I wrote a seminar thesis on this once. It’s not just about connecting the birth of Christ to the passion in theological terms. Milton is making a sort of quantum confession: the birth of God in time collapses our reality. The Christmas Day of 1629 becomes, itself, “the happy morn;” the liturgical hymn of Philippians 2:6-8 (and 9-11) is transfigured into Milton’s second stanza; everywhere the light is breaking in, nowhere can the natural order contain the “spooky action” (no longer at a distance).
I’ve been looking forward to finishing The Crying of Lot 49.
I’m not someone who cares very much about being hooked by intriguing plots. One of my favorite books, The Sun Also Rises, is mostly about people going to cafes.
The Crying of Lot 49 spends four chapters piquing my interest in a potentially sensational plot, but chapter 5 is a slog. Shame on me.
The chapter is partly a dream sequence, but it gets to be too much. I start suspecting that I’m about to be had, and that this plot, now that it’s something I care about, is not going to pay off. You’ve got me very, very interested in the promise of some centuries-spanning conspiracy about who controls the mail (of all things), and then you grind things to a halt by building deftly crafted nods on looping city bus routes into something so off-puttingly ponderous that I wonder if I’ve just finished the book 50 pages before it’s over because, I mean, come on.
But the effect is brilliant in a very precise way. See, the first four chapters of the book are quick. They’re not quick in the sense of slight or spurious, but what I mean is that they move. Chapter 5 does not. It slows everything down. It distorts time. It’s a morass that takes far too long to get through. It’s an incredible trick, and I’m certain it’s intentional. It’s very much like sleeping and very much like dreaming. It’s a slog, and it’s too much, but it’s annoyingly well-done.
Something I’ll take with me from this particular dream is the idea that miracles are the intrusion of one world into another:
“You know what a miracle is. Not what Bakunin said. But another world’s intrusion into this one. Most of the time we coexist peacefully, but when we do touch there’s cataclysm.
This is Milton. This is the Gospels of Mark and John. This is true.
Milton’s Nativity Ode is all about the intrusion of heaven into history and the breaking of temporal strictures and the fleeing of the idols in the presence of eternity. John talks about the Word becoming flesh. For Mark, everything is immediate, everything has equal weight (the weight of exceeding urgency), and everything is coming and everything is here.
I think I first became familiar with the work of Stanley Fish in a literature seminar at Yale taught by the late Lana Schwebel. The course, which focused on the work of John Milton, was cross-listed at the Div School, where I was a student, and the English department.
One of the other students had just come from Chicago and could not stop talking about Stanley Fish. Strangely, this student didn’t seem at all familiar with Leo Strauss. He couldn’t seem to accept that someone had, perhaps, influenced his own academic hero.
Stanley Fish has a very popular piece I like to share from time to time called “How to Recognize a Poem When You See One.” I haven’t returned to it lately, but, as what Milton called the “winter wild” draws near, and this “the month, and this the happy morn” with it, I think I will add it to my short list of recommended re-reading.
There are few things more frustrating than a poetic image that won’t fully reveal itself to a writer, or one that reveals itself too easily to a reader. There’s a Milton-inspired poem sitting in another tab on my browser that I just can’t seem to finish. I love it. I hate it. It’s brilliant. It’s awful. Maybe it’s not a poem at all. I wish I could re-see it. I wish I could un-see (undo) the reasons it exists. I wish I could delete it. I know I never will. It’s terrible. It’s awful. It has one or two good images. It’s intensely personal. It’s too personal to mean anything to anyone. It’s too sentimental to mean very much to me. But there it sits. There it stays. Maybe it’s a poem. Maybe it’s an epitaph. Maybe it’s a tombstone. Maybe some things can just be what they are.
I’ve been considering John Milton’s Nativity Ode anew this Advent. Today, I saw a tweet from The New York Review of Books quoting from Milton’s Paradise Lost about the blood lust of the pagan god Moloch and the gruesome terms of his worship, child sacrifice.
I clicked through to the piece, which you can read here. The gun, says Gary Wills, is our Moloch. Maybe so. But if so, our collective and willful ignorance of America’s mental health crisis is something of an original sin from which we haven’t come close to working out or making right.
Wills reminds us that in Paradise Lost, “Milton represented Moloch as the first pagan god who joined Satan’s war on humankind.” Yes. And in Milton’s Nativity Ode, Moloch is among the first to flee his seat of power at the birth of Christ, the coming of the Holy Child.
I left this comment at NYRB:
“To continue the Milton and Moloch theme, on the Third Sunday of Advent, we remember that Moloch only flees with the birth of the Holy Child. I don’t offer that as a bit of religious imperialism, but as a comfort to those who will find comfort in it, and as a point of literary irony worth considering in the larger context of the extended metaphor.”
There’s something fundamentally profound about the juxtaposition of the reign and flight of Moloch with the coming of the Prince of Peace as an infant, as a child. I’m not offering a positivist religious fatalism, here. I’m saying that Wills makes one of the best arguments for pacifism you’re likely to hear if you bear mind 1) the Mennonite insistence that the crucifixion of Christ was God’s clear condemnation of violence as a means of ending violence 2) Milton’s liturgical resister in Advent, and 3) Milton’s insistence that God’s overthrowing of idols happened not only at Christ’s death but also, fundamentally, in his birth.
In the Nativity Ode, Milton struggles with the now-and-not-quite-yet nature of the Prince of Peace’s reign. I struggle with it, too. The child Jesus would grow up to say “The Kingdom of God is here!” but few and far between are the kinds of communities that prove the claim. Few and far between are the leaders who lead and live like Jesus, few and far between are churches with progressive witnesses for peace and mental health commitments.
Think what you will about guns. But it’s hard to argue that with our wars, our drones, our violent entertainment and our voyeuristic gaming, we’re not sacrificing children to the grim god Moloch, to the military-industrial complex, to big businesses and lobbyists and other interests. All the while spending a comparative widow’s mite on the nation’s mental health crisis. That’s idolatry any way you cut it. That is injustice, that is sin, that is, frankly, evil.