Christopher Eagle: Adam as 'Serpentine'?
Today's serpentine teaser is from Christopher Eagle's article, "'Thou Serpent That Name Best': On Adamic Language and Obscurity in Paradise Lost," from Milton Quarterly (Vol. 41, No. 3, 2007, 183-194), which argues that Adam is assimilated to the Serpent by his misuse of language, an abusive use of words which arises from a "disjunction between the inward reality and the outward shape of things" after the fall:
[W]e should . . . point out that Adam's rhetoric in the confrontation with Eve bears out [a] lapse of accurate signification . . . . In the world's first domestic squabble, we find a cuckolded Adam making the metaphoric connection of Eve to Satan:Here are some endnotes for the excerpt:Out of my sight, thou Serpent, that name bestIn what many critics consider to be Adam's weakest moment as a character, we have already noted the progressive weakening of his nomination [i.e., his skill in naming things]. In the lines that follow, Adam tropes [i.e., makes a figure of speech about] Eve's serpentine deceitfulness as the disparity between her inward and outward shape, evidently contrasted with what he hopes is his everpresent wholeness. The glaring irony here, of course, is that Adam's likening of Eve to the Serpent is a figurative act (metaphor), itself an equally "serpentine" use of language. Because the possibility of figurativeness depends upon a disjunction from the literal, a disjunction between the inward reality and the outward shape of things, Adam's words would seem not to be ontologically possible before the Fall, because such a split between being and appearing would not yet have taken place. For this reason, it is often said that in Paradise Lost, "with the Fall of man, language falls too" (Ricks 109). Like Eve's outward shape, words now pretend, in the "proper and primary signification" of the word, meaning they stretch in front as a covering. They assume this covering-over of their proper and primary signification (the linguistic fig leaf, so to speak), not only by meaning figuratively, but by meaning obscurely . . . . (pages 189-190)
Befits thee with him leagu'd, thyself as false,
And hateful; nothing wants, but that thy shape,
Like his, and color Serpentine may show
Thy inward fraud, to warn all Creatures from thee
Henceforth; lest that too heav'nly form, pretended
To hellish falsehood, snare them. (10.867-73)
 Umberto Eco, "On the Possibility of Generating Aesthetic Messages in an Edenic Language," The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1979, 90-104.Professor Eagle's point is that Satan had first learned to misuse language by exploiting a 'fallen' disjunction between appearance and reality, that Satan had then used the Serpent to mislead Eve through this disjunction, and that a Satanic Adam is now acting like the 'Serpent' in his verbal abuse of Eve by means of this disjunction. The result is that words now "assume this covering-over of their proper and primary signification . . . , not only by meaning figuratively, but by meaning obscurely."
Christopher Ricks, Milton's Grand Style, Oxford: Clarendon, 1963
I'll need to consider this argument carefully, though it's similar to an argument that I once made in a paper, but I'll have to read Professor Eagle's entire article first and check some prelapsarian passages in Paradise Lost. I say this because I have come to see matters as a bit more complex. The figurative use of language surely precedes the fall, though the deceptive use of language to obscure truth is, of course, postlapsarian, but is Adam misusing words to obscure inward reality in the passage above from Paradise Lost? If there is now a postlapsarian disjunction between appearance and reality, then Adam is correct in calling Eve "thou Serpent," for she has inwardly become one -- meaning that she has become Satanic, somewhat as the Serpent, albeit inadvertently, became inwardly Satanic when the Devil possessed it, the better to tempt Eve.
The dramatic irony of Adam's words is that he himself has also become 'Serpentine', as we have already seen in previous posts, but his accusation that Eve is a "Serpent" is correct. Both Adam and Eve are now 'Serpentine'.
As I said, however, I'll need to read the entire article, and I will do so, just as soon as I get through a big batch of student writing that I have to check for its own 'Serpentine' misuse of language.