Hell, Redux…

“Better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven…” This seems to be one of the favorite Milton quotes of quite a number of people. This one, too: “”The mind is its own place, and it itself can make heaven of Hell, a hell of Heaven.” Both are from Paradise Lost.

Most people don’t know that. And, since they don’t know that, they also don’t know that Milton puts these words in the mouth of Satan, which prompts me to wonder why so many people have them at the ready to explain themselves. Curiously, I found one version of this quote on a website called “Daily Celebrations,” which seems to be operating under the delusion that somehow Milton’s poem “celebrated the absolute freedom of the individual and the invincibility of the mind and spirit.” Such illiterate, invincible ignorance is difficult to comprehend. But to read Paradise Lost closely is to discover that it’s not about these things at all (the poem is more accurately about their opposites); as well, to read it is to discover what mendacious bullshit these two popular platitudes are: it’s the same crap that got Satan tossed out of heaven on his ass in the first place. As the rest of the poem makes clear, Satan finds it impossible to make a hell of a heaven and heaven of a hell. And he’s so clearly dissatisfied with reigning in hell rather than serving in heaven. The very first thing Satan does after saying it’s better to rule in Hell is leave it; he heads straight to earth with the obvious intention of fucking that up, too. In fact, if Satan as a literary character actually believed what he said, there wouldn’t be any need for the rest of the poem: he wants it all, all the glory, all the power, everything, which is why he heads to earth to make it his. He seeks God-like perfection, but ends up only destroying — kind of like, say, Totalitarian Socialism in the 20th century. I often wonder if people fond of echoing Satan’s words actually understood the context in which he utters them, and can detect the degree of insincerity attached to it. And I often wonder if people actually believe that they can, by sheer force of will, make a heaven of a hell and hell of a heaven…as if people in gulags and concentration camps in the last century suffered merely because of an improper attitude. Things were great there…if only they had simply stopped and smelled the roses, eh?

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