12 April, 2008

Paradise Lost continued...

Well, I'm much further along in Paradise Lost by now. My general impressions of the book are still quite similar to those outlined in the last post. However, some of my likes and dislikes in the work are now rather more specific.

Probably my favourite scene in the epic is Satan's temptation of Eve. Really it's one of the few that I've genuinely enjoyed a lot. Satan still seems very much to be the most successful character, in my opinion, although I don't quite comprehend how he could be interpreted as the hero of the epic. It's precisely the intenseness of his evil that makes him such a convincing character, not, I think any sympathy on the part of Milton. The temptation itself is marvelously subtle; so subtle in fact, that it hardly even comes off as unreasonable at first glance.

It starts with flattery, which given the tendency to vanity which Milton has already revealed in Eve (in her account of her first few moments of life), isn't a surprise. However, it very quickly moves beyond such initial superficiality and becomes much more nuanced. The main temptation is that Eve, the most breathtakingly beautiful creature on the earth, should become "a Goddess among Gods, ador'd and serv'd / By Angels numberless" (9.547-48). The bait is made more convincing by Satan's disguise as a serpent. He, whom Eve knows should be unable to speak, nonetheless approaches her, speaks to her, praises her vast superiority to him, and then slyly mentions that he knows how she could become even more worthy of admiration. Then he claims that he has been raised above the rest of the beasts to become "interior man" by virtue of a certain fruit - the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Eve's initial reluctance to eat the fruit which God has forbidden her is attenuated by the sight of a serpent whose (alleged) experience seems to hint that God has not been entirely open about the Tree. If a beast can be raised to manhood, why not a human to Godhead?

The argument is clever enough so far, but one last touch clinches the subtlety of its deceitfulness. Perhaps, the serpent suggests, the fruit is simply there as a test, not of your obedience, but of your courage. What if God has decreed death for those who eat of the tree only because He wished to see if you humans care more for life than for knowledge? If He is in earnest, on the other hand, what kind of God is it who forbids His creatures such a positive good? Surely not a just one. And "Not just, not God; not feard then, nor obeyd".

Considering the sinlessness of Adam and Eve before the fall, it's hard tp conceive of a temptation that might in fact be appealing. Not knowing and incapable of imagining how prelapsarian man would have thought, neither I nor Milton nor anyone would be able to say for certain whether an argument phrased similarly would at all have been convincing to the historical Adam and Eve. Nevertheless, in the context of the book, and the fact that here Milton must appeal to the imagination, it's a very successful depiction, in which the argument is presented in a way which we could at least imagine to be appealing to one who had no reason to wish to offend and no concupiscence to make offense particularly easy.

In an aside, I'm not sure exactly how much Milton even believed in concupiscence, and am unsure just how prelapsarian he considered Eve to be. But that's a subject for another post.

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