That is, memories of reading it.
I never read Paradise Lost in college because it wasn’t assigned in any of the courses that I took, Great Books and otherwise. The major epics were all there – Homer, Virgil, and Dante – but oddly Milton’s greatest was completely missing. But then The Brothers Karamazovs, that staple of Great Books courses, wasn’t assigned either. The late Art Spring assigned Moby Dick instead. Maybe Art considered Melville’s novel a modern equivalent of the Iliad. His stipulation was unusual because students were required to read it at the rate of seven pages a day for everyday during the entire semesters, weekends included. I’ve never tried this method, but perhaps it may work well in our time of, supposedly, short attention span.
It wasn’t until five or six years after college that I came to Paradise Lost. While working and living at the L’Arche community, I took a series of evening community classes at the main campus of University of Washington. They were not accredited courses; really, they had nothing to do with UW except for fact that instructors rented one of the classrooms for, presumably, a low fee.
One of those classes were on Anna Karenina, and the instructor was a retired academic originally from Europe – I don’t remember which country, but his accent was probably German or Austrian. As he told me on the way out one evening, he used to teach in California but relocated to the Northwest after retirement because he was married to a younger wife who got a job in Seattle. It was my second time reading Tolstoy’s thick novel, and the first time in English. I’d read it in Vietnamese during sixth or seventh grade in Vietnam, not for a class, of course, but at the library of the City of Biên Hòa. Because of Cold War alignment to the Soviet Union, Vietnam saw a relative abundance of Russian literature in translation. I remember reading a good deal of red Soviet youth literature along with Tolstoy’s magnificent story. In Seattle, however, I remembered little from the first reading. There were many horse rides and, of course, the death of the title character in front of a train. That’s about it. But the grandness of the aristocratic society in St. Petersburg must have stuck with me throughout those fifteen years, and I signed up and had an equally grand time reading it.
The remaining classes had to do with epics – the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, and Paradise Lost – and Milton’s was the only one that I read for the first time. All were led by an unassuming doctoral student in the Department of Classics at UW. He was in his early or mid-thirties and had a large disability on one leg that caused a slow and uneven gait. Sometimes during those classes, he was hired to be one of the consultants for a made-for-TV, two-part movie about Odysseus’ journey home after the Trojan War. Co-produced by Francis Ford Coppola and made for an estimated forty million dollars, it was a pricey miniseries and I hope he was nicely compensated for the consultancy.
Paradise Lost was the last in this series. It also looked pale to my eyes in comparison to the Inferno or either of the Homeric epics. Timing played a role because I was probably weary by the time we got to Milton. The fact that there were few notes on the margins of the copy for that class indicates as much. Language might have also played a role. The first three epics were read in translations, which update the original to contemporary language, but we read Milton in, more or less, the original. For sure it was more challenging. I’ve thought the same about reading Shakespeare, and wonder if non-English readers have an advantage over Americans and other English readers because they read in updated translations rather than the originals, which are more and more difficult as language evolves and, as a result, cause more people to dislike reading Shakespeare.
Another reason is that I underestimated the centrality of the seventeenth century at the time, preferring to move from the Reformation to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I read The Magic Mountain, The Tin Drum, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufock, and a few other things with great enthusiasm, and did not appreciate the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries enough. In any event, I don’t think I reread it until the summer before I began my current job at Pepperdine.
In between, however, was a turning point. During my last year in residence at Notre Dame, I went to a talk by Stanley Fish. He was at the University of Illinois in Chicago at the time, well ensconced in both administrative and intellectual realms, if still controversial. But his scholarship on Milton still held up, which is not bad at all for a guy who never took a class on Milton in either college or graduate school. I don’t remember the details of his talk, but it had to do with terrorism and the interpretation of Milton that one must carry one’s belief to its proper conclusion. It was very intellectually stimulating in the best sense of the phrase, and I returned to my obligations on dissertation and related stuff without forgetting about this talk.
The next turning point was the summer before I began my current job. Among my first teaching assignments is Great Books III, for which Paradise Lost is a requirement. I re-read it carefully and enlisted a number of secondary sources. Ironically, Fish’s How Milton Works was not one of them. My favorite happens to be the oldest of the bunch: Marjorie Hope Nicolson’s A Reader’s Guide to John Milton, first published way back in 1963, the same year when she became president of the MLA. It was part of the series “A Reader’s Guide to…” from that postwar publishing power house Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Probably intended for college students as well as the general readers, the series featured important scholars on particular authors or works: John Unterecker on Yeats, William York Tindall on Joyce, Hugh Kenner on Samuel Beckett, George Williamson on six metaphysical poets, and so on.
Reflecting the dominance of white men in literary studies during the 1960s, Nicolson, the first female faculty hired for the graduate school at Columbia, was the only woman to be featured in this series. It was apparently a well-received guide because FSG reprinted it quite a few times during her lifetime. Along with several titles in the series, it was reprinted by Syracuse University Press in the 1990s.
My copy, purchased in a Seattle used bookstore in 1999, was one of many FSG reprints and reflected the commercial success of the series. I found Nicolson, who died in 1981, enormously helpful in helping me understand Milton and prepare for the Paradise Lost portion in 2013. I wasn’t the only one. “This guide,” wrote an apparent professor in Amazon, “would be especially helpful in an undergraduate class for those who have little or no knowledge of Milton. However, I used it in a graduate class and it was tremendously helpful in that class also.” A student echoes a similar point: “This is the only thing that is getting me through the Milton Class at UCLA right now.”
One of the biggest qualities of Nicolson’s guide is its evaluative and critical comments throughout. She never wavers at pointing out weak spots of the story – the war in heaven, the last two books – but she offers very thoughtful explanations for Milton’s inclusion of them. More importantly, she navigates skillfully between the big pictures (hell, heaven, and Eden) and close-ups of the prominent figures (Satan, God, the Son, Adam, and Eve – but also Beelzebub, Sin, Death, Raphael). There is no question that Satan figures the most in her presentation, and yet one could not miss the significance of the other devils and elements such as chaos between hell and earth; light in heaven; and the lushness of Eden.
Nicolson’s guide does not summarize but describes and analyzes. It does not hurt at all that her prose is characteristic of the best academic writers at the time. It is lucid but not simplistic. It shifts emphasis without falling into incoherence at all. It fills in the historical background with economy. Here is an example from the section on Satan’s voyage from hell to earth:
Particularly when it is read in its seventeenth-century context, Satan’s voyage… is one of the most graphic episodes in Paradise Lost. The “New Philosophy” of the seventeenth century, springing from Copernicus, Galileo, and Bruno, had discovered the vastness of a new space, stretching indefinitely, possibly even infinitely, had discovered also the existence of a plurality or infinity of worlds. Today we are space-conscious but no more so than our ancestors. As Satan stands with Sin at the gates of Hell, even his intrepid soul is momentarily appalled:
Before their eyes in sudden view appear
The secrets of the hoary Deep, a dark
Illimitable ocean, without bound,
Without dimension, where length, breadth, and height
And time and place are lost…
Into this wild Abyss-
The womb of Nature, and perhaps her grave:
Of neither sea, nor shore, nor air, nor fire,
But all these in their pregnant causes mixed
Today we are space-conscious but no more so than our ancestors: wonderful pointer. As I recall, the three weeks spent on Paradise Lost were a happy time. During the first week, Anna Shea, a Pepperdine GB alumna who wrote a master’s thesis on Milton at University of St Andrews, happened to visit campus and joined us as guest discussion leader. Not surprisingly, Satan dominated discussion then and later. When it came to writing, however, Adam and Eve received almost as much attention. Some of them, I think, were taken by the differences between the Biblical Adam and Eve and the Miltonic ones. The most interesting essay tackled the theme of pride but with a twist: that God is the proudest one, not Satan. Although it wasn’t a convincing interpretation in the end, the student, a natural science major, made the case with an enormous effort and a good deal of textual evidence. The most persuasive arguments, after all, are not always the most thought-provoking arguments, and the essay landed in the As for a strong attempt.
To generate thematic unity for writing, I’d scheduled Paradise Lost between a viewing of Prometheus Bound at the Getty Villa and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Later, however, I found that it jelled a lot better with the Second Treatise on Government and, especially, Robinson Crusoe. The economic individualism as promoted in Locke and Defoe reflects back nicely – maybe too nicely – to Milton’s more political and more metaphysical Satan. By chance, I browsed Alastair McIntyre’s underrated A Short History of Ethics (1966) one week after we finished with Defoe. There had been, writes McIntyre,
the increasing importance in the preceding period of the concept of “the individual.” The individual is now on the scene with a vengeance. Robinson Crusoe becomes the bible of a generation which includes both Rousseau and Adam Smith. The novel with its stress on individual experience and its value is about to emerge as the dominant literary form. Social life becomes essentially an arena for the struggles and conflicts of individual wills. The first ancestor of all these individuals is perhaps Milton’s Satan, who brought Blake over to the devil’s party and has been seen as the first Whig. For Satan’s motto, Non Serviam, marks not merely a personal revolt against God, but a revolt against the concept of an ordained and unchangeable hierarchy. The complexity and interest of Satan lies in the fact that he both has to and cannot reject this hierarchy: the only alternative to service is monarchy; but monarchy implies the hierarchy which revolt rejects.
I didn’t have the above sequence of Satan and Crusoe in mind when scheduling Milton and Defoe, and was doubly delighted when reading this insight from McIntyre. The first Whig: of course! To Samuel Johnson’s great witticism – “I have always said the first Whig was the devil” – Milton and his Satan would have been very proud.
This semester, I returned to Paradise Lost after teaching Great Books I and II for two years in a row. Reading and discussing it with students gave me a lot of pleasure once again. Specialists will correct my untrained eyes, but recent scholarship seems to have shifted from “apolitical” interpretations such as psychoanalysis, reader-response (the one approach that Fish is known for), and even post-structuralism to more historical and political interpretations. I rewrote nearly all of the questions for reading, discussion, and essays. Satan continued to receive the bulk of attention, but this time students and I discussed more deeply his wilful quest for autonomy and power. We discussed his glories as described in Book 10 as much as Books 1-2. Having gone through the classical and Christian epic heroes in I and II, I drew sharper comparisons between them and Milton’s subversive hero. The modernity of Satan’s quest came through more powerfully and more brilliantly this time.
I also gave more attention to Eve this time: a lot more. I made the decision after reading some recent scholarship, including dipping in and out of Gordon Teskey’s The Poetry of John Milton. Teskey edits the most recent Norton Critical Edition of Paradise Lost, which I’d used three years ago. This time, however, I opted for the Modern Library edition from William Kerrigan and two other scholars. Both editions are formatted with footnotes rather than endnotes, which I really like. But the Modern Library edition is cheaper and the font is larger and doesn’t make one strain the eyes as the NCE volume. I especially liked an article by Mary Beth Long about Eve and solitude published in Milton Quarterly (2003), and also Margaret Olofson Thickstun’s teaching-friendly Milton’s Paradise Lost: Moral Education (2007). If the Long article takes a latter-day feminist interpretation, the Thickstun book makes its interpretation with the help of developmental and moral psychology. It was terrific to see students move more sharply from the usual portrayal of Eve to the complicated Eve of Milton’s universe.
I further found my decision justified after reading Eva Brann’s recent essay merely a few hours after our last discussion on the book. This essay is thoroughly impressive and offers some wonderfully well-phrased sentences. One example:
Satan is willfulness incarnate, a great engineer, the original Adventurer (10.440), both as explorer and in the older sense of undertaking grand ventures, such as the development of Hell, the colonizing of earth, and the sponsoring of the great highway that makes Hell and this world “one continent of easy thoroughfare” (10.392)… Eve cannot match his stature, but there are two capstone transgressions in which they are nearly equal. One is the drive to explore, experiment, experience—as he sails through the uncreated void to explore the created world, she dreams of flying with him to behold the earth in its immensity, the first human to ride the skies. The second is the desire for godhead: He thinks himself God’s equal, and she, eating, has Godhead in her thoughts (9.790).
In short, they are the original moderns, he in God’s universe, she in our world. For there is a generic modernity: asserted individual will; unbounded experimental science (whose root meaning is, wonderfully, the same as that of schism: dividing, cutting off); chameleon-like adaptability (Lucifer-Satan is a master of transformations, willed and imposed: cherub, toad, serpent; Eve too undergoes some pretty dramatic changes); future-oriented temporality (here Satan and the Son cooperate, one to make sin endemic, the other to make salvation attainable); and godlike creativity (such is attributed to man by Pico della Mirandola in that manifesto of proto-modernity, the “Oration on the Dignity of Man” of the 1480’s: Adam, man, has no fixed being; rather “our chameleon” assumes by his own free will whatever form he selects, and so he can be as God).
Quite! I very much look forward to the next time that I’ll read and discuss Paradise Lost with students.
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