Archives for posts with tag: analysis

Book III opens to God consulting with his son, Jesus about the upcoming “Fall of Man”. Being omniscient, God knows what Satan is up to and the end result, but he decides not to interfere and justifies this decision with a lecture on free will. (I have a problem with this doctrine of obedience that is so fundamental to Christianity. I find it impossible to reconcile obedience to love. A doctrine John Milton, I feel, struggles with too, especially as it concerns the politics of his day.) At this point, the poem devolves into metaphysics and legalese.

“But yet all is not done; man disobeying,
Disloyal breaks his fealty, and sins
Against the high supremacy of Heav’n,
Affecting Godhead, and so losing all,
To expiate his treason hath naught left,
But to destruction sacred and devote,
He with his whole posterity must die,
Die he or Justice must; unless for him
Some other able, and as willing, pay
The rigid satisfaction, death for death.” [III: 203-212]

The theology of these lines is hard to interpret, but it almost seems as if there’s some greater law and God is only acting as the judge, albeit a judge who always makes the just decision. God apparently cannot ignore this “greater law” hinted at in the poem, less he disrupt the order of the universe. There’s a strange sense of competing mythologies in Paradise Lost. On the one hand, Christianity has the “God created everything!” approach. On the other hand, classical mythology says that the universe arose out of Chaos from which the gods and the world spontaneously? emerged. I certainly see an uneasy tension between these philosophies.

Back to the narrative, God is willing to return man to grace, if someone else would ‘take the fall’ for them, and takes the offer to his angels only to be received with non-enthusiasm. “Well don’t everybody speak up at once.” I half expected God to quip, because, wow angels, your devotion towards humanity is really touching. The crickets were deafening compared to your clamorous response, or non-response I should say. Luckily Jesus, being the incarnation of love, intercedes on humanity’s behalf.

“His words here ended, but his meek aspéct
Silent yet spake, and breathed immortal love
To mortal men, above which only shone
Filial obedience: as a sacrifice
Glad to be offered, he attends the will
Of his great Father.” [III: 266-271]

But his speech seems to deflate at the end (at least for me) because the son effectively concludes with “Besides, I’m immortal so it’s not like I’m actually going to die for real, right Dad? And while I’m at it I might as well kill Death too.” Cue the round of applause.

Meanwhile, Satan arrives on Earth at the borders of Eden. He’s having trouble finding his way so he stops and ask for directions from the angel, Uriel. Uriel’s not exactly the brightest crayon in the box. I know, I know, Satan’s in disguise, but still, God has just given this huge speech about how humanity is going to succumb to sin, and Uriel thinks nothing of it when some strange guy comes asking about Paradise because he’s so desperate to witness God’s creation. Uriel, you done goofed.

Satan, while the angels try to find him after realizing their mistake, stumbles upon Adam and Eve, and dare I say it, falls in love. He almost regrets the sin he will lead the pair to, but necessity and the expansion of his empire call for the deed. Nonetheless Satan consoles himself with the thought that mankind will come live with him in Hell.

“Hell shall unfold,
To entertain you two, her widest gates,
And send forth all her kings; there will be room,
Not like these narrow limits, to receive
Your numerous offspring” [IV: 381-385]

Huh. Satan has a point, I suppose. Earth is overpopulated as it is. Could you imagine Eden? In all seriousness, Milton dwells for some time on life and love in the Garden of Eden. First of all, Adam and Eve perform labor on their garden, rather than idle the time away. A sense of purpose appears to be one thing that sets Man apart from animals. This book abounds with descriptions of flower, tree, and animal life.

Naturally, the relationship between Adam and Eve is examined at length. For one thing, they had really good sex. This seems like a silly thing to bring up, but sex is a significant facet of their marriage, as it is for most marriages. Though Milton is careful to make the distinction between true heartfelt love vs the lustful sort. However, his contemporaries and even modern day Christians to be honest view sex as an impure, shameful act that didn’t occur in this perfect setting. Milton argues that sex in the right context is a beautiful act that definitely would have occurred in Eden. However, the doctrine of obedience returns in a very troubling form: Eden’s submission to Adam. Based on Milton’s tone, I doubt he views this imbalance positively. However, it remains as foreshadowing at this point in the epic.

Overall, Books III & IV examined the nature of love whereas Books I & II concerned themselves with hope and despair.

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Paradise Lost - CoverParadise Lost by John Milton

Edited by John Leonard

Heaven has won the celestial war, and triumphing over Satan, God in all his might has cast the fallen angel and his followers down to Hell. So begins Milton’s great epic, Paradise Lost. You would think in this retelling of Genesis that Milton would start from the beginning with the creation of heaven and earth or perhaps with God’s first words, “Let there be light.” He doesn’t. The tale begins in the midst of utter darkness and despair.

Our “Hero” is Satan, because honestly, it’s boring to read about good people living in paradise. As humans, we revel in imperfection and flawed characters, and Satan just so happens to fit the bill. Who cares if he’s evil incarnate? Evil has its virtues after all. By casting Satan as the protagonist of this story, Milton makes a fascinating and troubling artistic choice. What does it mean to root for the devil, the enemy of mankind?

In Book I of Paradise Lost, the reader encounters Satan who, having been utterly vanquished by the Almighty, finds himself in the midst of Hell and eternal torment. Although in great pain, the devil manages to raise himself out of the depths of despair, and with his strength and courage manages to rally his fellow demons to endure. It is impossible not to sympathize with him, for in this moment he shows qualities that speak to the best of humanity. Satan will not let “tyranny” [II: 59] keep him down; he will find a glimmer of hope so as to keep existing, to keep living. Unfortunately for the race of man, his great hope is our ruin. If Satan cannot defeat God then he can at least spite the deity and uphold his pride in spite of the danger to his very existence.

“But I should ill become this throne, O Peers,
And this imperial sov’reignty, adorned
With splendour, armed with power, if aught proposed
And judged of public moment, in the shape
Of difficulty or danger could deter
Me from attempting.” [II 445-450]

Pride, being Satan’s defining quality, places him square in the tradition of the Ancient Greek and Roman epics. Achilles, Odysseus, Aeneus, each and every one of the demigods, see pride and renown to be the sought after prize. Milton himself has no little pride stating that his poem “with no middle flight intends to soar / Above th’Aonian mount” [I:14-15]; he, thus, has created a striking amalgamation of the mythic and biblical worlds.

There are also allusions to the real world of politics and power play embedded in the epic. The rebellion of Satan against God is coached in the language of civil war, monarchy, and freedom. Such language grounds this ethereal, unworldly tale firmly on terra firma. Take the following lines:

“For so the popular vote
Inclines, here to continue, and build up here
A growing empire; doubtless; while we dream,
And know not that the King of Heav’n hath doomed
This place our dungeon, not our safe retreat
Beyond his potent arm, to live exempt
From Heav’n’s high jurisdiction, in new league
Banded against his throne, but to remain
In strictest bondage, though thus far removed,
Under th’inevitable curb, reserved
His captive multitude:” [II: 313-323]

As an American, the words zing with accusation. For the demons claim to be on the side of freedom and democracy, while God and his angels are portrayed as cruel tyrants. Milton, in making such a comparison, invites comment upon the England of his own time. The English Civil War (1642-1651) in which the Monarchy and Parliament battled for control of the land, influenced much of Milton’s perspective. Ironically, Milton turned against the monarchy in favor of a Republican form of government, which sheds an interesting light upon Paradise Lost, for God is the embodiment of the monarchy that rules by force, and Satan is the embodiment of meritocracy. So we as readers must ask who in the poem is the villain? Is it Satan or God?

It’s no wonder Milton was considered a heretic.

1984_signet_classicFew authors have ever constructed such an iconic world as George Orwell did in his masterpiece, 1984. This is the dystopia, a bleak world without humanity where hate and fear not only thrive but also permeate all of existence. The scenes from the book strike like a vision from a dream. It is a dire warning. Of course, George Orwell is not an unbiased observer. He is a “true believer.”

I also cringe whenever I hear the claim that our government is becoming Big Brother or that our world is turning into 1984. At the same time they bandy about words like “freedom” and “tyranny” failing to realize that sort of hysteria is endemic to the Party.

A scorpion tail does not a chimera imply. Neither do video cameras necessarily imply Big Brother. Is the scorpion still venomous and deadly? Of course it is, but it’s not the chimera of myth. In the real world, governments are painfully human and fallible. Even North Korea. They are born. They change. They die. Still we wonder, “What would an immortal government be like?”

Speculative fiction communicates messages. The setting and characters are the vehicles of this communication. I’m not always a fan of the genre because the message often overpowers the story; but when the story embraces subtlety and forgoes the didactic lectures, I find myself enthralled. 1984 teeters on that edge.

In some sections, the message is overbearing. As the philosophizing grows thick, the book grows tedious. In one scene, Winston reads aloud from Goldstein’s book and his lover falls asleep listening to him. I felt like doing the same. 

On the other hand, some passages are devastatingly poignant. Winston’s memories, of his mother and sister with expressions frozen in a mysterious, mournful gaze evoke the deepest human emotion. The contrast is profound next to the descriptions of the current 1984 world. One set of descriptions is full of life and meaning, the other feels empty and unsettling.

I am left wondering. I’m not sure if the message is the true strength of the book. It is the images that remain engraved in our thoughts: the enigmatic poster always watching, the telescreen always blaring, the microphones always listening, and the people always concealing their true selves. And far-off in a long forgotten past a mother clutches her child. These images are the ones we hold in our memories.  

* * * *

Book Analysis

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

What exactly is religion? Is it the belief in gods and the worship of those deities? But then, what is a god? In most faiths, a deity is an immortal, supernatural entity who controls and directs all of existence. A mere human can never fully comprehend the true nature of a god, the absolute power that a god embodies. In contrast gods have the power to lift a mortal man to a higher or lower plane of existence.

Religion is absent in 1984. References to Christianity litter the pages (the old churches in the rhyme stand out in particular) but no sign of actual worship is to be found. But on closer examination, a religious organization does in fact encompass this reality: the religion of Big Brother.

However, the ever-present image on the poster is only his human guise. Big Brother, to appeal to his believers, must present himself in a form comprehensible to mortal humans. His true form, intangible and immortal, lies beyond the scope of human imagination. 

Captured by the Thought Police, Winston Smith must now confront the ultimate test of his faith, the belief in the immutable past and unbending reality. The Thought Police, servants of Big Brother, are not content with outward obedience. True belief and willing obedience are their true aims.

In their headquarters, they will systematically deconstruct Winston Smith on all levels, physical, mental and spiritual. Then they will rebuild him in the party’s image. They will not stop until complete victory is achieved. Not even death will stop theme. There are no martyrs in 1984.

The man who performs the deed is none other than O’Brien. Perceived as an enemy of the Party, O’Brien is in fact a true believer. In many ways he serves as Winston Smith’s foil, both his opposite and his equal. Within this man lies the confidant that Winston has always searched for.

However, O’Brien embodies the philosophy and government that Winston despises. In fact, one could even say that O’Brien is the incarnation of Big Brother himself, presenting himself in a comprehensible form. O’Brien is God.

Winston on the other hand is just a mortal man. Suspended in a place beyond time and cut off from the outside world, Winston’s perception of reality falters. Without these connections, the foundation of Winston’s worldview begins to crumble. Tormented physically and emotionally, he is at his most vulnerable.

And thus does the final confrontation take place, the last battle between a man and a god. The outcome is predetermined.

At the end Winston comes to realize the truth, and the truth destroys his mind. While this god presents himself in the form of the man, his true form is the Party itself. The Party is absolute power. God is Power. The Party is God.   

Leaving poor Telemachus hanging from a figurative cliff, Homer switches over to see what Odysseus has been up to all this time. Books 5-8 tell of Odysseus’ escape from Calypso’s island and his reception by the Phaeacians. In fact, the events of Books 5-8 parallel Telemachus’ own journey up to this point.  

For seven years, Odysseus has been held captive by the nymph Calypso who desires to wed the man. In spite of the nymph’s beauty and promises of immortality, Odysseus still yearns for his own wife, Penelope, and the island of Ithaca. Finally, the Olympian gods order Calypso to release the man.

Calypso notes the double standard for males and females. For the male gods are permitted to lie with whom they choose while the lovers of the female gods are torn away. This is a startling bit of insight for that time period. This point is further accentuated by the fact that Odysseus and Calypso immediately retreat to her bed after he is granted his freedom in contrast to Penelope who must remain chaste to preserve her honor. I am actually not sure if Homer is writing according to the morals and expectations of his time or if he is pointing out a moral fault in Odysseus.

In the end, Calypso does allow Odysseus to go free, telling him to construct a raft while she supplies the provisions. Odysseus, wily and crafty, nevertheless fears the guile of others. Suspicious of Calypso’s motives, he demands her oath, an attitude for which she chides him. He is after all treating those who would help him with unwarranted suspicion. Of course, learning of Poseidon’s fury towards Odysseus we can hardly blame the man. After a horrific sea crossing he manages to reach the shores of Phaeacia, a blessed though isolated people and encounters the princess, Nausicaa.  

The contrast between the reception he finds on the island of Phaecia and the reception he will find when he returns to Ithaca is startling. The Phaeacians don’t even know Odysseus’ name and still they honor him with feasts and games. For all they know he could be Joe nobody, but they treat him like a king. Such are the laws of hospitality in the time of Homer. Ironically his own people to whom he was like a father will greet Odysseus quite differently. There he will encounter greed and treachery.  

Throughout Odysseus’ stay with the Phaeacians he alludes to the sufferings he has endured along the way. The story up until now has been peppered with such references, teasing us with their mystery. However, we must wait until Book 9 for Odysseus to tell of his journey.  

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