toni mcnaron's garden

“Paradise Lost”

I believe John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost, offers us helpful words for most of life’s puzzles and quandaries.  In his preface to that poem, C. S. Lewis said that anyone who sits down to read this work is a different person when they get up from their chair.  For my part, I had never read a word of it before I was pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin.  I took a course in Milton from Y. Merritt Hughes, one of the major 20th century editors of Milton’s work.  Because we were reading lots of the poetry and a good bit of the prose, we didn’t concentrate on the 12,000+ line poem.  A few years later I was drafted to offer a second section of the required Milton course at the University of Minnesota where I was an assistant professor that I read it straight through.  Since I expected the students to read all the twelve books, so I had to do that with added vigor.  My initial response was to be amazed at how he could have written all those lines when he was entirely blind, no matter how faithful his daughters were as amanuenses, taking down his words day after day.  What seemed impossible to me was his inability to look at one day’s work the next day.  Even if he had his words read back to him, we all know oral review is very different from being able to see words on a piece of paper.

As I continued to teach Milton year after year, my experience with Paradise Lost became much more varied and subtle and profound.  When feminist thought/criticism began to seep into the academy, I didn’t agree with those who protested against Milton’s blatant chauvinism and sexism that they thought permeated the poem.  While I didn’t warm to the few lines in which he is sexist–“He for God only, she for God in him,” I kept seeing passages in which Milton was intent on rejecting conventional ideas about females and males.  For instance, he gives the power of naming to both of them–Adam has animals while Eve had flowers in that ur garden.  As an inveterate gardener myself, it seemed much nicer to think of names like “trillium” or “hibiscus” or just “daffodil” (though I did wish he’d called those early spring yellow beauties “jonquils”) than “lion” or “whale” or “eagle.”  And I was so moved by lines in which Milton has Eve walk along paths every morning as tiny flowers each raised their heads to greet their loving tender.  

I also didn’t think it was so bad that Eve left Adam and his albeit very bad teacher Raphael to their long abstract sessions, preferring to have Adam give her the gists when they were happily in bed each evening.  Milton casts Eve as a prototypical experiential learner, something I could relate to because that was the way I learned fastest and most easily.  But the clearest example of Milton’s not being the sexist writer some of my feminist colleagues felt him to be came for me in the late books after they’ve eaten the forbidden apple.  When God comes to judge them, Adam is  quick to be typically sexist by insisting to God that “Eve made me do it.”  Eve offers no excuses as she awaits what judgment will come to her.  God, however, stops Adam’s tirade by telling him that he is the superior intellect perhaps but that entails responsibilities.  In essence, God says Adam can’t have it both ways–he can’t be “superior” and then too weak to resist the first temptation put on his path.  I tried to get students to see the basic fairness inherent in Milton’s idea of an albeit sexist credo.  Since men still try to exert superiority while blaming us women for overpowering them, I often think of those late books in Milton’s poem to find clarity about what patriarchy might actually entail for the patriarchs.

Since retiring from regular teaching in 2001, I’ve found marvelous ways to keep talking about books with splendid grown-ups.  While people are happy to read Shakespeare or any contemporary writer with me, I have a very hard time roping folks into reading Milton.  But on two occasions enough brave souls agreed and we read my beloved  Paradise Lost together.  It’s been marvelous for me and, I believe, quite good and even surprising for those working with me.  Perhaps the most rewarding new insight for me has come in relation to the actual temptation scene in Book IX.  The story line is simple:  Once Adam and Eve stop weeding together, Satan is excited to approach Eve alone.  His temptation is simple:  he argues that she is too beautiful and smart just to be admired by her husband. Then he offers himself as proof that eating the forbidden fruit will not kill her since here he is in front of her and he’s eaten lots of apples.  Finally and importantly for Milton who believed knowledge was what distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom, Satan tells Eve she will gain fantastic new knowledge by biting the round red apple. When Adam meets her for lunch, dropping the rapidly wilting bouquet he’s brought her, he makes a decision to join her in disobeying and eating the apple because he can’t conceive of life without her.  And, while Milton allows Eve to refuse Satan’s advances several times, he has Adam assent in the disobedience without any effort at all.

Eve’s sin is hubris–she puts knowledge above God–while Adam’s sin is uxoriousness–he puts Eve above God.  Eve’s sin is vertical while Adam’s is horizontal.  And while Milton’s God punishes them both by expelling them from Eden, Milton gives God lines that clearly place a more severe judgment on Adam than on his wife.  I had not understood this before sitting with people in my own living room and gradually letting the words sink in and stay put.   Maybe it took me that long to free myself completely of an inherited reading of this epic poem.  Or just maybe it took those intrepid people who sat with me while I pondered.  

Creation Story

Sunday found me in the pew at my church listening to the first reading from the Bible.  It was the official creation story found in Genesis, all about Adam’s being created by God and then later Eve’s being made by taking a rib from Adam’s side.  My favorite visiting retired priest gave the homily, delighting me and my pew mates while perhaps unnerving some other congregants.  After asserting that this story is clearly written from a male point of view, he pointed out that God is configured as wielding power and punishing his creation for disobedience.  As he read about the serpent’s choosing to tempt Eve rather than Adam, he argued that evil comes from an outside force, and that nothing terrible happens until Eve tempts Adam to eat the forbidden fruit. This reinforces the supremacy of the male sex in Judao-Christian tradition.  Because the first humans disobey God, they are expelled from Eden.  Our homilist talked plainly about this version’s setting up the sexes as unequal, with Adam the male above Eve the female, again reminding us of whose point of view is operational in the story so many of us know so well.

Our brave preacher then asked what might have happened down these millennia if the creation story had been told from a female point of view, informing us that there are at least three other versions that never made it into what became the official Bible in western cultures.  From my reading of feminist history back in the 1970s and 1980s, I know one of these ignored versions.  It is about a woman named Lilith who was Adam’s first wife, created at the same time and from the same clay as he, hence equal in ancestry and behavior.  Needless to say, Jewish men in charge of creating official doctrine preferred the Genesis version since it supported male ascendency.  If Lilith was referred to at all in later times, she was cast as a dangerous demon of the night.

Our visiting priest went on to say some existential things about humans and God:  God can only inspire what we can understand and that understanding is limited by our own experience.  His own preference among the various versions is based on the fact that the distance between humans and God is simply too big, so he made two people at the same time and told them “there is no paradise, there’s just the three of us, so we have to figure out how to do this thing called living and being human.”  For him, this version is gentler and more androcentric than the Genesis story.  

His last point was to assert that the God in the Gospels is a god of love, and that our relationship with this loving force is based not on obedience but on trust and a radical sense of equality between women and men, never mind if officials within Christendom haven’t always celebrated or even allowed for such a radical approach.

I kept hearing signs of being moved and pleased from my friends sitting around me; once one of them actually touched my shoulder and I reached behind to take his hand.  Clearly we were absorbing every word of the homily eagerly, feeling understood by our visiting clergy person who at one point even referred to the “#meToo” movement as another effort to erase ideas of women as either seducers or obedient servants of male wishes and desires.  So while it’s true that at the highest levels, the Roman Catholic Church is decades behind the times and seriously misogynistic, the man who talked to us for twelve minutes or so Sunday doesn’t agree nor is he willing to go along with outdated and unloving policies.

I, of course, just keep on reading Milton’s Paradise Lost, where it’s so undeniably clear that his sympathies lie with Eve throughout his epic poem.  

Happy Birthday

On this date in 1931 a baby girl was born in Lorain, Ohio, who would grow up to become a writer who changed not only how we think about black history and people but how we think about language in the service of fiction and reality.  Yes, I mean Toni Morrison.  We lost her physical being last year and people like me still have days when that loss is overwhelming.  But all her words exist–the amazing novels, the raft of seeing essays on life in this country, her opera about an enslaved woman who chose to kill her children before she’d let them be enslaved, and a fragment of what was to be her next book that I keep hoping Knopf will choose to publish in its unfinished form.

I just listened to an interview from 2015 with a British woman journalist in which Morrison reminded me all over again how monumental her thinking is.  She spoke about not wanting to “temporize” her writing, comparing that to what has happened to black music as it has become something played by anyone.  When the interviewer asked a completely flat-footed question–“Would you ever consider expanding your subject matter to focus more on white people since they are not really very present in your work so far?”–Morrison paused, smiled wryly, and said “Do you have any idea how incredibly racist that question is?  Would you ever even consider asking a white writer if s/he might begin writing more about black people?  Or asking a Russian writer if s/he was going to start writing about non-Russian characters?”  To her credit, the white interviewer heard the question and might even change her behavior should she find herself interviewing another writer who content reflects their own culture.  And Morrison was wise enough not to yell her response, so the white woman couldn’t avoid it by becoming defensive.  

What Toni Morrison managed to do in book after book was to make me see that her position from what a white supremacist world labels the “edge” or “margin” IS the center.  So I am invited to move over into that new center and try to learn what life is like there.  She ignored or conquered or just brushed aside the white gaze–surely an heroic feat for any artist–or human being.  And I fancy I have some level of comprehension of how strenuous that exercise can be because I keep trying to free myself from the male gaze.

So “happy birthday, Toni,” and thank your mother and father for creating you so I will always have your writing even if I no longer can imagine you writing away in your own house.

Glaring Incongruities

A friend sent me a fascinating and gripping article about the black woman director, Dee Rees.  After years of doing strong work in theater, e.g., “Pariah,” “The Last Thing He Wanted,” and the powerful “Mudbound,” Rees is currently working on an ambitious opera and moving into “big-time” Hollywood.  So I am reading along feeling both excited to learn about Rees’ body of work and irritated that I have not heard of her before now.  I have grown accustomed, when reading articles put onto the Internet from newspapers or magazines, to having the text be peppered with annoying boxes running ads for things like tooth paste or viagra or vacations in warm places.  As my eye was moving down the page on my computer, I saw a long horizontal line, cuing me that such an interruption was about to appear.  

It did and it was an advertisement for the current revival of Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird.  I’ve never been a fan of this book because early on I realized, as a white person who grew up in Alabama in the 1940’s and 50’s, that Lee had provided white Southerners with exactly the story they needed.  A white lawyer stepped in to argue for the innocence of a black man and his daughter worshipped him as the white savior/hero he was.   So, when I learned of this revival, I felt like I did when “The Green Book” won the Oscar instead of that little tinpot statuette’s going to “Black Panther” or “The Favourite.”  So I just was going to gloss over the interruptive box and keep reading about Ms. Rees who tells the truth about race.  But then I actually read what was inside the box:  “‘To Kill a Mockingbird” has not played to a single empty seat.  It is now the most successful American play in Broadway history.”  I felt kicked in the stomach by a soft pillow–yes, I intend the mixed metaphor.

For no one in the production office that posts things like the excellent article on Dee Rees not to have caught this glaring and painful incongruity is outrageous.  To conjoin an account of this innovative and talented artist’s work with praise for the cotton candy story of Atticus and Scout is so offensive I can hardly bear it.  I only hope Ms. Rees’ wife, the memoirist Sarah Bloom, has shone this visual travesty to Dee so they can have had a big laugh–or thrown a heavy book at their computer screen–whichever might have felt like more fun.


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