Two Tickets to Paradise Lost

When we think of political art, John Milton probably isn’t the first writer that pops into our minds. Truth be told, he probably doesn’t even make it onto many of our lists. Yet, Milton wrote at a time of intense upheaval in England, and the center of much of this upheaval was religious. Milton is most well-known for his epic, Paradise Lost (1667), which is his marriage of Christian theology with the classical form of epic poetry written by the likes of Homer and Virgil. This is interesting in and of itself (no, it is, really, I swear), but I’d like to focus attention on the opening passage of the poem:

Of Man’s first disobedience and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us and regain the blissful seat,
Sing, Heavenly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb and Sinai didst inspire
That shepherd who first taught the chosen seed
In the beginning how the heavens and earth
Rose out of Chaos; or, if Sion hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s brook that flowed
Fast by the oracle of God, I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventurous song,
That no middle flight intends to soar
Above the Aonian mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.
And chiefly Thou, O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all temples the upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for Thou know’st; Thou from the first
Wast present, and, with mighty wings outspread,
Dovelike sat’st brooding on the vast Abyss
And mad’st it pregnant: what in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support,
That, to the height of this great argument,
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to men

At this time politically, England had been through a civil war and a period called the Commonwealth, led by a man named Oliver Cromwell who had deposed Charles I and took over as Protector of England. Cromwell died in 1658, and two years later, Charles II took the throne, ushering in the era known as the Restoration. In a period of time with so much going on, it’s logical that people were confused with and disillusioned by things that were happening in their country.

Enter Milton’s poem. Though published nine years after the death of Cromwell, it’s been argued that this is who Milton based his Satan on. And though he uses a classical form to write about Biblical matters (calling upon the Holy Spirit to be his muse), there should be no doubt that Milton also had politics on his mind.

Now, I’m not intending this to turn into a theological discussion at all, so please don’t go there. As you might have noticed, I underlined a few lines for you. I thought I’d be a peach that way. And that’s what I’m interested in here. The fact that Milton is writing a poem to make something he views as important clear to other people. Theodicy (justifying God’s goodness in spite of an evil world) is a pretty lofty goal to be sure, and may just be impossible on a widespread basis, yet this is what Milton sets out to do with his work. States it clearly in the beginning, so his readers will know that everything that follows is meant to serve this end.

So, if you’ve made it with me this far, I’d like to ask — what do you think about writing with such a lofty agenda? Is it something writers should aspire to, or should writers have an agenda at all? Finally, and most importantly, can a poem or a story or a novel ever really be a catalyst for understanding, for change? Or can these things only serve as pieces? Or can they do anything at all?

Are books that important, really?

19 Responses

  1. Here’s TwoJust off the top of
    Here’s Two

    Just off the top of my head… Yes, books are important and they do impact how people feel and think. They even help people see clearly what they have previously not noticed before. So here’s a couple that did exactly that, and I’m sure there are many more.

    1. A Christmas Carol. Well, I’d have to remember this, it is Christmas time. Dickens wrote this to protest poor houses in England. Not a good practice.

    2. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Clear indictment of slavery. It was pop literature in its day which quickly became a best seller… and now a classic.

    So there are those two.

    Now, I don’t propose that I shall be making any social comments and writing a book that astounds others with the wisdom it holds. But some will. John Grisham (no, not a great writer) often has an agenda in what he writes. His stories are popular and fun reads but it’s easy to see what he was really “getting at” by the time you have finished one of his books.

    Ok… I’m quitting now. Someone else’s turn.

  2. Maybe 1984, a classic novel,

    1984, a classic novel, is read widely in high schools across the United States. It teaches the lesson of obeying a state where theocracy merges with government to form a dictatorship where the state obeys no one but itself. The image of the godhead is merged with a ruling plebian class and a decadent proletariat stands counterpoint, however their own ignorance prevents anything but compliance to the status quo.

    I mention Orwell’s novel as it is so widespread. The whole concept of never winning the war seems pertinent given the circumstances in the Middle East today. The news media not portraying the conflict accurately comes to mind. The thing is, most people don’t really seem to notice.

    I was going to write lofty ideals are not relevant in literature if they are not read by the masses. I would go further even to say that lofty ideation means nothing if the masses don’t get the message.

  3. Great examples, especially ‘A
    Great examples, especially ‘A Christmas Carol’. I find that book exceptional for its emphasis on Christmas as a morally significant holiday. There isn’t much ‘Jesus’ in the book (I’m not sure if he makes an appearance at all) but it still seems to express an idealistic religious sense better than most holiday literature.

    Interestingly (in the context of Jamelah’s post) I think ‘A Christmas Carol’ refers directly to the same schism between the English Puritan movement (Cromwell) and the traditional Anglican Church that Milton wrote about. Ebenezer Scrooge and Jacob Marley were supposed to represent Puritans — the biblical names ‘Ebenezer’ and ‘Jacob’ signified this, as Puritans mandated the use of biblical names over traditional Anglo-Saxon names. Puritans did not advocate a joyful Christmas feast, and in fact Scrooge’s dislike of Christmas was meant to reflect not only his own joyless personality but also to represent the Puritan idea of Christmas as a solemn (non-celebratory) holiday.

    The Cratchit family, on the other hands, were of traditional (non-Puritan) backgrounds (note the non-Biblical names). When Scrooge finally breaks down and catches ‘Christmas Fever’, that’s supposed to represent the final victory of the native English spirit over misguided Puritan religious hypocrisy.

    At least that’s how it was once explained to me.

  4. Lowly AmbitionsI always think
    Lowly Ambitions

    I always think of the first couple pages of Tropic of Cancer, and there’s a line that goes (paraphrasing): “There are no more books to be written, thank god. This then? This is not a book, not in the ordinary sense of the world. This is a prolonged insult, libel, defamation of character, this is a gob of spit in the face of God, a kick in the pants to Time, Man, Destiny, Love, Beauty, Truth, what you will.”

    I think Miller presents a decent counterpoint to Milton. Miller started out, not as Milton in announcing lofty ambitions such as justifying God to man, but by disclaiming any ambitions whatsoever. Reading the first couple of pages of Tropic is akin to witnessing human sacrifice. It has the same effect, that is the disordering of the order that has always stifled some of us. Miller begins his book with no structure (having leveled all the big capitals, God, Man, Time, Destiny, in the first couple pages), or just the slenderest reed of a structure, to build upon, writes about lice, rancid butter, shit, and fucking.

    This is not to say I think it impossible to justify man to God, just to say it’s not necessary to create great literature to aim so high, or any higher than the waistline.

  5. Our AgendaPicasso said, “Art
    Our Agenda

    Picasso said, “Art is a lie that tells the truth.”

    Interpretation: Art is an artificial construct — something that isn’t real. And yet, the message it conveys might be more focused, more pointed — indeed, more accurate or true — than what might be suggested by these peculiar composites labeled “reality.”

    In a lecture presented October 10, 2001, (not-so-neutral) historian, Howard Zinn, talked about the artist’s role in a “time of war.” He argued that it is the artist’s duty to transcend conventional thought. Not only to expose the “truth” contrasting accepted realities, but also to offer alternative visions of what’s possible.

    But how can an artist be qualified for such things? What makes them “experts” in world affairs? Or politics? Or complex social dilemmas?

    Well, Zinn maintains that there are no experts in such questions of morality. Indeed, all of us — as human beings — have an equal right and responsibility to speak out. To ask questions transcending conventional wisdom. If history tells us anything, it’s that leaving such decisions to so-called “experts” is seldom in the best interests of humanity.

    And so there are dangers in categorizing people: This is an artist. This is a writer. This is a businessman, or a doctor, or a lawyer… And if any of these people choose to speak out regarding world affairs — in particular, regarding war, especially if they voice dissent… Well, the criticism (after questioning their patriotism) is: These people don’t know. They’re only artists or writers.

    But our leaders are only politicians. And as the Declaration of Independence boldly asserts, governments are mere institutions — they are not the country itself. We The People are the country. And in being critical of our government, We The People are demonstrating the highest form of patriotism: Loyalty to our country rather than its extraneous conventions and office holders.

    That’s democratic doctrine. If we’re expected to simply “get in line” behind whatever the President tells us we must do… That’s totalitarianism.

    And so it’s the artist’s responsibility to tap the expertise we all share as being human beings, and to utilize the “lie that tells the truth” so that the rest of us might come to understand.

    Ref: Artists in a Time of War by Howard Zinn. Audio CD. Alternative Tentacles label, catalog # Virus292.

  6. Any Way You Wanna Do”Be not
    Any Way You Wanna Do

    “Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them”. – Shakespeare, 12th Night(Act II, Scene V)

    Aspire to be lofty! Write a new chapter in the book of real time gnosis.

    Or, if you choose, be as down to earth as the farmer’s scarecrow.

    Of course books and stories are major factors in changing beliefs and understanding.

    It’s all in books, it’s all in you and me, it’s time chapter down to choose real new old factors as earth achieve thrust; born, achieve gnosis, be not afraid, lofty scarecrow friends!
    Changing understanding all stories real basis to be.

  7. I don’t think Jesus makes an
    I don’t think Jesus makes an appearance nor do I think He is referenced. I think His impact is assumed, whatever that means.

    Great comments, Levi. I also found myself thinking about Silas Marner which was a favorite of mine when I was back in high school.

    Now I’m wondering, since literature (fiction) reflects the time period when it is written if it will not always have some political/message to it. Even works written for their apparant entertainment value alone, have politcal comments in them.

    Which makes me wonder, is it possible to write without your opinion being reflected in what you create?

  8. Amen.You describe a view of

    You describe a view of patriotism close to Mark Twain’s; a view which distinguishes true patriotism from blind or unconditional nationalism and allegiance.

  9. Lofty Agendas Rock My SocksI
    Lofty Agendas Rock My Socks

    I would have to say that my favorite authors are those who have an agenda. Especially lofty ones. One of a religous nature that leaps to my mind is The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. Another great novel that is extremely popular, and had an agenda, was Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, which illustrated the social issues that France faced before the Revolution. And to mention a personal favourite, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.

  10. Indeed, Mark Twain was an
    Indeed, Mark Twain was an artist cited by Zinn as “transcending” conventional wisdom — particularly in Twain’s writings opposing the Philippine-American war.

    Apparently, an entire island of 600 innocent (and notably Muslim) civilians were wiped out by American soldiers, and the General in charge was sent personal congratulations from President Theodore Roosevelt. Twain was reportedly outraged, and when he spoke out against the war, his “loyalty” and “patriotism” were promptly questioned. Twain responded (in part) with the following from Chapter 13 in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court…

    …my kind of loyalty was loyalty to one’s country, not to its institutions or its office-holders. The country is the real thing, the substantial thing, the eternal thing; it is the thing to watch over, and care for, and be loyal to; institutions are extraneous, they are its mere clothing, and clothing can wear out, become ragged, cease to be comfortable, cease to protect the body from winter, disease, and death. To be loyal to rags, to shout for rags, to worship rags, to die for rags — that is a loyalty of unreason, it is pure animal; it belongs to monarchy, was invented by monarchy; let monarchy keep it. I was from Connecticut, whose Constitution declares “that all political power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority and instituted for their benefit; and that they have AT ALL TIMES an undeniable and indefeasible right to ALTER THEIR FORM OF GOVERNMENT in such a manner as they may think expedient.”

    Under that gospel, the citizen who thinks he sees that the commonwealth’s political clothes are worn out, and yet holds his peace and does not agitate for a new suit, is disloyal; he is a traitor. That he may be the only one who thinks he sees this decay, does not excuse him; it is his duty to agitate anyway, and it is the duty of the others to vote him down if they do not see the matter as he does.

    Note: The complete text to A Connecticut Yankee… is readily available online. One source is

  11. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
    Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee + 8

    Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee raised your correspondent’s conciousness, where, before the read, was completely ignorant of the absurd genocide of the American West; absurd now because of the depopulation, e.g., Kansas towns are giving away land to get people to live there and there’s talk of a buffalo commons on the Great Plains. Heart of Darkness was about the rape of the Belgian Congo but the status quo continued for 6 years after its publication. Sinclair Lewis’ The Jungle led to the passage of legislation, culminating in the establishment of the Food and Drug Administration. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was published in ’62 but no one could ignore 1970’s Gulag Archipelago which one could argue undermined the former USSR’s legitimacy and human rights record. Black Like Me showed Jim Crow for what it was its legal demise. The Monkey Wrench Gang inspired Earth First, deemed dangerous enough to be infiltrated by the FBI. Contaminated sediments remain in many rivers, streams, estuaries and harbors across nationwide and Silent Spring was published decades ago, two decades before Bhopal. Book shelves dominated by Reader’s Digest Condensed books also had many other books about Hiroshima and the Holocaust but not the Gypsy and gay and mentally challenged genocide in Europe in your correspondent’s childhood home.

    As long as writing’s not propaganda, written with a slant with a damaging agenda; as long as writing’s clear and honest; as long as writing’s everything fits. This age needs more like the above about Iraq, Afghanistan, and Camp X-Ray; other good topics would include the dumbing down of American education, the environmental degradation world wide, and hunger and poverty.

  12. Facts, figures and logic
    Facts, figures and logic …

    …lore, legend and magic.

    Well, the lofty agenda: it certainly was following the signs of the times.

    How I agree (again) to what beatvibe is saying! There are other songs in a time of virulent war, and in Antarctica. I think all poems/stories/novels worth reading express an agenda, are messages, important as guidelines. Some may be so lofty or weird or personal you might have to do some excavation, or link them to the spirit of the time, correlate them to the psychological display of the writer — and end up amazed about the value for Your own condition. Vice versa: certain times induce loftiness, weirdness. Trotsky said that charlatans of all kinds are en vogue in times that lack class struggle.

    Writing as catalyst for understanding, for change? For sure, even if involuntarily, depending on the receiving mind. See the Beats and their reception (of various colors). But remember that catalysts never shift an equilibrium (depending on the time(s) being, the ratio of (social) forces, convoluted, matter) — nevertheless they lower the energy of activation, alter/favor the transition states, speed up the reaching of the stable dynamic state. There are many examples how literature did achieve that.
    And there’s the dialectical interaction between the social existence/condition and its conscious expression, its sensoric need, stemming from it, perhaps amazed about itself. Ideas as children of their time, social external and internal fight. Not just (isolated) fashion, creativity.

    This morning I woke up at 4 a.m. to say good-bye to a friend (over 50 years old, like me) leaving to Nicaragua by plane via London, Miami — to work there for 2 years as a social/environmental worker. I felt her decision like a poem, a halberd for the city people of L

  13. Charles Dickens was excellent
    Charles Dickens was excellent in describing times back in Merry Olde England as far as the rich vs. poor and the economic and social times that were occurring. As long as there are people being held down by another class or economic situation, Dickens’ writing will be timeless. I think he covered a bit of that in Great Expectations, too. It’s great to look beyond the surface of books from those old days and see what the real message was. People note Alice in Wonderland as not just a cheery cartoon tale, that was a very political tale kind of calling out royalty (govt.) even though on the surface it looked like a good-times creative tale.

  14. Yes. A Connecticut
    Yes. A Connecticut Yankee….. that’s one I’ve wanted to read but haven’t so far. I read Twain’s A Pen Warmed Up in Hell last year, a collection of his shorter protest works, including The War Prayer and Battle Hymn of the Republic (Brought Down to Date).

    The introduction notes that Twain was “most fervent in his defense of the right of all men to contrary opinions. The issue rather than a doctrine determined a man’s responsibility”. As Twain put it in 1884 in an address defending the Mugwumps, who had bolted from the Republican Party, “The infamous doctrine of allegiance to party plays directly into the hands of politicians of a baser sort– and doubtless for that it was borrowed– or stolen– from the monarchical system”, and “Loyalty to petrified opinions never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul in this world– and never will”.

    Many of Twain’s letters and essays in this book deal with the issue of dissent as vital to a country’s well-being, and how those who voice such dissent must not be lumped together and labeled as “traitors”.

  15. Make it HappenI guess the
    Make it Happen

    I guess the question is, is it a writer’s duty to serve as a mouthpiece for what’s going on in the world? If no one else will speak up, is it a writer’s duty to get political on others and write about stuff with the hopes of educating or creating change? I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. Sometimes people talk about things forever, but nothing changes. Look at liberal journalists arguing with government workers. They can argue and talk about things, but just because a liberal journalist didn’t like some decision the govt. made, it doesn’t usually mean that the law will get changed.

    I think some people are afraid to write about an issue or politics. Especially back in the old days, I tihnk that maybe it was difficult to get those messages across. That’s probably why so many people seemed to be writing in a “code.” You had to look beyond the immediacy and find the real message. Today sometimes it’s easier to write about what you want. But you’ll always risk people disagreeing with you, or challenging you. Depends on who you are and what you write about.
    But you also run the risk of affecting change, because either enough people will respond to your story, or because no one was talking about it, and you finally stepped up and voiced your opinion, and maybe later it could affect change, and laws could get passed, or maybe something will come into place to protect people that weren’t being protected before, or similar.

  16. Arise, Awake or Be Forever
    Arise, Awake or Be Forever Fallen

    Somewhere, in a paperback publication, I have an article that purports Stranger in a Strange Land, that seminal morsel of Heinlein’s tender flesh, is a Crowleyist casting. Yes, a spell that brought about the cultural revolution we tend to refer to as the sixties.

    I think a book can be a spell. (As a poem or song or spell can be a spell.)

    How well have you honed your wizardry?

    And to what end? Point?

    Oh and that Allen Ginsberg line:

    politics makes poet a monster

    followed deftly with:

    i am a monster.

  17. A Pen Warmed Up in Hell…
    A Pen Warmed Up in Hell… That sounds worth reading for the title alone.

    I have to admit that when I studied Twain in college (just briefly, in a satire course), I had a profound dislike for him. I think that’s because I really didn’t understand him then, and would probably appreciate his work a lot more now.

    In the same class, we studied Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, which I did not find humorous in the least. (In fact, it struck me as annoyingly trite.) But then a couple of years ago — while trying to refine my understanding of irony — I re-read Swift’s tract and couldn’t stop laughing. It’s hysterical!

    In college, I simply lacked the perspective to appreciate satire like that. Even though I could accurately “decipher” their message (and get straight A’s pseudo-analyzing it), I failed to comprehend the depth of what they were saying.

  18. DualismSome novels can be

    Some novels can be read on two levels. For arts/plots sake only, and for satirical or more lofty purposes. One example would be GULLIVER’S TRAVELS by Jonathan Swift. Another example would be WE, by Eugene Zamiatin. The more sophisticated one is, the more one sees lofty ideals and satire in these novels…Another example would be ANIMAL FARM by Orwell.

    Finally, it could be said that “a soul may be formed in you” and that you realize things unspeakable have been done in the name of religion, G-D, and humanity. The leviathan is out there waiting to snatch us all up and spit us back out. After a person reads novels such as these
    he/she is never ever the same.

    No matter on what “level” one reads these dualistic novels, one is touched by their change agents.

  19. Milton and lofty
    Milton and lofty agendas

    First, thank you for asking these questions and lessening my woeful illiteracy at least a little bit. I would say that it is impossible NOT to have an agenda when writing, even when writing for oneself, even if the agenda or purpose is not known at the time. (And no, I do not wish to go into Heidegger territory at this time, or at any time for that matter.)

    Lofty ideals are at best inspiration for more coherent and grounded writing. I think they also tend to emerge sometimes unintentionally, and perhaps most effectively when we do not plan on them. In other words, to set out to write a magnum opus from the beginning is not the best plan. To have one develop that ends up communicating far more than originally planned is more natural–it just speaks to the writing process more honestly.

    Did Milton start out with the plan to justify God’s goodness to men in a time of “evil” and chaos? The academic in me says “of course,” while the writer in me says “not a chance.” When one factors in the always difficult attempt to evaluate a political situation as it unfolds, one has to think that Milton was more possessed by his muse (at least to begin with), than by a complete understanding of his current situation before putting pen to palimpsest (egad, I hope I used that word correctly).

    But again, the academic in me says that such masterworks are in the process of being written long before they are realized, and this idea does jibe with the writer in me. We are always creating/ thinking on some level, and the trick seems to be to always be ready to attack at the right time. Hey, some writers are great, and some have greatness thrust upon them…

    Then again, I could be completely wrong, and I am sure you will let me know just how much.

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