Sunday, November 13, 2005

O Eve, in evil hour...

This third-century fresco from Rome's Catacomb of St Piretro and St. Marcellino shows Adam and Eve being tempted by Satan in the form of a serpent. For this image and others presenting various artistic renderings of the original sinners, see Alan Humm's website at the University of Pennsylvania.

I post this image as preface because I recently posed a query, on a listserve to which I belong, about Milton's depiction of Adam and Eve's sin, and while I'm waiting for their responses, I thought that I'd rework my query and pose it here as well.

The Milton scholar Christopher Ricks has cited Paradise Lost 9.1067, "O Eve, in evil hour...", and argued that Adam puns here on "Eve" and "evil" to "proclaim . . . that the word evil is derived from Eve, and that evil derives from her" (Ricks, Milton's Grand Style (Oxford University Press,1963) p. 103).

I have a question related to this: Has anyone noted the possibility of a double pun here?

"evil" = "Eve ill"?

Since Milton has used the term "ill" to mean "evil" just twelve lines earlier, in 9.1055, then the following sequence could be derived:

"evil" = "Eve ill" --> "Eve evil" = "Eve Eve ill" --> "Eve Eve evil" = "Eve Eve Eve ill" --> "Eve Eve Eve evil" . . . ad infinitum.

This sequence fascinates me for two reasons:

First, one can read the sequence as ontological but delving endlessly into levels of sameness, and thereby understand it to suggest a vicious regression in which evil has no ground other than evil itself.

Second, one can read the sequence as temporal and extending endlessly into the future, and thereby understand it to suggest that evil inevitably generates ever more evil from out of itself.

I propose that Milton intends for us to read his double pun both ways, for each of the two readings fits Milton's view of evil as a lack of being that generates ever more lack of being.

Incidentally, I don't think that Milton shares Adam's misogynistic view of Eve, for Adam is speaking as one fallen and equally to blame for evil.

But that's another story.


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