Ben Hale and Bruno Littlemore on Milton's Paradise Lost
A few days ago, when I asked Ben Hale about the influence of John Milton's Paradise Lost on his novel, he replied:
[T]he Milton connection [initially] came from the PL quote that's at the beginning of the third section . . . "Sated at length, ere long I might perceive strange alteration in me . . ." Satan's beautiful, eerie description, to Eve, of what it feels like to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil . . . My interest in PL came from studying it a lot in college with this guy: ["Wrestling with the Angel: Paradise Lost and Feminist Criticism"] -- Bill Shullenberger is a brilliant guy, and knows more about Milton than anyone I've ever met.I've heard of him, naturally, but I've not read that article. In Milton's works, I'm self-taught, self-raised. Speaking of which, Bruno the Loquacious Chimp offers his autodidactic thoughts on Milton's epic poem in dictating to Gwen Gupta, his amanuensis:
Have you ever read Paradise Lost, Gwen? I stumbled across a battered copy of it in the course of my wanderings across this blighted earth, by which I mean I once stole a copy of it from the University of Chicago library. And God, did I fall in love with the Devil. Could it be more fitting that Lucifer is a master orator? Demonic rhetoric, Satanic language!Bruno's views are fascinating, but as misbegotten as those of Satan, insofar as Milton is concerned. He needs to read Stanley Fish and discover that Milton intended for Satan to seduce us because we ourselves are fallen. Bruno is perhaps a bit more fallen -- Satanic even in his fallenness -- for he fails to see Satan for what that fallen angel has become, a vaunting shadow of his former self who purely from spite uses his rhetorical skills to remake others after his own fallen image, an insight that Milton expected his readers to share as they grow disillusioned with Satan through reading of his decline in Paradise Lost. Doubtless, Ben understands. We shouldn't conflate author with protagonist!
I have heard, Gwen -- spoken, as can be expected, in tones of dreary admonition -- that self authorship is the bourgeois fantasy par excellence, as in Milton's Satan: "Who saw when this creation was? . . . We know no time when we were not as now, know none before us, self-begot, self-raised." But why condemn the rebel angel for the fantasy of self-invention? Who could help feeling seduced by Satan's poetry when compared to the dull, paternalistically castigatory abashments of God? As Blake points out, the reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it. Well, I too am a true poet, but unlike Milton and more like Satan, I know it! And also like Satan, I made myself with words. I wrote myself into the world. With my own hand I reached into the cunt of the cosmos and dragged myself kicking and screaming out -- HELLO, WORLD. HELLO,YOU BASTARDS. HERE I AM. IT'S ME, BRUNO, THE BOURGEOIS APE.
(And also like Satan, I'm a beautiful loser.)
It is impossible, however, to write a poem, or anything for that matter, about an unfallen Adam and Eve, because I cannot imagine them as having language. In Paradise there is nothing to say. Eden was sacrificed not for the pleasureof a fruit, but for the pleasure ofthe word. Now we have shame and pain and knowledge of death and whatnot, but at least we can talk about it. And talk and talk and talk! And maybe -- I think -- it was even worth the trade. Sometimes the things of this world are less beautiful than their shadows. What is poetry but the shadowplay of consciousness? (pages 37-38)
Moreover, Bruno misjudges Paradise, for it has words in Milton's account, a language superior to our own. Bruno imagines that he made himself with words, that he wrote himself into the world, and even the Skinnerian Behaviorist, Norman Plumlee concurs at the end: "You created yourself" (page 553). But it was actually the woman whom Bruno loved who 'created' him: "she sought me out, and found me, and began to bring me out of my animal darkness" ('page 17). Bruno admits: "I went with language. I went with Lydia" (page 43). Bruno thus re-imagines Milton's Paradise in his own prelinguistic image and even forgets that he didn't create the language that helped make him who he is, and that self-deception is perhaps a feature of his peculiar fallenness.