Posts Tagged ‘original sin’

On a sadly neglected epic

March 27, 2017

I was reminded by a magazine article I read a couple of days ago that next month marks the 350th anniversary of the publication of John Milton‘s epic, Paradise Lost. It deserves a post here, as it’s one of my favourite works of literature, and, as most critics seem to agree, sadly neglected nowadays.

Why sadly neglected? Firstly, it’s poetry, which doesn’t get much of a look-in nowadays, especially after some of the death-by-poetry onslaughts to which many school students are subjected by exam boards at the moment. And it’s epic poetry, which means it’s very long – twelve books, each of some thousand lines or so – remember, we are in pre-novel days here. Though prose narratives of a kind had been written by 1667, a subject like Milton’s deserved verse, and got it. That’s how stories were told.

Once we are past poetry and length, then there’s the subject-matter: religion. Specifically, to ‘justify the ways of God to Man’, as the poet himself put it. And religion does not figure large in many people’s lives nowadays. In Milton’s theology, everything, but everything centres around the felix culpa, that ‘happy fault’, the Fall, which allowed God to manifest his love and mercy to humans and the Son of God to offer himself as a sacrifice to atone for that original sin. The whole of human and cosmic history revolves around the events of Book IX. And of course, for Milton, it was all Eve’s fault, a silly woman deceived by a talking snake, who then tricks her gullible partner into repeating her sin… truly in this twenty-first century Paradise Lost doesn’t seem to have a great deal going for it.

Why do I like it? For me, the Adam and Eve story is at the level of a legend, but it’s part of our cultural past in the West, whether one is Christian or not. And it’s a good story. I don’t buy the Son of God sacrifice and redemption story either, but again, the Bible stories, whatever your take on them, are all part of our past, out history and cultural heritage, whether or not one accepts them as true. And to lose our past is just that, a loss.

But it goes deeper than that. Whether intended or not, Milton explores and shows us just what makes us human: our free will, our choices, our wish not to be limited or confined by others’ rules. The Adam and Eve after the Fall, after their comfort sex, are people like us, with our flaws and faults; before the fall they were not human as we know it. And in the cosmic story which surrounds the little, human story of Adam and Eve, the same issues are fought over: good and evil, and the origins of evil in the world; freedom and servitude; the very purpose of existence. It’s no surprise to me that as brilliant a writer as Philip Pullman has offered a contemporary take on this story and its implications for human beings nowadays, in his Northern Lights trilogy, and in the up-coming Book of Dust. Pullman celebrates the liberation offered by what Milton the Christian must condemn…

And, for me, these philosophical arguments are reinforced, if not surpassed, by the poetry. It is stunning, and a work of true genius: Milton’s style matches the subject-matter. There is the grandeur of God in his Heaven, the magnificent defiance of Satan and his cohorts, and the human intimacy of out human forebears. There is magnificent description on a cosmic scale, warfare in the heavens, the beauty of Paradise: the rhythm of Milton’s verse captures it all, as he extends the scope and scale of the English language with far more newly-coined words than Shakespeare (though more of Shakespeare’s have survived into contemporary usage). I will admit that it’s a challenge, nowadays, to read on the page, though well worth it; this is the reason why I usually recommend the outstanding, unabridged audio recording by Anton Lesser on Naxos Audiobooks as the way to enjoy the poem. It deserves to be enjoyed by more people…

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The myth of the Fall

August 7, 2015

Thinking further about forbidden knowledge and dangerous knowledge took me back to the myth of the Fall of Adam and Eve, which I don’t believe in any literal way, but which I am convinced serves some deeper purpose somewhere in our species’ consciousness and warns us about the dangers of knowledge.

The basic outline appears in Genesis, and is elaborated on in such texts as The First Book of Adam and Eve, and, of course most significantly, in John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. Within a fairy tale is presented a core philosophical question central to our understanding of ourselves: how do we deal with the knowledge (illicitly) gained?

Humans have the ability to reason; this enables us to make choices, and allows us a certain measure of free will. Religions take particular stances on this question, which I don’t think it’s necessary to go into here. In the Hebrew-Christian version of the Fall, firstly it is Lucifer who says ‘I will not serve’ thus rebelling against God (and becoming Satan in the process), and who subsequently, in his disguise as the serpent, tempts Eve with the notion of becoming like a god if she eats the forbidden fruit. The knowledge of good and evil attainted through this rebellion is, arguably, what makes us human. A similar story also exists as the Prometheus myth, incidentally.

So, for better or worse, we have access to knowledge: but can we cope with it? We are necessarily a curious species: we want to know things, and we can’t stop learning. Thus eventually we invent dynamite, nuclear weapons, genetic engineering and a whole host of other things that we aren’t convinced are wholly good things, at least, under our shaky control. But we can’t put the genie back in the bottle, as I pointed out in my last post.

But it is this original sin – if we briefly use the religious terminology – that makes us the humans that we are. Adam and Eve are far more interesting after they have fallen: they argue, they enjoy sex, they become conscious of themselves as individuals. They are us. I’d never really thought about the significance of Adam’s saying to God ‘I saw that I was naked’ – there is the ‘I’ for perhaps the first time as Adam becomes someone different from what he was before…

In Paradise Lost, Adam and Eve do not seem human before the Fall. Similarly, in Huxley’s Brave New World, although the inhabitants of AF 632 seem happy enough, they are not human as we know it, Jim – and this was the position my students and I inevitably reached when we studied that novel.

Our fallen-ness is explored in literature and evidenced by our history over several millennia; we may be humans, but we are perhaps not a very intelligent species. We are unable to balance the needs and desires of the individual – me – which exists because of our self-knowledge and ability to reason, and the needs and desires of the collective or group.

For me, the issue becomes even more complicated if we then look at the – purely Christian, because found in no other religion, I think – consequence of the Fall, which is the redemption that allegedly follows. What exactly are we to be saved from? What are we being offered instead? If we are to be saved from our inabilities to cope with our free will, if we are to be saved from our inability to see the consequences of our actions, perhaps I could be in favour of that, but would I still be human? And would that be any great loss? And then we shade into the realm of the utopian, the perfect worlds of which so many writers have loved to dream, and which we must admit are unattainable, or, if attainable, then at the cost of our human-ness…

I’m not sure where all this gets me…but I do have a framework into which this ancient story now fits, and a message about myself and my species which does speak to me…

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