Yesterday I watched a Comic Con presentation about metaphor and philosophy in Buffy which touched upon the Absurd: the conflict between the lack of meaning in the universe and our desire to search for it. So I had this concept close at hand as I started reading Paradise Lost and, lo and behold, I have thoughts!
[I should disclose now that I haven’t actually read Albert Camus’ essay on this, The Myth of Sisyphus, so all my information is from secondary sources.]
Camus compared a meaningless life – or, assuming that life is meaningless, an awareness of its meaninglessness – to exile, which is exactly what the fallen angels are experiencing after they’ve lost the war in Heaven. In Milton’s universe, God = meaning and Hell = the absence of God and so Milton literalises this analogy (which I’m aware Camus didn’t use until 1942 but still) by depicting hoards of angels thrown out of God’s realm and moping about it. They’re like you when you suddenly think to yourself, “Why am I bothering to revise when I’ll just end up as worm food regardless?” You are suddenly detached from everything you’ve been working towards, just as the angels are phy
sically separated from their former home by Chaos (the physical realm of darkness and erratic weather described in Book II, not, like, general disorder).
The angels try to elude the Absurd in the two ways Camus would later identify: suicide and hope. When Satan calls a debate, the first to speak is Moloch, who proposes another war against Heaven. He says that at this point they have nothing to lose and at least if they’re defeated there’s a chance that God will actually lose his shit this time and just obliterate them – and then their suffering will be over.
Belial then opposes Moloch’s position. (Here the narrator warns us, “his tongue / Dropped manna”, which, in any other context, I would have assumed to be slang and looked up on Urban Dictionary.)
He does indeed drop manna in re suicide: “Sad cure! for who would lose, / Though full of pain, this intellectual being, / Those thoughts that wander through eternity, / To perish rather, swallowed up and lost / In the wide womb of uncreated Night, / Devoid of sense and motion?” He summarises Absurdity in that third line but argues that a meaningless life is better than
no life at all. Could he be suggesting what Camus sought to assert: that you can acknowledge an absence of meaning but not kill yourself? No. To elude the Absurd, Belial employs hope: first he argues that this isn’t the worst thing ever; it’s actually quite nice compared to falling wounded through Chaos or lying chained in a burning lake. He’s denying that the angels, with Hell as their “shelter”, are entirely lost. He then changes tack – I see what Milton was saying about his tendency to “perplex and dash / Maturest counsels” – suggesting that perhaps if they bear their punishment obediently, after a while God will let them off. Or, even if God stays mad, after a while they’ll grow accustomed to Hell and it won’t seem so bad. Belief in either possibility is an act of faith which eludes the truth of their exile, the
same way belief in an afterlife for us eludes the meaninglessness of this one.
Hence – and I’ve only just understood this while writing – Milton calls these “words clothed in reason’s garb”. It’s interesting, though, that he doesn’t reprimand Moloch’s proposition similarly. He doesn’t have an issue with the angels trying to escape their punishment but he doesn’t like it when they delude themselves with false hope. Perhaps this stems from his bitterness about his own exile, which comes across pretty explicitly in Book IX: “an age too late, or cold / Climate, or years, damp my intended wing / Depressed”. Maybe, when Beelzebub expresses similar hope – “we may chance / Re-enter Heaven; or else in some mild zone / Dwell, not unvisited of Heaven’s fair light” – he is mocking his own hope, desperate and tireless, and that of mankind.