Milton’s Dangerous Game

[Obligatory disavowal of any implicit claim to be saying something original about Milton.]

In the wake of the #CancelColbert saga, I’ve been thinking a lot about the attempt to “subvert from within” — not just Colbert’s method of subverting the right by portraying an (only slightly) exaggerated right-winger, but things like Watchmen or Game of Thrones that seem to want to expose the ugliness in their respective genres by amping it up a hundredfold. As I discussed with Gerry Canavan in a long-lost Twitter conversation, it doesn’t seem as though this strategy ever actually works. Right-wingers can happily watch Colbert, and audiences receive the “subversive” extreme version of a given genre as a particularly badass example of that genre. Even if it does sometimes achieve the desired end, adopting such a sophisticated, roundabout strategy is surely a dangerous game.

As I finish up Paradise Lost in my devil class, it seems to me that Milton is engaged in a similar dangerous game. He doesn’t merely want to join the epic tradition, with all the one-upsmanship that has always implied — he wants to destroy it from within, rendering the traditional epic impossible. In this view, the fact that the devil is the hero of the epic in traditional terms is not some scandalous secret, but rather the whole point: the heroes of traditional epics were wicked men, and the kinds of activities that were lauded in the epics (war, deception, etc.) are evil. Hence the devil does all of that, taking on the role of proud Achilles, crafty Odysseus, etc., and all of his actions are portrayed as being nihilistic and pointless. The hope is that Paradise Lost will break the spell of the traditional epic and highlight how much more amazing and meaningful the Christian narrative of redemption is.

Hence Milton was not secretly on the devil’s side — only his unshakeable faith could allow him to pursue this strategy so naively. Only a committed Christian could be so tone-deaf to how bad God comes across and expect proto-modern audiences to prefer God just because he’s God. As with other subversive meta-commentaries on a genre, the only person who would receive Milton’s critique as intended is someone who doesn’t need the critique. For everyone else, the extreme epic poem where the devil himself is the hero appears to be a particularly badass epic poem.

The problem of narrating a Fall

In my course on the devil, I have emphasized the contrast between patristic accounts of the fall of the devil (whereby he generally gets jealous of humanity) and Anselm’s radically ahistorical account in De casu diaboli. On the one hand, the more “mythological” patristic account makes more narrative sense, while Anselm’s represents more of an attempt to think through free will at its most radical and abstract. On this scale, Milton’s account in Paradise Lost is basically in the patristic vein, albeit altered by Milton’s Arian theology — Satan becomes jealous, not of humanity, but of the revelation of the Son, who seems to interpose another “layer” between God and angels, implicitly demoting them all.

In class today, however, I argued that the real action is not in the fall of the devil — which Milton never “directly” narrates, putting it in the mouth of an angel who himself was not present for the event — but rather the fall of Eve. What is interesting to me is the way Milton’s account of the fall of Eve reveals an inherent limit to “mythological” narratives of the fall, namely that the pressure of creating a comprehensible narrative creates a tendency to insert some kind of fundamental imbalance into the situation such that, in this case, Eve was bound to fall long before the devil entered the scene. The fact that Milton was such a clearly devout man who wanted to “justify the ways of God” shows just how irresistible this logic is (and shows Milton’s own integrity as a thinker, as well).

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