[Milton-L] "erotic" versus

Brendan Prawdzik brendanprawdzik at gmail.com
Thu Jul 21 19:14:14 EDT 2011


I'd be happy to elaborate my own understanding of the long quotation from
Book VIII.

The whole passage examines relationships between seeing, visibility,
physicality, and passion.

At the moment when Eve perceives the trajectory of the Adam-Raphael
discourse, I believe that most of us are surprised by perceiving Eve's
presence at all.  She has been sitting quietly by, yet now for three books
we have been immersed in a world seemingly shared between Adam and Raphael.
 Milton surprises us with Eve's presence.  The evidence of intention is
right there: she sits "retired in sight," meaning, within the visual field,
yet separated as though in her own enclosure.

Our immersion into the homosocial dialogue, into these fantastic stories of
divine creation and warring angels, is analogous to Adam's immersion into
Raphael's speech.  (And by raising questions about the movement of solar
bodies with Raphael, Adam is unintentionally emphasizing this discourse as a
dialogue between Raphael and Adam, with Eve being, or feeling, as though a
type of third wheel, not to put too fine a point on that.)  As Book VIII
begins, Adam is entranced.  He continues to hear Raphael speak even after
this mediator has ceased speaking.  Adam is enamored with him, with the
spiritual/intellecual growth that he represents.  I am not suggesting
anything naughty here (do what you will with 8.614-32), only that Adam is
absorbed in Raphael, that he identifies intensely with him.  This detracts
from the emotional and physical presence to be shared with Eve, that is, the
cultivating of paradisal marriage.

When Eve retires because she prefers him the relater over the angel, she is
precisely thinking of the tender physicality of their intercourse, at once
intellectual and bodily (and I would not use the loaded "carnal").  It makes
sense that she is thinking of this care at this moment.  She longs for
Adam's attention, attention evidenced by the gaze and materialized in a
physical tenderness.

Milton's description of the flowers shows clearly the inter-inclining of
passion for which Eve innocently longs in her emotionally and visually
diverted husband.  When Eve turns to her grove, that niche of nurturing that
she so cherishes, we see between Eve and plants a model of the relation of
passions and bodies shared between husband and wife: "they at her coming
sprung/ And toucht by her fair tendance gladlier grew."  Many here might
accuse me of fallen projection of impure thoughts, but I'd see this as a
stubbornly close-minded reading tempered by a sensibility I don't share: but
it seems clear to me that the plants represent the allure of Eve in a way
that calls vividly to mind erection ~ and why not?  Here is a place where
Eve can perform her labors and receive instant evidence of their efficacy
and value.  The plants are physically impelled toward her, and made
gladlier, growing by her touch.  One essential quality of the cultivation of
paradisal marriage.  Even if we read "sprung" and "gladlier grew" as
suggesting erection, this does not mean that it does not also suggest
intellectual and emotional longing.

Milton next follows with an encomium of the married couple: "O when meet
now/ Such pairs, in Love and mutual Honour joyn'd?"  There is some irony
here, as all that precedes follows from a temporary (though possibly quite
consequential) loosening of the bonds of passion between spouses.  Adam's
cathects for the moment to Raphael, while Eve seeks out the grove of
flowers.  I am not saying that the passage "foreshadows" the Fall, but that
there is a wrinkle here to be worked over by loving hands.

Now things get particularly interesting.  As the ideal of the pair "in Love
and mutual Honour joyned" is celebrated at the moment of a physical
separation (corresponding to a temporary parting of the passions), Milton
has Eve's body send out "darts of desire/ Into *all* Eyes to wish her *still
in sight*."  These darts register a desire for Eve that correlates with a
sense of *lacking her*.  These darts do not merely shoot into the eyes of
Adam and Raphael, who may or may not be looking (though if I were to make a
movie of this I would not hesitate to show a somewhat surprised, somewhat
disconcerted Adam's gaze on the departing Eve), but into *all Eyes.*  Including
the eyes of the reader, who was surprised by discovering Eve "retired in
sight" after three books of invisibility.

So, we have several analogous relationships of sight and passion, if not

Adam --> Raphael
Eve --> Adam
Eve --> flowers
Adam --> Eve
Reader --> Eve

Add or detract as you will.  Raphael may be looking too.

These relationships cover a wide range of affections, yet on the whole they
show an intellectual and emotional longing closely linked with physical
desire ~ and again, why not?  Adam's investment in Raphael is, at the very
least, one of homosocial amity, of reverence for a superior (but similar)
being.  The relationship between Eve and Adam is one of love, of friendship,
and of sexual desire.  That between Eve and the plants is similar: the
affection, purely innocent, takes a form of sexual desire, as a type of
(innocent) erection.  The darts of desire shooting into *all* eyes to wish
Eve still in sight seems directly to engage the reader's experience of Eve.
 The desire that we feel to wish her still in sight interacts with our
initial surprise that she was even there to begin with.  As she departs, do
we, fallen, respond like the plants do at her coming?

I'm not saying that the passage is intended to cause sexual arousal on the
part of any or all readers, but I am saying that here is one more instance
where Milton is playing with the idea of Eve's sexual allure, an allure that
is not prurient in itself, but is integral to the loving sociality between
the married couple that is a basis for human communion, both before the Fall
and after.

Milton places the reader in a particularly privileged perspective here.  We
get an opportunity to see multiple consequences of a deferred interspousal
intercourse.  We learn to understand an emotional distance that opens up,
that needs addressing, reformation, tendance.  We will see a version of
Eve's experience here in Adam's description of Eve as a walled garden placed
under angelic guard, the loveliness of which he but "approach[es]"

How *do* we see Eve here, as she departs?  What is the nature of this
"desire"?  What does the reader (and esp. the male reader) learn from the
surprisal of Eve's presence and the desire (darts!) to keep her still in
sight?  This might provide an opportunity to engage with Julia Walker's
introduction of Laura Mulvey to the discussion ...

So that's my take.

Brendan Prawdzik

On Thu, Jul 21, 2011 at 2:38 PM, James Rovira <jamesrovira at gmail.com> wrote:

> I've been posting a bit too much today, so this will be my last
> response for the day, though I continue to enjoy the discussion.  Many
> thanks to Richard and Brendan for their responses to me today.
> Richard:
> Those words weren't intended to frighten.  While I have indeed
> vacillated between the sincere and tongue-in-cheek in my responses to
> you, that specific question was not intended to be a "knock-down."
> That just doesn't sound like the Milton that I've read.  I would be
> interested in reading an argument on behalf of this idea developed out
> of a close reading of Milton, however.
> Brendan's supposition that Milton was aware of the possibility of
> sexual arousal on the part of his readers is very different from
> saying that Milton consciously intended to sexually arouse his
> readers.  This response is similar to Coleridge's response to Blake's
> "Little Girl Lost":  he wasn't worried about a lack of innocence in
> the poem, but in the readers.
> Brendan:
> I can see how these lines may support your point:
> Then had the Sons of God excuse to have bin
> Enamour'd at that sight; but in those hearts
> Love unlibidinous reign'd, nor jealousie
> Was understood, the injur'd Lovers Hell.
> But they seem to me to be more descriptive of possible angelic
> responses to the physical sight of Eve than readerly responses to
> Milton's description of her.  I'm not sure what you intended us to get
> out of the long quotation from Book VIII, however -- can you
> elaborate?
> Thank you both again,
> Jim R
> On Thu, Jul 21, 2011 at 5:20 PM, richard strier <rastrier at uchicago.edu>
> wrote:
> > Just to be clear, and to continue to be "outrageous" (and consistent), my
> answer
> > to your "rhetorical" question (clearly meant to be a knock-down) -- "Do
> you
> > really think Milton consciously intended his audience to be sexually
> aroused by
> > parts of PL?" -- my answer is YES.
> >
> > I'm afraid that the words "consciously intended" don't frighten me.
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