ENGL 220: Milton
|Transcript||Audio||Low Bandwidth Video||High Bandwidth Video|
ENGL 220 - Lecture 17 - Paradise Lost, Book IX
Chapter 1. Introduction: Paradise Lost Book IX [00:00:00]
Professor John Rogers: We’ve been looking for the last few lectures at the ethics and the theology that have throughout Paradise Lost been produced – at least, this has been my argument – been produced and sanctioned by Milton’s narrator. We learned, for example, both from the narrator and also from Raphael that Eve is inferior to Adam. On the authority of the narrator and of Raphael, the social hierarchy of Eden is established as what we can think of as – this is what also I have been arguing – as the dominant discourse of the poem. We can think of this as the poem’s official doctrine, if a poem can be said to have an official doctrine.
But there’s obviously so much more to Paradise Lost than the official discourses of Raphael and the narrator. The poem seems continually – and this is also what I’ve been arguing – continually to be opening up spaces for ideas other than the official, sanctioned language of the narrator. The angel Raphael, you’ll remember, was eager to assert the hierarchical worldview when the narrator was speaking about Adam and Eve, but as we saw last time, Raphael was willing to loosen the constraints of the notion of hierarchy when he was pondering the subject of astronomy. Raphael’s astronomy was marked really wonderfully by a lot of doubt and uncertainty, and he refused to determine whether Ptolemy was right or whether Copernicus was right. There’s a way in which the poem’s doubt about one kind of hierarchy seemed to bleed over into the other forms of hierarchy with which the poem was also concerned. This is essentially a little recap of the last lecture.
Now so far in Paradise Lost, the tension between the poem’s official line and what we can think of as its more subversive strains – this tension has surfaced in Paradise Lost in a kind of contrapuntal fashion. One position is simply juxtaposed without comment with another, but the poem itself never seems explicitly in any way to acknowledge the presence of the conflict or the presence of the contradiction; that is, the poem doesn’t seem to acknowledge the presence of the conflict or contradiction until now – until Book Nine. Book Nine, which is the book of the Fall, is structured by, I think, a far more explicit opposition of that official, dominant discourse, on the one hand, and the much more open-ended critique of that discourse, on the other. The stark opposition between these two competing positions is manifest explicitly, for me, in the argument between Adam and Eve on the morning of the Fall before their separation.
Chapter 2. Adam and Eve, Arguing? [00:03:01]
Before we actually look at the content of that absolutely remarkable argument, it’s worth musing on the fact that Adam and Eve are having an argument at all. It’s amazing, for that matter, that they’re actually conversing. In the conversation between Adam and Eve before Eve’s departure to work alone, we have what, I think, has to be the first conversation on earth: the first genuine dialogue, a conversation – well, there may be a very brief exception in Book Five, but we’ll set that aside – that involves two individuals who do not already have in mind the content of the other’s speech; a conversation (and of course, I’m thinking of all of the conversations that we have, or that you have, with one another) that possesses at least some element of epistemological uncertainty, an element of surprise, or the inability to know exactly what the other person is going to say before he says it.
Now Milton up to this point hasn’t been able to represent anything like the genuine dialogue. There are some exceptions. Maybe the dialogue between Satan and Abdiel during the war in heaven, but on earth it’s not so clear. Before this moment, all language is more or less ceremonial or ritualistic utterance. Let’s think of the Father and the Son in the dialogue in heaven in Book Three. The Father’s omniscience, the fact that he knows everything, makes dialogue absolutely impossible. He always knows in advance what the Son is going to say. Even with Adam and Eve before Book Nine – Adam and Eve seem to know in advance, in some way, the content of the other’s speech; and so Adam will begin a speech (and this happens all the time) with some variation of this little formula: “Well thou knowest Eve that blah blah blah” – in other words, of course you know this, Eve, but I’m going to say it anyway. Eve will tell Adam, “That day I oft remember,” and then she will proceed to tell him something presumably that she’s already told him a number of times before. Conversation before this point has been ritualistic, it’s been ceremonial, and it is essentially unnecessary in these early parts of the poem.
The dialogue between Adam and Eve at the scene of their separation is really different from these ceremonial utterances. For the first time, they’re speaking speeches from alien perspectives with purposes and intentions that are foreign to one another. They seem to us familiar – we recognize these people, and in this conversation, and it’s actually an argument as much as it is a conversation, Milton is giving us an emblem, finally I think, of what this poem has been doing all along: this poem has been arguing with itself. The dominant official language of hierarchy has been pitting itself against the questioning, subversive language of equality, and here in this conversation Milton gives a dramatic shape to what has been heretofore the abstract, intellectual conflicts that had so textured so many of the earlier books. And so here in Book Nine at the moment of the separation between Adam and Eve, we can see these two world views, these two enormous ways in which Paradise Lost thinks, separate almost to the point of absolute incompatibility. Whether this divergence will be nearly a separation or whether it will be an actual divorce, I think, is an open question.
Now you can think of Milton assigning faces here in Book Nine to a lot of these positions that have heretofore been abstract. Adam represents in this dialogue the nervous voice of the poem’s orthodoxy, and Eve represents the questioning voice, the voice that questions and critiques that orthodoxy. To his credit – and Milton’s not often given credit for this – he goes out of his way to lend a certain authority to Eve’s critique, and he does so by structuring her argument as something like a retrospective of his own career as a radical polemicist: so Eve takes up the role of the radical Milton in this, it seems. She’s put in the strange and utterly fascinating position of quoting the younger Milton, and you have something like a recap in the speeches of Eve here, in this discussion with Adam, of the great moments in this writer’s work.
Now, the first subject of their discussion involves the topic that has been absolutely central, and we know this, to Milton throughout his career, and this is the subject of work or labor – essentially, the value of human activity. The ostensible premise for the separation of Adam and Eve on the morning of the Fall is Eve’s desire to work separately from Adam. Eve is arguing that they will be more productive if they divide their labors. Think of the ways in which this resonates for us. Milton has been juxtaposing for years the two accounts of the value of labor that he had found in the New Testament, the parable of the workers in the vineyard and the parable of the talents. As early as Sonnet Seven, written when Milton was twenty-three or twenty-four, he was depicting scenarios in which those two parables could be seen to argue with one another on just this question: on the value and the importance of labor. While the parable of the talents seemed to be chiding Milton for not working hard enough and not working fast enough, the parable of the workers in the vineyard seemed to assure him in some way that he didn’t need to work quite so hard, that God didn’t require his incessant and laborious efforts. It’s a measure of just how difficult Milton wants it to be for us to adjudicate between Adam and Eve in this book that he casts their argument in just this language, the language of political economy and work. It’s an argument that involves all of the implications, I think, of what are for Milton those two highly charged parables.
Now I think it’s almost impossible for us to come to this scene without some assumption that Eve is wrong. We assume – and it’s understandable – that because Eve will, as we know, go on to disobey the prohibition of the fruit, she must therefore at this point on some level be wrong or certainly, in some way, mistaken during this conversation. But Milton takes some amazingly interesting steps, I think, to counter what he knows will be our immediate assumptions. He attempts to counter our assumptions by allowing Eve to voice that position in a dialogue that most closely resembles the parable of the talents.
Chapter 3. The Argument between Adam and Eve on the Morning of the Fall [00:10:19]
So look at page 383 in the Hughes. This is Book Nine, line 201. First of all, it’s the narrator here who’s opening the subject of work. This is line 201. He’s discussing the topic of conversation between Adam and Eve at the beginning of their day: “They cómmune [they converse] how that day they best may ply / Their growing work: for much thir work outgrew / The hands’ dispatch of two Gard’ning so wide.”
So we learn from the official perspective of the narrator here that Eve will have children. This is incredibly consequential information that she was to have children even before the Fall. We learn that even before they have children, this garden demands an extraordinary amount of work from Adam and Eve and that the garden seems in some way to be actually spinning out of control. This is a nightmare landscape from the perspective of a house owner! I think this passage is important because it’s the narrator here who validates Eve’s initial position in this first speech.
So Eve suggests that when Adam and Eve work together, their affectionate looks, their absolutely adorable smiles, distract each other from their labor. This is line 223 of Book Nine. So all of those intervening looks and smiles, she argues, “intermits / Our day’s work brought to little, though begun / Early, and th’ hour of Supper comes unearn’d.” Eve has clearly embraced the Protestant work ethic, and she displays an intuitive grasp of the importance of the parable of the talents: God only rewards those who exert themselves or who invest their talent in an activity. It’s impossible not to ascribe to Eve at least some of the authority that’s attached to the parable of the talents here.
Now Adam counters Eve with some version of the parable of the workers in the vineyard, claiming that there’s more to work than simple productivity. This is line 242. Adam’s talking: “For not to irksome toil, but to delight / He made us, and delight to Reason join’d.” For Adam, one is still serving God when one takes pleasure in one’s work. The importance lies more in the willingness to serve and not in the actual amount of work that’s been accomplished or in the amount of stuff that’s been produced. Milton himself was obviously always wanting to take Adam’s side in this debate, but he seems to have been continually fearful – at least this is my assumption – that Eve was right: that God requires our continual labor.
You can also hear Milton making a distinction between Eve’s zeal for labor and his own efforts in writing this very poem. Milton’s poem, we remember, had been “long [in] choosing but beginning late.” Like the workers in the vineyard, Milton doesn’t get around to writing the poem until late in his literary career. Eve’s labor is begun early, and there’s even a sense here that beginning early isn’t good enough for Eve; she seems to be pushing to get up even earlier and to work even harder. Eve is the modern voice of workplace efficiency. She supplies the voice of conscience that chides not only Adam but the voice of conscience that seems always to be chiding the poet himself.
Now surely Adam is right – we have to hand it to him – in arguing that they are not in a position to earn their supper as if they were merely wage laborers. That’s not how Milton’s Eden works. None of their labor actually goes into the harvesting or the production of food. They’re fed plenty, but that’s because the fruits simply land in their hands. The work that they perform is all entirely ornamental – it’s ornamental gardening: pruning, cutting back, propping up. It’s never productive in any kind of economic sense or quasi-economic sense. Their gardening is merely a virtuous activity that is entirely divorced from the demands of productivity or the demands of nourishment. So Adam is right; but while Adam is right, in a certain sense he doesn’t address directly the problem that the narrator himself has already acknowledged, and that’s the problem that the garden [laughs] seems to be growing at a faster rate than Adam and Eve are able to manage. This is amazing. Look at line 205. This is where Eve notes how excessive [laughs] the growth patterns seem to be in paradise. So, Eve to Adam:
I think Eve here makes an absolutely central argument. It’s not an argument that Adam counters, and I think it’s not an argument that Adam would even be capable of countering: and that’s the idea that the garden is on some level growing out of control, that the vegetation is literally here “tending to wild.” It’s “tending to wild” because Adam and Eve are continually cutting it back – that’s their “pleasant task enjoin’d”: “the work under our labor grows, / Luxurious by restraint…” So Eve isn’t simply describing natural growth patterns in the garden: she’s examining the effects on nature of the imposition of culture.
We’re reminded here of the etymological origin of our notion of culture, which involves the cultivation of the land – it’s an agricultural metaphor. In this respect, Eve can be seen to articulate something like a theory of culture, and her theory has everything to do with our understanding of the Fall not as a theological problem, but our understanding of the Fall as a cultural problem. According to Eve, the garden is wilding, it’s growing disobedient; but it’s not growing disobedient out of any natural necessity but because of Adam and Eve’s cultural imposition of restraining. It’s that pruning and propping and lopping and binding. If left to itself, for all we know – who knows? I think this is a perfectly reasonable scenario – the garden might actually grow at a reasonable, moderate, and orderly pace. This new disorderliness in the garden, this wildness, seems to be the result of the unnatural, cultural attempt to restrain that natural order.
So think of what this is. God’s command to Adam and Eve to restrain the garden is on some level the miniature version of his much more consequential commandment to refrain from eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. I think that Eve in this speech presents us with a reading of the significance of the more important commandment; but of course, this is a reading that is incredibly subversive, and that’s why we rely so much on Eve when we read this poem. She is so magnificently the voice of the subversive. If I’m reading Eve correctly here, the imposition of law doesn’t control disorder: it produces disorder. There’s a sense in which the arbitrary interdiction of the fruit sets in motion an inexorable process whereby the interdiction has to be broken.
This is obviously a sense of the Fall that Milton cannot permit within the official parameters of the poem’s dominant doctrine even though this theory, Eve’s subversive theory, does come actually rather close to a number of Paul’s statements in the Epistle to the Romans – but officially in the poem, the Fall is an act of free will. It’s a freely undertaken choice, but according to Eve’s embedded prophesy of the Fall, which is what I take this to be, there’s no such thing really as free will. The Father’s prohibition seems to necessitate in some way their disobedience in the same way that pruning a tree – and we know this to be a fact – pruning a tree forces or necessitates new growth. It’s almost as if Eve were suggesting that there was something like an organic, natural necessity to the Fall.
Now I think that’s one way in which Milton looks back at his former interest in work – at his former interest in the interaction of those two parables, and he’s bending their implications and their meanings in an entirely new way here; but there’s another way in which the separation dialogue looks back at and essentially uses the essential material from Milton’s earlier career. This is Eve’s staggeringly brilliant deployment of the central argument from Areopagitica, the 1644 anti-licensing tract. Look at line 320 of Book Nine. This is page 386 in the Hughes. Now Adam has claimed that they can best pass the trial of Satan’s temptation if they’re together – a perfectly reasonable position. If Adam is there to guide Eve and to protect her, the Fall is less likely to happen; but to Eve – and this is Eve’s argument – this sounds as if Adam were attempting to censor her environment, as if he were trying to protect her from the potentially dangerous speech of the tempter. Of course, that is what he’s trying to do, and so she responds to what she hears to be Adam’s paternal solicitude. This is Eve at line 322:
This is a devastating question. Eve issues a powerful critique of what she takes to be Adam’s act of censorship. When she suggests that she is living in an increasingly “narrow circuit straight’n’d [or constrained] by a Foe,” it’s almost as if she’s alluding to Milton’s declaration in Areopagitica; you remember these lines: “I cannot praise a fugitive in cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary.” “What is virtue?” Milton had asked in Areopagitica. What is it if it’s never tested? What is virtuous resistance if there’s nothing there actually to resist, if the information one is being given is continually being licensed and censored and controlled? Eve refuses to accept the idea that Eden might be structured like an authoritarian state, like the Stuart monarchy.
At line 337 she lets loose. This is a searing criticism of a paradise in which an individual cannot be relied upon to choose freely her own actions, line 337: “Let us not then suspect our happy State / Left so imperfect by the Maker wise, / As not secure to single or combin’d.” Now the syntax is a little difficult there. She’s saying, “Let’s not imagine that we’re unsafe here. Let’s not doubt that the maker created us secure,” by which she means “safe,” “whether we’re on our own or whether we’re together.” Then she continues: “Frail is our happiness, if this be so, / And Eden were no Eden thus expos’d.” Eve here is exposing an ideological contradiction at the heart of Milton’s Eden. At the center of her argument is a powerful alternative to the official line of Milton’s poem. Eve is pronouncing – this is the structure of a theological argument, this is a theodicy: she’s justifying the ways of God to men as she sees them. This is the logic, I take it, of what she’s just said: “If I am not free to resist temptation alone, then this is not a justifiable world. If I am not free to resist temptation alone, God is not a justifiable God. Eden were no Eden, thus exposed. Therefore,” she concludes, “I must be free to resist temptation alone.” That’s her logical conclusion.
Now Eve’s claim for the true state of Eden is a lot like Milton’s claim some twenty years earlier in Areopagitica for the true state of England. There is at base a state of equality among human individuals, and the individual himself, singly and not combined, should be empowered to resist temptation alone. The poem has gone to great lengths to make the official case for God’s – how could it not? this is a version of Genesis – for God’s imposition of an arbitrary set of hierarchical distinctions and for God’s ability to impose arbitrary law. Milton is supporting that throughout the poem; but Paradise Lost is also willing to identify just those arbitrary hierarchies as something like the source for Eden’s imperfection, and he does that even as he celebrates God’s ability to impose these arbitrary distinctions. It’s this exposure of Eden’s structural flaws, I think, that best helps us understand the internal dynamics of the temptation scene. When Satan tempts Eve, he invariably tempts her with some version of all of those desires and all of those aspirations that Eden’s hierarchical culture has struggled, and struggled mightily, to suppress.
Look at the top of page 391. This is line 538 of Book Nine. Our first encounter with Eve involved, you’ll remember, the suppression of her admiration of that beautiful image that she saw in the pool – or the suppression of what came later to be interpreted as something like her narcissism. Eve was created with what seemed to be a natural, beautiful, and instinctive admiration for the image that she found in the pool. That admiration was, of course, entirely innocent because Eve had no way of knowing that that was her own image; but with the onset of that mysterious warning voice, Eve was turned away from that image of herself, and her behavior became branded as narcissism thereafter. It wasn’t, of course, true narcissism, but the imposition of that new restraint upon her seems to have produced in Eve, or created in her, something like a true narcissism. It’s this culturally produced – this is a character flaw that we can identify as a culturally produced one, and it’s one that Satan is able to exploit with utter ingenuity at the temptation scene. So this is Satan at line 538 to Eve:
So Eve’s affection for a responsive image, for a sympathetic gaze – that’s all she was getting out of the pool – was denied her at the pool. This restraint seems to have produced in her something like a self-love, a self-love that has grown luxurious by restraint, and Satan knows that. The tendency to narcissism was only one component of her character that was exposed in the scene at the poolside. The pleasure that Eve was deriving from the answering smiles, those beautiful, sympathetic looks in the pool – that pleasure is akin in many ways to the pleasure that a lot of infants derive from the first moments of their existence. I’m thinking of the infant’s pleasure in its initial interaction with the mother. This shouldn’t be surprising: one of the things that Milton tries to accomplish in the narrative of Eve’s development is something like a larger theory of human development in general.
But of course, unlike all the rest of us, Eve doesn’t have a mother. It’s the role of the mother both in culture and in nature that has been systemically excluded, necessarily but nonetheless systematically excluded, from Paradise Lost. Whatever experience of a kind of maternal affection that Eve may have felt in the answering looks and the sympathetic smiles is summarily cut off with the warning voice. Just as he did with her narcissism, Satan tempts Eve with precisely that natural phenomenon, that natural instinct that’s been denied her. Look at Satan, line 578. He describes his first glance at the “goodly Tree far distant to behold,” and we, of course, know what that goodly tree is. The serpent says:
Surely we all agree that this is a surprising [laughs] and a strange simile here. In comparing the smell of the forbidden fruit to mother’s milk, Satan is offering Eve an embedded image of the mother, and by placing the scene in the evening or what he calls “Ev’n,” Satan is able to insert Eve’s actual name into the expression of a natural desire to suckle at the mother’s breast.
But what’s at stake here isn’t simply Eve’s longing for the mother that she never had. The situation is a lot more radical than that because at the scene at the pool, in so many ways, Eve was actually mothering herself. At least on an experiential level, Eve seemed to have been – this is the way she must have felt it subjectively: she was the source of her own creation much as Satan claimed that he had raised himself by his own quickening power. Eve had represented the possibility for the poem of something like an absolute self-possession and an absolute self-containment. You’ll remember that Adam had informed Raphael in Book Eight (this was at line 547 of Book Eight) that he had been struck by this incredible air of self-contained-ness that Eve had. He tells Raphael, “[W]hen I approach / Her loveliness, so absolute she seems / And in herself complete,” and Raphael, of course, hastened to warn Adam against the attraction to female self-sufficiency.
There’s a sense in which Eve is absolutely independent. She’s mother and daughter united in one self-determining being, and it is just this maternal self-sufficiency that the law of the garden has denied Eve – and so like clockwork it returns here in Satan’s temptation. The third element of Satan’s temptation involves the taboo that was established by Raphael – this is the taboo of speculation. Raphael had told Adam, “Don’t concern yourself and don’t worry so much about speculating about the cosmos because the structure of the cosmos simply doesn’t concern you.” “Be lowly wise,” Raphael told Adam, and “know to know no more.” How on earth could Milton, the author of Areopagitica, put those words in the mouth of the archangel? It’s too troubling even to speculate about. But look down at line 602 of Book Nine. (This is page 392.) The serpent argues that one of the effects of the fruit was the awakening (and of course, he’s lying) in him of the power of reason, wakening in him his capacity for speculation.
No form of speculation has been licensed or censored for the serpent, according to Satan. He gets to think whatever he wants. This is exactly the vision of the liberal, Miltonic universe represented so majestically and so compellingly in Areopagitica. Again the temptation to speculate is intimately linked with this cultural law against speculation and the restraint of speculation.
Finally and most importantly, Eve is tempted with just that aspect of her status that this poem has most vigorously denied her and that’s the possibility – and I take this very seriously – that she’s actually, at least on a natural and ontological level, Adam’s equal. The possibility of the fundamental or natural egalitarianism of Eden, rather, is one of the principal objects of cultural suppression in Raphael’s long discourse with Adam. Raphael’s denial of their equality really fills the pages of Book Eight, and so naturally the desire for equality surfaces one of the principal motives for Eve’s transgression. By eating the fruit, Eve perhaps – this is unspeakably heartbreaking – can produce in herself an equality with Adam. That’s the fantasy, and the speaking serpent provides the best evidence imaginable of the alleged ability of the fruit to function as a kind of chemical equalizer. It’s like a testosterone-laced cocktail that offers the false hope of equality. Look at line 687, Satan to Eve:
In other words, “Eat this fruit and you will become greater than you have, up to this point, been allowed to be. Eat this fruit and you will become greater than your lot in life permits.” Now this has to be one of the most powerful inducements. As a political philosopher, Milton knows better than anyone the power of the desire for equality.
Chapter 4. The Promise of Equality and Its Importance to Eve after the Fall [00:36:03]
It’s just this promise of equality that is most important to Eve after she has eaten the fruit. This is after the Fall. This is line 816 of Book Nine. This is the middle of page 397. Eve is musing to herself:
There is an unspeakable pathos charging these lines because it becomes clear that one of the primary reasons that Eve has fallen in the first place involves a structural problem inherent in the Miltonic paradise: and that’s the official insistence on a social hierarchy. Of course, the poem is continually arguing that social inferiority does not impinge upon human freedom. Just because Eve is inferior to Adam doesn’t mean that she isn’t free. That’s the official line, but Milton knows perfectly well that the radical type of freedom for which he had argued in his early career as a polemicist had been founded upon an assumption of equality. In Areopagitica Milton had implied that we’re all free to read whatever we want because we are all equally endowed with reason. That’s at least implicitly his argument, yet Paradise Lost had instituted at the heart of its body politic a distinctly hierarchical society. There may be a natural instinct for equality. There’s a natural instinct for equality that we feel both with Adam and with Eve, but the official culture of Eden has labored to suppress that instinct; and at the moment of the temptation, the tremendous cost of that suppression is measured.
Now, from the doctrinal point of view, Eve is clearly wrong here to question her divinely sanctioned place in the order of things. We have to see her as wrong, but there is a voice that counters the poem’s doctrine, and it argues that the imposition of such an arbitrary law of hierarchy can only produce a corresponding desire to subvert that hierarchy. You’ll note here the further point that the denial of equality doesn’t merely precipitate a desire for equality. I think it pushes us even further to a desire – it’s really wild. The denial of equality actually pushes us even further to a desire for superiority. Eve entertains the lovely thought of being – and isn’t this a wonderful phrase! – “sometime / Superior,” as if Adam and Eve could assume different positions on the hierarchical ladder at will – as if Adam and Eve could “either rung assume” or both, just as Milton’s angels can “either sex assume.” The suppression of equality even pushes Eve to that perfectly illogical but completely understandable formulation: she’d like to be “more equal,” as if equality could be quantified in some way; as if equality weren’t a relational phenomenon, a structural phenomenon, but one that could be assumed entirely by oneself and one that could be hoarded and kept within the self in quantity.
Now, according to the official doctrine of the poem, the moment of Eve’s eating of the fruit is the origin of the original human condition of fallen-ness. Man lived until this time in a state of paradisal perfection, and it’s out of an absolutely free will that man chooses to disobey the divine command. But the narrative that Milton employs to illustrate this official doctrine seems continually to be questioning just that assumption. Milton’s poetry seems to counter this belief in Edenic perfection and counter this belief, even, in Edenic freedom before the Fall. There’s a sense in Paradise Lost that Adam and Eve – and I know this is heretical – were never completely free in Eden. They were always burdened by a set of cultural constraints of which the prohibition of the fruit was simply the most outrageous, but certainly not the only, one.
Look at page 402. This is another important moment after the Fall, line 1051. This is the moment in which Adam and Eve wake up after their first act of sexual intercourse after the Fall. This is their first attempt at fallen sleep which, of course, doesn’t turn out to be that pleasant. So:
So this is Milton’s version of the Genesis text. This is what Genesis tells us: “[T]he eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked…” They’ve awakened to a new form of consciousness, but Milton wants us to know that this new form of knowledge, this new self-consciousness, isn’t an enlightenment: it’s a darkening. “[T]hir minds / How dark’n’d,” Milton explains.
But it’s so much more complicated than that. No sooner has Milton depicted the Fall as a darkening than he does something incredibly strange. He describes the Fall from innocence as if the Fall were in itself something like an enlightenment: “innocence, that as a veil / Had shadow’d them from knowing ill, was gone…” There’s an incredibly complicated but wonderfully contradictory interplay of lightening and darkening, and the imagery here begins to deconstruct itself. On the one hand, the Fall darkens their minds, and on the other hand, they’re enlightened as the shadowy veil is lifted.
It’s at this moment that the poem seems to expose the fictional status of its representation of something like a perfect, unfallen innocence. Surely we expected Milton to say something completely different. Surely we expected Milton to say that innocence was the natural, naked Adam and Eve, and that this innocent nakedness is now being covered with a veil, a veil of guilt or a veil of shame – but Milton’s doing, of course, exactly the opposite. What does he say? Innocence was itself the veil. The very idea of their perfect, unfallen state was the veil; the very notion that Adam and Eve ever lived in a free paradise was a veil. It was a fiction, it was a false covering – a veil thrown over the Edenic society that was always and already a product of fallen cultural constraints.
Now, I don’t need to remind you of this because I know this is what you’re thinking. We have, of course, run into the image of the veil before in Paradise Lost. An image of the veil appeared in the description in the length of Eve’s hair, and remember that was a fact of culture that was being mistaken by the narrator as a fact of nature. In Book Four, line 304, the narrator – and you don’t need to move there because you remember these lines – the narrator tells us that Eve:
Our first understanding of Eve’s subjection to Adam was derived from the length of Eve’s hair, which she wore as a veil. A veil, of course, is only worn to hide something. It’s a covering of a source of shame that in this case may have seemed to be Eve’s nakedness, but that equation of Eve’s hair with a veil took place – think of it. It took place before the Fall, before nakedness was shameful. The poem seemed to raise the possibility that there was actually never a moment at which Adam and Eve were entirely free from the kinds of constraints and the kinds of prohibitions that we associate with fallen culture, with culture after the breaking of the prohibition.
It’s, of course, no accident that the image of the veil occurs in Book Nine in the context of our introduction to Edenic hierarchy and to the fact of Eve’s subordinate status, because the Fall itself seems in so many ways, I think, to be one of the cultural consequences of this fact of sexual subordination. Milton’s strange image of the veil of innocence in Book Nine – what is this? This is a paradox, a rhetorical paradox, and this paradox announces what is essentially the paradoxical construction of Eden, of Milton’s Eden. On the official, on the doctrinal, level of the poem, the falling of this veil of innocence exposes Adam’s and Eve’s nakedness. It’s a sign of their new fallen consciousness of their shame. That’s how we’re supposed to be reading, presumably, this image; but this paradoxical image also works on that other level, on the much more subversive level of the poem. It exposes a structural flaw at the heart of Milton’s paradise. Milton lets the doctrinal veil fall from the poem, and he exposes his own alliance here – and I really believe this – with Eve’s critique of Eden’s arbitrary hierarchy. It’s as if Milton had torn the veil of dogma from his poem and he’s begun to realize what Eve has known all along: “Eden were no Eden thus expos’d.”
Okay. That’s it.
[end of transcript]Back to Top
|mp3||mov [100MB]||mov [500MB]|