Saturday, October 02, 2010

Christopher Eagle: Adam as 'Serpentine'?

Adam and Eve, 1509-11
Fresco, 120 x 105 cm
Stanza della Segnatura
Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican
(Image from Web Gallery of Art)

Today's serpentine teaser is from Christopher Eagle's article, "'Thou Serpent That Name Best': On Adamic Language and Obscurity in Paradise Lost," from Milton Quarterly (Vol. 41, No. 3, 2007, 183-194), which argues that Adam is assimilated to the Serpent by his misuse of language, an abusive use of words which arises from a "disjunction between the inward reality and the outward shape of things" after the fall:
[W]e should . . . point out that Adam's rhetoric in the confrontation with Eve bears out [a] lapse of accurate signification . . . . In the world's first domestic squabble, we find a cuckolded Adam making the metaphoric connection of Eve to Satan:
Out of my sight, thou Serpent, that name best
Befits thee with him leagu'd, thyself as false,
And hateful; nothing wants, but that thy shape,
Like his, and color Serpentine may show
Thy inward fraud, to warn all Creatures from thee
Henceforth; lest that too heav'nly form, pretended
To hellish falsehood, snare them. (10.867-73)
In what many critics consider to be Adam's weakest moment as a character, we have already noted the progressive weakening of his nomination [i.e., his skill in naming things]. In the lines that follow, Adam tropes [i.e., makes a figure of speech about] Eve's serpentine deceitfulness as the disparity between her inward and outward shape, evidently contrasted with what he hopes is his everpresent wholeness. The glaring irony here, of course, is that Adam's likening of Eve to the Serpent is a figurative act (metaphor), itself an equally "serpentine" use of language. Because the possibility of figurativeness depends upon a disjunction from the literal, a disjunction between the inward reality and the outward shape of things, Adam's words would seem not to be ontologically possible before the Fall, because such a split between being and appearing would not yet have taken place.[10] For this reason, it is often said that in Paradise Lost, "with the Fall of man, language falls too" (Ricks 109). Like Eve's outward shape, words now pretend, in the "proper and primary signification" of the word, meaning they stretch in front as a covering. They assume this covering-over of their proper and primary signification (the linguistic fig leaf, so to speak), not only by meaning figuratively, but by meaning obscurely . . . . (pages 189-190)
Here are some endnotes for the excerpt:
[10] Umberto Eco, "On the Possibility of Generating Aesthetic Messages in an Edenic Language," The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1979, 90-104.

Christopher Ricks, Milton's Grand Style, Oxford: Clarendon, 1963
Professor Eagle's point is that Satan had first learned to misuse language by exploiting a 'fallen' disjunction between appearance and reality, that Satan had then used the Serpent to mislead Eve through this disjunction, and that a Satanic Adam is now acting like the 'Serpent' in his verbal abuse of Eve by means of this disjunction. The result is that words now "assume this covering-over of their proper and primary signification . . . , not only by meaning figuratively, but by meaning obscurely."

I'll need to consider this argument carefully, though it's similar to an argument that I once made in a paper, but I'll have to read Professor Eagle's entire article first and check some prelapsarian passages in Paradise Lost. I say this because I have come to see matters as a bit more complex. The figurative use of language surely precedes the fall, though the deceptive use of language to obscure truth is, of course, postlapsarian, but is Adam misusing words to obscure inward reality in the passage above from Paradise Lost? If there is now a postlapsarian disjunction between appearance and reality, then Adam is correct in calling Eve "thou Serpent," for she has inwardly become one -- meaning that she has become Satanic, somewhat as the Serpent, albeit inadvertently, became inwardly Satanic when the Devil possessed it, the better to tempt Eve.

The dramatic irony of Adam's words is that he himself has also become 'Serpentine', as we have already seen in previous posts, but his accusation that Eve is a "Serpent" is correct. Both Adam and Eve are now 'Serpentine'.

As I said, however, I'll need to read the entire article, and I will do so, just as soon as I get through a big batch of student writing that I have to check for its own 'Serpentine' misuse of language.

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At 1:53 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

Book X as an expression of a distinct mytho-analytic problem: Milton is dilating on lines 842-844. His analysis of this theme is necessarily forced through the context of the plot and the terms of the characters and language he has to work with, but the entire book seems to be a response to 842-844.

A "reader" can pursue other avenues, but to do so is to mistake the particular character of the poem, and to go astray--and so generate various het readings, if I may deploy a little Hebrew here.

That is, PL is not an exercise in Biblical Exegesis or a celebration of the coarse associations produced by commonplace poetical mechanics, but is rather a sophisticated modern poem bringing to bear the remarkably protean tool of "mythical-epic" language to express a manifold of analytic procedures. It represents modern analyses of modern problems. The Biblical stuff, the story, the characters, the music, the emotional content--all are points of departure, but they are not the carriages nor the destinations.

Another way to figure this: The cover for an "appropriate" PL would not be a sharply drawn realistic illustration by Dore or Durer, but more properly a well-theorized abstraction by Kandinsky or Tanguy printed on thin translucent paper, and which turns over to reveal a closely-controlled dreamscape by Dali.

At 5:27 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Carter, thanks for the interesting comment, which I'll have to get back to later. I'm currently swamped by grading -- hence the brief posts recently.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:19 AM, Blogger ilTassista Marino said...

THAT'S interesting, since usually the serpentine one is considered to be Eve! In fact, in many Medieval and Renaissance paintings the Serpent has a female face, often the same as Eve. (That comes from the Jewish myth of Lilith, tho' many artists supposedly didn't know it).
In Dante's Inferno, however, the monster Gerione = Fraud is a huge snake having a human i.e. a _male_ face. And PL 10.869-871 probably mentions this very episode.

At 7:21 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Dario, I'll have to look into this.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:34 PM, Blogger ilTassista Marino said...

More precisely, the description of Gerione: Inferno 17.1-18.

At 2:42 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I was just at this moment taking a look at the very same passage.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:16 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

Sorry to press my point--and to hijack your thread!--especially while you're correcting papers, Jeffery; but in your article treating the serpentine theme, might you suggest that a line should be drawn through these matters, and on the other side of that line pronounce them epiphenomenal to the subject of the poem? I don't know where that line is to be drawn, but keeping in mind the appropriate response to the poem, as in all things, it seems to me this line must be drawn somewhere, and frequently? As I've suggested to you before, we might otherwise come too close to resembling those devils in Book II convocating on flaming hillsides to discuss mathematics and philosophy.

The commentary in the edition of the Torah I have at home, incidentally, says nothing suggesting a categorical connection among "Eve," "snake like" and "serpents." Milton may have found some art work or myth suggesting this definition, and this may have crossed his mind as he composed the poem--the comparison certainly occurred to Adam as he shouted angrily at Eve--but rather than a matter bearing upon the subject of the poem, the attending swirl of allusions is but another exercise of one of those pedantic freaks Milton provides--one of those absurd diversions that are shaken all over Paradise Lost like hot pepper--and that lead us to that place out of which there is no way, "from deep to deeper plung'd!" If you take my meaning.

(In reference to the Lilith mention, we might reflect also upon the treatment of such myths in the Talmud. Keep in mind that what comes before and what comes after a story in the Talmud is at least as important as what comes in the middle. That is, the Talmud is all about seeing the sorts of lines I am suggesting should be drawn in Milton studies, and frequently).

Finally, the trademark Carter Kaplan disclaimer: I am not seeking to proffer some "know nothing" argument--instead, I say unto you, "gather your allusions while ye may"--these factoids are instructive and mildly entertaining. But when the discussion in Milton studies is dominated with such concerns, as I think it is, then it drives home the point to the candid observer that the official explanations don't really match the motions of the stars, do they?

I should be happy to hear what anyone has to say on this question. Dario?

At 4:01 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

My short response is that I often focus on trivial details because I need to clarify then in relation to some larger point.

I think that Milton does depict Eve as becoming 'Serpentine', and he has a reason, but he also depicts Adam similarly as 'Serpentine' (though in today's post, October 5, I suggest an analytical distinction between 'Serpentine' and Satanic).

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:25 AM, Blogger ilTassista Marino said...

Hi Carter!
I am not so sure that I properly understood your remarks (I am no mother-tongue, nor father-ear), so please excuse me if I will completely miss the point.

Anyway, my way of "studying" Milton, as well as Dante, Ariosto, Tasso etc., is basically a Feyerabendish one, i.e. "Let's throw a new idea into the windows, then let's see what happens".

At 7:01 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Utterly without theory?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:11 PM, Blogger ilTassista Marino said...

Theories follow.

Like in Galileo Galilei's case: it is false that his calculations about planet orbits were more exact than his opponents'. But, he wanted to sponsor a new, different view of universe.

Or, to put it in a Dalinian way: our unconscious thinks faster than out thought.

At 3:24 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I usually 'know' what's right before I do the research. And I'm right. Usually.

Is that "theory first"?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:42 PM, Blogger ilTassista Marino said...

>Is that "theory first"?

It's pre-programmed impulse.
(See: Spinoza to Popper)

P.S. 8.42 a.m. in Italy, time to go work!

At 3:51 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

No free will? Guess that's why you had to go to work . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:46 PM, Blogger ilTassista Marino said...

Let's say so: "free will" as the Socratic daimon, which could say "no" but only after the thought / action had already started.
Free will as a result after a life's efforts, not as a starting point to be taken for granted.

And, we got computers in our offices too :-)

At 8:04 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Free will, that Socratic demon bringing a Maxwellian hammer down like judgment on our heads . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:34 PM, Blogger ilTassista Marino said...

Will Coyote

pheeeeeeeeeeewwwwwwwwwww......... crash!

At 12:50 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

Hi Dairo:

I don’t know what you don’t understand, so I don't know where to begin!

As I suggest in my trademark disclaimer, I am not seeking to advance a polemic. My method of inquiry is somewhat polemical, however, in so far as it is necessarily apophatic and satiric—and by satiric I mean that admixture that is produced where literature of a certain sort (like the literature of Milton) meets analytic philosophy.

In response to your not understanding me, I’d like to describe a distinction, and perhaps you might in that way gain entry into what I am seeking to express. I call this distinction philological reading vs. analytic reading.

Most of the Miltonists I’m reading are approaching PL in a traditional philological manner. Notwithstanding the various theoretical approaches or orientations I’m seeing, the activity is philological. I would say “overly” philological . . . as well as sophistic. That is, the philological activity is over-amplified, appropriating both the course of the critics’ arguments and their orientations, and so expresses a confused and conceptually distorted reading of the poem. These heavily philological readings are thus distorted and credulous, and I am reminded of Bacon’s descriptions of the errors produced by the Idols of the Marketplace and Theatre. Often in the poem, Milton parodies this kind of pedantic, philological reading and, apropos to his analytic project, his little parodies are essential to his satire in the poem. Take for example these lines from Book X, lines 578-584:

However some tradition they dispers'd
Among the Heathen of thir purchase got,
And Fabl'd how the Serpent, whom they calld [ 580 ]
Ophion with Eurynome, the wide-
Encroaching Eve perhaps, had first the rule
Of high Olympus, thence by Saturn driv'n
And Ops, ere yet Dictæan Jove was born.

The other day I read Book X, then took down the Riverside Edition and read rapidly through the Book X footnotes to glean some general notion of their character and cast. These copious (and minutely printed) notes represent, in the main, philological rather than literary or philosophical activity. Yes, they represent very good work, and they certainly do much to enhance our understanding; however, in toto, they are also very much oblivious to Milton’s project.

My method and my orientation are rooted in analytic philosophy and critical synoptics—seeking understanding though the identification of analytic activity in a work of art. So I am using analytic philosophy to identify analytic philosophy in Paradise Lost, and hence what I see in the poem is a high-modern (compare Nabokov’s Pale Fire) work of art dilating upon a range of psychological and anthropological subjects, moreover rendered in an amped-up, multi-value grammar based upon epic language and mythographic process--mythographic in the sense of philological association but also more recondite shamanistic activity best characterized as expressions of “altered consciousness.” Now, notwithstanding the use of myth and even shamanism, Milton is embarked upon a closely controlled analytic project. My sense of that project in Book X is delineated in my first comment to this thread. Thus:

Book X as an expression of a distinct mytho-analytic problem: Milton is dilating on lines 842-844. His analysis of this theme is necessarily forced through the context of the plot and the terms of the characters and language he has to work with, but the entire book seems to be a response to 842-844:

O Conscience, into what Abyss of fears
And horrors hast thou driv'n me; out of which
I find no way, from deep to deeper plung'd!

The matter of Book X is Milton’s appropriate response—and it is, I must emphasize, a _fully modern_ response--to these lines.

At 2:36 AM, Blogger ilTassista Marino said...

My method of inquiry is somewhat polemical, however, in so far as it is necessarily apophatic and satiric

My mind is clearer now:
at last, all too well,
I can see
where we all
soon will be.

--- And, we will be agreeing!

At 2:00 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...



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