Hell on a Back Burner

I woke up this morning to find Paradise Lost on the Stove. This isn’t unusual. I sometimes like to read while wandering around the house, and verse of any kind does this to me more than prose. Books wind up all over when this happens, and though Jenn was over last night, it happens even more when I’m alone. When other people are around they tend to want me to sit down, so I do, but on my own I often don’t. I sit in chairs for a living. It seems counterintuitive to me to want to come home from that and sit in more chairs. It seems like if I’m going to be sitting down, I should be getting paid.

Finding Milton anywhere isn’t really a surprise in any case, because I’m kind of a fan, literarily if not theologically (though from what I understand my inability to get my head around John Milton’s theology is a problem not limited to myself). In fact the early origins of that fandom haven’t got that much to do with Milton’s thought at all. It all started with a big, old, fabric-bound volume of Paradise Lost that my father had when I was a kid. I read very little (though I certainly read some), but the thing about this volume was that it had all of the incredible illustrations by Gustave Doré, which I pored over for what seems in my memory to have been hours. Those illustrations were, and are, beautiful and dark, gothic and voluminous with an overload of detail offset against a tremendous sense of space. The characters, mostly male, all had those sort of idealized classical dad-bods. It was all very dramatic, but it was also a remarkably refreshing change of pace from what I had always though of as classical art, because while there were plenty of angels flying around, there was also Satan. And you knew it was Satan right away because unlike the run-of-the-mill angels, Satan had bat wings. Satan was cool.

Which was exactly Milton’s point. Doré, we should remember, as closely associated with Milton as his work has become, wasn’t even close to being Milton’s contemporary. Doré was a product of the high Romantic, and for all the intimations of marble, studied grace and classical form, his was still very much a sexed-up Genesis. He also had a cartoonist’s eye for the telling visual device that establishes scene and character. For Satan, and his minions, the visual device was bat wings. You could tell the wicked characters apart from the good (and, therefore, utterly boring) angels right away. This was also an appropriate character reading, because Milton’s Satan was meant to be exactly that. The most beautiful of the angels, Satan was supposed to catch your eye. Nor, to his eventual downfall, could he avoid catching his own.

An odd bit of context for my early reading was the fact that this was the 1980s, and thus against the backdrop of what’s often now referred to as the “Satanic Panic.” For those fortunate enough to be unfamiliar, that term refers to a period of several years spanning the mid eighties and early nineties during which a credulous public and (in my view) cynical press became caught up in a moral panic over rumors that a phenomenon of Satanic ritual abuse was sweeping the nation. It was ridiculous, and literally every claim that was ever investigated was eventually debunked. But of course it was also exciting  (Geraldo Rivera was all over it), and provided a usefully reductive frame for performative cultural conflict. So it was funny to have at least a basic grounding in Milton’s version, because every side of the panic seemed to be onto something very different from that. Evangelicals and Deeply Concerned Citizens in their large-frame, aviator-style glasses and nervous mustaches seemed clear that whether the arch-fiend was real or not, the scene surrounding him was a salacious distillation of everything they were afraid of, with overtones of desperate and destructive evil. For the heavy metal kids on the other side of the debate (full disclosure: these were my friends in later childhood), the idea was basically the same, only the fear was overridden by fascination, and the several gratifications of making the aforementioned mustaches quiver. Whether you were buying or burning Venom’s Welcome to Hell album, you were basically enthralled with the same horned, gory, fabulous goat lord.

For Milton, of course, Satan represented a completely different idea. I still really dig it, especially now that I understand it a little better. I don’t dig it in the sense of finding Milton’s Satan compelling, but in the sense of finding a huge amount of useful insight into the human condition. Which is a roundabout way of saying that I see a lot of myself in the Lord of Hell. That sounds dramatic, but it isn’t. I see a lot of pretty much everyone I know. And to Milton’s credit, it’s not a great thing to behold.

See, Milton’s Satan isn’t anyone you’d really want to worship, Geraldo Rivera notwithstanding. You might for a minute, caught up in his beauty and force of personality, but as tends to happen, you’d come away disappointed. Not because of his evil, but because somewhere along the line you’d figure out that he’s actually just a fragile asshole.

Look, I’m not going to lie to you. Paradise Lost in its entirety is a pretty heavy lift. Milton was brilliant and insightful, with a clear view into how human beings work, and the thing is full of these rich little vignettes. Unfortunately he was also a devout kind-of-Calvinist, and between those rich vignettes lie mile upon mile of arid and sometimes ponderous iambic verse. Don’t come here for the nimble fluidity of Shakespeare. Milton could hit those notes when he wanted to, but big chunks of his verse lurch and rattle like a city bus on square wheels, and you’re not always going to be caught up in its rhythm and flow. Which is actually good and bad. It’s often heavy sledding, but Milton’s clunking and clanking is arguably a better way of getting you to think about what’s being written. And in contrast to Shakespeare, Milton was writing to be read more than performed. It’s verse intended to transmit ideas more than to be pronounced trippingly on the tongue. But it’s the ideas that I like, in the end, and there are vastly (enormously, titanically) more egregious works to be found out there in prose, if we’re talking ideas.

For these reasons, non-Calvinists could be forgiven for skipping around (I certainly always have), but a great place to skip to is the opening of Book IV. Here, we find Satan, already defeated in his first attempt on the holy throne, on a mission to explore the newly created Earth. Overlooking Eden, he experiences a remarkable moment of very human doubt, coupled with self-recrimination. But it’s not just any doubt, nor any recrimination. The next few sections of verse locate Satan’s misery squarely in the center of his own ego, self-delusion, and resentment. No ravening fiend here; what Milton gives us is a slightly more sympathetic Trump. A malignant narcissist, we get to witness Satan’s last shreds of goodness dissolving in his own resentment and alienation. A single passage, for me, anchors the scene:

O had his powerful Destiny ordain’d
Me some inferior Angel, I had stood
Then happy; no unbounded hope had rais’d
Ambition.

In other words, if only God hadn’t made Satan so incredibly awesome, he might have been able to be happy after all. He could have been a normie, cheerful, dumb and complacent. But no, he was was made exceptional. It wasn’t really even his fault. What can you expect? If God had wanted him mooching around like the inferior angels, God should have made him that way. The resulting lurch into extravagant self-pity is quick and dramatic.

Me miserable! which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath, and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell; 
And in the lowest deep a lower deep
Still threat’ning to devour me opens wide

Doré’s accompanying illustration has Satan on a rocky outcropping, hand to forehead in classic Romantic lamentation. This vacillation between self-recrimination and self-praise, wild misery and exultant anger is accurate. I do it all the time. The Doré illustration, through modern eyes, is kind of funny, though I doubt Milton meant it quite that way. But Satan’s suffering is real here. His essential shittyness is too, but what happens next is intriguing. Satan, in his misery, actually considers what it might mean to repent. For a moment, he considers, with apparent seriousness, the possibility of prostrating himself before the Almighty and begging forgiveness. But he catches himself in a moment of remarkable self-awareness. Repentance is quickly taken off the table for two reasons. First, to repent is necessarily to submit.

O then at last relent: is there no place
Left for Repentance, none for Pardon left?
None left but by submission; and that word
Disdain forbids me, and my dread of shame
Among the Spirits beneath, whom I seduc’d
With other promises and other vaunts. 

In other words, Satan here recognizes that he’s caught. Submission is more than his own pride can bear to begin with, but more to the point, it would make him look like an idiot. For better or for worse, he’s got a Hell full of followers. Everyone’s looking at him. He can’t just turn around and submit. There’s no chance.

But he goes further. Pride aside, he perceives that the thought of repentance doesn’t arise from any genuine conviction that he’s wrong. It’s simply a reaction to his suffering, and with the suffering alleviated, he’ll only fuck it up again, “Which would but lead me to a worse relapse, and heavier fall.”

Whatever else you want to say about the guy, he knows himself. He may have vast blind spots, but he’s also got a handle on how he operates. So, he realizes, does God, and thus the eternal enmity is locked in, with what may honestly be the favorite lines of the entire epic:

This knows my punisher; therefore as far
From granting he, as I from begging peace

Who hasn’t had an important relationship break down at precisely this point? This is the broken marriage, the estranged adult child, the friendship bitterly-ended, the angry professional resignation. There’s an important human touch point in the forgiveness that I will never ask you for, in the belief that you will never grant it. It’s the severing of ties, the shutting down of communication. And again, we’ve all done it.

It’s also a perfect clunker of a split line, but to me it works beautifully as a setup for the perfect ten-syllable, emphatic, ba-Dum-ba-DUM rhythm of the second bit. But that’s english course geek stuff and well out of my expertise. I’ll say no more about it. But what Milton does give us here is a very real sense of the devil you know. Or perhaps more usefully, the devil you are. Satan’s up to no good from this point out, and we can see why. He’s painted himself into a corner with his own self-serving logic, narrowed his own options down to the course he was already on. I do that too. So, dear reader, do you.

Now Milton’s Satan as an exemplar of existentialist inauthenticity is a bad undergrad philosophy term paper just waiting to be written by someone, but I’ll spare us all. For now. Maybe. Which way shall I fly?

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