Paradise Lost 11: Can You Ever Change Your Mind?

indoor plants.JPG
Indoor Plants lighting November

Daily Reading Practice: Sunday, Paradise Lost by John Milton

A quick explanation for anyone who wouldn’t naturally find themselves reading such a poem:   I’m interested in acts of translation from one way of thinking to another, particularly from Christian  thinking in poetry – Dante, Milton, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan and many others – to  my own a-religious thoughts. Many years ago, when I wrote my Ph.D, on what I called ‘Visionary Realism’, I realised that I was interested in what happens to religious experience when people no longer believe in religion. Are there, for example, still experiences of ‘grace’? Do we ever  experience ‘miracles’? Are there trials and tribulations of the soul? Is there ‘soul’? …and so on.  I came into this area of thinking through Doris Lessing’s novel-series Canopus in Argos, and particularly the first novel in that series,  Shikasta. There’s a partial account of this in previous blog post, ‘Lifesavers’.

If you are joining me new today, I’d suggest a read  through from the beginning first. You’ll find a good online edition here.  But if there’s no time for that, well, just start here and now.

Last week,  I’d got to Book 1, Line 241, and had seen the fallen Satan talk himself into trying again and rising from the lake of fire where he had fallen after his nine days fall from heaven,. He’s found a footing on land now (though still all fire) and looks about him:

Is this the Region, this the Soil, the Clime,
Said then the lost Arch-Angel, this the seat
That we must change for Heav’n, this mournful gloom
For that celestial light? Be it so, since he [ 245 ]
Who now is Sovran can dispose and bid
What shall be right: fardest from him is best
Whom reason hath equald, force hath made supream
Above his equals. Farewel happy Fields
Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail [ 250 ]
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n. [ 255 ]
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence: [ 260 ]
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.
But wherefore let we then our faithful friends,
Th’ associates and copartners of our loss [ 265 ]
Lye thus astonisht on th’ oblivious Pool,
And call them not to share with us their part
In this unhappy Mansion, or once more
With rallied Arms to try what may be yet
Regaind in Heav’n, or what more lost in Hell? [ 270 ]

Here’s a key moment in the poem. Since we have first seen him, Satan is in a state of  flux, one moment despairing, another, rallying himself to  fight on, sometimes seeming almost broken, moments later, resurgent. I think it is worth wondering what this feels like in human terms. The amount of energy consumed by changing mental gear in this way must be immense.

I’m thinking now about my own mind. I don’t feel I have a lot of control over it, and remember the  the ‘white bear’ experiment first proposed by  Fydor Dostoevsky. It’s very hard to stop your mind doing things it wants to do.  But can you will it to do some things you want it to do – can you think of a blue flower, thus pushing the white bear aside? An interesting experiment  on the rebound effect has shown that  while suppression by distraction of other means may work for a while, the under-thought will return later and perhaps stronger.

That seems to ring true for Satan, moving all the time between despair and grief for what is lost, and angry self-assertion about what he gains by that loss. So, looking about, he sees  loss:

Is this the Region, this the Soil, the Clime,
Said then the lost Arch-Angel, this the seat
That we must change for Heav’n, this mournful gloom
For that celestial light? Be it so, since he [ 245 ]
Who now is Sovran can dispose and bid
What shall be right: fardest from him is best
Whom reason hath equald, force hath made supream
Above his equals.

‘This mournful gloom’ is now the medium in which the fallen angels must have their being and there is no doubt that Satan suffers as he looks about him and realises this.  He accepts it (‘be it so’) and seems in acccepting to accept that God is all-powerful.

since he [ 245 ]
Who now is Sovran can dispose and bid
What shall be right:

But I wonder if the  underlying thought ( I should be all powerful – not Him!) if asserting itself even as  Satan seems to accept thereality he finds himself in.  His resistance is in the word ‘ now’  (‘since he/ who is now Sovran’)  which suggests that God has not always been, and perhaps will not always be,  Sovran. That is just  ‘now’, at this moment. There is in Satan’s mind a potential other time, which he believes in more strongly than the evidence of ‘now’,, when he will  be, might be, Sovran.  And this  nascent thought is picked up and amplified in the next lines:

fardest from him is best
Whom reason hath equald, force hath made supream
Above his equals.

Only ‘force’ has made God Supream, Satan  boasts to himself, in terms of ‘reason’, they were, are ‘equals.’

Is this true?  Satan thinks it is and seems to feel utterly secure in that thought.  Yet there is a sadness to his thinking that seems to  undercut his rational thought. The tone of  his thought is melancholy:

Farewel happy Fields
Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail [ 250 ]
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor:

I have to stop now as going  out today to Gladstone’s Library

—————————————–

Sunday, 5th November

10.15am – 11.15am: Sam Guglani – Medicine, Science and the Arts

What are the human and moral challenges of contemporary medicine? Why are the arts an urgent and necessary means of knowledge towards better medicine – and ultimately, better society? Join poet, novelist and consultant oncologist Sam Guglani for an hour’s reflection, including the Medicine Unboxed project and readings from his work.

Sam Guglani is a poet, novelist and consultant oncologist who specialises in the management of lung and brain tumours. He has a background in medical ethics and chairs the Gloucestershire Hospitals Trust law and ethics group. Director of Medicine Unboxed since he founded it in 2009, Sam uses the arts and creative industries to illuminate challenges in medicine. He is a published poet and writes for The Lancet, and his debut novel Histories is released in 2017.

 

 

 

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