Recovering Resentment: A Reflection on Disgust, Empathy, and Milton's Satan

Resetting Theory

Recovering Resentment:

A Reflection on Disgust, Empathy, and Milton’s Satan

“To write is certainly not to impose a form (of expression) on the matter of lived experience. Literature rather moves in the direction of the ill-formed or the incomplete… always in the midst of being formed, and goes beyond the matter of any livable or lived experience.” — Gilles Deleuze

Resentment, like literature, reorders and challenges the opacity of the most familiar landscapes, opening and transforming them into fields of possibility, in which things do not appear firmly codified, but rather stand out as fluid and promising. It is under the influence of resentment that we come to understand that neither our identities nor the worlds we inhabit are fixed or stable–and thus it is little surprise that literature should so often return to this most central of themes. Oftentimes writers call into question the conventional conflict of resentment, in favor of a view of literature as an ecstatic movement towards comprehension–an expansion of its powers under the spell of personal livable or lived experience.

The fascination with, and indeed utilization of, Satan’s fall from grace, and its corollary emotion, resentment, finds cognizant expression in the Renaissance project of John Milton.[1] Milton situates the Argument of Book I in his great epic in accordance with the Book of Revelations[2] “presenting Satan with his angels now fallen into hell, described here, not in the center (for Heaven and earth may be supposed as not yet made, certainly not yet accursed) but in a place of utter darkness, fitliest called chaos.”[3] A truly inhuman character, an ill-formed monster who suffers no guilt for his crimes against God, Satan sits in Pandemonium, his palace in hell, as he casts himself in one of the principal revenge plots in literary history. Cary Nelson reminds us that, “Literary history, however, is never written from the vantage point of a secure and stable distance. It is always written in the midst of–and constituted by–the multiple social determinations of literariness.”[4] Our modern culture is embedded in a selective remembering and forgetting that often makes for considerable self-delusion, not only about what is known of our own past, but also about the past of our most famous writers.[5]

Like Shakespeare’s Iago, often considered one of the most draconian portrayals of evil ever to be penned, Satan remains the principle of evil made flesh. Satan is a disgusting creature. As such, he disappoints the acceptable aesthetic frames of the upper class and English patriarchy in the seventeenth century. A disgusting figure to the upper echelons, he ruins biblical interpretations[6] and historical expectations. Milton biographer Barbara Lewalski maintains that “Satan casts himself in the mold of the tragic hero Prometheus, enduring with constancy, indomitable will, and ‘courage never to submit or yield’ the punishment meted out by an implacable divine tyrant.”[7] His disgusting body spoils the political climate garnered by King Charles II as he re-feels–another meaning of the word “resent”–his being cast out from heaven for deceiving the whole world. And, as Harold Bloom states, “[Satan’s] Sense of Injured Merit is likely to cause Resentment.”[8] As he drowns in the past, his downfall feels like it happened only yesterday.

I stress a meaning of resentment that traces back to its Latin etymology. Resent stems from the thirteenth century Latin sentire which literally means “to feel.” The Oxford English Dictionary cites several etymologies of “resent.” The OED cites “resent” in 1667 in Paradise Lost as a transitive verb that frustrates our popular definitions. When deployed as a universal (as it often was in the seventeenth century), it can mean “to feel oneself injured or insulted by (some act or conduct on the part of another); to show that one is displeased or angry at” or “to take or receive as or for something.”[9] Delving a bit deeper into its etymology, we know that it can mean “to feel or experience (joy, sorrow, pain, etc.),” and even more acutely as used in 1620 it can mean “to feel (something) as a cause of depression or sorrow; to feel deeply or sharply.”[10]

It is this earlier usage of “resent” as an active process of feeling or re-feeling that intrigues me most.[11] Apart from its tedious role as the product of a culturally-specific repression across nation-state, region, class, or historical time period, the word used in this context may ruin the best laid plans of literary critics still dedicated to the revering and upholding of the English patriarchy. It stands to educate a culture ultimately suffering from historical amnesia as it resituates the very production of epistemology across time–from pre-Reformation until the present day. Sounds like a big project; the tweaking of meaning from a universal connotation to a particular denotation stands in direct opposition to the powers that be: it’s counter-hegemonic. And in the same way that “hegemony is hard work (the adage is Stuart Hall’s) and always subject to negotiation,[12] so personal and community identities are malleable (but not infinitely so) and flexible.”[13] In other words, if hegemony is hard work, so is counter-hegemony–and counter-hegemonic discourse is exactly the call from Milton–for that matter. A project such as Milton’s displaces the psychic, social, and material functioning of an entire culture.[14] I wish only to redirect the meaning of the word resent from one etymology to another.

John Milton’s Paradise Lost was composed during the late 1650s and early 1660s and finally completed in 1665. The work was not published in its entirety, however, as a work in twelve books until 1674. The book’s production was intended both “for mechanical reproduction through print and for sale as a literary commodity to an aggregate of individual consumers, rather than to a single patron”;[15] as a professional writer Milton wanted to distribute the text to as many folks who would read it during a time of skyrocketing literacy rates. Paradise Lost reveals a dominating political attitude and a complete capacity for the beginnings of a grassroots revolutionary movement. Like William Blake and Percy Shelley, Milton is a poet whose legacy remains a point of contention with those who wish to honor the English monarchy. He supported the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords; he wanted to take power away from the Church of England; he was in favor of a radical liberalization of censorship; he argued for cheap and easy divorce. All of this is no doubt hardly controversial in the twenty-first century, in the United States, but it was hardly so in England in the seventeenth century. Milton is a man who began even as a young poet to construct himself as a new kind of author, one who commands all the resources of learning and art but links them to radical politics, reformist poetics, and the inherently revolutionary power of prophecy. [16]

Some quick remarks about Milton’s political aims: they’re nasty. Polemical literatures are, of course, the business of brooding mavericks, and their subversive politics are, of course, often unpleasant. One attempt at minimalizing Milton’s politics may be to cast him as a religious reformer (the efforts of which have been a main endeavor in Milton studies), but even Milton’s Puritan religious affiliation strongly opposes the Church of England. Perhaps the work Milton does as a staunch republican is also something of the social anarchist’s: for above all he wants to abolish hierarchies. In fact the monarchist politics of Paradise Lost’s Heaven are exactly those politics he wishes to abolish. In The Life of John Milton Barbara Lewalski contends that Milton makes very clear his evaluation of monarchy,

By demonstrating that there can be no possible parallel between earthly kings and divine kingship he flatly denies the familiar royalist analogies: God and King Charles, Satan and the Puritan rebels. And by associating the imagery and accoutrements of absolute kingship with God, as proper to him alone, he would have readers recognize that the appropriation of them by an earthly monarch is idolatrous. [17]

Furthermore, Book III establishes the crucial difference between an earthly king and Heaven’s “immutable, immortal, infinite, / Eternal King”.[18] David Scott Kastan insists we must bear in mind that “earthly kings are not different from those they rule. God, however, differs radically in kind from beings, earthly or celestial, who are his creatures.”[19] In a perfect world, an earthly king would wield earthly power, and God would remain sovereign in Heaven. Satan, Milton’s tragic hero, must deny this distinction made between God and king. Kastan adds, “The putative justification for Satan’s rebellion against God is that God is a tyrant, unreasonably assuming ‘Monarchy over such as live by right / His equals’.”[20] Truth be told, God and Satan are hardly equal. Milton warns against the adoration of the returning king: the Reformation soon stood as a real threat to social justice, foreshadowing even more oppression in the near future.

Theories and poetics of Satan’s disintegration flourish each passing year, but something about the aesthetics of his disintegration has resisted engendering these hermeneutic forms as cast in stone. Satan’s ugliness is twofold. Not only do we find Satan disgusting, but Satan also finds himself disgusting. Milton writes, “Who aspires must down as low / As high he soared, obnoxious first or last / to basest things.”[21] Milton’s prosodic line mirrors Satan’s disintegration as he turns into a hissing serpent. Indeed Satan has suffered for a long time now. What was once God’s highest creation now grovels at His feet eating dust. How Satan must loathe himself; he finds himself utterly disgusting.[22]

As Sianne Ngai insists, depictions of disgust from artists and philosophers throughout the ages have demonstrated that disgust may be dialectically conjoined with other emotions, while “the disgusting itself has the power to allure,”[23] particularly as an “object created by social taboos and prohibitions.”[24] Yet a remarkable asymmetry appears between the two parties involved: the subject who feels disgusting and the onlooker/reader who finds disgust in the subject. Thus, disgust is always a corollary of another emotion, repulsion. This asymmetry between subject and other finds cognizant expression in the annals of cultural and literary theory, which raises the broader question of why repulsion has had a long history of being ignored by an author’s contemporary culture. Perhaps the catalyst here is something like reader-response theory which, although used here anachronistically, takes into account the dialogic relationship between reader and text. For Milton, Satan’s grotesqueness is real. As Satan makes a “Hell of Heaven” within his mind, it’s natural to assume that many contemporary readers would turn away from, rather than be drawn toward, his disgusting essence. However, readers of Paradise Lost have remained extraordinarily sympathetic to Satan for hundreds of years.

Harold Bloom notes, “Whether normative critics like it or not, something extraordinary happens in and to Milton’s poetry every time Satan speaks.”[25] I argue that there is an exchange taking place from Milton to his readers: Milton codes the language of Satan; Satan’s language, unnatural, is a form of “codification”, and the appropriate response to codification is “decipherment.”[26] As the Marxist literary critic Raymond Williams points out, “Language is not a medium; it is a constitutive element of material social practice.”[27] So Milton foregrounds his hopes for a social revolution in language.[28]

Milton composed Paradise Lost during a period of great political turmoil and transition during which he vehemently opposed the oncoming Restoration.[29] Milton attempted to change power relations by using unconventional means. As Richard Helgerson writes, Milton was “writing in a generation that had lost its sense of clearly marked boundaries, he has to keep drawing a line. For until the line is drawn, he cannot cross it.”[30] These subversive, alternative means, Milton’s polemical writings, are aiming directly at King Charles and the Church of England. As the new idea of free will reaches apotheosis among the Puritans, maverick works like Paradise Lost surface and lend a hand in revealing to the lower classes the new impetus to power, the notion of grace, and a means for subjugated individuals to achieve individuation–the process of becoming aware of oneself, of one’s make-up, and the way to discover one’s inner self.

Identifying with a character like Satan who falls prey to pettiness, hubris, and selfishness can be painfully disconcerting. However, in deciphering Satan’s anguish, dissenting readers see this paradigm for what it actually is: a desperate cry and a rallying of the troops. Deciphering the polemical meanings of Milton’s radical Protestant poem, according to Loewenstein, “constantly challenges its engaged readers by showing them how to discern the treacherous ambiguities and contradictions of political rhetoric and behavior, including their more revolutionary manifestations.”[31] Satan’s agonizing efforts to avenge his Divine wrongdoer prove null and void. As he continuously resents his casting out from heaven, his past remains his present; and his past seems never forgiven. At best he feigns atonement for his alleged crimes. But empathy in the reading experience allows the dissenting public to appropriate a genuine level of atonement for themselves, in relation to their own level of oppression. Satan’s festering wound then serves as a pertinent analogy. His wound functions as provocation to the masses of dissenters, the walking wounded of the seventeenth century.

Milton’s radical politics has everything to do with Satan’s disgusting ugliness. The dialogic nature[32] between reader and text in Paradise Lost evokes a certain responsiveness: the language of disgust turns Satan the subject into Satan the political activist. Satan loses all association with moral evil, and his experience with negative emotions becomes a bridge to cross over: readers sympathize with Satan, yes, but they also empathize with him. Thus disgust facilitates a bond between the subjugated people under the reign of King Charles II and Milton’s tragic hero Satan. In Book IV Milton gives us the downtrodden Satan, a lugubrious creature who feels:

The hell within him, for within him hell
He brings, and round about him, nor from hell
One step no more than from himself can fly
By change of place. Now conscience wakes despair
That slumbered, wakes the bitter memory
Of what he was, what is, and what must be
Worse; [33]

As he re-feels that initial feeling of being cast out of heaven, he stands conflicted and knows “worse sufferings must ensue.”[34] Likewise, the subordinated people of England understandably begin to resent their initial disgusting feelings about their lowly place in the social hierarchy. Milton’s prosody is a conduit: the more Milton’s prosody begins to mirror Satan’s disintegration, then the more readers are able to identify with this disintegration. Sympathetic identification as a culture’s dominant way of understanding a character’s make-up tends to fall a bit short. For the entire identification process to congeal, readers must empathize with Satan. When they empathize with Satan, his ugliness becomes their own.[35]

Generally speaking, the experience of identification with another person is an intensely emotional one; so it is when readers identify with a character in a literary text. Readers feel what they believe the characters are feeling. When Satan says, “Awake, arise, or be for ever fallen,” [36] readers genuinely take his strife to be their own. Although some readers may share values, principles, or concepts (with a given character), I emphasize emotion as that which transcends socially- and historically-situated boundaries: emotional honesty–be it the reader’s own, the character’s own, or the dialogic exchange between reader and character–enables psychologically authentic identification between fellows. In Kristeva’s terms, Paradise Lost is a powerful genotext articulated as a phenotext, making the dialogic process (what D.H. Lawrence puts as) a passionate struggle into consciousness. The text bespeaks an ontological experience, accustoming readers to an inner world through prosodic repetitions with nuances of expression.[37]

Milton’s representation of Satan challenges readers’ stereotypes, then and now. The opened mind of the reader rotates images from the image-repertoire, gathering associations from past contacts and comparisons. As the metaphor of “the hell within him, for within him hell” indicates, this type of thinking is teleological, yet free of preconceptions. It may comprise a “curve of return” [38] to other cultures and modes of living and writing, leading to identification and transformation in the present. The perceptible conditions of Hell, Heaven, and Eden are integral to the beings that inhabit them, but the inhabitants interact with and shape their environments, creating societies in their own images. The dialectical contact with earlier societies generates new or revolutionary thinking. Here Paradise Lost proves that human emotions such as disgust, loss, and betrayal share a certain timelessness and can be found anyplace, regardless of class, time period, or culture. Empathy (personal knowing at its apex) involves at least two people (for it’s a dialogue not a monologue) in an unobstructed relationship, free of psychic scars and emotional baggage. The walking wounded, generally speaking, have a hard time with the empathic process while emotionally honest readers do not.

David A. Stewart argues, “the basic concept [in empathy] is person, not mind, not body, not mental states, not sense data. Thus any personal experience that I witness is an expression of the person, an expression in which the whole person makes himself known to me.” [39] Satan’s ugliness–and corresponding disgust for himself–is not the ugliness of a mental state, nor of human physiology, or sense datum. Satan’s ugliness is a personal ugliness. Satan, all of him, lies within that ugliness. And this ugliness becomes expressive of everything he does. In Book IX Satan professes, “I reck not, so it light well aimed, / Since higher I fall short, on him who next / Provokes my envy”.[40] Here Satan’s envy becomes the reader’s envy in empathy. Satan comes for revenge but he hesitates, for just lines before he utters, “Revenge, at first though sweet, / Bitter ere long back on itself recoils.”[41] As he contemplates the sweetness of revenge, he stops. He knows it will not prove fruitful and in his desperate, malformed expression of profound disgust for himself readers remember–and resent–their own desperate cries in an attempt to capitalize on an emotionally potent moment of empathy.

A theme expressed very often by writers throughout history is connection to one’s fellow man. This feeling of connection must be strong for those brave souls who wish to abandon the Church of England and start a new life via Milton’s Puritan ideal. Many people must be willing to sacrifice nearly everything they have for the possibility of a new way of life. This sense of connection between people of the seventeenth century would need be strong because they are venturing out into new spiritual territory, and in such a case, it’s human nature to be drawn to those like yourself. This security could have been found by knowing that there were others venturing out into the same unknown territory, although now God could be found within each person individually, through grace, and a sense of community inevitably emerged. The sense of security generated by having others pursue the same path helped create a strong emotional bond among them. And the transfer of power to the individual creates a united front of stronger individuals against the status quo. Empathy, then, holds an almost incontestable heuristic authority. The very faculty for apprehending the universality of Satan’s psychological tribulation lies within each reader. Hence, emotion serves as an instance of cross-cultural and cross-historical continuity and as the means of apprehending and incorporating its own unifying structure. Book IX reveals Satan’s resentment has reached its utmost low:

Why then was this forbid? Why but to awe,
Why but to keep ye low and ignorant,
His worshippers. He knows that in the day
Ye eat thereof your eyes, that seem so clear
Yet are but dim, shall perfectly be then
Opened and cleared, and ye shall be as gods,
Knowing both good and evil as they know.
That ye should be as gods since I as man,
Internal man, is but proportion meet:
I of brute, human; ye of human, gods.[42]

Kastan’s gloss for line 711 reveals “Internal man: refers to the serpent’s statement that his ‘inward powers’ have become human though his form is unchanged; his is man in his mind.”[43] As he re-feels his casting out from heaven, Satan urges readers to endure; to transmute disgust into optimism and bear out the truth of their experience. Satan sits enervated, cast like a stone with no hope for redemption. For the reader, however, the strength gained from empathy is pure, in it lies the toolset of a counter-hegemonic movement. For counter-hegemony to work, though, organization is required; it’s now up to the dissenting populace to initiate a series of events, to make changes to the domineering system, and to create an identity separate from the pervasive hegemonic mores of the seventeenth century.

Milton’s account of Satan puts a complex series of observations into focus. According to Heidegger, “the artist remains inconsequential as compared with the work, almost like a passageway that destroys itself in the creative process for the work to emerge.”[44] But the act of empathic re-appropriation sets up an alternating struggle of subject with object. Milton made an example of Satan; he was too far gone for redemption. Milton’s work sculpts the psyche of the subjugated public, however, for a paradigm shift. Here’s the push from Milton: seventeenth century readers will forget that they have failed time and time again, and will try once more as if subjugation never happened. In this way they strive to the conviction that there are infinite sources of strength from which they may draw. Again and again they will aspire to grace, which will lift them up and carry them onwards. And for this nudge to see fruition, the people must become capable of living into the future and not let hegemonic England displace their striving. The capacities by which a people gains freedom from bondage lie dormant within each and every one of us. Only a people who have passed through the gate of disgrace can fully ascend to the heights of liberation.

Notes

[1] Many modern critics suggest a general interpretive matrix that embraces most of Milton’s poetic corpus in a coherent rather than exhaustive vision.

[2] “And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the Dragon, and the Dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not. Neither was their place found anymore in Heaven. And the Great Dragon was cast out, that old serpent called the devil and Satan which deceiveth the whole world, he was cast out into the Earth and his angels were cast out with him.” from Revelations 12:7-9

[3] John Milton. Paradise Lost. Ed. David Scott Kastan. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2005), 6.

[4] Cary Nelson. Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory, 1910-1945. (Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1989), 17.

[5] Nelson, 17.

[6] He is called the “destroyer” in the Bible (Apollyon or Abaddon).

[7] Barbara K. Lewalski. The Life of John Milton. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), 7.

[8] Harold Bloom. Genius. (New York: Warner Books, 2002), 51.

[9] “resent, v.” The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. (Oxford UP, 1989), 696.

[10] Oxford English Dictionary, 696.

[11] For the purposes of this paper, I call this phenomenon affective codification. The corresponding thick deconstructive reading I do throughout this paper I call affective decipherment.

[12] Moreover, hegemony goes beyond culture, ideology, and political rule–it can be an ideology itself; it is not a given because there is not constant consciousness. Cultural materialism also tends to suggest that it is also non-dialectical; it’s a historical process, not a product of history.

[13] Allan Pred and Michael Watts. Reworking Modernity: Capitalisms and Symbolic Discontent. (New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1992), 196.

[14] Take, for example, the complexity of Lycidas into consideration: its rigorous rhetorical construction, and propensity for double meanings have garnered Milton and this pastoral poem fame. The relationship between history and Milton’s pastoral is dialectical: Lycidas can be interpreted as both product and producer of history.

[15] Andrew Milner. Literature, Culture and Society. (New York: Routledge, 1996, 2005), 138.

[16] Lewalski, xii-xiii.

[17] Milton, 466.

[18] Milton, 93.

[19] David Scott Kastan. “Introduction.” Paradise Lost. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2005), xxix.

[20] Kastan, xxix.

[21] Milton, 268.

[22] Milton associates the images and beings on the function of disgust through his prosody. All of these recurring images needed to tell how a decrepit creature assumed the contorted forms of his previous hiding place, Pandemonium, in the corners of Milton’s complex prosodic structure. In this way, by multiplying the disgusting images, Milton makes us aware of the powers of various perceptions. Indeed, a phenomenology of disgust is at work in the poem.

[23] Wlliam Ian Miller. The Anatomy of Disgust. (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1997), 110.

[24] Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings. (Cambridge, Harvard UP: 2005), 332-33.

[25] Bloom, 54.

[26] Raymond Williams. Marxism and Literature. (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1977), 167.

[27] Williams, 165.

[28] Later, the English Romantics celebrate Milton as a prophet and a revolutionary in his life and in his art; because they set themselves to take up his prophetic veneer, they were able to respond creatively to his example.

[29] In Self-Crowned Laureates, Richard Helgerson states: “Milton’s poems do, of course, repeatedly rise above their ostensible occasions, turning external occasion into an occasion for poetic meditation as profound, and as profoundly moving, as any our language can show. But that artistic transcendence does not change the historical fact that Milton, as much as any of the cavaliers, depended on occasion to furnish his subjects.” (259-60)

[30] Richard Helgerson. Self Crowned Laureates. (Berkley: U of California P, 1983), 269.

[31] David Loewenstein. Representing Revolution in Milton and His Contemporaries. (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001), 203.

[32] For a discussion of how language carries ideology through the value-laden discourses that constitute it, see M.M. Bakhtin’s “Discourse in the Novel,” in The Dialogic Imagination (Austin: U of Texas P, 1981).

[33] Milton, 109

[34] Ibid, 109.

[35] Analogously, the anthropologist David Abram, relating human language to the empathic process, suggests “that by copying the distinctive prints and scratches made by other animals [ primitive man found he] could gain a new power; here was a method of identifying with the other animal, taking on its expressive magic… Tracing the impression [is a] way of placing oneself in distant contact with the Other” from The Spell of the Sensuous. (New York, Random, 1966), 96.

[36] Milton, 20.

[37] Julia Kristeva. Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art. Ed. Leon S. Roudiez. (New York: Columbia UP, 1980). Leon Roudiez indicates “a phenotext […] is the language of communication and has been the object of linguistic analysis” while “a genotext […] may be detected by means of certain aspects or elements of language, even though it is not linguistic per se” in “Introduction.” Desire in Language, 7. Moreover, Kristeva notes “the genotext penetrates the phenotext at the level of the signifier” Desire in Language, 208.

[38] See: D.H. Lawrence, “Herman Melville’s ‘Typee’ and ‘Omoo,’ ” in The Symbolic Meaning: The Uncollected Versions of Studies in Classic American Literature, ed. Armin Arnold. (Fontwell, Arundel: Centaur, 1962), 149.

[39] David A. Stewart. Preface to Empathy. (New York: Philosophical Library, 1956), 3.

[40] Milton, 268.

[41] Ibid, 268

[42] Milton, 287-88.

[43] Kastan, 288.

[44] Martin Heidegger. “The Origin of the Work of Art.” Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter, (San Francisco: Harper, 1971), 40.

Brad D. Baumgartner is a PhD student in English Literature and Criticism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. His current academic interests include twentieth century literatures and critical theory.