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  • Milton's Aristotelian Now
  • Ayelet Langer

Of all the markers that anchor the narrative of Paradise Lost in time, the "now," or putative present moment, is perhaps the most ambiguous. In Milton's epic the now ranges in function from designating the actual present moment in the narrative, referring to the time of narration or reading, and specifying a proleptic moment that anticipates future events in the history of humanity. In some of its occurrences in the poem, the now binds past and future events into one continuous whole. In others, the now serves as a boundary of time that disrupts the chronological time of the story. The diverse functions of the present moment in Milton's poem have fostered interpretations of the now as a distinct element that fails to adhere to any coherent order. As a marker of what Amy Boesky identifies as the multiplicity, mutability, and indeterminacy of time, the now has mostly been seen as a disruptive element that opens a gap in the temporal sequence of the poem.1

This essay proposes that underlying the various temporal functions of the Miltonic "now" is a concrete and intelligible structure that can only be fully revealed through an examination of the role of time in Paradise Lost in relation to the subject's developing consciousness of time. This structure, I propose, is modeled [End Page 95] on Aristotle's notion of the now. Aristotle maintains that the mind recognizes the objective series of "before" and "after" in change by performing a mathematical act of counting these temporal markers as potential points of division, each of which takes place in a now.2 By performing the act of counting, the mathematical mind transforms the kinetic relation of "before" and "after" into temporal order. In selecting mind and change as time's two preconditions, Aristotle renders time as a hybrid idea. At once objective and subjective, for Aristotle the now is the medium of interaction between mind and world through which the mathematical mind transforms kinetic into temporal order.3

Milton, I suggest, adopts this bivalency as the guiding principle of his representation of the subject's development of a concept of time. Yet whereas Aristotle provides us with a theory that explains the mathematical process by which the mind apprehends time, Milton offers us an insight into the powerful experience of the mind's transformation of the kinetic into the temporal in and through the representational dynamic of his poem. By following the narrative, then, readers experience the mind's interaction with the world in and through the now as a temporal scheme by which the subjective view of time is gradually formed. Yet Milton, I propose, goes beyond Aristotle, for he views the rational mind as totally dependent on the individual's moral stature. In Paradise Lost Milton uses Aristotle's theory of the now to represent the transformation of the kinetic into temporal order in the unfallen mind only. The fallen mind loses its capacity to interact with the world through the now, and as a result it fails to constitute a concept of time. Yet, contingent on free will, the now remains a potential of future interaction between mind and world. After postlapsarian Adam and Eve repent they recover a version of the prelapsarian concept of time through and in the now. Satan, who chooses not to repent, remains forever captured within the partial structure of the now, incapable of conceiving time. Though Milton's now functions primarily as a medium of interaction between mind and world, it also serves as a temporal element that unifies experience. In Paradise Lost Milton uses the same now to describe the development of time consciousness [End Page 96] in Adam and Eve, thus unifying their pre- and postlapsarian identity in and through time. In his representation of the subject's development of a consciousness of time as a unified experience that takes place in the now, Milton, I suggest, joins the debate over the question of identity through time, which was central to moral and legal debates in the early modern period. For Milton time does not function as an element that disrupts the mind's experience; rather...


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pp. 95-117
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