Life in the modern world; or, The End is already here


I’ll give you one of Adorno’s major arguments as straight as I know how: to be an individual in the modern world – that is, to be a free, autonomous being, a full-realization of yourself in some idealist sense – is simply impossible. One of the central concerns of Adorno’s project is that people are stuck in the trap of modernity. The rise of industrialization and the unrelenting propensity of capitalism have created a culture that thrusts each of its subjects towards conformity, as if every film, song, and even person had been produced on an assembly line on placed on the shelf of a department store. The monopoly of capitalism has made any piece of culture indistinguishable from any other; the coercion of capitalism upon mass culture places the same authoritarian stamp on everything it touches. Even the houses in which people are thought to maintain their private lives are virtually identical, each urban apartment merely a cubic holding cell like any other. That which we consider private property is replicated in such abundance that it actually belongs to no-one.

Again, Adorno tells us: to be a free individual in the modern world is simply impossible. For the individual, it seems, has already died. As Adorno states in his “Refuge for the Homeless,” the bombs that fell on European cities, the labour camps and gas chambers – these were mere executors of what the modern world had already deemed humanity’s fate. There is no escape for Adorno, no means of reconciliation. After all, the possessions we must necessarily acquire, despite giving the impression of signaling individuation, only fall into the trappings of mass production despite giving the impression of signaling individuation; the dining set purchased from a home decorating catalog only provides the illusion of individuality. Such attempts at individuation, to Adorno, are futile; for they only seem constitute one’s further implication in the culture industry by one’s unconscious submission to its coercive authority. “It is a part of morality,” Adorno writes, “not to be at home in one’s home.” There is, in the end, no way to live a good life in the modern world, as to attempt to be an individual is then to be amoral; as Adorno states, “wrong life cannot be lived rightly.”

This may, I admit, be a backhanded attempt to translate a sociological argument into a moral philosophy. I submit, however, that Adorno’s argument is concerned with the central questions of existence – specifically, how an individual to live a good, meaningful life. After all, the occasion for Adorno’s Minima Moralia, in which “Refuge for the Homeless” appears, was the utter destruction of World War II – the mass extermination of Jews and the bombings of major European cities; the volume is subtitled “Reflections from Damaged Life.” Adorno’s thesis is that a good life is incompatible with an inhuman society.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this claim, both from a political perspective – that is, what policies we might devise to effectively end global conflict and poverty and starvation and genocide – but also from a cultural one. I’ve been thinking, specifically, about what this claim means for art in modern society. It has been frequently, thought, after all, that art was the ultimate form of individual expression – that music and painting and poetry were an outpouring of individual emotions. And I think poetry might be the most obvious contender for this claim, as poetry – lyric poetry, specifically – has always been concerned with the “I.” Look at any lyric poem by Wordsworth or Sidney or Byron and you will see that the poems speak from the perspective of the individual. There’s a Heidegerrian appeal to such a claim, for it would seem that poetry becomes that which can bring the individual to the fore; Wordsworth’s most famous poem, for example, dramatically announces “I wandered lonely as a cloud,” putting the emphasis immediately on the speaker. But then this puts Adorno in a curious position, for Adorno’s individual is always a social being – and in the modern world, individuality is in a state of crisis.

Our question, then, is clear: what can lyric poetry since the death of the individual – as Adorno saw it, with the Second World War – do to salvage the individual from the wreckage? If Adorno is right, then we’d still have to say that this is, in some paradoxical way, revealing about the state of the individual in modern society. And I think I’ve found just the right poem to consider: Philip Larkin’s 1977 “Aubade.”

Philip Larkin occupies a curious position in the history of poetry. He is, we’d have to say, the post-World-War-Two poet that stayed true to the lyric. Whereas other modern poets began pushing the boundaries of the form – the avant-garde works of the Dada and Surrealist movements, for example, or the distinctive modernism of T.S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas – Larkin belonged to “the Movement,” a group of poets which continued the tradition of the English verse. A quasi-manifesto for the movement can be found in the introduction to Robert Conquest’s anthology New Lines, a collection of the poetry of The Movement, in which he writes that modern poets “were encouraged to produce diffuse and sentimental verbiage, or hollow technical pirouettes;” in contrast, he describes The Movement’s poets’ “refusal to abandon a rational structure and comprehensible language, even when the verse is most highly charged with sensuous or emotional intent.” Larkin, it seems, fully ascribes to the doctrines of The Movement, calling those experimental poets “an irresponsible exploitation of technique in contradiction of human life as we know it.” He aligned himself, rather, with the orthodox belief that poetry was a individual statement, insisting that it was a “personal, almost physical release.”

But then Larkin isn’t quite like the older lyrical poets – there’s a conspicuous nihilism in his “Aubade,” one of his last masterpieces. If lyric poetry is traditionally seen as a celebration of the individual, this poem might seem to be its anthesis. It’s a poem, after all, about death – or rather, about life as one approaches death. The poem opens bluntly:

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.

Waking at four in the morning to soundless dark, I stare.

Right away we have to notice that this poem is in stark contrast to the traditional aubade. The aubade is, after all, a tried and true literary form – it’s a poem about the sunrise, with all the typical pleasantries – beautiful imagery of the dawn, often metaphorically paired with the presence of the narrator’s lover. Perhaps the most famous point of comparison, as Richard Osborne notes, is the opening of Act III, Scene V of Romeo and Juliet:

Wilt thou be gone? It is not yet near day:

It was the nightingale, and not the lark,

That pierc’d the fearful hollow of thine ear.

Larkin already stands in contrast to this traditional aubade; for in Larkin’s poem, the speaker is completely isolated. There is no lover in this poem, only the “soundless dark.” Indeed, this must be an unusual aubade as it is placed before the sunrise; whereas the traditional aubade might conjure images of the awakening of nature, this poem opens with the narrator staring into the darkness. The individual is alienated against the darkness of the inescapable void.

The poem then goes on to say that until the “curtain-edges grow light,” the speaker can only see “what’s really always there: unresting death.” The speaker is forced to confront the imminence of their ultimate end, thinking only of “how and where and when I shall myself die.” But then the poem specifies that the dread this causes is not any sort of regret – “not in remorse – the good not done, the love to given, time / Torn off unused” nor is it the result of a desire to fashion a good life in the time one has to live – “nor wretchedly because / An only life can take so long to climb / Clear of its wrong beginnings, and it may never;” rather, this anxiety is about the prospect of “the total emptiness for ever, / The sure extinction that we travel to / And shall be lost in always.” This is important, as the poem, then, fashions death as the losing of ourselves, the end of being – in this poem, the individual is doomed “not to be here, not to be anywhere.” The poem conceptualizes death – rather than passage into another form of existence, an afterlife – as the simple annihilation of the individual.

Indeed, the inescapability of this annihilation is the poem’s next target; it proceeds to systematically swat away the myths that people have historically used to try to rationalize their way out of the trap of impending death:

This is a special way of being afraid

No trick dispels. Religion used to try,

That vast moth-eaten musical brocade

Created to pretend we never die,

And specious stuff that says No rational being

Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing

That this is what we fear

This makes religion seem to be not just futile, but an outright lie: it was “created to pretend we never die. It should be noted that this makes the poem distinct from other lyric poems,  even the modern ones, as most of the others – Eliot and Auden, for example – tend to fall back onto pre-Nietzschean conceptions of religion. Larkin, meanwhile, has no faith in such ideas.

Larkin then goes on to target other modes of existentialist thought. Osborne is helpful here as well, pointing out that the poem attacks Epicureanism, which sought to avoid the anxiety of death through rational argument; “Death is nothing to us,” Epicurus claimed, “for so long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist.” But Larkin insists that the fear or death cannot be escaped by logic, for the prospect of losing the ability to feel is exactly what we fear – “no sight, no sound / No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with, / Nothing to love or link with.” Death, to Larkin, is the negation of the senses, the end of thought, and the inability to connect with others – it is “the anesthetic from which none come round” – and there’s a certain anti-philosophical cynicism in his thinking that says that no logic can convincingly avoid the fear of this prospect.

The poem insists that non-existence must be that end to which we are all headed; it sees death as simply inescapable. To the poem, this constitutes the constant shadow of death in our lives. Death “stays just on the edge of vision, / A small unfocused blur, a standing chill,” assuring us that though “most things will never happen: this one will.” But then the thrust here is going to be that typical human activities are merely a distraction from this ultimate end; indeed, the poem makes them out to be meaningless. Larkin writes that the realization of impending death “rages out / In furnace-fear when we are caught without / People or drink.” The poem is cynical in this regard: human interaction, let alone intoxication, are mere distractions from the inevitability of death. This calls to mind the poem’s opening line – how is one, after all, to hide from death but to work all day and get half-drunk at night? The speaker’s four o’clock awakening that forces him to stare into “unresting death” stands in stark contrast with this habitual routine.

Slowly, the poem puts the world back into view. But even as the world emerges from the darkness, death maintains its overshadowing presence:

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.

It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,

Have always known, know that we can’t escape,

Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.

The poem emphasizes its final realization: that even in our ordinary lives, death sits always just at the edge of our existence – “plain as a wardrode,” that which we “know we can’t escape, yet can’t accept.” But it is from this perspective that the poem takes its final turn, pressing the utter meaninglessness of the modern world:

Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring

In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring

Intricate rented world begins to rouse.

The sky is white as clay, with no sun.

Work has to be done.

Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

The adjectives jump out as us immediately: the world is “uncaring,” “intricate,” “rented.” It is ambivalent to our existence, too complicated to figure out, and always separated from us; we merely inhabit its space. But then we have to note that this isn’t about the natural world, as many lyric poems are – this is about the modern world, that of locked-up offices and crouching telephones, that in which “work has to be done.” In this way, the poem conveys a real sensitivity to the realities of capitalism and industry. But it’s argument is that it this world from which we are always 1) always inevitably alienated, and 2) merely mindlessly distracting ourselves from the inevitability of death. In a word, the modern world renders all life meaningless. The activities we habitually perform offer us only a distraction from the inevitability of our annihilation. When Larkin writes that “postmen like doctors go from house to house,” the postmen – the facilitators of intra-human correspondence – play the role of doctors, those who help people avoid death for as long as possible.

There are, by my count, three overarching points to take away:

  1. The poem has established itself as an anti-lyric lyric poem. There’s a certain irony in Larkin’s use of the lyric form, as it seems that Larkin has taken up the tradition all the better to annihilate it from within. Part of the work of figuring this out has already been done – we’ve already seen that this aubade actually more like the antithesis of an aubade, a poem about darkness, and that its breaks with the religious tradition of faith and the afterlife that lyric poetry had so often followed. But the more important point is to say that the poem focuses not on the flourishing of the individual but its demise. The “I” in this poem, in contrast to Wordsworth’s wanderings in nature, realizes not how to live a meaningful life – which in the lyric tradition often involves either taking in the wonders of nature or experiencing the ecstasy of romance – but rather that life is meaningless.  And then it’s worse than that: the poem gives death an unrelenting presence, casting itself over that which constantly presides over our meaningless lives, asking us what exactly we are living for if everything we do is merely a distraction from our eventual demise. In this poem, it seems, the person who lives a meaningless life may as well already be dead.
  2. The poem is anti-modernity. This applies, it’s fair to say, both to its sociological view as well as its literary theory. Indeed, we might say that the poem’s own theory of poetry is, in some indirect way, aligned with the manifesto in New Lines; the meaninglessness of the modern world that Larkin describes is not unlike the “hollow pirouettes” that Conquest accuses modern poetry of exercising. But then here is a good place to point out that even though the poem was talking about modern society and Conquest about modern poetry, taking “modern” to mean that-of-the-present, or simply “contemporary,” they are not talking about modernism, but rather postmodernism, which means, in some general sense, the era of fully-developed capitalism, the all-consuming, unrelenting kind. This seems to be a fairly good estimation of the world Larkin describes – the “intricate, rented world” of constant work and crouching telephones, and a world in which only the all-encompassing processes of industry, work, consumption, and capitalism – those which Larkin claims have alienated us from the world – are said to give our lives meaning. The label “postmodern” would, after all, most certainly apply to the year 1977 – when the poem was published – for by that time it could be fairly said that the last remnants of pre-capitalism in the West had mostly collapsed. At the same time, it is really postmodern poetry – generally speaking, the experimental poetry of the post-war era – that Conquest and Larkin criticized. So if Larkin’s poem is anti-modern, that really must mean it’s anti-postmodernism. When Larkin writes that “one side will have to go,” he means two things: first, of course, that we will, of course, die, no matter how we try to distract ourselves; but it’s also worth mentioning that he thinks that the meaninglessness of postmodern poetry, like the meaninglessness of the postmodern world, is guilty of perpetuating this distraction.
  3. But then here’s the main point, and I think it may be better off posed as a question: is it possible to have a lyric poem about postmodernity? And I think with Larkin the answer would have to be no. Because we’ve already seen that even if Larkin was trying to write a lyric poem, he actually wrote a sort of anti-lyric, a poem in the form of the lyric that is actually about the death, rather than the triumph, of the individual. But then we have to layer in what we just figured out – that the world of the poem is that of postmodernity – and that the poem conceives of the postmodern world as that which has robbed life of its meaning. It is postmodernity which kills the individual, that which renders us our lives already meaningless. You can’t have a lyric poem about postmodernity because the individual is already dead.

It is Adorno’s argument that lyric poetry was really never about the individual, but rather the individual in crisis. Indeed, he states in his “Notes to Literature” that:

You experience lyric poetry as something opposed to society, something wholly individual. Your feelings insist that it remain so, that lyric expression, having escaped from the weight of material existence, evoke the image of a life free from the coercion of reigning practices… This demand, however, the demand that the lyric word be virginal, is itself social in nature. It implies a protest against a social situation that every individual experiences as hostile, alien, cold, oppressive.

It’s a brilliant argument: lyric poetry has always been interested in the dream of free self-expression, but it always end up registering some sort of social antagonism; it’s “I” is always pitted against some form of oppression. To spell this out, all we need to do is return to Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” and see that by the end of the poem the speaker is no longer running freely with the daffodils but lying on their couch—

For oft, on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood

They flash upon that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude

—at which point we can see that the inward eye has replaced the “I” itself, that which had been running with the daffodils. This inward eye, we can say, is the poem’s version of a free individual; but meanwhile the actual “I” is contained by the monotony of domestic life. It can escape this monotony only by imagining the freedom the poem portrays.

This, then, is the paradox: lyric poetry likes to think that it has imagined a free individual – as Adorno, puts it, a “realized humanity” – while it has actually registered just what it is that the individual wishes to be freed from. The history of lyric poetry then becomes the history of the oppression of the individual. I think it’s fair to say, then, that Larkin’s poem confirms Adorno’s earlier argument that a realized individualism is impossible in the modern world. We’ve already figured out, after all, that Larkin’s “I” is posited against death, but it really turns out to be set against modern society – and in Larkin’s poem, this society has already forced the individual into annihilation.

But then the real trouble with Larkin is that he, like Adorno, offers no way out. Unlike traditional lyric poems, Larkin’s poem offers no vision of a liberated humanity, no portrayal of a free individual. It simply submits to a meaningless life in the modern world, unable to imagine any alternative. But then how could it? The world of the poem is merely one one of alienation and annihilation – of hollow office buildings, busy telephones, mindless work – to the extent that it renders the life of the individual meaningless. These are the same types of qualities that have been ascribed to postmodern hyper-capitalism – and it was that world, to Adorno, that has made true individuality impossible.

Perhaps this is what Adorno meant when he said that you can’t write poetry after Auschwitz. It would seem, after all, that in this world – the uncaring world described by Larkin, the inhuman world described by Adorno – there is simply no individual to extract.; the individual cannot be realized in art because the individual has ceased to exist. All we can say, it seems, is that human liberation is incompatible with the structures of the modern world, that no individual can resist their grasp, that their all-consuming strength makes a good life impossible. Adorno’s trap remains: Wrong life cannot be lived rightly.

Religion and Revolution: Uncovering Political Ideology in Milton’s Nativity Ode

To the modern reader, it might be hard to shake the feeling that Milton is just another stuffy old writer. It’s easy to write him off as just another one of those old Brits that your English teacher made you read – important and foundational and all, but dull, a bit tedious. His most famous association, after all, is that he wrote a really long poem about the Bible. He might seem merely as pious and devout as they come, offering little more than an affirmation of old-school Christianity. But what, then, are we to make of the fact the Milton was a vocal proponent of the English Revolution, that he was one of? How is the modern reader supposed to reconcile Milton’s reversion to the Bible with his desire for political liberation? And is it possible that someone who seemed to be writing about the Bible may have been talking about politics all along? It might turn out that Milton might be m0re radical than his poetry, at least on the surface, seems to appear.

The question before us, then, is the extent to which Milton’s religious poetry can be read as a poetics of political revolution. But that will be only the first task at hand; we’ll also want to figure out how this changes the way we read Milton, how we see him as a literary figure. Milton’s Nativity Ode offers a place to start. Written around Christmastime of 1629, though not published until 1645, the poem is a description of the nativity story in the style of a hymn. The poem might seem, at first glance, a relatively simple accomplishment, being neither the grandest of Milton’s works nor the most dramatic. But the poem’s structure and language, upon closer reading, present a number of interpretive challenges and surprising insights into Milton’s literary world.

The place to start, of course, is the beginning, which establishes the setting of the nativity.

This is the Month, and this the happy morn

Wherein the Son of Heav’ns eternal King

Of wedded Maid, and Virgin Mother born,

Our great redemption from above did bring;

For so the holy sages once did sing,

That he our deadly forfeit should release,

And with his Father work us a perpetual peace.

The first thing to note is that in establishing the nativity setting, the poem sets out to tell the story of the nativity story from the Old Testament, in which the prophets spoke of a “Son of God” descending “from above” to live among men. The poem continues in this vain, later stating “it was the winter wilde, while the head’n-born child, all meanly wrapt in rude manger lies.” Much like Paradise Lost, which is a retelling of the Genesis story, this poem is, at its core, a retelling of the Nativity. This forces us to stop and ask an imperative question: why does Milton think we need a re-telling of the nativity story? The simple fact that Milton is repeating a story already told places the poem in competition with the Old Testament. After all, if all Milton wanted people to do was read the Nativity story, pay attention to the prophets of the Old Testament, and praise the birth of Christ, he could have just told us to read the Bible. In retelling a biblical story, then, this poem at once aligns itself and is in competition with the Bible itself.

But beyond its relationship with the Bible, the poem is, curiously, also in linked to early Latin poetry. As many scholars have noted, the so-called “prophetic strain” of this poem is strikingly similar to Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue, “The Golden Age.” The most important thing to note about Virgil is that the Fourth Eclogue is generally seen as the great classical descriptions of the regeneration of the world. In this sense, the comparisons between these poems are clear: both depict the transformation of the world by a divine baby and the arrival on Earth of a virgin goddess;  “he shall receive the life of gods, and himself be seen of them, and with his father’s worth reign o’er a world at peace,” writes Virgil. Curiously, however, Milton’s poem makes a point of rejecting the figures of the pagan tradition; “The Oracles are dumm,” he writes, adding that “Apollo from his shrine can no more divine, with hollow shreik the steep of Delphos leaving.” The denunciation of the pagan world leads to the central conflict in the comparison of Milton and Virgil: Milton does not just adapt the form of Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue, but the act of adaptation actually functions as a corrective process. The pagan prophecy is converted into an affirmation of Christianity that manages to denounce Virgil in the process; as J. Martin Evans writes, Virgil’s classical framework is “adjusted and modified to meet the demands of a new ideology.” The comparison of the Nativity Ode with its predecessors, both Virgil and the Old Testament, places Milton is a sort of biblical-pagan matrix. The poem is at once aligned with the works of old while standing in competition with them, offering a curious retelling of the Bible and a Christian replacement of Virgil.

It is becoming clear, then, that the Nativity Ode in interested in more than just ordinary praise of the baby Jesus; the poem imagines nothing less than the total transformation of the world. As already mentioned, the poem does away with the authority of the Pagan gods, banishing the “brutish gods of Nile” and stating “Nor is Osiris seen in Memphian Grove;” as Milton writes, “each particular power forgoes his wonted seat.” But then the poem goes even further than more than the removal from power of these pagan figures; it imagines a cosmic transformation of nature upon the birth of the baby. Consider the following passage:

It was the Winter wilde,

While the Heav’n-born-childe,

All meanly wrapt in the rude manger lies;

Nature in aw to him

Had doff’t her gawdy trim,

With her great Master so to sympathize

As we can already see, Milton imagines nature as secondary to the newborn baby. Nature is “in aw” to him; he is its “Master.” But Milton goes even further later on, imagining nature cowering in the presence of the baby:

And through the shady gloom

Had given day her room,

The Sun himself with-held his wonted speed,

And hid his head for shame,

And his inferiour flame,

The new-enlightn’d world no more should need;

He saw a greater Sun appear

Then his bright Throne, or burning Axletree could bear.

We see here that the Sun becomes weakened with the birth of the baby; the sun “hid his head for shame,” and the world no longer needs his “inferior flame” now that a “greater Sun” has appeared. The poem replaces the sun with the baby, the “Prince of light,” whose “raign of peace upon the earth began.” In this way, the poem imagines the birth of Christ as the beginning of a revolution, a supernatural reordering of the natural world.

But then the important thing to note is that the poem imagines this revolution in an apocalyptic fashion; it portrays this new world order as the result of the Earth’s progression towards its limit, when “truth and justice with return down to men” and heaven “will open wide the Gates of her high Palace Hall.” Indeed, the entire poem marches steadily towards the world’s final destination, towards the cataclysmic moment when:

With such a horrid clang

As on mount Sinai rang

While the red fire, and smouldring clouds out brake:

The aged Earth aghast

With terror of that blast

Shall from the surface to the center shake

When at the world’s last session

The dreadfull Judge in middle Air shall spread his throne.

This is, as the poem says, “the world’s last session.” And in the poem, this transformation gives way to the creation of a heaven on Earth – a world in which “at last our bliss full and perfect is.” This is the world that Milton described earlier – the world of the banished pagan gods and the abolition of Hell. It should be noted, then, that the apocalypse is the end of the world as we know it, but not the end of the world itself. This is the apocalypse, rather, of the radical millenarians, wherein the end of the world gives way to the reign of saints on Earth and God comes down to live among men – this is, to the radical millenarians the second coming of Jesus Christ.

We can see, then, that the poem is interested in the rejection of the past by way of a Puritan vision of the apocalyptic second coming of Jesus Christ. But then it’s even more than that – in describing the transformation of the world as the result of the second coming, Milton actually turns the reader into the poem’s subjects of conversion. For one thing, we have to note that the poem never refers directly to the author alone. As J. Martin Evans has explains, this distinguishes the poem from the work of Milton’s contemporaries, for often wrote of personal transformations of both the author and the subjects within their poem. Milton’s poem, on the other hand, is entirely anonymous, never once acknowledging any personal transformation on the part of the author; the poem does  not even contain a single “I” or “me.” Nor is does the poem demonstrate the personal transformations of any of its characters – even the Shepherds are unmoved, merely “simply chatting in a rustick row” and keeping themselves busy with their “silly thoughts.” Indeed, there is no subjective presence in Milton’s poem that actually undergoes any spiritual transformation. Rather, it allows the reader to bear witness to the transformation of the world before subtly inviting the reader to take part in the poem’s vision of the new society. After all, the poem claims that the newborn babe will “redeem our loss so both himself and us to glorify” and will usher in an era of “our bliss;” By the use of the word “our,” the poem invites the reader into its temporal world such that it turns the reader into its subject of conversion; it invites the reader to become aware of the consequences of the new birth and take part in the poem’s post-apocalyptic vision. Indeed, the poem takes on a clear agenda: the conversion of its reader-subjects to its distinctive religious ideology through its imagined transformation of civilization.

We’ve figured out, then, that the poem has a distinctive goal: it aims to recruit its readers to its cause of creating a new world order in line with the thinking of radical millenarians. Unmistakably, this is directly related to the politics of revolutionary England in the seventeenth century – and, as we said earlier,  Milton was one of its most vocal proponents. In his 1641 pamphlet Of Reformation, Milton stated his belief that the second coming was imminent, that Christ would “judge the several kingdoms of the world” and “put an end to all earthly tyrannies.” Furthermore, in The Reason of Church Government, Milton advocates the creation of a church-governed state; “since Church-government is so strictly commanded in Gods Word,” he writes, “the first and greatest reason why we should submit thereto, is because God hath so commanded.” Indeed, Milton’s stance was that the reign of the King is a threat to the rule of God on Earth, a conviction which comes to light most prominently in The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, in which Milton identifies King Charles I as the Antichrist, defends the right of the people to revolt against the tyranny of their monarchs, and openly advocates the execution of the King.

It would seem, then, that to Milton, religion and politics are inextricably linked. But the question before us is whether Milton’s political beliefs are manifest in the Nativity Ode, which, at least on the surface, is fairly devoid of political language. All we need to do, however, is draw parallels between Milton’s political writings and the language of the poem to see that the poem has a distinctive political ideology. At the very beginning, for example, Milton refers to the baby as the “Son of Heavn’s eternal King” – and if the baby is Jesus, then the King of Heaven must be God, his father. Of course, this places God in competition with the monarchs. Milton makes this much clear later on when he writes that “The Trumpet spake not to the armed throng, and Kings sate still with awfull eye” upon the arrival of the baby; the kings are paralyzed in his presence. This correlates to the earlier analogy of the replacement of the Sun and the reordering of the Earth. As we already determined, the birth of the baby weakens the power of the Sun; it “hid his head in shame, as his inferiour flame the new-englightn’d world no more should need,” the poem reads. It turns out, however, that this image of the replacement of the Sun actually uses political language. Milton states, after all, that with the birth of the baby, the Sun witnesses the appearance of “a greater Sun” than “his bright Throne” could bear. We cannot miss, here, that Milton’s Sun sits like a King upon its throne, only to be deposed with the birth of the baby. It would seem, then, that the cosmic restructuring that the poem imagines – the rejection of the Gods of the pagan past, the apocalyptic second coming of Christ, the deposition of the Sun – directly correlates to Milton’s advocacy of the political overhaul of the English Revolution. If this is the case, then the whole poem can be read not just as a religious piece, but as a vehicle for Milton’s political ideology.

This brings us to a central interpretive question: did Milton intend for this poem to be political? The simple answer is that we can’t really know. After all, the poem is not strictly about politics, even if it uses something of political language. Falling short of a statement of intention from Milton himself, we really have no way of knowing what exactly his intentions were – we cannot, even through his works, concretely step inside his mind. The more nuanced point, however, is that we really needn’t care. To the seventeenth-century English reader, after all, Milton would have been associated with the political ideas he advocated in his pamphlets. In this sense, Milton, through all of his writing, would have cultivated a reputation as a revolutionary and an image as a radical political mind. In line with the thinking of Foucault, then, we can say that Milton existed through his writing not merely as an author, but as an author-image with a distinctive ideology. As Foucault argues, the image of an author transcends the author themselves, such that “the function of an author is to characterize the existence, circulation and operation of certain discourses within a society.” Milton, then, offers an ideal example of Foucault’s argument, as the consideration of Milton as an author-image allows us to uncover the political ideologies of even his religious writings.

But then there is one last step to figuring out what the poem is really after. As we can already see, the poem’s focus on radical millenarianism correlates to Milton’s advocacy of the English Revolution in that both concepts are interested in the creation of a heavenly state. Through this line of thinking, however, we can specify that the removal of the Sun from its “throne,” a part of the poem’s cosmic restructuring of the world, seems to be an allegory for the deposition of the King. The cause of this regicide is, in the poem’s terms, the birth of the baby, which is the source of the apocalypse and the revolution that follows. Now is the time to note, however, the central curiosity of the entire poem: it never actually names the baby as Jesus. Throughout the poem, baby is referred to only in the third person – he is referred to only as the “son of heavn’s eternal king,” the “prince of light,” the “babe.” Indeed, the poem never actually addresses Jesus himself. To imply that the poem would not be read as a reference to Jesus, of course, would be off the mark; after all, it references the nativity in its title. However, if we strictly consider the language of the poem in isolation, this observation does leave the identity of the source of the revolution unresolved and ambiguous.

Indeed, the babe the poem is celebrating is an unnamed source of revolution. But then we must remember that this poem is not really about the nativity; when we consider its radical millenarian position, we see that fashions its telling of the nativity story as a prophecy of the second coming. And in proceeding to invite the reader into its post-apocalyptic world, the poem is really inviting the reader to join the revolutionary cause that this newborn babe ignites. If the babe in the poem is the instigator of the revolution, then when the poem is taken as an allegory for seventeenth-century England, the babe must be the leading crusader of the revolutionary cause, the one who leads the charge for the beheading of the King. And as we already saw, to the seventeenth-century English reader, Milton had cultivated an author-image as the main advocate of the Revolution, a position that would be only further cemented by Paradise Lost, which would affirm his stalwart defense of the revolutionary cause even in the years after the Glorious Restoration. It might just be possible, then, that the poem does more than just issue of prophecy of the second coming. Rather, it might just be that when we consider the poem in terms of Milton’s representative author-image, the poem fashions Milton himself as the embodiment of the second coming, he who ignites the flames of revolution.

Works Cited:

J. Martin Evans, “The Poetry of Absence.” In The Miltonic Moment, 11-38. (University Press of Kentucky, 1998) 21.

Christopher Hill, “The Millennium and the Chosen Nation” in Milton and the English Revolution (New York: The Viking Press, 1978) 279.

Donald Swanson and John Mulryan. “Milton’s “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”: The Virgilian and Biblical Matrices.” Milton Quarterly 23, no. 2 (1989): 59.

Gordon Teskey, “Milton’s Early English Poems: The Nativity Ode, ‘L’Allegro’, ‘Il Penseroso’” in The Oxford Handbook of Milton, ed. Nicholas McDowell and Nigel Smith (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

“Show Him What A Man Can Do:” Language of Gender and Attempted Re-masculinization in The Old Man and the Sea


Leonard Bopp

In the American literary imagination, the figure of Ernest Hemingway carries a certain machismo mythos. Hemingway himself projected a quintessentially masculine image: he liked bullfighting and fly fishing, was a soldier in the First World War, and had an unbeatable tolerance for cocktails and whiskey. This aura of masculinity tended to cross over into his writing. Hemingway’s novels had no patience for the glossy romanticism of Fitzgerald or the philosophical inclinations of Steinbeck; his were stories of war, of sexy Spanish macho-men squaring off with the bulls, and his crisp, matter-of-fact writing, though sometimes sentimental, leaves little time for overt emotion.

The Old Man and the Sea, one of Hemingway’s most beloved novels, is no exception. This is the tale of an aging fisherman named Santiago who, after a long unlucky streak without catching anything, finds himself locked in a three-day-long battle with a massive marlin. On the surface, it’s a story about strength and will, an epic battle between man and nature. But things are more complicated than that, for as I shall show, this narrative is caught up in the language of traditional gender orthodoxy, the one-size-fits-all, he-she binary that language predicates.

Let me explain. From the novel’s first sentence, it emphasizes the old man’s feelings of alienation. “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff on the Gulf Stream,” it reads, accentuating the man’s isolation out on the water. If he had one companion, it was Manolin, the young boy who fished with him. Their relationship is special – the narrator writes that “the old man had taught the boy to fish and the boy loved him.” As we learn in the next few sentences, though, the old man has been so unlucky lately that the boy’s parents have made him fish with another boat, leaving the old man completely alone. But the old man is not merely alienated from the rest of the world; rather, the novel indicates that Santiago experiences a sense of alienation from his own body. The narration calls his body “old” and “strange,” for instance, and later, when he develops a cramp in his hand while battling the fish, the old man actually engages in a dialogue with his hand, treating his body as if it were an external being. “Be patient, hand,” he says; “let the cord go, hand, until you stop this nonsense.”  The old man treats his body, it seems, as an independent object, separate from himself.

This sense of alienation from his body seems related to an anxiety over the diminishing strength that comes with old age. While he’s dealing with this cramp, the old man tells himself an anecdote from his past about the time he beat “the great negro from Cienfugos,” who was the “strongest man on the docks,” in an arm wrestling match, earning him the nickname El Campeón, the champion. Santiago is also acutely focused on the ability to maintain one’s strength despite pain – he constantly idolizes Joe DiMaggio, the famous Yankees baseball player, saying “I must be worthy of the great DiMaggio who does all things perfectly even with the pain of the bone spur in his heel,” and he tells himself he must continue to fight the fish despite the cramping in his hand. But the old man laments that he is no longer as strong as he once was, or as strong as he imagines himself to be. “I may not be as strong as I think,” he admits, indicating that the state of his body no longer aligns with his perception of himself. Indeed, the diminished strength that comes with age has made the old man’s body feel strange and foreign to him, like a suit that doesn’t quite fit.

But the novel goes on to equate this concern about strength and old age with a concern about masculinity. It must be noted that many of the traditional indicators of manliness – strength and perseverance through pain, for example – tend to diminish as one progresses into old age. The title itself demonstrates this – Santiago is not just a man on the sea, after all, but an old man, with the adjective “old” acting as a qualifier on his masculinity. Santiago’s battle with the fish, then, becomes an attempt to prove his enduring strength and reclaim his masculine identity. “I’ll kill him,” he says of the marlin, “in all his greatness and his glory. I will show him what a man can do and what a man endures.” When the novel equates old age with a loss of masculinity, the whole thing boils down to an attempted re-masculinization narrative. After all, if the old man is so concerned with proving his continued manliness in his old age, it makes sense that he constantly compares himself Joe DiMaggio – in his time, DiMaggio was seen as the the ideal American man: incredibly athletic, strong, a World War Two veteran, and dating beautiful women (he and Marilyn Monroe, famously, were seen as one of the great celebrity romances of the 1950’s.) This might also explain the old man’s feeling feelings of kinship with the young boy, since boyhood, similar to old age, presents a certain qualification of masculinity – young boys have higher voices than grown men, for example, and are not yet as built and muscular, giving them fewer distinguishing characteristics than their female counterparts. The difference, of course, is that the boy still has the prospect of traditional masculinity before him; Santiago, however, fears that his days as a real man are behind him.

Let’s get back, however, to the battle with the marlin. The characterization of the marlin itself is revealing about the nature of gender in this novel. Throughout the book, the marlin is uniformly assigned male pronouns. Describing the fish, Santiago states that he could picture the fish “swimming in the water with his purple pectoral fins set wide as wings,” and asks “I wonder how much he sees at that depth.” He says he “will show him what a man can do,” and will “kill him in all his strength and glory.” There must be something curious about this, of course, because the old man, having not actually seen and inspected the fish, cannot actually know its biological sex. Seemingly unconsciously, the language of masculinity is projected onto a character whose actual sex is unknown. It must be that the novel designates the fish as masculine based only on the threat its strength presents to the old man’s masculinity. But the old man not only characterizes the fish as masculine – moreover, he aligns himself with the fish, he calls it his brother. Indeed, there is a sense in which the old man identifies with the fish for its masculine qualities – the fish becomes a manifestation of the masculinity the old man hopes to obtain.

Similarly, the other prominent character in the novel, the sea, is, like the marlin, characterized in gendered language, as we see in the following passage:

He always thought of the sea as la mar which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman. Some of the younger fishermen, those who used buoys as floats for their lines and had motorboats, bought when the shark livers had brought much money, spoke of her as el mar which is masculine. They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even as an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine as as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.

There are a few important things to note about this passage. First, we must state the obvious: to the old man, the sea is decidedly feminine; he thinks of the sea as la mar for her feminine qualities – lovely, sensuous, susceptible to patterns of the moon. The other important thing to note, however, is that the old man aligns himself with the sea in much the same way he aligned himself with the marlin. Those younger fishermen, after all, are the ones who think of the sea as a “contestant” or an “enemy” – but the old man is decidedly not like those young men. By juxtaposing the male characterization of the sea by the younger fishermen with Santiago’s female characterization of the sea, the novel shows that Santiago must think of the sea not as a contestant or enemy, like the younger fishermen, but as a partner or a friend. He admits as much in the next paragraph when he writes that he was “drifting with the current” and “letting the current do a third of the work” – as if he were one with the la mar, the feminine sea.

Indeed, if the novel casts the marlin as the manifestation of the man’s desire for masculinity, then the sea is a manifestation of his feminine leanings. This, it seems, is the central conflict of the novel’s gender narrative – that Santiago, the old man who feels alienated from his body, aligns himself with both the feminine sea and the masculine marlin. In presenting this conflict, the novel solidifies the old man as gender-queer, neither fully male nor fully female, stuck somewhere in between. The funny thing about re-masculinization narratives, after all, is that they must inherently admit that the gender of the de-masculinized character isn’t all that settled to begin with.

The other vital thing to notice about this passage, though, is that the novel becomes self-conscious of the problem of gender construction – it acknowledges a degree of Nietzschean anti-essentialism when it comes to gender, letting different people assign opposite genders to the same object, an object that has no biological sex itself. It admits that gender is unsettled and ambiguous, constructed by forces external to the object itself. Nietzsche tells us that this is bound to create some level of anxiety, for “only by forgetting this primitive world of metaphor can one live with any repose, security, and consistency” (Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense,” 1873). Anti-essentialism, however, wants us to transcend this anxiety – it wants us to learn to embrace this ambiguity. Having become aware the anxiety of ambiguity, then, its up to the novel, in its resolution of this conflict in the gender narrative, to say whether or not it thinks the transcendence of gender is possible.

The climax of this conflict comes at the end of the old man’s battle with the marlin. Here’s the passage:

The old man dropped the line and put his foot on it and lifted the harpoon as high as he could and drove it down with all his strength, and more strength he had just summoned, into the fish’s side just behind the great chest fin that rose high in the air to the altitude of the man’s chest. He felt the iron go in and he leaned on it and drove it further and then pushed all his weight after it.

Maybe you already see where this is going: the narrative of gender takes an erotic twist, with the language of sexuality tacking itself onto the image of the harpoon stabbing the fish. The old man lifted the harpoon and “drove it down with all his strength,” “felt the iron go in” and “drove it further,” pushing all his weight against it. The phallic image of the harpoon stabbing the marlin transforms the killing of the fish into a homoerotic act, since the marlin had already been constructed as the old man’s masculine counterpart. But if the iron rod of the harpoon becomes a manifestation of the old man’s masculinity, then a gender reversal occurs: the marlin, as the recipient of male penetration, is feminized.

In feminizing the marlin in the moment of the man’s victory over it, the novel temporarily allows the old man to reclaim his masculine identity – he even says “I think the great DiMaggio would be proud of me today.” Those of you who know the novel, though, know that the man’s victory is doesn’t last. As the old man heads back to the shore, his fresh kill in tow, the marlin is continually attacked by sharks, who eat away the flesh from its bones. At first glance, this seems to be yet another threat to the man’s masculinity by another masculine figure – sharks, after all, are strong, scary, seemingly unbeatable creatures who, at least in the traditional cultural imagination, are able to kill almost anything in their path (especially humans, in the style of Jaws.) But careful attention to the language here reveals the sharks not as masculine in their own right, but as products of the feminine sea. “The shark was not an accident,” the novel reads; “he had come up from deep down in the water,” creating an image of the sharks emerging from the sea’s hidden depths. In a way, the sharks are cast more as a cruel trick of the sea than as an enemy in and of themselves. But add to this the defining feature of sharks, which is, of course, their teeth – as the novel describes it, the “clicking chop” of their “thrusting, all-swallowing jaws.” When the novel portrays these toothy creatures as being products of the feminine sea, it seems to be conjuring up an image of the vagina dentata – the vagina with teeth. The result, of course, is female penetration, which masculinizes the feminine figure. Almost instantaneously, then, the novel experiences another gender reversal, the feminine sea becoming masculine. Furthermore, the image of the vagina dentata connotes a fear of male castration, which constitutes a de-masculinization of the male figure – which, in this case, is the old man, whose masculinity is once again under threat. After all, having been feminized by male penetration, the dead fish had became a symbol of the man’s masculinity; but when the sharks begin attacking the marlin, the novel states that, to Santiago, “when the fish had been hit it was as though he himself were hit.”

The novel’s resolution of the old man’s conflicting gender identities, then, is two-fold. First, in instantaneously reversing the genders of both the fish and sea, the novel admits that there is nothing concrete about gender, as the gender characterizations of the sea and the marlin are fluid, able to change. If the sea and the marlin can be either male or female, then it must be that they are at once both and neither. The novel allows them qualities of both masculinity and femininity without fully committing to either identity. This results in the dissolution of gender entirely, as the novel, having blurred its gender characterizations of the fish and the sea, affirms that gender identity is not intrinsic to an object itself. The secondary result, then, is that the old man, now unable to identify with either the gender-less fish and sea, is unable to reclaim his masculinity. The re-masculinization narrative is left nullified, unfulfilled. By the time the old man returns to the shore, after all, the marlin, which had been the symbol of his masculinity, has been completely eaten by the sharks, reduced to merely its skeletal remains, no longer identifiable as male or female.

While the novel does succeed in the dissolution of gender, it does so not triumphantly, but tragically. It laments the defeat of the old man’s masculinity. As he rows back to shore, trying to fend off the sharks, the old man seems to lose his motivation to fight – “I hope so much I do not have to fight again,” he thinks, his surrendering to the sharks indicating that he has finally surrendered his masculinity. Indeed, the novel portrays the old man as having been defeated; “they beat me,” he says to Manolin, telling him that he is “not lucky anymore.” Ultimately, the novel is unable to transcend the insecurity that comes with anti-essentialism, opting instead to portray the dissolution of gender as the end of life, the end of personhood, leaving the old man in a state of non-existence and non-identity – for as the man pulls back to the shore, re-entering the world after his battle at sea, the novel states that “he felt that perhaps he was already dead.” In the end, the novel grants the man no security in his non-masculinity; instead, he goes back to his bed and sleeps for days, “dreaming about the lions” – popularly thought of as the “king of the jungle,” a symbol of masculine domination over nature. Although the old man now knows he cannot be masculine, it seems the novel does not let him accept it.

But although the novel does not celebrate the deconstruction of gender, providing no vision of transcendence, it does reveal itself to be highly critical of gender essentialism. The novel systematically projects the language of gender and sexuality onto its inhuman objects, and designates its main character as the non-binary center of gender conflict; and in the end, it resolves this conflict not in a triumphant affirmation of traditional gender orthodoxy nor in the celebration of its transcendence, but deems the conflict tragically irreconcilable, leaving main character trapped in non-identity. Indeed, it turns out that one of American literature’s favorite wise-old-men turns out to be not so comfortable with his gender identity – and the novel’s claim seems to be that if he cannot conform to the gender binary, then he cannot continue to exist. But perhaps the narrative’s saving grace might be that it doesn’t treat its non-binary object as an outcast to be ridiculed, as many popular narratives tend to do – you’d need, say, Silence of the Lambs for that. No, this narrative treats it’s non-binary figure as a tragic protagonist, a victim of external forces whose downfall is no fault of its own. Indeed, one of the reasons the old man is such a beloved character is that readers tend to be sympathetic towards the old man in his struggle and ultimate plight – they feel sorry for him, maybe even empathetic. Given the novel’s gender narrative that we’ve just uncovered, though, in which the plight of the old man is the result of his status as non-binary, I don’t think its much of a stretch to suggest that if your average American reader feels sympathy for the old man, it must mean that your average American reader, whether or not they recognize it, doesn’t actually believe in, or maybe is even opposed to, the very construct of the gender binary.