Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Gnostic Strains in Milton?

John Martin, The Bridge over Chaos (mezzotint)
Paradise Lost 10.312 (1827)
(Image from Darkness Visible)

I'm rather occupied this week with a program organized at Ewha Womans University by BK 21 for teaching graduate students how to write. The abbreviation "BK 21" stands for "Brain Korea 21" -- the "21" referring to the "Twenty-First Century" (and "Brain Korea" being shorthand for "raising Korea's brainpower," I guess). My working time, however, has not been abbreviated; rather, it has expanded to cover the hours from 9 to 6. I thus have only a little time for posting, so my post today will merely just touch on a possible theme in John Milton's Paradise Lost.

On the Milton List yesterday morning during a discussion of the myth of Isis and Osiris -- which Milton refers to in Areopagitica to illustrate how "Truth" has been torn apart and scattered and thus needs to be gathered and reassembled -- I raised the question of Gnostic strains in Paradise Lost:
Interesting discussion on the scattering and collecting myth of Isis and Osiris.

As for the passage in Milton's Areopagitica, while it is obviously part of the interpretive tradition concerning this myth, I recall, however, wondering if the Gnostic myth lay in the background to Milton's thinking -- the scattering and regathering of the portion of Sophia lost in the world.

This raises the larger issue of possible Gnostic influence upon Milton. I can never think of that great realm of Chaos in Paradise Lost without wondering if Milton was influenced by Manichaean views on the eternity of darkness in conflict with the light.

Has anyone written on this sort of thing in Milton?
I'm not arguing that Milton was a Gnostic. He certainly wasn't that! But he might have picked up on some Gnostic imagery. Michael Bryson responded to my query:
I think the question of a Gnostic element to (and/or influence on) Milton's thinking is a very interesting one. I am currently working on a project which will take up that question, as part of a larger work on Milton and negative theology, neoplatonic thought, and the basic idea of the God behind (or beyond) "God."

Most of what I am encountering in Milton criticism simply dismisses the idea, however, regarding Gnosticism as somehow antithetical to Milton's thought (I've done the same -- I made a comment, which I now regret, along similar lines near the beginning of The Tyranny of Heaven). I think one of the key questions is, if there is an influence, or even a compatibility of concerns at work between Gnostic thought and Milton's work, what particular branch of "Gnosticism" might be the most likely candidate, and through what sources (the great refuters like Ireneaeus, Tertullian, Hyppolitus, etc., or elsewhere?) might Milton be encountering these ideas? And if the ideas are present and at work in his writing, to what use is he putting them?

I also think the scenes with the old "anarch" Chaos might be fruitfully explained either through, or alongside of, explorations of Gnostic ideas. Zoarastrian ideas (and their possible influence on post-exilic Hebraic thought) come to mind as well.

Questions only at this point...
And also for me, merely questions. John Rumrich responded to our questions by posting his review of A. D. Nuttall's The Alternative Trinity: Gnostic Heresy in Marlowe, Milton, and Blake (Oxford, 1998), which I might comment upon tomorrow.

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