[Milton-L] PARADISE LOST
hskulsky at smith.edu
Sun Nov 6 22:55:32 EST 2011
What follows is an earlier post, with apologies; I noticed that it had
a typo that threatens to turn the argument into fudge (if it isn't fudge
already.) So here it is again, minus the typo.
Actually, in for a penny, in for a pound: think a few extra points may
be helpful. So I will just add a bit at the end.
Assume the following allegorical premise: SIN IS THE DAMNED SINNER’S
“JAILER” (where “sin” is the moral state [obduratio cordis] that
rules out the freedom of the reprobate or the damned). (Here, and in
what follows, the scare quotes set off metaphors.)
What would an ALLEGORICAL reader expect when the sinner “induces” his
“jailer” to “release” him from the “hell” he has damned himself to
(the inner hell that is the locus of allegory)?
In the usual moral theology, the answer is as follows: an ALLEGORICAL
READER WOULD EXPECT A TRENCHANT IRONY, DEPENDENT ON THE SAME FAMILY OF
The irony: That the sinner will be “released” into a deeper immersion
in the same moral hell he is condemned to by his (by definition
irreversible). When he faces this irony, escaping from a physical hell
will be cold comfort at best and torment at worst (see PL 4).
I don’t know what a LITERAL reader would expect, since I continue to
believe that the result (e.g.) of reading an allegorical “character” as
a character is nonsense on stilts.
It is tempting for naturally impatient readers not much in the habit of
reading the poets listed in the last paragraph below, much less reading
them with admiration and attention, to argue that the more compex the
allegory, the more it drives us to give up and take the allegorical
"character"non-allegorically. But then we have to assume (absurdly) that
the use of a noun abstract masquerading as a name ("Sin," for example)
can no longer be taken in the standard way--as a literal reference to
the subject at hand, and hence as a cue to the figuratively intended
sense of various details; details that, after all, can't literally be
true of the act or state of sinning.
Suppose we throw up our hands at getting clear on thhis quite natural
line of reading, and simply proceed as if it had no cogent motivation in
the text. Then lo and behold, Milton is no longer interested in sin. The
object of his new interest is whatever figurative sense we now force on
the allegorical name "Sin." In our zeal to dismiss the salient cues to
the allegory (see above), all we accomplish is to trade one allegory for
another. Why not stick with the original hypothesis (coming to us
courtesy of Ockham's Razor), admit that "sin" means sin, and look
seriously, one by one, at complexities in the literal sense--again in
the standard way: as METAPHORICAL COMPONENTS OF A COMPOSITE METAPHOR?
The "jailer" metaphor handled above illustrates the way forward: Milton
starts, not with the "jailer," but with the Zeus-like sinner
"conceiving" and "bearing" his "jailer"-to-be (no serious obstacle to a
metaphorical reading here), and then "incestuously" cohabiting with his
"offspring" (again, no serious obstacle): with the "jailer" metaphor
added, Milton is telling us that Satan's decision to sin against God was
as spontaneous (and uncaused by God) as Athena springing from the head
of Zeus, and that once the crime is committed Satan is narcissistically
captured by its charms. The result of his "incestuous union"--the
narcissistic enjoyment of the thing he has created all by himself--is
that the original act fairly "bursts" with evil "maternity"; that is
becomes the fertile cause of a horde of new sins. As for Sin's function
as a "jailer," see above.
The virtue of any such composite metaphor is to pack a tightly coherent
system of facts into a single concept--self-inflicted bondage in this
case; a system with an act of free will at the point of origin, a
freedom lost forever.
For readers with a taste for philosophy, a philosophical gloss on all
this is provided a bit further on, in God the Father's speech a
beginning of PL 3. But enough said. (Probably too much.)
Yes,there are other details unaccounted for above; but treating the
story as a slice of life, or a topical allusion (to put it charitably)
is not the way to get at them.
One further point. The classical examples of allegory, from Homer's Ate
and Hypnos to similar episodes in Apollonius Rhodius and Quintus of
Smyrna and Virgil and Statius and Lucan and on and on, ALL WORK THE SAME
WAY. The fact that some poetasters and critics of the late seventeenth
and early eighteenth century , misnamed neoclassical and more neo than
classical, found that way too jejune to be worth the effort, of had
lost the skill of reading epic allegory altogether, is a cautionary
tale, not an encouragement to do likewise.
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