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Temps Perdu

May 6th, 2017

Hades Found

I’m positive people are dying to hear about my progress through the Columbia College Lit. Hum. syllabus. Here is your update.

I am currently working on Paradise Lost, John Milton’s endless poem about the falls of Satan and man. It’s something like 400 pages long, it’s written in blank verse (poetry that doesn’t rhyme), and it makes Shakespeare’s archaic prose look like Dick and Jane. By that I mean it is very hard to read. Milton uses all sorts of out-of-syle words, and I’m not entirely sure he uses them correctly. His punctuation is erratic (possibly because he was blind), so it can be hard to tell where a sentence begins or ends. He’s also the stuffiest writer I’ve ever encountered. Worse than my translations of Homer and Virgil. Reading Milton is like jogging in concrete that has already begun to set. Concrete that has big lumps of stone in it.

Maugre all that, I am pressing on.

See how Milton has improved my writing. “Maugre”! I look really smart now.

When I first started reading the book, I thought Milton was brilliant. He knew so much about the Bible, theology, and mythology. Then I started thinking maybe he was just well-read and highly educated. I still can’t tell for sure. He reminds me of P.G. Wodehouse. I’m not saying he’s witty, funny, or even a little bit entertaining. I’m saying his work is peppered with references grounded in a classical education, to the point where a person who wanted to write a parody of his work would have to spend five years studying literature first.

Wodehouse is the only person I would be afraid to imitate. I just don’t have the background.

I like Milton’s highly informed use of symbolism. It shows a deep understanding of the way the Christian universe works. For example, in Milton’s poem, Sin is the child of Satan. She pops out of his head the same way Athena popped out of Zeus’s head. I think the idea is that sin started inside Satan. Before Satan, sin didn’t exist. I’ll go with that. After Satan gives birth to the female child Sin, he has sex with her, and she gives birth to his son/grandson, Death. Good enough. The Bible says sin comes from death. “The wages of sin is death.”

Sin’s job is to guard the entrance of the underworld. She can open the gate, but she can’t lock the door once it’s open. Her job is to refuse to open the door. I get that. Only God can put people in hell, but Sin is what keeps them there. Jesus couldn’t be kept in hell, because he hadn’t sinned.

Anyway, the poem is very clever. It seems considerably deeper than the Greek stuff and Dante.

To understand Milton, you have to understand his times and his experiences. That means I will never understand Milton. I’m comfortable with that. Reading about him would be a lot of work for a negligible reward. I do know a couple of things. He was a political bigwig in England. He was a minister in charge of foreign languages, sharing an office with the people from Silly Walks. He wrote a document that helped get Charles the something-or-other convicted of something. Then he went completely blind, and having nothing better to do, he wrote poetry.

That’s all I have. I may look at Wikipedia for a few minutes eventually, but I hope I don’t, because that would be boring. I’m not undertaking this project to prove I could be a great classics scholar. I just want to be able to say I did the reading.

Here is the action so far. Satan (ancient Akkadian for “Stan”) and his pals have been ejected from heaven for fighting God. They have been chained to the surface of the lake of fire. They have broken loose. They have decided to mess with man, since they can’t hurt God. Stan has gone on a scouting mission to find earth (he hasn’t been there before), and he has just spotted Eden.

That took about 80 pages.

It’s a painful slog, but it’s better than Homer. I think that if Milton and Homer had ever gotten together for drinks, after about an hour, Milton would have had a friend place a fake emergency call to his Iphone, to give him an excuse to leave. I can hear him muttering to himself as he stomps out into the street and probably into a post: “MAN what a bore.” If Milton is the Tim Tebow of boredom and long-windedness, Homer is the Babe Ruth.

There’s a pun in there somewhere.

You couldn’t publish Paradise Lost today. When you go to high school and college these days, you can’t write anything a small child can’t read. If you tried to write like Milton, they’d get out the red pen and cross out half of the words. “‘Maugre’? Really? See me after class.” If you sent a work like Milton to publishers, they’d save it to read at Christmas parties. It’s funny; modern academics tell us to admire Milton, but if you emulate him, you better have a blog, because there is no other way you’ll get your work in front of the public.

I suppose that’s a good thing.

If Milton had written his book in our time, he would have been rejected soundly, to the point where he probably would have found solace in a lengthy, hard-to-comprehend Internet manifesto. Then he would have shot up a mall with an AR-15, spraying ineffectual bullets at walls and lighting fixtures due to his blindness.

By the way, in the book, paradise is Eden, not heaven. Have people been using the word incorrectly for four hundred years, or was Milton confused? I do not know.

The more I look at these books, the more I think nobody actually reads them at Columbia. I read very, very quickly, and there is no way I could get through Milton in one week, understand it, and keep up with my other classes. If it’s too long for me, it’s definitely too long for a typical Columbia student who can’t read nearly as fast as I can. Think of the Asian engineers. They’d have to drop out. Thank God for Cliff. His notes must be the only thing Columbia freshmen actually read.

I go through about 16 pages of Milton in half an hour, taking it slowly enough to allow me to really understand it. So 25 hours for the whole book? In one college week, that’s around 3.5 hours per day, seven days in a row, for one class. And most kids would read slower than that. No, that’s not happening.

After Milton, I get socked with Pride and Prejudice, which, as I understand it, is a chick book. Guess how much I look forward to that. Columbia gives people a week or so to read it, which seems insane, since it goes so much faster than Milton.

The real hump in the journey is Dostoevsky. I have tried reading him once or twice, and I thought I could hear my soul gag. The book in question is Crime and Punishment. I just checked, and…God help me…it’s 430 pages. I would rather eat it than read it.

Sometimes I think I should read other books I blew off. I took a French literature class, during a time when I was so miserable I did practically nothing but drink and watch TV. I skipped most of Therese Desqueyroux and a good bit of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. I took the midterm anyway, because in literature classes, you can often get a B simply by making things up. In response to my imaginative analysis of Therese Desqueyroux, the professor wrote, “Obvieusement, vous n’avez pas lu cet livre. Venez me voir.” Am I writing that correctly? “Obviously, you have not read this book. Come see me.” I was too embarrassed and unmotivated to go see her. I think I got a C in that class.

These days, I don’t know if I’m still capable of reading books written in French. Writing exams and papers in French would be a bit de trop.

I’m glad there are pleasant books in the world. If I had to read things like The Iliad and Paradise Lost all the time, I would barely read at all. The French stuff probably wasn’t too bad. I was just depressed. I didn’t feel like doing anything. If the homework had been eating pie while being worked over by a friendly team of Asian masseuses, I probably still wouldn’t have done it.

I make it sound like I never liked literature. That’s not true. I liked D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, Anais Nin, various authors of colonial literature, E.M. Forester, Alexandre Dumas, Ernest Hemingway, Antoine de St. Exupery, Shakespeare, Voltaire, a bunch of French poets, and a lot of other stuff. In short, I liked things that were not boring.

Maybe the real purpose of Lit. Hum. is to make people hate reading. If so, well played.

If you want to read because you love it, I do not recommend Milton. If you want to read in order to become educated, go ahead and read him. Don’t expect to enjoy it. That would be evidence of severe mental illness.

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6 Responses to “Temps Perdu”

  1. Stephen McAteer Says:

    Good post. Made me laugh.

  2. Terrapod Says:

    Hmm – …The Bible says sin comes from death. “The wages of sin is death.”

    If Death is personified as intended in the book then the first sentence can hold where Death created Sin, but the second part mans that the reward for sin is death, in which case sin cannot come from death but the reverse applies. This is what causes headaches in reading Milton, Dante’s “Inferno” is easier reading. Never completely read Paradise Lost, my long ago English Literature teacher (Welshman) would pick chapters and ask for written analysis, was a hoot to hear him read back choice segments from student papers then ask for discussion.

  3. Steve H. Says:

    Milton says Death came from Sin. He is her son.

  4. Seeker Says:

    Much of the historical and literary background needed for Milton was possessed by C.S Lewis. His ‘Preface to Paradise Lost’ should be next to every copy of Milton on the shelf. It made me read it again – which I did not do to ‘Paradise Regained’.

    I specially remember one of his remarks to the effect that Adam had only been to a little garden but had a wide range of interests ( including celebrating the beauty and majesty of Eve). Satan had been all over creation, and only found one thing that interested Satan. Comparing the Fall to a shabby trick like poisoning someone’s dog when you can not get them directly was good too.

  5. Steve H. Says:

    Now I have to ask myself: do I want the Lewis book? More info, but…more work. More info…more work. More info…more work.

    More work. I can’t have that.

  6. Lee Says:

    Seeker’s suggestion is worth considering. I’m reading Lewis’s Preface to Milton right now and I think it’s the best thing I’ve read of his.

    I don’t know if it will motivate me to take another crack at Paradise Lost, but I’ve already learned more about Homer and Beowulf than I’d expected to and I’m not halfway through it yet.