Speech and Performance in Paradise Lost

July 24, 2019 by Essay Writer

The world of Milton’s Paradise Lost is a world of discourse, full of divine as well as human speech. When God creates Christ, he calls him “thou my Word, begotten son, by thee/ This I perform” (VII. 165-6). Indeed, the concept of the “Word” (Greek logos) figures centrally in the world of the poem — not only in the traditional figuration of Christ as “the word made flesh”, but also in more general revelatory speech. In Book VIII of Paradise Lost, a dialogue between Adam and God about loneliness reveals the various natures and uses of such words. While God’s speech is performative (in the sense of semantic use theory) and Adam’s only descriptive, both work toward the ends of expression and request. In fact, Adam’s use of speech mirrors that of the divine, setting up a figurative counterpart for the literal enactment God performs. Through speaking, Adam proves that he has learned to think, as he was made, in “the image of Godâ€? (VII. 527) — to exercise free will in judging his own situation and in imaginatively constructing what he desires.In Book VIII, Adam recounts to the angel Raphael his reply to God’s question: “Seem I to thee sufficiently possessed/ Of happiness, or not?â€? (VIII. 404-5). Though Adam had wished to gain some companion to be happier and less alone, God argues that he himself is “alone/ From all eternityâ€? and thus, under Adam’s definition of happiness, imperfect. Adam, on the other hand, desires to gain a companion without angering or deprecating God. In speaking about this desire, he must describe for God something God has not yet created for him. Such description involves imagination and figurative construction — it is necessary that Adam, in an important sense, depart from God. While this departure is not strictly rebellious, it is certainly a show of independence, an assertion of the human will separate from the divine. Speaking of man as man-in-himself, and not as an agency of God’s will, necessitates a knowledge of the self and the situation which simple obedience does not require. Indeed, God speaks of his dialogue as “try[ing]â€? Adam, telling Adam he“finds thee knowing not of beasts alone,Which thou hast rightly named, but of thyself,Expressing well the spirit within thee free,Whose fellowship therefore unmeet for theeGood reason was thou freely shouldst dislikeâ€?(VIII. 438-42).Here God repeats the word “freeâ€?, each time adding new significance to the word. Adam “express[es] wellâ€? his inner spirit “freeâ€? — meaning perhaps both his “freeâ€? spirit and his ability freely to express what he desires. Additionally, Milton suggests, because Adam is able to express freely, he “therefore…freely shouldst dislikeâ€? the companionship of animals. The causal relationship implied here is unusual: it appears that Adam’s assertions allow him the gift of discernment, the ability to make judgments on what he values most. Though Adam’s speech is not a creative faculty in itself, it does seem to give rise to abilities other than spoken words usually do.It seems that Adam’s speech works through a certain kind of enactment, in an allegorically rather than literally hermeneutic sense. Here his discourse can be interpreted as having a level of reference beyond that which is stated in the text. Though, at the time, Adam had believed his discourse to be merely a description of his needs, God significantly tells him that it was a test “To see how [he] could judge of fit and meet” (L 448). In Paradise Lost, the word “judgeâ€? is extremely loaded: Milton speaks of Christ as a “Vicegerent Son, to thee I have transferred/ All judgment, whether in heav’n, or earth, or hellâ€? (X. 56-7) as well as later in “So judged he Man, both judge and savior sentâ€? (X.209). At least partially, Adam’s figurative evaluation of his loneliness and desire prefigures Christ’s literal evaluation of the human race. Adam’s ability to judge “of fit and meetâ€? can be said to mirror Christ’s judging of “both quick and deadâ€? (XII. 460): both processes involve a setting of priorities, a separating of worthy from unworthy things. When Adam “judgesâ€? his situation, he decides which of his desires would be “meetâ€? to express to God, in a sense carrying out God’s orders through the use of his own free will. Though this is a more internal process than Christ’s judging of the world, it does have similar qualities of selection and choice.To see that Adam has judged well appears to please God, perhaps because God can see in this earthly judging a typological foreshadowing of the redemptive one. It is not Adam’s lack, but rather his ability to delineate and judge that lack in a “Christ-likeâ€? way, that makes God decide finally to create Eve. Adam is able to carry out within himself the process that will be carried out against humankind; in expressing this process, he proves that he is worthy of receiving what he desires.Language is, for Adam, the proof of his discernment, but also the expression of his imagined lack. After he is given all the animals and plants to tend, he says that “in these [beasts], I found not what methought I wanted stillâ€? (VIII. 354-5). Significantly, Adam only “thinksâ€? that he wants something — he is not sure of the object of desire, nor of the desire itself. Most likely, it is because he is a creature of Eden, who “had of [God]/ all he could haveâ€? (III. 97-8). The very utopian nature of Eden suggests that lack should be absent here — its lushness and excesses are all that Adam knows of the created world.However, for some reason, Adam begins to consider his world less than perfect. Though such consideration may appear natural to a modern-day reader, it is in fact shocking when taken in the context of Adam’s world. At the time of his Book VIII speech, Adam has never had to consider scarcity even in a theoretical way. The concept of lack cannot inhere in the lush vegetation or various animals — as created things-in-themselves, they could not inspire thoughts of the uncreated but desired. The only possible cause for this inspiration appears to be Adam’s realization of the hierarchical nature of the world, and his consequent insight of his position as sole occupant of the earthly, “reasoningâ€? sphere. While God reigns above him, with speech as performance, and the animals (with no speech) below, Adam is the only being alive who can speak without physical enactment, whose words can lead to deeds only through his own work or through the medium of the divine.Adam shows this limitation here by figurative enactment, inventing through imagination what he desires. In noting that man’s need consists of “By conversation with his like to help,/ Or solace his defects” (VIII. 418-9), Adam expresses his desire for a greater perfection than his current solitude could offer him. Although God’s speech is powerful, it certainly offers little human comfort, at least until it changes form into the Son. Adam needs a companion who is “likeâ€? him, who can “solace his defectsâ€? without changing them, as God’s speech could. The birds and beasts which have already been given to him do not satiate this need. In fact, by speaking to God in this humanlike, discursive way, Adam enacts the same situation he describes. None of the animals understand him when he speaks: he is literally the only speaker in the earthly realm, attempting to describe just such a phenomenon.In speaking of his problem and the possible solution of a companion, Adam for the first time learns to speak creatively, to construct people and events which he has never experienced and to offer them for consideration to God. This change is more than simply one of degree — through the use of speech as creation, Adam begins to speak “in the image of Godâ€? (VII. 527), to create theoretically a vision of what God later will enact. He adapts the idea of divinely performative speech to his own earthly realm, concretizing his desires into actual spoken form. Although he cannot create Eve through his speaking, he can go through the motions of doing so, imitating the literal work of the Creator with figurative work through words.The concept of Adam’s “learningâ€? figurative speech seems strangely modern, with the ideas of individualism and personality development at its base. It suggests the “fortzugehenâ€? of later Rilke, in which a venturing-out of through speech and the journey allows one to find oneself, to enter “ein neues Lebenâ€? (cf. “Der Auszug des verlorenen Sohnesâ€?). Results of such development are evident even in Milton’s language: he speaks of Adam first as “presumptuousâ€? (VIII. 367) and “humbleâ€? (VIII. 378), then finally “emboldenedâ€? (VIII. 434), “permissiveâ€? and gaining “acceptanceâ€? (VIII. 435). Such a progression, even without the narrative structure for support, strongly suggests Adam’s growth from a servant into a more independent, creative individual. The fact that this growth is accomplished through the speech act itself makes the possibilities for speech all the more potent, even when not accompanied by the physical enactment of God.Milton reinforces these new insights of freedom and creativity with formal poetic technique, varying his mostly regular iambic pentameter greatly in these few lines. Interestingly, the first two lines in the quoted passage continue the regular structure of the poem, with the possible exception of a reversed foot (“finds theeâ€?) in the first line. These lines speak of “knowingâ€? and “rightly nam[ing]â€? things. The next few lines, however, discussing “the spirit within thee freeâ€?, are consequently much “freerâ€? with the accentual-syllabic structure. Line 440 actually consists of eleven syllables, unlike nearly all of Milton’s lines, and contains an obviously reversed foot (“spirit withinâ€?) and a syntactically necessary spondee (“thee freeâ€?). The following lines reinforce this pattern, with two dactyls (“fellowshipâ€?, “therefore un-“) in line 441, and an either dactyllic (“reason was thouâ€?) or spondaic (“was thou freelyâ€?) structure in the proceeding line.After the regular, logical sequence of “namingâ€?, it seems, the structure of expression comes: less formally bound, more prone both to invention and error. These lines are certainly not regular; however, the fact that their irregularity can be read in several ways gives additional support to the concept of freedom — freedom of interpretation, as well as that of speech. God’s speech here is a metrical enactment of freedom, reinforcing the physical enactment he usually employs.In these lines, God “figuresâ€? freedom for Adam, showing him that the concept usually applied to physical or political enslavement can also be applied to words. Adam has already proven himself capable of metaphoric speech; here God mirrors that capability back at him, using the added implications of metrics to support his actual words. Such mirroring seems paradoxical: God could of course simply speak and cause events to occur. However, it appears that God chooses a less literally performative type of discourse, perhaps in order to descend to Adam’s level of speech.In Paradise Lost, Milton offers a radically different interpretation of the creation of Eve, suggesting that it is Adam’s ability to describe his loneliness, rather than the loneliness itself, that allows creation to be possible. Certainly God had the capability of creating both Adam and Eve at the same time; instead, he chose to create Adam before Eve. It becomes clear that this decision allows Adam’s speech to be developed from simple description to logos, to progress from mere description to a type of performative speech. Once Adam’s speech is revealed to have similar performative powers as the divine, that speech is taken seriously and its requests granted. Only when Adam learns to speak the part, it seems, can he truly be considered “the image of God.”

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