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Anxiety in Eden: A Kierkegaardian Reading of Paradise Lost.

John S. Tanner. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. xi + 209 pp. $35.

In this well-written and interesting book, John Tanner argues that Kierkegaardian The Concept of Anxiety and Milton in Paradise Lost treat similar issues in similar ways, though Kierkegaard does not seem to have read Milton and Milton of course did not read Kierkegaard. The latter half of Anxiety in Eden, "Anxiety and the Actuality of Sin," which deals with Milton and Kierkegaard's views in regard to fallen consciousness, offers a fairly standard orthodox account of what is wrong and degenerative in the fallen Satan and wrong but reparable in fallen Eve and Adam. Tanner demonstrates that Kierkegaard offers a critique of modern secular consciousness parallel to the one Tanner finds in Milton (and seems himself to agree with). The Kierkegaardian comparison sometimes illuminates a description of Paradise Lost but does not do much to extend it. Tanner does point out that Stanley Fish's Surprised by Sin endeavors to demonstrate that the reader of Paradise Lost is plunged into a state of anxiety -- an interesting redescription of Fish -- but Tanner thinks anxiety of this kind a more general and as it were natural state for modern readers to be in, one which no complex textual engine of induced misprision of the kind Fish posits is needed to foster. It is in Tanner's description of unfallen consciousness in part one of his book, "Anxiety and the Potentiality of Sin," that its real contribution to Milton studies lies.

The continuity or discontinuity of the fall is a classic problem in reading Paradise Lost. If the fall is seen as a narratively continuous event, prepared for by the characterization of unfallen Adam and especially unfallen Eve, then morally the fall ceases to seem an absolutely free choice, and aesthetically Paradise Lost seems to be in conflict with its frequent assertions that the fall is surprising. If, on the other hand, the fall seems discontinuous and unprepared, then morally its freedom is won at the expense of fairness to the humans who chose it and those who suffer from the ill-prepared choices of their first parents, and aesthetically Paradise Lost seems to betray its opening assertions that it will explain first causes. I put this in relatively neutral terms of discontinuity/continuity, but the philosophical dyed of free will/determinism has intruded itself nonetheless, and is clearly connected with the paradoxes under discussion. There is, we may think, something wrong with the free will/determinism binary here, but it has proved hard to say just where the wrongness lies, and Milton's commitment to this vocabulary makes it hard for his critics not to use it.

Kierkegaard's retelling of the Fall as a "leap" and his redescription of the state of innocence as "anxiety" about unknown potentialities, then, address a large area of concern for readers of Milton, specifically by undermining an identification of innocence with complete freedom and sin with fully intentional action. In his opening chapters, John Tanner shows very adroitly that Milton in fact goes far toward providing such a description in his seemingly equivocating presentations of unfallen consciousness. Tanner argues this by reprising the mid-century controversy ignited by A.G. Waldock and Millicent Bell as to whether Adam and Eve are fallen before the fall. Given a stark binary between untroubled innocence and fallen experience, Tanner comments, "There is no easily definable middle ground. The reason for this is that Milton's Eden occupies a borderland of becoming, a profoundly nebulous region located somewhere between innocence and guilt . . . A liminal world, Milton's Eden lies enshrouded in the mists of dreams and half-apprehended fantasies, an ethically ambiguous frontier that the language of criticism seems too indelicate to describe." (28)

Bell summed up the problem by asking whether we can give names to Eve and Adam's impulses or states of mind without using obviously fallen categories. Tanner, after quoting Bell, comments, "It is little wonder that, almost forty years after Bell issued her challenge, Miltonists are still hard put to find the vocabulary she calls for" (28).

Enter Kierkegaard, who provides a vocabulary with which to describe this middle ground. The key terms are "anxiety," which according to Kierkegaard can be an aspect of innocence, and "leap," which characterizes the abrupt self-remaking which occurs when we sin. Tanner quotes Kierkegaard's The Concept of Anxiety (which contains Kierkegaard's own retelling of the opening chapters of Genesis) on the state of innocence: "In this state there is peace and repose, but there is simultaneously something else that is not contention and strife, for there is indeed nothing against which to strive. What, then, is it? Nothing. But what effect does nothing have? It begets anxiety. This is the profound secret of innocence, that it is at the same time anxiety. Dreamily the spirit projects its own actuality, but this actuality is nothing, and innocence always sees this nothing outside itself." (72)

This anxious innocence, Tanner suggests, is precisely what has so puzzled commentary on Adam and Eve's unfallen psychology. Anxiety is a state of unrest that bridges unfallen and fallen consciousness. This is an illuminating claim, and Tanner could, in fact, do even more with it than he does, since he could argue that Milton's intense emphasis on growth and dynamism in the unfallen world is itself a kind of mapping of the creative powers of anxiety.

Tanner also emphasizes Kierkegaard's claim that "sin comes into the world as the sudden" (44), as a leap. In one of his best chapters, "Satan and Sin," Tanner very persuasively quotes Sin's account of her own birth as Milton's narrative exploration of the leap: "Out of thy head I sprung: amazement seized / All the host of Heav'n; back they recoil'd afraid / At first, and called me Sin" (Paradise Lost 2:758). Tanner's commentary casts light too on the generic shift to allegory at the gates of hell. He also, of course, discusses Eve's and Adam's separate falls as leaps out of anxiety, and once again demonstrates the usefulness to Miltonists of Kierkegaard's way of talking.

One might object to Tanner's book, and books like it, that they are unhistorical and thus basically implausible in their deliberate imposition of an anachronistic vocabulary on the matter of a past poet. Milton thought in the terms available to him -- such an argument would run -- and these Kierkegaardian ones weren't. Such an objection underrates the philosophical complexity of narrative (or drama) by assuming that narrative cannot pose and explore philosophical problems before an explicitly philosophical vocabulary has arisen in which to state them. Tanner shows, persuasively and valuably, that Paradise Lost explores the abruptness of sin, and the anxiety of innocence, in a narrative manner which goes beyond the philosophical and theological vocabulary available to Milton, and looks forward to the vocabulary introduced by Kierkegaard.
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Author:Engle, Lars
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1996
Words:1136
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