Milton’s Satan Invades Charleston

Gustave Doré, "Satan in the Garden of Eden"

Gustave Doré, “Satan in the Garden of Eden”

Spiritual Sunday

Ramadan commenced this past Wednesday and I will post an essay next Sunday in commemoration of the month-long Muslim observance. Today, however, as America still reels in shock over the church killings in Charleston, I repost an essay I wrote following the Tucson killings and which I’ve already reposted once following the Aurora killings. Like President Obama, I feel like there’s nothing new to be said. We just keep repeating our old sorrow.

This particular post, however, is even more apropos today because the killer participated in a Bible study before killing members of the congregation. In my post I talk about how light often attracts darkness, and on Friday we saw just how much light there is in the AME congregation when family members who had lost loved ones forgave the killer during his bond hearing. This response, reminiscent of Christ’s “Forgive them Lord, for they know not what they do,” reminds me of a comparable moment in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, from which I quoted in Friday’s essay about the shootings. I talk about Silko’s insight following the reposted essay.

One other note: The darkness in Dylann Roof is not limited to one crazed mind but grew out of the darkness that is American racism. He found validation through various symbols, narrative frameworks, and a tradition of racist hatred. In other words, the killings did not happen in a vacuum. The Grendelian resentment that I described in Friday’s post has been a part of our national psyche ever since slavery was fueling American prosperity and it continues on today.

As I wrote in my book How Beowulf Can Save America, virulent racism often resurfaces when Americans feel that they are not achieving the promise of the American dream. They look for scapegoats, and I remember how poor whites scapegoated African Americans in the southern Tennessee county where I was raised. We no longer have segregation but racism, after going underground for a couple of decades, has become more brazen since we elected an African American president. These nine parishioners are the latest scapegoats sacrificed in this long and bloody history.

Of course, the greatest of all sacrificial scapegoats was a Jew living in Roman-occupied Israel, and members of Charleston’s AME Church are doing all they can to follow in his footsteps. They have faith that God’s love can perform miracles, including move this country past racism. I pray with all my soul that their faith is justified.

“Lost Paradise Syndrome in Tucson,” reprinted from Jan. 23, 2011

As I teach Beowulf for the umpteenth time, I am struck once again by its beautiful rendition of the Genesis creation story. I’m also struck by how the invocation of that beauty calls forth human horror. Exploring the linkage provides some insight into the mass killings we have come to expect.

The passage I have in mind all but says that that the song of creation unleashes Grendel’s murderous rampage. Here it is in Seamus Heaney’s incomparable translation:

Then a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark,
nursed a hard grievance. It harrowed him
to hear the din of the loud banquet
every day in the hall, the harp being struck
 the clear song of a skilled poet
telling with mastery of man’s beginnings,
how the Almighty had made the earth
a gleaming plain girdled with waters;
in His splendor He set the sun and the moon
to be earth’s lamplight, lanterns for men,
and filled the broad lap of the world
with branches and leaves; and quickened life
in every other thing that moved.

This reminds me of a similar passage in Paradise Lost. Satan, having journeyed from Hell on his quest to corrupt God’s new creation, is awed by the beauty of the Garden of Eden and curses the sun for revealing it to him:

O sun, [I] tell thee how I hate thy beams
That bring to my remembrance from what state
I fell, how glorious once above thy sphere . . .

Milton describes Satan as existing within a perpetual mental hell. What eats away at him, more than anything else, is “the bitter memory of what he was, what is, and what must be worse.” Milton writes,

. . . horror and doubt distract
His troubled thoughts, and from the bottom stir
The Hell within him, for within him Hell
He brings, and round about him, nor from Hell
One step no more than from himself can fly
By change of place . . .

I am no psychologist but this strikes me as a fairly accurate description of the inner states of Tucson killer Jared Loughner and Virginia Tech killer Seung-hui Cho and the Columbine killers and any other number of Grendel/Satans. [We can now add Dylann Roof to that list.] In other words, they may suffer from paradise lost syndrome. Faced with innocence and joy, they feel their own inner darkness—their distance from that light—all the more intensely.  At some level, they realize that their own beautiful souls have become buried deep and they attempt to blot out that awareness.  Their means for doing so is destroying those who trigger the memories.

Here’s is Satan’s reaction after watching Adam and Eve exchanging “kisses pure”:

[A]side the Devil turned
For envy, yet with jealous leer malign
Eyed them askance, and to himself thus plained:
“Sight hateful, sight tormenting! Thus these two
Imparadised in one another’s arms
The happier Eden, shall enjoy their fill
Of bliss on bliss, while I to Hell am thrust,
Where neither joy nor love, but fierce desire,
Among our other torments not the least,
Still unfulfilled with pain of longing pines . . .

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’s upbeat personality, which attracted idealistic nine-year-old Christina Taylor-Green to her town hall event, also drew in Loughner. The sight of Cho’s college classmates living normal happy lives seemed to send the Virginia Tech student into a fury. Light has a way of calling out darkness.

Jesus understood this phenomenon as well as anyone ever has. He also knew that the darkness wins only when we ourselves become fearful and lash out in return.

Immediately before sending Adam out of the Garden of Eden, archangel Michael counsels him, and us, about what our response to Satanic darkness should be:

                                                                      . . . add
Deeds to thy knowledge answerable, add faith,
Add virtue, patience, temperance, add love,
By name to come called charity, the soul
Of all the rest: then wilt thou not be loath
To leave this Paradise, but shall possess
A paradise within thee, happier far.

Believe it.

Added note: By the conclusion of Silko’s novel Ceremony, the protagonist Tayo has found a new inner peace, but this peace stirs the dark hatred of his fellow Indian veterans, who are seething with resentment and regard it as an affront. When they cannot find him, they turn on each other. Because Tayo resists his own urge to respond to violence with violence, the darkness, at least temporarily subsides. I’m hoping that America will respond the same way to Dylan Roof’s violence. Here’s the key moment in the novel:

It had been a close call. The witchery had almost ended the story according to its plan; Tayo had almost jammed the screwdriver into Emo’s skull the way the witchery had wanted, savoring the yielding bone and membrane as the steel ruptured the brain. Their deadly ritual for the autumn solstice would have been completed by him. He would have been another victim, a drunk Indian war veteran settling an old feud…

I admit to having my own dark revenge fantasies every time we have another mass killing. In her closing invocation, Silko urges us instead to turn to the light:

accept this offering,

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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