Milton Part I: Retconning and the Anxiety of Influence

Posted: September 19, 2011 in Uncategorized

There’s so much to say about Paradise Lost that I never get to half of what I’d like to address in class, and I doubt it will be any different online. I am tempted to journal on what is the most interesting part of the poem, the depictions of God and Satan, but I’m going to leave that for you all to discuss in the forum. I’ll just ask you to think about this famous observation about Paradise Lost by the poet William Blake. He said of Milton, with regard to the epic poem, that

he was a True Poet and [so] was of the devil’s party without knowing it.

(“The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”)

Now that raises some interesting issues both about Paradise Lost and about poets you might think about.[1].

But what I thought I’d spend the most time on today was a different sort of religious issue, namely the pagan elements of Milton’s poem. Maybe some of you have wondered why a Christian poem contains so many references to Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and other pagan mythologies? Of course, in some sense, Milton is doing nothing new here. In fact, he’s following the lead of Dante, who likewise incorporates pagan myth into an ostensibly Christian epic poem—and for many of the same reasons. But Milton does something somewhat different, in emphasis if not altogether in method.

Now, why would either Milton or Dante incorporate so much pagan mythology? One answer is simple: because they are writing in the epic tradition, and the greatest practitioners of that tradition, whom they were emulating—Homer and Virgil—were pagans, and infused their poems with tales of gods, goddesses, and monsters. For poets like Dante and Milton, who are trying not only to imitate, but to outdo their predecessors, they need to demonstrate that they have as great a command of the mythological pantheon as any pagan poem, indeed, maybe a better one. It’s a way of demonstrating that they have the “chops” for the job. It may also be that as readers of pagan literature, they shared a certain love of these old pagan tales and wanted to, in some way, include them.

But it may also have been necessary, theologically speaking. Both Dante and Milton were aware, as were all the great Christian thinkers, that other religions preceded their own, that once the world was dominated by religious notions and deities quite different from the Christian and even Jewish ones. If the Judeo-Christian religion is the true one, how does one account not only for the existence, but for the predominance of these other religions?

Dante paved the way in The Divine Comedy by suggesting that these pagan “gods” were in fact demons, though he is inconsistent in doing so, sometimes referring to God as “Jove.” And, at least as far as I remember, he doesn’t explain how these demons came to be thought of as gods. He simply absorbs some of the pagan gods and monsters into his infernal system, so that, for example, Minos, who is the judge of the underworld in Homer and Virgil is also the judge in The Inferno and Cerberus the three-headed-dog guards the infernal circle of the gluttons in Dante’s poem, a slightly more specialized role than he plays as guard-dog to Hades in the pagan poets. But he doesn’t explain how Cerberus came to be.

Milton takes it a step further. The pagan gods, as Milton depicts them, were, in fact, fallen angels, demons, pretending to be gods, furthering the seduction and corruption of mankind by posing as deities. We know them as Moloch or Belial or Jove, Isis, or Osiris, but these are names “the sons of Eve” gave them when

By falsities and lies the greatest part

Of mankind they corrupted to forsake

God their creator.  (I. 364-9)

They are devils adored as deities (I.373). It’s a clever move that explains how a race of gods could precede the Judeo-Christian one. But it’s also a common one that cultures often use to account for—or appropriate—religious systems that precede their own. They take the preceding system and demonize it.

There is even evidence in the Ancient Greek mythology that the gods we know, Zeus, Hera, Athena, were preceded by a previous system of deities that were later discredited. These are known as the Titans. In the Ancient Greek system they are evil, but some people speculate these villains of the Greek system were once themselves worshipped as gods by a culture that was overtaken by the Greek culture. That cultural change is rewritten to be a war against the evil Titans, teaching us something not only about the evolution of religions but also about how history works.

Milton is especially clever in how he constructs this narrative retcon.[2] Take, for example, the minor character Mulciber, the demon architect of Book 1. Milton explains how he was “fabled” to have been “thrown by angry Jove / Sheer o’er the crystal battlements” of Mount Olympus (I.741-2) but the Greeks who told his story were “Erring; for he with this rebellious rout /Fell long before” (I.747-8). The story Milton is referring to is more commonly known as that of Hephaestus (or Vulcan) the misshapen artisan-god whom Zeus hurled from Mount Olympus “in drunken rage” (Kastan, footnote, 37). Milton would have us believe that this story was a distortion of the real one, the expulsion of the rebellious angels from Heaven by God.

We see an even bolder example of such a retcon with the birth of Sin. In book 2, she explains her birth to Satan, telling him that, when once he began to plot in his mind against God, she

shining heavenly fair, a goddess armed

Out of thy head . . . sprung. (757-8)

What is this but a retconning of the birth of Athena from the forehead of Zeus? And what does such retconnning achieve?

One, it discredits the old religion, showing that what was meant to be a heroic birth of a goddess was in fact the degraded and degrading conception of Sin in the mind of Satan. Two, it allows Milton to retain and turn to his own philosophical and aesthetic devices, a powerful image from the pagan pantheon. He is at once both discrediting the Greeks and Romans and paying homage to them.

This may also be also be an example of what the literary critic Harold Bloom calls “the anxiety of influence.” Bloom argued that writers are plagued by the anxiety that everything worth saying has already been said by greater and earlier writers. There is nothing left for them to say. So what must they do? They must assert their creative power by intentionally misconstruing their predecessor’s work. They, essentially, write new work by rewriting the old, claiming their masters “got it wrong,” so they can get it right. This is particularly interesting for Milton because he, himself, was to cast a powerful shadow over generations of writers to come after him. In fact, Bloom argued that Blake’s reading of Milton—he was of the devil’s party without knowing it—was just such a “misreading” motivated by the anxiety of influence. Bloom, himself, was influenced in this theory by his great predecessor, Freud, whom we’ll study later in the semester. So you see, it all hangs together. . . .

[1] Blake, by the way, was a Romantic poet and he will crop up over and over again as a counter-weight to the Enlightenment—though Romanticism is also a product of the Enlightenment. We may get a chance to read him later in the semester.

[2] “Retcon,” short for “retroactive continuity” is a term used in the comic book world and elsewhere to describe a method in which new writers rewrite older versions of a hero’s biography to fit in with present day realities. For example, in the Marvel Universe, Iron Man, who originally was a product of the Viet Nam war is “retconned” to have come out of the Gulf War, so that he is more a product of the current generation of readers. Sometimes these retcons are used to explain an otherwise unexplainable contradiction in a character’s ongoing story; perhaps there are two different versions of the hero’s origins. Eventually, some writer figures out a way to make them work together, and voila, he’s been retconned.  D.C. comics retconnned Superman by explaining that the Superman of the 1930s was a product of an alternate universe to the Superman of the 1980s (see the Wikipedia article: Comics usually retcon for commercial reasons, but there can be ideological ones as well.


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