Sunday, October 05, 2014

Milton's Satan: "how awful goodness is"

Marilynne Robinson
Alec Soth/Magnum

I posted the following on the Milton List a couple of days ago:
Wyatt Mason interviews Marilynne Robinson and reports back in "The Revelations of Marilynne Robinson" (NYT, October 1, 2014), in which there is a brief allusion to Milton:
The drama of how a human mind can become an inhospitable home to its owner is old and well documented. "The mind is its own place,” Milton gives Satan to say in "Paradise Lost," "and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven." But in Robinson's new novel, that drama is renewed, Robinson managing her most daring, as she would put it, testimony. If, in "Gilead," Lila is mentioned by name only once by her reverend husband, the 77-year-old John Ames, in "Lila," we now hear from the woman herself.
This seems to be Mason's musing, but he applies it to Robinson's writing in her recent novel, Lila.
In response - perhaps to Satanic 'badness' - Milton List member Nancy Charlton posted a link to another review of Ms. Robinson's Lila, a review (in part) about "goodness":
Today's NYT Book Reviews has a full and lovely review of "Lila" by Diane Johnson. This paragraph stood out to me:
Central to all the novel's characters are matters of high literary seriousness - the basic considerations of the human condition; the moral problems of existence; the ache of being abandoned; the struggles of the aging; the role of the Bible and God in daily life. It's courageous of Robinson to write about faith at a time when associations with religion are so often negative and violent. And goodness, a property Midwesterners like to think of as a regional birthright, is even harder than piety to convey without succumbing to the temptation to charge it with sanctimony or hypocrisy. That is not the effect of this lovely narrative.
It sounds to me as if the last Miltonic word on this book might be from III.470-71: O Goodness infinite, Goodness immense,/ That all this good of evil shall produce . . . ."
That line quoted by Charlton goes on to say, "And evil turn to good." I am reminded of Milton's Satan, struck down by virtue: "abasht the Devil stood, And felt how awful goodness is" (PL 4.846-7). That's "awful" in the older sense of "awesome."

I think I need to read Robinson's books . . .

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At 9:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jeff, there is also an outstanding review in the latest (Oct) Atlantic. I've read her previous two "Gilead books" , guess I'd better read this one, too. She was one of Ben's profs, got me started on her stuff. Pete

At 9:52 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Interesting that her first novel was so much earlier than her second. But she was writing essays and poems in those years, if I recall from some reviews.

Jeffery Hodges

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