14. Paradise Lost, Book IV

Professor John Rogers:
It’s not until the fourth book of Paradise Lost
that finally we see represented before us the
paradise whose imminent loss is heralded so grandly in the
poem’s title. Milton’s task here is a
difficult one. His task is to represent
unfallen Eden, Eden before the Fall,
to represent this unfallen Eden to a fallen audience of the
1660s from his own perspective as a fallen man himself and as a
fallen poet. Milton is self-conscious about
this predicament and continually confronting the challenge posed
by this essentially artistic predicament.
But the predicament, although it is this,
is not simply an epistemological quandary,
a problem about knowledge — how can fallen man know anything
about unfallen man? There’s more riding on this
question than merely this question of how we can possibly
know what it was like in this unknowable state before the
Fall. It’s more important than simply
that because everything is riding on Milton’s success of
his representation of an unfallen Eden.
I think the theodicy, the success of Milton’s attempt
to justify the ways of God to men,
is hanging to some degree on the success of his
representation of unfallen-ness, and this is why:
because only if we can truly see paradise as unfallen can we
really believe that Adam and Eve were in fact perfectly capable
of exercising their unfallen wills freely when confronted
with the temptation of the fruit.
Even so much as a hint of fallen-ness in a representation
of Eden threatens to indict God and threatens to impugn God’s
justice. Because God can be said to have
caused the Fall if he can be seen to have insinuated into
paradise even the slightest propensity to fallen-ness,
the question is an important one.
So to justify fully the ways of God, this fallen poet has to
represent to us, the fallen audience,
an Eden that is unmistakably unfallen.
It’s a huge challenge. Though unfallen Eden can’t be
like anything we know, it has to be utterly other from
everything that we’re familiar with because,
of course, everything that we’re familiar with is
fallen.One of the dominant rhetorical strategies of the
first two books has to be inverted to some degree in Book
Four. We have spent some time talking
about the similes, especially the similes at the
beginning of Milton’s poem, and the simile used initially
in Paradise Lost at some important junctures in Book Four
especially is transformed into what we can think of as a
dissimile. I’m not actually sure that
that’s a real rhetorical term; I didn’t make it up.
In any case, we’ll use it for lack of a
better word. So a simile,
a positive simile, involves the — you know what
this is like. It involves a construction that
“X is like Y,” and a dissimile would propose the opposite,
that “X is unlike Y.”I’m going to ask you to turn to the
most famous of these dissimiles in Paradise Lost.
This is at line 268 of Book Four.
It’s page 283 and 284 in the Hughes.
Milton is forced to describee — what else can he
do? He’s forced to describe
paradise in terms of all the things that Eden is not so he
tells us: Not that fair fieldOf
Enna… …[N]or that
sweet Grove Of Daphne by Orontes…
… [N]or that Nyseian
Isle… I’m skipping here obviously —
and so forth. It’s quite a catalog of things
that Eden is not like. The rhetorical mode is
necessarily one of negation because of the epistemological
and artistic problem of the fallen representation of
unfallen-ness.Look a little further up at line 233.
This is, I think, where the problem of a fallen
representation of an unfallen state actually really comes to a
head. Milton’s describing here the
four rivers of Eden, line 233:
And now divided into four main Streams,
Run divers, wand’ring many a famous Realm
And Country whereof here needs no account,
But rather to tell how, if Art could tell,
How from that Sapphire Fount the crisped Brooks,
Rolling on Orient Pearl and sands of Gold,
With mazy error under pendant shades
Ran Nectar, visiting each plant, and fed
Flow’rs worthy of Paradise which not nice Art
In Beds and curious Knots, but Nature boon
Pour’d forth profuse on Hill and Dale and Plain…
The flowers of paradise are poured forth in Eden not by a
nice or a fastidious gardener, by fastidious artifice.
There’s nothing fussy about this garden.
Its bounteous Nature herself who has poured forth all this
profuseness. Eden is free of any artifice,
but this lack of art in Eden, of course, only accentuates the
problem that the poet has no choice but to face.
The poet is under a pressure to describe with what is,
of course, his poetic art that which is essentially
indescribable. Milton lets us know the
problem, “if Art could tell,” and that phrase “if Art could
tell” clearly implies that art, even Milton’s art,
can’t tell us what Eden was like, that Milton’s art can’t
represent an unfallen, non-artificial world with the
instruments and the tools of fallen artificial
language.The impossibility that he’s facing,
I think, is nowhere so apparent as it is here in this
description of “the crisped Brooks” of paradise “rolling /
with mazy error under pendant shades.”
Now of course, “error” is one of the
most resonant words in the entire poem.
Error is the moral category, or we can think of it as the
theological category, most often applied to the Fall
and to Adam and Eve’s eventual sin.
We might very well wonder why it is that error has crept into
Eden before the Fall. Its presence here on some level
could be seen to doom the garden in advance,
could be seen as some kind of evidence of a degree of
fallen-ness in this unfallen Eden.But Milton,
of course, is using the word “error” in a special sense.
He’s doing what he does so often: he employs a word solely
to evoke its etymological root sense, which in this case simply
means “wandering.” The brook here is quite simply
not flowing straight. It’s moving,
it’s divagating, and it’s moving in a curvaceous
form. Milton is working consciously
to exclude the moral significance that this word
“error” had acquired later in its etymological history.
He’s attempting to block out the meaning of this word that
had crept in, as it were, after the Fall.
There’s actually a wonderful book that looks brilliantly at
just this phenomenon. It’s called Milton’s Grand
Style by the great critic Christopher Ricks,
and in that book Ricks argues for the self-consciousness
behind Milton’s employment of the original etymological sense
of some of the most loaded words in the poem.
So Milton will remind us of the Fall with his use of such a word
as “error,” but at the same time,
of course, he’s attempting to create in us — and it’s a
remarkable move — to create in us a memory for a time in which
a word like “error” had not yet been infected by its morally
pejorative modern connotation. He’s reminding us of a time in
which there was no such thing as moral error,
not that we can be reminded because, of course,
we can’t remember — we weren’t around;
but it’s as if a memory is being instilled in us by means
of Milton’s poetry. He condenses into a single word
what is essentially the entire poetic problem besetting the
description of unfallen Eden.Milton,
too, manages with a word like this to remind us that we’re
only seeing the garden after Satan has overleaped its
boundaries and has begun sneaking around.
We’re given no description, you’ll note — we’re given no
description of Eden until after the point in the story in which
Satan has already entered or crossed the boundaries of
paradise. Look at line 285.
This is page 285 in the Hughes. Milton locates
that geographical spot on the globe believed to have been
Eden, but he does that only to remind
us that everything that we are seeing is precisely what Satan
is seeing: “where the Fiend / Saw undelighted all delight,
all kind / Of Creatures new to sight and strange.”
Satan’s presence is important here because he reminds us that
we, too, were in a position of seeing “undelighted all
delight.” We share his pained alienation
from the innocence of the garden.Nowhere is the
problem of representation more urgent and more troubled than in
the first view that we are given of Adam and Eve.
There is an extraordinary pressure on Milton as he
describes the condition of the unfallen Adam and Eve,
and that pressure would unquestionably,
I think, have been felt by the poem’s original readers.
Milton’s description of Adam and Eve — and in this respect
it is like what I take to be nearly every seventeenth-century
description of Adam and Eve — it is necessarily a political
statement. It’s the account of the first
society, and as an account of the first society,
Milton’s Eden has to establish something like the ideal against
which all current, all fallen, societies have to
be judged.So in the seventeenth century a
description of man and the state of nature before the onset of
any kind of civil government was an essential component of just
about any political philosophy. You couldn’t forward a
political vision without forwarding at the same time an
image of a society before the onset of government.
The most important political philosopher of
mid-seventeenth-century England is Milton’s slightly older
contemporary, Thomas Hobbes.
He had founded his vision of politics, which was a decidedly
authoritarian vision of politics,
on just such an account of a nearly unrecoverable,
un-rememberable past. In Hobbes’ Leviathan,
Hobbes conjures an image of the original man in the state of
nature that serves as the foundation for his political
wisdom for his truly outrageous thesis that the only viable
political institution is that of an absolutist monarchy.
I say it’s outrageous perhaps because it’s so incredibly
compelling. It’s very hard not to be
converted to a terrifying form of authoritarianism when you
read Hobbes’ ironclad prose.In the famous chapter
thirteen of the first book of Leviathan — this was in
the packet — Hobbes describes the riotous mayhem constitutive
of life before the onset of political institutions,
and so interestingly and importantly here Hobbes is
forwarding a kind of secular argument.
This isn’t theological, and so he doesn’t return us to
the Genesis account of Adam and Eve.
His state of nature, he tells us,
is just like the one inhabited — it’s America — by the
savages of the Americas; but the purpose of the
Hobbesian account is directly analogous, I think,
to Milton’s purpose in describing Eden.
For Hobbes, men in the state of nature are all equal.
The state of nature is an egalitarian one,
and Hobbes does everything he can do — it’s egalitarian even
with respect to sex — everything he can do to
demonstrate the dangers of this natural egalitarianism.
Because, Hobbes tells us, all men and women were created
equal, there’s no authority to keep them in place.
There’s no authority to keep them from what would naturally
just be a perpetual state of strife.
Hobbes explains in chapter thirteen:
[W]ithout a common power [and by “common power” he means
a king, a prince, a tyrant — it doesn’t matter,
someone], man is in the state of war…
and such a war as is of every man against every man.
[And he continues.] …And the life of [the
natural] man [and this is surely the
most famous and the most glorious sentence in all of
Hobbes’ remarkable Leviathan]
is solitary, poor, nasty,
brutish, and short. For Hobbes, the egalitarianism
established in nature is obviously unsatisfactory;
it has to be corrected. We have to construct some kind
of governmental structure, a polity, whereby we submit
ourselves to an absolute ruler, a monarch or a tyrant — it
doesn’t matter. Hobbes’ Leviathan must
have been deeply troubling to Milton who devoted so much of
his career to the critique of just the kind of absolutist
government that Hobbes is championing.
I think there are a lot of signs in Paradise Lost
that Milton is countering his great contemporary,
Thomas Hobbes.Now one of the advantages of writing about
Eden was that his description of paradise,
as I’ve suggested, was something like an implicit
model for a political philosophy,
certainly, in Milton’s hands. Hobbes had used his description
of the state of men in the state of nature to forward his
authoritarianism, and so Milton has to use his
description of the first couple to forward his cause,
which is essentially that of republicanism or some kind of
non-monarchic government. Adam and Eve have to be able to
form a successful society alone, a successful polity on their
own, without the dictatorial
intervention of any sovereign power.
This is crucial for what Milton needs to be able to argue
politically.So what exactly are Milton’s politics?
It’s been a while since we visited this topic.
We haven’t really discussed Milton’s politics since we
looked at the 1644 Areopagitica,
and a lot, I’m sad to say,
has changed since then. In Areopagitica we saw
Milton affirm what was essentially the general equality
of all human beings. This was an implicit argument
that all individuals have been endowed by God with reason and
that they are all equally capable of choosing and
reasoning for themselves; but in the 1650s Milton had
grown considerably less optimistic in his sense of the
equality of all men and women. The average individual in
England for Milton at this point didn’t in fact seem to be
endowed with quite as much [laughs]
reason and capacity for rational choice as Milton felt
that he was capable of, or as Milton felt that he and
his fellow Puritan revolutionaries were capable of.
So many of Milton’s backsliding countrymen wanted their king
back, a devastating cultural fact for Milton.And so
Milton began to develop a new political philosophy.
It was something like an aristocratic philosophy of
political society that places superior,
more rational, more spiritually minded beings,
people like John Milton, at the top of the society and
they are necessarily above less rational,
less excellent, less spiritually minded beings
who are obviously in a lower stratum.
Milton’s later political philosophy sketches something
like almost a natural hierarchy in which the rational elite are
in a position to guide and to offer some sort of authoritative
wisdom to the less rational members of the society.
These less rational members ideally, willingly yield to the
superior wisdom and the reason of the rational elite.
It seems to be this later vision of a kind of naturally
hierarchical society that forms the basis for the first polity,
which is that of Adam and Eve in Milton’s Eden.
It goes without saying that the union of Adam and Eve in
Milton’s paradise is a patriarchal one and the
hierarchical division between superior and inferior creatures
has been marked almost entirely or exclusively along the lines
of gender.Now Milton, as you know,
has been reviled for his unrepentant patriarchalization
of the first couple. Look at line 299,
one of the most famous lines in the poem.
This is the middle of page 285 of the Hughes.
Milton’s talking about the purpose of Adam and Eve’s
creation: “hee for God only, shee for God in him…”
This is without question a sexist vision of the first
polity. We can say that,
I think, without much hesitation, but it would be
almost criminal, and I really believe this,
to say that Milton’s sexism is simplistic.
It is so complex, in fact, that Milton has
included in his poem a number of competing ways to think about
this first society. We actually have passionately
expressed before us in Paradise Lost the old
Milton, the younger,
much more liberal Milton — that radical egalitarianism that
he was able so forcefully and compellingly to voice in
Areopagitica. That voice is audible in
Paradise Lost, but we also,
of course, have the later Milton, the believer in a
hierarchical society. You can hear these
contradictions at work in the poem’s description of this first
polity, the union of Adam and
Eve.Look a little further up on page 285.
This is line 288: Two of far nobler shape
erect and tall, Godlike erect,
with native Honor clad In naked Majesty seem’d Lords
of all, And worthy seem’d,
for in thir looks Divine The image of thir glorious
Maker shone, Truth, Wisdome,
Sanctitude severe and pure, Severe, but in true filial
freedom plac’t; Whence true autority in
men. Now, it certainly strikes me to
be the case that this first view that we get of Adam and Eve is
an egalitarian one. In their naked majesty they are
both described as “Lords of all,” but their seeming equality
is a source of no small anxiety to Milton;
and so we are told almost immediately he can’t take it
anymore. We’re told: “though both / Not
equal, as thir sex not equal seem’d.”
Well, of course up to this point their sex did “equal
seem.” It’s here that Milton places an
enormous amount of weight on this word “seem’d,” one of the
most important words in Book Four.
“Seem’d” not equal to whom? The idea of seeming is
always with respect to a perceiver, someone to whom
something seems to be this or that.
It’s with this word “seem’d” that we’re reintroduced to the
subject of the fallen perspective on an unfallen scene
and reminded that we are not granted anything like a purview
of Eden until after Satan has entered the garden.
This description of Eden in Book Four has,
in fact, merely been tracing Satan’s steps,
and this description of Adam and Eve merely emerges now
because this is the scene that Satan happens now to be looking
at.Look at line 285. I have already referred to
these lines: “where the Fiend / Saw undelighted all delight,
all kind of living Creatures new to sight and strange.”
Then you have a colon, and then after the colon falls
this long description of Adam and Eve.
It’s possible, it’s just possible to read the
entire description of the sexually hierarchized Adam and
Eve as an account in something like indirect discourse of
Satan’s fallen perspective. If their sex “not equal
seem’d,” it’s possible that their sex “not equal seem’d” to
Satan. It’s Satan, of course — we
know this already to be the case — who is more concerned than
any of the other poem’s characters with problems of
inequality, so this is naturally going to
be the predisposition, the set of concerns that he
brings to his vision of any polity.It’s a fascinating
question, and there’s actually a
considerable debate raging — if you can say that,
a Miltonist rage — there is a debate among Miltonists on just
this question, and it’s an interesting one.
Milton’s position at the head of the English literary canon is
often associated, or has been since the late
‘70s — or maybe, actually, since Virginia Woolf
was writing in the ‘20s and ‘30s — is often
associated with his insistent positioning of Adam over Eve in
Paradise Lost. Some participants in the
debates about the validity of the Western literary canon have
imagined the effects of sexism in our society and have imagined
eradicating sexism in our society by eradicating from
college reading lists a sexist poet like Milton.
That argument is made, it’s still forwarded today,
and it’s an argument that poses,
as you can imagine, an understandable threat to
people like me, admirers of this poet.
You can imagine the number of Miltonists — it was really
quite remarkable — who rallied around the textual suggestion
that when Milton says, “hee for God only,
shee for God in him,” he doesn’t really mean it.I
think it was in the mid ‘80s that a critic first hit on the theory that all of
the description of Adam and Eve could be seen as merely an
exfoliation of Satan’s perspective.
There was tremendous joy and excitement in the Milton
community once that idea had been floated.
It’s as if the narrator is just reproducing for us the
hierarchical imagination of Satan whose perspective on Adam
and Eve is the one that we’re getting at the moment.
So we’re able to say to ourselves rather comfortably and
complacently that Milton isn’t telling us that the social
organization of Eden is sexist. Milton is telling us that Satan
is sexist and that patriarchy is essentially satanic rather than
Miltonic.I get depressed when I think of critical
positions like this, whether you have the extreme
position of Milton as the inventor and the prime
perpetrator of misogyny on the one hand or the counter-vision
of Milton as an early feminist on the other.
The case is obviously more complicated than that,
and it’s more interesting than that because it’s not at all
clear — just in the passage that we’re looking at — it’s
not clear whose voice is actually authorizing these lines
that establish the patriarchal parameters of unfallen society.
Without a doubt we have the narrator speaking here,
and presumably he is representing something like the
official line of the poem, but Milton does in fact go out
of his way to situate the entire scene as an elaboration of
Satan’s perspective. Both of these things are true,
and this passage, which has absolutely everything
to do with what Milton calls establishing the true authority
of men, refuses to establish its own
authority. It refuses to announce itself
as the product either of the poem’s narrator or of Satan.
It’s a moment of textual instability, and I think it
reflects the larger political instability that is threatening
Eden and threatening the relation between Adam and
Eve.It’s worth asking ourselves: what is it about Adam
and Eve that makes them seem unequal?
Look at line 297: “for contemplation hee and
valor form’d, / For softness shee and sweet
attractive Grace.” Now how do we know this?
We know it by their physical differences.
We know it by the appearance of their anatomies and,
more precisely than that, we know that they are different
and unequal by means of our perception of their hair:
His fair large Front and Eye sublime declar’d
Absolute rule; and Hyacinthine Locks
Round from his parted forelock manly hung
Clust’ring, but not beneath his shoulders broad.
Milton [laughs] did wear his hair long but he
wants us to know [laughs] — that’s part of the
historical record, and he was very pleased with
that; but he always wants us to know
that it wasn’t too long. It’s the same with Adam who
wears his hair unusually long but not indecorously long:
Round from his parted forelock manly hung
Clust’ring, but not beneath his shoulders broad:
Shee as a vail down to the slender waist
Her unadorned golden tresses wore
Disshevell’d, but in wanton ringlets wav’d
As the Vine curles her tendrils, which impli’d
Subjection… Now, I’ll bet that we can all
agree that a description of their hair is not what we were
expecting at this moment. Supporters of patriarchy or of
the superiority of men have always enlisted anatomical
differences, the anatomical differences
between the sexes, as proof of man’s rightful
ability to subject or subordinate woman.
In fact, central to the patriarchal prejudice,
as you can imagine, was what often seems to be the
strength differential between men and women.
If Milton had imagined a cosmos that privileged physical
strength, then I think we would have no choice but glumly to
accept the fact that Adam is indeed superior to Eve.
You could imagine how an argument like this could have
played out in the pages of Paradise Lost.
Milton could easily have argued that human excellence
could be determined by the sheer number of shrubs that Adam and
Eve were able to prune on any given day.
In such a world Adam would be able to prove his superiority,
but physical strength — and this is important — means
absolutely nothing in Paradise Lost.
In fact, if anything Milton is always
denigrating the importance of physical strength.Okay.
Given that, [laughs] we still have to ask the
question: why try to argue for the inequality of the sexes on
the basis of hair length? I presume that none of you have
had children, but you probably still know
nonetheless that men and women, or boys and girls,
are not born with distinct or distinguishable heads of hair.
At least until male pattern baldness sets in,
the hair of men and women aren’t distinct or
distinguishable. If anything,
male pattern baldness simply gives women an edge.
If Milton wanted to use hair as a natural sign of sexual
difference, I would think he should be discussing facial
hair. Adam’s superiority presumably
could be evinced by his commanding beard.
We could imagine Milton doing that, something that Eve lacks
by virtue of her anatomy, but the hair on the head —
this doesn’t make any sense — the hair on the head is in fact
one of the few anatomical [laughs]
features that is absolutely gender neutral.
Our hair is gendered by virtue of the barber,
not by virtue of the Creator.This brings us to
this fact which we all know, and which is what every
obstetrician knows: the obvious distinguishing
anatomical characteristic is genitalia.
Milton actually does mention Adam and Eve’s mysterious parts,
but he mentions them only to dismiss their difference.
He may be gesturing toward something like — you’ll tell me
if this is crazy — something like a genital difference when
he describes Adam’s hair: His locks “manly hung /
Clust’ring.” I don’t think that holds.
The sexual signifier that “hangs manly” off of Adam’s body
and that signifier which has traditionally,
of course, been invoked as a sign of sexual superiority is
Adam’s penis; but Milton alludes to this
genital signifier of difference, their mysterious parts,
only to dismiss it. He chooses instead for the
distinguishing characteristic of the sexes a phenomenon that’s
rooted not in nature but in culture: hair length.Like
Hobbes, Milton is under a tremendous
cultural pressure when he describes the earliest state of
nature. The description of nature has
to bear the weight of all of the social and all of the political
claims that the poem makes, and the set of social
conditions that Milton has to justify and make seem natural is
a particularly tricky one. Both Eve and Adam have to be
seen as absolutely free, each of them has to be capable
of exercising reason and making reasonable, rational decisions.
In this sense Adam and Eve enjoy something like the
absolutely egalitarian world, the structure of the political
world that we had seen in a treatise like Areopagitica,
Milton at his most exuberantly liberal.
But while Adam and Eve enjoy all of the rights of an
egalitarian society, as they do, I think,
in Paradise Lost, they are not therefore
equal. Adam appears to be superior to
Eve, and Milton will only tell us that he appears such.
The narrator cannot make this claim in anything like a more
declarative sense.On the basis of at least their
appearances, the social formation in Eden is
strictly hierarchical, and on some extraordinary level
this poem is trying to have it both ways.
So much of the energy of the account of paradise derives from
Milton’s contradictory account of the political structure of
Eden. He applies to the Edenic
society of Adam and Eve what I take to be two irreconcilable
modes of social governance. Eden is once egalitarian,
its inhabitants are — in “naked Majesty” they’re “Lords
of all,” both of them. Adam and Eve are entirely free
and self-determining, but at the same time Eden is
structured as a kind of aristocracy where the male class
is deemed categorically, genetically superior to the
female class. It goes without saying that
this situation is untenable. The contradictory social
formation of paradise is inherently unstable,
and I’m convinced that nothing is more important in our
understanding of the dynamics of the Fall than these principles:
the principle that Eve is absolutely free and equally
rational, equally capable of rational and
virtuous choices, but also the conflicting
principle that Eve is to some extent subject to Adam’s
authority.The contradictory political impulses in the poem
are brilliantly worked out in the first description of Adam
and Eve. Look at line 307.
This is unbelievable. Look at what Milton is able to
establish by way of a description of Eve’s hair.
It’s here in a representation of her hair that the nature of
the Edenic polity is established.
Eve’s golden tresses: [W]av’d
As the Vine curls her tendrils, which impli’d
Subjection, but requir’d with gentle sway,
And by her yeilded, by him best receiv’d,
Yielded with coy submission, modest pride [and isn’t this a
beautiful line?] And sweet reluctant amorous
delay. The conflicting politics of
Eden are best captured by means of the rhetorical strategy of
oxymoron, or the contradiction in terms.
Milton packs this description of the first couple’s — this is
essentially a kind of erotic play that’s being described
before us, and it’s packed with oxymoronic
descriptions. Milton’s trying to communicate
the incredibly delicate political balance of this
hierarchical society. ” This society may be
hierarchical,” Milton is telling us, “but it’s not
authoritarian.” Eve may be subject to Adam,
who holds authority over Eve, but because she’s free,
her subjection is required with a “gentle sway.”
No sooner has Adam exercised his authority by gently swaying
Eve than she willingly yields to him,
exercising her free capacity for consent and her capacity to
choose to be swayed by her superior.Eve’s hair seems to
imply subjection, but Eve’s hair also seems to
imply freedom and a kind of resistance to subjection.
Eve yields not with submission — Milton would never permit
himself to say that. Eve yields with a “coy
submission.” She holds something back even
as she grants it, and we have detailed before us
the endless give-and-take that this delicate political
structure requires. For Milton, this give-and-take
is not only the basis of a society.
It’s the basis as well for eros, or sexual pleasure.
With that extraordinary phrase, “sweet reluctant amorous
delay,” Milton’s able to pack into three adjectives and one
noun the pleasure derivable by both parties in Eve’s exercise
of resistance.But Eve’s coyness isn’t just sexy for
Milton. It’s also politically
meaningful, and from a political perspective her capacity for a
kind of reluctance and resistance serves as a guarantee
for her capacity for a kind of rational consent.
It’s also theologically resonant.
From a theological perspective, Eve’s willingness to resist,
to delay, constitutes a guarantee of her divinely
granted free will. Eve cannot be forced to do
anything. It’s as if in this little dance
that they perform in the quotidian life of unfallen Eden,
Eve is practicing in a small way for that crucial moment at
the temptation in which her ability to resist and delay will
mean the difference between life and death.Now,
we as readers find it difficult I think — we should,
at least, find it difficult — to found a theory of hierarchy
on something so fragile and so easily alterable — you can tell
I just had a haircut yesterday — as hair length;
but what’s even more amazing than that is the fact that the
nature of the gendered hierarchy of Adam and Eve isn’t even
evident to Adam and Eve themselves.
This blows me away. Look at Eve’s first memory in
Paradise Lost. This is line 477,
page 289 in the Hughes. Eve is far from being able
to recognize Adam’s superiority immediately.
For Eve there’s certainly nothing in the length of his
hair that suggests that he might enjoy a kind of authority over
her, and in fact,
to Eve Adam seems to be a noticeably inferior creature
when she compares him to that image of herself,
that beautiful and responsive image of herself that she had
found in the pool. This is line 477.
She tells Adam: Till I espi’d thee,
fair indeed and tall, [she grants him that he’s tall]
Under a Platan, yet methought less fair,
Less winning soft, less amiably mild,
Then that smooth wat’ry image…
It’s like the dissimile of the fair fields of Enna.
Adam can only be understood by what it is he lacks,
and indeed it’s a lack of anything like a natural or
self-evident sexual hierarchy that constitutes one of the
central problems in Paradise Lost.
Hierarchy is not a natural fact in paradise.
It’s an arbitrarily imposed social institution.
It’s been imposed by God but it hasn’t been built into the
structure of the natural world. It’s to Milton’s great credit,
and I really mean this — I mean this with the utmost
seriousness, that he labors to expose the
artificial cultural origins of the sexual subjection that at
the same time he is championing and celebrating.
Eve has to be told that Adam is her superior and she has to
undergo an elaborate process and a complicated process of
cultural indoctrination.Nowhere in
the description of Eden are we reminded more forcefully of our
incapacity to understand unfallen nature than in Milton’s
description of Eve’s hair: “her unadorned golden tresses
wore / Disshevell’d, but in wanton ringlets wav’d.”
“Disshevell’d and wanton” — of course, these seem like
extraordinarily prejudicial adjectives.
They cast a moral judgment — it has seemed to readers,
from the very beginning — on her long before she has sinned.
But once again Milton is playing with etymology,
and I think this is Ricks’ point: “Dishevell’d” is being
used here in its original literal sense.
It literally means “hair let down” — she’s not wearing a
bun. The ringlets are “wanton” in
that they are simply unrestrained.
The fact that we are so eager as readers to supply a kind of
loose or sexual meaning to these words implicates us,
Milton perhaps seems to be saying, and it implicates,
of course, Satan as well in the fallen perspective on the
ultimately mysterious union of Adam and Eve.
We are eyeing them askance and leering at them just as Satan
is. It’s Stanley Fish’s argument,
and it’s not unconvincing, that Milton’s purpose in
employing these loaded adjectives is to force the
reader to acknowledge her own fallen-ness,
to remind us all of the inadequacy of our fallen
perspective on this unfallen nature.We’re wrong to import
a kind of moral prejudice to the words “disheveled” and “wanton,”
but Milton will push it even further.
Eve’s hair is also waving and insinuating and in its waving,
curly motions it resembles nothing so much as that other
much less noble creature in the garden,
and that’s, of course, the serpent.
Look at line 345. This is where Milton describes
the elephant and the serpent. I don’t have time to comment on
it. I just want to say what an
amazing adjective, the “unwieldy” elephant!
[T]h’ unwieldy Elephant To make them mirth us’d all his
might, and wreath’d His Lithe Proboscis;
close the Serpent sly Insinuating,
wove with Gordian twine His breaded train…
The breaded train of the serpent’s waving motion
resembles nothing so much as the waving braids of Eve’s hair.
Eve seems to be associated well in advance of the actual
temptation with the sly insinuations of the serpent,
an association that of course can only damage any sense that
we have of her unfallen reason and her genuine free will;
but Milton carefully includes in this description another
example of a waving and insinuating motion in Eden,
and that’s the elephant’s proboscis.
He’s prefaced his connection between Eve and Satan here with
the inclusion of the elephant. He wants us to know with this
image of the elephant’s light proboscis that the motion of
waving and weaving and weaving and insinuating are still in
fact entirely innocent and it will only be Satan’s subsequent
actions that retroactively infect them for us.
The problem being exposed once again is the problem of
representation: how can you represent an
unfallen state from a fallen perspective?Okay.
Look at the handout; if you don’t have a handout try
to get one from the corners of the room.
This representation of Adam and Eve was made in 1638.
Rembrandt did this drawing shortly before Milton was
beginning to think of Paradise Lost.
In the Rembrandt representation we have — I think this is a
devastating critique of the seventeenth-century desire to
represent an unfallen paradise, what we have Milton trying to
do. Like Milton,
Rembrandt exposes the impossibility,
I think, of such a representation.
If we read the Book of Genesis, we know that Eve was alone with
the serpent, and so we’re seeing Adam and
Eve in this picture presumably after Eve has eaten the fruit
but before Adam had eaten it.Now Adam may not have
eaten the fruit but he certainly — I mean,
look at this — he certainly looks as fallen as Eve.
They are equally physically ugly, it seems to me,
and that’s indisputable: nasty, brutish,
and short. It’s as if they crawled out of
the pages of the famous thirteenth chapter of the first
book of Hobbes’ Leviathan. Look at Eve’s face with its
broad, overhanging brow that looks [laughs]
— she suggests the unevolved state of an upper primate more
than she does of the glorious and beautiful first human
female. Look at Adam.
The presumably unfallen Adam here is writhing in a twisted
and guilty posture that gives him no moral superiority over
Eve whatsoever. If anything,
here Adam’s hair seems more wanton and more disheveled than
[laughs] Eve’s.
Rembrandt’s Eden must be very humid.
There’s a kind of frizzy, split-end thing going on with
both of them and especially with Eve,
but at least it’s falling rather neatly over her head,
which can’t be said of Adam.Of course,
the primary clue that this representation of Eden is
imposing upon unfallen Adam a sense of fallen-ness comes from
Rembrandt’s shading of their genitals.
Actually, in the original you can make out their genitalia
quite distinctly, but they’re nonetheless shaded.
This is important for Rembrandt. They are partially hidden by
the dark and guilty shadow produced by the serpent;
the serpent you may or may not have noticed is that scaly,
hideous creature climbing the tree on the right.
Milton had gone out of his way to insist that the genitals of
Adam and Eve, their “mysterious parts,”
were not concealed, but then he goes on to censure
us, his fallen readers, for the sense of guilty shame
that we bring to any speculation about their mysterious parts;
but Rembrandt — it’s as if Rembrandt’s a step ahead of
Milton. He’s telling us that there can
be no such thing as a just representation of unfallen
nudity. Our darkened minds will
continually shade that nudity with the inescapable shadows of
guilt and shame that we have no choice but to bring to questions
of sexuality. Rembrandt joins Milton in
representing a scene that seems to lie somewhere — both the
Eden of Rembrandt and the Eden of Milton seem to lie somewhere
between a fallen and an unfallen state.I think a lot of the
energy of the Rembrandt drawing derives from his refusal to
depict the moral superiority of one sex over the other.
There’s no clear demarcation here of a sexual hierarchy or a
natural sexual hierarchy. This Adam doesn’t seem any
physically stronger than Eve. If he is to be seen as the
greater sex, perhaps it’s just because he’s placed himself
arbitrarily in a physical posture of superiority.
He’s placed one foot slightly on an elevated plane.
He’s trying to get a leg up. He’s compensating perhaps for
his lack of a self-evident authority over Eve.
Tradition, of course, has always insisted,
and this is the story that we inherit as children,
that Eve seduced Adam into eating the fruit.
Adam would never have fallen if Eve hadn’t tricked him into
eating the apple or implored him to join her in her sin;
but Rembrandt here is refusing to attribute all of the guilt to
Eve.Now, it’s possible that Adam is here trying to protect
Eve from the fruit with the gesture of his hand,
but he also might be reaching for the fruit,
grabbing it. It’s possible that he’s seizing
the fruit just as Milton’s Adam seizes Eve when he finds her by
the pool. What I’m saying here is that
the suggestion in both Milton and Rembrandt is that the Fall
has less to do with Eve’s seduction of Adam than the more
foundational and the structural, problem of sexual inequality.
The Fall starts to look more and more like the inevitable
consequence of sexual hierarchy.Okay.
I’m going to conclude after we take one final look at the
Rembrandt, at the visual details that Rembrandt forces into a
kind of analogous relation. In this he’s like Milton.
Like Milton, Rembrandt draws into an
analogous relation the slithery length of that awful serpent and
the innocent and playful winding of the elephant’s proboscis.
You can see the unwieldy elephant in the lower right-hand
corner of the Rembrandt drawing, but the proboscis and the
serpent’s tail are not the only snaky things in Rembrandt’s
Eden. As I mentioned earlier,
in the original drawings Adam’s mysterious part is actually
quite visible. It’s nasty, it’s brutish,
it’s short, but it’s discernible, and it’s important
that it’s discernible. Through this technique of
visual juxtaposition, Rembrandt casts an evil and
satanic shadow over this part of Adam’s anatomy,
that distinguishing feature of his sex which is the arbitrary
signifier of his authority over Eve.
So Adam’s authority here in its most intimate manifestation may
be as complicit as the serpent in the crime of the
Fall.Satan sees all of this. He sees this weird and
bizarrely unstable sexual hierarchy in Milton’s Eden,
and what does he say? Line 521 at page 290.
Milton has Satan announce that he — “Eureka!
I know how I’m going to do it!” — he’s arrived at his scheme
to destroy Adam and Eve. He says, just having witnessed
all of this, “O fair foundation laid whereon to build / Thir
ruin!” “I know how I’m going to be
able to bring this place down!” Now, Milton isn’t eager to join
Satan in this claim of God’s injustice, but he’s willing to
expose the inherently unstable foundation of Eden’s sexual
hierarchy. Milton lays the foundation
ultimately, I think — as we’ll see when we read Book Nine,
he lays the foundation for our understanding of some of the
deepest causes of the Fall.Okay.
Remember for next time a big chunk of reading:
Books Five, Six, Seven and Eight.

Maurice Vega

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