Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Milton's flawed masterpiece

1. Milton's Paradise Lost is a flawed masterpiece. Now, when a great artist fails by overreaching, his work may still touch heights of genius that flawless work by a lesser artist can only dream of. But it's interesting to ask what makes a flawed masterpiece flawed? 

2. Part of the problem is the unrelieved heavy style. It becomes oppressive and monotonous. 

3. Then there's the subject matter. The plot operates on two levels: the fall of Adam and the fall of Lucifer. Now Gen 1-3 doesn't provide much material to scale up into an epic poem. Mind you, life in the garden could be fleshed out in some detail, but that doesn't interest Milton. He doesn't seem to have the romantic view of natural scenery. And domesticity isn't his forte.  That demands the lighter touch of a lyric poet rather than an epic poet. Shakespeare or Racine could expand on the relationship of the first couple, but that's not Milton's metier. 

4. Regarding the fall of Adam, Eve is the protagonist while Lucifer is the Tempter. But I doubt that's dramatically satisfying for Milton since they are so ill-matched. There's no contest. Moreover, given Milton's very masculine outlook, a woman is not an adequate protagonist to face off with Lucifer. Indeed, in the original account, the Tempter presumably picked on her because she was more vulnerable. 

But even Adam would be no match for Lucifer. Whether or not Lucifer is smarter than Adam and Eve, he's certainly more sophisticated and experienced. And he enjoys the tactical advantage that they are unsuspecting. 

5. Scripture says even less about the fall of angels than the fall of Adam. However, that gives Milton free rein to fill out the backstory with his own imagination. 

In heaven, the Son is the protagonist while Lucifer is the antagonist. In principle, that's more promising dramatic material. Milton gravitates to larger-then-life figures. And he can flesh it out on heroic scale in a way he can't do with life in the garden.

6. But there's a catch. And that is Milton's low Christology. There are scholarly debates about whether he was a closet Arian (or Socinian). If he was, then that generates tensions in the characterization. 

7. In one respect it simplifies his task. The backstory requires him to assign a motive for the fall of angels. If the Son is merely an eminent creature, like the Archangel Michael, then the celestial civil war is ignited by sibling rivalry. Many angels resent the Father exalting the Son over them because he's not essentially their superior. So, from a dramatic standpoint, that explains their resentment. 

Moreover, it provides dramatic parity between the protagonist and the antagonist. Lucifer and the Son are the same kind of beings. 

8. But if that's the implicit Christological presupposition of the plot, then that comes at a twofold cost. First of all, Milton must conceal his low Christology to garner a favorable reception for his poem. Arianism was a crime. So that leaves an unresolved tension in the characterization–he can't afford to relieve the tension by laying his cards on the table. It's unclear to the reader what exactly the Son is? What's his ontological relationship to the angels? Is he one of them? That would explain why they bristle at his promotion, which comes at the corollary cost of their demotion. But Milton dare not make that explicit, so the crucial psychological dynamic remains fuzzy. 

9. The other dramatic toll this exacts is that if Lucifer and the Son are both creatures, both angels, then this becomes a plot trope about fraternal rivalry, where the father is guilty of favoritism. On the one hand is the good son. The dutiful, submissive, obedient son. And on the other hand is the independent son. The bad boy. 

And in general, the audience finds bad boy characters more appealing than good boy characters. Good boy characters are usually a foil for bad boy characters. The good boy, the loyal son, is insipid, docile, and domesticated–while the bad boy, the rebellious son, is virile and daring. 

It also means that Milton can't help having a sneaky admiration for the character of Lucifer, because Milton himself was so manly. For that reason, the characterization of the Son does not and cannot ignite his dramatic imagination in the same way as the characterization of Lucifer. So that's another point of tension. Not in terms of how the characters relate to each other, but how the poet relates to his characters. 

One might object that that's too anthropomorphic, but if Milton is tacitly operating with a low Christology, then that's not anthropomorphic. Lucifer and the Son are metaphysically two of a kind. 

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