I handed in my final grades yesterday and, as always at this time of year, am simultaneously discouraged and exhilarated. (I’m also really, really tired.) The discouragement comes from thinking about all the teaching opportunities I missed. The exhilaration comes from the breakthroughs I witnessed. In the upcoming weeks, you’ll be hearing about some of the latter, including (today) the connections that one student uncovered between her bulimia nervosa and her attraction to Milton’s Satan. The essay she wrote, which she has generously allowed me to cite, gave her insight into both.
From the beginning, Maria (not her real name) found herself reveling in the antagonist of Paradise Lost. This in itself is not unusual. A number of students are “of the devil’s party” (Blake), in large part because Milton’s finger-wagging God reminds them of their parents and teachers. How can anyone who is young not cheer for the rebel?
Maria discovered that she was attracted to more than Satan’s rebellion, however. Above all, she realized that both she and Satan have perfectionist streaks.
Seeing oneself as unworthy and not good enough is a key aspect of bulimia and of anorexia as well. The pressure one puts on oneself (say, to have a perfect body, even though bulimics are often of average weight) is so intense that one rebels and engages in binge eating. After all, if one is fat, the pressure should go away.
Only the binger is then filled with such self loathing that she (it’s usually a she) proceeds to vomit it all up. There can be serious repercussions from doing this, such as getting to the point where nothing will stay down or where the digestive juices start to eat away at the lining of the throat.
At the chronological start of the poem, Satan may be as close to perfection as anyone can get–he is the archangel, after all–but he begins to see himself as not enough, as not God. Here’s how he puts it in Book IV:
Satan experiences mood swings that Maria could relate to. On the one hand, he pushes himself relentlessly to achieve his ends, subjecting himself to an arduous trek through Chaos and Night and using all his wiles to tempt Eve, even though it requires him to take material shape (abhorrent to angels). His striving has a kind of grandeur that the bulimic recognizes and admires. Maria found “awe-inspiring” such passages as,
[H]e above the rest
In shape and gesture proudly eminent
Stood like a tower; his form had yet not lost
All her original brightness
Unterrified, and like a comet burned
That fires the length of Ophiuchus huge [the constellation Serpens]
In the arctic sky, and from his horrid hair
Shakes pestilence and war.
Even to himself, however, it is clear that he is engaging in self-destructive behavior, and he experiences moments of doubt. After all, he is wrestling with God and must know, deep down, that he is going to lose. Nevertheless, Maria said that, while she recognized Satan’s behavior to be corrupt and self-defeating, she couldn’t help but be drawn to it. In fact, she was captivated by how “Satan has been totally consumed by his quest for power,” as expressed in the line,
For only in destroying I find ease
To my relentless thoughts.
Maria powerfully wrote,
Perhaps the Satanic sentiment I most personally relate to is Satan’s stubborn resolve that “To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:/Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heav’n.” Satan would rather have a warped attainment of “perfection” than relinquish his absolute control and accept his true nature, shortcomings and all, something with which I identify. As selfish and depraved as my eating disorder, my own personal hell, is, in my mind I “reign” over it and find solace in the control with which it provides me, despite its innate detriment.
Making the parallels helped Maria get objective distance from her illness, which could prove to be an essential step to successfully dealing with it. Here’s how she ended her essay:
Through reading Paradise Lost, I have linked many of my feelings concerning my eating disorder with the complexities revealed through Milton’s character of Satan. By associating my personal quest for power with Satan’s, I have come to gain greater insight into the dynamics of my own thought process. I am drawn to Satan because his quest for power shares similarities with my own, and, as unconventional as it is, I relate to Satan because I feel as though I can empathize with his struggle for power.
Both Satan and I are willing to commit destructive, negative acts because we are willing to accept the negative consequences in order to achieve the sought after power. Still, the severe harm caused by such actions is evident. Though I acknowledge my attraction to Satan, reading Paradise Lost and witnessing Satan’s total consumption by his [drive for] control spurs an awareness in me of the irony that, by seeking out absolute power, one actually loses the control one seeks and in turn yields the power to an overwhelming, harmful obsession.
In a conversation I had with Maria, I told her that the next logical step for the essay may also be the next step for herself: to look at the love that Milton’s God promises. God’s love is infinite, and true heroism is acknowledging, as Satan never does, that one is worthy to be loved in spite of the imperfections that one perceives in oneself. Milton’s Adam and Eve come to understand this, which is why they, not Satan, are the real heroes of Paradise Lost. They are the ones who have the humility to turn back to God.
It’s not easy to abandon Satan’s narcissistic drama, however. Even his self loathing can be intoxicating. After all, it gets our adrenaline pumping and puffs up our desperate bid to be “set highest.” The heroic battle that awaits Maria is turning her back on all that. I know that you are rooting as hard for her as I am.