Saturday, January 29, 2011

Eve's Confusion of Tongues in Paradise Lost

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I'm still investigating Eve's 'confusion of tongues' in Paradise Lost, initially broached in yesterday's post, for I think there might be something of minor interest that I can say about Milton's depiction of Eve's Fall.

In a poem of 1645, "At a Solemn Musick," Milton sings of heavenly choirs above harmonized by earthly choirs below, prior to the Fall:
That we on Earth with undiscording voice
May rightly answer that melodious noise;
As once we did, till disproportion'd sin
Jarr'd against natures chime, and with harsh din [ 20 ]
Broke the fair musick that all creatures made
To their great Lord, whose love their motion sway'd
In perfect Diapason, whilst they stood
In first obedience, and their state of good. ("ASM" 17-24)
Would the sin-occasioned "harsh din" limit itself to the notes alone . . . or overpower the 'lyrics' as well? At first blush, we might hazard that words elude the Fall's corruption, for Milton writes in The Art of Logic:
But languages, both the first one which Adam spoke in Eden, and those varied ones also possibly derived from the first, which the builders of the tower of Babel suddenly received, are without doubt divinely given. ("The Art of Logic," in Richard Arnold, Logic of the Fall: Right Reason and [Im]pure Reason in Milton's Paradise Lost, Peter Lang, 2006, page 21)
An optimistic reading of Milton's words here, however, is undercut by the words of Sin personified spoken to an equally personified Death in Book 10 of Paradise Lost:
To whom th' incestuous Mother thus repli'd.
Thou therefore on these Herbs, and Fruits, and Flours
Feed first, on each Beast next, and Fish, and Fowle,
No homely morsels, and whatever thing [ 605 ]
The Sithe of Time mowes down, devour unspar'd,
Till I in Man residing through the Race,
His thoughts, his looks, words, actions all infect,
And season him thy last and sweetest prey. (PL 10.602-609)
Note Sin's explicit promise to infect "words," implying that the 'lyrics' mentioned above also suffer corruption. Thus Milton's further words in The Art of Logic:
But as to those words that are derived or composite, either their origins are to be sought in other languages ancient and now obsolete, or by their own antiquity and the usually corrupt pronunciation of the lower classes are so changed, and by the habit of writing them falsely are so obliterated as it were that a true notation of words very seldom may be had. ("The Art of Logic," in Richard Arnold, Logic of the Fall: Right Reason and [Im]pure Reason in Milton's Paradise Lost, Peter Lang, 2006, page 21)
Milton reveals his hierarchy of class distinctions, but from the perspective of God, fallen human beings are all from the "lower classes," and what goes for composite words goes as well for composite grammar:
Greedily she ingorg'd without restraint,
And knew not eating Death: (PL 9.791-2)
Yesterday, with respect to these lines, I stated:
As previously noted, the use of the participle "eating" mimics the use in Greek of the nominative participle after verbs of knowing. The irony here is that Eve does not know that she is eating death . . . or that death is eating her.

We see in process a fall of language here as Eve eats the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, a confusion of tongues prefiguring the biblical story about the Tower of Babel, a confusion suggested by Milton in mixing Greek with English.
This 'confusion' of tongues receives emphasis in Book 12, where the Archangel Michael prophesies to a fallen Adam of fallen humanity's attempt to construct the Tower of Babel and the ensuing, large-scale linguistic "confusion" (PL 12.62) inflicted upon humanity:
But God who oft descends to visit men
Unseen, and through thir habitations walks
To mark thir doings, them beholding soon, [ 50 ]
Comes down to see thir Citie, ere the Tower
Obstruct Heav'n Towrs, and in derision sets
Upon thir Tongues a various Spirit to rase
Quite out thir Native Language, and instead
To sow a jangling noise of words unknown (PL 12.48-55)
Verse 44 of Book 12 makes explicit that these fallen human beings are intent upon building the Tower of Babel to reach up to heaven, which recalls Eve's desire to attain divinity through her own illegitimate efforts. Upon hearing of mankind's wicked ways, Adam criticizes his descendents but is reminded by the Archangel Michael that original sin is to blame:
Since thy original lapse, true Libertie
Is lost, which alwayes with right Reason dwells
Twinn'd, and from her hath no dividual being: [ 85 ]
Reason in man obscur'd, or not obeyd (PL 12.83-86)
Milton may well believe that "[t]he end . . . of learning is to repair the ruins of our first parents" and "that language is . . . the instrument conveying to us things useful to be known," as he writes in his treatise Of Education, yet his very words denote that something is to be repaired, and an effort must be strenuously made for education to be "recovered from the scholastic grossness of barbarous ages." An ultimate recovery might have been Milton's educational attempt in his epic Paradise Lost, for he must recover Edenic language to present to his readers the discourse of the prelapsarian couple, but the poem is centrally about loss, not recovery, and Milton would have to acknowledge that for the vast majority of mankind (i.e., perhaps everyone but Milton himself), learning has not repaired that ruin of our first parents, and that ruin would include the confusion of language.

Milton laments in Of Education that so much of what passes for the learning of classical languages produces little more than educated fools whose linguistic efforts are a "wretched barbarizing against the Latin and Greek idiom, with their untutored Anglicisms," actual instances of a confusion of tongues that results from fusing languages divided at Babel. The confusion of tongues at Babel is a large-scale confusion, one in which human language in its totality is confused. The plethora of languages occasions more confusion, as one language influences another, 'barbarizing' it in the process. Perhaps this is what Milton is showing in Eve's Fall:
Greedily she ingorg'd without restraint,
And knew not eating Death: (PL 9.791-2)
As already noted in the discussion of the Greek nominative participle following verbs of knowing, Greek grammar influences the English used here to describe Eve's Fall, and this is a 'barbarism' possible only after Babel's confusion of tongues, but it is retrojected upon Eve's act of eating, such that Eve's Fall prefigures Babel through a proleptic confusion of languages, specifically, Greek and English. In both Book 12's confusion of tongues and Book 9's confusion of grammars, therefore, Milton presents the effects of the Fall upon language -- the mixing properly called "con-fusion."

I'm afraid that I've been far from clear myself on this matter, but that's due to the ruin of our first parents and therefore not entirely my own fault . . .

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At 3:40 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

As for the Edenic language: did Milton ever hint at (or share) the Renaissance idea that it was Hebrew?

Well, in the 19th century some German scholar maintained that it was German, and William Blake that it was English, but the conjecture about Hebrew as the original tongue is a bit less arbitrary, since it is the language of the most ancient books in the Bible.

- - -

A side issue: in his Paradiso, in the episode in which he meets Adam, Dante has a very interesting remark, the more so in the Middle Ages when History, development, etc. were not studied as in the following centuries. I.e. Adam explains that the language changed from the original one, even before Babel, because human things are never stable.

At 5:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Were the explanations "bogus" . . . or was Milton just hedging his bets?"

--Jeffery Hodges

It is, indeed, bogus. And it's probably impossible to hedge in this instance.

On the other hand, it is a playful thought that only the bogosity of corrupt languages may beget the marvelous poetry in Milton. After all, harmony is interesting because of "harsh din"--whatever you think that is--and not despite it. The great innovators of harmony, which largely grew out of--and despite--Christian tradition felt that perfect intervals alone did not make for the most delightful progression of harmonized music. Rather, they felt that music sounds most interesting when the harmony of harsh dins resolves into an euphonic chord.

But it seems from reading your commentary that Milton might disagree. There has always been folks who despair of the corruption of their own language. They despair of the encroachment of foreign words and foreign ideas. And they despise the playful inventions younger generations introduce into the language they want to keep pure.

But this notion of purity of language is not only foolish and counter-productive, it goes against the very nature of the human mind. One of the most interesting aspects that make us different from our Neanderthal cousins is that it seems that they lived hundreds of thousands of years without advancing their technology or culture much.

Early humans, too, did not advance much. But something unusual happened somewhere and we just took off. Our progress, especially after the spread of large-scale domestication of plants and animals some thousands of years ago allow us now to send people far away from earth's gravity.

It's the purposeful inventiveness and creativity in all aspects of culture--which includes language--that makes us different from the other lifeforms on earth. And increased levels of corruption in the purity of a language is an indirect sign that the culture is experiencing some sort of beneficial transformation in which new ideas are introduced, tested, and syncretized; new trade relations are formed, allowing for growth in domesitc business, and new goods are introduced; and new avenues of creative outlet is perceived by the people.


At 5:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The English people benefitted from the innovations they gained from their conquerors and those they conquered or traded with. And it is probably not an accident that dost-make-us-marble Shakespeare happened to live in one of those exciting moments when the culture was experiencing rapid transformation--or corruption, as Milton might have it--including in its language.

So why is this so bad? Does a corrupted language mean that the people are being corrupted, perhaps morally? No. I don't think you can make a convincing case for that. But that is what Milton seems to be trying to do. Acording to your commentary, Milton seems to be equating the corruption of language with moral corruption. But he does not seem to make a coherent case for it. And he does not express a good reason why this is even a bad thing. And this is probably because it is impossible to.

I enjoyed dhr's wry comment about today's literary world possibly being dominated by gardening handbooks had Milton had his way. I think dhr is right: Milton is interesting only because of the nature of what he considers the fall of language. But this conflict in him mirrors one major aspect that makes PL interesting--the imagination of Satan. Milton's education tells him that sin is bad. And he feels this is true. He really really wants this to be true. But his immortality--at least in the literary sense--is borne from what he considers the fruits of sin--the quality of human inventiveness and the accidental particulars you can find only in his tongue--one of the younger languages of the world.

Maybe, in the end, Milton is simply too ideological to care to find credible the little ironies of his moral stances. Instead, Milton set out to punish his own particular Satan for disagreeing with the ideology of his maker--Milton.


Thanks for sharing your ideas about PL. I'm enjoying them. :)


At 6:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

By the way, as classical Greek and Latin also experienced the corrupting influence of foreign languages and also changed over time, do you think Milton has a particular era of Greek and Latin in mind as representing their purest forms?



At 7:36 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Dario, I still know too little of Milton's views to know what he considered the Edenic language, but since Hebrew would have been one of the languages after Babel, perhaps he didn't consider it original.

Thanks for the interesting point about the instability of human beings.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:42 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Lollabrats, the bogus material that I was referring to with Carter was Raphael's cosmological explanations given to Adam. These are ambiguous among the various cosmological systems bandied about in Milton's time.

Your other points require some time and reflection. I know too little about music, but as for language, I think that Milton did consider classical Greek superior to other forms. Many theologians have noted that scripture was written in a 'corrupt' form or Greek, for instance . . . though I don't know that Milton said so.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:43 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

"So why is this so bad? Does a corrupted language mean that the people are being corrupted, perhaps morally? No."

I should rather say "yes and no."


English, as I tell my students, is like the Blob in the famous film of the same name. It's strength lies in its ability and its tendency to absorb other languages. It is important to realize, however, that whatever alien languages are absorbed, that English remains English; that is, the English attitude towards language--that language is a tool whose efficacy is authorized by its parsimonious nature and practical utility--must remain intact.


During a visit to Oxford some years ago I met with Peter Hacker the Wittgenstein scholar, who shared with me his view that German emigration had corrupted American English, rendering it susceptible to the credulous German practice of reifying abstract nouns.

I noted this, and as I thought about it and I reviewed my experiences living in Britain, and my experiences living in America in areas with either strong German or strong English cultural antecedents, I came to believe his claim is worth consideration. Recently, the most salient (and dangerous) manifestation of such corruption is the phrase (and the department) called "Homeland Security." This language is not English.

But an even more trenchant and "operative" corruption is continental philosophy--much of it brought in, ironically, by scholars fleeing the Nazi's. Since the 1940s American technology has been visibly advanced by German scientists--consider von Braun building rockets--as everyone knows, while at the same time and not so evident, there have also been parallel developments in philosophy, psychology and political science, where other German "scientists" have been pursuing their programs....

The language of imported German philosophy, the understanding of language encouraged by this philosophy, and the political manifestations of this philosophy--both in academe and in our national institutions--are fit subjects for review.

At 3:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"This language is not English."
--Carter Kaplan

Maybe it is just me, but it sounds strange to say that the modern German language has corrupted modern English when you consider English's roots in Old English. XD

Yes, I do agree that the rise of fascism is the single most important event that transformed the US into the world's cultural "hegemon," as the socialists might say. Less than a century ago, most of the top universities were in Germany and Austria. Now, they have none. Instead, the top universities are largely a list of American schools.

But it is not just in science, technology, and philosophy that the US benefitted from the European brain drain. We also benefitted in the arts, commerce, and industry. Think of all those refugees flocking to Hollywood, the concert halls, the painter's studios, the dance and theater companies, and the universities, or either joining or starting up big firms in New York.

And I think, moving back in time, the Germans themselves benefitted from the brain drain from southern Europe during the centuries long experience of the Inquisition. After all, it was the southerners, particularly the Venetians, who most benefitted from the growing trade with the Muslims during those warring years of the Muslim wars of conquest and the Christian Crusades. Especially, the re-introduction of pagan ideas from the ancient Greek diaspora into Christian lands through Muslim and Jewish translators along with ample opportunities to increase the sophistication in their financial institutions and an influx of foreign wealth pretty much sparked the Renaissance in Italy and a transformation of Catholic philosophy in general. The southerners--not the Germans and Austrians--were the biggest beneficiaries of the Crusades. It's in the south where the revolutionary advances in the arts, sciences, medicine, and commerce occurred. And it was this very success in transformation--rebirth--sparked by the influx of Muslim and pagan texts that horrified the conservative Christians and was a major contributing factor in the crackdown known as the Inquisition.


At 3:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

All this movement of wealth and ideas proves is that what Milton thinks of as corruption to be abhorred is sometimes something that is both a result and a cause of cultures that are thriving and growing. In fact, it is a defining feature of a rising culture. And its a kind of success that feeds on itself. But should folks like Milton succeed in defining the good in the rapid transformation of rising cultures as actual moral corruption instead, as the Catholics and fascists did in turn, all they would succeed in doing is to unload their culture's best minds elsewhere. And I have not even touched on the profoundly positive influence of the Ashkenazi Jews on Europeans and, later, in America. Their movement, directed by persecution, had a tremendous impact on the rise and fall of cultures and skills.

I am not, obviously, saying that considering corruption, in your sense, is wrong. In fact, I think I've demonstrated that I'm pretty interested in the topic. What I am saying instead is that I think it is ironic that Milton should so abhor this corruption and mistake it for moral degradation when he himself greatly benefitted from the kind of corruption you have described.

The start of Modern English occurs, maybe, a decade before Shakespeare's birth. It's a time of great corruption of culture in the best and beneficial sense. In fact, they are about to enter their so-called Elizabethan Golden Age. And Milton is part of a continuation of that moment in which a culture chose to value the enrichment of its literary arts at the expense of the wishes of the moral and cultural conservatives. Both English theater and poetry transformed profoundly just within Shakespeare's lifetime.

So, why then, did Milton misinterpret the good situation he was born into as something undesirable? Who could know? But I think it comes down to the lens of ideology through which he perceived the world. I think he just could not let his own Satan become too persuasive in his own mind.

What's interesting about your example of the German introduction of the reification of abstract nouns into English is that it sort of reminds me of Jeffery's own commentary on "eating Death." Did Milton so want to return English to the purity of its Greek(?!) root such that he felt compelled to introduce a Greek syntactic tool into English, thereby making English more pure by corrupting it? XD


BTW, thank you for your bit about the German influence in the reification of abstract nouns. I did not know that. I'll try to be more aware of instances of this. :)


At 5:52 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Carter, I don't know that the influence of one language upon another is 'bad', but Milton might have thought so. I'm still trying to determine this point as a way of getting at Milton's point in the line about "eating Death."

Interesting thoughts about German and English . . .

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 3:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

hehe, I should probably add that the rise of communism in Europe helped improve the US skill level and culture, as much as the fascists did, with their own brain draining policies.



At 3:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

...well maybe not to the same level...


Hmm, I wonder about this...


At 3:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of the nice consequences of posting on a blog is you get to visit the next day and slap yourself on the forehead in disbelief at having said certain things. XD

I notice I have done a poor job justifying the ways of Milton to myself. :p

I'm starting to recall some of the Milton I've read. Milton's strength as a writer is partly due to his ability to grapple with conflicting ideas. I wish I could demonstrate the same.

I don't think Milton literally means that dischordant sound is necessarily bad. It sounds more like metaphor. You know, I love the boisterous mood of Cajun music. But I cannot help but feel their music seems like harsh din.

But then, for whatever reason, I love old Confucian Korean music, with its melody played intentionally out of tune by its orchestra. It's staid and slow. And the horn sounds like bagpipe. I'm sure the Cajuns would roll their eyes at me for my strange taste. :p

Who knows why we like what we like. Brain scans do tell us that the brain responds to music we love differently from music we do not. Maybe, I should blame chemicals in our brain for our musical tastes.

But this is what Milton probably had in mind with his harsh din. As the rules of harmony, which the world largely uses today, was being codified in Europe, they were pretty particular about what intervals sound harsh and what were harmonious. But moving into the 20th century, such rules were on their way out and dischordant music can be highly pleasing to the modern western ear. And thank goodness. I much more prefer Prokofiev to much of Mozart.

This development mirrors the development of rhyme in English poetry. In the "Poet's Craft Book," which is part of the resource book, "The Complete Rhyming Dictionary," its editor, Clement Wood, is particularly critical about what makes a good rhyme and what does not. He points out that "north" and "forth" are not proper rhymes and that only poets of poor quality would resort to using this pair.

I wonder what he made of Yeats. And I wonder what he would have thought had he encountered Dickinson, who set out to "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant." She was particularly into slants. One of her absolute bests starts:

There's a certain slant of light,
On winter afternoons,
That oppresses, like the weight
Of cathedral tunes.

"Light" and "weight" here are not the kind of pair Wood would have approved. :p

But this is actually the variant! The established stanza is actually:

There's a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons --
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes --

"Light" and "heft" is even worse! But the difference is lightning! "Heft" is superior. Heft is heavy. Weight is not: it's actually neutral. This is part of one of the best poems ever written, regardless of what Wood might have thought about its harsh din.

At any rate, nowadays, rhyme makes a poem sound quaint, I think. :p


At 3:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When developing the theory of harmony or rhyme, were the innovators corrupting their art? Or establishing it? And when the rules of proper tonal music and rhyming verse began to break down due to the assault by talented artists, was this corruption? Or development?

But as to the particulars of what kind of sounds constitute harsh din, I don't think I should have questioned Milton. I'll interpret his notion as being metaphorical and leave it at that.

I only reponded because, obviously, harsh din reveals itself only in the ears of the beholder. And even then, her feelings can change over time. And so, I didn't understand why you would want to talk in metaphoric absolute terms about ambiguous mutable things to pass absolute judgement.


But to Carter Kaplan's point, is proper use of language different from the arts? Can language actually become corrupt? Maybe I;m the wrong person to answer this question. I agree with his blob metaphor describing practical utility of absorbing foreign ideas. But I don't think I agree that you can absolutely say that this is English and this is not. At the least, I don't see how you can draw a rigid non-vague border around "This is English."

But as English is my second language (I don't really have a first), my grasp of English may be too tenuous to tell the difference. As I have discussed with Jeffery on a previous occassion, I actually do not have trouble absorbing "eating Death" into my sense of English. In school, I actually did slip in participles in unusual places in my essays. I don't know what my readers thought of it, but I am aware that others may not approve.

Likewise, I have long abosrbed the possibility of "absolute zero," "quantum mechanics," "love interest," "mystery tour," and "theater arts" such that I have not considered that these things might sound odd. On this list, only "mystery tour" needed some getting used to. ^^; But it wasn't so hard.

I think the reification of abstract nouns already fits right in in proper English. I think "eating Death" will, too, one day. "Eating Death" is not English. But, I'll see what I can do to to make it so. :p


At 3:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant --
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind --


At 3:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons --
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes --

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us --
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the Meanings, are --

None may teach it -- Any --
'Tis the Seal Despair --
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air --

When it comes, the Landscape listens --
Shadows -- hold their breath --
When it goes, 'tis like the Distance
On the look of Death --


At 6:31 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Lollabrats, for the comments. Your knowledge of music goes far beyond mine.

I can remark on Mr. Wood's forbidding of the North-Forth rhyme. Whatever his reason, this seems too restrictive to me.

A good poet can make even lesser rhymes work, as you've shown.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 2:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My knowledge of music isn't so great. I knew some old musicians who liked to talk to young folks about music. But that should not be construed as having had formal education. ^^;




I am under the impression that the reading public was still largely resistant to slant rhymes in much of the 20th century. For various reasons, Dickinson as she is known today wasn't known until the middle of the 20th century. So, she had little influence on reading tastes in the first half of the century when Wood was writing poetry. In fact, he died before the American public discovered the full scope of Dickinson's craft.

In the first half of the century, only a few of Dickinson's poetry had been published and these had been posthumously edited by well-meaning folks in an attempt, they believed, to make her poetry palatable to the public. There is evidence that Dickinson herself was aware that her slant rhymes and unique pauses and punctuation would have met resistance had she been publishing when she was alive.

It's hard to fight against your own preferences sometimes. There is evidence that she did not care for Walt Whitman, the other great American innovator of poetry. I like him, but I prefer her. I believe he is better regarded today in America. :)


At 10:07 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Lollabrats, while I have some musical talent (can sing, can compose), I've never had any musical training and cannot read a note of music.

Nothing wrong with slant rhymes. They work as well as alliteration, or better. Critics shouldn't limit poetry. Of course, if one establishes a rhyme scheme, one should stick to it (hence some of my 'failures').

Jeffery Hodges

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