Early in the first chapter of Paradise Lost, twelve-year-old Lewis discovers something essential about adults: "However much posturing they did, however they might pretend otherwise, however indignantly they might defend themselves, I knew that adults were fallible." They will believe anything: that sex is bad, that God exists, that God doesn't exist, that patriotism is good, that virginity is good, that girls are inferior to boysthey will believe anything that other people believe.Lewis cuts through that with an axe. "If you had an opinion of some kind, I wanted the reasons for it, and I didn’t want them hidden away: I wanted them right there, in your hand, marshalled and battle-ready." He will not believe without evidence. He is a firm agnostic. He would love to believe in God, and he would love not to believe in God, but there is no evidence that compels him either way. So he makes up his own ethical system, and in that system, pleasure is good (if it doesn't hurt others) and condemnation of pleasure is stupid. What matters most is being free to find one's own sources of pleasure.The novel goes everywhere Milton goes, but never has the same answer. God is irrelevant. Women are in every sense equal to men, and in terms of their courage and strength, usually superior to men, because they are the ones who give birth to children. Sexual desire is normal, healthy and good for both women and men. Evil is not a Satanic plot, but the result of people believing in their own infallibility. We don’t need God, because we ourselves are powerful gods, creating our own lives, but we must realize that our powers are limited, and we must be humble gods. Paradise is neither a place irrevocably lost nor an eternal destination. Paradise is life itself.But paradise is nevertheless easily lost. People are damaged by circumstances, by each other, and by their own lack of self-awareness. Their lives become the opposite of paradise. Paradise is lost, too, when people turn away from life, and seek something greater. And finally, paradise is lost when we fail to preserve the past. Our paradise then fades into nothingness.However, if we recognize that life is the ultimate goal, and value the present above everything else, and keep the past alive as best we can, then paradise is something that can be regained.
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About the Author
THEMATIC BIO Laird Stevens My life–at least, the part of it that I still carry with me today–began with music. My father played the piano by ear. He played, and I wrapped myself in the sound. He was my earliest God. One evening, when my mother put me to bed, she said that I would soon begin piano lessons, and the thought was so electric that I stayed awake until morning. Seven years later, my beautiful world–impossibly intricate, and shamelessly cerebral–was destroyed in a flood of hormones. There were a few survivors, but the shadow of sex was on them all. To make sex pretty, I called it “love” (as I had been trained to do), but it wasn’t love, and it didn’t become anything like love until a few years later. Certainly, it had to do with love, but the walk from sex to love was long and difficult to understand. After that, there was literature. At fifteen or sixteen, I developed an incomprehensible thirst for other people’s stories. My story, which was both new and exciting, was not yet connected to anything else. Reading Dickens and Dostoevski and D.H. Lawrence, I found a place to fit in. And then, finally, there was philosophy. Descartes showed me that nothing I knew was certain. At sixteen, it was easy to agree. I knew that music and love were guiding my life. I didn’t even presume to ask why. I knew that if I ever made sense of my life, it would be in terms of the stories that I now read compulsively. But after reading Descartes, I started caring about something quite different. I started caring more about questions than I did about answers. I would get my answers in due time, once I started asking the right questions. And the right questions were the ones that cut deepest into my belief system, the belief system that I, like Descartes, had patched together uncritically from childhood to the present. Much later (I was twenty-two at the time), I was reading Plato and discovered what he called “the divine madnesses.” These were things that we did that made us feel like Gods. But, and this was an insurmountable ‘but,’ we were not Gods, and could never do these things unless we had the help of the Gods. The four divine madnesses were music, love, poetry and philosophy. Music was possible only if a God took over our bodies and wrote it for us. The same was true of poetry. Love (and I had no trouble believing this) was a gift of madness from the Gods, and so–unparadoxically–was philosophy: the reasoning of a God was simply madness to a person unpossessed. So said Plato, at any rate. But whatever issues you may have with Plato, remember that no one since has had any better ideas. We still talk about how musicians and poets are “inspired” when they write: they breathe something in, and this allows them to create. Science has nothing useful to say about love, and I have no good answer to the question, “Where do ideas come from?” They gallop into my consciousness like wild things, and if I manage to catch the good ones and let the bad ones go, my day is nothing less than extraordinary. My commitment to the idea of divine madness varies, but it is the most useful one I have ever found when it comes to defining my own life. It is one that I would recommend everyone try on for size.