Archives for posts with tag: literature

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.

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.

Gold, Silver, Bronze, and Iron. From a state of blissful harmony in the Golden Age to a state of absolute corruption in the Iron Age, Ovid tells of “the fall of man.” He begins with the Golden Age when the Earth in its perpetual spring brims with life. Men need not labor long hours for the Earth gives freely of its fruits. The people content with their lives keep to their own lands, and so war is nonexistent; laws too have not come into being though men remain just and true regardless. Interestingly enough the lack of such laws is the first characteristic Ovid cites for the superiority of the Golden Age. 

“Golden, that first age, which, though ignorant
of laws, yet of its own will, uncoerced,
fostered responsibility and virtue;”
[Metamorphoses I: 126-128]

This particular section of the Metamorphoses evokes Hesiod’s “Works and Days” *** where Hesiod too speaks of the degeneration of men through the ages. Yet, this introduction presents a sharp contrast with Hesiod’s introduction which concentrates on the carefree lifestyle of the age.

They actually lived when Kronos was king of the sky,
And they lived like gods, not a care in their hearts,
Nothing to do with hard work or grief,
And miserable old age didn’t exist for them.
[Works and Days: 131-134]

Ovid unlike Hesiod writes from a Roman perspective where the establishment of law is considered the mark of civilization. It is likely that Ovid uses his introduction to take a jab at the politics of the Roman Empire. After all, what need do the inherently virtuous have of laws? This will not be the first of Ovid’s criticisms towards his government (which had exiled him.) It is one reason why the Metamorphoses is referred to as a “mock epic”; for Ovid will often include satire if he feels there’s a point to be made.

“Last was the age of iron: suddenly,
all forms of evil burst upon this time
of lesser mettle; modesty, fidelity,
and truth departed; in their absence, came
fraud, guile, deceit, the use of violence,
and shameful lusting after acquisitions.”
[Metamorphoses I: 172-177]

The poem progresses and the race of men descends into utter chaos and depravity. In Ovid’s work, this change is not sudden; men devolve over time to reach this state. Hesiod on the other hand tells of multiple creations; as each age dies out, the gods create the race of men anew. But the most startling contrast between the two is Ovid’s omission of a fifth age, the Age of Heroes. Aside from the disruption to the metallic allusion, why does Ovid decide on such a course?  The answer may depend on a difference in perspective.

“I wish
I had nothing to do with this fifth generation,
Wish I had died before or been born after,
Because this is the Iron Age.
[Works and Days: 201-204]

Hesiod bemoans his fate to have been born into the Age of Iron, when men are forgetting all virtue and honor. For him, the Age of Heroes amounts to the “good old days.” He expects, when all good has finally disappeared from the world, Zeus will eradicate humanity and once again recreate them. It’s a pessimistic view but legitimate. Works and Days and Theogony were probably composed towards the end of the Greek Dark Ages when the fallout from the collapse of Bronze Age civilizations was still apparent. It would have been a miserable time to live. Ovid on the other hand lives during the Pax Romana and belongs to a household of relative wealth. The Age of Iron for Ovid is a feature of the mythological past, certainly not a daily reality.

The rhetoric of the passage seems simple at first: gold is good, iron is bad. Then, Ovid upends the world he has just established.

For iron, which is harmful, and the more
Pernicious gold (now first produced) create
Grim warfare, which has need of both;
[Metamorphoses I: 190-192]

Ovid links gold and iron together. No longer is gold the good metal, it is a metal even more evil albeit in a subtler manner than iron. The desire for wealth and material possessions is the root of evil. To assign value to something is to contribute to the evil in the world. What does this say about assigning value to the ages of men?

*** Translation by Stanley Lombardo

 

“And even though all other animals
Lean forward and look down toward the ground,
He gave to man a face that is uplifted,
And ordered him to stand erect and look
Directly up into the vaulted heavens
And turn his countenance to meet the stars;” [ I : 118-123]

Trans. by Charles Martin

Metamorphoses Cover

All of existence arose out of chaos, or so claims Ovid in his Metamorphoses. But this so-called “orderly” world has not forgotten its original nature as reflected in this compilation of Greek and Roman myths. Tragic yet comedic, thoughtful yet parodic, the epic flows, almost imperceptibly, from one extreme to another as it traverses the ages. It contains no central hero, no linear plot, and no unifying theme except that of transformation. Change is the one constant: an ironic concept for an ironic work. Categorizing Ovid’s Metamorphoses in its entirety amounts to a Sisyphean task; the challenge lies in its sheer scope. This work attempts to convey all of human existence, all of the joy, sorrow, love, hate, desire, anger, despair, and hope.

But I believe the key to understanding Ovid’s magnum opus lies within the passage above. The ability to stand and gaze upon the stars separates humans from birds and beasts. Those infinitesimal points of light that pierce the dark shroud of space lie forever beyond our reach but reside ever in our hearts. To gaze upon the distant and immortal stars is to become aware of a greater existence. They are beacons of stability in this ever-moving, ever-changing world.

 

Fear is death, or so Paul Atreides has been taught. To survive the treacherous desert world of Arrakis, Paul must master his emotions and learn the ancient wisdom of the Bene Gesserit, a secretive and powerful organization. Only then can he reclaim his stolen birthright…

Dune Book Cover

Written By: Frank Herbert

I give up. I tried, but the boredom engulfed me like a tidal wave of quicksand. Ten years ago I would probably have loved Dune. It has all the elements of a great Fantasy/Sci-Fi novel: an interesting world, magical powers, secret cults, conspiracies, Chosen Ones, ect. However, Dune suffers from a critical flaw: the presence of the protagonist roboticus.

All the characters sound so lifeless and mechanical. A page doesn’t go by without one of them spouting off some wise religious epithet….and the monologues, Oh! the monologues. The characters don’t breathe any life into the story because they themselves have none. The people that populate this world are but mechanical vehicles constructed to deliver a message.

I just wanted one of the ferocious sandworms to emerge from the dunes and put these poor souls out of their misery. Actually that might be it! Everyone is so serious and miserable in this story. Not a hint of humor, never a sign that the world is something to enjoy.

Reading this book, I became lost in a storm that held little meaning and emotion for me. Then, I decided. I had traversed two-thirds of this volume and gained nothing. Why continue? After all I had already experienced this story elsewhere but with a lot more spirit and fun included. So I will jaunt on over to the Star Wars universe leaving the Dune universe, thankfully, behind.

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