- Milton's Uncertain Eden: Understanding Place in Paradise Lost
Andrew Mattison joins a recent chorus of scholars to foreground disjunctions and uncertainties in Milton. But he does so in a very different way: through a consideration of place bearing no relation to either phenomenology or ecocriticism, but rather to postmodern philology. Most readers of Milton, he suggests —whether historicist or theological, feminist or ecological —have assumed that Paradise Lost is marked by some kind of ethical unity, however complex. Mattison argues that these critics, different in other ways, are alike in being essentially mistaken; for, as he aims to demonstrate, "the figural force of descriptions of place, and particularly of Eden, disrupt[s] the moral logic the poem superficially invokes . . . [as] figural meaning and moral or theological meaning are moving in opposite directions," to undermine Milton's narrative and apparent theodicy (2).
Mattison, by his own admission, does not produce a reading of Paradise Lost. Rather, he attempts to elucidate a series of contradictions in the descriptive tropes used by the narrator as well as the characters. Arguing that most Miltonists "sidestep questions of interpretation, in favor of intellectual and religious history," he cites Paul de Man's call for "a return to philology, to an examination of the structure of language prior to the meaning it produces" (157, 156). And, after an introductory chapter on pastoral and georgic in Renaissance poetry, he applies that method rigorously, even exhaustively, to three crucial moments in the epic: the discussion between Adam and Raphael on the nature of angelic song and on the vast unknowability of the cosmos; the "separation scene" between Adam and Eve; and Adam's post-Fall soliloquy in book 10. He argues that what holds Paradise Lost together is Adam's insoluble epistemological problem (nearly as acute before the Fall as after): to describe the surrounding landscape and his own role within it. Adam, Mattison says, "has a genius for the uncertainty an autonomous landscape can create, a capacity with the power to undermine Milton's explicit religious goal and to infect the ethics of the Fall itself" (51).
This postmodern Adam faces a different problem in each of the three central chapters —all of them "locative" rather than ethical. The first, represented by his conversation with Raphael, is "the contradiction between the necessity of praise and the impossibility of understanding," which is "central to Adam's idea of place" (57) —a "problem of description" as deep as Nietzsche's, in the face of the world's potentially "infinite interpretation" (142). The problem becomes more acute in Adam's discussion with Eve —which is not so much about sufficiency to stand (an ethical issue) as about differing interpretations of Edenic time —which for Eve implies an urgency it does not for Adam. Describing the landscape differently, each fails to persuade the other; and indeed, for Mattison, it is Eve's conception of Edenic time (urgent and immediate), and not the serpent's arguments, that leads directly to her Fall. Thus, he says, virtually all critics fail by attempting to "place the Fall in a moral context." This seeming crisis —no longer the center of the [End Page 1433] poem —should be viewed, like every other part, "in the context of the futile poetic attempt to overcome the inherently mediated and delayed understanding of Eden" (107).
And so we should view Adam's post-Fall soliloquy: not as a sinful expression of despair —although Mattison grants that it is that —but as a meditation with real "descriptive integrity" on the problem of locating oneself within a fallen landscape, "a place rather than a state" (116-17; italics Mattison's). Moving from synecdoche to apostrophe, Adam arrives at a kind of consolation through a new relationship to nature and the capacity to imitate its destructiveness through the use of fire. This chapter demonstrates, for Mattison, "the overall importance of environment, rather than sin or death, in the definition of the fallen condition." And...