«ton: Paradise Lost and the Question of Kabbalah Rosa Flotats ESTUDIS UNIVERSITARIS DE VIC T he proposal for analysing a poem taking Kabbalah as a ...»
Milton: Paradise Lost
and the Question of Kabbalah
ESTUDIS UNIVERSITARIS DE VIC
he proposal for analysing a poem taking Kabbalah as a point of reference may be regarded as an
unfruitful and misleading approach due to the pejorative meaning it has for many people; howe-
ver, if the most important traits are brought clearly into view one comes to realise that Kabbalah
contributes decisively with the understanding and interpreting of a text. After all, Kabbalah is a mode of language and, especially, a mode of interpretation1. When faced with the imposing task of reading or interpreting a text we are confronted with the question of how much of this text we are able to identify and how much of our personality we need to give up in order to come to grips with its reality and fina- lity. It is hardly questionable that any final objective and the result obtained are always constrained by a combination of historical and/or traditional factors that will constitute the personality of that text. The reader who is also constrained by his own historical and traditional factors may feel forced to use what Harold Bloom names his own “belatedness”2, those conditions that influence him when interpreting the
text. According to Bloom in Kabbalah and Criticism:
A reader understanding a poem is indeed understanding his own reading of that poem....There are weak mis-readings and strong mis-readings, just as there are weak poems and strong poems, but there are no right readings, because reading a text is necessarily the reading of a whole system of texts, and meaning is always wandering around between texts (p.107).
It is this idea of “wandering between texts” and the importance of the reader’s meditation that leads us to the question of Kabbalah as part of a receiver’s belatedness.
Bloom states that Kabbalah must be understood as “tradition” and “reception”, the latter referring to the whole of Oral Law, and the former referring to “traditional wisdom”. It is a body of rhetoric or figu- rative language which offers a radical consideration of Man’s Being in relation to the world and to God.
Gershom Scholem in On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism points out that Kabbalism establishes a state of interdependence of all the worlds and all existential levels3. It is indeed a philosophy of rhetoric that offers an interpretation of the Bible, especially of the Torah, or Pentateuch, under the influence of Neoplatonism and Gnosticism together with the entire Jewish tradition of interpreting the Bible found in the Talmudic writings. It is a mysticism of profound religious feeling that manages to keep the Halakhah (“Sacred Law”) and the Aggadah (“legend”, “myth”) in union. Scholem defines it in terms of “traditional wisdom”: “a doc
Kabbalah too draws upon the mystic’s awareness of both the transcendence of God and His immanence within the true religious life, every facet of which is revelation of God, although God Himself is most clearly perceived through man’s introspection....The second element in Kabbalah is that of theosophy, which seeks to reveal the mysteries of the hidden life of God and the relationships between the divine life on the one hand and the life of man and creation on the other. Speculations of this type occupy a large and conspicuous area in kabbalistic teaching. Sometimes their connection with the mystical plane becomes rather tenuous and is superseded by an interpretative and homilectical vein which occasionally even results in a kind of kabbalistical pilpul.5 To study the universe the kabbalists based their work on the Bible. Therefore by means of myth and rhetoric Kabbalah seeks to explain the cause and process of the Creation6 with the underlying idea that Man participates in it and is constantly improving or impairing it. The mysteries of the divinity, seen seated on the Throne, can only be revealed to a few elect; hence the use of certain esotericism and modes of language which conceal them from the uninitiated and untrained. The theory of the ten Sefirot or attributes of God, represent aspects of the inaccessible One, the Supreme Ein-Sof and Ayin, the “Deus Absconditus”. Thus, the Sefirot form the active world of the Divinity, they are all contained in each other, and they are all the manifestation of God’s immanence in the world. They evince His dynamic unity and the process by means of which He manifests Himself as Creator.
The Sefiroth are presented as a reversed tree with Keter, or “Crown” and “Divine Light” at the top, out of which emanate all the other Sefirot. Hokhmah, or “wisdom”, forms the second Sefirah in the tree; Binah, or “understanding”, is the third following Hokhmah. These three form the Supernal Triad –the realm of the first manifestation of the Divinity. The other seven taken conjointly are considered the Sefiroth of creation, their names being, in order: (4) Hesed (“Mercy”); (5) Din (“Rigor/Judgement”) or Gevurah (“Power”); (6) Tiferet (“Beauty”) or Rabamim (Compassion); (7) Nezah (“Eternity”); (8) Hod (“Reverberation”, “majesty”);
(9) Yesod (“Foundation”); (10) Malkhut (“Kingdom”). Three lines or columns are exhibited: the active –at the right of Keter–, starting with Hokhmah followed by Hesed and Nezah; the passive –to the left of Keter–, starting with Binah and followed by Din and Hod. Finally, the central pillar, which descends from the Crown, Keter, to Tiferet, down to Yesod and then to Malkhut. This is also known as the pillar of “equilibrium”7.
The apparent complexity of the system seems to become clearer when interpreting God’s attributes in their application to the lower world. Marjorie H. Nicolson in her article “Milton and the Conjectura Cabbalistica” stresses the influence Christian Kabbala received from Ramon Llull, Philo Judaeus, Neoplatonism, and neo-Pythagoreanism and how in its turn it influenced the literature of the Renaissance and made a special entrance into England in the second quarter of the 17th century (p.2Christian Kabbalah began to evolve in the 15th century onward through certain mystics who tried to harmonize Kabbalistic doctrines with Christianity. Their intention was to demonstrate that “the true hidden meaning of the teachings of Kabbalah points in a Christian direction”9. According to Scholem, Christian Kabbalah spread from two sources: from the theological speculations of a number of Jewish converts from the end of the 13th century; and from speculation developed around the Platonic Academy
in Florence during the time of the Medicis. Scholem gives an account of this in the following terms:
The Christian speculation about the Kabbalah that first developed around the Platonic Academy
MILTON: PARADISE LOST AND THE QUESTION OF KABBALAH 45endowed by the Medicis in Florence and was pursued in close connection with the new horizons opened up by the Renaissance in general. These Florentine circles believed that they had discovered in the Kabbalah an original divine revelation to mankind that had been lost and would now be restored, and with the aid of which it was possible not only to understand the teachings of Pythagoras, Plato, and the Orphics, all of whom they greatly admired, but also the secrets of the Catholic faith. The founder of this Christian school of Kabbalah was the renowned Florentine prodigy Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-94)... his theses first brought the Kabbalah to the attention of many Christians. (Enc.
He also explains that such views were not approved by the kabbalists themselves. In the 17th century the writings of Jacob Boehme and of Knorr von Rosenroth gave an impulse to Christian kabbalism.
In England such influence is met in the writings of some of the Cambridge Platonists such as Ralph Cudworth and Henry More. That Man is endowed with Free Will, the acceptance of a feminine part in God, and the acceptance of evil as a necessary requirement for the creation to take place are ideas that acquire some relevance in a theory that establishes pairs of opposites: light and darkness, good and evil, spirit and matter, male and female10. The Sefer ha-Zohar, or “Book of Splendour”, written in Spain around the 12th and 13th centuries, is constantly setting and exhibiting clear contrasts at all the levels of reality11. Thus Heaven finds its opposition with Hell: its landscape, hierarchical structure, palaces and so on have their counterparts in the world of darkness. Heaven and Hell are in God’s mind. They received their being at the moment God thought about them; hence the belief in God’s foreknowledge.
Kabbalism also offers the possibility of the return by an act of purification in repentance and suffering. The idea that suffering has meaning and that it is the consequence of exile had already been highlighted by Philo and the neoplatonists; it is this which encourages the movement of the return to the One or Monad. The Platonic idea that Man is a mirror of the great cosmos, himself a microcosmos, is taken up by the kabbalists. Philo, who united Hellenism and Judaism seems to be one of the most important influences on the kabbalists12. His influence and that of the Biblical texts, Platonism, Pythagoreanism, Neoplatonism and Gnosticism play the significant role of turning the Kabbalah into a completely eclectic system and method of interpretation. Metaphor, allegory, oxymoron, and metonymy are some of the modes of speech that are given preference in Kabbalistic writings.
A certain esotericism is obviously implied due to the linguistic symbolism and myth it makes use of.
Besides, all of these can be explained in terms of allowing the kabbalist student to adopt the approach and understanding that suits best their own creative nature. Kabbalah is a system that highlights free will, considering it a characteristic of humanity; therefore this system must be open, it can in no way restrict the freedom of any interpreter, follower, student, or reader.
This paper deals with the relation between Kabbalah and Paradise Lost. When summarizing Kabbalah and extracting its main concepts, stripped of the extraordinary rhetoric that constitutes their flesh and dress, we realize that certain coincidences with Milton’s thought as found in PL13 are astonishing. It is no wonder that Denis Saurat considered Milton’s philosophical ideas truly kabbalistic14. He believed that Milton knew the Zohar and had read other similar documents. In Milton, Man and Thinker, Saurat presents his arguments in defence of the theory that Milton was widely influenced by the Zohar and other kabbalistic writings15, and highlights in particular these verses on God’s retraction from PL (vii.170-2): “I uncircumscribed Myself retire,/ And put not forth My goodness, which is free/ To act or 46 ROSA FLOTATS not...” (p.102). In opposition to that, and according to Sanford Budick, PL should be read as a typological poem16. The similitudes with Judaism are brought about thanks to Milton’s knowledge of the Hebrew Bible and of certain Midrashim. However, his eclectic and often syncretistic approaches to concrete beliefs allow and encourage an interpretation that goes beyond at of conventional typology.
Not everything in Milton agrees with Kabbalism. His interest in politics and history surpasses that of the kabbalists themselves; very often the poem needs to be read in light of its social and historical background to be properly understood. In addition to that, R.J. Zwi Werblowsky in “Milton and the Conjectura Cabbalistica” offers an analysis of all the flawed arguments of D. Saurat and refutes them thoroughly17. Zwi Werblowskky states that Saurat relied on a very bad translation of the Zohar, and that most of the points used by Saurat are simply Christian and/or mystical commonplaces. He also points out Saurat’s misunderstanding of God’s Zimzum, or “retraction”. Still, there seem to be enough reasons to believe that drawing from kabbalism might have proved instrumental in the reinforcement and dramatization of some beliefs such as Milton’s anti-Trinitarianism and concept of evil. The idea, found in H.
Bloom18, which interprets the triads as the relation in the poem between a sign, its object, and the interpreting thought, together with his statement that the “Sefirotic tree is a working model for a theory of poetic influence” (p.53) well justify the use of some of these ideas in the overall structure of the poem, allowing it at the same time to remain open to different interpretations. A poem is also a creation and the poet is like the demiurge who gives essence and existence to something concrete.
There are a variety of ideas in PL that coincide with Kabbalism. However, Milton might have developed similar ideas and reached similar conclusions from his own reading, analysing, and thinking. One such issue that Kabbalah took from Jewish theology and which coincides with Christian theology as well is “Free Will”, which Milton bounds up with reason, a faculty of Man that allows him to reach a state of balance or “equilibrium”. The concept of freedom is perhaps the strongest in PL, it is constantly present and all the events that take place stem therefrom. This is all too clear in the following extract where God
speaking to the Son foresees that man will fall:
For Man will hearken to his (Satan’s) glozing lies, And easily transgress the sole command, Sole pledge of his obedience: so will fall He and his faithless progeny. Whose fault?
Whose but his own? Ingrate, he had of me All he could have; I made him just and right, Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.
Such I created all the Ethereal Powers And Spirits, both them who stood and them who failed;
Freely they stood who stood, and fell who fell.
...What praise could they receive, What pleasure I, from such obedience paid, When Will and Reason (Reason also is Choice), Useless and vain, of freedom both despoiled, Made passive both, had served Necessity, Not Me? They, therefore, as to right belonged (iii. 93-112)19 So were created,