Feasting In The Library of Soul


Louise Bialik

- - - - 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.

- - - - 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 righteousness.

- - - - 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).

- - - - 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.

- - - - 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).

- - - - 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).

- - - - 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)

- - - - 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.

- - - - 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" (par.41)

- - - - 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.

English 143 - Registered 2000 L. Bialik All Rights. - Special Thanks: Prof. D. Shuger



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