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Paradise Lost

In book review on July 12, 2009 at 7:05 am

Like Goethe and Dante, Milton was canonized singlehandedly through his best work. Paradise Lost has that line by line virtuosity that Borges praised in Virgil. In describing hell, the poet does not report the uttermost degree of gloom, but instead says “darkness visible”. Instead of saying that the rebel angels mined precious metals, he says they “Ransack’d the Center”. He sustains analogies across many pages; in Book 1, he describes a hill to be “undoubted sign / That in his womb was hid metallic Ore”, then in Book 6, “These in their dark nativity the deep / Shall yield us, pregnant with infernal flame” (emphasis is mine). He describes the formation of angels as being “in hollow Cube” because the cannon lies concealed at the empty center. He convinces us of the fallen angels’ heroic disposition when Satan speaks, “Hail horrors, hail / Infernal world and thou profoundest Hell / Receive thy new Possessor”.

But I think what distinguishes it from other artificial epics is its cognitive capacity to demonstrate the kind of thinking that we see in Emily Dickinson, John Donne and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. This is nothing more than the Prince’s “There is no good or bad, but thinking makes it so”. The cognitive capacity is one that treats the external world a mere stuff of clay for the mind. We see a very fine and calculated weighing of terms, and the poet’s subtle logic is usually expressed in Satan’s speeches. One example is how he justifies fallenness to be better than remaining in God’s grace:

The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
What matter where, if I be still the same
[…]
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell

Then many pages later, the poet has Satan say, “I myself am hell”.

Paradise Lost has already anticipated the poststructuralist notion of differance. The design of the epic revolves around how we gain knowledge about death, choice, and a sense of good and evil. What ensues is an argument that concepts cannot be construed with a positive term — they must always rely on other concepts, often their opposite. God commanded Adam and Eve not to eat the forbidden fruit because the consequence is death. But how can they make sense of death if it has not yet been introduced in the world?

We are thus in a situation where nothing can be known without experiencing it first. The Fall gives us knowledge. To know they are capable of choice, the angels must choose the other term (disobedience), because to remain obedient cannot possibly give rise to that knowledge. The editors of the Oxford World’s Classics version of Paradise Lost were right: “We fall with the best of intentions”.