl
So well converse, nor with the ox the ape;
Worse then can man with beast, and least of all.
To which God replies (and here I paraphrase):
How do you think I feel?