Feasting In The Library of Soul
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According to John Milton in Aeropagitica, each individual born
unto this world is a starving Adamic child given free will and
the opportunity to reestablish good standing with God. Since Man's
fall, when Adam first ate of the forbidden Tree of Good and evil,
his descendents have struggled to be like "wayfaring Christians"
(par. 27) when abstaining from vice. The intent of the "wayfaring
Christian" is to cleanse sin and be found worthy in God's eyes.
However, Milton argues that only by the tests and tastes of good
and evil can one achieve moral purity.
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In essence, the "taste test" is the vehicle for any individual to
experience moral growth upon Earth via the consumption of literature.
While children of Adam, like the virginal Lady in Comus, may choose
to be virtuous, by not partaking of a forbidden substance, like a
censored book or glass of wine, virtue means nothing if one simply
avoids evil by not sampling or encountering the fruits in Life's
garden. For Milton, good and evil are twins that "grow up together
inseparably" (A, par.27) and are so intertwined that many bad apples
must be eaten before anyone can differentiate between sin and
- - - -
Milton valued organized intelligence, which is built upon hindsight
and the ability to read failure as part of the process in maturing
into an educated judge like Aristotle or Solomon (Par.33). Along
with free will, God left "the choice to each man's discretion"
(Par.25) so that each person could "live and learn," to discern
the bad "meats" whether they be books or wine. For it is only by
temperance does one achieve the right regime for health.
- - - -
A man's muscular flexibility will fail and his body will turn
into mush if he does not exercise from time to time. So as trial
of temperance, Milton encourages individuals to flex and strengthen
virtue by the exercise of reading beyond what is a comfortable
boundary. As Thich Nhaht Hahn writes, "The mind is like a painter,
it can paint anything it wants" (Love In Action); a mind is
stimulated by language and culture, and unless an individual
goes outside his world, he will not stretch his consciousness
beyond the canvas of his own reality. Milton would agree that
a person's unexercised mental picture or outlook on life will
indeed be very drab, if not "excremental whiteness" if one
does not make the effort to stretch ones mind with outside
resources (A. Par.28).
- - - -
"Whiteness" in Milton's city of refuge provides a clean, fresh
foundation for the development of a virtual library that houses
Truth (Par.72). What is missing in this free library is State
consent. It is not possible for individuals under the proto-Orwellian
era of Areopagitica to read or write without fear because the
England of 1644 regulates the written word, and punishes its
transgressors. Despite the threat of punishment, Milton
encouraged Parliament to permit its subjects the freedom
to test their individual consciences and pay tribute to
God's gift of free will, for, "thou art sufficient both to
judge aright, and examine each matter (Par.24). "
- - - -
How one determines right from wrong, good from bad, is partly
instinct and partly wholesome reciprocity. Such determination
is an ingestion of "mutual and partaken bliss" according to
a bad guy like Comus (Ln. 740), who views intemperance as a
"good" virtue (Ln. 102) to allow "human countenance" to resemble
the gods. On the contrary, Milton in Areopagiticia reasons that
intemperance creates distance from God in the way that if one's
stomach does not agree with the meat or wine it consumes (like
a belief or virtue), then one's stomach will reject it as not
useful or nourishing. Or, such may be the case that the ejected
article is actually rejecting the devourer. It is unpredictable
as to how a consumed article will be digested in Areopagitica.
- - - -
Where books are likened to meats and viands, and are processed
according to the individual temperament of stomachs, hearts
and minds, the outcome is unknown, but not necessarily evil:
"Wholesome meats to a vitiated stomach differ little or
nothing from unwholesomeness; and best books to a naughty
mind are not unapplicable to occasions of evil" (Par.25).
Since a man's spirit, like his organs, may rot inwardly if
contaminated by too much drink, his mind may risk a similar
plight if his morality is not flexed because a "higher
authority" declares censorship upon certain books. The
individual who is denied access to such books is like Milton's
Comus character who is "self-fed, and self-consumed"
(Par.590). All Comus knows is his own reality. However,
had Comus access to good books, like the Bible or Big Book,
he could probably acquire alternatives
to drinking and acting out, and find a way to respect
God's temple (Par.74).
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For Milton, when one reads a book, one actively deposits wisdom
into ones body that yields the "spiritual architecture" of a library.
Such deposits must not be "arbitrary" but honor God's building
codes (Par.75), and from this considerate depositing, establish
an internal library of wisdom.
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Tragically for Comus, whose origins are the drunken one-night-stand
of parents, Bacchus and Circe, there isn't much of a fighting
chance for him to experience temperance or a "library of the
soul." However, there is indication that Comus would at least
like to try because he pursues the Lady who rejects him (ln. 264).
What the Lady has that Comus desires is her "sober certainty"
because it challenges his alcoholic values. With each rejection,
Comus is more intrigued to win her affection, and with twisted
logic he prods her to drink from his "clear stream" (ln. 723)
because he wants her acceptance. And yet, Comus' motive to
have the Lady drink from his stream is to encounter a taste
of purity. Had he the chance to insert himself inside her
white body, he would then experience the pure. But because
he can not, he tries to trick his way -- "One sip of this
will bathe the drooping spirits in delight beyond the bliss
of dreams" (ln. 810).
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Although Comus is attracted to the Lady for her "sober
certainty" (ln. 263), he is a bastard of alcoholics, compelled
to "drop wine" and "trip the light fantastic" since he models
after his parents. Out of loneliness, the immature Comus hunts
for travelers who wander lost into his woods because partying
alone is dull. He has not been taught good virtues, but bad
sense. And how could Comus know right from wrong when his
father, a bootlegger, and mother, a wood slut, culled "their
potent herbs and baleful drugs" (ln. 255) to educate Comus
on "the chance pleasures of a sensual sty" (ln. 77).
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While Comus as an adult child understands that his behavior
might be sinful and is more than likely frowned upon by Jove
(ln. 800), Comus justifies his inability to temper his lust
and fondness for drink because Nature has spangled the world
with "odors, fruits, and flocks" (ln.712). When Comus stalks
the chaste Lady who has been separated from her brothers,
there is a retelling of Eve in her Garden of Eden, and an
overlay of the Grimm's Little Red. Instead of turning
into a beast, the beastly Comus satanically transforms
into the image of a harmless villager and successfully
tricks the Lady. However, once the Lady realizes that
she has been conned by Comus, and is bound to an enchanted
chair that is "smeared with gums of glutinous heat," she
declares that her "sober laws and holy dictates of spare
Temperance" (ln. 765) and "serious doctrine of Virginity"
(ln. 788) are so potent that no force can break her chastity.
She continues her warning that if Comus does not release
her, she will do serious damage to his wit and rhetoric
by insulting his ego:
- - - - - - - - "Enjoy your dear wit and gay rhetoric
- - - - - - -- -That hath so well been taught her dazzling fence;
- - - - - - - --Thou art not fit to hear thyself convinced." (lns. 790-792)
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However, the Lady is robbed of the chance for freeing herself
when her brothers come crashing in, to shatter the wineglass in
her hand and free her from Comus' spell.
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While the masque of Comus liberates a captive lady because
she can speak her mind and fend off a would be rapist,
freedom of speech is blocked in Aeropagitica by England's
Parliamentary Licensing Act, which prevents individuals from
being honest. Milton, like the Lady in Comus, dared to share
his views with the Commonwealth, and in doing so, protected
the written, the unpublished, and hidden texts. Such heroic
action could not have been attempted had Milton lacked access
to books which fostered his understanding:
- - - - - - - "This Order avails nothing to the suppressing of scandalous,
- - - - - - - seditious, and libelous books [..] the discouragement of all
- - - - - - - learning, and the stop of Truth, not only by disexercising and
- - - - - - - blunting our abilities in what we know already, [is a]
- - - - - - - hindering and cropping [of] the discovery that might be
- - - - - - - further made in religious and civil Wisdom" (par.7).
- - - - To "stop Truth" by censorship is a fruitless pursuit when a mind
cannot be defiled by exposure to "impure" images or ideas. Yet
a mind may be tainted if virtue is not in place. The Lady of
Comus demonstrates her unbreakable virtue of chastity when
she invokes the spiritual shields of Conscience, Faith and
Hope to guide her (ln. 214). Thus her chastity is never
unlocked for Comus' rape. In Aeropagitica, it is written
that no one can make the youth chaste " that came not thither"
- - - - Because the leaves of the Tree of Good have wafted from Eden,
and fell upon the pages of books, a reader, like Adam or Eve,
may return to Eden by creating within one's self a personal,
living library built not of brick, but of words.
Registered ©2000 L. Bialik All Rights. ®
- Special Thanks: Prof. D. Shuger