In the 1970’s, at a time when I had too much time on my hands, I composed this palindrome (in other words, it reads the same backwards as forward):
Trap a dog alive
Evil a God apart
I no longer recall if I composed this before or after I read “Paradise Lost”, which alone of all the books written in my mother tongue, English, captured something I felt in my body, something beyond the meaning of the words being used. In John Milton’s epic poem, I could feel an oceanic depth which seemed to come from the language itself more than the meaning it conveyed.
There were other books, during those years that now wave to me from the distant past, which more profoundly reverberated in my consciousness as I tried to make sense of my life; Kafka, Dostoyevsky, Neruda; books that rescued me from being stuck on stepping stones meant to lead to the future. But all those other books were translated from languages other than my own.
“Paradise Lost”, like the works of Homer and Virgil, is called an “epic poem”, and it shares with the Odyssey, Iliad and Aeneid, a grand scope, poetic form, and like them tells the story of a search to recover something that has been lost. However, unlike the epics from ancient times, Milton’s poem is not about trying to get back home after exhausting years on foreign soil. It is not about a wiser Prodigal Son wending his way home, now “knowing the place for the first time”.
Milton starts his epic narrative by saying that he is going to “explain the ways of God to Man”. But that was not what I read in the pitching waves in which he recounts Satan’s flight from the sulfurous pits of Hell, across the deeps, up to the rim of the Created World.
Milton does not explain the ways of God to my satisfaction. God remains in the background, like a chess player behind a screen, making His unfathomable moves. And Paradise, the homeland under siege, fails to come alive; I expect because Adam and Eve do not face the challenges that we have to face out here in a world that feels increasingly distant from such images of peace and harmony.
Having been thrown out of Heaven because of insubordination to God’s authority, Satan rises from the sulfur fumes and forms a plan. Like Odysseus and Aeneas in the more famous epic poems of ancient Greece and Rome, Satan sets sail but not in order to return home. Satan is determined to pursue the plan he has formed for recovering his lost glory: he is going to cause Adam and Eve to be exiled from Paradise–not to hurt them but to thwart God’s hopes for them.
As in a modern novel, the intentions of the protagonist always catch the reader up, as dreadful as they may be. And Satan, as misguided and mean spirited as his intentions are, is the only one in this epic poem who provides a moving target for the reader’s own restlessness discontents. Satan is the only character in this poem with an opportunity to learn from his experience. He is given every chance to back off from his destructive agenda, to realize that his heart has been touched by the beauty of what he is trying to destroy.
To this day, when I think of what evil is, I don’t think of people who seem to be lost in the darkness of their own illusions, no matter how harmful their actions are. I think of Satan arriving in the created world and–once, twice, and a third time—sinking out of sight beneath the waves of loving kindness which might have kept him afloat.
Those three times, in which he turns away from any possibility he still has to recover forgiveness, self-respect and courage to face an unknown future, were: first, when he lands on the rim of the created world, is struck by its play of light and color, and persists in his plan to wreck it all; second, standing at the gates of Paradise, his heart moved by its beauty and he plows forward like a robot with no feeling; and, finally, seeing Adam and Eve for the first time, he feels their happy innocence so deeply that he has to look away.
What Satan then does reverberates down through the centuries, through all those horrible periods of cruelty that darken our human history, when human beings have persisted in their blind cruelty, deaf to the pain of others. Satan pulled himself together, not as a being in whom the capacity for compassion might still inform his actions, but as someone who has rooted out from his consciousness the voice of caring; and he carries out his plan to get revenge by destroying the only place to which he still has access: Paradise and the couple living there.
The real loser was Satan, as were all those beings through the millennia and up until this very day who knowingly turn their back on the voice of caring in their own hearts.
But I can’t help wondering whether, instead of turning Satan into a serpent and turning his attempts to speak into sibilant hisses, God could have said, “Hey, let’s talk about this. Surely, we both want what’s best in this unfortunate situation.” But bringing to mind that there are people in this world who seem to be immune to such appeals, it was probably already too late for that.
Giving Satan a heart able to be touched was probably all that any Creator could have done. Once consciousness has been set loose in the universe, free to explore the boundaries of the known, free to peer into the vast deeps between Heaven and Hell with minds able to understand, then intervention would have rescinded that freedom to choose who we will be, a freedom which conscious beings such as ourselves have been given.
How else would it be possible for each of us, afloat in the midst of today’s turmoil, to realize that we have the power to understand, to forgive, and to take another step, if greater understanding was simply deposited in our minds, like some divine cuckoo’s egg?