30 Following

All the World's a Page

Currently reading

The Adventures of Augie March
Saul Bellow, Christopher Hitchens
Roland Barthes, Stephen Heath
Selected Poems and Four Plays
W.B. Yeats, Macha Louis Rosenthal
On the Edge of the Cold War: American Diplomats and Spies in Postwar Prague
Igor Lukes
Paradise Lost - John Milton, David Hawkes You're so vain, you probably don't know this poem's about you!

I didn't expect to see such a varied portrayal of vanity in this epic poem; but vanity is everywhere! Everyone is vain! Shout it from Mount Sinai!
Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.

I've always been a firm believer that there are not seven deadly sins, but rather one, with (at least) seven (but probably infinite) permutations. That said, I'm not a religious man, so this has always been sort of theoretical/aesthetic musing which I have done between sins (like intellectual "Hail Mary"s - thinking about sin sometimes to mentally atone for it). And that sin is PRIDE, or VANITY. It's everywhere, and I'm tempted to think even the humblest people are just better than most of us at window-dressing their vanities (OK, maybe I'm a bit cynical). So the relevance of this diatribe against vanity and Paradise Lost? It's so central to the story, to each character, that its as inescapable as the blatant misogyny (which is probably equal parts Christianity and Milton). Paradise Lost reminded me of a line from the same speach as previously quoted from Ecclesiastes: "Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us." Paradise Lost affirms my belief that vanity is older than time, older than man.

So "All is vain" is a rather high statement, I think Milton's portrayals of Gabriel, Michael, God, and Messiah are somewhat beyond reproach of vanity, but as a result I found them extremely bland. Cut-paper puppets posing as angels (hand-in-hand like those cut-outs you learn in kindergarten). It's no wonder that we readers relate so well to Milton's satan - he seems more human than anyone else (moreso even than Adam and Eve, which at best are each only a half of the Human). He seemed to me a kind of bastard-child of Hamlet and Iago (a frightening thought!), both very self-aware and introspective, and also a trickster and fraud. Maybe the most poignant moment in the poem for the reader's perception of Satan is when he comes to Earth, and is taken away with it's beauty, that he doubts his own convictions to his yet-to-be committed crimes on humanity:
And like a devilish engine back recoils
Upon himself; horror and doubt distract
His troubled thoughts, and from the bottom stir
The Hell within him; for within him Hell
He brings, and round about him, nor from Hell
One step, no more than from himself, can fly
By change of place: Now conscience wakes despair,
That slumbered; wakes the bitter memory
Of what he was, what is, and what must be
Worse; of worse deeds worse sufferings must ensue.

Satan feels some remorse at his break with Heaven - he sees even in the terrestrial Paradise of Eden the perfect bliss that he gave up. But he can't escape Hell, it is his punishment. While earlier in the epic he contends that "The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven" it is evident that that is not the case, that no matter what he pushes his mind to believe of his condition, he is burdened forever with the Hell within. As a modern reader, and maybe I have this in common with Milton's contemporaries, I feel very much a contention between optimism and cynicism, which I saw personified in Satan. In Book I especially, his optimism and enthusiasm seem unrestrained, he hasn't resigned himself to his tartaric suffering, but rather optimistic that it is a matter of perspective: "better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven" - his motto. But by Book IV, he is pained by what he has lost and knows that he can never regain - Heaven is unattainable, and his mind's rationalized illusion of heaven can never be anything but a pale ghost of Paradise.

We can also relate to Satan's vanity, or what is his jealousy of being passed over by God's nepotism. When God creates his Son, and holds him in favor over the other angels, Satan feels slighted, he feels that he has earned through merit the highest rank, but is forever denied it (note that Milton refers to him as the "prince of darkness" - even in Hell he is denied kingship). The parallels with Othello are obvious, though it would be dangerous to take them too far. Cassio is not a Jesus, even less so is Othello a God (Othello being perhaps the most vainglorious of Shakespeare's creations, obsessed with his own mythos as war-god). However, it gets at the root of evil, as offered by Milton, which is that even the best of us (angels) can be affected by pride, and pride leads us to do monstrous things.

Our "original Father and Mother," Adam and Eve are the center of the latter half of the epic. They feel very incomplete, which is perhaps the result of Eve's literal half-ness (being the product of Adam's "rib" or "side" - which as a result leaves only one full half to Adam as well). We see vanity first in Eve, when she describes her first day on Earth. She awakes in the shade, and seeing a river follows it to its source (searching perhaps for her own origins, as she wakes up in confusion); when she reaches a pool she sees her reflection and is enamored with it. God tells her that she is looking at her own image, and to seek Adam - but when she finds him, her vanity for an instant remains:
yet methought less fair,
Less winning soft, less amiably mild,
Than that smooth watery image: Back I turned

Eve is certainly vain upon creation, though her growing adoration for Adam seems sincere. Even so, Satan immediately notices her vanity as weakness, and targets her alone, believing her easier to seduce (perhaps because she is easily seduced by her own image). Adam is farther removed from vanity, though he lacks the perfect completeness attributable to God. I believe, and maybe I am alone, that there is something vain in love. One loves to be loved. When Adam discovers Eve's transgression, he is not convinced by her that to eat the knowing fruit is a good idea, he doesn't put value in the story of the serpent. But, he puts value in his love of Eve, over his devotion to God. He thinks to himself that he would rather die and be punished with Eve than to outlive her, and thus outlive her love.