The Human Perspective and the Divine Perspective: The Human-Centric Lens: Rethinking 'Genesis' and 'Paradise Lost' in Renaissance Literature
~ Dilip Barad
The Renaissance and Reformation eras brought about a profound transformation in the socio-cultural landscape of Europe by shifting the focus from a God-centric worldview to one centered around humanity. This shift had a far-reaching impact on various aspects of life, including literature. This research article delves into the intriguing phenomenon of how these shifts manifested in the retelling of biblical narratives, specifically in 'Genesis' from The Holy Bible and Book IX from John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'
'Genesis' presents the story of the Fall from God's perspective, where characters like Adam and Eve appear as flat, emotionless figures. However, critical questions arise regarding the fairness of God's judgments. Why is the serpent, an instrument used by Satan, cursed instead of Satan? Why are Eve's descendants punished for her disobedience? Adam's culpability, too, seems inadequately addressed. 'Genesis' predominantly remains a God-centric narrative, overlooking the perspectives of Adam, Eve, or even the serpent.
In contrast, John Milton's 'Paradise Lost,' particularly in Book IX, offers a human-centric reinterpretation of the same story. Milton's portrayal grants intentionality to Eve's actions, emphasizing her pursuit of knowledge, equality, and free will. This human perspective reframes Eve's character, potentially redeeming her intentions. Furthermore, the portrayal of Adam's actions as driven by human emotions such as ambition, envy, revenge, and spite aligns the narrative with a distinctly human viewpoint. Satan, too, takes on human qualities, making the narrative more relatable.
This article argues that literary works inevitably align with the human perspective, as authors cannot forsake human emotions and experiences in favor of religious or divine perspectives. Literature thrives on the rich tapestry of human virtues and vices, serving as a mirror to human existence. In literature, the human perspective stands as the primary and indispensable vantage point, with all other viewpoints converging upon it. Ultimately, the core of literature resides in its portrayal of human beings and their experiences.
Paradigm Shift from God-centric to Human-centric:
One of the major changes Renaissance and Reformation brought in socio-cultural life of Europe was the paradigm shift from God-centric world to human-centric one. The renewed interest in Humanism decentered God and replaced (Hu)Man at the center of the Universe. If all the walks of life were affected, how can literature remain aloof? All those 'stories' in scriptures (mainly The Holy Bible) which were said from the Divine perspective were retold from Human perspective. Some of the narratives seemed telling the stories from the Divine perspective, but, actually, they were not.
Let us try to explore this hypothesis. We will take bird's eye view of 'Genesis' from The Holy Bible and Book IX from Paradise Lost. John Milton proposed in 'Argument' to 'justify the ways of God to men'. In fact, he moves on the justify '(Hu)Man's ways in this world'.
In 'Genesis', the 'Fall' is narrated from God's perspective. Obviously, God is the center of Bible. The characters of Adam and Eve are flat, lifeless and mere puppet. They do not have any emotion or feeling or voice. The Satan-Serpent tempted Eve, Eve tempted Adam and the Fall happened. God emerged and punished all three. Many questions remained unanswered in the God's Justice.
|The Angry God|
- If Satan used serpent's body to harm Adam, Eve and Eden, why should it be punished instead of Satan:
"Because you have done this, cursed are you above
all cattle, and above all wild animals upon your belly you shall
go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put
enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed
and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise
his heel." (God in Genesis)
- If Eve is to be punished for her 'disobedience', why should her children also be cursed: "I will put enmity between... your seed and her seed". (God). To curse Eve to multiply her pain in childbearing is not fair way to punish her.
"I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you." (God)
- If Adam shares the guilt, he is not fairly well judged and punished. He seems to be in God's good book:
"And to Adam he said, "Because you
have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the
tree of which I commanded you, 'You shall not eat of it,'
cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it
all the days of your life;thorns and thistles it shall bring forth
to you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. In the sweat
of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you
shall return." (God)
|Regretful Adam and Eve - God's Wrath on the act of Disobedience (Natoire)|
Well, the entire story of Genesis is quite obviously, God centric. It is narrated from Divine perspective. It does not take care of Adam or Eve or Serpent's perspective.
When we come to John Milton's Paradise Lost (esp. Book IX), we realise that the same story is told from Human perspective. Seemingly, it tries to justify ways of God to man, whereas, in reality, it retells the story from Human perspective. Let us see, how it happens.
There are two major instances where we find the human perspective governing the plot of Book IX.
|If inferior, Who is Free?|
- Firstly, Eve is responsible for disobedience and thus Fall of man. Her wily act is that of touching and tasting the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Nevertheless, she is presented with an intention to act. This giving an intention to act is where Milton brings in human perspective. Eve intention to taste the fruit was to gain 'knowledge', to be equal to Adam, to know good and evil as God seems to know it all, to be superior to Adam 'for, to be inferior, who is free'? She wanted to be 'free'. She wanted to exercise her free will and reason which is gifted by God. With this clarity in mind, she does what she does. She is human being and thus, acts like human being. Milton is a poet. The poet stands in favour of humans rather than God. Unknowingly, perhaps, Milton redeems Eve by giving her intentions which are quite noble and unproblematic.
- Secondly, the act of Adam. Adam is also driven by human emotion:
|Adam's love for Eve was genuine and selfless (Stovring)|
"Should God create another Eve, and I
Another rib afford, yet loss of thee
Would never from my heart. No, no! I feel
The link of nature draw me: flesh of flesh,
Bone of my bone thou art, and from thy state
Mine never shall be parted, bliss or woe."
(Book IX, Paradise Lost)
His intentions are not tempted or forced upon him. He, after deep thinking, decides to be on the side of Eve rather than God. It is 'Love' - the human emotion - which drives him.
- We can read the character of Satan also being driven by human emotion.
|Satan and found The Serpent subtlest beast of all the field (Doré)|
But what will not ambition and revenge
Descend to? Who aspires must down as low
As high he soared, obnoxious, first or last,
To basest things. Revenge, at first though sweet,
Bitter ere long back on itself recoils.
Let it; I reck not, so it light well aimed,
Since higher I fall short, on him who next
Provokes my envy, this new favourite
Of Heaven, this Man of Clay, son of despite,
Whom, us the more to spite, his Maker raised
From dust: spite then with spite is best repaid."
(Book IX, Paradise Lost)
These so called deadly sins like 'ambition', 'envy'. 'revenge' and 'spiteful' which Satan represents are quite human. No human can deny absence of these rather negative emotions in the breast of this Man of Clay. Therefore, Satan is also presented with human perspective.
Literary writers, however hard they try, can't be on the side of God or religion at the cost of humans. Human beings, with all their virtues and vices, are the raw material of literature. Literature can't exist if it does anything sacrificing human emotions and feelings at the altar of religion / God. It is made by, made for and made of human beings. The human perspective is not one of the perspectives of literature it is the 'only' perspective of literature. It may have been used a as prism to reflect rainbow of perspectives. In literature, all other perspectives zero down to Human perspective. The center of literature is human beings.
|Humanity reaching out to Divinity (Michelangelo, Creation of Adam)|
Doré, Gustav. “Him, fast sleeping, soon he found in labyrinth of many a round, self-rolled” (IX. 182,183),1866, for John Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” Engraving. (Public Domain)
Michelangelo. Creation of Adam (c. 1511). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.