The concept of opulence is lost on modern audiences. Unless it involves yachts and fruits on trays, perhaps some shrimp and cocktail sauce, all eaten from a lithe woman with her body painted and lying supine horizontally along the buffet table. Or perhaps it involves a scene from 50 Shades of Gray, featuring helicopter rides and being tied up by a handsome man and introduced to BDSM in a way that renders you totally powerless (but in the safest and most sexual way possible).
Opulence is a difficult subject in an era where many of our proclivities have been enabled and encouraged. For many, we can marry for love, a relatively new pastime when you consider that marriage in Austen’s era was an economic affair. As Thomas Piketty has eloquently made use of literature from Austen and Balzac to discuss inequalities, we may be finding ourselves in the near future returning to the concept of opulence less along the lines of what we can buy, and more of how we are allowed to live.
Still other methods of opulence remain difficult to parse out. A Cadillac from 1987 cannot hold a candle to a 2020 Toyota Camry, despite the fact that one is a luxury car and the other is driven by plebeians. The Camry is faster, more reliable, safer, and more gas efficient. Yet we hardly consider a Toyota Camry to be a sign of wealth.
Simply having access to the internet and a concomitant device gives you more access in information than kings in the 1600s, democratizing knowledge (as well as easing methods for disinformation), and it remains to be see whether we used this to help the modern citizen or caused a social media heat death.
Another way of measuring opulence: I do not have Polio.
I do not have smallpox.
Any historian knows the lines about the subject-matter they research. “The past is a different country,” goes the line. “They do things differently there.”
“The past,” Pynchon says, “is an invitation to wine abuse.”
Taking the smallest glances at history reveals its unending capacity to maim and torture.
Which brings us to Hell. I’ve been reading Paradise Lost by John Milton. I do not really know why I started reading the epic poem, published just one year after The Great Fire of London in 1666 (seen above). If I had a gun to my head, I suppose that in my path towards atheism, I have had a renewed curiosity for revisionist history or pastiche that Paradise Lost explores. Forget whether God exists or not, and forget the religious dogmatism for a moment. Throw all that aside and ask yourself the following questions:
What sort of character would rebel against a deity that created all things? Why would such a character even have a capacity to rebel at all, given the omnipotence of said creator? What justifications would Satan have for going against the God of Heaven? And supposing that it is “better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven”…why?
For all these reasons, I view Paradise Lost as a more political decree than as a religious text or some theodicy to make us feel better. Milton was living in the beginnings of the democratization of Europe, and although he would be unable to witness the revolutions of the United States and France in the late 1700s, he was still very much embedded in attempting to rationalize and vindicate regicide with the execution of Charles I at the height of the English Civil War. I will not go too far into the details because I simply do not have the knowledge or skills to do so, but what started for me as anti-religious curiosity turned into a political exploration, and I had no idea that would happen.
The work is genius. For someone who has read little of epics like The Iliad or The Divine Comedy, it caters to the weight and gravity of a language that I long for in The King James Bible but only get in the dour readings of the Book of Ecclesiastes. So far in book four, many quotes have stood out to me, and many images. The woman named “Sin” holding the keys to God’s new creation in front of a portcullis that gates an abyss being one such image. The rising of the pagan demons after Satan’s speech as emitting the sounds of distant thunder is another moment. If for nothing else, reading it for the pleasure of the words alone is enough justification.
Forgive me, I lost myself. Back to the thesis.
Toby Ord, Oxford Philosopher, has written a book called The Precipice. In it, he discusses the dangers of the “homewrecking” terrors that threats like Nuclear War could provide. Most of us imagine Nuclear winter, where enough bombs go off that the entire human race cannot breathe in the toxic fumes, and where radiation poisoning destroys our genes. Ord asks a more nuanced and thus more terrifying question. Suppose not all of us died? The resultant sadness would almost be worse because we would carry along with us not only the hellscape we inherited in the present, but we would also carry the lost promise of a future progress that we can no longer reach.
With this premise, the “paradise lost” is not the damage of the present, but the abrogation of the future.
John Milton must have felt this sense of lost opportunity. By late age he had married his third wife, after the previous two had died from complications of childbirth. Milton’s early blindness, coming from a highly literate civil servant, must have seemed like divine punishment, and the political chaos of the Great Fire and of the English Civil War was enough of a combination of factors that I am amazed that Paradise Lost exists at all.
We are poised at some inflection point in our nation’s history too (as well as that of the globe). In few moments do we feel as though we are living history, until some moment like seeing planes colliding with the World Trade Center towers on September 11th, 2001, or perhaps in the financial collapse in 2008. Here we are again with COVID-19, a disease which likely will be here to stay for the foreseeable future and will no doubt have a section included in the digital PDF textbooks of World History in the coming decades. It will change generations who lived through it in customs and pastimes. Perhaps a Paradise Lost has yet to emerge that is the candle illuminating the political thoughts of the time. To call the fall of the Soviet Union the “end of history” must now be thought to be naive: even in Heaven and Hell there was history.
Perhaps Milton was discussing then the vast chasm between success and failure. As Rachel Cusk wrote in Outline, “Your failures keep returning to you, while your successes are something you always have to convince yourself of.” As I have written before, Satan’s sense of failure clings to him, because he has now been pinned as the being who opposed God, and whether anyone bothered to pay attention to the reasons he committed his act will no longer be taken into account. Our failures, the failure of our medical industry to care for us despite the massive premiums we pay out of our paycheck (more than my property taxes, I’ll have you know), or the failure to have a conversation about a virus without politicizing acts to protect each other (like wearing masks) are apparent not just to us domestically, but internationally our problems are laid bare.
Yet we should take residence in the fact that we see them at all. If Russia’s recent victory parade celebrating the anniversary of the end of World War II is any consolation, denying a virus on that order of magnitude is going to kill many Russians, an act that seems to be endemic of Russia’s sordid history.
Milton wrote about failure in Paradise Lost because he had an inkling that posterity would recover our successes. Opulence is all around us, whether it exists in air-conditioning, mosquito netting to prevent malaria, or in the ability to say “I love you,” and mean it. But without the reminder of failures in our past, there would not be the comparison.
The ultimate betrayal of the modern age is to be the “serious possibilist,” which means that we see the progress we’ve made, to focus on what works, and continue to push our resources into fixing the large problems that still exist. It is easy to be fatalist. It is intellectually lazy to believe that a straight line will always remain such. “The mind is its own place,” is a phrase from Paradise Lost that I have memorized. The debate between God and Satan may end up being the battle raged inside one’s own head. Considering that Milton’s blindness had him dictating the words from his head lends credit to this idea. The battle against God is the battle against fate and permanence. Betrayal must exist because there must continue to be political dissent, much like the one vote Jeannette Rankin made on December 8th after the attack on Pearl Harbor by Japanese forces. Democracy is messy, but it works because of its power of dissent.
Recognize the opulence in your life, and make war on those tendencies which keep you from thinking deeply.
That is Milton’s measure of success.