Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Milton's Eve: The Perfect Predator?

(Image by Dario Rivarossa)

My artistic cyber-friend Dario Rivarossa linked to an image of the Vampwere, his own creation, in a remark on "eating death" that he left in a recent blog-post comment:
You LOVE this subject, eh? So, hope you'll like this recent Christmas artwork (En-Uk is my master), showing a creature who wonderfully unites Eating and Death...

... Ladies and Gentlemen...

Okay, Dario called it a "were-vampire," not a "vampwere," but I redubbed it the latter, and he seems to have accepted that renaming.

By any name, however, I liked this warmblooded predacious undead "creature who wonderfully unites Eating and Death" and thought it a fitting image for a passage that I came across in an article by Ryan Marrinan titled "With Teeth: Food, Fallenness, and Predation in [Paradise Lost]," published in Universal Journal, an online publication of The Association of Young Journalists and Writers. Marrinan, a recent alumnus of Princeton University, argues that Eve carried out the first act of predation in Paradise Lost by plucking and eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and thereby wounding nature in the process, from which follow acts of predation by other creatures. Marrinan first cites the lines oft quoted of late on this blog:
Greedily she engorged without restraint,
And knew not eating death: (PL 9.791-2)
He afterwards makes a number of interesting, if murkily reasoned points:
Last, and most important, eating and death appear in the final line of the quotation above. I would argue that death through eating is a sufficient condition for predation, since predation in its traditional sense requires the killing and eating of one animal by another. On the other hand, very seldom does one hear that a piece of fruit has been murdered. Thus, eating and death seem quite out of place in a discussion of fruit, and this renders death's presence here all the more significant. Moreover, Eve as a predator is "eating death," a personified entity in Paradise Lost; and as a footnote in our Norton tells us, Milton's syntactical double entendre allows Death to simultaneously eat Eve. In this sense, eating the forbidden fruit becomes an act of mutual predation, shattering the divinely ordained relationship of feeding commensality. Further, Milton figures Death as the ultimate predatory carnivore through the following macabre epic simile:
. . . As when a flock
Of ravenous fowl, though many a league remote,
Against the day of battle, to a field,
Where armies lie encamped, come flying, lured
With scent of living carcasses designed
For death, the following day, in bloody fight.
So scented the grim feature, and upturned
His nostril wide into the murky air,
Sagacious of his quarry from so far.
This chilling epic simile figures Death, its tenor, as a ravenous vulture -- a bird of prey -- that hovers over a battlefield as it waits for its gory dessert. Milton endows Death with a preternatural sense of smell that allows it to catch the scent of "carnage, prey innumerable" (10.267) and the "scent of living carcasses" through its upturned "nostril wide." Death is the perfect predator: its sense of smell is so keen that it can smell carcasses even while they are living and "taste / The savor of death from all things . . . that live" (10.269). The great predator is always "sagacious of his quarry," even from afar.

But Eve eats Death; she preys on the perfect predator. Or does death rather prey on her? In either case, man's first disobedience unleashes a perverse cycle of death and predation on the world: "Earth felt the wound, and nature from her seat / Sighing through all her works gave signs of woe" (9.783-784).
Marrinan does not explicitly state, but perhaps implies, that Eve becomes like Death by preying on "the perfect predator," a similitude that I'll perhaps explore further in upcoming posts. The entire article by Marrinan, a readable eight pages, is at times overly speculative in its etymological associations, but always interesting, especially for what he writes about commensal "feeding" versus predatory "eating" and the intrinsic relationship of these two means of taking in nourishment to Eve's act of eating fruit from the Tree of Knowledge in acting out the first sin.

Meanwhile, perhaps one can better understand the appropriateness of Dario's Vampwere for today's post . . .

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At 6:08 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

Many thanks, Jeffery. Too kind of you.

Well, according to the book which inspired that drawing, the first origin of every vampiric myth was Lilith, the devilish Nearly-Eve or Counter-Eve who, in the shape of the serpent, convinced the woman to eat the fruit.

Hmm. Satan as Alien ("from heaven"). Eve as Predator.
Alien vs Predator.

At 6:28 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The Lilith-vampire connection is a late association, I would expect, but reinterpreting is part of the fun.

I've not seen the film Dracula 2000, but it reinterprets Dracula as Judas Iscariot, which 'explains' the particular distaste of Dracula for the cross.

Obviously, that wasn't Bram Stoker's intention . . . but it's fun.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:53 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

Hey, Dracula 2000 looks like great fun! Just a different side of the Edenic drama, isn't it? The Tree, the Cross; innocent mankind, sin...

As for Lilith, I think that the connection is quite old. In general, there have always been myths dealing with night spectres and/or women killing babies, adults, animals, and/or sucking blood.

It's true, however, the word "vampire" ("upiyr" etc.) appeared in central Europe no sooner than in the 11th century, and it surfaced in western Europe only in the 18th century. The meaning of the word is not clear.

At 7:37 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

If I recall, Lilith was associated with the night owl, and also with the night, and she did come for babies, but the details are quite different from the vampire myth.

The vampire that rises from the grave seems more a travesty of Christianity to me, specifically, Christ's resurrection.

I also once tried to find the root of the term "vampire" and found a Russian connection, but I didn't learn much.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:20 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

In fact, there are many "species" of vampires. The Edenic half-snake Lilith and the Rumanian Count Dracula rising from the grave are two quite different characters; but, nevertheless, the myths referring to these two kinds of creatures, as well as the other kinds of vampires (some of them even "eat the moon"), as well as witches and werewolves, are inextricably connected, through whoknows-how-many channels.

At 3:35 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

But they seem to have different historical origins, however conflated they may have become over time.

As for psychological origins, there may be deeper commonalities. On that, I simply don't know.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:53 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

As for psychological origins, there may be deeper commonalities

That's what I think, too. The thing Buddha - involuntarily forecasting Stoker - called "the Thirst" (desire), the very root of human condition, the origin of all evil.

At 3:58 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well, there's also Eve's 'hunger' after knowledge . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:08 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

Yes, but in this case - as you wrote some topics ago - Milton's attitude is ambiguous. He can hardly be imagined as an 'accuser' of knowledge.

At 4:19 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Milton, however, would distinguish between two kinds of knowledge of evil:

1. intellectual knowledge of evil


2. experiential knowledge of evil

The first sort, Eve already had, and the second sort was not to be desired.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:57 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

Is this distinction intellectual or experiential?

1,000,000 dollar question...

At 6:04 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Intellectual, but in my case experientially informed.

Jeffery Hodges

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