Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Gnostic Milton? John Rumrich on A.D. Nuttall's Alternative Trinity

A. D. Nuttall
The Alternative Trinity:
Gnostic Heresy in Marlowe, Milton, and Blake
(Image from

Yesterday, I promised to offer John Rumrich's words on 'Gnosticism' in Milton. Actually, as we'll see, Rumrich doesn't think that there is Gnosticism in Milton, as he tells us in his review of A. D. Nuttall's Alternative Trinity. He opens his review in Modern Philology (Volume 99, Number 2 (2001), page 306) with general praise for the "local insights," then summarizes Nuttall's argument:
Nuttall's . . . thesis [is] that gnosticism provided Marlowe, Milton, and Blake with a refuge from oppressive Christian orthodoxies. Perhaps no critic is so gifted as to make a coherent, consistent argument out of gnosticism, a notorious thicket of philosophical doctrine and theological attitude. To make matters worse, until 1945, much of what was known about gnostic thinking derived from hostile, fragmentary accounts written by orthodox Chrisian writers. Nuttall, however, isolates a relatively simple structure basic to the gnostic religious tangle -- that of the alternative Trinity, "in which the Father is a tyrant, not complemented but opposed by the Son" (p. 3). Informing this antagonistic family relation, moreover, is the gnostic insistence on the goodness of knowledge, an ethical-epistemological premise that makes a villain of the forbidding Father portrayed in Genesis. It is he who prohibits tasting of the tree of knowledge, while the unfairly maligned serpent recommends disobedience in a noble cause and may even be seen as an ally or alter-ego of the Son.
While this is an interesting take on Gnosticism, the identification of the "Father" with the ignorant 'god' derided in Gnostic myth might be problematic, depending upon what Nuttall means by this. I haven't read the book, but if he means that Gnosticism itself depicted the "Father" as "a tyrant," then he would seem to have misconstrued Gnosticism, for the ignorant 'god' of the Gnostic genealogies is no Father to the Son. Perhaps, however, Nuttall means that the Father as portrayed in Milton (as well as in Marlowe and Blake) is portrayed as the equivalent to Gnosticism's ignorant 'god'.

Rumrich does note that some individuals, including many 17th-century Protestants, have seen the arbitray God of Calvinism as a tyrant with some of the characteristics of the malicious 'god' of Gnosticism, a tenuous link but interesting to note since "Nuttall is surely right to observe that a quasi-Calvinist plotline seems to govern the miserable progress of Satan, whose destiny is to supply a vessel for the brimming wrath of God."

I've also noticed that Satan after his fall from heaven seems to characterize the "totally depraved" individual of Calvinist anthropology, for he is so utterly incapable of choosing to accept salvation -- based on God's fiat in Paradise Lost 5.600-615 that any angel who rebels will be forever damned -- that this fallen archangel seems to have inherited the preterite's role in Calvin's theological system.

But does that make Milton a gnostic? Rumrich wouldn't seem to think so, and also doesn't think that Milton makes Satan into the beneficial serpent of some gnostic systems:
Nuttall is surely right to observe that a quasi-Calvinist plotline seems to govern the miserable progress of Satan, whose destiny is to supply a vessel for the brimming wrath of God. Like Pharaoh, Satan is provoked and exasperated by God to pursue worse crimes and suffer worse torment. Nuttall also maintains against Dennis Danielson that Milton does indeed embrace a version of the heresy of the fortunate fall and that the epic poet's deity works with Satan to bring humanity into the heightened awareness of a postlapsarian moral framework -- much to be preferred to the instinctive morality of unblemished innocence, at least from the gnostic perspective. Hence, in Nuttall's view, the gnostic opposition of God and the Son is for Milton internalized within the paternal deity: "the tyrannical Jahweh generates, mysteriously, a second self, who wills all that the tyrant forbade. Here, if you like, is the alternative Trinity we have been seeking" (p. 166). Even if we do like, little in Nuttall's reading moves us to accept this conclusion. The narrative offers no hint of such an internal generation transforming the deity, and the effects of the fall as pictured in Milton's epic can hardly be described as intellectually or morally beneficial. The narrative displays Adam and Eve behaving quite stupidly and malignantly after they disobey, a pathetic display of degeneracy that Nuttall neglects to take into account but that contradicts the premises of his interpretation.
Despite this critique, Rumrich says that scholars who take the trouble to read Nuttall's book "will be rewarded along the way by a wonderfully informative and provocative series of insights into the theology, poetry, and culture of early Modern England," so -- as Satan says in Paradise Lost 1.106 -- "All is not lost."

That's enough for today, for I have to head to the Ewha campus and teach graduate students how to write good paragraphs.

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