[Milton-L] Eve's curls (reply to William Moeck)
kmaxwell at stanford.edu
Sun Sep 6 15:10:07 EDT 2009
May I confess my sympathy for what I take to be Prof.
Skulsky’s view on this subject.
I must say that I do not understand the idea of “seeking
temptation.” We can seek something
that tempts us, but seeking temptation in the abstract strikes me as a confusion
of type. Within the confines of
Paradise Lost, the only object of temptation is the fruit of the tree. Whatever Adam and Eve do and talk about
relative to the Garden and its demands which to us looks like error cannot be
construed as seeking the forbidden fruit, the site of temptation in this
sense. We should see this I think
from Adam’s inability to link separation with danger in any way that Eve would
accept or even understand, a condition confirmed by Adam’s inability to say
exactly what Eve should be wary of (and Raphael’s inability or refusal to give
any details about Satan’s capacity for disguise). These are narrative maneuvers, not efforts at psychological
explanations for the fall.
I think all of this kind of talk goes back to the old discussion
from Tillyard about the fall before the fall and Millicent Bell’s discussion of
cause. We hope to explain the fall
in causal terms. But as Bell
notes, any explanation in terms of cause necessarily goes back to God. Therefore (although she does not quite
say this) we have to find some other form of explanation than a causal
one. (There are some good
arguments that causal explanations in this kind of context are not explanations
anyway, but merely elaborate and necessarily incomplete descriptions.) Milton gives us a deep
psychological and sociological picture of Adam and Eve (as well as Satan and
the apostate angels), making us
think that we are reading a good novel (one of the reasons it has sustained
itself so well for 400 years). But
we should then recognize I think that complex novels never settle on easy
causal explanations. We denude
Tolstoy’s novel considerably if we conclude that Anna Karenina threw herself
under a train because she committed adultery and abandoned her child for Vronsky. We limit what Milton has to tell us if
we ask every act and error of Adam and Eve to contribute somehow to the fall in
a linked chain. By the same token, we cannot treat free will itself as a cause. It is a condition. It is a condition the poem may have to explain, but the explanation of the fall cannot be sufficiently explained by free will.
From: Harold Skulsky <hskulsky at smith.edu>
To: John Milton Discussion List <milton-l at lists.richmond.edu>
Sent: Sunday, September 6, 2009 10:08:54 AM
Subject: RE: [Milton-L] Eve's curls (reply to William Moeck)
The available evidence does not show that Eve is seeking to be tempted,
only that she is seeking to do something she thinks is worthwhile —
something that carries with it the danger of being tempted. There is a
difference between refusing to cower from temptation and actively
seeking temptation out. Eve's actual encounter with the serpent shows no
sign that she is expecting, much less eagerly expecting, the appearance
of a tempter.
As to the charge of hubris in Eve's debate with Adam, it is baseless.
Her approach to the debate is marked by "sweetness," "austerity," and
"composure," not pique. She stands her ground against arguments that are
filled with gaping flaws, which she exposes systematically. She stands
ground; Adam, to his credit, progressively gives ground.
If PL presupposes that A&E require each other's presence to resist
temptation, then their eventual failure is due to weakness of will and
not to freedom of will, in which case their Creator's verdict on their
fall is not only unjust but disingenuous (in creating them, he created
their dispositions). In a work designed to help us reach the
diametrically opposite conclusion, allowing this presupposition is
authorial incompetence on (pun intended) an epic scale. Milton is a
logician and philosopher of some attainment; a sophomoric pratfall of
this magnitude, at this crucial stage in his Great Argument, would seem
to be out of the question. At the very least, the poet is entitled to
the usual presumption of innocence.
Regrettably, the naively motive-hunting novelistic language in which
20th-c. treatments of PL 9 are typically couched does scant justice to
the constraints imposed on the poet by a rigorous pursuit of the Free
There is a detailed treatment of the relevant passage in my *JM and the
Death of Man*.
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