After aimlessly walking about Bloomsbury on an intermittently rainy afternoon, I unsuccessfully decided to search for the grave of John Milton while nursing a wicked hangover, or as is probably more likely, while still being drunk from the previous evening. Only my second week in London, I was supported with a modest graduate stipend for my research at the British Library, mornings spent at that modernist building with the red-brick facade not far from the Victorian ostentation of King’s Cross Station, requesting four-and five-hundred year old books brought to me by pleasant librarians at concerningly efficient speed.
Obscure books such as the Puritan-minded Anglican divine William Crashaw’s A Sermon preached before the right honorable the Lord Lawarre, Lord Govoernour and Captaine Genrall of Virginea….Feb. 21, 1609 and the Scottish New World speculator William Alexander, the First Earl of Stirling’s 1614 epic poem Doomes-day. Every evening, however, since I’d arrived from Philadelphia, I’d started at the pubs while the sun was still out, because what else could be expected with the unnervingly late northern dusk?
Pint after pint of real ale at the Queen’s Head not far from the library; drams of Jameson’s at The Boot; Guinness at Miller’s across from the train station and, when feeling homesick and slightly patriotic, Sam Adams at the Old Red Lion Theatre Pub. As A. E. Housman wrote in that most English of poetic cycles, 1896’s A Shropshire Lad, “malt does more than Milton can / To justify God’s ways to man.”
Ostensibly here to transcribe sixteenth and seventeenth-century books that endowed geographical discoveries with apocalyptic significance, the majority of nights were either spent at the theater or getting horrendously shit-faced, blackout drunk. If I knew what pub my nights started at, I rarely remembered where they ended, though by the good graces of Something I was always able to stumble back mostly safely into the University of London dorm which I rented for an amazingly cheap price.
That summer, London suffered through an uncharacteristic heat wave, and the thin-blooded British hadn’t outfitted any of the dorms with air-conditioning, while all the windows were suicide-proof, making respite impossible and requiring several cold showers a day just to regulate body temperature. On top of that, my room looked directly into Joseph Grimaldi Park, named after the nineteenth-century master of pantomime who is entombed there. Hot, sweaty, drunk, and watched over by the spirit of a dead clown—July, 2013.
Not that London made me drink—I drank when I was back in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where I was getting my PhD, and I drank when I was in Pittsburgh where I was from. I drank in New York and I drank in Philly, I drank in Dublin and I drank in DC, I drank wherever I happened to be. I drank, because I’m an alcoholic, and it’s what I do—what I did. And, even with several years of hard-fought sobriety (which has immeasurably improved my life), I can still say with a dark measure of pride that when it came to drinking, I was damn good at it.Ostensibly here to transcribe sixteenth and seventeenth-century books that endowed geographical discoveries with apocalyptic significance, the majority of nights were either spent at the theater or getting horrendously shit-faced, blackout drunk.
That summer I’d also been accepted at a conference on the sexy topic of seventeenth-century hymn translation, and the spectacularly wealthy jewelry magnate who funded my fellowship out of a sense of nostalgic largesse for his undergraduate institution nestled in the hills of the Poconos was happy to pay the registration fee so that I could talk about the Massachusetts Bay Psalter in the cloistered, stone medieval halls of Queen Mary’s University near the Carthusian priory built in 1371 atop a mass burial ground of bubonic plague victims from a generation before.
This being my first international conference, and suffering from that affliction of impostor syndrome that in honesty deserves to strike any scholar worth their muster, I was already a bit tender when my talk didn’t go well. The argument of my presentation, as best as I can recall it, was that the Massachusetts Bay Psalter was interesting. Not the best or most important or most scintillating of claims, for sure, and yet for some reason the conference organizers had accepted it.
Then the Q & A—Was I aware of the reception history of Sternhold and Hopkins as regards psalm translation in colonial New England? I was not aware of the reception history of Sternhold and Hopkins as regards psalm translation in colonial New England. How could you make a claim of influence in prosody between Sidney’s renditions and those in Massachusetts without more evidence? I don’t know how I could make that claim of influence in prosody between Sidney’s renditions and those in Massachusetts without more evidence.
I’m a graduate of an inner-city public high school, and I can recognize when I’m being made fun of; I know when the mood switches from rigor to rancor. The men—it was largely men (and large men) who were uniformly white—came from programs at Oxford and Cambridge, Edinburgh and St. Andrews, while they’d misspelled my university as it appeared on my name tag. Sanctimonious malignancy often marks scholars at their most pernicious, where solemn mockery only understood by seven people on earth obscures any of those higher values we ostensibly mouth platitudes about.
Rather than truth, or even better curiosity, what the Golden Children actually valorize is pure and raw competition. Poor, nasty, brutish, but never short and certainly not solitary. Dejected and suffering from a low blood-alcohol level, I wandered throughout Islington, trying to trick myself into thinking that the presentation hadn’t gone badly while pounding Carlings and Carlsbergs, when I ran into another conference-goer, an Oxbridge British grad student also in his late twenties, and also a Miltonist.
I can’t remember his name, or even what he looked like, though when I envision that night I see somebody out of a nineties Brit Pop band, an insufferably posh toff with longish straight dirt brown hair and a corduroy jacket. After discussing his research with a celebrated professor whose work I had to read while studying for my doctoral comprehensive examination, I asked him about my talk. The posh toff laid into me, how bad it was, how terrible American standards must be. I recall that he ended his monologue with a snaggle-toothed smirk.
So blasé he had been, so cavalier the whole display had been, that I was shocked that he didn’t even think twice about such bluntness. It was cruelty for itself, mocking just to mock. He didn’t care—that’s what had been insulting. I excused myself to the bathroom, at the top of a rickety, chipped wooden set of steps centuries old, the linoleum inside a grimy chess board of white and black, the sink stained with yellow detritus.
I splashed water on my face several times, and as I’ve repeated this story as a joke so many times it has begun to take on the appearance of a truth, I now remember that when I looked back up at the mirror my reflection was already there, facing forward, smiling, and letting me know—giving me permission—for what I thought I needed to do. Having walked up that narrow staircase shakily I now descended in confidence, inviting the posh toff out for another drink, the first of his many stupid decisions.
At the Earl of Essex and the Compton Arms, the Lexington and the Lord Clyde, we drank liquor with liquor chasers, at the House of Hammerton and the Draper’s Arms, the Old Queen’s Head and the Martyr of Sutphen, we had beer after beer, ale after ale. The whole time he continued to talk about his research, the ways he was revolutionizing Milton studies, the difference between Americans thinking that they could understand immaculately British verse and the English for whom it was their birthright. He made a bit out of my last name, though by this point my paranoia may have been outstripping my observational clarity. He began to slur about how terrible American beer was, how Yanks thought that they could drink but were always so sloppy.
By the time we were at Martyr of Sutphen, behind its freshly painted red door and those wooden framed windows with thickly spackled black trim, a few sad spider plants in flowerpots underneath the bubbled opaque glass that made darkness visible, I convinced him to have a final drink with me before last call. Shifting uncomfortably on the high bar stools at some little back table underneath a black-and-white picture of some ancient Arsenal team and a faux-gilded framed painting of a stocky bulldog, the posh toff admitted that he was worried about how his adviser’s affections had shifted to more promising, younger colleagues; how he had stalled not only in his research but more worryingly in his writing; how so much was dependent on his giving a good talk the following morning, a schedule which I had assiduously memorized.
I nodded with understanding, shook my head with empathy, furrowed my brow with what felt like real feeling. With some sheepish embarrassment, he admitted that he didn’t know London all that well—this city that I’d first visited fifteen years before—in a nation that I once lived in—and since he felt unsteady on his feet, would I help him back to his lodging? Gathering the posh toff up from his underarm, we made our way out of the Martyr of Sutphen into London’s neon gray haze as I guided this young scholar back toward the hostel that he’d checked into after arriving at King’s Cross a few days before. Somewhere in Angel, I even held the posh toff steady while he vomited in a puddly alleyway.
Finally, bringing him back to the front door of the slightly disreputable hostel, and barely conscious or aware of how he’d even gotten there, he suddenly seemed to realize with some horror that his presentation was only eight hours into the future. “Good luck,” I whispered, and when he looked up and finally saw the blinkered hate in my eyes, I swear on everything that is unholy that he totally understood what I’d consciously done to him that night, as I turned around and with straight precision made a perfect walk back home.
The subject of all great literature is either about redemption or its loss. Soteriology—that is the branch of theology that concerns itself with salvation—is the only worthy topic of prose, poetry, or drama. Whether you take any of that God stuff literally or not is irrelevant to this discussion. Noble, heroic, and good people corrupted or degenerated; sinful and wicked men made whole—either/or—those are the narratives which should concern any genuine art, because the turmoil within an individual mind, the canker and possible curing of the soul, is the only drama commensurate with the broken, flawed, limited, damning, painful, horrible, and beautiful experience of being trapped in a human body and a human life.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations; Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Ian McKewan’s Atonement, and William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! Dickens’s bildungsroman may be heavy on plot (and words), the orphan Pip gifted treasure by a mysterious stranger, the iciness of beautiful Estella and the cruelty of mad Miss Havisham in her moldering mansion and her rotting wedding dress, but fundamentally the book is about salvation. Faulkner’s novel details the legacies of Southern ambivalence about history, Quentin Compson in his Cambridge dorm haunted by the Civil War and obsessed with miscegenation, yet fundamentally it’s about sin.
What differentiates soteriological literature—which is to say great literature—from mere story is that the former takes seriously the question of whether an individual life’s decisions can be justified, and that’s the only ethical question worth our consideration. Not to treat these questions didactically, but to explore ambivalence and ambiguity in the cursedness of life, to understand morality as an issue of what it means to be alive. Anything less and a story is mere video game.
We are infinitely complex, unknown even to ourselves, and soteriological literature reflects that. As Marilynne Robinson writes in the hauntingly beautiful Gilead, every “single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations.”What differentiates soteriological literature—which is to say great literature—from mere story is that the former takes seriously the question of whether an individual life’s decisions can be justified, and that’s the only ethical question worth our consideration
Few poets ever quite ascended to the fullest encapsulation of this theme like Milton in his 1667 epic Paradise Lost, ostensibly an account of Satan’s fall during the War of the Rebel Angels, his invasion of the Garden of Eden, and his tempting of Eve and Adam with fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. What it’s really about is the disease of the soul, humanity’s strange and awful predicament of being a poetic ape strung between heaven and hell on this debased earth.
Paradise Lost takes as its subject what the great Church Father St. Augustine described in his fourth-century Confessions, writing that he “loved to excuse my soul…it was my impiety that I had divided me against myself. That sin then was all the more incurable because I did not deem myself a sinner.” A distinctly premodern view, the idea of being a “sinner.” Indiscretion and transgression can be reduced by sociology and psychology, perhaps even further by biology and chemistry, regulated with drugs and therapy.
When Augustine’s “original sin” is discussed today, it’s often as some archaic, prudish, reactionary neuroticism; most people assume that it only has something to do with sex. What Augustine says is rather all the more profound— that there is something deeply wrong with us. Not an optimistic evaluation, and yet as the apologist G. K. Chesterton astutely noted in Orthodoxy, original sin “is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.”
Jesus Christ is the second coequal, coeternal, consubstantial divine person of the Holy Trinity, hypostatically unified in the incarnation and suffering death for the world’s redemption. The hell is that? You’re naturally wicked. Seems about right. Why did I do what I did to the posh toff ? Because I could.
“Any moderately perceptive and reasonably honest observer of humanity has to acknowledge that we are remarkably prone to doing bad things—and, more disturbingly, things we acknowledge to be wrong,” writes Alan Jacobs in Original Sin: A Cultural History, and though the essayist’s Reformed Protestant beliefs are distant from my own, I can’t help but agree on this particular topic. “Of man’s first disobedience,” Milton writes in his epic’s first words, describing his subject a single audacious sentence that erupts with that glottal Big Bang of a proposition sounding as if the first syllable ever spoken, and that then unspools in byzantine grammar and labyrinthine syntax across sixteen enjambed lines, with fifteen commas, twelve dependent clauses, a colon and semicolon, all before culminating in the declaration that he shall pursue “Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.”
Joe Moshenska argues in Making Darkness Light that the opening of Paradise Lost has a “conspicuous strangeness,” marked by “long and highly complicated sentence structures…running the sense of the words across several lines…stretching of the norms of English grammar to its limits,” arguing that Milton’s goal is that this “vast and complicated poem refuses to be experienced as a whole.” If Milton has engendered a constant criticism it’s that despite his ability to turn a phrase, Paradise Lost is not an easy read.
That’s the point, for Milton’s poem isn’t interpreted, it interprets you. Taking as his subject “man’s disobedience,” and his chewy verse is deliberately difficult because no other subject is as complicated as humanity’s willing evil. Theodicy, the branch of theology which concerns itself with why evil things happen to good people, which reached its greatest expression in the biblical book of Job, is the only other subject of which worthy moral literature can be written. Paradise Lost’s central topic is just as disquieting—why do average, normal, typical men and women choose to do evil? Why are all of us, at some point or another, drawn to hurting ourselves, to hurting other people?
This is Milton’s major preoccupation, but Paradise Lost is neither prescriptive nor didactic, for as in with all great moral literature, including the Bible, the epic is not some self-help guide. The poet’s intention is to hold within his mind’s focus the disunion and disorder that marks humanity. Disunion, disorder, disquiet, disruption—that is all which wickedness really is. Milton had a certain yet intangible understanding that our world is irrevocably fucked; the comprehension that our own propensity to such chaos, whether we call it original sin as Augustine did or like Sigmund Freud we call it Thanatos, means that in an intrinsic way we’re deeply fucked as well.
No person is so saintly that they never yell at telemarketers, never flip the bird to people who cut them off in traffic, never reply to an idiotic social media post with bile and invective. “These are the most truistic of truisms,” writes Jacobs, “and I can’t imagine that anyone would deny them, but they raise questions, do they not?….Where does this wrongdoing come from?”
Few have ever argued that the world itself is perfect; that’s the Panglossian dictum of advocates for the status quo; maybe slightly more have claimed that there is a perfectibility to humanity, but normally those who hold to such a faith ascribe it to themselves, and they’re the ones most at risk. Answering Jacob’s question, or Milton’s, or Augustine’s, or the apostle Paul’s, normally finds recourse in Genesis, wherein the traditional interpretation has original sin being imparted unto humanity after the first couple disobeyed God’s commands concerning that forbidden fruit and were subsequently expelled from Eden.
Augustine’s doctrine bares similarity to others’ observations about creation’s fallenness—Jewish kabbalists such as the sixteenth-century Sephardic poet and rabbi Isaac Lauria understand our universe as being born out of a divine fracturing, while the Vedic traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism see corruption in the poisonous illusions of maya. We can’t, and shouldn’t, reduce complex and singular religious beliefs across millennia and continents into original sin; nirvana isn’t heaven, the Qur’an isn’t the Bible, and a rabbi isn’t a priest, but it’s not inconsequential that most major traditions acknowledge that humans can’t help but do bad things.
For all of the cinematic drama of Paradise Lost (incidentally the only canonical work that has never been adapted for film), including the war in heaven, the expulsion of that fallen horde into the sulfury depths of Hell and the demons’ subsequent construction of their terrible and awesome parliament Pandemonium, and the revelation of cosmic secrets from the celestial and magnificent archangel Raphael, it can be easy to overlook that the poem’s denouement is somebody eating an apple. To chew is to fall, to masticate is to perish. From that apple (though Genesis isn’t specific) came sin.
Read as a “Just So” story, it’s foolish. But on a level beyond even the mere allegorical, the significance of this transgression is inescapable. To the “Why?” of this issue, Milton added his own innovation that expanded on Genesis, a type of biblical fan fiction. In Book II of Paradise Lost, as Lucifer travels through the undifferentiated Chaos which separates Hell from earth, he encounters a fish-scaled female monstrosity, an ever mercurial being who shifts in and out of different shapes, a “Goddess arm’d / Out of they head I sprung….All th’ host of Heav’n back they recoild afraid / At first, and call’d me Sin.”
From conjugal incest, Satan and his daughter Sin produced a new progeny who would be known as Death, with Lucifer unable to remember any of these twisted events that made such demons possible. An evocation of Hera’s birth from Zeus’s brow, Milton not only impugns the classical pagan tradition by associating the Olympian gods with Christian demons, but he effectively marries Athens with Jerusalem, Greece with Judea, the Hellenic with the Hebrew, crafting a syncretic mythopoeic system that addresses the grotesquerie of sin, the way such malignancy can erupt from our minds.
Did Milton think that this is what really happened? Almost certainly not, and regarding Genesis, it’s the wrong question. Modern atheists and Christian fundamentalists are united in how they read the Bible, with the latter simply believing it and the former not. Epistemologically and hermeneutically (I promise not to speak too much like that), where the first word refers to the study of how we know things and the second to how we interpret them, Milton was neither concerned with if such things “actually” happened nor did he think that these narratives should be read “literally.”Neither Paradise Lost nor the Bible describe the world as it actually exists, but rather they describe the soul as it experiences that world. Their language is poetic, not scientific.
Neither Paradise Lost nor the Bible describe the world as it actually exists, but rather they describe the soul as it experiences that world. Their language is poetic, not scientific. “And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat,” reads Genesis 3:6. Did such a thing actually happen somewhere along the banks of the Euphrates and Tigris, was it that fatal choice that’s the reason why your boss chews you out, why your friends gossip about you behind your back, why I am incapable of drinking like a normal person? Of course not. Nothing about this story is factual, and yet it’s true. Mere facts and profound truths are two entirely different things.
Interestingly enough it was the actual filching of fruit that at least inspired the doctrine of original sin, but in the form of pears rather than apples. Augustine describes his Carthaginian youth, when he and some friends in that dusty Roman frontier town of Hippo stole some pears from a neighbor’s tree and then threw them to the pigs, writing that he had “no motive for my wickedness except wickedness itself. It was foul, and I loved it. I loved the self-destruction, I loved my fall.” That’s why your boss chews you out, why your friends gossip about you, why I can’t drink. Because Augustine’s “act had no point—that it was inexplicable and gratuitous—was precisely the point,” writes Stephen Greenblatt in The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve. Greenblatt observes that “What seemed like nothing turned out to be everything.”
Paradise Lost’s is both anatomy and taxonomy of wickedness and wrongdoing, written not in the idiom of logic but through the vocabulary of mythopoesis. If almost every religious tradition understands disharmony as our tribulation, than Christianity’s singular theological contribution was to focus that universal observation into a singular intensity. “I was seeking not to gain anything…but shame for its own sake,” as Augustine wrote. When Confessions was penned, it was far from a given that anything like belief in original sin would become de rigueur for Christians. Augustine was writing in response to a theologian in Briton named Pelagius, who believed that salvation was merited entirely through moral works alone.
Sometimes misunderstood as the gentler position, Pelagius’s theology allowed for absolutely no slipups of any kind, so that his was an exhausting belief whereby the vast majority of humans would condemn themselves to Hell for chewing out employees, gossiping, and drinking to excess. Ironically, Augustine’s doctrine is surprisingly more humane, an embrace of the understanding that we’re all fallible, imperfect, and frequently wrong. The claim that humanity is depraved, and that faith, works, grace, or some combination of these is necessary in the struggle against perdition, is Christianity’s most enduring influence, for other faiths believe that gods are capable of incarnating as men, other religions hold that redemptive sacrifice is required, and every other sect has some variation on the sublimely stated platitudes of the gospels.
But original sin is original. By the time that Milton was writing Paradise Lost, and Western Christianity was embroiled in intense debates about sin—what’s the degree of human agency in being able to choose or not choose evil actions? Do we have the free will in our salvation? Or are redemption and damnation predestined by God?
Because the Latin-speaking Augustine was never particularly venerated among the Greek-speaking Orthodox, the arguments concerning original sin were a preoccupation primarily in Western Europe, first among Catholics and then Protestants. Historian Diarmaid MacCulloch jokes in All Things Made New: The Reformation and Its Legacy that the “sixteenth-century Reformation was a battle in the mind of fourth-century Augustine.” The Reformation warred over any number of theological questions—free will and faith, works and worship, episcopacy and the Eucharist—but sin and the will were arguably the most personal of these.
Martin Luther’s second article in the Augsburg Confession reiterates that “all men are full of evil lust and inclination from their mothers’ wombs and are unable by nature to have true fear of God and true faith in God,” though as with the Roman Catholic Church baptism can wash the stains of original sin away. Austere John Calvin repeated in his 1536 Institutes of the Christian Religion, concluding that original sin “seems to be a hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature, diffused into all parts of the soul, which first makes us liable to God’s wrath,” concurring with the most radical implications of Augustine’s thinking that had been rejected by the Catholic Church at the Council of Orange a millennium earlier in 529.
Calvin maintained that nothing we do merits salvation, and that only God’s freely given grace distributed among a limited number of undeserving people assures that Heaven isn’t completely empty. “Total depravity,” the rather punkish sounding designation for the first of the five principles which defines Calvinism (the others are “unconditional election,” “limited atonement,” “irresistible grace,” and “perseverance of the saints,” all memorized with the handy mnemonic of “TULIP”) holds that every one of us is in bondage to sin, slave to our own basest desires and only capable of holding it together with the assistance of God.
Early modern disputations about soteriology are sometimes simplistically reduced to being disagreements among free will believing Catholics and predestination adhering Protestants, but lines between denominations could be ambiguous. French Catholic Jansenists for example, from which the poetic mathematician Blaise Pascal derived many of his beliefs, adhered to an understanding of predestination and sin every bit as stern as Calvin’s, while the followers of the Dutch Protestant Jacob Arminius (known as “Armininians”) allowed for a degree of human agency. Such baroque debates were more than just scholarly disagreement in an era of violent religious war, but in the midst of this was Milton, who despite his stated purpose remains ambiguous in terms of his own position.Milton thinks that the fall was good, because it necessitated the incarnation of Christ, an abundantly greater good than just two people living in perfection in the garden for an eternity.
“O goodness infinite, goodness immense!” enthuses Adam in the final book of Paradise Lost, “That all this good of evil shall produce, / And evil turn to good; more wonderful / Than that which by creation first brought forth / Light out of darkness!” When the reader finishes, they discover that in a crucial way the first man, and perhaps Milton, thinks that the fall and the expulsion from Eden was actually good. Milton believed that humanity is forever tarred by the actions of the first couple, and that sin is a metaphysical darkening of our souls, an inclination toward pride, gluttony, lust, avarice, envy, sloth, and anger. Far from simply being an issue of rule-following, “Law can discover sin, but not remove it,” as he writes.
Which is precisely why Milton thinks that the fall was good, because it necessitated the incarnation of Christ, an abundantly greater good than just two people living in perfection in the garden for an eternity. This heterodox doctrine known as “felix culpa,” or “fortunate fall,” allows for both an awareness of humanity’s debasement, but that then allows for a type of new freedom—now capable of not just choosing bad, but also choosing the good, for they are finally differentiated with the knowledge imparted from that tree.
The measure of the blessed can only be taken with the particulars of the damned. As Augustine wrote in Enchiridion, “For God judged it better to bring good out of evil than not to permit any evil to exist.”
There is much that I’m ashamed of, a seeming universe of it, and yet I’ve always been grateful to be an alcoholic. In recovery the rock bottom is our felix culpa, the portal through which the active addict loses the illusions which so often confuse falling for flying. When it comes to all of the creeds of Christianity, of the Athanasian and Nicene, and the brutal debates which marked Milton’s era between Catholics and Protestants, Arminians and Calvinists, I’m at best an ambivalent—but I certainly believe in original sin. Malt taught me that more than Milton did.
Inheritor of a secular, liberal worldview that serves me well in the majority of circumstances, I nonetheless couldn’t yoke rationality to alcohol in any way that improved my life. All of those rules you invent—I’ll drink two drinks quickly, and then only one an hour after that; only beer, no liquor; you can only drink at home; a glass of water for every drink you have. Every single one of those rules broken, sometimes on the first try.
“We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable,” reads the first step of twelve—just like the number of books in Paradise Lost—from the immaculate, polyphonic, multivocal, hard-boiled epic of original sin compiled by Bill W. in 1939 and officially titled Alcoholics Anonymous but everywhere known simply as the “Big Book.” In prose more reminiscent of Mickey Spillane than Milton, the Big Book presents dozens of stories of women and men—rich and poor, Black and white, religious and agnostic—who suffered from a compulsion, a madness that made them do the same thing over and over again, then their fall, and eventual redemption.
That powerlessness is as acute an experience of original sin as I’ve ever experienced, the knowledge that once I get that one drink I can’t stop till I’ve had all of them. No logic can really make me stop, even though I can’t assure my own safety, even though I would wake up on sidewalks or in the hospital, and always with the gaping black abyss of that which I simply called “The Fear.”
And yet I’m grateful for all of it—that which reminds me I’m fallen, I’m a human.
Wandering through London—mouth dry, head pounding, hands shaky—past pubs that I might have drank in, cobble-stoned alleyways that I could have walked down, lurid red royal mailboxes that I possibly pissed on. There was no real goal to my perambulations, buffeted about like the souls of the lustful in Dante’s The Divine Comedy. If my time that summer was derived between the library, the theater, and getting shit-faced, then my final activity was the slightly fussy hobby of visiting famous writers’ graves.
So far, I’d seen the common hovel at St. Nicholas in Deptford far south of the Thames where Christopher Marlowe was buried in 1593 after he was stabbed through the eye over an argument involving a tavern bill, the environs of the churchyard dark and melancholic. A little after that, I’d explored the crypts underneath the magnificent domed St. Paul’s Cathedral, examining the modest plaque affixed near where Sidney was entombed after felled by a bullet at the battle of Zutphen, the zealous Protestant coming to the Dutch’s aid in their war against the Spanish.That powerlessness is as acute an experience of original sin as I’ve ever experienced, the knowledge that once I get that one drink I can’t stop till I’ve had all of them.
And I found the statue of John Donne in repose, a marble depiction of the great poet in his funeral shroud as he imagined he would appear on Judgment Day, “When my grave is broken up again.” Discovered in a pile of rubble after the original cathedral burnt during that hideous conflagration of 1666 when the capital was reduced to ash, the feet of Donne’s marble are charred with exhaust, appearing as if the poet had been dangled over inferno for just a bit. Milton would finish Paradise Lost the year after.
Now, with hair-of-the-dog in my future, I decided to visit Milton’s grave at St. Giles-without-Cripplegate, the unfortunate name of his parish church derived from the Medieval entrance to the city that the lame were required to use. The church was now in the midst of the brutalist Barbican Center, a bestial behemoth built upon the neighborhood destroyed by the Luftwaffe. A handsome if modest gray-stoned structure, St. Giles was framed by these dystopian environs, an ancient Roman wall visible a few hundred yards beyond, the original foundations of Londinum uncovered not by archaeologists but by German incendiary.
Approaching the church—sweaty, tired, and confused—and the doors were locked. Searching for Milton, and I couldn’t find him. Stumbling again, and a few blocks away I arrived at Bunhill Fields, where nonconformists and dissenters were buried, a solemn green space of tightly packed gravestones, the final resting place of Daniel Defoe and John Bunyan. And there, perpendicular to the mass of the head stones, was the modest grave of Milton’s greatest reader, the prophetic visionary and mystical Romantic poet William Blake.
“The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom,” Blake wrote in his 1793 The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, in large part about Milton’s antinomian energies, about the fortunate fall that takes us through perdition before we can get to paradise. I sat on a bench next to Blake’s grave for about the space of a half an hour, before I went off to find an eye-opener.
I drank for two more years after that. It couldn’t be helped for a while. I’d missed the posh toff ’s presentation, still passed out on the floor of my dorm, with no clue if it went well or not. These days, I hope that he did alright. Mostly.
Heaven, Hell and Paradise Lost by Ed Simon is available via IG Press.