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"Among Unequals What Society": Paradise Lost and the Forms of Intimacy
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MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 61.1 (2000) 79-107

The poem of course invites multiple perspectives. -- Barbara Kiefer Lewalski
There is . . . only one true interpretation of Paradise Lost. -- Stanley Fish
Its primum mobile has a hole in the top, for getting in and out. -- John Carey

Explaining the One and the many never did run smooth. In poetics as in metaphysics, representations of plurality proceeding from, participating in, or returning to a unifying Principle often place us between competing forces -- a unified, absolute, ineffable Source and a fecund, various creation -- that require trajectories of understanding more oblique than those of ascending ladders and spiritual circuits. Paradise Lost broods over this relation thematically and thematizes it formally. If for some readers the epic achieves a rare harmony, affirming "change, variety, movement, the mark of vitality and joy" through "an all-embracing order which proceeds from God," for others the prospect of an "illimitable universe" within a "perfection of form" only restates the problem whenever we try to specify that perfection.

The problem is reflected in equivocations about form itself, which promises an ascent from multiplicity to archetype while serving, for Milton and others, as the ground of individuation, "the source of all difference": "Singular things, or individuals . . . have their own singular and proper forms"; "the soul of Socrates is the proper form of Socrates" (Art of Logic, in CPW, 8:233-4). The expressive potency of this bivalent metaphysic will assume crushing ethical force when Adam feels that he must choose between the promised sublimation up Raphael's scale of nature and the concrete specificity, and irreplaceability, of Eve. Some of the most valuable attempts to sort out the poem's challenges have traced its massive yet meticulous patterns -- local syntaxes, narrative framings and sequences, perspectival shifts, analogies, parodies, prefigurations, allusive myths, tropes, modes, genres -- all of them shaping and reshaping complementary, conflicting, and embedded relations. These formalisms, however, are never independent of a critic's ethical investments, which shape and are shaped by assumptions about Milton's cultural context and by a history of prior readings. The intersection of ethics and form has found expression in a fundamental critical debate: whether the poem directs us to higher unities, even a monistic Form to end all forms, or to a "form of the unfinished," a "narrative design [that] builds up a texture of overlapping viewpoints" and "incongruent discourses": "dynamic," "open-ended," and "indeterminate." This debate becomes most explicit whenever the desire to privilege the outcome finds itself at odds with the human drama leading to it, a drama that seems to work against even as it celebrates its iconic promises. Milton repeatedly crosses unfolding doctrine with disruptive contingencies, a dynamic he uses to shape the relation of Adam and Eve. Imagined from above to be a constant, variously embodied and anatomized, this relation proves, from the point of view of those living it -- readers as well as protagonists -- to be dynamic, contradictory, radically in transition.

In this essay I am concerned with the ways in which Milton sets in motion the poem's conflicting formal and ethical senses by testing intimacy and its constitutive role in human identity. Represented as both the finishing touch and the complicating factor of a circular cosmos, humanity lives in an elliptical world with two foci, male and female. Indispensable to Milton and the poem is the discreteness of particular selves, minds, and agencies, a formal plurality seeking harmonious interrelation and first enacted in Edenic marriage. The difficulty of this search stems from several widely discussed causes, among them Milton's personal crises, the culture of early modern individualism, and the Genesis narrative itself, in which the closure of ritual opens to "the wayward paths of human freedom, the quirks and contradictions of men and women seen as moral agents and complex centers of motive and feeling." Milton represents these quirks and contradictions, I argue, through the drama of human identity seeking to complete itself simultaneously in two directions, vertically and horizontally. What is ideally a complementary task shaped by hierarchical and chiastic relations is confronted throughout the poem by the density of lived, ethical experience. This density is felt in several ways, not the least...



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