Milton’s God by William Empson (1961)

The central function of imaginative literature is to make you realise that other people act on moral convictions different from your own. (p.261)

This I take to be a piece of humanism in the Lionel Trilling tradition.

What is more it has been thought from Aeschylus to Ibsen that a literary work may present a current moral problem, and to some extent alter the judgement of those who appreciate it by making them see the case as a whole. (p.261)

Ditto. On this view literature contributes to the ‘debate’, which is a fundamental of democratic societies.

What is literature?

By contrast, in my opinion, the term or concept ‘literature’ is an artefact

a) used in various ways in various times and places over the past 3,000 years, and part of its study should be a study of what people of the past have meant by ‘literature’; and a study of the conditions under which it has been i) produced ii) received iii) preserved
b) constructed under specific conditions in Western universities over the past 200 years or so, and it’s worth spending a little time pondering the history of the creation of departments of ‘literature’, studying the history of the subject itself…

In contrast to the varying theoretical views of ‘literature’ put forward by professors, in the real world writers have written for a wide variety of reasons & motives – but the single biggest one has been to earn a living. In this sense most ‘literature’ is motivated not by any belated idea of contributing to a ‘debate’ – but by the wish for fame, fortune, praise and money (from the ferocious competition among the ancient Greeks to win the palm for their tragedy, to Dr Johnson claiming no-one but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.)

Milton’s God

It is a great shame that Empson only makes his ideological convictions clear in the final long polemical chapter, Christianity. It is especially regrettable that only on p.267 does he explain the rationale for the entire book, viz. modern Christians have a great amount of leeway in what they believe, can even incorporate bits of Darwinism, science etc into their syncretistic Christianity; and they tend to interpret Christian poets from the past as if they had the same easygoing faith. But Donne, Milton et al were stuck with Christianity – even when their consciences rebelled against its obvious harshness and cruelty. It was a struggle to accept many of its tenets. And so it is the revolt of Milton’s finer feelings against the harsh strictures of Christian belief that Empson sets out to map in this book, via close readings of cruxes to do with, in order, Satan (55 pages), Heaven (54), Eve (35) and Adam (29).

The one great message of this book is to refute the soft lit crit idea that you have to soak yourself into the time and mind-set of a writer in order to appreciate their work: Empson insists that an uncritical acceptance that Milton was a simple Christian belies the evidence of his personal theological work, De Doctrina Christiana, which is full of heresy and worry about God’s justice – and that this nagging doubt, worry & ambiguity are to be found at important cruxes in Paradise Lost.

Empson thinks that when Milton set himself the task of turning ‘the figures of the briefly recorded myth into high-minded intelligent characters’ he led himself into a world of woe, exposing almost every exchange to multiple ambiguities of the type he (Empson) loves to tease out. He thinks scores of these cruxes reveal that Milton actually had deep ambivalence about the myth and the kind of God it reveals – i.e. a sadistic bastard.

I think this is wrong-headed, and that, in a poem of 12,000 lines, there are bound to be anomalies, mistakes, contradictions which can be teased out and presented as deeply meaningful – but are in fact, just mistakes. I believe Milton’s aim and beliefs are clear and consistent.

Empson is a man enormously amused by his own eccentricity, who thinks he is a rebel (by standing out against the tide of neo-Christian critics spawned by Eliot) and a close reader (his tedious over-examination of words) and a humourist (imputing jokes to God, telling anecdotes about the Far East), but is in fact a muddle-headed bore.

By wrong-headed I mean the way Empson cheerfully insists that God really, deep down wanted Eve to eat the apple (p.163).

This is a foolish and ignorant book which demonstrates just how unscholarly, unsystematic, slapdash, unconsidered, inaccurate, wrongheaded, prejudiced, narrow-minded and short-sighted a so-called ‘literary critic’ can be, and why so many sensible intelligent people have looked down their noses at literary criticism as a dubious type of parlour game.

Empson is against Christianity, fine. But he uses his prejudice to interject no end of wrong-headed interpretations of Milton’s lines.

This book is like the school of criticism L.C. Knights lampooned in his 1933 essay, How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth? i.e. criticism which investigates characters as if they were real people in the real world instead of figures in a total poetic, aesthetic system. It tends, therefore, to highlight logical flaws in the poem/play. As everyone knows, Shakespeare’s plays are full of anomalies, e.g. the non-functioning time schemes – but these don’t affect their dramatic plausibility or aesthetic impact. Thus, Empson picks on hundreds of different cruxes to show that, in each case, some lines – Raphael’s explanation of this or Eve’s understanding of that – imply something different from Milton’s overall and obviously Christian aim. Well, Empson’s readings might help to understand particular passages, but it in no way invalidates Milton’s obvious overall aim. I.e. all his examples don’t build up to a systematic critique.

His chapter ‘Critics’ would be useful to this day if it in any way summarised the debate over Milton as it stood in 1961. But it doesn’t, consisting of a muddle-headed skipping from one randomly-selected quote to another, not properly summarising, explaining or critiquing the famous views of Leavis, Lewis or Eliot.

Satan

I’ve just read his 50-page chapter on Satan and I’ve really no idea what it said. Towards the end he seems to be saying that Satan had very good reasons for believing what he did i.e. that God is a tyrant, that God is not the creator but the angels made themselves etc. This seems to me rubbish: whether Satan does or does not believe this is irrelevant to the overall thrust of the poem’s obvious Christian orthodoxy – and to the overall portrayal of Satan who starts off a heroic rebel and steadily degrades himself by the use of Wrong Reason. If we identify with him so much it is because we also are fallen creatures, liable to Satan’s foolish pride (ie erroneously believing there is no God; we made ourselves etc).

Heaven i.e. God is a bad God

Empson produces a list of moments where God seems a very bad God:

God rules Heaven badly

  • God produces a Heaven in which a third of the population rebels against Him; not a good sign.
  • God produces a heaven in which Satan (and presumably other devils) obsequiously and slavishly worship Him, while secretly wishing to overthrow Him.

God fails to win Satan round – in effect, encouraging him to rebel

  • If Satan simply requires proof of God’s omnipotence, why doesn’t God simply produce them – instead of leading Satan on to open rebellion and then orchestrating the whole chain of events which lead to the Fall.

God allows the Fall to happen

  • God lets Satan step out of his chains remarkably easily.
  • God sets Sin and Death in control of the gates of Hell – talk about crazy.
  • God lets Satan travel across Chaos, when a whiff of divine breath would have blown him off into infinity.
  • When Satan is discovered by Gabriel, God sets a scale in heaven to tell Gabriel to let Satan go!
  • Thus God sets a guard on Adam which turns out to be utterly hopeless – and of course he foreknows that.

God has perfect foreknowledge of the Fall – but still lets it happen

  • On the issue of foreknowledge, a parent who foresaw that its children would be mortally injured in an accident – but let it go ahead and happen – would be imprisoned or judged insane.

God encourages Raphael to plant the seeds of the ideas which Satan will exploit to successfully tempt Eve to eat the apple

  • I.e. Raphael tells them they will become like Gods – so later Eve falls for Satan’s argument that eating the apple will make her a god.

Eve

Repeats the same thesis as the whole book which is that God is a bastard who orchestrates and encourages Eve’s fall; namely by getting Raphael to describe Adam & Eve’s possible translation to heaven – which she thinks the serpent will facilitate…

pp.161 he comes to the core of the anti-God argument: a parent who punished an erring child’s first offense with a lifetime of torment and torture, disease, war and famine for all its posterity, would be locked up.

One expects the morality of a God to be archaic, but this God seems to be wickeder than any recorded society.

Adam

Concentrates on when and how Adam learns that his entire posterity will be blasted for the Fall. But mainly quotes a string of texts from De Doctrina Christiana to show just how nervous & ambivalent Milton was about the ideas of the Fall, of infinite punishment being visited on innocent people, of innocent souls being deliberately placed in fallen, impure bodies, etc. how difficult Milton found it to justify God’s justice.

Empson points out that a line in De Doctrina seems to indicate Milton’s rock-bottom position: that if there were no God how come we all have a sense of right and wrong. This is an argument C.S. Lewis uses widely – the so-called Moral Law inherent in the universe. Well, a modern materialist says it is implanted in us by our parents, carers, creating what Freud called the superego, part of our mind which absorbs the rules and regulations laid down by years of moulding by parents, teachers etc.

Milton had nowhere else to go. No intellectually credible alternative to Christianity existed. He was stuck with his God.

I’ve found Christian belief in various people to be a matter of a handful of firm convictions – about right and wrong, or about a purpose to life etc – and then they’ve used these handful of convictions as a foundation on which to ease themselves into the vast a) social organisation b) intellectual system, of Christianity. But Milton is exceptional because he refused to shy away from the logical conclusions of the Christian myth.

Which brings me to a point which arises usefully out of Empson’s book – Milton was a lifelong arguer and controversialist – Paradise Lost is mostly dialogue, most of which is devoted to people argufying. Empson thinks it unlikely that there is any argument about any aspect of Christianity that Milton won’t have considered. Hence the intellectual interest, like watching a philosopher or lawyer make a case.

Thoughts

It is my position that Milton put down in black and white the essential elements of the Christian religion – and that many Christians are extremely embarrassed to see it written down so openly, would prefer there to have been more ‘mystery’, ‘spirituality’ i.e. for it to have glossed over the uncomfortable facts. But Milton was a zealot, convinced of his cause. There is no subtle sub-text here – Milton wrote what he believed.

But the unappealingness – the moral bankruptcy – of the poem’s theology, need not put us off either enjoying it or rating it highly as a work of art. After all, the Iliad and Odyssey and arguably the Aeneid are morally bankrupt – the Aeneid written to justify the rule of a tyrant and murderer as implacable as Stalin – Homer expounding a cruel and sadistic bronze age warrior code.

The appeal of Paradise Lost is multi-levelled and you don’t have to give a Yes/No answer to Milton’s efforts on each individual level: sometimes it works, sometimes less so:

  • first is the sheer music of the verse; but he can be dull
  • then the breathtaking scale; but this can lead him into silliness, arguably the entire allegory of Sin & Death
  • then the psychological acuity of various moments, expressed in beautiful poetry, from Milton’s Invocations to, say, the soliloquy of Satan
  • after a lot more levels you eventually reach ideology, and I think it’s perfectly possible to be struck, at some moments, by the beauty of some aspects of the Christian story – say, the road travelled by Adam and Eve from bitter recriminations to a final resolve to help each other – that is moving and instructive on a human level – but other moments are almost embarrassing, particularly when God is trying to wriggle out of any blame – and whenever you stop and think it is pathetic that a supposedly omnipotent Father can’t either a) protect or b) heal his mortal children.

Why does it have to be 1,000 years before Christ appears to redeem mankind? And why do Sin and Death continue to triumph after the resurrection? Why do we have to wait another 2,000 years of torture and suffering for the so-called Second Coming?

If God is going to forgive and heal mankind – why wait, incurring worlds of pain? Why not forgive us the next day? That’s what you do to erring children…

The Tragic Sense

Empson’s nitpicking approach and facetious generalisations would look pretty stupid if applied to, say, the Iliad. You can imagine him dismissing the argument between Agamamnon and Achilles – why doesn’t Agamemnon just return the girl? Why didn’t the gods let Clytemnestra’s warning about Hecuba’s dream be heeded? Etc There are a 1,000 places where the event could have been prevented…

But to intervene constantly in this way is to miss the wood for the trees. The Iliad presents a tragic vision of life. It has its profound impact because millions of its readers have shared this profoundly tragic worldview and admire the poem for describing it in unflinching and moving detail. To nitpick about this or that aspect of the logic of the story is to completely fail to understand the emotional / psychological / aesthetic appeal.

Same with Paradise Lost. At the end of Empson’s book of nitpicking, he has clarified some points and maybe highlighted Milton’s ambivalence on certain points of Christian theology – but nothing he writes can alter the impact the poem has as a profound, brilliantly structured, and dazzlingly written meditation on the tragic view of human life – which is then overcome by a triumphantly optimistic will for redemption. The psychological factors at play in the broad outline of the story far far outweigh Empson’s individual points.

Conclusion

The book of Genesis works as a vague and metaphorical creation myth – but when it – and the rest of Christian theology implied by it – is written out as a literal narrative, as in Paradise Lost – giving the reader days or weeks to turn it over in great detail – it turns out to be immoral nonsense.

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