Friday, December 03, 2010

"Nor did they not perceave the evil plight"

Adam and Eve (1510)
Jan Gossart

The painting above is of a fallen Adam and Eve, newly cognizant of their sinful state, though today's blog heading borrows a line that refers to the fallen angels, newly aware of their fallenness, but what I really want to return to is a situation involving Eve's lack of cognizance in the line "And knew not eating Death," a line that I've been looking into recently and that I'll get to again further down in today's entry. But first things first. In Paradise Lost 1.314-336, John Milton describes Satan, awakened in Hell, calling out to awaken his fallen companions:
He call'd so loud, that all the hollow Deep
Of Hell resounded. Princes, Potentates, [ 315 ]
Warriers, the Flowr of Heav'n, once yours, now lost,
If such astonishment as this can sieze
Eternal spirits; or have ye chos'n this place
After the toyl of Battel to repose
Your wearied vertue, for the ease you find [ 320 ]
To slumber here, as in the Vales of Heav'n?
Or in this abject posture have ye sworn
To adore the Conquerour? who now beholds
Cherube and Seraph rowling in the Flood
With scatter'd Arms and Ensigns, till anon [ 325 ]
His swift pursuers from Heav'n Gates discern
Th' advantage, and descending tread us down
Thus drooping, or with linked Thunderbolts
Transfix us to the bottom of this Gulfe.
Awake, arise, or be for ever fall'n. [ 330 ]
They heard, and were abasht, and up they sprung
Upon the wing, as when men wont to watch
On duty, sleeping found by whom they dread,
Rouse and bestir themselves ere well awake.
Nor did they not perceave the evil plight [ 335 ]
In which they were, or the fierce pains not feel;

[Thomas H. Luxon, ed. The Milton Reading Room, December, 2010.]
In his book on John Milton's Paradise Lost, the game-changing Surprised by Sin, Stanley Fish offers a fruitful, if well-known and hotly disputed analysis of the fallen angels awakening in Hell to the drawing power of Satan's admirable rhetoric that we've just heard above:
Any admiration one might have for Satan's rhetoric as a piece of strategy is submerged in the terrible irony of 'Awake, arise, or be for ever fall'n' (330). What is meant to be the climactic moment in a nicely calculated call to action becomes in effect the most damning of self-revelations, no less damning because it is unconscious. Of course the fallen angels do awake and do rise, 'abasht'. but Milton will not allow Satan even a small success. His forces are only half awake ('ere well awake'):
Nor did they not perceive the evil plight
In which they were, or the fierce pains not feel.
The double negative is unexpected, and for an instant the sense of the line remains unresolved. Do they or don't they perceive? Actually, they do and they don't and by forcing the hesitation Milton leads the reader to understand how the alternatives he hovers between are equally true. They do perceive the fire, the pain, the gloom, but they are blind to the moral meaning of their situation, that is to their evil plight. (Stanley Fish, Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost, Second Edition, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1998, page 99)
The hesitation, the hovering between alternatives, is occasioned by the unexpected double negative, a slightly awkward moment to one's pace in the reading of the text as the hell-bound angels perceive their fall from grace, or so Fish has taught me to see, for he twice in his analysis of Milton's epic calls attention to Milton's use of awkwardness, on page 33, where Fish notes the reader's struggle with "an awkward, backward-moving perspective" to understand the poem's opening lines, and on page 130, where Fish notes the placing of words "too conspicuously awkward to be accidental . . . . [but which] are there to create problems or puzzles which the reader feels obliged to solve." Thus does the awkwardness in Paradise Lost 9.791-792 -- an awkwardness often attributed to Milton's use of a Greek grammatical paradigm, the nominative participle that follows verbs of perception or knowing -- take on added significance as the reader reads the following lines and pauses, precariously off-balance, wrong-footed by the un-English grammar and the consequent ambiguity between two possible readings:
Greedily she ingorg'd without restraint,
And knew not eating Death: Satiate at length . . .
The awkward clause "And knew not eating Death" thus reads without grace, thereby signifying the fall from grace into sin as death enters Eve and her world.

Though not yet knowing, all too soon, she and Adam will grow cognizant of what they will both have eaten . . .

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At 5:46 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

the alternatives he hovers between are equally true

So, the wonderful place "Where Contraries Are Equally True" is this website ;-)

thus reads without grace, thereby signifying the fall from grace

THIS is genius.


Right today, in my quite-soon-to-come new project for the Milton List, I happened to notice PL 4.432-3, among the first words uttered by Adam: "Then let us not think hard / One easy prohibition..." Excusatio non petita, accusatio manifesta (Guilty consciesce is a self-accuser).
From the very beginning.

At 5:48 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

"Guilty conscience" was meant.

My words without grace signify my falling from grace...

At 5:58 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Genius? Nah, not me. Just reminded me of a line from a poem I once wrote: "Ozark Spring Storm."

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:08 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

a poem I once wrote

Cute and, oh-ohhh, another true disciple of Milton's! TS Eliot said that ol' Johnny and his 'offspring' have been the ruin of English poetry
Eliot changed his mind some years later, anyway.

At 7:20 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

If only I were important enough to ruin English poetry.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Exercise some caution Jeffery, remember what happened the last time a bunch of consecutive posts ran on the subject of "Eating Death."


At 7:34 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

Just Do It.

Yes, We Can.

Awake! Arise! Go Forth.

etc. etc.

At 7:40 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The North will get a taste next time.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:42 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Dario, I'd first have to be great before going forth would ruin anything.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:54 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

So, if you are NOT great, and have NO intention of ruining anything, you WILL do it! Two negatives make an affirmative.


But, seriously. As for:

a slightly awkward moment to one's pace in the reading of the text as the hell-bound angels perceive their fall from grace

there's a similar expedient in a couple of episodes in Dante's Inferno, namely 7.1 and 31.67, where hellish creatures speak a twisted language that proves incomprehensible. With a crescendo: in the first case, the sentence has somehow been explained by the interpreters (as "O Satan, O Satan, [our] King!"), the second cry being completely meaningless instead (though some scholar tried to explain it too).

If "In the beginning was the Logos ... and the Logos was God", to fall from God means to fall from Logic language as well.

At 5:57 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks for the references on fallenness and language, a much-disputed issue among Milton scholars.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:41 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

You're welcome.
The two stammering critters have been chosen carefully by Dante:

Pluto is a mix between the Latin god-king of the underworld, Pluton, and the god of richness (which were the same, since gold etc. were to be found underground; see Plutocracy), classically thought of as the origin of all evil;

Nimrod, the king who built the Tower of Babel, as well as a symbol of Satan on earth (e.g. see the 'villain' Rodomonte in Ludovico Ariosto's long poem Orlando Furioso).

At 6:46 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks again.

Jeffery Hodges

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