A few posts ago, in writing about the detritus that can be found on professor’s office doors, I had recounted a little self-indulgent story about first finding Cavafy’s The City. Today, I want to point you to another ‘found’ poem–more accurately, a fragment–located, not on an office door but rather, in a budding poet’s workspace. My discovery and reading of the fragment were notable because a) to date, it remains my central point of contact with its larger whole; b) because I ascribed a meaning to the fragment without reading the poem itself, and c) because my imagined narrator turned out to be very different from the one who actually speaks the line.
Circa 1995, as I slogged through my coursework at the CUNY Graduate Center, I found myself drawn, through a variety of circumstances, into a circle of ‘friends’–the quotemarks are an attempt to indicate the ambiguity of the relationship–that included a young graduate of a writing program at Emerson College, who lived, as befitted those New Yorkers that aspired to a Bohemian life, in a shared loft space in Brooklyn. I think it was Williamsburg, but it might well have been Bushwick. My memory fails me and not just because it was a long time ago: I was almost always inebriated when I visited that ‘space.’
One night, while stumbling around our poet’s loft in the midst of yet another episode of beer-drinking, I noticed a line from John Milton‘s Paradise Lost, printed out on a piece of paper and stuck above a desk. It read–as I remembered it, and quoted it for years:
What Matter Heaven or Hell, If I Remain the Same?
That line as I read it, and cited it, had a simple moralizing function. I used it to argue against escapism, and for the need for self-reconfiguration in psychological crisis; it made subjectivity central to any project of change, whether external or internal. I had not read Paradise Lost (confession: I have still not read it in its entirety), and knew little of this line’s location in its narrative and thus, remained oblivious of the identity of its narrator.
The actual line is a little different:
A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven
What matter where, if I be still the same
And these lines, of course, are spoken by the ‘fallen Archangel,’ Satan himself. And for him, they become part of the defenses he erects to protect himself against the Fall and the loss of Heaven: the displacement is permanent, but so long as his spirit and his consciousness are as ever before, all is not lost. They are an assertion of what persists, endures, survives, and is the key to flourishing in the midst of such terrible loss. I had used the line to indicate the locus of desired change; Milton has Satan employ it to indicate his resilience and fortitude in the face of adversity.
In doing so, in making Satan proclaim his ability to traverse Heaven and Hell with equal facility, to employ his mind to transcend the particularity of both, Milton made Satan almost heroic.