Friday, January 29, 2010

Paradise Lost 3: Milton and Blake

Blake said (see the previous post) that Milton, being a true poet, was of the devil's party without knowing it; this is a brilliant insight even it if it is wrong in one respect, as I believe it is: Milton knew what he was doing when he made Satan's poetry more dramatic, more interesting, more human than God's. We are all sinners; had we been in Satan's position, we too would have rebelled; in Eve's and Adam's position, we too would have "fallen." Now, reading this poem, we admire the speed and energy of the poem, which may be Satanic, and ask impertinent questions about divine entrapment. God, of course can explain all that and does, in extraordinarily lucid and acute philosophical-theological detail, but you have to be a Believer to follow the poetry of his explanation and accept it as poetry. And that's the point: this is a poem that only Believers can read and be properly moved by, in its entirety, as a poem. The same is true, I suppose, of Dante's Divine Comedy: we can appreciate the Inferno and, to some extent, the Purgatorio, because we can understand even if we cannot quite accept the theological definition of 'sin' as an offense against a God that few educated readers of these poems now believe in. I, of course, am one of the multitude of sinners who are now constitutionally incapable of properly appreciating either Paradise Lost or the Paradisio.

I don't think one has to believe in the Greek gods in order to read the Iliad or Odyssey . . .

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Paradise Lost 2: Satan or God?

Hell has many pains, but Heaven has no pleasures: that, greatly simplified, is what's wrong with this poem. The poetry of Satan and Hell is dramatic and interesting, the poetry of God in Heaven is self-righteous and boring. See for yourself. Here is Satan, picking himself up off the mat in bk 1:

                        What though the field be lost?
All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to be overcome?
That Glory never shall his wrath or might
Extort from me. To bow and sue for grace
With suppliant knee, and deifie his power
Who from the terrour of this Arm so late
Doubted his empire, that were low indeed,
That were an ignominy and shame beneath
This downfall; since by Fate the strength of Gods
And this Empyreal substance cannot fail,
Since through experience of this great event
In Arms not worse, in foresight much advanc't,
We may with more successful hope resolve
To wage by force or guile eternal Warr
Irreconcilable, to our grand Foe
Who now triumphs, and in th'excess of joy
Sole reigning holds the Tyranny of Heav'n.

And here is God, in bk 3, talking to his son and watching from afar the movements of Satan:

Onely begotten Son, seest thou what rage
Transports our adversarie, whom no bounds
Prescrib'd, no barrs of Hell, nor all the chains
Heapt on him there, nor yet the main Abyss
Wide interrupt can hold; so bent he seems
On desperat revenge, that shall rebound
Upon his own rebellious head. And now
Through all restraint broke loose he wings his way
Not farr off Heav'n, in the Precincts of light,
Directly towards the new created World
And Man there plac't, with purpose to assay
If him by force he can destroy, or worse,
By some false guile pervert; and shall pervert
For man will heark'n to his glozing lyes
And easily transgress the sole Command,
Sole pledge of his obedience: so will fall
Hee and his faithless Progenie: whose fault?
Whose but his own? Ingrate, he had of mee
All he could have; I made him just and right
Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.

It was courageous of Milton to lay so bare, and so baldly present, the central paradox or contradiction of free-will and predestination in his Calvinist theology.

Paradise Lost was written over a period of about ten years and published in 1667. In 1793, William Blake remarked casually, in a foot-note to The Marriage of Heaven And Hell that "the reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true poet  and of the Devil's party without knowing it." Milton criticism and scholarship in the 20th century can be described as a series of attempts to prove that Blake didn't know what he was talking about. Blake's one-liner still stands out, for me, as a brilliant insight.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Paradise Lost 1

The first thing one is likely to notice about this poem is the speed and energy of Milton's verse.  In two long sentences, one of 16 lines and another of 10 lines,  Milton tells us what he's going to talk about—the "fruit" of that tree whose "taste" brought not only death into this world but the entire history of human life from its origin to the moment when Jesus ends it upon his return; and, since he is about to do something that no other writer has ever done before, i.e. write a poem about how we got where we are which not only explains how we got where are, but justifies the ways of the god who took such violent exception to what might seem to be a trivial thing, a taste merely of some arbitrarily forbidden fruit of some arbitrarily chosen tree, he needs and asks for divine assistance. That, roughly, is the substance of Milton's first paragraph.

The second paragraph, begins by evading the question that I have, impertinently perhaps, but relevantly, inserted into my paraphrase of Milton's opening invocation. The question that Milton wants to ask is not why God set up his trap in the first place but why did we—or rather our "Grand Parents"—fall into it? "Who first seduc'd them to that foul revolt?" demands the poet, sternly. ("Foul revolt"? That seems a bit strong. All Eve wanted to do was have a taste.) That short question requires a long answer  which will go on for another 48 lines until finally the "infernal serpent" who started it all is named: Satan. In those 48 lines, we are shown God's first act of creation: not light, but darkness—darkness visible, Hell. That, it seems, is what the "vast abyss" is "pregnant" with (lines 21-2). Well, it makes makes sense: if Satan is to be punished for his ambition by being

Hurld headlong flaming from th'Ethereal Skie
With hideous ruine and combustion down
To bottomless perdition . . .

there has to be some sort of place (for 3D space does not yet exist in "the vast abyss") for him to be hurled into, and time has only just begun to tick) . Bottomless perdition is not a place but a condition. In the following lines space and time are being energetically created while hell is being industriously excavated out of. . . nothingness: hideous ruin and combustion follow him all the way 'down' and await him 'there.'

Nine times the space that measures Day and Night
To mortal men, he with his horrid crew
Lay vanquisht, rowling in the fiery Gulfe
Confounded though immortal: But his doom
Reverv'd him to more wrath; for now the thought
Both of lost happiness and lasting pain
Torments him; round he throws his baleful eyes
That witness'd huge affliction and dismay
Mixt with obdurate pride and stedfast hate:
At once as far as Angels kenn he views
The dismal situation waste and wild,
A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great Furnace flam'd, yet from those flames
No light but rather darkness visible
Serv'd only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all; but torture without end
Still urges and a fiery Deluge, fed
With ever-burning Sulphur unconsum'd:
Such place Eternal Justice had prepar'd
For those rebellious, here their Prison ordain'd
In utter darkness, and thir portion set
As far remov'd from God and light of Heav'n
As from the Center thrice to the utmost Pole.

What does Satan—as yet unnamed—'see'? Huge affliction and dismay, sights of woe, regions of sorrow, doleful shades. Hell is a work in progress, created out of . . . language itself?

Whatever you may think about all this as poetry, I hope you will join me in admiring the energy of Milton's verse. Where does that energy come from? It comes from the coiled tensions of Milton's syntax, from questions that elicit answers, from verbs with surprising subjects and objects, from clauses that seem at first disconnected from verbs only to connect in ways you could not have predicted. It is like the energy of a spring coming uncoiled—or a serpent.

Where is Milton in all this? How does he know these things, which do not derive from any biblical text? Is he making it up? Yes, obviously, but he can't say so. "Sing heavenly muse," he says, asking for the same sources of inspiration that were available to Moses ("That Shepherd who first taught the chosen Seed in the beginning how the Heav'ns and Earth rose out of Chaos . . .") But that was God, was it not? There were already too many nuts running around claiming to know the will of God, which is quite expressly not Milton's object: Milton is a secular poet with a philosophical purpose; not, like Calvin, to tell us how we ought to live, but to explain the nature and origin of sin; and do it in a dramatic and fundamentally secular poem about the human condition. And the first thing he has to, if he is to get this poem moving, is to authenticate his source which is not Moses or the book of Genesis but something that only a 17th century puritan could have come up with: a puritan Spirit, whom the poet addresses formally as "Thou," who prefers "Before all Temples th'upright heart and pure." You have to admire the way Milton deftly transforms the heavenly muse of line 6 into something like the inner light. He will address that same spirit as Urania, later, at the beginning of Book 7:

Standing on Earth, not rapt above the Pole,
More safe I sing with mortal voice, unchang'd
To hoarse or mute, though fall'n on evil dayes,
On evil dayes though fall'n, and evil tongues;
In darkness, and dangers compast round,
And solitude; yet not alone, while thou
Visit'st my slumbers nightly, or when Morn
Purples the East: still govern thou my Song,
Urania, and fit audience find, though few.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Flaubert's Wastelands: Madame Bovary and A Sentimental Education

Having recently reread Flaubert's A Sentimental Education (1869) I want to say that this is the most important, most modern, most intelligent political novel of the 19th century.  

The title, which is ironic, may put you off; I didn't understand it for a long time. 

Our word 'sentimental' suggests nothing so much as a moral and emotional fog, and I assume that the French word works the same way. A sentimental novel or poem plays to only the most obvious and conventional feelings and ideas.

The 'hero' of this novel is a fool and a weakling who inhabits a moral and emotional fog and never learns anything. No one learns anything. This is not a book about self-education in difficult times like, say, The Education of Henry Adams (1907).

This is a novel without a center, or a direction, or a hero, or a point of view; you can think of it as an answer to Victor Hugo's epic, Les Miserables (1862) with it virtually superhuman hero, Jean Valjean "There are no hero, no villain, to arouse us, no clowns to entertain us, no scenes to wring our hearts. Yet the effect is deeply moving. It is the tragedy of nobody in particular but of the poor human race itself reduced to such ineptitude, such cowardice, such commonness, such weak irresolution—arriving, with so many fine notions in its head, so many noble words on its lips, at a failure which is all the more miserable because those who have failed in their roles have even forgotten what roles they were cast for." (Edmund Wilson)

Since Frederick Moreau, the 'hero' of this novel is merely a wealthier, luckier and better educated Emma Bovary,
let us continue the discussion of Madame Bovary begun in my previous 'essays' (3-23-09 and 3-29-09)—or, I should say, my shameless pillaging of Erich Auerbach's essay about that book (in Mimesis) which keys off the following lines:

But it was above all at mealtimes that she could bear it no longer, in that little room on the ground floor, with the smoking stove, the creaking door, the oozing walls, the damp floor-tiles; all the bitterness of life seemed to be served to her on her plate, and, with the steam from the boiled beef, there rose from the depths of her soul other exhalations as it were of disgust. Charles was a slow eater; she would nibble a few hazel-nuts, or else, leaning on her elbow, would amuse herself making marks on the oilcloth with the point of her table-knife.

Auerbach's commentary runs as follows: "Nothing particular happens in the scene, nothing particular has happened just before it. It is a random moment from the regularly recurring hours at which the husband and wife eat together. They are not quarrelling, there is no sort of tangible conflict. Emma is in complete despair, but her despair is not occasioned by any definite catastrophe; there is nothing purely concrete that she has lost or for which she has wished. Certainly she has many wishes, but they are entirely vague—elegance, love, a varied life; there must always have been such unconcrete despair, but no one ever thought of taking it seriously in literary works before; such formless tragedy, if it may be called tragedy, which is set in motion by the general situation itself, was first made conceivable as literature by romanticism; probably Flaubert was the first to have represented it in people of slight intellectual culture and fairly low social station; certainly he is the first who directly captures the chronic character this psychological situation. Nothing happens, but that nothing has become a heavy, oppressive, threatening something. How he accomplishes this we have already seen; he organizes into compact and unequivocal discourse the confused impressions of discomfort which arise in Emma at the sight of this room, the meal, her husband. Elsewhere too he seldom narrates events which carry the action quickly forward; in a series of pure pictures—pictures transforming the nothingness of listless and uniform days into an oppressive condition of repugnance, boredom, false hopes, paralyzing disappointments, and piteous fears—a gray and random human destiny moves toward its end.

"The interpretation of the situation is contained in its description. The two are sitting at table together; the husband divines nothing of his wife's inner state; they have so little communion that things never even come to a quarrel. Each of them is so immersed in his own world—she in despair and vague wish-dreams, he in his stupid philistine self-complacency—that they are entirely alone; they have nothing in common, and yet they have nothing of their own, for the sake of which it would be worthwhile to be lonely. For, privately, each of them has a silly, false world, which cannot be reconciled with the reality of his situation, and so they both miss the possibilities life offers them. What is true of these two, applies to almost all the other characters in the novel; each of the many mediocre people who act in it has his own world of mediocrity and stupidity, a world of illusions, habits, instincts and slogans; each is alone, none can understand another, or help another to insight. Though men come together for business and pleasure, their coming together has no note of united activity; it becomes one-sided, ridiculous, painful, and it is charged with misunderstanding, vanity, futility, falsehood, and hatred. What the world would really be, the world of intelligence, Flaubert never tells us; in his book, the world  consists of pure stupidity which completely misses reality, so that the latter should not properly be discoverable in it at all; yet is there; it is in the writer's language, which unmasks stupidity by pure statement; language, then, has criteria for stupidity and thus also has a part in that reality of the intelligence which otherwise never appears in the book.

"Emma Bovary, too, is completely submerged in that false reality, of human stupidity, as is the 'hero' of Flaubert's other realistic novel, Frederick Moreau, in A Sentimental Education."

In his aimlessness, emptiness and futility, Frederick is a the perfect observer of the 'events' of 1848-51; he is himself indeed an apt metaphor for that vast panorama of emptiness and futility. No one knows what's going on, or who's fighting whom, or why; different people pop up fighting first on one side then on the other; all are convulsed with ferocity and hatred; atrocities are committed easily and casually; the social contract, if there ever was one, is ripped apart and stamped on by ignorant armies or mobs of the left and right. Intelligence is nowhere to be found—nowhere but in the limpid, beautiful clarity of Flaubert's prose. (If you think Flaubert is merely a biassed bourgeois, try making sense out of any non-Marxist account of those years, which merely served to bring forth another, weaker, less intelligent Napoleon to power.)

Here, for example, is a (partial) description of the faded glory of Fonainebleau, where Frederick and his mistress, Rosanette, have gone to get away from the meaningless noise and violence of Paris: "Early next morning they visited the palace. Going in through the gate they had a view of the whole façade with its five pavilions, their steeply pitched roofs and the sweep of the horseshoe staircase at the far end of the courtyard. Seen from a distance the lichen on the cobble-stones blended with the tawny bricks and the whole palace, rust-colored like an old suit of armor, had something coldly regal about it, a sort of melancholy military grandeur." (Though Frederick could not have said this, he—unlike Rosanette—is able to feel that melancholy grandeur.)

For several days, Frederick and Rosanette enjoy a sort of honeymoon, an idyllic journey through a totally beautiful and virtually deserted countryside, until Frederick hears that a friend of his has been wounded in the fighting. Abandoning Rosanette (this is typical) he hurries guiltily back to Paris. Here, among other sights of destruction is what he sees: 

"In this district the aftermath of the uprising was awesome. The street surfaces had been churned up from end to end; on the wrecked barricades were the remains of buses, gas-pipes and cart-wheels; the scattered black puddles were presumably blood. Where the plaster of the houses, riddled with projectiles, had flaked off, you could see their framework underneath; shutters dangled down like limp rags, held on by a nail. Where staircases had collapsed, the doors opened on to empty space and you could see into bedrooms with their wallpaper hanging in shreds. Sometimes quite fragile objects had survived; Frederick caught glimpses of a clock, a parrot's perch, some engravings." 

Only Flaubert can hold both these images in his mind, of a distant, ceremonious, almost mythical past at Fontainbleau, and the houses of Paris in 1848, arbitrarily and unceremoniously gutted, their pathetic innards exposed by the random gunfire of ignorant armies. Look hard at these images, appreciate them for what they are and connect them if you can; Frederick couldn't connect them even if he were interested in doing so and there certainly isn't anyone else who would be, either in the novel or maybe even in France at that time. What is the connection between the pre-modern civilization that built that "coldly regal" Fontainebleau and the class hatreds that were tearing France and Paris to pieces in 1848? The answer I suppose would have to include Napoleon Bonaparte, that brilliant student of Machiavelli who had observed at first hand that politics is war by other means, and was still a hero decades after his death despite the fact that he had bled France white.

The Communist Manifesto was published in 1848, and Flaubert's novel is an answer to that as well as to Les Miserables. Victor Hugo thought liberal humanism was destined to win out; Karl Marx thought something more radical would triumph; both thought history had a built-in or providential direction: history  knows where it is going. Now we know—and at what a price!—that that is not true. Flaubert got there first.

You mustn't think, however, that this is primarily a book about politics or history. It is about the futility and emptiness of a life such as Frederick Moreau's, a kind of upper-middle class everyman, that is devoid of purpose, or principle or faith or belief. All Frederick cares about is his own pleasures. Even his love for Madame Arnoux, one of the two decent people in this novel, does nothing to change his character or modify his habitual self-regard or his endless talent for self-deception. The novel ends, flatly, with Frederick and his old friend, Deslauriers, now middle-aged, neither of whom has learned anything, looking back on their empty, futile lives. "Ah, that was our best time," says Frederick. "Could be? Yes, that was our best time," says the other. This is one of the saddest books I have ever read.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Science And The Modern World: The Trouble With Physics (2)

In his brilliant review of the state of play in modern physics, The Trouble With Physics,  Lee Smolin lists  five great problems that remain unsolved: "(1) How to combine general relativity and quantum theory into a single theory that can claim to be the complete theory of nature; (2) Resolve the problems in the foundations of quantum mechanics; (3) Determine whether or not the various particles and forces can be unified in a theory that explains them all as manifestations of a single, fundamental entity; (4) Explain how the values of the free constants in the standard model of particle physics are chosen in nature; (5) Explain dark matter and dark energy."  In other words, come up with a complete theory of nature. Think about that, as I am trying to do. Nature includes everything, does it not? We and everything we do are part of nature; it follows that art, politics, poetry, science, history is part of nature. But of course Dr. Smolin doesn't mean that; he is using the term 'nature' loosely, which is what you have to do when you are writing for people who don't know the difference between mass and weight. Nevertheless, this idea of a complete theory of nature rankles. History is strewn with the wreckage of philosophical systems that claimed to say or do it all, memory traumatized by multitudinous atrocities committed not so very long ago in the name of a higher good—as promised by some grand philosophical or religious system of belief. And even if we restrict ourselves to the pieces of nature that the natural sciences observe, how many truly complete theories are there? For that matter, how do we know when a theory or a science is complete? Even mathematics, the supreme fiction, is doomed (by Kurt Gödel's proof, 1931) to eternal incompleteness; why should physics, which seems more and more now to have become a branch of mathematics, be any different?

The more we learn the more we encounter problems or questions that we know cannot be solved or answered. Why does the arrow of time point in only one direction in thermodynamics and in the world as we know it, but not in the equations of relativity and quantum theory?

According to the Standard Model of quantum mechanics, information can be neither created nor destroyed. Yet if there is one thing we know, for sure, is that dead men tell no tales. Once you're dead the information that your brain has been storing up during your life-time is gone forever. If you don't know that, there's something wrong with you. When the great library of Alexandria was destroyed either by fire or—what is more likely—mold and neglect, the information it contained was destroyed forever. These are facts that only fools deny.

The objects revealed to us by quantum mechanics have properties that can only be described mathematically. They are like Platonic ideas. They have no individuality: every photon or electron, neutron, quark etc, is exactly like every other. It's as if there were only one of each. In the world as we know it, nothing is exactly like anything else. There is an ancient philosophical problems called The One And The Many. How do we connect the one and the many, absolute unity and infinite diversity?

Let's define science as the dehumanization of knowledge by mathematics. God, or Nature, it turns out is the supreme mathematician. Science, so defined, will always be vulnerable to the whims of the many to whom mathematics and therefore physics is an impenetrable mystery. Remember the legislator who asked if the Super Collider, to be built in Texas, would bring us any closer to God. Answer: No, not God, but the Higgs Boson. So of course the great machine was never completed, but search for Higgs Boson goes on. But does anyone really think that when the Higgs Boson has finally been cornered, the end of the quest for a theory of everything will be in sight?

The quest will be go on and on, eating up more billions of dollars at a time when we desperately need answers to some practical questions: is room-temp superconductivity possible? How do leaves and grasses convert sun light to food? Is it possible to run fuel-cells efficiently without platinum catalysts?

People have to believe in something, or someone, larger than themselves that they can turn to in their pain or fear or despair. Until recently, such beliefs have been religious. During much of the 20th century, people put their faith in various political religions, with horrific consequences. Now what? Neither Nature nor science, its interpreter, suffices. Nature with its deserts of vast, meaningless eternity is what we fear.

Climate-change is now the great unknown. What will happen to constitutional democracy and the rule of law as sea-levels and temperatures rise? If the past is prologue, something or somebody will be blamed and scape-goated. And who or what will that be? Do I really need to tell you? It's the bearers of bad news who are usually punished.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Milton's Paradise Lost (1667) & Newton's Principia (1687)

To anyone who takes a more than casual interest in both poetry and science, the juxtaposition of these two texts, separated by only twenty years, must seem oddly fortuitous—or just odd: the one, the greatest poem in English, or perhaps in any language, about the big bang that created nature and morality i.e. the Fall; the other, the foundation text of modern physics and the scientific enterprise that would essentially finalize that fall i.e. drive a permanent wedge between nature and morality as separate and incompatible realms of being.