Milton’s Psychology of Sin, Death, and Desire

One of the most horrifying depictions of the relationship of sin to death appears in Milton’s Paradise Lost. It carries with it all the archetypal horror that makes Ridley Scott’s Alien and Prometheus[1] so utterly frightening. In the excerpt below, Sin, personified as a gorgonesque creature explains to Satan how they came to know one another in Heaven: [2]

 

“Hast thou forgot me, then; and do I seem

Now in thine eyes so foul?—once deemed so fair

In Heaven, when at the assembly, and in sight

Of all the Seraphim with thee combined

In bold conspiracy against Heaven’s King,

All on a sudden miserable pain

Surprised thee, dim thine eyes, and dizzy swum

In darkness, while thy head flames thick and fast

Threw forth, till on the left side opening wide,

Likest to thee in shape and countenance bright,

Then shining heavenly fair, a goddess armed,

Out of thy head I sprung. Amazement seized

All the host of Heaven; back they recoiled afraid

At first, and called me Sin, and for a sign

Portentous held me; but, familiar grown,

I pleased, and with attractive graces won

The most averse—thee chiefly, who, full oft

Thyself in me thy perfect image viewing,

Becam’st enamoured; and such joy thou took’st

With me in secret that my womb conceived

A growing burden. Meanwhile war arose,

And fields were fought in Heaven: wherein remained

(For what could else?) to our Almighty Foe

Clear victory; to our part loss and rout

Through all the Empyrean. Down they fell,

Driven headlong from the pitch of Heaven, down

Into this Deep; and in the general fall

I also: at which time this powerful Key

Into my hands was given, with charge to keep

These gates for ever shut, which none can pass

Without my opening. Pensive here I sat

Alone; but long I sat not, till my womb,

Pregnant by thee, and now excessive grown,

 

 

Prodigious motion felt and rueful throes.

At last this odious offspring whom thou seest,

Thine own begotten, breaking violent way,

Tore through my entrails, that, with fear and pain

Distorted, all my nether shape thus grew

Transformed: but he my inbred enemy

Forth issued, brandishing his fatal dart,

Made to destroy. I fled, and cried out Death!

Hell trembled at the hideous name, and sighed

From all her caves, and back resounded Death!

I fled; but he pursued (though more, it seems,

Inflamed with lust than rage), and, swifter far,

Me overtook, his mother, all dismayed,

And, in embraces forcible and foul

Engendering with me, of that rape begot

These yelling monsters, that with ceaseless cry

Surround me, as thou saw’st—hourly conceived

And hourly born, with sorrow infinite

To me: for, when they list, into the womb

That bred them they return, and howl, and gnaw

My bowels, their repast; then, bursting forth

Afresh, with conscious terrors vex me round,

That rest or intermission none I find.

Before mine eyes in opposition sits

Grim Death, my son and foe, who sets them on,

And me, his parent, would full soon devour

For want of other prey, but that he knows

His end with mine involved, and knows that I

Should prove a bitter morsel, and his bane,

Whenever that shall be: so Fate pronounced.

But thou, O Father, I forewarn thee, shun

His deadly arrow: neither vainly hope

To be invulnerable in those bright arms,

Though tempered heavenly; for that mortal dint,

Save He who reigns above, none can resist.”

 

Milton plays on three of the deepest fears of humanity: death or malformity in childbirth, rape, and incest, followed by two more deeply unsettling images: being turned on by your own children and being forgotten by your own father.

In case you missed it (the archaic language makes it difficult), Milton essentially has Satan think of Sin so obsessively that his thoughts become personified as a beautiful woman otherwise utterly in his own image. He then, in his deep obsession with himself and with rebellion against God, rapes her (as he must both possess and destroy that which is most beautiful to him) and she conceives a child (Death). After the rebellion and angelic war, all are cast into hell, and Sin is left to guard the gate, but in the process gives birth to her monstrous kin as he tears himself from her womb (was Scott reading Milton?). Her angelic nature provides her with regenerative abilities which cause her to recover utterly deformed. Death, overcome by lust at what remains of her beauty, rapes her again (and again, etc). She then gives birth each time to hordes of hellish hounds.

Now, why does Milton play on such deep fears? I think he’s trying to help the reader see how horrible sin and its effects are. On one layer, Milton is trying to help people see how awful evil is and so he associates evil with some of our most fundamental drives, those associated with reproduction.

On another level, Milton is explaining psychology at a profound level. He points out that sin starts in the mind, is entertained until it becomes deeply attractive to us, then to such point it that it moves from fantasy to reality, then to such a point that we have to hide it for shame, then to such a point that it results in horrible consequences (which lead to death!), finally followed by numerous equally horrifying thoughts, actions, and desires which we use to defend ourselves from the death/hell of our own creation.

Biblically, this makes sense:

  1. In Genesis 4:7, sin’s desire is for Cain and the word for desire there is used for sexual desire elsewhere in the Bible.
  2. In Genesis 4:7, sin is also crouching at the door, like a hungry lion or tiger, waiting to devour Cain.
  3. In Genesis 4:8, Cain refuses to take mastery over sin as God recommends, and instead murders his brother (the very person whose blessing Cain wishes to obtain).
  4. In the Cain and Abel story, we also read that after Cain resentfully dishonors God by killing a man made in God’s image, Cain is forced to, for a time, roam the earth, thus becoming a nomad like his brother despite his vocation as a farmer and not a shepherd. In other words, he becomes deformed with respect to his nature (not his visage).
  5. In Hebrews, we discover that sin is often committed due to the fear of death, rather than the fear of God. (Hebrews 2:14-15)
  6. In James, we read:
    Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. (James 1:13-15 ESV)

Anyway, I hadn’t read Milton. I need to reread it. Attempting to “justify the ways of God to man” is a task perhaps no mind as great as his has undertaken.

References

[1] What I mean may not be entirely obvious, but the core is that Alien and Prometheus play on the fears men have of rape, pregnancy, and death by childbirth. In the first alien film, from an egg a creature attaches itself to a man, impregnates him, and bursts from his body. Then a cyborg, made in man’s image, becomes obsessed with the entire notion of violent reproduction and attempts to orally rape the protagonist utilizing a rolled up pornographic magazine. And so the progeny of man (machine) turns on man, and the progeny of man and the creature from the egg (the titular alien) turns on man as well. It’s a haunted house movie on the surface (people hiding from a scary creature in the shadows in a small space) but a disturbing psychological thriller at its core. Prometheus operates on the same level at its core, but is a sci-fi epic on the surface.

[2] John Milton, The Harvard Classics 4: The Complete Poems of John Milton, ed. Charles W. Eliot (New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1909), 129–131.