Electronic Reserve Text: TERRY EAGLETON The God that Failed

from Re-Membering Milton: Essays on the Texts and Traditions, ed. Mary Nyquist and Margaret W. Ferguson (New York: Methuen, 1987).

All revolutions give birth to their own mythologers, men and women whose self-appointed task, as Yeats says with grim-lipped simplicity in "Easter 19 I 6," is "to write it out in a verse." Yeats gathered the republican martyrs of the Dublin Post Office into the artifice of eternity, though not without an uneasy eye on the event's ambiguous implications for his own foolish Ascendency fictions; and one year later a rather different European revolution was to produce Blok, Eisenstein and Mayakovsky as its
prophetic bards. Preparing himself for the vatic role of cultural spokesman""
of the nationalist movement, Yeats looked back to the greatest of British revolutionary artists, William Blake, whose poetry he edited in the 1890S, and into whom he had, by some frenzied Nietzschean self-willing, to "remake" himself. Blake himself is the most astonishing instance we have of a revolutionary myth-maker, a man who inserted the bric-a-brac of passing political events into a flamboyant cosmic drama of primordial unity, subsequent alienation and eventual recuperation in the New Jerusalem. To do this, Blake needed to come to post-Oedipal terms with his own mighty revolutionary precursor, John Milton, redeeming him from the Spectre of his residual false consciousness so that his energies might fertilize once more (though not quite in the way Wordsworth intended) an England which
again had need of him.

    The task of the revolutionary mythologer is to furnish the political process with a set of efficacious symbols, universalize its meanings by inscribing them within a global drama, unify its disparate forces by the power of the image, and summon the past into metaphorical compact with the present. At stake in such revolutionary mythologizing is a struggle over the signifier, a fight for the hegemonic symbol, which is appropriated now this way, now that, depending on the balance of discursive forces. If revolutions lend themselves to these ends it is because there is something


theatrical about them in the first place, traced as they are by the play of fantasy, rhetoric and fiction, masking, posturing and unmasking, a costumed or uniformed staging which is always already symbolic and so easily translatable into poetic idiom. It did not take a Yeats to mythologize the Easter uprising: when James Connolly, setting out for the Post Office on that morning in 1916, whispered to a fellow republican that of course they didn't have the faintest chance of success, he was declaring the insurrection fiction and symbol from the outset, drawing upon the ancient Irish tradition (still alive in the Northern Irish hunger strikers of today) that failure and blood sacrifice are always finally more life-yielding than the odd military victory. As far as Connolly was concerned, the only good body was a dead one. But revolutions are symbolic to their core in another sense too: what the mythologer makes appear within the parochial content of a particular struggle is the glimmering substance of a broader, deeper political history, of which the particular event is microcosmic. Such indeed was the bold wager of Lenin and Trotsky in 19 17- that their own strike for power would prove metonymic of wider anti-capitalist insurrection in Europe, without which they knew very well that their own revolution was doomed to isolation, invasion and eventual loss. The mythologer must insist that what is in train here, for all its sordid contingent content, is of world-historical import; and it is for this reason that he will invoke Gabriel or Cuchulain, Lucifer or Los, Deirdre or the Druids, pressing these mythological figures into what Walter Benjamin would call a shocking "constellation" with the forces of the present, creating a revolutionary "monad" in which linear time (always on the side of Caesar) is abruptly arrested and the shades of the dead congregate around the empty pit of the present to brim it with their life-giving blood.
If mythologies tend to magnify the revolution, however, they also serve to mystify it. Writing it out in a verse has more than one meaning. \Vhat cannot yet be rendered intelligible in historical materialist terms is displaced instead into an idealist discotirse of the authentic Albion, sin and redemption, ancient Ireland, good and evil. Bourgeois revolutions have a particular need to grace their activities with such imagery since, as Marx comments in the opening pages of the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, they are constantly embarrassed by the grotesque discrepancy between the paucity of their social content and the visionary heroism of their rhetorical forms. "Hegel remarks somwhere," Marx writes with strange
insouciance (he had in fact just been reading the Philosophy of History),
"that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce." As if shamed by the squalor of their social content -fr~edom is freedom to exploit, equality the equality of the marketplace -the great
bourgeois revolutions live a hiatus between signifier and signified, tricking, out their meagre ends in the flashy insignia of previous epochs:


In the classically austere traditions of the Roman Republic [the French: revolutionary] gladiators found the ideals and the art forms, the self-: deceptions that they needed in order to conceal from themselves the' bourgeois limitations of the content of their struggles and to keep their i enthusiasm on the high plane of great historical tragedy. Similarly, at' another stage of development, a century earlier, Cromwell and the: English people had borrowed speech, passions and illusions from the Old i Testament for their bourgeois revolution. When the real aim had been
achieved, when the bourgeois transformation of English society had been: accomplished, Locke supplanted Habakkuk.1
Or, we might add, Milton gave way to Defoe.
The past is that which we seem doomed compulsively to repeat; the; revolution is a neurotic symptom which at once conceals and reveals its true i content in displaced rhetorical form. The repetition, Marx insists, happens i just when we think thC)t we are creating something new; Milton's: revolutionaries, in seeking to repair the Fall, end up by rehearsing it. This is i what is known as original sin -or, as Marx puts it in his own idiom, the i way that "the tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare! on the brains of the living." History is the nightmare from which we are' trying to wake up, but which in doing so we merely dream again. Perhaps: this is because the sin is original, there at the beginning: the origin itself is i flawed, the first parents marred, and so history becomes a parodic repetition
of a crime which was there from the outset. If the serpent lurks within the I garden, the origin is already defaced. This is why, as Wittgenstein: comments, it is hard to think of an origin without wanting to go back: beyond it. Yet at the same time it is only by dreaming the past that we can
wake from it: since the past is what we are made of, we can redeem the i present only by converting images of nightmare into dreams of emancipation. : The revolutionary repetitions, Marx reminds us, are not merely parodic"
caricatures of what was no doubt already a caricature: they also make the! spirit of revolution walk again:
Thus the awakening of the dead in those revolutions served the purpose i of glorifying the new struggles, not of parodying the old; of magnifying i
the given task jp imagination, not of fleeing from its solution in reality; of
finding once more the spirit of revolution, not of making its ghost walk about again.2
Only by turning back can we move forward; only if Milton turns round to ! face Eden with the horror-struck face of Benjamin's Angelus Novus can he! be blown by its winds towards the kingdom of the future. The past must be : pressed violently into the service of the present, classical traditions! heretically appropriated and miswritten to redeem the time. If one can be a : heretic in the truth, one can also be a truthteller in heresy.


All of this, as Marx suggests, has its farcical incongruity. Is all that highfalutin talk in heaven really about Cromwell & Co? If you "take your poetry from the past," Marx warns, you will magnify the present struggle only at the price of mystifying it. It is only the socialist revolution which, Marx comments enigmatically, will draw its poetry from the future, imagine from a place yet to be born. Yet by drawing their poetry from the past, the bourgeois revolutions do more than furnish imaginary solutions ("it was all because of original sin") to real political problems. The left wing of such revolutions, which will of course be constantly betrayed, is thereby also able to dream a future beyond such ephemeral matters as Bonaparte or Charles, nurturing in their mythological dramas the energies which the revolution quelled. Throwing history into reverse, the left wing retreats to an origin in order to keep alive a future beyond the shabby sell-outs of the bourgeoisie. Their mythologies glean the trace of the revolution within the revolution, a submerged subtext within the dispiriting narratives of official bourgeois history, whether this subtext is, as with Milton, the salvific history of the godly remnant or, as with Walter Benjamin, the tradition of the oppressed that haunts ruling-class history as its silenced underside. Blake knew that only a revolution which penetrated to the body itself could finally be victorious; Milton, as Christopher Hill remarks, believed that "the desire for reformation did not sink deeply enough into the consciences of supporters of the Revolution, did not transform their lives." Thus Hill reads Paradise Lost not as the expression of political defeatism but as the urging of a new political phase: "the foundations must be dug deeper, into the hearts of individual believers, in order to build more securely." 3
Today, perhaps, after Gramsci, we would say such a project involves the question of hegemony. Writing after the debacle of the European socialist revolutions, Gramsci in his Prison Notebooks is constrained to consider not only the structures of military and political power, but those less palpable, pervasive devices whereby a ruling order secures the internal assent of its subordinates, inscribing its imperatives in the very texture of their experience. Those who are heretics in the truth will tend to suppress that whole region -Gramsci names it "culture" -in their fervid pursuit of political goals, and will thus short-cut the struggle for hearts as peremptorily as did the puritan radicals. The heart of stone, modelled on the graven tablets of the Law, must yield to the heart of flesh, the interior space of subjectivity and the unconscious, if any transformative project is to succeed. The Nameof-the-Father must, however, give way to the Other of human flesh, discourse and desire, as Milton anticipates that the Father will finally abdicate power to his human son. Part of the task of what Gramsci terms the "organic" intellectuals is to spur on this process by challenging politicaJ hegemony in its spiritual-ideological forms. The organic intellectual is the product of a politically emergent class; and in seeking to organize its inchoate demands into the coherence of a unified "world view," he or she


must strive at once to undermine the culture of the "traditional" intelligentsia, and to assimilate individual members of that key group to the revolutionary cause. John Milton, son of a prosperous bourgeois, emerged by a laborious process of self-production to become the organic intellectual of the English revolution, so placed within the traditional intellectual culture as to revise, reject, assimilate and appropriate its contents in the cause of his own people. His stout Baconian contempt for aspects of traditionalist Cambridge was not, of course, some infantile ultra-leftism: as a "centrist" ideologue, occupying a mediatory position, he could make that culture work for him, dislocate it from the inside, "refunction" it, as Brecht would have said, to alternative ideological ends. The organic intellectual reinflects tradition, as the revolutionary present parodies and reinscribes the past.
The contentions within the very form of Paradise Lost, between classical device, religious transcendentalism, and the discourses of representation and rationality, are surely a sign of this dialectical situation. Pierre Macherey has written of the ways in which literary texts, by dint of their formal or figural devices, tend to press into contradiction their own ideology, throwing its covert incoherence into embarrassing relief.4 There is surely something very much like this at work in Milton's masterpiece, which struggles constantly with the problem of pressing into narrational and representational form a body of myth inherently resistant to such figuration. And it is precisely against the consequent slippages, aporias and inconsistencies that the poem's realist or Leavisian readers have most sternly protested. The work is not really very realistic: at one moment Satan is chained 1'10 the burning lake, and before you can look again he is making his way to the shore. George Eliot would have handled the whole thing incomparably better. What is fascinating about Paradise Lost, however, is precisely its necessary lack of self-identity -the persistent mutual interferences of what is stated and what is shown, the contradictory entanglements of epic immediacy and hermeneutical discourse, the fixing of significations at one level only to produce a sliding of them at another. The epic form of traditional intellectual culture at once magnifies and mystifies the prosaic realism of bourgeois revolution; and conversely, that discursive bourgeois realism is exposed in all its paucity by the epical splendour even as the realism appropriates and undercuts it.
What is at work in the poem's tortuous form, then, is an historically determined clash of semiotic codes. On the one hand, we could claim that the text's classical and sacred mise-en-scene is embarrassingly at odds with its discourses of sense and reason, in the manner of Marx's semiotically disrupted bourgeois revolutions. But at the same time we might see this embarrassment as working both ways. If the bourgeois ideolog~cal need to
narrate, explain, apologize threatens in its discursive realism to undo the very rhetorical frames in which it is staged, this is at once to its detriment for such magnifying, universalizing forms are as Marx points out a


bourgeois revolutionary requirement -and the sign of a certain deconstruction of traditionalist culture at the hands of a progressive bourgeois rationality. Milton's Protestant commitment to sense and discourse, his refusal of the idolatry of the apodictic image, his secularizing faith in rational causality: all of these impulses subtly assert themselves over the very symbolic forms of which they stand in need. Traditional culture, reverently summoned to illuminate the present, finds itself in that very act appropriated, swerved from, rewritten in heretical terms.
The clash of semiotic codes in Paradise Lost highlights with peculiar visibility what we might call the "materiality" of the poem's forms; and nowhere is this materiality more evident than in its language. The remorselessly logocentric Leavis, for whom the signifier, emptied of any action or substance of its own, must be no more than the obedient bearer of a signified, can see little in the "Miltonic music" but an external embellishment, clumsily at odds with the springs of sense. When T. S. Eliot remarked that you needed to read the poem twice, once for the sound and once for the meaning, he too had been struck by its contrived dislocation of the unified sign, the sonorous excess of language over meaning, the way in which the poem's language works athwart the "naltural" texture of the senses and so fails to repress its own artifice. Nothing could be further from the swift fusion of the Metaphysical conceit than the calculated self-conscious unfurling of the epic simile, with all its whirring machinery of production on show. As Habakkuk gives way to Locke, the materiality of the signifier in English discourse is on the point of yielding to the naturalized representational sign of bourgeois empiricism, which will serve the ideological ends of middle-class rule extremely well. Milton's rhetoric puts up a last-ditch resistance to this shackling of the sign, irreducible as that rhetoric is to the "natural" rhythms of a speaking voice. If a strain of Edenic sensuousness lives on, it can be found among other places in the carnality of the word, and the materialist in Milton takes delight in it.
It is not, of course, that Milton is anything other than profoundly logocentric as an ideologue; but aspects of his poetic practice run counter to the theorye One might argue, indeed, that logocentrism has been rendered in any full sense untenable by the fall from Eden, where thing and word were at one. Milton's God is purely, unmediately present as spirit in his "material"
deeds; but he is 'so only from the standpoint of eternity. Viewed from the fallen realm of a revolutionary history gone awry, those acts must be painfully, laboriously decoded and elaborated, in a hermeneutical discourse ineluctably subjected to temporality, dispersion and ambiguity. Such indeed is the traditional nature of allegory, which as Fredric Jameson comments is
"the privileged mode of our own life i_n time, a clumsy deciphering of
meaning from moment to moment, the painful attempt to restore a continuity to heterogeneous, disconnected instants. ,,5 In short, to justify the ways of God to men; for the transcendental signifier has apparently


withdrawn aloofly from his own handiwork, leaving behind him a tormentedly ambiguous historical text which must be laboriously scanned for signs of his presence and purpose. Milton's own poem, then, is not only about the Fall but a consequence of it: if our first parents had not introduced difference, lack, deformity and. desire into the world, nothing of this groping, besieged apologia would be necessary.
Milton's Arian heresy is perhaps relevant to this point, qualifying as it does any full-bloodedly logo centric view of Christ. The Son is not the full co-substantial presence of the Father; he is not Emmanuel, or "God with us."
Yet this swerve from Christian orthodoxy is also, as Blake saw, part of Milton's patriarchal unregeneracy. For the teaching of orthodox Christianity is precisely that what we have in the coming of the Son is the coming of the Father. It is God himself, not some delegate or sub-committee, who is hung
on a cross; to manifest the political truth that those who love sufficiently.
well will be killed by the state. The Father for traditional Christianity becomes through the Incarnation loving friend and fellow sufferer, which is to say that he is not the Father at all, for the Father is decentred in Christ to become brother and sister. It is this doctrine which the Pharisees of all ages find hard to take, with their stiff-necked assurance that respectability and self-righteousness will allow them to bargain their way to heaven, their idolatrous confidence that they can impress the living God by flexing their ethical muscles, showing him how very moral and right-living they are. It is the Pharisees who cannot accept the scandal that God has always already forgiven them, that they can forget about trying to impress him because he is part of their flesh and blood. It is they who define God as Satan ("The Accuser", in Hebrew), fear him as a punitive patriarch and so try to get even with him. They cannot swallow the sordid truth that the N ame-of-theFat~er has in the person of Christ become a broken human body, no longer the judge on the bench but co-criminal and counsel for the defence. Milton continues in part to define the Father as Satan, as a logical consequence of his Arian heresy.
If there is a twentieth-century candidate for Milton's Satan, it is surely Stalin. Both are overdetermined images of pompous princeling and perverted revolutionary, undecidable amalgams of traditional monarch and power-thirsty popular representative. The image of Satan is the point where the one blends inseparably into the other, as in the Eastern European bureaucracies. Stalinism has its own kind of satanic "fate" -the laws of development of the productive forces -but combirles this economism with an equally satanic voluntarism: the mighty power of the people, and the rest. What after all was the forced industrialization and collectivization but the desperate flailing of a revolution which could not succeed in isolation, and so like Satan's strike against heaven was in a certain sense predetermined to devour its own children? Any society which seeks to use the theory and practice of Marxism to catapult itself from chronic backwardness into the


twentieth century stands in grave danger of Stalinism, if more advanced forces do not come to its aid. For Marxism is a theory and practice of the transformation of developed capitalist societies into socialist ones; and that practice is dependent upon developed productive forces, accumulated
capital and a skilled, advanced and organized proletariat. Without all this,
along with international solidarity, a Third World revolution will be forced
steadily towards state bureaucratic centralization, in its drive for the primitive accumulation of industrial capital, its need to protect itself against imperialist invasion, its tackling of material scarcity, and in its structural autonomy, as a state, from a dispersed revolutionary peasantry for which it will come to "stand in." These are the classic conditions of Stalinism, of which Lenin and Trotsky were well aware.
To blame Marxism for these conditions is then somewhat akin to blaming God for the failure of seventeenth-century revolutionary hopes. To blame God in this way, Milton sees, can mean only one thing: that the Puritan bureaucrats, opportunists and careerists are then let comfortably off the moral and political hook. It was destiny after all; nothing to feel guilty about. But the failure of revolutionary hopes was not of course predestined,
and neither was Stalinism. To believe so is to exculpate a later set of
bureaucrats, opportunists and careerists; the European social democratic
parties who in betraying their own working classes helped to isolate the newly founded Soviet Union; and the imperialist invading armies who decimated the class which had made the revolution in Russia, thus leaving a bureaucratic workers' state suspended over a dwindled, exhausted popular base. There are always those who, like the Koestlers and the Orwells, find it convenient and persuasive to blame the God that failed; but if we wanted a more accurate analogue of Paradise Lost in the twentieth century, we might do worse than take a look at Trotsky's The Revolution Betrayed.
1. Lewis S. Feuer (ed.), Marx and Engels: Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy (London, 1969), 361-2. For a semiotic analysis of Marx's Eighteenth Brumaire, see Jeffrey Mehlman, Revolution and Repetition (Berkeley, 1977), and my own Walter Benjamin, or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism (London, 1981),
2. Feuer, op. cit., 362.
3. Christopher Hill, Milton and the English Revolution (Harmondsworth, 1977),
4. Pierre Macherey, A Theory of Literary Production (London, 1978).
5. Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Form (Princeton, 1971), 72.