Literary Diversions

So what have I been up to? For reasons I won’t go into I have become quite absurdly involved with John Milton’s Paradise Lost. This was partly because of a nudge from the Greater Unknown, partly because of the rolling thunder of Milton’s verses, and partly because it is a grand framing narrative in an historic sequence of grand framing narratives.

By “grand, framing narrative” I mean a story or collection of stories so compelling that they are accepted as the backstory to existence by a large group of people. These stories are so widely accepted that they define entire cultures or periods in history.

The Bible for example. It had a massive and dominating influence on European culture until the 18th C. The literary chain that culminates in Paradise Lost begins in Greece, with Homer, and in Palestine, with the Bible. The Iliad was not just a tale about an argument between Achilles and Agamemnon. It was the defining story of Greek culture. By some improbable historic weirdness the Bible emerged from the tiny region of Palestine and dominated most of Europe. To these we can add the Aeneid, Virgil’s account of the founding of Rome, and Dante’s The Divine Comedy, an extraordinary depiction of the mindset of the Middle Ages.

These are the pieces that go into Paradise Lost: the great battle scenes of the Iliad and the Aeneid, the cosmology of The Divine Comedy, and most important of all, the grand framing story suggested by the Bible. And what a story it is. You can see it depicted above in a late medieval fresco from the Camposanto in Pisa (my photo): Adam is created by divine powers; Eve is drawn from his side; they are tempted by the serpent; they cower in fear at the enormity of what they have done; they are ejected from the Garden by angels; Eve has children, Adam tills the earth; and finally, Adam (but not Eve seemingly) is raised up from the grave to eternal life.

This is the great story concocted by St. Paul and further elaborated by the author of Revelation: the creation of human kind as divine beings, and their corruption by a power of cosmic evil; their fall into a world of pain and suffering and death; the intervention of God’s chosen Son, who by dying, redeemed the world from sin; the immanence of a future age in which cosmic evil will be vanquished in a great final battle, and the dead will be raised to eternal life (or eternal punishment).

What is the difference between Paradise Lost and Tolkein’s Silmarillion? People in this current age are still able to tell that the Silmarillion is fiction. It is the creation of a human mind, written by a human hand on pedestrian sheets of paper. Paradise Lost on the other hand was viewed as an accurate and orthodox account of primordial events, and retained that high status until the 19th C despite the fact that large chunks were manifestly invented wholecloth by Milton.

There is a lesson here about storytelling and how large groups, even entire cultures, are able to step into stories and declare them authentic and a product of extra-human origin. I won’t pursue this further at this time as I would have to address issues of postmodernity and potential nihilism, the certain fate of anyone who stands too far back from the defining accounts of any culture.