‘Tis the season … to be morbid?

December 9, 2008

Let us be morbid, at least in part because it is fun to do so. And, hey, we’ll only pause to reflect on three consecutive two-letter words that contain the letter “o” because, well, I like to be annoying that way. But, to the point at hand ….

Let us begin by wishing a happy birthday to a dead man. December 9, 1608: the birth of John Milton.

Celebrations are afoot, and they are the kinds of celebrations that only “book people” could love. The faculty at Christ’s College, Cambridge University, are reading the entirety of Paradise Lost in a twelve-hour webcast. No, I didn’t find the link. And the Morgan Library in New York is showing off the only extant handwritten manuscript of the famous poem. I’m sure that somewhere in England you can find a pub packed with bookworms and historians drinking hard and singing praises to Milton, but that may not be so unusual in and of itself. Well, okay, maybe the Milton part. And it’s probably not like the legendary drunken orgies in honor of Coleridge. Paradise Lost is cool and all, but it’s no Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

William Kerrigan would disagree about Coleridge. He calls the poem the greatest work of its kind in the English language, and says that Milton was

… a very great poet, a great mythmaker. He was an interesting man, politically — one of the first European intellectuals to argue in favor of divorce on the grounds of lack of spiritual companionship …. He published the first book devoted to censorship. All of this, along with some of the greatest poetry in the history of the world ….

…. It has great cosmic vistas. It describes gods and monsters. And the sublimity of its subject matter is matched by the sustained beauty of its language.

And this guy should know. The editor of the Modern Library’s Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of John Milton, Kerrigan once wired himself on caffeine and sugar in order to devour the entire poem—over ten thousand lines of heavy, unrhymed iambic pentameter—in a single sitting. That is a mind-boggling prospect. While I would not argue such a feat impossible, it is a hard prospect to envision. In truth, I never have read the entire poem, in part because, having gotten to it shortly after I dropped out of college, I decided partway through that, like Dante’s Inferno, this was a work better taught and learned than absorbed nakedly in our modern era.

And maybe there is something to that. Taught or proselytized: over at the Morgan Library, curator Declan Kiely considered the reverence some people show Milton’s epic. Recently, the museum played a recording of an actor reading the first lines of the poem to a visiting group, and, as Kiely explained, “everyone bowed their head as if they were in church”. Apparently this is not unusual behavior.

• • •

And death is delightful, or so it might seem. NPR’s Alan Cheuse reviews two novels for All Things Considered in which death itself becomes complicated. Johnathan Carroll’s The Ghost in Love features Ling, an agent of the Angel of Death, is dispatched to investigate and correct an aberration in the careful balance of life and death, only to fall in love with the should-be dead fellow’s girlfriend. As Cheuse notes,

Some job she does: She falls in love with Ben’s girlfriend and cooks up a storm while longing for her. A lesbian ghost? Sure, why not?

And, of course, things only get complicated from there.

Meanwhile, José Saragamo’s Death With Interruptions (translated by Margaret Juli Costa), examines Death on a holiday:

Death takes a holiday. But this Death is a woman, and one who has only taken a temporary break from her work.

Where Carroll focuses on how a cessation of death effects individual characters, Saramago turns his brilliant light on collective institutions. In the country where these events take place — a country much like Saramago’s native Portugal — the end of death takes its toll on government, the church, the family, the army, the mafia, insurance companies, funeral homes and other established bulwarks of society.

And, of course, what kind of story would it be if Death did not fall in love? And while love may or may not conquer all, it can certainly screw things up.

The reviews and excerpts of both stories are available at NPR.org.



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