Thursday, January 11, 2007

A wicked sense of humor...

Devil in the Codex Gigas
(Image from Wickedpedia)

One of the Milton List scholars, John K. Leonard, maintains that the best joke in Milton's written works occurs in Paradise Regained "when Satan casts Jesus's horoscope and ponders the eternity of the Messiah's kingdom":
...but what Kingdom,
Real or Allegoric I discern not,
Nor when, eternal sure, as without end,
Without beginning. (PR 4.389-392)
This occurs in a longer passage where the Devil, frustrated with Jesus's disinterest in the proferred temptations and "Quite at a loss, for all his darts were spent, / Thus to our Saviour with stern brow reply'd":
Since neither wealth, nor honour, arms nor arts,
Kingdom nor Empire pleases thee, nor aught
By me propos'd in life contemplative, [ 370 ]
Or active, tended on by glory, or fame,
What dost thou in this World? The Wilderness
For thee is fittest place, I found thee there,
And thither will return thee, yet remember
What I foretell thee, soon thou shalt have cause [ 375 ]
To wish thou never hadst rejected thus
Nicely or cautiously my offer'd aid,
Which would have set thee in short time with ease
On David's Throne; or Throne of all the world,
Now at full age, fulness of time, thy season, [ 380 ]
When Prophecies of thee are best fullfill'd.
Now contrary, if I read aught in Heaven,
Or Heav'n write aught of Fate, by what the Stars
Voluminous, or single characters,
In their conjunction met, give me to spell, [ 385 ]
Sorrows, and labours, opposition, hate,
Attends thee, scorns, reproaches, injuries,
Violence and stripes, and lastly cruel death,
A Kingdom they portend thee, but what Kingdom,
Real or Allegoric I discern not, [ 390 ]
Nor when, eternal sure, as without end,
Without beginning; for no date prefixt
Directs me in the Starry Rubric set. (PR 4.368-393)
For Leonard (if I understand his point), the humor lies in Satan's remark that insofar as the stars are concerned, this oddly apolitical messiah's kingdom appears as much without end as it is without beginning -- Satan's implication being that if the kingdom has no beginning, then it is merely metaphoric.

In short, Christ has no kingdom ... or so says the Devil.

I wonder if part of the humor here is the dramatic irony inherent in Satan casting a horoscope for an eternal being -- or at least of a being whose existence precedes the creation of the very stars and planets that supposedly determined one's fate. Of course, I realize that the incarnation implies a birth potentially affected by putatively astrological forces, but we also know -- from Paradise Lost 5.600-615 -- that Christ's kingdom began in heaven and that this kingship was what sparked the satanic rebellion in the first place as the heavenly Satan, envious, conceived a deep hatred of the crowned Son (PL 5.666), though the earthly Satan seems not to recognize Jesus's pre-existent identity as this heavenly Son.

The joke is thus on Satan.


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