30 March, 2008

Miltonic musings

Well, we've finally moved on from Dante to Milton in my literature class. For me, the transition has been a rather sad one, since I love The Divine Comedy almost to excess; it's sad to stop delving into it every day for class (although we do all have to write a large research paper on the book, happily). Milton by contrast I find rather irritating. I'm trying my level best to enjoy the book, but I rather feel towards it as I do about Moby Dick - I can recognize its excellence as a work of literature, but it will never shape my life as the Comedy, Crime and Punishment, Till We Have Faces, or any of those other marvelous favourites of mine have.

Nonetheless, I'm pleased to find that I don't detest the epic. I did in high school, mostly due, I believe to a lack of maturity in my reading: I found it unnecessarily dense and didactic. I still think it's more didactic than would be ideal, but with the guidance of my amazingly brilliant literature professor, I'm beginning to discern the underlying cleverness of many scenes, and even occasional flashes of irony in the narrative and descriptions. As it happens, all these actually interesting parts are the ones with the devils or Adam and Eve. We get to see Satan lying to himself and his followers and to try to follow his twisted logic through all its convolutions. We also get some actually quite interesting points about the nature of rebellion from a being Who is totally good and very good poetic analysis of why any creature would want to do that.

Oddly enough, I believe that the best ideas about God Himself that appear in the poem are those you can discern by interpretation of the demonic accounts of their hatred of their Creator. Through them you see what is not true about God, and even - in some rare moments such as Satan's soliloquy at the beginning of book 4 - what is true beyond the denial of even the diabolical.

Milton's depiction of God as an actual character by contrast seems to be crippled by a certain pretentiousness and an overeagerness on God-the-character's part to justify Himself to the readers. My friends and I complain about this aspect of the book more than any other, I think - certainly over dramatizing the problem to an extent, but aware nonetheless that the problem is a tangible one. How can you make God into a character? If He is as ineffable as Milton believes, the attempt seems nearly hubristic. And really, it doesn't come off well at all in my opinion. Very often Milton interprets God's actions in such a manner: "God to render man inexcusable sends Raphael to admonish him of his obedience" (opening to Book 5). The poem constantly seems to put God into a defensive position which begs the question of whether Milton's God really is as just as He should be.

29 March, 2008

Inclination vs. action

I was reading a Dorothy Sayers essay about Dante the other day in which she discussed the manner in which the souls in Inferno have become identified with their sin. She was quite emphatic in pointing out the fundamental distinction between Dante's and the readers' journey through hell and the status of the sinners within hell. Those who remain in hell have chosen sin through a deliberate action of the will: an action which could not be more dissimilar from that of Dante and the readers who only witness the punishments to see what accepting the temptations of sin will lead to.

This point rather leads her off onto a tangent. She tells of a letter she once received from a student with very definite ideas about psychology (a young man of that type so thoroughly convinced of his own modernity in accepting certain ideas that he'll hold onto them far past the threshold of illogicality). He tried, she writes, to persuade her that her writing of mystery stories revealed a suppressed impulse to actually commit a murder, basing his idea on the assumption that the unconscious is the sum of the mind and ignoring the function of rational choice in defining a person's state.

Sayers relates this odd correspondence to her belief that it is invalid to identify impulse and the human unconscious too exclusively with the activity of the mind. Ultimately, the tendency to say that the unconcious is all that genuinely exists in the mind leads one to reject both intellect and will (two fundamental concepts for Dante) - the rational and directive capacities of the mind. To reject these two is to reject precsely that aspect of the mind which makes us human (a very convenient rejection if you want to define man as no more than a particularly clever ape). If, as the student she writes of says, the impulse to write a murder story and the impulse to murder are one and the same, we would have to admit that simple thinking about something is morally equivalent to doing it.

But wait... perhaps you're not supposed to talk about morals nowadays... Nonetheless, even if you were to discount all language of morality, you must admit that such an idea promotes something of a logical fallacy: it identifies an impulse that is actualized as being identical to an impulse that is merely felt; it refuses to consider action and views consideration as all that counts. No assent of will can distinguish the actor from the mere contemplator. The view discounts the decision to either act on or reject an impulse and holds that only the impulse itself is of any account.

In more Dantean language, it denies sin by making temptation itself into the only thing that counts in the human mind. Sin is inflicted on people by circumstances which cause temptation to arise, rather than being - as Dante believed - a concious choise of the individual's will to act according to temptation and against what the intellect informs it is right.

19 March, 2008

Spring Break

So, our spring break at the University of Dallas this year coincides, conveniently enough, with Holy Week. It's great to have the entire week off, as I always used to at home. I'm staying with friends in St. Louis (because plane tickets to Maine at this time of year are perfectly outrageous), and it's jolly fun.

I've been to see most of the impressive sights of the city - the Arch most particularly. And of course, there are other places you don't hear about so often that my friend's family has taken me to see. There's "The Hill", where everyone is Italian and quite proud of it in a way that reminds me of Tipperary Hill's Irish-ness in Syracuse, NY. Fitz's is a neat restaurant which specializes in root beer floats and a sort of 50s-ish atmosphere. I also was able to see the city's "Old Cathedral", dedicated to St. Louis IX of France. It actually hadn't even occurred to me that he would be the patron, considering how rarely you see things dedicated to him, but it makes sense, of course.