Saturday, August 26, 2006

Miltonian Excursus: Chaos and Evil

Satan's Excursion through the Realm of Chaos
"With head, heads, wings, or feet, pursues his way,
And swims, or sinks, or wades, or creeps, or flies" (2.949-950)

I'm still working on my Milton article, which mainly concerns the meaning of "sacred fruit" in Paradise Lost 9.924 (cf. 9.904), which occurs in the passage quoted a couple of posts ago:

Bold deed thou hast presum'd, adventrous Eve
And peril great provok't, who thus hath dar'd
Had it been onely coveting to Eye
That sacred Fruit, sacred to abstinence,
Much more to taste it under banne to touch. [ 925 ]
But past who can recall, or don undoe?
Not God Omnipotent, nor Fate, yet so
Perhaps thou shalt not Die, perhaps the Fact
Is not so hainous now, foretasted Fruit,
Profan'd first by the Serpent, by him first [ 930 ]
Made common and unhallowd ere our taste;
Nor yet on him found deadly, he yet lives,
Lives, as thou saidst, and gaines to live as Man
Higher degree of Life, inducement strong
To us, as likely tasting to attaine [ 935 ]
Proportional ascent, which cannot be
But to be Gods, or Angels
Demi-gods. (PL 9.921-937)
In my article, one of the points that I focus upon is the meaning of "unhallowd" (9.931), which can mean either "made common" or "made impure." I construct an argument (which I won't go into here) for concluding that Adam means it in the former sense but that Milton means it in the latter sense.

This leads by "wandering mazes lost" (PL 2.561) from the link between impurity and chaos into an excursus on "Chaos and Evil," which I render in its sublime impenetrability below.

My view that impurity is linked to the "infernal" dregs of chaos (PL 7.238) touches upon an issue that has received some attention, namely, whether or not chaos is evil. Nearly 60 years ago, A. S. P. Woodhouse located Milton's view of chaos within the Neoplatonic tradition and argued for a basically good chaos but in a footnote acknowledged that "it is difficult to escape the inference ... that this disorder is, or at all events has some affinity with, evil" (A. S. P. Woodhouse, "Notes on Milton's Views on the Creation: The Initial Phase," Philological Quarterly, 28 (1949), 229, n. 30). Over 40 years ago, A. B. Chambers drew upon Hesiod, Plato, Greco-Roman atomism, and Genesis to argue, in "Chaos in Paradise Lost," that "Chaos and Night are the enemies of God" and that "Chaos is as true an exemplar as hell of that state which everywhere prevails when the laws of providence are set, when the ways of God to man are opposed and overturned" (A. B. Chambers, "Chaos in Paradise Lost," Journal of the History of Ideas 24 (1963), 65 and 84). Similarly, Regina Schwartz, in her generally illuminating book Remembering and Repeating: On Milton's Theology and Politics, argues that chaos is evil by virtue of its impurity in not respecting boundaries (Schwartz, 17). Moreover, she argues that God's creation is itself holy:
With [his] ... emphasis upon boundaries, Milton subscribes to that rich category of thinking on the sacred and profane, pollution and purity, that informs Biblical thought. As the creation is first hallowed by separations, so it is remembered and sanctified by observing those original distinctions. (Schwartz, 14; cf. 12: "creation is sanctified by its divisions")
In my opinion, Schwartz's views -- that chaos is impure and that creation is holy -- are mistaken. Creation is not hallowed by separations. It is kept pure in this way, but purity is not synonymous with holiness in biblical thinking, and I see no evidence supporting the view that Milton differed from the Bible on this point. As for chaos, while Milton does present it as not respecting boundaries, this in itself is not enough to qualify it as evil. Chaos does not respect distinctions within its realm because God has not imposed any distinctions upon it, yet only in a system of distinctions can one talk about impurity. This objection also meets the argument presented by Chambers above. God's laws and ways are not opposed by chaos, for they have never been imposed upon chaos. Chaos can be put to evil use, and the great tempter Satan even manages to lure Chaos into league against God, but this simply means that Chaos and his realm can also 'fall' (PL 2.968-1009). Thus, I agree with Robert Adams ("A Little Look into Chaos," Illustrious Evidence: Approaches to English Literature of the Early Seventeenth Century, edited by Earl Miner (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975), 76) and Michael Lieb (The Dialectics of Creation: Patterns of Birth and Regeneration in Paradise Lost (Amherst, 1970), 16-17) that chaos is -- at minimun -- neutral. Milton even calls it "good" in Christian Doctrine (Christian Doctrine, in Complete Prose Works of John Milton, Volume 6, edited by Don M. Wolfe (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1973), 308), which I take to mean that chaos fulfills God's purposes unless misused. I therefore concur with John Rumrich's rejection of the view, tentatively suggested by Woodhouse and Chambers and asserted by Schwartz, that chaos is evil (John Peter Rumrich, "Uninventing Milton," Modern Philology, Vol. 87, No. 3 (February, 1990), 256).

This excursus deserves an entire article itself, which I might get around to doing next time.

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At 8:27 AM, Blogger A.H. said...

Lieb notes how extreme is the prohibition surrounding the tree. It cannot be touched, tasted, even looked at. He is observing how Milton pushes the fruit (beyond the different Genesis versions) into a realm of taboo. A taboo of course can relate to purity and uncleanliness... and what kind of sacred object cannot be "looked" at? One that is taboo. A sacred taboo object might be avoided because it is pure or because it is otherwords, "sacred" and "pure" do not imply the same concept, as you have argued previously. Adam would appear to have the idea that because the Serpent has broken the taboo, then it has been lessened and therefore Eve's breach might not be so bad. This is a clear misunderstanding of the nature of taboo--almost as wrongheaded as Adam's understanding of the Great Chain of Being. He adopts the line of Pico that Man might progress up the Great Chain, but that depends upon the soul's purity. "Proportional ascent" is a very loaded phrase for that too has to be based on holy order, for Milton the 1:2 reason-mind/diapason ratio that infuses Paradise Lost. Lieb points out that there is a complete "illogic" surrounding the tree...and this perplexes Adam's Reason, his sense of proportion (?)

Is there a real ambiguity in "unhallowed"? If a place was unhallowed it was not made sacred i.e. had not been consecrated. It is a neutral space that has not been blessed. But Adam clearly means it in the sense of "undoing" i.e. it was holy but is not know because Satan's touch has negated its untouched sacred character.

There is something very slippery in this passage and yes, Milton must be offering a critique of Adam's reasoning, meaning more than Adam means.

At 9:24 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Eshuneutics, thanks for the helpful details. I presume that you're responding to my email.

Would you happen to have any page numbers for the Lieb passages?

Taboo is a complicated matter, as you note, and the anthropological literature on taboo is complex. The sacred and the impure are both taboo in many cultures, and this is also the case in the Bible (though perhaps not with respect to the tree of knowledge).

The early rabbis had their own explanatory system, of course, and modern scholars have analyzed scripture using anthropological methods developed by such theorists as Mary Douglas. Jacob Milgrom applies Douglas, for example.

But that's a lot to go into here.

Thanks again.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:26 PM, Blogger Ian Myles Slater said...

Taboo is a helpful concept, but rather general. Inner-Biblical ideas about the Holy, and the dangers of Trespass, with dire consequences for even inadvertently handling what now belongs to God, are probably more directly relevant.

In ancient Israel, it seems that "Holy" was not readily distinguished from "Dangerous." The priests' perquisites were, in a way, "hazard pay" for getting perilously close to divine power, and the deaths of Aaron's sons Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus seem to be the first great object lesson.

(2 Chronicles 26 applied the principle to King Uzziah, in attenuated form, claiming that he was stricken with leprosy for attempting to usurp priestly duties -- possibly an ideological gloss on an actual illness.)

The problem is, I think, trying to figure out if Milton understood the material that way; at least enough to use "sacred" to mean, not only "extremely Good," but also "not to be approached." I suspect that I'm reading a seventeenth-century interpretation in the light of twentieth-century ones!

However, for those unfamiliar with the Bible in detail, I would suggest looking at the Tabernacle furnishings in "Exodus" -- some of which, interestingly enough, are described (more obviously in Hebrew than most English versions) as being formed like plants!

Who is allowed to handle these, and the offerings themselves, once they have been consecrated, becomes a minor, and at times a major, theme.

The cult is prescribed in Leviticus, with some dramatic conflicts over who is to be allowed access to the sacred objects in "Numbers," and are resumed with the story of the Ark in "Samuel." This includes the problem of an "unqualified" Israelite touching it, however innocently.

At 1:22 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Ian, thanks for the remarks.

I agree that we have to look at the biblical holiness-purity-impurity system, and I'm doing that in my article.

In particular, I look at the cherem regulations and argue that Milton is thinking of Leviticus 27:28 and Joshua 6:18. I find some confirmation for this in Milton's Christian Doctrine (Book 1, Chapter 11), which connects the "sacred tree" of knowledge with the cherem regulations in Joshua.

The cherem things seem to be sacred in the sense of being purified and set apart, but not in the sense of being embued with a divine, holy power. This has relevance for understanding the tree's sacredness.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:28 PM, Blogger A.H. said...

Sorry, I did not receive an email. These were just a collection of thoughts. I will keep checking to see if one arrives.

At 3:01 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Eshuneutics, I'll send it again.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:12 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Eshuneutics, here's the email that I sent, just in case it doesn't reach you (but anyone with a copy of Lieb's Poetics of the Holy can respond).

You mentioned that you have Lieb's book:

I imagine that you are considering Michael Lieb's Poetics of the Holy, North Carolina, Chapel HIll, 1981.He explores Milton's fruit symbol in amazing depth. He looks particulary at the "sacred fruit" as a focus of what he calls "sacral poetics". His biblical and Hebraic knowledge is considerable and truly fascinating. I like the sound of your paper very much. Hope you will enjoy some unpremeditated writing! My copy of Lieb has been with me for 15 years...I still haven't fathomed it out.

I checked my office, and to my chagrin, I don't have a copy of that (but of a different book by him). Neither does the library. Such books are often hard to come by in Korea.

If you have time, and inclination, could you tell me what Leib says about Milton's position on the "sacred" in the expression "sacred fruit" in PL 9.924 (cf. 9.904).

Does he think that Milton agrees with Adam? (The remark in Christian Doctrine would support this view.)

Does he explain what is meant by sacred? Is it that:

1. the fruit is pure and set apart


2. the fruit is imbued by a dynamic, divine force

Of couse, the fruit could be both 1 and 2 (though being imbued with the force of holiness is better than remaining strictly pure).

What does he think happens to the fruit when it is taken by Eve and then Adam? Does he think that it remains sacred? Or does it become "common"? Or perhaps even impure?

I realize that I'm asking a lot, but perhaps this issue is interesting for you as well, and if it is, I'd also need page numbers for the purpose of citation.

But if you have no time or inclination, I understand.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:46 AM, Blogger Ian Myles Slater said...

I didn't remember (or never knew, which is equally likely) Milton's use of the passages in Joshua about the various categories of goods and property involved in the Conquest, which clearly belong to the same complex of ideas, and is obviously relevant. I was thinking of the more strictly cultic side.

At 12:17 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Ian, the references are easy to miss because they appear as a couple of items listed in a series, but they occur as illustrations of how violating the prohibition against profaning sacred objects results in punishment that is heritable (hence the link to the "sacred" tree of knowledge).

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:22 PM, Blogger Ian Myles Slater said...

If it was that sort of comment, I certainly wouldn't be likely to have remembered it.

But I'm going to assume that I never saw the relevant passage to begin with. I've found that Chapter XI isn't included in the selections of "Christian Doctrine" found in the old Hughes selection of "Major Prose," much of which I probably did read as an undergraduate (I thinks some of it was assigned). And the odds are not in favor of my having encountered it while consulting the Yale "Complete Prose Works," as a graduate student, either.

But it is nice to know that I wasn't too far off course, despite relying more on recollections of Jacob Milgrom, Baruch Levine, and Jonathan Klawans (on Biblical concepts of purity) a lot more than on memories of Milton studies.

At 10:57 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Ian, the citations that you noted are also relevant. I make use of both conceptions of the holy in my article ... which is now nearing completion (or as complete as I can make it here in Korea).

Thanks for the help.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:45 AM, Blogger Ian Myles Slater said...

Oh, I assume that my original suggestion was valid in itself. I'm just not happy about applying such observations to Milton without at least a little evidence that he was familiar with the ideas, even if they were expressed differently.

(Many moderns certainly aren't familiar with this sort of thinking, at least in my experience. Which is why I supplied other readers with supporting examples, instead of letting it go with a generalization.)

At 12:52 PM, Blogger Effrenata said...

I subscribe to the view that Chaos is indeed God's "oldest enemy", just as it is in the Old Testament, personified as primal entities like Yamm and Nahar, the primordial "Sea" and "River" that Elohim/YHWH conquers by force. In book VII of PL, the Creation is also described in terms of conquest. Messiah's chariot rolls out to attack & subjugate Chaos just as it was previously used to subjugate the rebel angels:

216: Silence, ye troubl'd waves, and thou Deep, peace,
217: Said then th' Omnific Word, your discord end:
218: Nor staid, but on the Wings of Cherubim
219: Uplifted, in Paternal Glorie rode
220: Farr into CHAOS, and the World unborn;
221: For CHAOS heard his voice: him all his Traine
222: Follow'd in bright procession to behold
223: Creation, and the wonders of his might.

In III:724-32, night is seen as an attempt by Chaos to retake his captured territory:

724 ....that light
725: His day, which else as th' other Hemisphere
726: Night would invade, but there the neighbouring Moon
727: (So call that opposite fair Starr) her aide
728: Timely interposes, and her monthly round
729: Still ending, still renewing, through mid Heav'n;
730: With borrowd light her countenance triform
731: Hence fills and empties to enlighten th' Earth,
732: And in her pale dominion checks the night.

As I view the epic, Satan joins in an already-ongoing war between Chaos & God, one in which Chaos is being gradually beaten back, like the indigenous peoples conquered & dispossessed by European colonialists (though I'm not sure if Milton intended this analogy). Satan sides with the loser, a lost cause similar to his own --and could he be motivated by sympathy as well as strategy?

At 3:08 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Effrenata, thanks for the comment, which is interesting and useful.

Jeffery Hodges

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