Paradise Lost — surviving air travel with some good books

by Rob Tiller

On plane rides to and from Dallas this week, I experienced above average travel headaches — absurdly slow security checks, bumpy air, noisy talkers all around, and somebody who had beans for lunch. But the fast metal tube is a good place to read, and I made substantial progress on Paradise Lost. John Milton’s great poem is intimidating in several ways – long, complex, and religious. But sweet Jocelyn had spoken of it with animation during her studies, which inspired me to sample it in Harold Bloom’s poetry anthology. It was beautiful, and so I decided to begin at the beginning.

It creates a world that is at times fantastically vivid. And there is a powerful music to the language. Parts of it are part of our vernacular, and it’s pleasant to come upon them. Other parts are highly obscure, and challenging in their complex syntax. But it moves forward with confident, powerful authority, telling a really big story, bejewelled with glittering details.

I thought I might be put off by the religious subject matter, because I generally have a strong allergic reaction to such ideas. It’s true that Milton uses the Genesis story for his basic material, but he makes it into something much more dramatic and thought-provoking than the original. His transformation of early religious writings into drama is similar to what Wagner did in the Ring cycle with the Norse myths. The Creator is just one character in the drama, and hardly the most interesting one.

I also spent some time reading A Culture of Improvement by Robert Freidel. Freidel traces the elements of technology that transformed ancient and medieval life. I used to think that technology changed little between the Romans and the eighteenth century, but there are all sorts of interesting things that happened earlier. His chapter on medieval cathedrals addresses both why and how they got built. Lots of trial and error — like technology today.

My kick back book was Sabbath’s Theater by Phillip Roth. I think Roth is the best living American writer of fiction (and I know of no better in other languages), and I was pleased to see that President Obama honored him with the National Humanities medal this week. Sabbath’s Theater is a masterpiece of a dyspeptic sort. Sabbath is an aging former puppeteer and theater director who has left his callings and devoted himself primarily to seducing women. His enthusiasm for each new female is at first humorous, but it gradually becomes clear that he is deeply disturbed. It’s like Portnoy’s Complaint as King Lear. I would not recommend Sabbath’s Theater as an introduction to Roth, or to anyone uncomfortable with sexual subject matter. But for some readers, it will open doors.