Evans, Martin. Milton's Imperial Epic: Paradise Lost and the Discourse of Colonialism. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1996; 194 pp.
Reviewed by Blake Rodger firstname.lastname@example.org
About three years ago, while taking a graduate seminar on Milton with John Leonard, I had the pleasure of being entertained with some refreshing new interpretations of Milton's colonialism from Evan's then-in-manuscript book, at the time being reviewed by John and now published in the December issue of the Milton Quarterly. I still remember being charmed by how Evans compared the fictional characters and events of Paradise Lost to the historical people and circumstances surrounding Britain's colonial relationship to the New World. I heard an original storyline that interpreted the fallen angels as malcontents purged from heaven-England and placed within the penal colony of hell-America, and Satan as a conquistador expanding his empire into Eden-America to ultimately colonize the naked Indians, Adam and Eve. I knew then I should read Evans' book, and I'm glad I did. Digging through reams of colonial literature to tease out multiple thematic connections to Paradise Lost, Evans reveals himself to be an explorer-discover on the frontier of original Milton scholarship.
Evans is not the only scholar who has set out to explore the imaginative repercussions of seventeenth century colonial ideology and discourse. In the last three decades there have been a number of books devoted to the discursive consequences of the Discovery and its aftermath, the most recent being Stephen Greenblatt's Marvellous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World (1991), Eric Cheyfitz's The Poetics of Imperialism (1991), Jeffrey Knapp's An Empire Nowhere: England, America, and Literature from Utopia to the Tempest (1992), J.H Elliott's The Old World and the New, 1492-1650, and Anthony Pagden's European Encounters with the New World (1993). Evans acknowledges the cumulative insights of all these books in the shaping of his ideas, but at the same time he realizes that he is breaking into new and fertile territory in comparing Paradise Lost to colonial literature. Robert Cawley has written Milton and the Literature of Travel in order to show the direct influence of colonial literature upon Milton, but Evans goes beyond this to show that Milton's epic articulates (albeit in a complicated and elusive process) the ambivalent colonial ideology of his time. Though it might be fashionable for some to claim that Milton was pro or anti-imperialistic, Evans resists any tendency to politicise Milton. He thinks that Milton reflected in his poem the language of his times, without necessarily espousing its beliefs.
In setting out to prove Paradise Lost's "mimesis of colonial discourse," Evans undertakes the hard task of comparing the language of Paradise Lost to colonial documents, tracts, reports, journals, letters etc. If it is surprising that so many documents exist of colonial literature, it is equally surprising that Evans tries to wade through them all. While a new historicist would be content to place a single "congeneric" text beside Paradise Lost, Evans feels he must bring many texts to bear in order to establish cogent relationships. He definitely builds a solid case, but there are times when he overwhelms the reader with too much evidence. Though Evans is a charming writer and provocative writer, at times I found myself skimming through the many paraphrases and quotations of colonial literature to reach the inferences Evans made of them. I also found myself yearning for the some more "literary" accounts of colonialism--such as found in the imaginary worlds of such fictions as More's Utopia, Spenser's The Faerie Queen, and Shakespeare's The Tempest. Evans may have thought these explorations to have been already discussed by Eric Cheyfitz and Jeffrey Knapp, but he missed the opportunity to make some interesting relationships between Milton's epic and more familiar renaissance epics of exploration.
Evans cannot be expected to cover all forms of colonial literature, however, and from themes distilled from less fictional accounts, he makes a number of startling connections between Paradise Lost and the ambivalence of colonial ideology. He recognizes that the colonization of the New World, like that of Hell and Eden, is justified paradoxically by purgation, ridding England (Heaven) of its malcontents (devils) by depositing them in the New World (Hell). Like the purgative functions of the New World, Hell exists to relieve heaven of its undesirables; in contrast, Eden is settled for purposes of expansion, to restock heaven with a better race of beings. Eden also shares with the New World the theme of supernatural fertility that is at once beautiful, a land of plenty, and ominous, a physical and moral wilderness to be kept at bay. Moreover, it is the focus of two opposing colonial powers: Adam and Eve are American Indians to Satan as colonizer and are indentured servants to God as "sovran planter". This last point may be a stretch, as there is no financial contract between God and Adam, and God would not need servants, being overwhelmingly self-sufficient, but readers may grant Evans some interpretative freedom. Adam and Eve may not be indentured servants, but in making contracts to God, they are bound in their relationship to God like a servant to a master.
Of all the chapters, chapter 3 ("The Colonist") is one of the most interesting for its interpretation of Satan as a prototypical colonist. Recognizing Satan as an embodiment of the Renaissance Explorer is not new, but Evans goes further than most in seeing Satan assume a number of different colonial roles: he is at different times Renaissance explorer, buccaneer, empire-builder, lover, missionary, and merchant. In arguing for Satan as explorer, Evans notices that Satan's two motives for voyaging to Eden bear a startling resemblance to the motives of early colonists: to build an outpost on heaven's frontier and to seek deliverance for all his men. Other motives keep appearing as Evans pushes forward, and two that become titillating are motives of sexual conquest and religious conversion, both, incidently, directed at Eve. For the sexual motive, Evans takes up Satan's "jealous leer" in response to Adam and Eve making love, and when Satan approaches Eve, Evans sees him "as a sophisticated London rake ogling an innocent country girl, and during the initial stages of the temptation he approaches his prey as if she were a prospective mistress, courting her with all the hyperbole of a Renaissance love poet" (67). For the missionary motive, Evans argues that Satan, like John Rolfe's "conversion" of the Pocahontas, claims his approach to Eve is motivated purely and simply by his "Zeal of Right" (9.676):
He has come to liberate her from the lowly state of ignorance in which he finds her. Indeed, his arguments for eating the forbidden fruit promise Eve nothing less than a Satanic equivalent of the Pauline conversion experience . . . it is hardly surprising that as soon as the Evil's evangelical mission has been accomplished, Eve behaves just like a new convert, worshipping the tree as if it were a sacred icon. 68-9
If I may be permitted to combine the sexual and missionary roles, it seems that Satan assumes the "missionary position" to rape Adam and Eve of their territory. Poor puns aside, Evans rightly sees Raphael as the true missionary of God reminding Adam and Eve of the colonial virtues of loyalty and obedience, and forewarning them of the false seducer / missionary.
I find it amusing to read Adam and Eve likened to naked Indians behaving differently to the arrival of Raphael as Columbus: "Like the ideally submissive and subservient Indians of those early narratives, Adam welcomes his 'god-like Guest' (351) with 'submiss approach and reverence meek' (359) (71). For some reason, I never thought of Adam and Eve as Indians, but the analogy fits. Indians are portrayed in colonial literature as submissive, vulnerable and curious children, and Adam and Eve exhibit all three traits in dealing with Raphael and Satan--except that Adam and Eve are educated at birth. Adam tries to imitate Raphael and work towards the good life, but he is taken down with Eve when she tries to imitate Satan and reach toward the wrong life. Evans talks of the subsequent degeneration of Adam and Eve, but I wonder if he has overlooked a possible parallel between the intoxication of Adam and Eve by Satan's fruit and the intoxication of the Indians by the colonist's liquor? Evans is far more thorough than I in making colonial connections, however, and in hunting for Indian echoes, Evans produces the startling connection that Satan and his followers are like Indians in being cast out of their native seat (i.e., victimized by colonial aggression) and in fighting back in the same indirect, fraudulent way. Milton refers to them as tartars, a name associated with barbarism and the myth that the Indians made their way to the continent by means of an ice bridge--the bridge Satan builds for Sin and Death.
One may think at times that Evans is stretching his comparisons, but I enjoy his reading so much I tend to give him the benefit of the doubt. Many of the connections are difficult to refute given their ample documentary support, and their overwhelming prevalence suggests that Milton did structure his poem on a colonial ideology. The question is, what does Evans conclude about Milton's overall attitude toward colonialism? Although it would be fashionable for Evans to conclude that Milton is against colonialism, and thus an ally to postmodernism, Evans is too good a scholar to ignore facts in order to sail with the fashionable political current. He notices that the representation of Satan as merchant/adventurer might lead one to conclude that Paradise Lost is against mercantilism, but he is mindful that Satan is elsewhere depicted as a resentful victim of divine colonialism, and that Raphael represents the legitimate colonizer. Evans thus thinks that Milton is politically neutral, neither for nor against imperialism. This unbiased reasonableness has allowed Evans to locate startling connections between colonial discourse and Milton's Paradise Lost that enriches the epic without distorting it.