Harold Skulsky hskulsky at smith.edu
Tue Jul 27 06:29:00 EDT 2010

[Errata: among other mistakes, a disastrously confusing "not" has been
removed after "she knew" in the para. below beginning "what's going on,
I think." Apologies to anybody who was kind enough to work through the
previous version of this. Thanks to John Hale for bringing the mistakes
to my attention.]

When the “knew not eating death”  crux came up a while back, I was
in a rush but sent in a quick and cryptic suggestion that prompted a
colleague to ask me offline where I got it from. Actually I got it from
mysellf. It was a perfectly casual reaction based on years of reading
stuff in Greek, and also wondering about the phrase in question (PL
9.792). My take on the conceptual deep structure of the phrase is (I now
see clearly) speculative, controversial, and probably mistaken. But in
for a penny, in for a pound. Here the suggestion is in full, for what
it’s worth —  for those with the hardihood and time to stick with it
to the end.

Greek syntax reserves a special construction for indirect discourse
after a verb of knowing or feeling: instead of the usual infinitive
clause in the accusative, e.g.: 

       Eve knew not JACK TO BE EATING DEATH, 

the infinitive clause is replaced with an (accusative) participial

       Eve knew not JACK EATING DEATH. 

But what’s especially interesting is the peculiar Greek treatment of
the knowledge situation in which the knower knows a fact about HERSELF
—  viz., that SHE is eating death. Here we don’t get a full
participial clause at all; instead of 

        She knew not HERSELF [subject] EATING [accusative participle]
DEATH [predicate],

we have:

         She knew not EATING [nominative participle without 
         subject] DEATH.

In short, what follows “knew not” is not a clause at all —  not a
fact about the knower. Instead, the verb of knowing behaves like
copulative “is”; “knew” couples the knower with her known act or
property (eating death). (In Gk: “ouk eide [she knew not] ton thanaton
[death] esthiousa [eating, nominative case in agreement with
‘she’].”). This is not indirect discourse. It’s as direct as can
be. It’s perverse. It sticks out like a sore thumb (for a newcomer to
Attic). What’s going on here?

What’s going on, I think, is best seen by canceling “not” and
(once again) considering the successful case of self-knowledge — 
expressed in the now familiar but none the less peculiar construction: 

          She knew [perverse copula] EATING DEATH [perverse 
          predicate complement in the nominative]. [N.B. "eating" is
not a gerundive but a participle.]

As presented by the construction, self-knowing DIRECTLY INSERTS THE
KNOWER into the known situation; she confronts the truth directly, not
via a concept or a chain of concepts (subject-predicate clause
expressing proposition). 

Self-knowledge is one of the few examples of radical intuition
available to human experience —  at least on the Greek view reflected
in the syntax; maybe that’s why we are encouraged to embrace
self-knowledge by the Apolline injunction on the temple at Delphi. If I
am not mistaken, its failure in the garden at a crucial moment is one
important piece of the loss that gives PL its name.

In short, I submit that Milton embraces the Greek understanding of
introspection by embracing the Greek construction. On the other hand,
the expressive move is a gamble. Does the gamble pay off? I don't know.
Its success (if I'm right) depends on (a) the reader’s recognition of
the grecism, or willingness to be reminded of it, (b) the reader's
tolerance for the poet's highhanded attempt to bend the vernacular to
his will. Perhaps (a) and (b) are too much to ask.


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