In “Paradise Lost,” Milton’s rendering of the fall of mankind, we get a vision of Satan that is very interesting. He tells us, “Myself am Hell.” He also is capable of exiting hell (to make his way to Eden to tempt Adam & Eve), suggesting that he possesses the ability to leave hell. Why? Why does God allow Satan to leave his “prison?” Many writers grapple with this question, and I won’t dare to attempt a generalization that is unjust to either Milton or the scriptural text from which he is interpreting his own version of the story.
But one interesting thought that came to mind this afternoon while stuck in this metacognitive trance with Milton (and maybe God). I imaged Satan in hell–in possession of the key to the locked doors. I imagined a God who does not “punish” Satan by sending him there, but rather gives him exactly what he (Satan) wants (a stage on which to be glorified). I imagined a God who does not “punish” mankind with the fall, but rather a God who gives mankind exactly what it wanted (knowledge of good and evil–emphasis on “and”). Most importantly perhaps, I imagined scriptural text, with all of its power-whether you believe it or not-and the added dimensions that literature and literary criticism can bring to it. Most people can find a certain amount of beauty in the nativity scene. But what more can we take away from that scene when we envision the way the earth is responding to the birth of Christ? Milton writes of winds kissing smooth waters, mild oceans that “forget” to rave. He writes that the sun withheld his speed and “inferiour flame” as a greater Sun [Son] appeared. And throughout his birth…the sweetest music that was ever heard did play.
What more can we take away from the text, from the stories, when we envision Satan and his fallen angels, scattered across the earth, physically trembling at the exact moment that Christ is born? Most people can find a certain amount of beauty in the Baptism of Christ when scripture tells us that the sky opens up, a dove descends, and the voice of God acknowledges Christ as His son. But how does our response to that become deeper when in that same moment we have a vision of Satan—rendered motionless and without speech as he witnesses the event of his conqueror being baptized and acknowledged by God? What can we accomplish in the process of human flourishing if we come to see the metaphorical gates of hell locked from the inside? Whomever is in possession of that master key does not change the reality, that we are capable of unlocking the door and simply walking out. Of course, these ramblings are just a very condensed (perhaps unjust) thought that one could spend hours in the throes of without resolve, for such is the nature of scholarship…but nonetheless I deemed it worthy of sharing. This is the power of literature. It’s so much more—but for the moment, this is my feeble attempt to put into words the hundreds of thoughts that have held my mind captive all day as I was stuck in that meta state of mind.