Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Fallen Language: Falsely Defined Terms in Paradise Lost?

(Image from Comic Book Religion)

Some students at Christs College, Cambridge have put together a high-quality site on John Milton called Darkness Visible, and I've come upon a page there titled "Milton's Language" that might be useful for thinking about 'fallen language' in Paradise Lost, for the page offers a section on "Dark Satanic Language" -- which later on the same page is characterized as "fallen language" -- and this section informs us:
Satan is an inveterate liar who abuses language for his own evil purposes. Satan's language is 'Ambiguous and with double sense deluding' (Paradise Regained, I.435), whereas the Son's language (and by extension God's) enforces a kind of linguistic harmony where 'Thy actions to thy words accord' (Paradise Regained, III.9). In Paradise Lost, Satan's 'ambiguous words' (V.703, VI.568) act as 'persuasive' traps, 'replete with guile' (IX.737, 733). He utters 'high words, that bore / Semblance of worth not substance' (I.528), and it is worth bearing this in mind should you be tempted to succumb to his enticing rhetoric, as Eve or, more recently the poets Shelley and Blake have been known to do! God's words are necessarily congruent with their meaning (God is unable to lie). But while Satan lacks the power of speech acts, he has the sophistical ability to dissemble.
Satan uses ambiguous words in Paradise Lost to mislead, but in many cases, the two different meanings of a word are both correct, and such a word is not necessarily 'fallen'. Rather, it is being misused by Satan, "who abuses language for his own evil purposes" and plays upon one meaning to legitimate acting upon the other meaning. For instance, if Satan were to urge Eve to cleave to God but persuade her that this means cutting herself off from God -- playing on the word's two meanings, "cling to" and "sever from" -- then this would be an example of using a word's double meaning to deceive. Both meanings are legitimate, however, or at least arguably so. They merely need to be kept distinct.

But what of Satan's famous redefinition of evil in Paradise Lost 4.108-112, which he states in his famous speech upon Mount Niphates after briefly considering repentance but deciding that he cannot be forgiven because he cannot truly repent:
So farewel Hope, and with Hope farewel Fear,
Farewel Remorse: all Good to me is lost;
Evil be thou my Good; by thee at least
Divided Empire with Heav'ns King I hold
By thee, and more then half perhaps will reigne; (PL 4.108-112)
Note the redefinition: "Evil be thou my Good" (PL 4.110). As C. S. Lewis notes in his Preface to Paradise Lost (page 95), such a statement is about the same as saying, "Nonsense be thou my sense." This is a special case of linguistic ambiguity, for evil cannot be its opposite, the good. Thus, one of the two meanings is manifestly false, so perhaps one can say that in this sense, a postlapsarian language can be fallen. The language in this case is not merely used to deceive; it is, in part (or parts), intrinsically deceptive.

Which leads me to a point raised in yesterday's post, where I noted the following about that angel loyal to God, Abdiel:
Speaking of Abdiel's words, when he meets Satan on the field of battle and says, "This greeting on thy impious Crest receive" (PL 6.188), and then brings down upon Satan's helmeted head his righteous sword, isn't he using the term "greeting" in a sense so ironic as to be contradictory, in that it contains two meanings that contradict each other, as in some puns?
And I inquired:
Does Abdiel thus speak in a postlapsarian, 'fallen' tongue?
Today, I can press this a bit further, for one could argue that a "greeting" defined as "a blow on the head" is a false definition and that Abdiel is using fallen language. This would be not so dissimilar from Satan saying, "Evil be thou my Good." On the other hand, and unlike Satan, Abdiel is speaking ironically, even sarcastically, so nobody is deceived, nor is any deception intended.

But the question then to be raised is this: would there be any use for irony in language in an unfallen world? Perhaps not, but there might be a legitimate use for it by unfallen beings confronted by fallen beings and a fallen world. What do readers think, is Abdiel a little bit fallen . . . or not?

He certainly looks somewhat fallen in that image above.

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At 6:47 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

In the light of these last posts of yours, it may be remarkable to remind that in the Divine Comedy neither Satan nor Christ speaks!

Many devils speak in the hell / Inferno, but Satan himself just gnaws and weeps.
Christ speaks, indirectly, some times in the Purgatorio; but in heaven / Paradiso he only appears as an object of visions by Dante, not however as a subject who speaks.

As to angels, they do speak, but nearly always by just quoting sentences taken from the Bible or other texts.

Whereas Milton seems to convey his theology through the varied use of language, Dante often stresses that language cannot convey what he means, both in hell and in heaven.

At 7:19 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Like Falstaff, Dante obviously believed that discretion was the better part of valor.

But the question is . . . why did Milton arrogate to himself the right to put words in the mouth of the Father and the Son?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:26 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

why did Milton arrogate to himself the right to put words

Maybe because he was blind. Words were his colors. (As Dante dared describe God in Paradiso 33.)

At 7:48 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Maybe, but Milton's inner vision was still acute.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:50 AM, Blogger A.H. said...

God, what do they teach them at Cambridge these days. Obviously, not much about Shelley and Blake. I can't see Abdiel as a bit fallen.

At 10:15 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

That part about Abdiel was mine, with me being somewhat facetious. But I don't think the students distinguished clearly enough between "fallen language" and "fallen abuse of language."

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:19 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

Maybe, but Milton's inner vision was still acute

A vision lastly turning into words i.e. sounds. As he says about himself (PL 3):

... these eyes, that roll in vain...

... Yet not the more
Cease I to wander where the Muses haunt...

Then feed on thoughts that voluntary move
Harmonious numbers, as the wakeful bird...

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

Visionary poetry must be sounded to be poetry. Is there any poetry that is purely visual?

Some aspects are, of course . . . the shape of a poem on the page, which has even occasioned poems structured to look like butterflies, altars, and whatnot.

But poetry is fundamentally about sound, right?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:55 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

Of course, but it seems to me that Milton stresses the importance of words/sound otherwise, and more, than e.g. Dante.

Briefly: in Dante, words describe colors.
In Milton, words create them (so to speak). And puns basically work as nuances.

At 7:51 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Not having read Dante in the original, I'll have to beg off on this . . . me being a tyro.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:35 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

me being a tyro

The words you use clearly show that you are a Milton-L reader

At 9:44 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I know so little, I can only tyronnize . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:34 AM, Blogger A.H. said...

But poetry is fundamentally about sound, right?
You ought to ask Ezra Pound that question :-)

At 6:16 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I may get to . . . in a few years.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:45 PM, Blogger Rob said...

Mr. Hodges,
There's something I was hoping to contact you about privately. Could you email me at rjamesyork(at)heraldm(dot)com?

At 7:16 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sure. Do you want your comment deleted, now that I've read it?

Jeffery Hodges

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