Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Milton's Paradise Regained Lost Again

Holy Spirit as Dove, Stained Glass
Cathedra Petri, Gianlorenzo Bernini, 1656-66
Image by Gwen M. McKinney (April 13, 2003)

In his lesser-known work Paradise Regained, Milton re-imagines Christ's mission as one of regaining Paradise through experiencing and overcoming Satan's temptations and thereby reversing Adam's failure to overcome them in the original test. Interestingly, the victory occurs in the desert near the beginning of Jesus's ministry rather than at the crucifixion.

In one of those temptation scenes, Jesus replies to Satan by affirming the superiority of Jewish literature over pagan literature, maintaining that the latter:

Will far be found unworthy to compare
With Sion's songs, to all true tasts excelling,
Where God is prais'd aright, and Godlike men,
The Holiest of Holies, and his Saints;
Such are from God inspir'd, not such from thee; (PR 4.346-350)
Milton has Jesus extoll divinely inspired verse and dismiss the claims of pagans because:

... they loudest sing
The vices of thir Deities, and thir own
In Fable, Hymn, or Song, so personating
Thir Gods ridiculous, and themselves past shame. (PR 4.339-342)
Milton, however, has Jesus concede that the pagans do have the light of truth:

... where moral vertue is express't
By light of Nature, not in all quite lost. (PR 4.451-452)
Moreover, Milton is not averse to using even pagan myth to illuminate a crucial point. Thus in his earlier political tract Areopagitica, Milton likens the distortion of Christian truth after the death of the early apostles to the dismembering of the Egyptian god Osiris:

Truth indeed came once into the world with her divine Master, and was a perfect shape most glorious to look on: but when he ascended, and his Apostles after Him were laid asleep, then strait arose a wicked race of deceivers, who as that story goes of the Ægyptian Typhon with his conspirators, how they dealt with the good Osiris, took the virgin Truth, hewd her lovely form into a thousand peeces, and scatter'd them to the four winds. From that time ever since, the sad friends of Truth, such as durst appear, imitating the carefull search that Isis made for the mangl'd body of Osiris, went up and down gathering up limb by limb still as they could find them. We have not yet found them all, Lords and Commons, nor ever shall doe, till her Masters second comming; he shall bring together every joynt and member, and shall mould them into an immortall feature of lovelines and perfection.
I'm not the first to notice the quasi-Gnostic character of this story of how something from a divine source was lost and divided in the world and will have to be collected and reconstituted. Philip Beitchman noticed it as well and commented upon it in his article "Following Lucifer: Miltonic Evil as Gnostic Cabala," in Esoterica, Volume 1 (1999): pp. 61-78:

It is significant that the occult-Hermetic myth in the above is treated as a 'typology' that anticipates Christianity, as also commonly was suggested for Cabala, so frequently disseminated under the rationale of conversion; and as for Cabala, for which no Torah we can know is the Torah, so for Milton's Hermetic-Christianity, no single sign would be, enduringly, the signified. (page 64)
Here, Beitchman refers to Milton's story as Hermetic and Cabalistic, as he also does in the passage that follows:

In Milton's bold hermetic metaphor, Truth and Words are seen as, in human history, in a dialectical, impermanent and temporary relation; since no single text can be trusted indefinitely, the subject is thrown back on his own experience and judgment, and must remain open to a plurality of interpretations, commentaries and further explorations. [For this view, Milton] would have found support, corroboration, maybe even inspiration in the more traditional cabalistic notion, according to which no single written word, not even scripture itself, can be totally trusted. (pages 64-65)

Hermeticism, Cabala, and Gnosticism are all similar theosophical traditions that have an unmistakeable family resemblance whose interwoven genealogy is yet to be delineated, but what interests me is Milton's emphasis upon the extra-scriptural source of truth:

God hath now sent his living Oracle
Into the World, to teach his final will,
And sends his Spirit of Truth henceforth to dwell
In pious Hearts, an inward Oracle
To all truth requisite for men to know. (PR 1.460-464)
This inner oracle functions as the guarantor of truth. While this might sound similar to the Protestant view that the Holy Spirit guarantees that the pious Christian will read scripture correctly, Milton's view seems to diverge from this and take a path similar, though more radical, to that taken by some forms of current-day charismatic Christianity in his emphasis upon the role that the Holy Spirit played in inspiring his poem Paradise Lost:

If answerable style I can obtaine [ 20 ]
Of my Celestial Patroness, who deignes
Her nightly visitation unimplor'd,
And dictates to me slumb'ring, or inspires
Easie my unpremeditated Verse: (PL 9.20-24 )
Interestingly, Milton conceives of the Holy Spirit as feminine and calls her his "Celestial Patroness," and that's an entire subject in itself. What interests me here, though, is Milton's attempt to locate truth within himself but ground it in something external to himself in order to guarantee its absolute value even though it has to express itself in words that can be distorted, that will change in meaning, that by accidents of misfortune or the malice of deception may even be dispersed and scattered.

More on this some other time...


At 4:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gnostic, Hermetic and Neo-platonic insights run like bright threads through Milton's narrative - the primal myth of Adam as fallen man, the mythical descent of a timeless, immeasurable life into division and multiplicity; the resurrection of the intemporal within humanity.

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

Yes, there are many threads in Milton, but he weaves them all into his own special fabric of Protestant heresy...

Thanks for the visit.

Jeffery Hodges

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