Frolics of our own: human communion and solidarity in “Paradise Lost”

In book VIII of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Adam attempts to cultivate a relationship with the divine, while Eve engages with the corporeal. During Adam’s conversation with God’s angel Raphael, Adam seeks knowledge though deferential intercourse with the divine, while Eve eschews divine knowledge in favor of corporeal knowledge, in favor of intercourse with the corporeal. Both Adam and Eve attempt to move the earth: he through a rearrangement of the cosmos, she through direct interaction with the earth. Adam’s attempt fails because he does not understand the earth; he puts his faith in the divine and receives nothing. But because Eve looks to the corporeal and not to the divine, she is able to control and affect the corporeal—she is able, in short, to move the earth. Adam and Eve’s treatment of the divine and the corporeal illustrates that if we wish to “move the earth”—if we wish to effect change in the corporeal world—seeking communion with the extracorporeal is fruitless. To move the earth, we must, like Eve, seek communion with our fellow man.

A postmodern corollary to this aspect of Paradise Lost can be found in William Gaddis’s 1994 novel A Frolic of His Own, in which the divine has been thoroughly replaced by a corrupt legal system, and in which characters’ reactions to this system are both sexually embodied and affect the earth in various ways. Like Paradise Lost, A Frolic of His Own illustrates that shunning the extracorporeal and engaging with the corporeal ultimately fosters a communion with humanity. And though the divine of Paradise Lost and the corrupt system of A Frolic of His Own undercut the corporeal at the ends of both works, the humans of both works find that in connecting with their fellow humans, they can face adversity through human solidarity.

Milton’s Adam seeks solidarity with the divine, questioning Raphael, God’s messenger, about God’s design of the heavens. In the process, Adam subtly puts forth an ostensibly heretical theory: heliocentrism. But because God is associated with the sun, in moving the sun from the periphery of the universe to its center Adam makes God more central to his world—far from alienating the divine, Adam’s heretical theory exalts it. Despite this, Raphael refuses to answer Adam, demonstrating that seeking knowledge through intercourse with the divine is futile and shutting down Adam’s attempt to move the earth from the center of the cosmos.

Adam turns his God-given reason on the heavens. He tells Raphael that when he “[beholds] heav’n and earth” and “[computes]” their magnitudes, the earth seems but “an atom…compared” to the stars that return daily to “officiate light / Round [the] opacous earth” (VIII.15-23). The earth, according to what Adam has been taught, is a “punctual spot,” “day and night” remaining in the same place, “Useless,” “[attaining] / Her end without least motion…and [receiving the] warmth and light” of the sun—a far more noble body (VIII.9-11; 34-37). Adam is confused why “nature so wise and frugal” would arrange the cosmos so that the “sedentary earth” is “Served by more noble than herself,” especially when the earth “better might with far less compass move” (VIII.25-33). How, Adam asks Raphael, could nature “commit / such disproportions”? (VIII.26-27). How could the reasonable God allow such a breach of reason?

Adam’s question is blasphemous in that it challenges God’s geocentric plan for the cosmos, forcing the earth from its central place and replacing it with the sun. But it is also a strange form of worship. For God is, in many ways, the sun; and Adam’s blasphemy would move the earth from the center of existence and replace it with the sun, with God. The sun is repeatedly tied to God. Milton, in an invocation to holy Light at the beginning of book III, declares that God and the light of the sun are the same “eternal coeternal beam,” that “God is [the] light” of the sun (III.2-3). Raphael references “the sun predominant in heav’n” as the same sun Adam sees on earth—and God is the predominant being in heaven (VIII.160). Satan confirms that God and sun are one by addressing his vengeful soliloquy when he arrives in Paradise—a speech full of anger at God—to the sun, equating it with “heavn’s matchless King” (IV.37-41). The sun is treated as though it were God, tying God to the sun directly.

God is also tied to the sun indirectly, in that he is one with “the Son,” his son. The Son is equated with the sun: like the sun, the Son is “Resplendent” and “radiant”; and, more simply, “Son,” and “sun” are homophones (X.66; 85). And when the Son volunteers to become “Son both of God and man”—to become mortal and die for man’s sins—the lines between the Father and the Son blur (III.316). God anoints the Son “universal King,” giving him “all power” to “reign forever” and decreeing that the Son shall be “[adored] and [honored] as [God]” (III.317-318; 343). The Son is one with God, the sun is one with the Son, and the sun is one with God—there is, in the end, “only [one sun]”: God (III.64). Because the sun is an incarnation of God, Adam has shown God profound devotion and loyalty in attempting to move the earth from what he sees as God’s rightful place. Despite being superficially blasphemous, Adam’s rearrangement reflects a deep faith in the divine.

Raphael neither acknowledges nor respects Adam’s faith. He does not even give him a decisive answer. Instead, he dismisses, demeans, and threatens Adam, telling him that “the great Architect” has “left the fabric of the heav’ns” to the “disputes” of those who “try / Conjecture” “to move / His laughter at their quaint opinions” (VIII.72-78). God is laughing at you, Raphael says—“heav’n is far too high / [for you] To know what passes there” (VIII.172-173). Adam should not presume to gaze on the heavens—should not intrude upon “an edifice too large for him to fill,” one “ordained for uses to his Lord best known”—for he “might err… / And no advantage gain” (VIII.104-106; 121-122). Besides, Raphael tells him, how the heavens are stitched “needs not [his] belief”:

Whether the sun predominant in heav’n
Rise on the earth, or earth rise on the sun…
Leave…to God above, him serve and fear…. (VIII.136; 160-161; 168)

Adam is not praised for his deference; he is ridiculed, and his faith in God’s celestial predominance is ignored. Raphael denies Adam’s inquiry, showing intercourse with the divine to be fruitless as a method of moving the earth.

Even before Raphael speaks in book VIII, Eve understands that intercourse with the divine will not prove useful. Instead, Eve trusts in the corporeal and the earthly. Accordingly, when Adam’s cosmological inquiry estranges the earth, she physically leaves the conversation, moving away from the divine and toward the earth. Where Adam engages in intercourse with the divine to gain knowledge, Eve engages in intercourse with the corporeal, controlling her acquisition of knowledge through the sexual. Eve’s mastery and knowledge of the corporeal allows here to succeed where Adam fails—in moving the earth.

Eve does not share in Adam’s entreaty for divine knowledge. When Adam begins querying Raphael about the heavens—when he “[enters] on studious thoughts abstruse”—she departs (VIII.40). She leaves not because she is unable to understand; “her ear,” Milton tells us, is “capable… / Of what [is] high” (VIII.49-50). Eve leaves because Adam, in marginalizing the earth, marginalizes Eve, who is linked to the earth. Throughout the poem, the earth is described as female. Eve is the only living female in all creation, tying the earth and Eve together as two of a kind (Fletcher). Accordingly, as Adam attempts to force the earth from its central seat, Eve “[retires from] her seat” and goes to the earth, to “her nursery” (VIII.41-42; 46). When Adam tries to estrange the earth, Eve, earth’s fellow, is herself estranged, and she goes immediately to commune with the earth.

Instead of looking to the divine for knowledge, Eve looks to Adam himself, the to corporeal, “the relater she [prefers] / Before the angel” (VIII.52-53). And Eve’s preferred method of knowledge exchange—sexual intercourse—is itself intensely corporeal. Knowledge, for Eve, is sexually mediated; it is exchanged via sexual union. Adam, Eve knows, will “solve” the “high dispute” of his exchange with Raphael “With conjugal caresses,” those appropriate for a marital bed (VIII.55-56). Adam corroborates Eve’s view of their knowledge exchange as subject to sex in his conversation with Raphael, telling the angel that he and Eve experience mental connection through corporeal connection—they experience “Union of mind” when “[harmonizing]” in their “[martial] bed” (VIII.604; 605; 597). For Eve, knowledge is mediated by sex.

Eve’s mediation of knowledge with sex allows her to control the corporeal—in her knowledge exchanges with Adam, she is in control. Though Eve is cast as inferior to Adam throughout the poem—even in sexual encounters, in which Adam says she “[sweetly complies]”—in the knowledge exchanges she envisions in book VIII, she is decisively served by and in control of Adam (VIII.603). Eve does not merely prefer Adam to the angel as a relater of knowledge, she “[reserves]” for Adam the “pleasure” of relating, knowing that she will dominate the exchange as “sole auditress” (VIII.50-51). Here, Eve both has the power to reserve her virgin mind for Adam; and as “sole auditress” of their exchanges, she controls what she is given and what she takes (VIII.51). Their encounters are full of Adam’s “Grateful digressions”— digressions that, according to the definition of “grateful” in Milton’s time, prove Adam “thankful” to Eve and prove “pleasing” and “agreeable” to her (VIII.54-55; “Grateful, a.”). Milton crystallizes Eve’s dominance over Adam in an image of one of these digressions that encapsulates the nature of their exchange: an image suggestive of Adam performing cunnilingus on Eve—“from [Adam’s] lip” Milton tells us, “not words alone pleased her” (VIII.57-58). In this image, knowledge and sex are one act—Adam’s lips simultaneously edify and satisfy Eve, and Eve is the partner in charge.

Eve is similarly in charge when dealing with the earthly—just as she moves Adam to serve her sexually, she moves the earth in a deeply sexual way. Her success is both a product of eschewing the divine and a demonstration of the value of active engagement with the corporeal. Upon leaving Adam and Raphael, Eve engages with nature, “[going] forth among her fruits and flow’rs, / To visit how they [prosper]” (VIII.44-45). As she arrives in her nursery and “[touches]” each “bud and bloom”—the earth “[springs]” to life and “[grows]” (VIII.45-47). Milton’s imagery here is heavily sexual—phallic, vaginal, and suggestive of orgasm. At Eve’s coming, phallic buds spring to attention and grow, vaginal flowers bloom, and all nature, “touched by [Eve’s] fair tendance” is brought to a sort of orgasm, “[growing glad]” (VIII.44-47). In embracing the corporeal, Eve succeeds where Adam fails: her touch incites a rebirth in nature, and the earth—fruit and flower, bud and bloom—is ecstatically moved.

Adam’s failure to move the earth is a result of insufficient engagement with it in favor of engagement with the extracorporeal. Adam cannot move the earth because he does not understand it. When he learns that Raphael is coming to visit, he orders Eve to “bring forth” “what [her] stores contain,” to “pour / Abundance, fit to honor and receive / [their] heav’nly stranger” (V.314-316). He orders her, in effect, to go to the cupboard and get fruit for a feast. Eve is befuddled by Adam’s request. “Adam,” she says, “earth’s hallowed mold / …will serve, where store , / All seasons, ripe for use hangs on the stalk” (V.321-323). Why, Eve asks, would I store fruit in a cupboard? Look around you—the fruit is everywhere (Fletcher). Why would I look further than the earth? Just as Adam neglects the earth and looks to the extracorporeal—to the divine—for knowledge, he neglects the earth and looks to the extracorporeal—to a mystical cupboard, to Eve’s imaginary stores—for fruit. Adam does not understand the earth, and in both situations, his approach proves fruitless. Eve, on the other hand, is intimately acquainted with the earth. She is linked to it through their common female sex; she engages with its living things, and her ties to corporeal and the earthly gives her the currency to control and affect them.

Taken together, the bankruptcy of Adam’s preoccupation with the extracorporeal and the success of Eve’s communion with the corporeal suggest that entreating the divine is fruitless as a method of effecting change on earth. Adam’s deferential engagement with the divine through Raphael brings him nothing but rebuke and mockery. But Eve’s engagement with the corporeal both brings her closer to Adam—puts them “both in one soul”—and enlivens earth (VIII.604; VIII.44-47). After the Fall, when Adam does receive knowledge from the divine, it is knowledge of how to bring himself closer to the corporeal—closer to the earth and his fellow humans. After showing Adam the death and destruction that God will visit upon humankind for Adam’s sin, the angel Michael tells him to “hope no higher” than the earthy knowledge he has been given, to stop trying to understand the “works of God in heav’n” and “[enjoy] all the riches of [the earth]” (XII.576; 579-580). Adam should be more like Eve: instead of seeking divine knowledge, he should seek communion with the corporeal, with his fellow man, “[adding] only… / Deeds to [his] knowledge” that will help him to this end—adding “patience, temperance, …love, / [and] charity (XII.581-584). The divine tells Adam to abandon it and to seek instead a communion with humans and the earth, with his wife and his world.

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In Gaddis’s A Frolic of His Own, humans have taken Michael’s command to Adam to abandon the divine seriously—God comes up only in curses and in the speech of the addle-minded. In the place of the divine, Gaddis gives us a new governing system: the law. The justice Milton’s God aspires to is tidily disposed of in Gaddis’s opening line: “Justice? —You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law” (Milton III.210; Gaddis 13).

The shift from the divine to the legal is strikingly thorough. The Father of Paradise Lost is replaced with the father of two principal characters—Judge Crease, who appears in the story only through the decisions he hands down from the bench. Like God in Paradise Lost, the judges in A Frolic of His Own are exalted, “looking down” from “highbacked thrones” (347). Even Satan becomes a player in the legal system, showing up as a defendant in suit accused not of tempting humans to sin, but of “depriving [the plaintiff] of his constitutional rights” (377). In A Frolic of His Own, the law dominates and orders existence—legal “papers, letters, briefs and memorandums…[are] scattered all over” the spaces through which people move (13; 340). The legal system is the new divine, and like God before it, it is everywhere.

But the system is plagued with corruption. Lawyers are by and large “[duplicitous]” “thieves” in a “self regulating conspiracy”; and the defendants who “[show] up in court demanding justice…all [have] their eye [on] that million dollar price tag” (346; 345; 345; 13). Even children are affected by money’s infestation of the legal—when Oscar, one of Judge Crease’s children, was ten years old, he would “dig under the furniture cushions for change that had slipped out of [his] Father’s pockets” (288). His family “thought he’d be a lawyer when he grew up [because] he was constantly reading those law books in the library but sometimes Father would use a dollar bill for a bookmark, or even a five, and that’s what Oscar was looking for” (288). Money is, in this system, “the only common reference people have for making other people take them as seriously as they take themselves”—“it’s always the money. The rest is just opera” (13). The law is ultimately a corrupt system.

Gaddis’s characters approach this corrupt system in different ways, many of which echo Adam and Eve’s approaches to the divine. Some embrace the system, exploiting it for personal gain, while others reject it in favor of a connection with the corporeal world. As with the divine in Paradise Lost, treatment of the system is tied to sex, and the earth herself is affected by humans’ reactions to the system. And as in Paradise Lost, those who embrace the system are associated with an estrangement of the earth, while those who embrace the corporeal are able to commune with both the earth and their fellow man.

The embrace of the legal system is epitomized in the character Trish, for whom lawyers are “the family” (16). Trish is a vindictive, self-important woman who exploits the legal system for monetary gain in the name of “self preservation” and uses her riches to do things like send cars to shuttle around her dog (16-17; 452; 335). Her love interest Jerry, an exemplary lawyer-thief, “completely [besots] her”; but being as greedy as she is, he pursues her only for her money (339). And as Trish and Jerry have sex—as he masturbates her to orgasm in the back of one of her cars on the way from the country to the city—nature is marred: “the fields [give] way to a village and then houses and then villages and houses closer together” until the fields disappear altogether, giving way “to towns and houses openly coupling,” assaulting nature with their “unrelieved ugliness” (336). Separately, Trish and Jerry embrace the corrupt system; when coupling, like the malicious houses, they are a stain on the earth.

In contrast to Trish and her lover stands Lily, the adult Oscar’s lover, who rejects the corrupt system and embraces the corporeal. Lily’s assessment of the vain Trish is stripped-down and corporeally focused: Trish is nothing more than “[a] woman with a dog” (453). When Lily asks Oscar if she’d like her to “make eggs” for him, he chastises her: “Chickens make eggs…. You cook eggs, you prepare eggs. You don’t make eggs…. [Man] invented language…so we can say what we mean” (265). Lily’s matter-of-fact response refocuses the conversation on the corporeal: “What man. Anyway I’m not talking about language I’m talking about eggs” (265). Her rejection of “language” is also a rejection of the law literally, for as we learn from Judge Crease’s clerk, “the law’s only the language” (486). Here, Lily rejects the legal in favor of the literally corporeal, man; and the building blocks of the corporeal, eggs. Lily later encourages Oscar and his sister Christina to abandon their stakes in the corrupt system—to forget “all these things we can’t do anything about”—and do something tangible, “do something about something you can do something about like the laundry” (470). If all this were not enough to tie Lily to the corporeal, she has a good deal of sex, and her sexual encounters put her in harmony with the earth—Lily having sex is, we are told, “the most natural thing in the world” (403). Nature even agrees with Lily about the importance of menial tasks like the laundry: “winds wild [and] branches boughs flung high…join forces” to encourage people to “[do] something that something could be done about like the dishes in the kitchen sink and opening a can of soup” (488). In many ways, Lily embraces the corporeal and thus harmonizes with the earth.

Once Lily disposes with the system and takes control of her life, she becomes a catalyst for others to do the same. In the final moments of the book, Oscar realizes that his faith in the law is misplaced, that he has been “lied to all his life”; and Christina burns the legal papers of her dead husband, Harry—the character who tells us that “in this world [we] have the law” (486-487; 507-509; 13). In the final scene, Oscar and Christina find themselves in an intensely corporeal situation: he has “burst out from behind [a door]” and begun to tickle her. Even a simple tickle fight can subvert a corrupt system.

But the endings of Paradise Lost and A Frolic of His Own leave us with no simple conclusions. Though Eve shoves off the divine in favor of the corporeal and achieves a communion with the earth, the earth can also be read as her undoing, for the fruit of which she eats is ultimately a pawn in the divine plan that leads to the Fall (IX.781). And Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Paradise leaves them both independent of the divine and dependent upon it, free “to choose / Their place of rest,” but with “Providence their guide” (XII.646-647). Similarly, though Oscar and Christina shun their corrupt system and end in a tickle fight, the tickling itself can be seen as a pawn of the corrupt system: Oscar’s tickling causes Christina to choke on the smoke of Harry’s smoldering legal papers (509). The system is burning, and it wants to take Christina with it.

But in both works, the prospects for humans to pull through are quite good—provided they remain together. Christina’s reaction to choking on the system is not to give in or give up, but to call to Lily, their resident expert on the corporeal and her fellow human being, for help—and this is the note on which the book ends (509). Adam and Eve may be daunted by “The world…before them,” but they will face it and succeed “hand in hand” (XII.646-648). In jettisoning extracorporeal systems, the humans of Paradise Lost and A Frolic of His Own abandon their respective “masters” and set out, as it were, on frolics of their own. Paradise may be lost—and we may be destined to take “slow” and “wand’ring steps”—but through solidarity with one another, we will find our way (Milton XII.648).

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WORKS CITED

“Corporeal, a. (n.)” Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition, 1989. 3 Dec 2005 <http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50050618?single=1&query_type=word&queryword=corporeal&first=1&max_to_show=10&gt;.

Fletcher, Angus Ian. Untitled Lecture. Masterpieces of English Literature I: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and their Contemporaries. Stanford University. 28 Nov. 2005.

Gaddis, William. A Frolic of His Own. New York: Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1995.

“Grateful, a.” Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition, 1989. 3 Dec 2005 <http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50098059?single=1&query_type=word&queryword=grateful&first=1&max_to_show=10&gt;.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost: a Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Scott Elledge. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993.

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