The Garden of Eden, Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Breughel (1615)

Understanding Eden through Place, Environment, and Landscape in Milton’s Paradise Lost

Milton dreamed all his life of seeing the Earth from the air. Flight and the imagining of an aerial perspective obsessed him and, as a result, his many descriptions of flight and of what he imagined the world would look like from the air are some of Paradise Lost’s most sublime passages. In flight, Milton saw something daring and rebellious—to dream of it symbolized for him a reaching beyond man’s capacity to something greater in an impossible striving to transcend his own being. When, in Book Five, Eve describes her dream to Adam, it is her feeling of flight and the look of the world below her that sticks with both her and the reader: “Forthwith up to the clouds / With him I flew and underneath beheld / The earth outstretched immense, a prospect wide / And various, won’dring at my flight and change / To this high exultation” (5.86-90). Eve cannot quite shake the awe of the feeling of flight, despite Adam’s warning against heeding dreams. So desperately did Milton wish to feel that soaring he imagined, that he configured his lofty ambitions in terms of it, opening Paradise Lost by declaring his intention to write a poem which will “with no middle flight. . . soar / Above the Aonian mount while it pursues / Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme” (1.14-16). If Milton cannot soar with the same ease that Satan’s “sail-broad” wings allow, he will content himself with a parallel audacious striving: the writing of this very poem, by which he will simultaneously imitate flight and attempt to understand the world. It is this last which accounts for the extent to which the geography and environment of Paradise Lost are so memorable and sublime. As John Stilgoe notes in his What is Landscape?, the aerial view obsessed people curious about the would around them for centuries before it became possible for that view to be achieved, let alone for it to become achievable for the average person. Milton was just such one of those people. Had he been a young man in 1897, I do not doubt Century Magazine’s articles on how to send a camera aloft on a kite and how to build a kite which would lift a person would have found an eager reader in him (What is Landscape?, 23). In lieu of these exploits, Milton performs his exploration of place, environment, and landscape imaginatively in the creation of a poem in which place and environment are crucial at every stage, often playing roles in and of themselves.

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Satan Descends upon Earth, Gustave Doré (1866)

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Secret Space and the Child in English Children’s Literature of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries

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Jessie Willcox Smith, 1905.

Screen Shot 2017-10-29 at 12.56.02 PMRobert Louis Stevenson, “My Kingdom,” 1885

I. Kindergarten

A little girl, looking for a place to hide in a game with her siblings, steps into a wardrobe and stumbles into another world. A child wandering about before tea finds a hidden dell and transforms it into a secret kingdom. A displaced orphan discovers a buried key and a hidden door which lead her into a place all her own. Children spending their summer holidays in the Lake District make a secret camp on a deserted island. And a lonely boy in a big house builds himself a miniature city and disappears into it every night, escaping a nasty nurse. Space is explored, hidden, and discovered; tumbled into, transformed, claimed, and rescaled. Imagination is power as it rewrites the world for its wielders; children become kings and queens, explorers and gardeners, saviors and gods—never simply “children,” never only themselves. And yet, through their imaginative interactions with space—their transformations of their surroundings, their discoveries and creations of secret spaces all their own—literary children discover and become themselves, throwing off the strictures that limited the Victorian child (and child protagonist) to become people—and selves—in their own right.  Read More


Anatoly Solonitsyn as Andrei Rublev

Silence and Speech in Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev and Buida’s Sinbad the Sailor

Speech, as our means of interpersonal communication, is fundamentally an action of faith. In speaking, we express our faith both in language, trusting its expressive power, and in the people around us, whom we believe will listen. In the film Andrei Rublev and short story “Sinbad the Sailor,” Andrei Tarkovsky and Yury Buida explore the nature of the act of faith that is speech, exposing the pitfalls and imperfections of speech and language as a means for communication, and yet ultimately affirming their necessity via the perfected language of art.

In Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, the connection between speech and art is made apparent in Andrei’s decision to renounce both speech and painting following his experience of the violence of the Tartar raids. Faced with humanity’s—and his own—capacity for violence, Andrei is completely disillusioned with the world and all of mankind and decides to attempt to renounce his humanity via a vow of silence—both linguistic and artistic—rather than work to improve himself or mankind. In doing this, he commits “a grave sin,” in the words of Theophanes, for he gives up his faith in himself, in mankind, in the power of art to play out a penance that is an entirely negative presence within the film. While silent, Andrei is inhuman both in his refusal to communicate and in his absoluteness. He allows the holy fool to leave with the Tartars though he knows it will end badly for her simply because he refuses to break his vow of silence. He will not even speak up for himself, as, when the buffoon accuses him of having reported on him years before, Andrei remains mute, denying his humanity in his unwillingness to break his inhuman vow and defend himself. But even as he tries to excise his humanity from himself, we see that deep down he still clings to it, believing that to separate himself from his impulse towards connection is a productive form of penance, rather than a negative, destructive absolute. Throughout his silence, the camera focuses on the pain in Andrei’s eyes as he moves through the world convinced of his inability—acted out in his self-imposed silence—to affect the world and the people around him. His vow of silence, his renunciation of language and speech, becomes an emblem of his lack of faith in his own ability to affect any of the change he wishes to achieve. Read More

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Stealing some Howard Pyle.

Music and the Sustenance of Illusion in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King

Tennyson’s Idylls of the King is an intensely aural text, permeated by the voices of Arthur and his men; the music and songs of the knights and ladies; the clash of battle-axe, sword, and cup; shrill “wandering wind”; and the “carolling” of fountains. The poem itself is, to borrow George Eliot’s phrase, “a structure of tones,” and thus it is hardly surprising when, in Gareth and Lynette, Tennyson provides his own image for the text itself in Merlin’s description of Camelot as “a city built to music.”¹ However, the image of Camelot as a city built in and of music does more than provide a neat image of Tennyson’s own project; indeed it is central to his exploration of the seed of destruction inherent in Arthur’s creation of an ideal realm. Music, in the Idylls, is far from a fixed category: always at the edge of the passion, camaraderie, and harmony it has the power to inspire is the threat of unruly destruction and discord, the products of senseless, irrational, spontaneous response to music. And yet, music, unceasingly, is the image through which Tennyson conveys Arthur’s illusory project, presenting music again and again as a force for unity and cohesion, as inspiration for and expression of the love Arthur’s knights bear one another, their king, and his realm, despite the increasing presence of warring strains of music which seek to expose the illusion of Camelot and sew discord among Arthur’s knights. Read More

Bien qu’il puisse paraître que la société que Diderot décrit dans le Supplement au voyage de Bougainville est une sorte d’utopie—un endroit idyllique où règnent la liberté et l’égalité—en réalité, ce que Diderot fait dans le Supplement est de présenter seulement l’image d’une utopie et ensuite de montrer que ce “paradis” a autant de problèmes que la société il est supposé de s’opposer.

Sur la surface, le Tahiti est décrit comme quelque part qui approche l’état parfait de Rousseau: l’age d’or au début d’histoire d’homme. En Tahiti, il n’y a pas des lois arbitraires et contre la nature. Tous les gens peuvent faire ce qu’ils veulent. Les Tahitiens, dans les mots du vieillard, sont “innocents… heureux” et ils “suiv[ent] le pur instinct de la nature” (148). “[En Tahiti]” il continue, “tout est à tous.” Si on prend ces déclarations comme la vérité, le cas est simple: le Tahiti est une vestige de l’état dont parle Rousseau. Il est libre, juste, et aligné avec la nature. Et il fournit un point de contraste concrète avec la société Européenne qui est corrompu à cause des forces de la civilisation. Mais, en fait, le projet de Diderot et plus compliqué que ça: son Tahiti n’est pas une utopie, mais une société qui est aussi convaincu de sa supériorité que celle de Bougainville et l’aumonier. Read More

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An illustration of an 1898 Pericles-themed Mardi Gras float

Pericles, Prince of Tyre is a play deeply concerned with the question of the construction of identity, a question played out in the journey of its titular character from naïve prince to wise, happy, and complete King of Tyre, a father both privately and publicly. The text takes Pericles through every possible role available to a game young (and later, old) man of the ancient world— would-be suitor gives way to fugitive, to mere man and tennis ball of the winds, to successful anonymous knight, gentleman, husband, father, and suffering ascetic—only to unite them all in its last act. Each of these stages is marked by changes to Pericles’ outward appearance, often achieved through differences in costume, pointing to a connection between apparel, appearance, and identity. This connection, though, is complicated by the fraught relation of other characters in the play to their apparel and appearances, prompting a deeper interrogation of the role Pericles’ own apparel plays in his identity. Of Pericles’ various guises in the play, by far the most memorable and the most significant is the rusty armor which he dons to win fame and approval at the court of Simonides in Act II. This armor, in its mediation of Pericles’ relation to time and to his family as well as in its fragmented origin and construction, is both a central element of Pericles’ construction of his own identity and a symbol for the play’s conception of identity as  composed of interwoven fragments. Read More

Mary Wollstonecraft et son Divorce de la Féminité dans sa Défense des droits de la femme


Mary Wollstonecraft, John Opie, c. 1797

Wollstonecraft commence sa Défense en disant que son propre sexe (“my own sex” 31) “will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in it a perpetual state of childhood, unable to stand alone” (31). Cette citation introduit un problème qui persiste tout au long du texte: la question de nous et eux, le problème de la localisation de Wollstonecraft elle-même dans son texte. “My own sex” ne vient pas avec “them”; “them” implique qu’on parle de l’autre, mais “my own sex” unit le sujet avec l’autre. On a une contradiction dans la coeur du texte qui pourrait fausser l’argument.

Dans son introduction, Wollstonecraft parle de nous—“men endeavour to sink us still lower, merely to render us alluring objects for a moment” (30, accentuation la mienne)—se présentant comme un membre d’un groupe qui est plus large qu’elle: les femmes, un front de solidarité. Mais cette utilisation de nous, de “us”, commence à disparaître après le début*—au moins dans le contexte de “nous, les femmes” (elle l’utilise parfois comme “nous, mon lecteur et moi”—un “nous” sans identité réelle ou fixe et particulièrement sans gendre)—d’être remplacer par “eux”: les hommes essaient toujours de “keep them in a state of childhood” (46, accentuation la mienne). Ce mot “them” introduit une division entre Wollstonecraft et son sexe qui est problématique parce qu’il permet Wollstonecraft d’être condescendante à l’égard des femmes et aussi parce qu’il implique qu’elle ne s’adresse pas aux femmes, en dépit de l’introduction (en fait, à la fin, elle s’adresse directement aux hommes). En parlant de la situation et les manières des femmes sans instruction elle est en accord avec les satiristes comme Jonathan Swift dans leurs critiques des femmes, mais elle place le blâme—elle dit—pas sur les femmes elle-mêmes, mais sur les hommes, la société: elle dit que c’est naturel pour les femmes de mettre “their hands to each others lappets and ruffles” (dans les mots de Swift) tandis que les hommes parlent de la politique parce qu’elles “have not any business to interest them, have not a taste for literature, and they find politics dry, because they have not acquired a love for mankind by turning their thoughts to the grand pursuits that exalt the human race, and promote general happiness” (219). C’est vrai que dans la figuration de son argument, cette situation vient d’oppression des hommes, mais sa formulation est intéressant: elle laisse l’action aux femmes. Elles ne sont pas empêchés de faire quelque chose; elles ne l’ont pas fait. Peut-être (probablement) sans le reconnaît, Wollstonecraft attaque les femmes pour les mêmes choses qu’elle insiste sont les produits de la société et l’oppression des hommes. Son ton, qui est souvent condescendant vers les femmes, implique une frustration avec les femmes qui restent ignorantes, qui ne se luttent pas contre leur circonstances, les femmes, en bref, qui ne sont pas comme elle-même. Voilà l’origine de la division entre eux et nous: quand elle parle de l’assujettissement des femmes par les hommes, elle s’inclure (“I view, with indignation, the mistaken notions which enslave my sex” (62)), mais quand elle parle de la situation courante des femmes, elle se sépare (la répétition continue de “they” et “them”) parce qu’elle se considère comme une évadée réussie, qui a pris la décision d’échapper ses circonstances et faire ce qu’elle peut avec ce qu’elle a. Dans sa formulation précédente, elle a fait le choix de tourner ses pensées vers les “grand pursuits”—une idée qui rappelle la liberté positive de Berlin.**

Au vu de cette division entre elle (consciente de l’oppression des femmes dans la société et engagée en luttant contre cette oppression) et les autres femmes (qui sont ignorantes), peut-être on peut voir son projet moins comme une vindication des droits des femmes et plutôt comme une vindication des droits des humains (distinct des hommes). Cette idée revient au fait que j’ai mentionné avant, qu’elle utilise un “us” et un “we” qui manquent un gendre distinct pour l’expression de ses vus en écriture, comme si elle veut se divorcer de sa féminité. Wollstonecraft développe une conception de gendre comme la chose qui conduit les problèmes dont elle parle. Ce n’est pas les hommes qui sont le problème, mais les conceptions qu’ils ont créé de la femme et de l’homme. Wollstonecraft écrit que “[the] desire of being always woman, is the very consciousness which degrades the sex” (126). C’est à dire que les femmes sont opprimées par la connaissance du fait qu’elles sont des femmes et par l’idée qu’elles doivent êtres toujours “la femme”—elles ne doivent jamais “forget their sex in company, for they are for ever trying to make themselves agreeable” (219). Qu’est ce qu’on doit faire, alors? Oublier notre sexe! L’idée de Wollstonecraft est de vraiment “obtain a character as a human being, regardless of the distinction of sex” (31, accentuation la mienne).

*Ce n’est pas à dire qu’elle n’utilise pas “us” pour signifier “nous, les femmes” après le début, mais que cette formulation est beaucoup moins fréquente que celle d’“eux.”

**Je ne suis pas satisfaite que cette explication est assez pour résoudre le conflict entre “us” and “them” et le problème de son ton condescendant. Elle explique d’où il vient, mais elle ne le justifie. J’ai quelque chose approchante une idée qu’il y a une scission de Wollstonecraft dans le texte et quand elle attaque “les femmes” comme un groupe elle attaque elle-même aussi, ou une partie d’elle-même, mais j’ai pas un vrai argument.