Paradise Lost, Plato’s Cave

September 6, 2012

I am reading John Milton’s Paradise Lost.  He wrote it when he was blind.  Does that mean that he was more cognizant of the eternal truths of the world, free from distraction by one of his senses?  That’s what the Greeks thought of poets, and thus, Homer was blind.

I guess Milton found his way out of Plato’s cave, that dark place where unenlightened men see the shadows of truth dancing on the walls.  But Plato banned poets from the ideal republic:  He was always more about power than justice or truth anyway.

Lots of people have commented that Satan is by far the most interesting character in Milton’s epic poem, but I find myself quite taken with Adam and Eve. 

They are quite the humanist pair:  Adam appears before the angel Raphael, come to warn him against Satan, with appropriate humility, but quite confident and stately in his naked beauty.  I guess Milton only attached the notion of idolatry, against which he railed, to costume, gold, temples, and the like, while it seems to me quite possible to idolize, rather than idealize, the human form.  Anyway, the two really do love each other, apparently without sin as of yet.

Satan is the tormented soul, and not because he is forced to lie about on a lake of fire after his abortive coup d’etat in heaven.  He has a head full of ideas that are driving him insane, and he can’t stop plotting.  The sight of Adam and Eve, happy in Eden, drives him to a frenzy of rage and jealousy, and what could he do?  He has free will…that’s how it had to be.

I was wondering while reading if Plato could have known of the Old Testament, but my digging indicates that it is improbable.  The book wasn’t translated into Greek until long after Plato’s death, and though there must have been Jews passing through Athens, it is hard to imagine Plato chatting with them in the Agora.  Certainly, he could have known of myths and tales from the east, some of which – The Flood, the Garden of Eden – are common to many traditions.  Eastern thinking, art, and cults were very influential in Greek thought.

The Garden of Eden strikes me as a sort of inverse of Plato’s cave.  The inhabitants have no ‘knowledge':  they must not eat of the Tree of Knowledge, but they are happy, paradisically so.  When they gain knowledge at the urging of Satan/Serpent, they are beset by sin, lust, and pain.  They are cast out into the world by God.  Wouldn’t Plato have vomited at the thought that knowledge would bring pain and disaster rather than serenity and peace?   But I don’t think he had a notion of sin that needed to be justified.

In the end, however, I find that I am sympathetic to the scripture’s view.  That is, the Greeks may have invented Tragedy, but when it comes to the Old Testament and Plato, he seems naive, while the story of Eden hits on some deeply felt sense that by gaining the world, and all its knowledge, we have lost something.  Even if it’s not something we want back now.


Flying in a Dream

December 1, 2010

flying-dream

I began to walk down a steep path, winding like a serpent amidst the forest: at first in a light, elastic step; later, passing into a brisk, happy run which became gradually faster, until it resembled a gliding descent on skis.  I could regulate my speed at will and change course by light movements of my body.

This passage is from the end of a chapter called “Cinnamon Shops” in a book of fiction by Bruno Schulz called The Street of Crocodiles.  (Originally, it was titled, Cinnamon Shops).  I have this dream sometimes, and it’s always very pleasant and positive.  I don’t think I’ve ever read a description that so well captures the feeling and nature of my imaginary whooshing down the street.

Labels such as surrealist, magic realist, symbolist, etc. don’t do justice to the depth of feeling, the poetic atmosphere, and the richness of imagery and situation that Schulz creates in his stories.   His father gives a metaphysical exposition of the significance of tailors’ dummies; he keeps an aviary in an attic room, and believes he can fly with the birds; a puppy named Nimrod; a glimpse of Pan incarnated in the person of a homeless wonderer surprised in an overgrown garden… I read on.

I don’t know how I found out about Bruno Schulz, or how I missed him all these years.  I may have first seen one of his prints – made on scratched glass – from his suite called Idolatry.

  

Here is an excerpt from the conclusion of a chapter called The Gale.  Father is lost in the storm.  Two men go out to get him, but don’t get far.  An aunt visits, has an altercation with a fowl, and shrinks to nothing!

Wrapped in great bearskins, they weighted their pockets with flat-irons and kitchen mortars for ballast, to prevent them from being swept away by the gale.  Cautiously, the door was opened, leading into the night.  Barely had the shop assistant and my brother taken their first step into the darkness, their overcoats swelling, when the night swallowed them whole on the threshold of the house.  The gale washed away all trace of their departure in an instant.  Even the lanterns they had taken with them were nowhere to be seen through the window. 

Once it had engulfed them, the gale abated for a moment.  Adela and Mother tried again to light a fire in the range.  Ash and soot blew out through the tiny door, and their matches were extinguished.  We stood by the entrance and listened, seeming to hear amid the gale’s laments all manner of voices, persuasions, exhortations and gossip.  We thought we could hear Father, astray in the gale, calling for help, or my brother and Teodor chatting lightheartedly, just outside the door.  So convincing were the gale’s deceptions that Adela flung the door open–and in fact we did catch sight of Teodor and my brother, struggling into view out of the gale, in which they were immersed shoulder high.

They fell breathless into the hallway, struggling to fasten the door behind them.  For a moment it was all they could do to press themselves against the door, so powerfully was the gale assaulting the entrance.  But at last the bolt was shot home, and the wind hastened away. 

They spoke incoherently about the night and the gale.  Their furs, impregnated by the wind, now smelt of air.  They fluttered their eyelids in the brightness, and their eyes, still full of the night, bled darkness with every beat of their lids.  They had not been able to reach the shop.  They had lost their way, and barely managed to find their way back.  The town had been unrecognisable, so disarranged were all the streets.

Mother suspected that they were lying.  That whole scene, in fact, gave the impression that throughout that whole quarter of an hour they had been standing by the window, and gone nowhere at all.  Or perhaps there really was no town or market square any more, and the night and the gale had merely surrounded our house with dark coulisses, full of howling, whistling and groans.  Perhaps there were no such enormous and doleful expanses as the gale had suggested to us.  Perhaps there were no such lamentable labyrinths, such many-windowed passageways and corridors, played by the gale like long, black flutes.  We became increasingly convinced that the whole storm was merely the quixotism of the night, imitating tragical immensities in the narrower space of coulisses, acting out the cosmic homelessness and orphanhood of a gale. 

More and more often now, the door to our hallway was opened to admit guests, grey and muffled in cloaks.  A breathless neighbour or acquaintance would struggle out of his scarf and overcoat and exclaim in gasps, in a breathless voice, discontinuous, incoherent and fantastically magnified words which unreliably exaggerated the immensity of the night outside.  We all sat in the brightly lit kitchen.  Beyond the hearth of the range, beyond the wide black hood of the chimney, a few steps led to the attic door. 

On those stairs sat Teodor, the elder shop assistant, listening intently as the attic rang throughout with the gale.  He could hear in the gale’s pauses how the bellows of the attic’s ribs arranged themselves into folds, how the roof grew limp, and sagged like enormous lungs whose breath has escaped them, and how it drew breath once more, rising up into palisades of rafters, growing like a Gothic vault, spreading out into a forest of beams, filled with a hundredfold echo, how it reverberated like the box of an enormous double bass.  But later, we forgot about the gale.  Adela was pounding cinnamon in a chiming mortar.  Aunt Perazja had come to visit.  Small, mobile and thrifty, the lace of her black shawl tied around her head, she began to bustle about the kitchen, lending a hand to Adela, who had plucked a cockerel.  Aunt Perazja lit a handful of papers under the hood of the chimney, and broad sheets of flame rose up from them, into the air, into the black abyss.  Adela, holding the cockerel by its neck, lifted it over the flames in order to burn off its few remaining feathers.  Suddenly, the cockerel beat its wings in the fire, crowed, and was consumed.  Aunt Perazja began to shake, to curse and shout abuses.  Shaking with vexation, she shook her fists at Adela and Mother.  I had no idea what had so upset her, but she worked herself up in her anger into an ever rising state of frenzy–she became one great cluster of gesticulations and execrations.  It seemed that she would gesticulate herself to pieces in that paroxysm of vexation, divide, and disperse in all directions, into a hundred spiders, and branch out across the floor in a black, twinkling burst like the paths of crazy cockroaches.  But instead, she began to grow rapidly smaller, to contract, trembling more and more and pouring out profanities.  Suddenly hunched and small, she tottered to the corner of the kitchen where the firewood was stacked.  Cursing and coughing, she began to rummage fervidly among the resounding wood, until she found two thin yellow splinters.  She seized them, her hands fluttering with agitation, and measured them against her legs.  She mounted them like stilts, and proceeded to walk around on those yellow crutches, clattering over the floorboards, running faster and faster, back and forth in an oblique line across the floor.  Then she ran up onto a pine bench, hobbling along its clattering planks, and from there onto a shelf of plates, a resounding wooden shelf running the whole length of the kitchen wall.  She ran along it, her knees propelling her stiltlike crutches, finally–somewhere in the corner, growing smaller and smaller–to blacken and curl up like shrivelled, charred paper, smouldering into a flake of ash, crumbling into dust and nothingness. 

We all stood helpless before that raging fury of vexation that had consumed and digested itself.  We looked with sympathy on the sad course of that paroxysm, and returned to our everyday tasks somewhat relieved when that woeful process had come to its natural end. 

Adela once more clattered her mortar, pounding the cinnamon, whilst Mother continued her interrupted conversation, and Teodor, the elder shop assistant, listening to the attic’s prophesies, pulled comical grimaces, raising high his eyebrows and chuckling to himself. 

Translated by John Curran Davis – Draft of September 2010 - www.schulzian.net


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 195 other followers