Friday, January 12, 2007

"The politics of long joy"

In a new column at Books & Culture, Alan Jacobs, author of a recent biography of C.S. Lewis, The Narnian, uses Paradise Lost as way into discussing why "winning trophies," or what Milton calls "short joy" is far less important than obedience.
Near the middle of Milton's Paradise Lost, the archangel Raphael describes for Adam - who has not yet fallen, not yet disobeyed - the War in Heaven between Satan's rebellious angels and those who have remained faithful to God. Throughout this portion of the poem a major figure is a loyal angel named Abdiel. It is his task, or privilege, to cast the first blow against Satan himself: his "noble stroke" causes Satan to stagger backwards and fall to one knee, which terrifies and enrages the great rebel's followers. This happens as Abdiel expected; he's not afraid of Satan, and knows that even the king of the rebels cannot match his strength, since rebellion has already sapped some of the greatness and power of the one once known as Lucifer.

But what if the combat hadn't gone as expected? What if Satan had been unhurt by Abdiel's blow, or had himself wounded the faithful angel? In that case, says one Milton scholar, John Rumrich, "God would by rights have some explaining to do." What right would God have to send Abdiel into a struggle where he could be wounded or destroyed? To Rumrich's claim that most eminent of Miltonists, Stanley Fish, replies: Every right. God's actions are not subject to our judgment, because he's God - a point which, Fish often reminds us, modern literary critics seem unable to grasp. [more]

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