[Milton-L] Milton's Satan-my first impressions
rwill627 at cox.net
Sun Feb 20 14:44:23 EST 2005
Dear Maria Ana,
I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post. Don't apologize for your English; very few 20 year olds handle a second (or perhaps third) language so well.
I think your discussion touches the main argument that has always surrounded the interpretation of Satan in Paradise Lost -- that he is by far the most arresting character in it.
Milton, like you, had grown up with classical literature, and I believe he like you was a bit uncomfortable with
absolutes, including absolute perfection. The classical gods all had their flaws and their blind spots -- they were truly antropromorphic and were beloved of men partially for that reason. It is very hard for us to identify with and cheer for.God, who cannot make a mistake, cannot die, and cannot lose the great battle. Only when we are spiritually and emotionally mature enough to realize that to lose one's child is worse than death can we at last feel God's pain.
Satan also possesses a classic heroic attribute you mention -- that of fighting for a goal he has no hope of achieving.
There is something superb in this that evokes our admiration. In addition, he was the world's best literary example of an underdog -- a character with whom mankind is predisposed to sympathize. As I have said before, he is in the beginning attractive. Only when we mature enough within the poem do we see the destruction he intends to wreak upon the helpless. To attack those too foolish or weak to resist, because this is the only way he can wound the powerful Deity who loves them, is a despicable act unworthy, in my opinion, of the admiration of the Romantics or anyone else.
----- Original Message -----
From: Ana Castro
To: milton-l at lists.richmond.edu
Sent: Sunday, February 20, 2005 1:58 PM
Subject: [Milton-L] Milton's Satan-my first impressions
Whether Milton's intention was to give Satan a status of heroic majesty or not, this was the impression that marked me when I first came in contact with the poem. At the time I was only 16, so my interpretation of Paradise Lost was extremely naive, however, it may represent whatever (or some) of the expectations that it is bound to raise in the uneducated reader, thus being of some interest. My experience with literature until that date had been sporadic and rather random, I'd purse whatever authors my sensibility would elect as relevant much concern for the value their works might possess within the context of the literary canon. This meant, in practical terms, that I would have Stephen's King's "The Shining" right next to William Blake's "Songs of Experience" without seeing any discrepency in such a union.
It was with a rather poor cultural background that I started off to read "Paradise Lost", and did so because the quote "Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven" I had seen mentioned in other works had sparkled an interest to further explore its original source. Already influenced by the partial quote that, on its own, might mislead one's reading of the work, I came across a copy of the poem I could afford and that included some helpful notes (I still own that copy and I cherish it like a treasure) and soon enought I was deeply immersed in Milton's unique universe. I found the poem easier to understand than I expected it to be, mainly because the classical references were very familiar to me, since most of the literature of my country (Portugal) owes a lot to it and already I had read most of what native literature had to offer, according to my somewhat childish tastes of the time.
What Satan meant to me, during those days, was a force to be reckoned with, a final and absolute triumph of the will above all that may oppose it. I sided unilateraly with Satan and never doubted his true sense of justified rage that impelled him to dethrone God, whom I saw as a cruel dictador. The angels that remained in Heaven and Adam and Eve were, for me, feeble beings because their will was weak and not their own, their acceptance of God as their legitime ruler deprived them to rule themselves and individuals: they became faceless intities upon which God cast his essence that they would reflect with their meek words and actions.
Even when Adam and Eve disobey, my judgement condemned them of weakness, for they were induced to act by Satan, their intrinsic flaw remained: they were unable to decide based on their own conscience. All need to act or not act sprounted from the fact that they moved to do so from the outside, their within too ill formed to take a stand.
That was exactly why Satan was elected as the hero supreme of my youth, his will, even when shaken and tested (I greatly enjoyed Satan's laments as he wandered) was never destroyed. All odds against him and his legion, Satan rebels and knowing he has little or no true chance to succeed he tries. That was what I most admired about him, Satan seemed to be the answer to Hamlet's dilema (a play I had read and assimililated in a somewhat simplified shape that did no justice to Shakesperare's genius), he had taken arms against a sea of troubles, more, he had defied the order of the divine because his conscience rebelled against it. I assumed that Satan was the only true moral character of the whole poem, that only he followed his own conscience that was more than a radiation of God's.
However, as much as I cared little for God as a hero (he lacked the vulnerability to truly be one) I granted that he possessed the same qualities Satan did, power to determine his own will and strength and power of his own to purse whatever that will dictated. This I could not find in the only character I truly could not admire in any way: Jesus, who seemed a mere extention of his father's desires and was thus hollow in himself, as a being, and who did not even have to suffer at all, which removed him from the eventual redemption I saw in the future prospects of Adam and Eve, once banished from Eden.
In a world of sweat and tears, the first human pair has a chance to gain the right to shape a will that is their own, challenged to take such an enterprise by Satan himself, although it is through mischief that such awareness is gained. Had the poem included the passion of Christ, I might consider him equal, or at least close, to the mythic status Satan had achieved, but as it did not, Christ remained a mere pawn in my interpretative plan.
Overall, I admired Satan because he chose, his stand had brutal consequences to himself but never altered his iron will. Not even God almighty could vanish such a strong determination, Satan could even be utterly destroyed but his will could not be altered. It is exactly because he sets himself against such impressive powers that I saw him as a glorious martyr. The battle between his legion and the angels, God and Christ, only confirmed that. Had he won, I might have admired him less. But he loses, the match his hightly unfair, on his side he only has his own personal convinction instilled on his legion, against him is God Himself and all the powers summoned to obey the will of the divine.
Satan sets himself on a battle he knows he must lose and that awed me beyond words. Also, while God and his league seem detached from the reader, speaking between one another as if they were not aware of their role as characters (I never fully realized the dramatic potencial of Paradise Lost until recently) and could dismiss the reader altogether. Satan is the exat opposite, he justified himself and explains himself through his monologues, as much as he does through actions. Satan presents he spectacle of the individual revealed, his inner landscape maped out by his own word as if he presented his arguments before an audience. As that, he represented a true literary hero who recognizes himself as such, becoming dramatic as a way to gain self knowledge and as a way to express that same knowledge to a potencial public.
That is another aspect that made me side by Satan in spite of God: Satan's idea of the potencial, of "all that could have been" and that might-with enough effort-still be. God and Christ, are in a way conformists, in the sense that they do not aspire to any other greater condition or station than their own. And that because they cannot, they already fulfill all the requirements for absolute virtue, they are so supreme that they cannot muster any ambition or see any potencial, of their own, that is yet unanswered for.
On the other hand, Satan aspires to be more, he yearns to gain something that might surpass himself, he is the constant struggle of the individual that looks beyond his current flaws and tries to better himself. And for that he must break all bonds and privileges so far bestowed on him, he must lose Paradise itself to create himself a new, under the sign of a self-driven idea that reshapes the world, heaven and ultimately, hell.
That is what linkens the human pair with Satan: their uneven struggle to reach enlightment. In that sense, Satan is more responsible for freeing Adam and Even than he is for damning them, for his gift is the desire to know, to gain knowledge. God creates humanity enlsaved within his prescriptions, Satan liberates mankind by providing a chance to suffer and thus be liberated to purse, eventually, prescriptions of its own.
It is mankind, in its physical dimension of flesh and blood susceptible to pains, that Satan creates, a new breed of creatures that is capable of, to some extent, form a proper and automous will, akin to Satan's.
Of course, I was too much of a teenager, at the time, to take in consideration the poem as a whole, and the passages that didn't comply with my vision I assumed to be of minor importance. Now that I am older (20) and have re-read the poem more than once, my black-and-white idea of it has changed to subtle shades of grey. Yet my fascination with the poem is as strong now as it was four years ago, in some ways it is even stronger. It is because of Paradise Lost that my newly awakened interest in literature grew and became deeper and better directed. I now study Portuguese and English Literatures at the Universidade Nova de Lisboa, my choice of career having been profoundly influenced by Milton's work.
I would like to apologise for my not too accurate use of the English language, which is not my own, and for the imprecise (or lack of) literary terms "per se", but I am only a mere student and my opinion cannot be expressed with the depth, eloquence or relevance as many of the scholars' studies I have read here. I only hope my small contribution was not too irrelevant or meaningless.
Maria Ana de Castro
Portuguese and English Literatures student at the Universidade Nova de Lisboa
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