American Gloom

Month: July, 2012

“By my own right hand:” The Myth of the Self in Paradise Lost

by Ezekiel Fry

I have often felt (and I am certainly not the first to feel this) that Milton’s Paradise Lost, aside from being a precursor to 20th and 21st century high fantasy, serves as an interesting jumping off point for the American experience, both chronologically and ideologically. There is no shortage of work dedicated to finding democracy in the council at Pandemonium, and seeing the tale as a whole from a revolutionary standpoint. I do not intend here to even discuss the poem in explicit connection with the formation of America, but I will lead the discussion with a statement from D. H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature. Sometimes to gain understanding of ourselves, we need to look to the outside observer (See Alexis de Tocqueville!). In speaking of America, and Americans, Lawrence writes:

Those Pilgrim Fathers and their successors never came for freedom of worship. What did they set up when they got here? Freedom, would you call it?
They didn’t come for freedom. Or if they did, they sadly went back on themselves.
All right then, what did they come for? For lots of reasons. Perhaps least of all in search of freedom of any sort: positive freedom, that is.
They came largely to get away–that most simple of motives. To get away. Away from what? In the long run, away from themselves. Away from everything. That’s why most people have come to America, and still do come. To get away from everything they are and have been.
‘Henceforth be masterless.’
Wich is all very well, but it isn’t freedom. Rather the reverse. A hopeless sort of constraint. It is never freedom till you find something you really positively want to be. And people in America have always been shouting about the things they are not.

Who can truly say they have first-hand knowledge of their own birth? The tale—or myth of our individual birth, or creation—is something that must be related, it cannot be experiential. We may witness, and then recount, another’s creation, but our own personal moment of birth remains mythical. This moment of entry into life, so divergent from the other experiences of the human condition (with perhaps the exception of death), does not truly create identity. The process which establishes each individual as they are, establishes their own personal myth to supplant the established myth of their creation, is a tumultuous upheaval of orientation that I will refer to as self-creation in the proceeding discussion. For Satan, Adam, and Eve of Milton’s Paradise Lost, each finite beings with unknowable beginnings, the process of becoming, of creating the self, is intrinsic, and inseparable, from the fall.
The notion that self-creation may be an option is first touched upon by Satan (I will refer to him as Lucifer for the first section of this discussion) in his debate with Abdiel (book 5). Responding to Abdiel’s claim that, due to their creation at God’s hands, the angels owe him unquestioning allegiance, Lucifer states:

That we were formed then say’st thou? And the work
Of secondary hands by task transferred
From Father to His Son? Strange point and new!
Doctrine which we would know whence learnt: who saw
When this Creation was? Remember’st thou
Thy making while the Maker gave thee being?
We know no time when we were not as now,
Know none before us, self-begot, self-raised
By our own quick’ning power… (Milton 5.853-61)

With this cleverly crafted rebuttal, Lucifer establishes himself independent from the existing myth of his own Creation. The cornerstone of Abdiel’s argument is thrown aside, in favor of something tangible, something that may be experienced. The belief that God created the angels is an action of faith, there can be no empirical evidence, other than God’s Word—the catalyst of belief—that Lucifer has not existed exactly as he is now: “self-begot” and “self-raised.” In Lucifer’s eyes the established myth of his birth, and his very identity, must yield itself to the worth of his “own right hand” (Milton 5.864). While he still accepts the truth of God’s Word Lucifer retains his seat in Heaven, but he must also relinquish, or leave dormant, a piece of himself. This dormant piece is what begins to awaken within Lucifer as he sits brooding on the appointment of the Son (Milton 5.659-75). The Word of God, the established myth, is no longer sufficient to explain existence, to give shape and reality to Lucifer’s existence. He must strike out against the established myth and endeavor through his own “highest deeds” to create himself (Milton 5.864).
Raphael relates this tale, and the subsequent fall of Lucifer, to Adam with a prefatory note. As he begins his discussion of Lucifer, Raphael parenthetically states, in a sort of aside, “But not so waked/ Satan (so call him now: his former name/ Is heard no more in Heav’n)” (Milton 5.657-9). Prior to introducing the debate with Abdiel, Raphael establishes that Lucifer is not to be thought of as Lucifer, but instead as what he will become—Satan, he who shall “reign in Hell” (Milton 1.263). In noting that the figure who strides through books 5 and 6 is not the archangel of Heaven, but instead the self-created monarch of Hell, Raphael, perhaps unknowingly, moves towards proving the validity of Lucifer’s argument concerning his own Creation. Here is a figure, that by the deeds of his “own right hand” has been struck from the book of life, and has been created anew. From his name itself this is shown. The identity that was given to him is no longer applicable, thus it is not even explicitly stated by Raphael. Established identity, mythical birth, has been exorcised and, for better or worse, Satan emerges with his own experiential moment of birth, which we have already witnessed in the first book of the poem. The lost name, Lucifer, hovers over the entire tale, casting doubt upon the strong words of both the myth-maker Raphael and his creation, Abdiel. It is not until the conclusion of his retelling of the War in Heaven that Raphael speaks Satan’s prior name with another parenthetical aside, “Know then that after Lucifer from Heaven/ (So call him, brighter amidst the host/ Of angels than that star the stars among)” (Milton 7.131-3). By bookending his discussion with these two names in opposition to their applicability, Raphael cements the reality of self-creation, and the truth of Lucifer’s doubt, the truth of his rebellion.
Raphael goes on to relate the creation of Earth, and the creation of Adam and Eve. This section of the angel’s tale is prefaced by another type of mythical aside, which plays on the Word of God, and its unfathomable quality—its basis in faith. Raphael states:

Immediate are the acts of God, more swift
Than time or motion but to human ears
Cannot without process of speech be told
(So told as earthly notion can receive). (Milton 7.176-9)

With this, Raphael declares that everything he will discuss further will be translated, as the actions of God cannot be deciphered, or much less comprehended, by human ears or minds. Much in the same way that he prefaces his tale of the War in Heaven by stating that he must use earthly language to describe what happens in Heaven (Milton 5.564-76), Raphael here states that while he will relate the story of Creation it will lose something in the translation, further placing it within the realm of myth. While he will tell Adam of his own creation (and Eve will listen as well, albeit in a subservient position) this creation will be told rather than experienced, and told imperfectly. This tale, perhaps the most abstract of all Raphael’s stories, focuses most directly on the world which Adam and Eve inhabit, and yet so fails to hit the mark of their experience that Adam immediately feels compelled to explain his own understanding of his creation. It is within Adam’s relation of his first cognizant moments on Earth that the words of Lucifer (or Satan, whichever name suits us best at this point) hauntingly reemerge. Adam describes awakening into existence, stating to Raphael, “But who I was, or where, or from what cause/ Knew not” (Milton 8.270-1). Adam goes on to state that he believes he cannot have arisen of himself, but must be made “by some great Maker” (Milton 8.278). Like Satan, Adam does not personally know his origin, the nature of his birth, but unlike Satan, or at least the Satan of book 5, he believes that he must have been created by something. This duality, the mystery of existence, and the faith that it arose from a “Maker” form the basis for the difficulties that will soon arise between God and Adam.
These difficulties are a matter of perspective. Adam asks God for an equal companion, but God, being omnipotent, cannot understand equality. Adam’s aforementioned belief that he must be something lesser than his creator, that he is finite, allows him the ability to see the appeal of equality. Strangely, God, who needs no myth of origin, for he has always existed, misses Adam’s point altogether. Eventually this mysterious entity, who claims Creation of the confused and lonely Adam, grants Adam a subsidiary, or lesser-equal, not at all what Adam requested. This communication breakdown between Adam, who wishes to believe in a “Maker,” and God, who claims omniscience but cannot see what his creation truly desires, is the highlight of Adam’s incomplete origin tale. He must take God’s Word (which may again be lost in translation) for it, that he is God’s creation. In light of this difficulty, and several other lingering doubts about God’s work on Earth, it becomes increasingly tenuous for Adam to blindly believe. Perhaps, like Satan, his “puissance” is his own (Milton 5.864). Perhaps the most important aspect of Adam’s tale lies within his audience, or lack thereof. At the advent of the tale Eve, the silent observer, the ordained servant, has left the scene.
Eve does not hear Adam’s own befuddled explanation of his own creation, or his desire for an equal partner, or the detailed description of her own birth. She has heard through a filter the tale of 7-day creation from Raphael, but for all intensive purposes she does not know that, more than likely, she was created from Adam, by God. She exists in a position akin to Lucifer at his moment of self-creation. She exists as a servant of Adam, and of God and his host, but does not know from where this “doctrine” arises, or to what purpose it exists. This element, the room for doubt within the earthly and Heavenly hierarchy, makes Satan’s proposition of equality, or dominion, which seems to snare Eve, particularly appealing. Through her own action, the action of her “own right hand,” she may create herself. By eating the apple the dormant piece that lies within her is awakened. She no longer exists as a thrall of existing myth, and, like Satan, has created an experiential birth, or origin. She has fallen from the mystery of heavenly decree into a tangible reality, and Adam too, seeing the power and knowledge she has given herself will soon follow suit.
All three finite entities now stand in God’s eyes fallen, but have in another sense thrown aside the yoke of the existing myth. Whether it is rebellion in Heaven, or the eating of the forbidden fruit, personal action makes myth reality. The myth shifts a retelling to something experienced. Lucifer gains independence (with a price) and a new name, while Adam and Eve gain a full awareness (also with a price) of themselves, and of their position. In all three cases the fallen gain something very close to truth. They have become whole. Action has created a new existence, and they are fully actualized by their action. They have become products of self-creation, and each established a new mythos.

The Difficulties of an Affirmative “No.”

by Ezekiel Fry

I have been reading a fair amount of “Bartleby” criticism of late (yes, my life is filled with heroic adventure) and it has come to my attention that “Bartleby,” of all Melville’s works, is perhaps the most difficult to discuss. In his study The Silence of Bartleby, Dan McCall endeavors to strip aside the many critical jumps that have been made in what he terms “the Bartleby industry.” McCall desires to return to the reading of “Bartleby,” rather than the superimposing of one’s own critical attitudes or needs upon the text. It is always hard not to give Bartleby himself more motivation, or to put words in his mouth, as this central figure of Melville’s story speaks only some 30-odd lines throughout. His world remains shrouded in mystery. No amount of probing will give us a clearer view of the man behind the phrase, “I would prefer not to.” As we attempt to understand this enigmatic figure this statement calmly resonates in our ears. Bartleby may have secrets, he may indeed be a figurehead for something deeper than we (or even Melville himself) will ever understand, but he will not surrender a thing out to the world. While I certainly agree with McCall insofar that tacking identities onto Bartleby, or using him as a figurehead for Marxist ideals, seems stifling and stretching, there is perhaps a thread found in Bartleby’s great statement, “I would prefer not to,” that may help us better understand the position from which this unrelenting figure functions.
If we are of a mind to look back to the works that gave rise to Melville’s greatest writings, we find ourselves, as usual, face to face with Shakespeare. Being an Early Modern playwright, Shakespeare functioned in a world where the spoken word was everything. Whether or not there were extensive stage directions on the now lost original manuscripts of the bard’s great works, the emphasis was, and is, always on that which is spoken, or, perhaps more tellingly, that which is not spoken. For an artist who must express the inner-workings of his characters through their own voices, this voice and its silence becomes the greatest tool for uncovering, or obscuring, the motives of each figure. Take for instance the two most verbose characters in Shakespeare—Hamlet and Iago, respectively. Each of these great movers expounds throughout the play, only to lapse into silence at the penultimate moment. As he lies dying, Hamlet attempts to express himself to Horatio:

You that look pale and tremble at this chance,
That are but mutes or audience to this act,
Had I but time—as this fell sergeant Death
Is strict in his arrest—O, I could tell you—
But let it be. (Shakespeare 5.2.276-80)

In these words we see, if not hear, the silence of Hamlet. “O, I could tell you,” but I can’t, or, rather, I won’t, as there are more than several lines from Hamlet left in the play. If this unnamed “it” that Hamlet references is the great inner-world that audiences and critics alike have puzzled over for some 400 years, then it stands to reason that without too much difficulty we might insert the line, “I would prefer not to” as an addendum to Hamlet’s “let it be.” How can we let it be? Of course, this line of thinking assumes that Hamlet’s final words hold a clue to his motivations, that his “O, I could tell you” is a nod to “that within which passeth show” and can perhaps never be explained (Shakespeare 1.2.85). Nevertheless, Horatio, much like Bartleby’s lawyer, attempts to speak for Hamlet upon his death (the distinction must be made that Hamlet asks for Horatio to tell his story, while Bartleby never asks anything of the lawyer) and cannot draw any closer to that unspoken truth that seems to linger in the air, or rest tangibly in the now silent corpse of the prince of Denmark. The lawyer, in his epilogue to “Bartleby,” attempts in his own way to make sense of Bartleby’s existence, to tell his story after the fact, how close he comes is certainly a matter of perspective, and the same might be said of Horatio’s words to Fortinbras in the final moments of Hamlet. Each man struggles to unwrap the enigma of their “hero,” to, as Hamlet himself says, bind the enigma “in a nutshell” (Shakespeare 2.2.248). In the end however, we are drawn no closer to understanding what makes either figure the way they are. The inquiries into these most secret of minds are much like the dead letters which the lawyer uses to explain Bartleby’s fate—they shall never reach their intended destination. Try as we might, we cannot crack into the skulls of either Hamlet or Bartleby. Hamlet’s final words are telling, “The rest is silence” (Shakespeare 5.2.300).
In the case of Iago we find a very different dilemma. Here is a character that has exposed himself intensely to the audience throughout the play. We know more about the inner-world of Iago than perhaps any other figure in Shakespeare, but the key to his silence lies in the very obvious fact that Othello knows nothing. Othello has seen a very different Iago than the audience. Upon the exposure of his plot, Iago, the great boasting, soliloquizing villain, shuts his mouth forever. He will not give Othello the satisfaction of learning his motives. I have previously discussed the impact this has on Othello, but, viewed in respect to Bartleby, Iago’s silence takes on new significance. Iago’s work is complete. The plot against Othello is a success. Iago’s greatest weapon, his voice, has served its purpose, and now he no longer needs it. What more would he say? Would he dance a jig and laugh in Othello’s face? This would only lessen the impact—the brutal weight—of the evil act he has perpetrated. While Bartleby does not speak as verbosely as Iago, his words have no less impact. We grow accustomed to hearing him say “I would prefer not to” much in the same way we have grown accustomed to Iago’s soliloquies. When he turns to face the wall of the Tombs even this small phrase is denied to us. He has completed his work, whatever that might be, and we, like the lawyer, Melville’s Othello, are left with deafening silence.
Looking at these two Shakespearian predecessors we might now say that we see something more of Bartleby’s function within the tale. Although I would love to say that these fascinating parallels bring us closer to Bartleby, I would venture to propose that they actually draw us no closer to Bartleby’s inner-world than we were before. Technical aspects of Melville’s composition certainly come into focus, the role of the lawyer too is more readily accessible, but we have yet to gain any real ground on Bartleby himself. To understand Bartleby is more than I can hope to do here. I can, however, attempt to shed some light on Bartleby’s mantra-like statement.
What is Bartleby saying when he so politely refuses all the lawyer’s attempts to communicate in a human way? Certainly the positivity of his negation is something that makes deciphering his words all the more difficult, he is never adamant about anything—he merely “prefer[s]” a different tack. What that may be is perhaps the greatest puzzle regarding Bartleby, and it is this inability to penetrate the character’s mind that continues to haunt us long after the story closes. There is perhaps a better way to approach Bartleby. Rather than attempting to decipher what he means we might instead look at what he, and his words, do. In this regard, it is striking to visit the words of another distant star of a figure from 19th century letters, that of Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov. I would like to place Ivan’s definitive statement (just prior to “The Grand Inquisitor,” located in the aptly named “Rebellion”) opposite Bartleby’s. Bartleby says:

I would prefer not to.

And Ivan says:

I most respectfully return him the ticket.

Look at these two statements together for a moment. They each deny the speakers participation, but all the while maintaining that there is perhaps nothing objectively wrong with the thing which they are denying. The strength of these statements lies not in their logic, or their explainable nature, but instead in the personal truth of the denial. Neither Bartleby nor Ivan asks his interlocutor to submit to his view of the world. Ivan never asks Alyosha to subscribe to his world-view, and Bartleby, in his consistent rebuffing of the lawyer, does not allow the lawyer to be an active participant in his own “rebellion.” We may achieve a further understanding of this notion by looking at Ivan’s words in greater context. Ivan is wrapping up his tale of suffering, and in conclusion he states:

I don’t want harmony. From love for humanity I don’t want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket. (268)

Here is the clearest window into the ghost of Bartleby that I have yet to discover. Bartleby, with his “preferring” does little to deny anything, he merely “return[s] the ticket.” I am not claiming here that Bartleby’s rebellion is based in the same denial as Ivan’s, but, instead, that each character civilly attempts to remove themselves from the coursing madness of human life. The result is tragic in both cases. To deny the kinship of humanity is to die. This is something that Alyosha learns, and it is something that Dr. Rieux, of Albert Camus’ The Plague, will further illuminate in his stubborn statement that, in the face of suffering and hatred, the only solution is “common decency.” In true Camus fashion, Rieux, like the final shout of The Brothers Karamazov, does not deny humanity’s frailty, and he does not even intimate that the battle may be won, he merely says that the “decent” thing to do is continue. This is the one thing that Bartleby and Ivan cannot do. They are both, in their own ways, paralyzed by their removal, by whatever secret losses they might feel. Denial of one’s inclusion in the human dilemma leads to madness and early death. Ivan loses his mind and Bartleby withers away into nothing. With this in mind we might listen once again to the lawyer’s final appeal, and feel something more (or perhaps less): “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!”

*Pagination for The Brothers Karamazov is from the Wordsworth edition (The Garnett translation. Always.)