Eve, Satan, and Sewers…

September 20, 2012

In discussing his fine illustrated version of The Old Testament, R. Crumb said he always thought that Adam and Eve had more fun in Eden than The Bible lets on.  In Paradise Lost, Milton takes the same view, emphasizing just how much our first parents enjoy one another’s company, all without sinful lust, of course.

This all changes of course.  I was very taken by the passage in which Milton describes Satan, in the guise of the serpent, spying on Eve in the garden.  So beautiful is she, that he is briefly transported out of his evil self, almost becoming good, until he comes back down to earth!  Milton uses the simile of a city-dweller, oppressed by the smell of sewer fumes, feeling transported on leaving the town for the country, and viewing the green prospect, smelling that pure air.

Yeah, well, just pointing it out, the sewer bit, that is… (emphasis added to make my tedious point, etc.)

 As one who long in populous City pent,
       Where Houses thick and Sewers annoy the Aire,
       Forth issuing on a Summers Morn, to breathe
       Among the pleasant Villages and Farmes
       Adjoynd, from each thing met conceaves delight,
       The smell of Grain, or tedded Grass, or Kine,
       Or Dairie, each rural sight, each rural sound;
       If chance with Nymphlike step fair Virgin pass,
       What pleasing seemd, for her now pleases more,
       She most, and in her look summs all Delight.
       Such Pleasure took the Serpent to behold
       This Flourie Plat, the sweet recess of EVE
       Thus earlie, thus alone; her Heav’nly forme
       Angelic, but more soft, and Feminine,
       Her graceful Innocence, her every Aire
       Of gesture or lest action overawd
       His Malice, and with rapine sweet bereav’d
       His fierceness of the fierce intent it brought 

       That space the Evil one abstracted stood
       From his own evil, and for the time remaind
       Stupidly good, of enmitie disarm’d,
       Of guile, of hate, of envie, of revenge;
       But the hot Hell that alwayes in him burnes,
       Though in mid Heav’n, soon ended his delight,
       And tortures him now more, the more he sees
       Of pleasure not for him ordain’d   then soon
       Fierce hate he recollects, and all his thoughts
       Of mischief, gratulating, thus excites.

       Thoughts, whither have he led me, with what sweet
       Compulsion thus transported to forget
       What hither brought us, hate, not love, nor hope
       Of Paradise for Hell, hope here to taste
       Of pleasure, but all pleasure to destroy,
       Save what is in destroying, other joy
       To me is lost. Then let me not let pass
       Occasion which now smiles, behold alone
       The Woman, opportune to all attempts,
       Her Husband, for I view far round, not nigh,
       Whose higher intellectual more I shun,
       And strength, of courage hautie, and of limb
       Heroic built, though of terrestrial mould,
       Foe not informidable, exempt from wound,
       I not; so much hath Hell debas’d, and paine
       Infeebl’d me, to what I was in Heav’n.
       Shee fair, divinely fair, fit Love for Gods,
       Not terrible, though terrour be in Love
       And beautie, not approacht by stronger hate,
       Hate stronger, under shew of Love well feign’d,
       The way which to her ruin now I tend.

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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.


Augustine on Intercourse before Sin

May 9, 2011

In Chapter 23 of Book XIV of Saint Augustine’s City of God, the good doctor deals with some very thorny delicate questions.  He is considering the nature of Adam and Eve’s fall after they ate of the Tree of Knowledge, and thinking of just what was the state of their souls, and their virtue, before the fall.  A question arises:  Would procreation have taken place in paradise, if no one had sinned?

Why does this question of sin and sex arise?  Well, as a Christian, Augustine is at pains to show time and again how the lusts of the body are evil, man’s state of thralldom to his passions turns him from goodness and virtue, and towards damnation, and that the saintly path of renunciation of the flesh is the means to salvation.  But, surely, God did not intend for Adam and Eve to live in purity for all eternity by themselves!  All alone in that great big garden of Eden?  No – it was necessary for the number of saints to increase to its fixed limit (somehow I missed this bit of theology, but when the number of saintly humans reaches a certain value, it will be time for the Last Days), so naturally, Adam and Eve had to have children, had to…do…it.  But sex without sin, without lust, without base animality is not possible, correct?  Ah, not so!

Augustine proceeds to describe to us just what sex without sin would be like, but he does so with great circumspection, avoiding coarse language, and trying to do without any explicit reference to the private parts, because, after all, even with such a virtuous aim, the reference could excite some people to impure thoughts.  The whole business comes down to will power. 

Virtuous men and women have power over their bodies.  Their souls and virtue rule their body, and control its baser impulses.  Just so, Adam would have ‘relaxed on the bosom of Eve’ without any enthusiasm brought on by lust and desire or impure thoughts.  He would simply will his organ to do its duty just as any man can will his arm to move up and down.  The entire thing would be quite wholesome and reasonable, actually.  Viagra would have nothing on him!

Augustine points out that some animals seem to have control over parts of their bodies that we do not.  For example, many animals can cause their hides to flex and jerk, and they do it to shoo away flies, or even to shake out spears. 

Man has not this ability: but surely that does not mean that the Creator could not have bestowed it, at his pleasure, on any animate creatures?…It would not have been difficult for God to fashion him such a way that even what is now set in motion in his flesh only by lust should have been moved only by his will.

To further make his point, Augustine brings forward contemporary evidence:

We do in fact find among human beings some individuals with natural abilities very different from the rest of mankind and remarkable by their very rarity.  Some people can do some things with their body which are for others utterly impossible…Some people can even move their ears, either one at a time or both together.  Others without moving their heads can bring the whole scalp … down towards the forehead and bring it back again at will.

There you have it, simple!  Certainly Adam could have impregnated Eve by virtuous exercise of his will, bringing his mind in its clear grasp of sinless need for children to make his body do what was necessary.  Augustine is filled with such breathtaking insights, but this is only a hypothetical.  We all know what really happened.


Doubt in Eden

May 11, 2009

from Genesis

1 Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?
2 And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden:
3 But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.
4 And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:
5
For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

Now, did the serpent mean: It is certain that you will not die? Or did he mean: It is not certain that you will die? Is this a purposeful ambiguity? Funny that there should be this element of doubt right at the beginning, when knowledge is given to man. Skepticism is at the root, shall we say.

Is the serpent inviting Eve into a structured risky venture, this knowlege business? An invitation to risk assessment? Perhaps she did a quick cost-benefit analysis, and it came out positive for benefit.