Note 10: John Milton: Giving Voice to Snakes and Angels Shapes the (Wo)man in Your Skin. 6/23/99
Anyone can object, of course, to picking out a seventeenth century Puritan poet as a (spokes)man to tell us how we fell from grace and became the most sin-ridden and depraved animal on the face of the earth and in the history of the world on the ground that such a person's voice does not truly reflect the way things are perceived by the vast majority of serious and contemporary ideologues of the Christian faith, that John Milton is old-fashioned and out of date, that even in his prime connection to his own milieu, because he spoke mostly for the radical faction of king-killers on behalf of Cromwell's revolution, his was not a truly universalistic voice, one to be taken as a fair reflection of what most people perceive as being true. Yet, and in spite of that obvious limitation, Milton has always been perceived as one of the greatest poets in English literary history. My intention here is to search out the cause for Milton's reputation as a poet worthy of being ranked with Chaucer and Shakespeare and not, more appropriately, among the lesser lights of those writers whose names we cannot quite recall when put to the test.
Since everything I have to say here about Milton is highly opinionated and deeply personal, I should begin by explaining why I have reached the conclusion that his work is not worth more than a passing footnote in the longest version possible of English verse. Quite obviously my antipathy for Milton's poetry springs from my attitude toward the ideology connected to the Myth of Eden. The author of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained cannot be expected to rise to a very high level on my list of must-read works of literary art, on the one hand and in the first place, but beyond an obvious generality like that one, my feelings of aversion for his intellect, for the way he perceives and characterizes (wo)man's place in the cosmos, while typically Christian and essentially orthodox at its core, is so brutally raw and openly negative that I cannot help but ache in my spirit for the way he falsely maligns and denigrates human life and human reality. Reading Milton makes me sick, renders me physically ill, like the symptoms one expects from a bad case of the pox. That part of me that is native American has no natural immunity to the (dis)ease that is Miltonic ideology.
Consider the role he played in the Puritan revolution and its aftermath and how that historical nightmare adversely affected native America. Everyone remembers the monumental war in heaven that Milton inscribed in Paradise Lost. Many modern critics proclaim it to be the best poetry ever written by a human being. In most modern critical practice, of course, the critic is always very careful to separate the poetry he/she studies from any connection it might have to the real sociohistorical milieu that gave rise to it. In this case, it is totally wrongheaded to associate the side of God in the heavenly war with the Cromwellian forces that were ravishing England during the civil war that resulted in the beheading of Charles I. One also must not stoop to the level of seeing the Royalist forces in the body of Satan's army that is attempting to overthrow the Godliness of puritanical ideology. The poetic ambiguity in the reversal of status here makes the argument more difficult to sustain because Cromwell was not in power when his terrorism began, but only should have been, while the army of Satan was out of power in heaven but fully in control of the earthly realm in the body of the king. Heaven is perfect; earth is flawed--so in Milton's twisted sense of heaven/earth parallels, God is in while Satan is out in heaven, but on earth the opposite is true with Charles in power and Cromwell in thrall. God wins the war in heaven even as Cromwell wins it on earth and that corrects the sinful and depraved reality that has always been the case in poor suffering England for lo these many years under the heel of the immoral and lascivious monarchy. The Royalists who managed to survive Cromwell's Biblically justified genocide against them did so by fleeing to America (1649-1660) where they began to murder and rape native Americans, being so recently deprived of the opportunity to continue that practice against other English(wo)men.
After Cromwell died and Charles II was restored to the throne, a second wave of terrorists, the ones who had beheaded the restored king's father, began to arrive in America where they too joined the exiled Royalists in slaughtering native Americans because it was easier for Puritans and Royalists alike to kill natives and steal their land than it was to negotiate a fair price for it. This was especially true among the matriarchal tribes of the northeast because Puritans, who had been elevated by the glorious misogyny of Milton's poetry into a truly pathological hatred for women, it was Eve after all who had deprived Cromwell of his eternity, could not be expected to lower themselves to recognizing the right of any woman whatsoever on the face of any earth to control something their masculine, ego-centric, and God-driven greed demanded that they possess.
My own personal distaste for Milton's poetic vision, which borders on a pathological hatred of its own, has its origin in that deeply troubled time in my life right after my initial confrontation with the old man in the desert. Spirit-guides create problems enough for the people they confront when that individual is held and protected by the knowledge and experience of the tribal community in which he/she lives. Under normal circumstances the person has intentionally sought out the encounter by entering a vision quest and has a reasonable perception of what is likely to happen if and when a spirit-guide appears. I knew nothing about any of that since I had not spent a day in my life in any tribal context, had never heard anything about the concept of spirit-guide, and did not know at the time that my maternal grandfather was native American. To say that the appearance of the old man in my field of vision literally frightened me out of my skin is simply to acknowledge the truth of what that experience did to me. Hearing voices afterwards, the old man's voice, which I both could and could not understand, because he was talking about things that existed outside any frame of reference I could imagine, drove me into the belief that it was the voice of God I was hearing instead of the voice of a spirit-guide.
This was only natural, of course, since the frame of reference I did have at the age of fifteen was oriented toward the church of my Christian mother and father who had always insisted that I attend to Christian rituals like any normal white person in the America of the 1950's. Having this totally bizarre voice speaking constantly in my ear demanded some form of rationalization short of admitting I was insane. Choosing God as a source for it seemed perfectly acceptable at the time. Reading Paradise Lost during that same period, because it had the reputation of being the greatest Christian poem ever written, at least in puritanical circles like the ones nearly every Protestant person in America knows only too well, brought me face to face with a second alternative I had not anticipated prior to my fall from grace into Milton's poetry. Satan takes up a position next to the reclining heads of Adam and Eve and begins talking to them while they sleep. For whatever reason, that seemed like a perfect image for what had been happening to me with respect to the old man's invisible presence in my life. In almost no time at all I had turned him into Satan and began to fear eternal damnation instead of incurable insanity.
The kind of passion that began to drive me, more and more toward a truly irredeemable insanity I suppose, was a passage like the one that follows from Book IV of Paradise Lost where Satan is holding forth within himself and explaining to Milton's audience exactly what he intends to do to God's perfect human creatures:
"Hence I will excite thir minds
With more desire to know, and to reject
Envious commands, invented with designe
To keep them low whom knowledge might exalt
Equal with Gods; aspiring to be such,
They taste and die: what likelier can ensue?"
This is the snake talking, of course, even if he, as shape-shifter, has not taken on that form of discourse yet when these lines are spoken. The notion that a desire for knowledge of a certain kind (of good and evil which Satan neglects to mention here making God's commandment against it a more general prohibition) makes it necessary and inevitable for (wo)man to reject the obligations of obedience to God's will, thus driving its possessor to imagine him/herself the equal of God, or even that (wo)man can be defined as harboring an inescapable desire to be God, making the fall from grace virtually inevitable, at least in Satan's perception of (wo)man's reality, is a complex of ideas generally taken for granted by most Christian thinkers both then and now. Having a knowledge of good and evil will make you aspire to be God. Knowledge is Power. Power means having dominion over other people and, apparently, of desiring to have dominion over God Himself, since only He is supposed to know the difference between good and evil.
In reading a passage like this one in the context of listening to a disembodied voice instructing me to build a bridge between the real world of flesh and blood actuality and the one he/"it" inhabited in the spirit world naturally convinced me that I was on the verge of doing an irreparable harm both to myself and to the world in general. The old man was telling me there was a knowledge I needed to gain in order to be able to complete the task of overturning the devastation caused by good Christians and true when they (Bishop Landa) burned the sacred books of the Mayas which contained a truth no longer spoken in this world because no one living now knew what it was. A Bishop of God's church had caused people to die (shamans) in order to confiscated their demon-ridden and devil-inspired books so that the Christian world could be saved from their everlasting evil. All I had to do was persevere and that knowledge would come back into the world again. Whether or not I was aspiring to be "equal with gods" was a question rendered moot by virtue of the fact that I was certainly placing myself above the divinely inspired perceptions of the Bishop of Mexico. The pure terror inspired by Milton's description of what I was doing sometimes paralyzed my mind. The old man did his best to keep me sane, no easy task, and did, as far as I know, manage to do just that.
A second passage, this one spoken by the angel Raphael in Book V of Paradise Lost, after Adam and Eve have discussed their night of troubling dreams and visions inspired by Satan's midnight whispering voice projected to their sleeping ears, helped, by the sheer absurdity of its claims, to turn me back around to a more rational ground where I was able to begin a process of critical evaluation that ultimately overturned the material presence of Milton's vision in my mind. Or so it seemed at the time at least. Raphael tells God's perfect creatures that
". . . from these corporal nutriments perhaps
Your bodies may at last turn all to Spirit
Improv'd by tract of time, and wingd ascend
Ethereal, as wee, or may at choice
Here or in Heav'nly Paradises dwell;
If ye be found obedient, and retain
Unalterably firm his love entire
Whose progenie you are."
Of course, the "perhaps" in the first line of this statement, and the subsequent qualification expressed by "If ye be found obedient," which even hapless Adam has sense enough to question, tells all the story anyone needs to hear to know just how improbable it is that any human being would ever reach and maintain a level of existence pure enough to float away on angel-wings to this or that other Paradise every true believer knows and hopes to make his/her own. All that God demands of your being there is that you "love entire" the Father who created you susceptible to the fall from grace initially and either sent, or allowed, pure Evil in the shape- shifter's body to invade the perfect Garden He created for your eternal pleasure.
What I learned fifteen years after I first read Paradise Lost, when the time finally came to open the bridge the old man and I had so laboriously, so carefully, built, was that the material reality of the images Milton used to fashion his description of a depraved human reality were still there in my mind with all the force and terror that any material possession contains and projects into one's living subjectivity. While I waited for the vision of another kind of life to take hold of my being there at this end of the bridge in time, I fully expected to see a hoard of monstrous demons emerge from the ground of my betrayal of everything the whiteman's world holds and honors as value against the potential of a heathen's right to exist and live in the very land of his/her ancestral spirits. To say I was apprehensive about the outcome of my decision to complete the task the old man wanted me to finish, which had taken on the semblance of an act of calling up some devil, was the same as seriously under- estimating the terror and dread Milton's ideology inspired as a picture in my mind with me as target for God's most insidious and vengeful rage. I truly believed with half my mind and thought that I had sold and sealed my fate into the hands of hungry devils looking for another soul to eat.
As it turns out, if you want to give yourself a chance for a different kind of life, one not dominated by hierarchical structures that always already define you as depraved and sin-ridden, you have to be willing to risk a little more than you can possibly comprehend to get your first step out on the bridge that takes you there.
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