Friday, August 31, 2007

Paradise Lost: "Danger in Good Sex"

Paradise (c. 1620)
"Behold that great, astonished prude,
the lion proud with little pride..."
(Image from Wikipedia)

Despite being a 'Puritan', Milton was hardly what one might call 'puritanical' -- although he did praise above "all Temples th' upright heart and pure" (PL 1.18) -- and I promised yesterday some evidence today on how explicit and titillating Milton can get.

I had broken off yesterday's entry almost immediately after noting James Grantham Turner's remark about Milton despising the "open flaunting of illicit sexuality" (Turner 153), so one might imagine Milton as one of those puritanical prigs who patch over every explicit thing with fig leaves. Milton does not describe everything in explicit detail, of course, for he's better than that. What he does is cover just enough to let the sensuous rhythms of his words and the amorous workings of our own imaginations do the rest:
Milton is no prude, and he expresses Adam and Eve's sexual intercourse and climax in a veiled manner that intimately yet unexpectedly involves the reader in their private erotic play, which implies Eve's:
Subjection, but requir'd with gentle sway,
And by her yielded, by him best receivd,
Yielded with coy submission, modest pride,
And sweet reluctant amorous delay. (PL 4.308-11)
That "sweet reluctant amorous delay" takes us to the very brink of their climax, which is then again delayed for us as Milton conceals from us those "mysterious parts" (4.312) that were only for Adam and Eve unconcealed.
Yet, paradise does pose its challenges to the happy couple in their "mutable perfection" (PL 5.524), for:
Hidden from that first pair was the fact that Eve's game of amorous delay, both prior to and during lovemaking, left Adam vulnerable to an unfortunate consequence:
Because sweet reluctant amorous delay will provide a daily reaffirmation of "the conscience of her worth," Adam will inevitably be vulnerable to the opposite of object-debasement. The game that preserves Eve's value from the fate of debasement works all too well, and the consequence is a tendency in the first husband to abase himself before the idol of his mate. It is no surprise when he falls "Fondly overcome with female charm" (9.999). The sexual fantasy Milton embedded at the origins of human love simply has to, by its very meaning, buck against the ordained hierarchy that sets the man over the woman. It makes the Fall explicable. (Kerrigan and Braden 45)
As Kerrigan and Braden go on to note, "Courtly love was charged early on with idolatry, and Adam's Fall is in this sense a medieval one," in the sense that Milton places himself, if ironically, within the Medieval Romance tradition (William Kerrigan and Gordon Braden. "Milton's Coy Eve: Paradise Lost and Renaissance Love Poetry," English Literary History. Volume 53, Number 1 (Spring, 1986), page 48).
On the other hand, my faithful commentor who goes by the pen name "Eshuneutics" has pointed out Milton's more positive debt to the tradition of courtly love, so I will need to work a bit more nuance into this paper.

And some say that blogging is a distraction from serious scholarly work! Not that my own work is very serious...

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4 Comments:

At 8:07 AM, Blogger eshuneutics said...

You might find tonight's posting provocative/interesting/counter-challenging. But ultmimately, it shows your point. Eve is awake to Amor intellectually, but Satan plays on her intellect amorously (as you have argued elsewhere with the fruit idea) and that is going to let her place herself above Adam. It is interesting in the sweet serenade passage I've looked at that there is one subtle variation: when Eve imagines a world without Adam, a transient world, she omits "tree" and only speaks of "herb, fruit, flower". It as if she knows that the tree belongs to permanence in Eden--to her world with Adam. Curious. Miltonic prolepsis?

 
At 8:14 AM, Blogger eshuneutics said...

Your post today is very intriguing.

 
At 8:31 AM, Blogger eshuneutics said...

Milton is facing a sexual dynamic isn't he? Eve is intellectually aware of Love. This leads to idolisation and a feeling of unworthiness on Adam's part. Eve steps outside the amor cortois in one fateful respect. The Beloved was never active, she was the modest mirror, the mediator between poet and the Divine. Eve becomes knowingly aware of her charms, active, such that Adam makes the mistake of idolatry and Eve makes the mistake of self-worship and becoming an idol. The idealisation that Adam makes of her literally goes to her head and she forgets that she was not born from Adam's head, but from his cordial side, his heart. Is this why Milton is so detailed about Eve being born on Adam's left side by the heart?

 
At 7:14 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Eshuneutics, thanks for your three comments. I scanned them quickly this morning but without time to reflect, and I've been working like mad all day to bring my article to completion . . . in rough draft form, i.e., 'mutable perfection'.

Now on to reworking a bit. By the way, was the beloved always inactive? I think of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, where Lady Bertilac was exceedingly active and yet was seeking (ostensibly) to bring the courtly love to that adulterous consummation that always threatened (as C.S. Lewis noted).

I'll next look at the email that you sent me on amor courtois.

Jeffery Hodges

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