Sunday, December 5, 2010

Satan Started It

It’s difficult for me to specify the difference between the epic and the verse novel. The first is one of the world’s oldest art forms. Cave paintings maybe came before, but maybe not. Many would argue that the verse novel owes its existenceto the novel in prose. They claim that the form evolves out of that tradition, rather than from the tradition of the epic poem. If that’s true, then the verse novel is even more "novel" than the novel itself.

People don’t really write Epics in the Greek or Roman sense of the word. It's as though something in our brains won’t even allow for it. That something may be a feature of modern humanity's thinking that Mikhail Bakhtin called «многогласие» (mnogoglasiye) which is mistakenly translated as ''polyphony.'' ''Many-voiced-ness'' is what the original Russian really means, and to Bakhtin it was one of the most distinguishing characteristics of the Novel.

The Novel, Bakhtin held, was one of the highest inventions of mankind, far more of an accomplishment than the Epic, because it represents a critical shift in the development of human thought. By the 17th and 18th centuries when the novel began to emerge as the dominant literary form, Bakhtin argues that the human brain began to acknowledge that points of view existed that we could not silence or kill like a one-eyed Polyphemus.

The Epic eliminates whatever is alien to it. The Epic relies on speeches, but not dialogue. Epic characters love to deliver speeches to other characters. But the characters don't speak to each other.

Novel characters speak with other characters. A novelist may fully want to dismiss the ''other-voicedness'' of modern existence, but the voices have evolved into us. They cannot be fully ignored.

Ignoring Bakhtin, however, was easy enough. The Soviets did it very well for years. After losing a leg, being condemned to internal exile in the Stalinist purges, he somehow survived, only to be denied a doctorate of literature. Finally, during Kruschev's Thaw of the 1960's his work was brought to the attention of Soviet intellectuals and finally to the West. His concept of the ''Dialogic Imagination'' is by now one that helps us to see why the Novel is the tool used across the globe to teach critical thought.

Which brings me to Satan.

I have the unqualified opinion that Milton's Paradise Lost is not only the English Epic, it's also language's first verse novel. I blame Lucifer.

Like most sane modern readers, I had a great unwillingness to tackle Milton. A prejudice against the Blind Puritan imagined the work to be as interesting as reading tax law. Bloated. Preachy. Awkward. Endless. After all, the great English man of letters, Dr. Samuel Johnson, once famously said of Paradise Lost, ''None ever wished it longer than it is.''

Last December I bit the bullet bought the unabridged Audible recording by Charlton Griffin, I got the old dusty hardcover Complete Works of Milton I stole a decade or more from my mother's library, and I read it.

I loved it. Thank the Devil.

One would expect the old Regicide Milton to dismiss the Prince of Darkness summarily. One would expect a ''Son of the Morning'' who would hiss in, do his business and skulk off cape over his serpent face like a villian out of a Victorian Melodrama. Instead, Lucifer has a dimension, an ''other-voicedness.'' Lucifer emerges powerfully he not only shakes the Heavens, he almost takes over the poem itself. The poem begins with him, cast out of Heaven, like a Greek warrior, recouping from his wounds, noble, beautiful and brave. The epic journey in the poem is his out of the pit into a newly created World to the Garden. This journey makes Lucifer the poem's epic hero. The most emotional fall I experienced as a reader was not Adam or Eve's, but his. By the time Milton's Odysseus returns ''home,'' he is no grizzled hero. He is the serpent we expected to meet on line one.

This character arc is unlike any in the Epic poems before it. Its uniqueness seems to stem from the fact that Milton cannot completely control, manipulate or silence. He is a distinct voice apart from the Poet's, as much as any of the Dostoevskian characters who led Bakhtin to postulate on the ''heteroglossia'' of modern human discourse.

Read below Lucifer's speech to his demons upon his return to hell. Book 10, Paradise Lost:

...Him by fraud I have seduc'd [ 485 ]
From his Creator, and the more to increase
Your wonder, with an Apple; he thereat
Offended, worth your laughter, hath giv'n up
Both his beloved Man and all his World,
To Sin and Death a prey, and so to us, [ 490 ]
Without our hazard, labour, or allarme,
To range in, and to dwell, and over Man
To rule, as over all he should have rul'd.
True is, mee also he hath judg'd, or rather
Mee not, but the brute Serpent in whose shape [ 495 ]
Man I deceav'd: that which to mee belongs,
Is enmity, which he will put between
Mee and Mankinde; I am to bruise his heel;
His Seed, when is not set, shall bruise my head:
A World who would not purchase with a bruise, [ 500 ]
Or much more grievous pain? Ye have th' account
Of my performance: What remains, ye Gods,
But up and enter now into full bliss.

So having said, a while he stood, expecting
Thir universal shout and high applause [ 505 ]
To fill his eare, when contrary he hears
On all sides, from innumerable tongues
A dismal universal hiss, the sound
Of public scorn; he wonderd, but not long
Had leasure, wondring at himself now more; [ 510 ]
His Visage drawn he felt to sharp and spare,
His Armes clung to his Ribs, his Leggs entwining
Each other, till supplanted down he fell
A monstrous Serpent on his Belly prone,
Reluctant, but in vaine: a greater power [ 515 ]
Now rul'd him, punisht in the shape he sin'd,
According to his doom: he would have spoke,
But hiss for hiss returnd with forked tongue
To forked tongue, for now were all transform'd
Alike, to Serpents all as accessories [ 520 ]
To his bold Riot: dreadful was the din
Of hissing through the Hall, thick swarming now
With complicated monsters head and taile...

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