December 9, 2009

The Fall of Relationships, part 2

Part 2 of 2 
(In part 1 we left off with a conversation between Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden from John Milton's Paradise Lost, book IX. Eve was arguing that the two should separate for a short time in order to better dress the garden while Adam is against the idea.)

Eve has just questioned Adam's belief that the two of them need to stay together in order to best overcome temptation. Adam responds to Eve’s questioning the need to be together by invoking a third party in the relationship: what God advises or creates need not be questioned: “best are all things as the will / Of God ordain’d them,” (343-344). In the Genesis account God says “it is not good for man to be alone,”12  and one of the reasons seems to be recognized implicitly by Milton—in addition to the need for general companionship they can also keep each other safe from temptation: “Not then mistrust, but tender love enjoins / That I should mind thee oft, and mind thou me” (37-38).13 As it turns out, close proximity can also be the very impetus for succumbing to temptation. Adam explains the true danger lies within the individual when one’s reason is tricked and the individual’s will follows the misguided reason, as will occur when the snake convinces Eve that partaking of the fruit is a good thing. Adam urges Eve not to seek temptation because surely it will find them. Ultimately, though, he relents with a poignant line: “Go; for thy stay, not free, absents thee more” (372). The concept of relationship is again invoked implicitly—the virtuous and happy relationship is the one freely chosen by each party in the face of a real alternative, or opposition. After the fall Adam will decry the idea of forcing compliance.14 That same idea of freely chosen interdependence is shown in his allowing Eve to separate from him. It also seems to reflect the attitude of God in placing them in the Garden with the possibility of a fall, as noted above. If they did not choose to remain in the Garden with Him, their inability to do otherwise would “absent them more.”

Eve reassures Adam by saying that the enemy wouldn’t seek her first anyway because that would be a very weak victory. This excuse hints that Eve is not yet seeing them as a pair—or at least she is no longer seeing them as such at this point. (Or  If the foe’s goal is to get Adam, he could use Eve. It seems she doesn’t realize that her fall will virtually necessitate Adam’s, based on their relationship.15 “Thus saying,” the moment of fracture is made physical, “from her Husband’s hand her hand / Soft she withdrew” (385-386).16  There is irony in her having companionship with the serpent, conversing, and even submitting to him: “Lead then,” Eve tells the serpent to show her the tree—a command to be led! (631). Throughout their conversation Adam is not brought up; Eve acts alone and the relationship is further fractured as she decides without Adam and misses her noon lunch date with him (739). She goes as far as bowing at (and to) the tree which she appears to worship (800). Meanwhile, while Eve hasn’t been thinking of Adam he has been thinking much of her while making her a garland of flowers (so much for getting more “work” done, 840). Eve says the fruit is now her “Best guide.” It isn’t until this point that her thoughts recall the relationships between her, God and Adam. Her choice was individual. Perhaps God didn’t notice, she hopes, “But to Adam in what sort shall I appear?” (816-817). She thinks of their relationship, believing perhaps now it will not be more equal, but that she may now be superior. Evidently she misunderstood the power she already held in the relationship—after all, Adam had relented to her request to work alone and clearly possessed much love for her. Her feelings of formerly being subordinate are pronounced as she feels a surge of power and superiority. In reality it seems she has upset the balance between her and Adam under God. The relationship is completely fractured, but oddly she clings to it more now than before, fearing she will be replaced. She resolves that “Adam shall share with me in bliss or woe: / So dear I love him” (831-832). 

Adam seeks her and finds her by the tree where she explains the serpent’s words and admits that she ate. She seeks to repair the relationship by offering him the fruit, “Thou therefore also taste, that equal lot / May join us” (881-882). As Adam noted earlier, problems (or sin) will occur when one’s reason is misled, and this is how Eve fell. Adam, on the other hand, makes the choice with his eyes wide open. Speaking to himself  he says: “How art thou lost, how on a sudden lost,…/ And mee with thee hath ruin’d, for with thee / Certain my resolution is to Die; / How can I live without thee” (900, 906-908). Adam is internally committed to the relationship, but this commitment strains his relationship with God because he places his being together with Eve above God’s strict injunction to refrain from eating the fruit. Adam tries to console or reassure Eve; maybe the serpent ate first and will get all the blame, maybe God will forgo destroying us so the Adversary won’t mock his evident failure. “However I with thee have fixt my Lot…/ Our State cannot be sever’d, we are as one, / One Flesh; to lose thee were to lose myself” (958-959). This can be understood literally, if Adam really views his true self as consisting of a relationship with Eve then he cannot be “himself” without the other part. But this fractures the relationship between him and God—as noted, this is the moment of Adam’s greatest sin and greatest nobility at once.

The severance of Adam from God seals him to Eve spiritually, and now physically as they embrace (990). They also do more than embrace, and when it is over the changes have begun to take a more physically discernible effect. They are naked and ashamed, they cover themselves with fig leaves (as Adam instructs Eve), they realize the relationship between them and God is fractured, and the blaming begins. In fact, Book IX ends with unproductive accusations and bad attitudes manifesting “Anger, Hate, Mistrust, Suspicion, Discord” and other fall-related emotions (1123-1124). The relationship of Adam and Eve is fractured once more. “Thus they in mutual accusation spent / The fruitless  hours, but neither self-condemning, / And of their vain contest appear’d no end” (1186-1189). Vain because it was self-centered as well as useless in terms of affecting resolution. This new conflict sets up the need for the reconciliation that will come through the rest of the epic. When the Son shows up to make them account for their actions, Milton again invokes the relationships: “Love was not in their looks, either to God / Or to each other” (Book X:111-112). The relationships need healing, but in order for that to happen the cycle of blame needs to be broken; someone needs to absorb or assume it in order to make it stop. After the punishments are doled out (Eve to have sorrow and pain in childbirth, Adam to earn bread by the sweat of his brow, the sentence of death upon them and their seed), the couple separates without discussion this time.

Adam’s anger seems fleeting and he is depicted as mentally accepting blame for the situation. The fault is “On mee, mee only” (832). When Eve comes to find him laying in his agony he turns against her in a rage, calling her “thou Serpent” (Book X:867). This is when Eve makes the heroic move, throwing herself at Adam’s feet, breaking the cycle of blame with the same words Adam had heard in his mind: “mee mee only” (936).17 Only her acceptance of the fault is offered vocally to Adam. She is the heroic martyr who shows tremendous patience by overlooking Adam’s massively misogynistic tirade, and begging him: “Between us two let there be peace” (924). This is a pathetic victory, a humiliating victory at the feet of another person, begging for reconciliation. One of Eve’s most admirable actions follows one of Adam’s worst. He relents and proclaims her “frailty and infirmer sex forgiv’n,” although Eve was the one with the strength and courage to fall at his feet and effect the resolution of the relationship! The relationship is repaired and it isn’t until that time that they are ready to repair the relationship with God again. Falling prostrate on the ground, as Eve had done to Adam earlier, “both confess’d / Humbly their faults, and pardon begg’d, with tears / Watering the ground” (1100-1102). God had likewise already been seeking reconciliation of the relationship, not only by sending the Son, but through “Prevenient grace,” which had descended from God to assist Adam and Eve in their repentance. Milton's depiction of the fall built around and through relationships, with each partner intimately effected by and effecting the others, is a fascinating approach to the paradigmatic Fall of Adam and Eve. 18

Genesis 2:18. The image is Michael Burgesse's engraving for Book 12, "Michael expels Adam & Eve; the Cherubim take their stations to guard Paradise." This engraving is from the 1688 folio edition of Paradise Lost, the first with illustrations. See Milton Texts at Emory University

Multiple senses of “mind” are possible here and the reader is left to take their pick of exactly which sense applies where—“mind” as in obey, or watch over, or be mindful of, etc.

“…what could I do more? / I warned thee, I admonished thee, foretold / The danger, and the lurking enemy / That lay in wait; beyond this had been force, / And force upon free will hath here no place,” (Book IX:1170-1173).

One might also ask if Eve was being completely sincere here, believing herself a lesser “prize” to the adversary than Satan. Is she naive? Is she representing what Milton believed true womanhood should represent? Is she flattering Adam?

This break contrasts with their later embrace in the Garden after they have partaken of the fruit when “There they their fill of love and love’s disport / Took largely,” (Book IX:990, 1042-1043), and their final hand-holding at the conclusion: “The world was all before them, where to choose / Their place of rest, and providence their guide: / They hand in hand with wandering steps and sow, / Through Eden took their solitary way,” (Book XII: 646-649).

Compare this to her earlier “austere composure” in response to Adam’s apparent insensitivity in Book IX:272.

“Thus they in lowliest plight repentant stood / Praying, for from the mercy-seat above / Prevenient grace descending had removed / The stony from their hearts…” Book XI:3. Part of this grace could include the sending of messengers to instruct the couple prior to the fall, the initial warnings about the foe.


BHodges said...

I would like to someday explore the fortunate fall aspect of things from Milton's perspective. It has been pointed out that Milton's depiction of the fall is fortunate only after God provides a Savior: “Happier had it sufficed him to have known/Good by itself, and evil not at all” (11.88-89).

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