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Adamic Awakening and the Feeling of Being Alive in Paradise Lost

From: Milton Studies
Volume 54, 2013
pp. 29-57 | 10.1353/mlt.2013.0011

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Alone in Eden, Adam invites speculation. Naked, newly created, and without precedent, he encourages numerous traditions to imagine the human condition in its purity, stripped of historical and social contingencies. He acts as a cultural myth that enables the erasure of culture. Adam occupies a privileged position in the writings of pre-modern philosophers, scientists, poets, and playwrights. Modern thinkers have inherited this legacy by continuing to take Adam as an exemplary figure in their work. To take one example, in 1910, the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset composed an essay entitled “Adam in Paradise,” in which he employs Adam to express the essence of the human condition: “Adam in paradise is life, pure and simple.” For Ortega, Adam opens a general philosophy of life based on a living body’s encounter with an unfamiliar world. Adam allows Ortega to develop an account of life as it is experienced naïvely, in a state that is “pure and simple,” free from the sediment of scientific explanation. To understand life as it is lived, Ortega imagines Adam. The inspiration for his project may have derived from Paradise Lost, an epic poem in which John Milton imagines Adam by coming to an understanding of life. In his attempt to inhabit and express Adam’s experience, Milton articulates the basic structures of human vitality.

Engaged in a prolonged discussion with the angel Raphael, Adam relates his “story,” a first-person narrative describing how he awoke, explored his environment, met God, and participated in the creation of Eve. Michael Lieb contends that to “engage Adam’s account, his story, is to involve oneself in the phenomenon of personal experience, the narrative of selfhood ‘writ large.’ It is to turn inward toward self and to experience with the teller the intimate details of his life.” Milton extends to his readers an invitation to participate in the original moments of human existence. This invitation is implicit in the opening line of Adam’s story: “For man to tell how human life began / Is hard” (PL 8.250–51). The subject of this narrative is the beginning of “human life,” a topic simultaneously personal and general. Adam’s story applies to his individual experience of vitality and to the shared future of humanity as a species. In describing how “human life began,” Milton enters into Edenic experience and encourages his readers to grasp their own lives anew by seeing through Adam’s eyes and feeling through his skin.

At the center of Adam’s account is a basic awareness of life, a feeling of being alive that forms the background for his encounters with both himself and the world around him. As Daniel Heller Roazen demonstrates, waking from sleep is a privileged experience from which to observe and gain access to a pre-personal sense of existence that is normally hidden behind the alertness of fully awakened attention. In the words of Paul Valéry, “One should not say I wake … but There is waking [Il y a éveille]—for the I is the result.” Valéry uses an impersonal construction—Il y a éveille—to emphasize how sometimes at the moment of awakening, one is not yet able to clearly differentiate between subject and object. Such moments present themselves simply as a happening or felt occurrence. I follow the philosopher Evan Thompson’s lead and suggest that this pre-reflective happening expresses the feeling of being alive. It is this feeling that Milton’s Adam experiences when he awakens into human awareness for the first time.

Research in philosophy, biology, and neuroscience has begun to explore this feeling, which is situated at the border between life processes and experience. Languages other than English register the deep connection between these modes of existence. In German, for example, the emergence of Erleben from Leben verbally encodes the way that experience is necessarily tethered to life. In the contemporary disciplines concerned with the study of the mind, there is an increasing acknowledgment that processes once thought confined to the brain actually involve the entire organism and its milieu. This turn toward vitality has disclosed a new area of research, the point at which biological life crosses the threshold...



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