My relationship to Satan has changed. The reason is that I’ve re-read Paradise Lost for the first time in over twenty years.
My return to Milton was inspired by a magical working in which I’d asked passersby ‘Who’s in Charge?’ each time I found myself in a lucid dream. On every occasion I was directed to an angelic being. Finally I chatted with the Archangel Raphael himself. But ever since then, despite trying regularly, I haven’t been able to attain lucidity.
I take this to mean the working has ended and I’ve achieved my result.
Only now do I understand Raphael’s message. He didn’t say anything, but handed me a pellet of twisted paper, one of those tiny firecrackers that kids throw around. When I was a child these were called ‘devil-bangers’. Raphael, then, was handing me something ‘for banging the devil’. Indeed, in Paradise Lost the rebel demons invent gunpowder and canons and turn them on the angels (VI: 469f). So Raphael was showing me that it takes only a puny firecracker of understanding to bang the devil.
The spirit Tempe also appeared in the dream. He gave me the key to the vision by throwing me an apple. Latin for apple is malum, which is similar to ‘evil’ (malus). The plurals ‘evils’ and ‘apples’ are the same word: mala. It’s because of this lexical link that the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, whose consumption by Adam and Eve screws up humanity and forms the main theme of Paradise Lost, is traditionally depicted as an apple. Yet in Milton the description of the actual fruit sounds more like a mango – or something far more appetising than a common apple.
All four major archangels appear in Paradise Lost, but Raphael has by far the most contact with Adam and Eve. I also remembered a murky reference in a previous communication from Tempe, concerning a Puritan in the seventeenth century (‘Stebson’) who had written something that would prove relevant (Chapman & Barford 2009: 194-5).
In my dream, Raphael reached into an attic to get me the devil-banger, as if by talking with him I’d come as far as I could. The answer seemed to lie not within my grasp but his. I’ve realised now how the ultimate answer to the question ‘Who’s in Charge?’ is there in Milton for everyone to read.
The answer, of course, is God. Yet commentators have muttered for centuries that Satan is the real hero of the epic. Blake summed this up most famously:
the reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it. (Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Plate 4)
But this is more complicated than it seems at first, because Satan can’t pass wind without God first having decreed it. Despite Blake, it’s evidently the devil in Paradise Lost who’s in fetters.
Satan’s jealous, because God has installed the Son of God on his right-hand throne. Satan and his allies rebel because they object to the appointment of this new senior partner. For their trouble, they get their arses kicked out into Hell. Having lost a third of his angels, God embarks on a new project: the earth and humanity. Satan gets wind of this and decides that if he can’t fuck up the Son, then he’ll fuck up humanity instead.
But Satan doesn’t get it that it’s God’s plan for humanity to fall, because only if humanity falls can we be redeemed, and only if we’re redeemed can Heaven and Earth join finally in one eternal kingdom. Yet at the same, Satan manifestly does understand this. He bemoans frequently that God can’t be beaten. But with his pride and jealousy he can’t help acting like a jerk anyway. As he puts it:
in my choice
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n. (I: 261-3)
Satan is pure karma. He’s a big bag of habits and impulses. I suspect he even knows that’s what he is, but can’t resist indulging himself anyway. If it were self-love or self-hatred that motivated him, we couldn’t be able to tell from his actions. Satan is indeed more entertaining than the insipid ‘good’ angels, who go about singing hymns all day, but his refusal to act on a level with his understanding is deluded and tragic.
This is what Milton is showing us through Satan. Blake, however, presents a left-hand alternative to Milton’s right-hand path:
Those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained; and the restrainer or reason usurps its place & governs the unwilling. And being restrain’d it by degrees becomes passive, till it is only the shadow of desire. The history of this is written in Paradise Lost, & the Governor or Reason is call’d Messiah. (Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Plates 5-6.)
You can get enlightened by submission to God, but you can also get enlightened by knowing and understanding the nature of your desire. That’s the path a poet usually takes. Milton is of the devil’s party not because he hates or opposes God, but because he approaches God through understanding his own desire. Poets will always tend to identify with Satan. Yet Satan’s jealousy and rage are ultimately the vehicle by which God enables humanity to gain redemption.
On the surface, Adam and Eve demonstrate a lack of obedience toward God when they eat from the Tree of Knowledge. But in fact they never stand a chance against Satan, because he knows their nature whilst they are ignorant of themselves.
God runs the whole universe and we’re all part of it. We’re all the instruments of God. Satan knows this too. So, in reality, the choice boils down to this: either you act knowingly as the instrument of God, or unknowingly. Either you wake up to how there is nothing apart from God’s plan, or you remain a part of the plan for waking up. It’s all God.
People laugh at the awkward cosmic furniture of Paradise Lost: the angels roughing each other up; the Son chucking mountains; Raphael eating lunch with Adam. But Milton states more than once that he’s writing about ideas that cannot accurately be translated into words and objects. The state of humanity before the Fall is one of these ideas. Until they eat the fruit, the lives of Adam and Eve revolve around light gardening duties, guilt-free prophylactic sex, and a perpetual summer of vegetarian plenty. After the fall they get pissed off with each other, feel scared and ashamed, and realise that they can fall ill and will eventually die. So it’s difficult to separate their change in state from the clunky idea of God simply shovelling a heap of circumstantial shit into their lives. What the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge really boils down to, however, is this: the sense of self.
Before the Fall, Adam and Eve just are. They do what they do. After the Fall, they are burdened with the awareness of being somebody.
Only a person who knows they are a person can be afraid, feel illness as a personal assualt, become annoyed or do something wrong. Before, they were innocent, which meant taking everything on its own terms: ‘Just confidence, and native righteousness, / And honour’ (9: 1056-7). Afterwards, they have experience, which entails a recognition of things happening to a someone. That, in short, is what the ‘evil’ apple does to them.
Paradise Lost is a perfect answer to the question ‘Who’s in Charge?’ because it presents a hierarchy of beings from the most perverse to the most enlightened, and shows the role of each in God’s plan.
Blake’s reading of Milton often takes an inverted view, but it’s the same plan that he seeks to reveal. What does not stand up, however, is the post-Romantic view of Satan as a hero on his own terms, because fundamentally the desire of Satan is God and not God’s antithesis.
Of the Son of God, Milton tells us:
in him all his Father shone
Substantially expressed, and in his face
Divine compassion visibly appeared,
Love without end, and without measure grace. (III: 139-142)
Indeed, only a hairsbreadth separates the Son and Satan. One is the agent of the Fall (the birth of ego), and the other of Redemption (the transcendence of ego). Neither of these is anything without the other, and thus both are God ‘substantially express’d’. Both Satan and the Son represent an enlightened level of consciousness, but whereas the Son’s actions match his understanding, Satan’s do not. The Son both expresses and is the expression of Divine Love. Satan, on the other hand, is only its expression.
Thank you, Raphael, for the devil-banger.
William Blake (2009). The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
Alan Chapman & Duncan Barford (2009). The Urn. London & Brighton: Heptarchia.
John Milton (2008). Paradise Lost. Edited by W. Kerrigan, J. Rumrich & S.M. Fallon. New York: Modern Library.