I am in Maine for a family reunion and so am only peripherally aware of the horrors that occurred in Aurora, Colorado this past Friday. I will write more on the shootings when I return to Maryland later this week but for today will reprint the post I wrote following the shootings in Tucson, Arizona last year. These spree shootings appear to have become like the nightmare that we dream night after night. Aurora means dawn, and the image of Milton’s Satan stalking the Garden of Eden in humankind’s first morning captures the unspeakable irony of the name of the town. The midnight killings meant that the young moviegoers would not experience the dawn, with all its freshness and hope. They will not move into the day of their adult lives.
As I teach Beowulf for the umpteenth time, I am struck once again by its beautiful rendition of the Genesis creation story. I’m also struck by how the invocation of that beauty calls forth human horror. Exploring the linkage provides some insight into the mass killings we have almost come to expect.
The passage I have in mind all but says that that the song of creation unleashes Grendel’s murderous rampage. Here it is:
Then a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark,
nursed a hard grievance. It harrowed him
to hear the din of the loud banquet
every day in the hall, the harp being struck
and the clear song of a skilled poet
telling with mastery of man’s beginnings,
how the Almighty had made the earth
a gleaming plain girdled with waters;
in His splendor He set the sun and the moon
to be earth’s lamplight, lanterns for men,
and filled the broad lap of the world
with branches and leaves; and quickened life
in every other thing that moved.
This reminds me of a comparable passage in Paradise Lost. Satan, having journeyed from hell on his quest to corrupt God’s new creation, is awed by the beauty of the Garden of Eden and curses the sun for revealing it to him:
O sun, [I] tell thee how I hate thy beams
That bring to my remembrance from what state
I fell, how glorious once above thy sphere . . .
Milton describes Satan as existing within a perpetual mental hell. What eats away at him, more than anything else, is “the bitter memory of what he was, what is, and what must be worse.” Milton writes,
. . . horror and doubt distract
His troubled thoughts, and from the bottom stir
The Hell within him, for within him Hell
He brings, and round about him, nor from Hell
One step no more than from himself can fly
By change of place . . .
I am no psychologist but this strikes me as a fairly accurate desription of the inner states of Tucson killer Jared Loughner and Virginia Tech killer Seung-hui Cho and the Columbine killers and any other number of Grendel/Satans. In other words, they may suffer from paradise lost syndrome. In the face of innocence and joy, they feel their own inner darkness—their distance from that light—all the more intensely. At some level, they realize that their own beautiful souls have become buried deep and attempt to blot out that awareness. Their means for doing so is destroying those who trigger the memories.
Here’s is Satan’s reaction after watching Adam and Eve exchanging “kisses pure”:
. . . aside the Devil turned
For envy, yet with jealous leer malign
Eyed them askance, and to himself thus plained:
“Sight hateful, sight tormenting! Thus these two
Imparadised in one another’s arms
The happier Eden, shall enjoy their fill
Of bliss on bliss, while I to Hell am thrust,
Where neither joy nor love, but fierce desire,
Among our other torments not the least,
Still unfulfilled with pain of longing pines . . .
Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’s upbeat personality, which attracted idealistic nine-year-old Christina Taylor-Green to her town hall event, also drew in Loughner. The sight of Cho’s college classmates living normal happy lives seemed to send the Virginia Tech student into a fury. Light has a way of calling out darkness.
Jesus understood this phenomenon as well as anyone ever has. He also knew that the darkness wins only when we ourselves become fearful and lash out in return.
Immediately before sending Adam out of the Garden of Eden, archangel Michael counsels him, and us, about what our response to Satanic darkness should be:
. . . add
Deeds to thy knowledge answerable, add faith,
Add virtue, patience, temperance, add love,
By name to come called charity, the soul
Of all the rest: then wilt thou not be loath
To leave this Paradise, but shall possess
A paradise within thee, happier far.