Thursday, June 15, 2017
Milton's Becoming: An Immanent Reading of The Attendant Spirit in “Comus" (Essay)
Above and beyond the crowd of ordinary mortals, in “Comus”, readers see the Attendant Spirit take on authorial inflections—moving through the spheres and earth, immune to mortal vice, it swoops down on the text and intervenes on behalf of humanity to assist in their salvation. It is, in other words, a stand-in for Milton, a means for him to disseminate Neo-Platonism. Here, readers see the Attendant Spirit not merely as a textual prime mover but as an agent of textual transformation; the spirit is not a passive force, rather, it is Milton’s device and own mask.
But this much should be obvious. It is no great revelation to speak of an author inserting a stand-in within his works, an agent by which they may preach their creed to the unsuspecting masses. No, from Thomas Hardy’s slew of angst-ridden protagonists whining about the passing of the pastoral to J.K. Rowling’s Dumbledore, there is a hearty tradition of writers plopping in ideological look-alikes in their works. The better question to ask is not “Do these devices exists in Milton”, because whether it is about religion or politics, they certainly do exist; rather, the best question to ask is “how does this stand-in color my view of Milton as a reader?” To answer that question, there is only one way to find out. We must dig.
In digging, we find our theoretical gem—Immanent Criticism. Described by Daniel Coffeen in his Reading the Way of Things (2016), as a kind of empirical reading, one which locates the essence of a text in how it unfolds within the world, immanent reading focuses on how a concept, and its many attendant threads and affectations, take the reader on a particular journey unique to each encounter with each person (Loc. 292-305). Philosophically, this form of reading takes its inspiration from French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (hereafter, Deleuzianism). Criticism of this kind is concerned about confronting the world; during this confrontation, we reject the opinion of experts, the modern priests (Loc. 219), and instead of always-already existing in a state of perpetual deferment—where we rest on the knowledge of an expert to understand ‘this’ or ‘that’ and can only understand so as long as we ask this professional—we ask ourselves how a text’s multiplicity open new horizons.
This kind of reading is neophyte if there ever was such a form of reading. To reject everything outside of the text in favor of getting to the perceived real of the text is tricky, more so when one is myself and arguing for an examination of this text as part of a foray to understand the author. Though the author must be rejected as a source of authority, this is not to say that he may not still be unearthed—reinterpreted— using the tools of immanent criticism.
How this is possible is due to ‘sense-making’. Because immanent criticism rejects textual decipherment in favor of semiotic “motivation”, symbol-hunting is cast aside (Loc.356). Signs do not indicate a concept so as much as they “a life onto themselves”. As Coffeen remarks, “A word is not a sign but a gesture, a creative act that distributes sense. A word is an action, not a record or a mark of meaning (or at least it’s also always an action)” (Loc.363) (Emphasis Coffeen). Ultimately, instead of language, we have “rhetoric, tropes, [and] performative events that construe the world and distribute bodies”. So, immanent reading is not interested in a layered mystification, but a sensible understanding of the literary body.
To begin our reading, we turn to the onset of the poem: the Attendant Spirit descends.
The text unfolds as a larger than life scheme. The first three lines (“Before the starry threshold of Jove’s court / My mansion is, where those immortal shapes / Of bright aёrial spirits live inspher’d”) are of an eternal drama. Such drama is invisible to mortals, separated from this divine statehouse—“Jove’s court”— due to their reality of being “confin’d and pestered in this pinfold here” (L. 6). Alternatively called Earth, this passage foreshadows what will prove to be a central theme—segregation of mortal and immortal. Reading this passage myself mentally generates a sprawling palace forged literally from void and dark matter: the “before the starry threshold” (emphasis mine), situates us in the shadow of Jove’s court and so indicates the alien nature of this mansion and its different composite parts from the palace itself. Accordingly, it is an experience inaccessible to humans, who would disorient and suffocate in this apparent nth-dimensional space-time artifact; if Jove (God) is conceived of as within the Neo-Platonic tradition, then He stands outside of time. Logically, this palace then accords to no conceivable understanding of physics—this is reinforced by the spirits living “inspher’d”, they are living this way near the mansion. Thus, we have a “mansion”, a household, within Milton’s uppermost Ptolemaic cosmological layer which is close to God’s spherically housed spirits; a reasonable extrapolation is that this mansion is an outgrowth of God’s own palace and so does not accord to any mortal knowledge of construction. Qualitatively this mansion’s defining characteristic is its invisibility—it is absolutely invisible (1) in the sense that both its very senses are inaccessible to humanity, as it is forged from intangible, ethereal material incomprehensible to human sense, and (2) its very architecture is unknowable; finally, (3) it is invisible by the mere naked eye since its architecture, even if it were perceptible by human senses, remains removed from navel-gazing being far above the human “pinfold”.
Following Coffeen’s theory, though, what does this passage connote as an action—words indicative of a performative gesture effecting an unfolding of the text? What does this passage tell us of the Attendant Spirit? Moreover, what does this passage tell us about this spirit in light of what we know about its home? Why is this spirit’s home even relevant?
The spirit is a Platonic elitist: elitism, therefore, is our action. It’s unfolding? The Spirit’s hesitation. The Spirit looks down on humanity with something nearing contempt; “Unmindful of the crown that Virtue gives / After this mortal change, to her true servants” (L. 9-10)” lambasts humanity’s ignorance in light of its own enlightenment, bringing to fore additional Platonist conceptions, this time, as death being the boundary to immortality (as Hughes relates in the accompanying footnote). Comparing Earth to its own celestial home, The Spirit dubs Earth as “this dim spot” (L.5) and then calls it a “pinfold”, or, a cattle pen. Being an immense concentration of materialized Platonism, this is in the Spirit’s nature, so it is unsurprising and unassuming when it thinks of Earth as reeking with “rank vapours” (L.17) though the Earth represents godly emanation and hence divine grace. Earth, nonetheless, is still “sin-worn” primal clay; imperfect and fallen from The Temptation, it exists on a level far below The Spirit’s home. As such, even though The Spirit’s duty—mission—is to become corporeal and help humanity in obtaining “that Golden Key” (L.13), we see it delay, how it “would not soil these pure Ambrosial weeds” (L.16). Although this is granted out of a form of concern for humanity—a legitimation of encouraging humanity to ‘pull itself up from its bootstraps’, if you will--- it still connotes inaction. Furthermore, as we will see shortly, this inaction is a contradiction.
As the text plainly lays out, however, The Spirit is not wholly inactive. It does descend to Earth, but only because “by quick command from Sovran Jove” (L.41). If The Spirit was left to its own accord, it would, we can reasonably assume, remain within the Empyrean; we must remember, this “quick command” does not mean that The Spirit can only function through Jove’s orders—in the beginning of the poem, after all, we see The Spirit reject helping those who are helping themselves by saying that it “would not soil these pure Ambrosial weeds”, meaning, it has a degree of relative autonomy from God, it is able to descend to Earth without being commanded to; otherwise, it would be impossible to speak of what it “would not” do, instead, it would speak of what it “can” do. Accordingly, in a politicized understanding, this is tantamount to an inability to serve the people. If your serving of the people is reliant on being commanded to serve, then your purpose, ultimately, is not to serve.
Why does The Spirit refuse to serve the people? Simple, it does not want to acknowledge its ontological reality.
The spirit dwells close to the divine (God and other spirits), all of which rules over humanity. Its home, meanwhile, is literally an incomprehensible abode, situated before Jove’s court, what Milton describes as an actualized “Palace of Eternity” (L.14). So, if we wanted to sum-up The Spirit, we know that it is an immortal entity, The Spirit can perceive the dimensions of this “Palace of Eternity” and so boasts an ontology suitable to the intelligible realm. Those creatures whom it is supposed to serve, however, exist in the non-intelligible realm. So, the life-forms whom it is supposed to serve cannot sense it as it is situated within the intelligible realm, but The Spirit can sense them, to a degree, while, finally, The Spirit is ontologically acclimated to the nth dimension. It is in this final point about dimensional acclimation in which lies our primal contradiction—Milton’s Monism.
Monism, or, ‘Animalist Materialism”, as it is sometimes called, denies any separation of the body and soul. Matter and spirit is one in the same and weds the human body together; articulating the body-soul as such, the suggestion is that even God himself is a bodily, quasi-corporeal Light being. The Attendant Spirit, therefore, being a spirit, could be assumed to be a sort of Light-being. But, in having to descend to Earth, it must become corporeal and give-up it’s Light-base. It must become acclimated to that “sin-worn” mold which it laments. In descending, it must give up what I call ‘Sense-Power’, and appear to embrace a radically populist ontological agenda—equality with those mortals whom it almost sneers.
Now, The Spirit does descend. The Spirit does take on a corporeal form. But, as I argued earlier, it is hesitant to do this. So it is unsurprising that once it is on Earth, it cooperates with humanity only to the extent to which it must.
O my lov'd masters heir, and his next joy,
I came not here on such a trivial toy
As a stray'd Ewe, or to pursue the stealth
Of pilfering Woolf, not all the fleecy wealth
That doth enrich these Downs, is worth a thought
To this my errand, and the care it brought.
But O my Virgin Lady, where is she?
How chance she is not in your company? (L.501-08)
The Attendant Spirit makes clear it cares not for mortal concerns and cares instead only about its divinely assigned task—finding The Lady. Biblical precedent, of course, has set the anti-commercial action, while the action of “came” is set by The Spirit’s hesitancy (elitist Platonist ontology). But why this stanza is worth noticing is precisely because it strictly delineates The Spirit as not merely a Platonic elitist, or even an ontological one who wishes to keep his empyrean form, but as a material elitist as well.
When The Spirit speaks of “O my lov'd masters heir, and his next joy,” he is referring to humanity—that “heir” of his “lov’d master”— but immediately makes clear that, unlike his master, he is not here to issue divine edicts; “I came not here on such a trivial toy” thus devalues humanly ontology—the idea that human emotions, i.e., how the human body reacts to sin, devotion, the mercantile machinations of human society, is simply not worth considering and are, in fact, pre-determined to be irrelevant to the location of The Lady. Why, of course, is because The Lady is virtue incarnate and so the perversions of such materialisms deflect from her. Even so, this should not obscure how The Spirit relates to humanity, for when he speaks of how “not all the fleecy wealth / That doth enrich these Downs, is worth a thought / To this my errand, and the care it brought” (L.504-07) he is issuing a strict and uncompromising sentence: The Spirit, as an action-machine (to coin a Deleuzian phrase of my own), is a demarcation from all aspects of humanity.
What it means to be a demarcation has been explained previously. It means that the mission it performs on God’s behalf is something they take up only in reluctance and due to ideological inflections (the ‘pulling one’s self up from the bootstraps’ metaphor from previously). It means that the empyrean realm is for the spirits, it is their (“My”) Intelligible realm, not the radical “ours” (the Non-Intelligible Realm, not the revolutionarily ‘united’ (God, possibly the realm in which God dwells).
This should not be surprising, however. Throughout the narrative, the spirit’s interaction to the plot is limited. The Spirit arrives and finds the Younger and Elder brothers, tells them of Comus and his evil ways, gives advice on how to overcome him, and then, before leaving directs Sabrina’s aid to help The Lady. This is all The Spirit accomplishes. Though we can say this is because The Attendant Spirit attends to humanity instead of directing humanity—aping God, essentially—we can also read this as a certain kind of slacking in its divine mission; could it not have, for example, accompanied the Young and Elder brother in their confrontation of Comus, or even use its divine gifts to know ahead of time that Sabrina would have been needed? Moreover, not only does The Spirit perform unproductively once it is on Earth, The spirit attempts to misdirect. Realizing that its sense-power is always-already threatened, by the end of the narrative, the spirit proclaims “Mortals that would follow me, / Love Virtue, she alone is free, / She can teach ye how to climb / Higher than the sphery chime” (L. 1018-21). Thus, the spirit simply ‘transfers’ the ever-hopeful human seeking enlightenment to a new spirit, a new goal, a nebulous construct called “Virtue”, without delineating further. And so, the Attendant Spirit, ever vigilant on how to defend its corrupted position, sinks deeper and deeper into its self-sustained false consciousness.
Ramifications of this false consciousness hint at possible corruption at Jove’s court, that elite space for Platonic Forms—Milton’s immortal spirits—gallivant as co-creators of the universe while living “inspher’d”. If The Attendant Spirit is so hesitant to perform independently of God then it is plausible that other spirits behave likewise. Articulated like this, then, The Spirit (and company?) is similar to a minor oligarch, its “inspher’d” spirits likened to its servants. Is this why Satan, in Milton’s masterpiece, Paradise Lost, rebels? Is he the leaders of a popular revolution which saw the growing decadence-megamachine of the empyrean and decided to take action against it and its enabler, God?
Of course, we do not know and will never know. But, though we cannot say with any certainty why Satan rebelled, despite the possibility which this reading opens, we can return to the thesis question which prompted this essay—what does this mean for Milton? As I remarked in the start of this essay, the purpose of this short analysis was to experiment with how this immanent reading effected my view of Milton (assuming we ditch all that we know of Milton’s philosophical life as we apply our isolated reading to this hypothetical construct known as an ‘author’). Does the findings fundamentally alter how I view Milton as an author-machine?
To answer this question, I first need to take a slight detour into another aspect of “Comus”, namely, how the reader is supposed to react when encountering the sensation articulated within. In “Comus”, the reader sees many sensuous words. “Musky”, “balmy”, “odorous”, “dew” and others. The point of this is to lure the reader into a false security. Why this is, is because Milton’s using such words as action words; he is building an affectual universe via the connotations, the performative possibility inherent in such words, where “balmy” (and others) mean something more than pleasant weather; where, in this example, balmy is to indicate a tropical but perhaps uncomfortable and socially alienating locale, a locale, furthermore, which perhaps speaks of racially-based oppression or maybe colonialism. This sensous universe impacts the reader, transports them to a world in which feelings overrule logic and must be divorced from their own interiority in order to be grasped critically. In Milton’s writing, this affectual universe is paired with the Attendant Spirit so that it can be used as its club to beat and confuse the reader. Whether it is Earth being described as a “sin worn” lump—a description which connotes filth and uncleanliness and therefore separation from God—or the ending which denotes a form of beauty, Milton’s sensations are used in as actions to cloud immediate perception.
Milton, then, is smart. He recognized the Platonic underpinnings of his text—and how the interaction between divine and human does not coalesce in a demonstratively positive event—and aimed to mediate that situation through a sensation overload (thus, he might be marked, possibly, as an early Deleuzian!). Milton as Attendant Spirit (Platonic militancy) was in opposition to the sin soaked mold (the non-Platonic) and so needed to be moderated by a third party (sensation). Hence, why I needed to pierce that overload by shooting at the heart of Milton’s argument—celestial architecture, that which subtends everything else.
I could sneer at Milton’s militant Platonism. I could toss him aside and say “what an elitist, counterrevolutionary prick!” And from this immanent reading it certainly seems that I would be justified in doing so—corruption, dictatorial practices, and arrogance all mark this text. But, I feel no need in condemning. Why could be related to the multiplicity of the text and knowing that others have come to many different conclusions and that I myself could easily come to a different conclusion. In actuality, however, I cannot condemn Milton because my reading unveiled an intelligence which was not afraid to incorporate the sensual into the power matrix. My reading found an author who pushed Platonic thought to an extreme under a narratological pretense (that of the play which the text constituted). My reading, at the end of the day, found an author who wasn’t afraid to become the text, to not merely include himself as some in-text avatar, but disseminate himself as the text itself. I cannot condemn Milton because if I were to condemn him, I would have to condemn myself, my own practice of criticism, as through it I become my own criticism-machine. If I did that, then we would be back at square one.
Coffeen, Daniel. Reading the Way of Things: Toward a New Technology of Making Sense. Winchester: Zero, 2016. Kindle.
Milton, John. John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose. Ed. Merritt Y. Hughes. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1957. Print.
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