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.