John Milton likes ladyfingers. I was compelled to see if there was some self-imposed duty to even re-read the dead man (for he was clearly bones and ratty clothing), and I wanted the conversation to flow, but all I could think of was his death and the death of literature. I had fallen through a worm-hole, see, and ended up in another dimension. It wasn’t William Blake that I imagined I would meet; instead, I suspected I would be having tea with no one other than John Milton.
Despite British revolutions and personal losses (the death of two of his own children), Milton went blind and continued to write. I looked over at him, feeling pity for him, yet he did not say a word; he did not need to say a word. I just sipped my tea and glanced over at him from time to time. I then took a break and re-read the British author in my “Completed works of” copy in order to “check” if the words that Milton once wrote were actually “still there.” I even re-read the Italian Sonnets and Paradise Regained.
I devoured the tome. It took me a matter of four months, but I had completed the formidable task: to read the entire body of work of one author in order to gain insight to his role in the Western canon.
Milton’s conjuring of syntax and diction is nearly Hermetic, its unscrupulous authority, his almost reeking combination of Anglo-Saxon with Latinate words illuminate my claim that the 17th century as well as the beginning of the 18th century in British Literature, (Edmund Spenser included, roughly 1603 to 1714) was the peak of English Letters. After two hours of jumping from Milton’s poetry to his prose, I became convinced that Milton was a better rounded writer than Homer, Virgil, and Dante combined. He was not only a poet. He was a man of letters, a philosopher, a classicist, a theologian, an activist, a man of ideas.
I don’t read Paradise Lost as a re-telling of Genesis. I re-read it as a account of the birth of subjective individualism, that of Lucifer’s freedom from God in Christian lore, who has his own freewill independent of the Almighty Creator. Whoever instructs someone to read Paradise Lost in tandem with the Book of Genesis, should re-consider why it the most “obvious” reason to read it that way (as parallel to the Biblical account) is even necessary or productive. Recall: there is only one mention of Lucifer in the entire Bible and it’s in the book of Daniel, referring to the “light-bearer,” “the morning star,” or in historical terms, the King Nebuchadnezzar II, who ruled the Neo-Bablylonian empire from c. 605 BC – 562 BC.
When I listen to (and I mean listen to Milton’s words echoing back in the grottoes of my own skull) the triumphant universe of Paradise Lost’s setting, the vastness of its song, the mellifluous tangents filled with music, pauses, beats, all the images combined, like a juggernaut, smash through a maze of mirrors so that we can face the limit of the expanding universe, approach the Dragon of the Sublime.
Casting William Shakespeare (the dandy actor and R-rated playwright) and Geoffrey Chaucer (the allegorical pervert known for his sex and fart jokes) aside, led me to the conclusion that pound for pound, it is, in fact, John Milton that is the greatest poet of the English language.
I do not make the claim for no reason. I will tell you why he is the greatest.
Because he was the right writer, with the right ambitions at the right time, in the right place, historically situated precisely when England needed such a writer.
Remember Descartes’ famous “I think; therefore I am” (cogito ergo sum)? This famous statement is a statement about subjectivity and it correlates to the historical backdrop by which English and Continental literature gained traction for mobilizing the subjective “I.” In Paradise Lost, Satan has a subjective “I” domain. He performs “speech acts.” Yet who is the “I” in Shakespearean sonnets? Surely, in Don Quixote we have a subject that is comparable to the Cartesian cogito, and yet the subjective “I”, it appears, did not come forth until after the Protestant Reformation and after the Counter-Reformation, where Protestants and Catholics alike warred over proper doctrine.
The Church of English, of course, was no exception. The relation between the Church of England and the British monarchy is the historical background to the writing of Paradise Lost—it is not simply a clever poetic version of the fall of humankind from it pre-lapsarian state in the Garden of Eden. In Christian lore there are two falls; one from celestial history (theological claims) wherein Satan and a third of heaven plummeted down to Hell, and then a second fall, that of humankind, which was based on ill-fated decision for humankind to, like Satan himself, acquire freewill, that is, a will different than God’s will.
As much as I like William Blake, Edmund Spenser, Dylan Thomas, W.B. Yeats, Milton already sets the bar in the 17th century by sitting quietly, observing all Creation, with salvation and celestial history as the context. Who does this today? Even Shelley’s verse compared to Milton seems like a drunken game of Battleship and Lord Byron’s verse comparable to a game of Connect Four. Milton transforms the pathos and ethos of Keats—the poet who wrote “beauty is truth and truth is beauty.” Milton focuses on Lucifer, the most beautiful being that God had ever created, who would go on to betray Him, wage war on Him, set siege to the Monarchy of Heaven with a third of host of rebel angles having fallen with him. In that metaphysical context, Milton makes Keats’ feelings and lyric poetry look like a fat Robert Smith from the band, The Cure, moaning for an abstract love that only exists when one is a teenager.
Now, I realize there are other beloved poets in other languages than English that equal if not surpass Milton in aesthetic beauty, but as far as the English language goes: Milton is the poet of the English sublime par excellence. I’m not talking about his epic poem alone here. I’m talking about the vastness of space and time that Milton thought in.
Deeper into the Introduction of Paradise Lost (which uses diogesis and mimesis):
he it was, whose guile
Stird up with Envy and Revenge, deceiv’d
The Mother of Mankind, what time his Pride
Had cast him out from Heav’n, with all his Host
Of Rebel Angels, by whose aid aspiring
To set himself in Glory above his Peers,
He trusted to have equal’d the most High,
If he oppos’d; and with ambitious aim
Against the Throne and Monarchy of God
Rais’d impious War in Heav’n and Battel proud
With vain attempt. Him the Almighty Power
Hurld headlong flaming from th’ Ethereal Skie
With hideous ruine and combustion down
To bottomless perdition
Milton mystifies me. Sometimes I hate him and judge him to be wholly irrelevant by associating him with a Christian story. Nevertheless, when the tea was all gone from the kettle, and Milton and I shook hands, he disappeared and left a blank book where he once sat. He never said a word, I guess he didn’t have to.
He had said enough by creating the first anti-hero in epic poetry and that is fine by me.
Anders Breivik knew exactly what he did and that is why he is crying.
I had watched Breivik’s PowerPoint presentation on his last YouTube video and read some of his 1,500 page manifesto. I have a friend, an U.S. Army veteran who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, who shares some of Breivik’s views. My veteran friend told me that after 9/11, when he first arrived to serve his first tour of duty, that before he embarked on his first mission, he and his fellow soldiers suspected and believed they were fighting Middle Easterners in the War of the End of the World and that they, as the Western coalition, were the soldiers of the apocalypse.
The atrocities committed in Norway last week—the bombing in Oslo and the executing of Norwegian teenagers on Utoya Island–might not be a revelation, nor present anything new. Hegel, philosopher of Western subjectivity par excellence, once wrote about the ethics of war and how there was a religious dimension to it, that personal religiosity as a site of subjective identification provided an invisible branding upon the soul, and was a way for a subject to conceptualize the taking of sides; that is, a way to affirm identity.
So why is religion sometimes blamed in these kind of atrocities? Why is politics often blamed for these kind of atrocities? Why? Because, for people who don’t really want to think hard, it is really easy to do so.
At first, it is worth mentioning, some of the media thought the Oslo bombing was perpetrated by Islamic fundamentalists. They were wrong. After decades of studies and the active use of think-tanks, one would think that the “terrorism experts” would do a better job at ascertaining the facts on the ground, before they begin flapping their gums, accusing the wrong group or individual(s) for committing acts of evil.
That said, journalists and “terrorism experts” alike, as we know, wield catchy words, pseudo-functional academic constructs. They need to get the story out as quickly as they can, as it is even unfolding, to be sure, but they are often not thinking about what they write, and instead, in subsequent articles or newcasts, offer additional commentary, where they pounce on certain ideas signified by certain words to better understand the situational and institutional forces that provoke them to exist.
Now they, the media, from what I understand, are quasi-psychoanalyzing the mind of the mass murderer behind the attacks in Norway. Breivik was not an Islamic fundamentalist, after all; he was home-grown, a 32-year old Norwegian Islamophobe. Okay. So once the media realized this, they were quick to use constructions like “far-right extremist” or “Christian terrorist,” or “Christian fundamentalist,” or “Neo-Nazi,” even “Euro-supremacist,” a term which sounds precise, but probably fails to capture the nature of the grandiose ideas which, like tentacles, circumnavigate the narcissistic idea Breivik has of himself as a revolutionary and European knight self-commissioned to protect the values of all of “Judeo-Christian civilization.”
Does Anders Behring Breivik have a messiah complex? Perhaps.
Now, the media is perpetuating the Faustian sensationalism: they give platforms to even more experts, that is, psychiatrists, who might drive home the idea to the public that Breivik is mentally ill.
The fact Breivik wrotea highly detailed, 1,500 page entho-political manifesto (that is littered with rigorous, though shoddy scholarship) is not going to be discussed in detail for the time being. The manifesto, rather, is being primarily discussed in the blogosphere. Bloggers, it seems are using the manifesto as a way to debate culture, religion, and politics, and for the most part are not strictly using it as evidence to determine the fact that no sane person would actually go to such lengths to execute mass carnage and also have a litany of lengthy, paralogical justifications for it. What I predict is going to happen is that they—the so-called experts, the psychiatrists—are going construe Breivik’s logical fallacies and political conclusions within his manifesto as delusions.
Albiet,there are almost no ways of being objective about Breivik’s mental state. There is no test to see if he has a chemical imbalance, and even then we would have essentially learned nothing about his crimes. All we know about Breivik right now is what he says, in speech or in writing, or what he did in Oslo and Utoya island.
We can use all kinds of terms to label Breivik politically and culturally, but let the language be clear: what Breivik did was not insane; it was evil.
Evil how? In a metaphysical sense? Evil as in an essence intrinsic to Breivik’s nature? No. That is not what I mean. What I am saying is Breivik’s actions are acts of human evil. Anything short of calling them evil and one is caught up meeting Breivik on the terms and language of his own manifesto, or on the terms and conditions of so-called experts. Some Europeans and European politicians, we must remember, agree with Breivik’s views. Can we make the argument that they are delusional or not? Do we even really need experts to understand what Breivik did? Are we so removed from a basic understanding of ethics that we have to bring in interpretations (like that of Stephan Moleneuyx, who suggests that this crime can be attributed Breivik’s childhood and was somehow was deprived of a real father), that we have to bring in scientific, biological, political language to understand his crimes?
The justification for killing teenagers of your own country because they support immigration and are hypocrites in one’s eyes, and are so-called “cultural Marxists” is not logical, rational, nor delusional. Breivik did not commit these crimes because he is insane (which is a legal term, not a medical diagnosis); Breivik, instead, will be retroactively dubbed “insane” by his lawyer based on not only the incident by but by inferring the nature of Breivik’s own self-understanding of his own political reality: that Islam as a cultural force is a direct threat to Europe.
There is nothing abnormal going on bio-chemically in Breivik’s brain that itself is the mechanism that caused his actions. Breiviks has moral agency. What he believes about Islam or about immigration or about Europe was in conjunction with what he set out to do.
The human race does not have an unchanged set of beliefs. New assumptions and beliefs always emerge in the context of present historical conditions. Physical sciences and social sciences rely heavily on interrogating the past, in order to update and understand the present. What is a mistake? An ethical failure? A moral failure? Something inherent in the rational framework for error and truth? Without knowing how cancerous tumors were treated in the past, we would not know how to treat cancerous tumors in the present. History, however, is cyclical as much as it is linear. There are leaps/advances forward. There are repetitions. There are political revolutions and religious schisms that arise from the restructuring of or doing-away with an entire paradigm or belief system. It is the idea of culture that is the lie. It is he media which spreads the lie that is culture, and in so doing attempts to inform how society should see itself.
How a society sees itself as expounded upon and externalized through the media informs our new beliefs and the means through which those beliefs are actualized or expressed. We must ask ourselves some questions. Do we see ourselves as mentally ill? Do we see ourselves as racist? Do we secretly think Western Civilization is destined to forever be direct war with the Other? Are we ourselves accountable for the good and evil that we, as a species, commit on a daily basis or not? I don’t know how any but else feels about this, but I myself feel responsible for these crimes. Why? For indulging in the abyss of what they are. Consequently, beliefs do not necessarily cause mistakes. Beliefs, instead, are present retroactively as justifications and excuses of an self-prescribed behavior. Beliefs are often episodically experienced, randomly adhered to one moment, conveniently rejected in others. Beliefs are never fully abstract, nor are they purely concrete. Beliefs are never pure indicators of impure actions.
Breivik’s last posting on some social network before he went on his mass murdering killing spree, was from John Stuart Mill, a proponent of classical liberalism—“one person with a belief is equal to the force of 100,000 who have only interests.” Why does the mainstream media, and the people who believe in the flash non-fiction propaganda of the mainstream media seem more outraged by the political stance of a killer, that is, the motivation inside the mind of killer, in his manifesto or otherwise, than by the attacks themselves? Do we really think we can fully, rationally comprehend an irrational act of hatred, an ethical abyss? Maybe, we do.
I think reflecting on the violence in Norway is a kind of magnifying glass: we can learn more about our selves in how we view this moral failure. Depending on how we view it, even if we choose to ignore it or escape from it as an existential fact, which many people do, it gives us a sense of what constitutes our identity.
The Norwegian killer might see himself as a member of the Knights Templar Europe. His heroes might very well be every medieval European ruler known for slaughtering lots of Muslims, but he is no mere Eurocentric who sees European identity as supreme. Breivik is a Eurocentric with grandiose ideas about himself, about himself affecting history, wars and cycles of wars, wherein some human lives mean next to nothing, and are hunt-able without remorse.