Monday, December 21, 2015

Paradise Regained by Gordon Teskey

[ The theme of this poem is the temptation of Christ which is told in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. According to these texts, after being baptized, Jesus fasted for forty days and nights in the Judaean Desert. During this time, Satan appeared to Jesus and tried to tempt him. Jesus having refused each temptation, the devil then departed and Jesus returned to Galilee.]

Paradise Regained the old adversaries from the battle in Heaven, recorded in book 6 of Paradise Lost, meet again. But in Heaven they were hardly adversaries: The Son’s victory over the armies of Satan is sudden, overwhelming , and total. This time Satan, who is prince of this world (John 12:31), has supernatural powers, and Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, has no powers above human, although he is a perfect human being in every way,. But surely even a perfect human being would not be equal to the powers that Satan now has. Or might he be?

Nor does Jesus have any memory of the war in Heaven, of who he is or what it means to be God’s “Son.” As we have seen, the word Son, obsessively repeated, is the riddle of this poem. Satan wants to find out the meaning of the phrase, “This is my son beloved, in him am pleased” (PR, 1.85), and whether it applies to the prophetic judgment on the serpent uttered by the Son when Adam and Eve were judged: “her Seed shall bruise thy head, thou bruise his heel” (PL, 10.180). Is the meaning of “Seed” the same as the meaning of “Son”? For the climatic episode in Paradise Regained, when Satan tries something harsher and more direct than temptation, he reveals his uncertainty on this question: “Therefore, to know what more  thou art than man/ Worth naming Son of God, by voice from Heav’n,/ Another method I must now begin” (PR, 4.538-40). Satan recalls the Son’s judgment shortly after the action of the poem begins and refers to this wound as “Fatal” and “long threatened” (PR, 1.53 and 59).  What does this wound consist of? Satan conjectures the prophesy means he and the other devils will no longer be left free to range in “this fair empire of earth and air” (PR, 1,.63). They will be driven back to hell, as they are in the Nativity Ode. Is Jesus this “Seed” who will inflict the bruise? That is what Satan wants to find out above all. But whether Jesus is the “Seed” or some other sense of “Son of God”, Satan intends to corrupt him if he can and destroy him if he must – and if he can.

If Jesus can defeat Satan’s efforts to tempt and destroy him, he will have undone Adam’s crime, which persists in the entire human race as original sin, and which Milton understands as the lust of dominion and the lust of possession, but also, especially now, after the collapse of the English Revolution, as cowardice. If Jesus wins, he will have become a perfect instrument for his ministry, which will start after the close of this poem.

Paradise Lost expands upon the Biblical Creation and Fall in the most literal and physical sense. The essential thought of Paradise Lost, about the Bible as well as about human ethics, is direct and uncomplicated. It affirms human freedom, and the exaltedness of human reason, within the horizon of our createdness. We are created beings and owe God thanks and praise for our existence. We also owe God obedience to what was originally a single command: not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. But after the Fall this original command branched out into many prohibitions, not all of them reasonable and free. The many laws are an effort to plug the leaky holes in the hull of our corrupted nature, while the ship slowly sinks. We are still reasonable and free beings, but overwhelmed by the sins we commit and even more by the sins we inherit from all who have been sinning before us, which inherited sins cumulatively may be termed “history.” History is our great excuse, but it is also our greatest burden. The Son of God comes into the world to remove this weight of sin and restore us to our original state of innocence – although this, as it happens, will take time, and will require, in conventional Christianity, a sacrifice. To remove the weight of sin means for Milton to reverse the direction of history, to turn Paradise lost into Paradise regained – or, rather, to turn the desert of history into a new Paradise that exists only in the barest outlines. The new Paradise, for which the secular version is Utopia, is for Milton in the process of being slowly built. That is the meaning of the phrase in the introduction to Paradise Regained: “An Eden raised in the waste of the wilderness” (PR, 1.7)

Paradise Regained is biblically allusive, conceptually challenging and stylistically spare. It also makes an unexpected advance, intellectually speaking, upon Paradise Lost, which becomes strikingly quietist, with nothing more to recommend than obedience, suffering and meekness, ideas not well coordinated with Milton’s ethically paramount, humanistic concepts of freedom and reason. In books 11 and 12 of Paradise Lost, the synthesis of classical values and Christian faith comes apart and Christian faith overwhelms humanistic values. Transcendental engagement -  that is, engagement with the world, because human beings are inherently noble and deserve better – begins to regress into transcendence pure and simple, because human beings deserve what they get from one another. In these final two books of Paradise Lost Milton almost seems to recommend giving up the world and hoping for Heaven.

Paradise Regained shows renewed intellectual vigor, and the thinking, the dianoia, which is to say, the thought expressed by the characters, is more immediate, disclosing a reawakened engagement with the world. The engagement is dialectical and transcendent because it will have nothing to do with improvement. It begins by rejecting all that the world has to offer and all that the world thinks it needs, in order to begin making a new world out of the old. In a further dialectical subtlety, the thinking in Paradise Regained does not struggle, as we might have expected, to fight its way free from an unalloyed Christian tradition that comes to dominate in the final books of Paradise Lost, nor does it welcome back the classical, humanistic values that make up the anthropology of Paradise Lost. Instead,  Paradise Regained goes straight into the heart of the Christian tradition, in the New Testament Gospels, and includes for good measure a condemnation of the classical tradition. In Paradise Lost, Milton expresses thinking he had already done before beginning the poem, mostly in the prose works written over nearly two decades. In Paradise Regained, we feel the pressure of thinking as it is happening now.

The Jesus of Paradise Regained is like the supremely authoritative Jesus of John’s Gospel, but in a state of becoming. It is almost as if Milton set out to discover where Jesus got his strength of mind from and sought an answer by expanding imaginatively on an episode that is not in John’s Gospel, but that is in the other three. The temptation by Satan is understood ,and so presented by him, as the final and decisive stage in the formation of Jesus’s mind, preparing Jesus for his ministry, and also testing him to see if he is worthy. The portrait we are given of his mind is fascinating, in his private thoughts as well as in his statements to Satan. It is an entirely human mind, without divined knowledge, but it is a mind of a genius and an idealist, one who has read intelligently enough in the Hebrew scriptures to know he is the coming Messiah to which the prophets refer. But exactly what does this mean, and what is to be done? Jesus has come into the desert to think this over, and Satan will have some solutions to offer him.

In the choice of the temptation episode, Milton discovers a thought we see clearly expressed nowhere else in his work: that the Crucifixion, the climatic episode of all four Gospels, is less important than the temptation in the desert, a minor episode at the outset of the synoptic gospels. As Milton sees it, Jesus’s Crucifixion is a victory over the consequences of the original sin of Adam and Eve, the chief consequence being death. But Jesus’s victory in the desert  is a victory over the cause of original sin, the temptation of Adam and Eve. This is the more radical solution.

It is hard to emphasize enough how unorthodox and extreme this idea is, got from a thoughtful and repeated reading of the Greek text of the gospels, with attention and with total disregard for tradition – or for other parts of the Bible, notably the epistles of Paul. As we have come to expect with Milton’s thought, his solution to the problem of what Jesus does to save us [preach against greed, dominion and political cowardice] goes down to the root.

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