Olaudah Equiano’s Subversive Reading of Milton’s Paradise Lost

Part I

In the final book in Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost (1667), the archangel Michael tells the newly fallen Adam of not only his fate, but also his children’s fate and so on culminating in the history of the world. In his account of human history, Michael tells the story of Nimrod. Nimrod, a footnote in the scope of the Biblical cannon is likewise minimized in Milton’s epic as an emergent figure in the history of mankind. Like the source material, Nimrod’s narrative emerges from a litany of names and events. Nimrod is important enough to mention but after his brief appearance, he disappears into the annals of history. Why does the Biblical author mention a man only to never mention him again? Why does Milton choose to include this narrative? The poet writes of Nimrod’s emergence:

till one shall rise

Of proud ambitious heart, who not content

With fair equality, fraternal state,

Will arrogate dominion undeserved

Over his brethren, and quite dispossess

Concord and law of nature from the earth. (Milton 12.24-29)

Milton’s Nimrod is a villain, a slave master, the enemy of freedom and reason. He subjugates and enslaves his fellow man, not only upsetting the laws of nature, but the laws of God which determines that God is above man. His great sin is against God and reason, for Milton one and the same. It is under his tyrannical rule that men construct the Tower of Babel, forcing God to execute his divine judgment, confusing the tongues of the people and thereby restoring order. It is this divine justice and order that Milton seeks to justify and champion in his poem.

In his own justification of justice, Olaudah Equiano, a former slave composes The Interesting Narrative of The Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789). Equiano writes his narrative on the eve of great political change and upheaval. In the eighteenth century, Abolition movements in the United States and the United Kingdom sought out former slaves to share their experience, orally or written. In 1789, Equiano became the first in a long lost of men and women who penned “spiritual biographies” (Costanzo 9). These spiritual autobiographies consisted of a three-part structure “depicting a person’s enslavement to sin, harrowing conversion experience, and subsequent state of spiritual rebirth” (Costanzo 9). Equiano purported himself to be a devout Christian whose faith carried him through the horrors of slavery and into the freedom of salvation. Therefore it is not surprising that Equiano would be familiar with John Milton’s epic poem. In fact, he adopts Milton’s words and inserts them into his own narrative, an editorial choice in line with his belief as well as the historical moment Equiano has to navigate.

In addition to the stylized structure of the spiritual autobiography cum slave narrative, Equiano had to adhere to two conventions. One such convention was that each writer had to authenticate their experience and in the process, their very existence. This was realized in two ways, by a white abolitionist vouching for them, validating their existence and providing some sort of proof that these former slaves actually wrote them. The writers, almost to a one, began their narratives with some form of the statement “I was born.” This statement was followed by as much documentation of their birth as they could assemble. Solomon Northup goes as far as providing the location for where documents of his birth and life could be found. In terms of narrative, abolitionists and other commissioners encouraged these freedwomen and men to share the horrors of slavery in as personal a manner as possible, however they cautioned them not to be too condemnatory of southern whites for fear of insulting their northern relatives. Political purpose and gain determined the early slave narrative form. Deviation from this form was unlikely and politically damaging. However, early slave narrative writers found ways around the pre-determined form, using subversion to create a form within a form.

That Equiano would make allusions to Milton and Paradise Lost is indicative of the times. According to Reginald Wilburn in his article “Black Audio-Visionaries and the Rise of Miltonic Influence in Colonial America and the Early Republic,” Milton had extensive influence over 17th and 18th century national politics, education, and religious culture and was widely read, assuming a role in the early canon (103-104). For this reason, black audio-visionaries such as Equiano understood the power that invoking Milton could have on an audience. In the slave narrative tradition, the invocation of Christian principles and ideas was done to appease the intended audience: white, Christian abolitionists and sympathetic Northerners. By invoking Milton, Equiano assured that he would reach his audience.

Equaino’s engagement with Paradise Lost appears to be limited; he only excerpts from the first two books of the poem, sparingly, including a mere twenty lines altogether, a negligible amount in his expansive narrative. I aim to deconstruct the passages he includes as well as the ones he does not. Though Equiano does not quote beyond the poem’s first two books, he is in fact engaging with the entire poem. Wilburn asserts in his essay that Milton heavily influenced Equiano’s narrative, which in turn influenced the narrative of freedom, which would become the slave narrative tradition, a genre associated with abolition and the fight for civil rights. That Equiano would connect with Milton as inspiration could imply a fundamental similarity between their crusades. However, just because Equiano uses Milton to advance his antislavery argument does not mean that they are preaching the same message. Wilburn writes that Equiano’s engagement with Milton amounts to his fashioning of what he refers to as a “satanic gospel” through Milton and subsequently through his own narrative (144). This “satanic gospel” is an inversion of Milton’s intended gospel of righteous justification. However, though Wilburn provides the language for the discussion about Miltonic influence in Equiano’s Interesting Narrative and the work of other black audio-visionaries, so-called because “of the oral/aural “performative” nature of their works, he does not provide a frame for reading Equiano’s subversion.

Equiano’s moves don’t amount to a mere subversive reading but to an institutional revolt. He preaches “the gospel of revolt” the kind of revolt that Milton preaches against (Wilburn 114). He subverts the message of Paradise Lost by presenting a satanic gospel reading of the poem. Equiano’s inclusion of excerpts from Paradise Lost in his slave narrative is one such subversion. He cites from a text that is not only widely read during the time in which he publishes his narrative, but one that appeals to the Christian ethics championed by the very people he was hoping to appeal to. However, though Equiano only quotes from books one and two the reason for why he chooses to enter into conversation with Paradise Lost can be found in book twelve. Equiano makes a strategic choice to appeal to Milton’s readers while simultaneously undercutting his influence because he understands the political moment. While Wilburn provides the vocabulary of Equiano’s relationship to Milton, he fails to prove his thesis by his own interpretation of either Milton or Equiano, merely noting that there is a relationship. The nature of the relationship between Milton and Equiano is not only adversarial but extends beyond the scope of the three passages Equiano cites in his narrative. Equiano’s “satanic gospel” is a manifestation of the tension between Milton and Equiano’s reading of him.

Part II

The story of Nimrod, the son of Cush, the son of Ham, the cursed son of Noah appears in book twelve of Paradise Lost as a cautionary tale against reason and freedom. Milton, in his final book, restates his philosophy of “Rational liberty” or “true liberty” (12.82, 83). This “true liberty” is at the heart of Milton’s thesis about God’s divine justice, which He carries out in the service of man, His greatest creation. Milton’s rhetoric resembles the rhetoric of Enlightenment thinkers, Equiano’s contemporaries who would champion reason and freedom. It would appear as though Milton sets a precedent for progressive thinking. Like Equiano, Milton is aware of his contemporary moment and where the conversation about sovereignty is headed. Mary Nyquist in her article, “Slavery, Resistance, and Nation in Milton and Locke” writes about Milton and his contemporaries working to define “natural freedom” which appears in the “literature of popular sovereignty” (356). Nyquist admits that there is disconnect between emerging Enlightenment thought and widespread chattel slavery (357). Equiano plays on this tension.

Nyquist writes that compared to more revolutionary writing, Milton in Paradise Lost restrains his language. He delivers his philosophy of “true liberty” perhaps more softly than in other instances. However, by close reading Equiano, we can see that he does not accept the “restrained language” of Paradise Lost. Instead, he implicates Milton in the institutional hypocrisy and the institutional rationalization of slavery. In chapter five of his narrative, Equiano writes about the “Christian master” who drips sealing wax on the back of a fugitive slave (123). Considering he italicized phrase “Christian master” Equiano blatantly questions the validity of this title. Equiano names the slave, an Emanuel Sankey, but does not name the “Christian master because it is the title that is significant. Equiano challenges the Christian institution using the example of the cruel master who purports himself to be a Christian. He is representative of the whole, as Milton is representative of true and rational liberty.

The vocabulary of emerging Enlightenment thought establishes a hierarchy to freedom. In book twelve, Michael vilifies Nimrod for his tyranny and his sins against his fellow man. On this surface, this admonition could read as a condemnation of slavery when in truth it is a condemnation of only one type of slavery. Nyquist identifies three modes of tyranny: internal, outward and justified (365-368). The real difference is between figurative and literal slavery and political slavery versus actual bondage (Nyquist 357). The way to rationalize slavery with emerging thought about liberty is to promote internal slavery as the real threat. Nimrod’s tyranny extends to “political subjugation” which is metaphorical (Nyquist 369). He threatens the first two modes of freedom. In the hierarchy, outward freedom is not as essential as internal freedom. This thought, prevalent during Equiano’s historical moment have rise to the slave narrative, which championed internal freedom found in God, and reason, which is also God’s.

The classification of Nimrod’s tyranny is further evidence of hierarchical modes of slavery. Paradise Lost then sets itself up as a rational argument for internal freedom in lieu of outward freedom. Milton’s language teeters on the line of being outright pro-slavery which is perhaps why Nyquist calls his language restrained but Equiano does not absolve Milton’s passivity. For Equiano, Milton’s passivity makes him complicit. It is because of this passivity that Equiano seeks to dismantle the notion of hierarchical slavery through Milton who he regards as representative of the wider institution. Paradise Lost has an “emphasis on human resistance to subjection” which Equiano questions (Nyquist 360). Reading Equiano’s narrative reading of Milton has to begin in book twelve in order to understand how he deconstructs the racialized rationalization of outward versus internal bondage. The notion of racialized liberty is fundamental to Equiano’s reading. Nyquist argues that Milton’s true aim is to protect political and rational liberty against tyranny and disorder (361). Milton’s thesis sets up Christianity as a protector of rational liberty, aligning his work with institutional Christianity. Milton is thus inseparable from the institution. Christian theology, Nyquist argues, systematically privileges “inward states” (365). Equiano indicts the hierarchy by mocking the vocabulary Milton and his contemporaries use to justify their rationalization.

In the beginning of chapter five, Equiano writes about a “new slavery” more harsh and wretched than any other form he has endured. But what lies beneath the “new slavery?” Does Equiano really believe that one form of slavery is preferable to another? Nyquist highlights a passage in book twelve (lines 79-104) of Paradise Lost where Milton “organizes degrees of servitude hierarchically, with the most completely interior coming first and the most exterior last-the last being, of course, actual bondage” (365). In this passage, Michael implies that “enslavement has a divine origin” galvanizing “Noah’s curse” as grounds for God’s divine justice (Nyquist 368). It is at this moment that Equiano makes the connection with Milton, God’s divine judgment and the subsequent rationalization for outward bondage. Milton excludes institutional slavery from his judgment of tyranny and consequently legitimizes human bondage (Nyquist 371). We can therefore find justification for human bondage with God’s judgment. If outward bondage is a punishment for sin then it is justified. Equiano appears to lament the possibility that he has done something, has sinned against God to deserve his state of bondage. However, his subsequent reading of books two and one of Paradise Lost undercut the possibility that he truly believes that slavery is a just punishment. Equiano would not conceive that there is any sin that could justify human bondage even God’s divine judgment.

Part III

In book two, Milton records the great debate in Pandemonium, a debate over what is to be done after the Son expels the fallen angels from heaven and fulfills God’s divine judgment. At Satan’s behest, three fallen angels make their cases regarding their current state. Moloch urges war, Belial advocates for slothful peace and Mammon argues for proactive acceptance of their fate and for making a virtual heaven of their hell (Milton 2.43-283). The great debate, held before all the inhabitants of hell, mirrors the debate on both sides of the Atlantic between colonizers and colonized, enslaved and free. Equiano chooses to invoke this debate between the fallen angels who are victims of God’s righteous judgment in part because his cause mirrors that of the fallen angels. Equiano chooses this debate over the equally great and equally staged debate in heaven. He is doing more than simply relating to the fallen angel struggle, his choice declares the justice of the satanic debate and thereby the justice of the satanic gospel. The debate over slavery, according to Equiano more closely resembles the satanic debate because the state of being of a fallen angel and an enslaved person share fundamental similarities.

In his fictional recreation of the events in hell, Satan’s will, through Beelzebub, prevails rendering all other debate meaningless. Only Mammon’s case for sustained survival can contend with Beelzebub’s but he quickly dissembles it. To remain in “strictest bondage” is not an option, revolt is their only course (Milton 2.321, 326). Satan and Beelzebub elect subversion as the path to their version of righteous judgment. It is not total war and yet neither is it surrender, but rather a different type of war. The war for heaven never ends, it adapts. Likewise, the slaves must also adapt to the “state of war” that they live in (Equiano 128). He quotes from Beelzebub’s argument that “no peace is given/to us enslav’d” hearkening to Satan’s refusal to quietly accept the judgment “from Heav’n’s high jurisdiction” (2.332, 319). Equiano then uses Milton to pose the question to justify his judgment, “what peace can we return?” (2.335). Equiano’s moves here operate in two, seemingly contradictory, ways. On the one hand, he advocates for rebellion and declares that insurrection as an inevitable response to the state of slavery. Like Satan and the fallen angels who continue to revolt even after they have been defeated, slave insurrection will become the new state of war. On the other hand, Equiano simultaneously advocates for peace, peace that can only come by “treating your slaves as men” and not fallen angels (128). Though Equiano may advocate for peace, he does not truly believe in Mammon-like acceptance. Revolution is the only answer to inequality under divine justice’s umbrella. Equiano twists Milton’s words to make his own rationalization for revolution. He is not only targeting Milton’s rationale but also the entire philosophy of Paradise Lost.

Ultimately, we come to book one of Paradise Lost in which Milton first posits his philosophy of divine justice. Milton’s aim in composing Paradise Lost is to “ assert Eternal Providence / And justify the ways of God to men” a resolute undertaking (1.25-26). The footnotes of the Norton Critical Edition supplies the Latin root of the word “assert.” Asserere in the original Latin means to “put one’s hand on the head of a slave to set him free or protect or defend him” (Norton 9). Asserting Eternal Providence for Milton is about asserting the faithfulness of all who would believe in God as a good and just God. Milton also wants to assert protection of metaphorical freedom, freedom from political tyranny. In opposition, Equiano asserts protection of outward freedom, freedom from bondage. The intersectionality of Equiano’s divine reading of Paradise Lost and his state of slavery alters the gospel message that Milton intends. Equiano creates his own hierarchy of freedom, one where outward freedom ranks above internal freedom. By questioning Milton’s metaphorical freedom, Equiano also questions God’s judgment.

As Equiano approaches Montserrat, after attempts to free him fail, he acknowledges, “what fate had decreed no mortal on earth could prevent” (114). He refers to Montserrat as his “destined island” and accepts that forces outside the earthly realm preordain his fate. In lieu of actual descriptions of his “destined island”, he instead invokes Milton’s first description of hell. This hell cast in “sorrow [and] doleful shades” is the land of his new bondage (Milton 1.65). This new land is cast in stark contrast to his previous bondage, which Equiano yearns for in the face of his new, hellish circumstance. This is his hell on earth. In anguish, he calls upon “God’s thunder, and his avenging power” to right the injustice but doesn’t seem to believe that God will according to his judgment avenge him (Equiano 115). Equiano does not question God’s presence in the ways of men, but challenges His role with regards to justice for all men. Equiano ends his first quotation of Milton with the lines “but torture without end/Still urges” cutting the Miltonic verse in the middle of the line. Immediately after this quotation, Milton once again invokes “Eternal Justice” confirming that God ordained a hell of this nature and magnitude (1.70). In the debate for slavery, those who supported it often argued that slavery was God’s will and Equiano seems to be echoing that sentiment. The God who ordains slavery therefore cannot be just. This is what Wilburn is talking about when he refers to Equiano’s reading of Paradise Lost as that of a satanic gospel (114). Equiano determines that God is not just if his judgment is not. After establishing the unjust nature of God’s judgment, Equiano moves to justify his own state of being. Equiano is in full control of this contradiction, he deliberately constructs a test for God’s divine judgment which he knows will fail in order to attack the religious case for slavery as a divinely-sanctioned state. God is not Equiano’s intended victim but Milton’s God and the institution.

In chapter five of his narrative, Equiano reflects on the state of human bondage. This reflection, which comes halfway through his narrative, requires a close reading because it attempts to break down the philosophy of the institution of slavery as well as the state of the enslaved. In this excerpt, Equiano reflects on his sale to Mr. King on the island of Montserrat and the despair it causes him, notably for the pitiable circumstances where he finds himself, bound on a ship for bondage. He writes, “I must have done something to displease the Lord, that he thus punished me so severely” (Equiano 111). He further speculates “God might perhaps have permitted this in order to teach me wisdom and resignation” (Equiano 111). He invokes heavenly judgment perhaps to reconcile the reality of his situation and to rectify the miscarriage of earthly judgment. But he does not absolve heavenly judgment from his censure. Instead, he puts into perspective the purported righteousness of heavenly judgment and seeks to test its merits.

Equiano highlights distinctions between earthly and heavenly judgment, but what on a superficial reading might seem as ready affordance to the righteous judgment of God, which has allowed for his suffering, it is, in fact, tacit resistance to an ideological order that encompasses heaven. Equiano writes that God “permitted” his bondage. He posits that his transgression might have been his “presumption in swearing” and is quick to beg forgiveness (111). The punishment for his transgression is slavery, something that he seems to consider, might be for his good, again citing God’s omnipotent judgment. He freely admits that he has no answers on that score and leaves it to the reader to come to their own conclusion. We are left to ponder the righteousness of a God that would shut up a man, born free into slavery. On the surface, Equiano seems to suggest that by questioning his state of being, as a man reduced to bondage labor, and the righteousness of God in that matter, God’s judgment is justified. If the judgment of God is just then God justifies slavery. However, Equiano is not making a case for the protection and proliferation of slavery. In fact, this very narrative seeks to dismantle arguments against it. He uses the word “transgression” implying that he might in some way have to atone for a past sin. But he knows that there is no past sin, no transgression, only an accident a birth. His current circumstances are the result of “judgment of Heaven” which he has established is questionable. Equiano determines that his only recourse is to dismantle the institution that props up flawed interpretations of God’s judgment.

Though Equiano seeks to dismantle the institution, he does not mean to abandon it altogether. Like Milton, Equiano seeks to transplant his philosophy of justice through a Biblical reading. Milton invokes similarities between himself and the Biblical prophets, specifically, the patriarch Moses. When Milton invokes the heavenly Muse in book one, he alludes to “Oreb, or of Sinai,” Biblical places of inspiration for Moses (1.7). On these mountains, Moses hears the voice of God and receives divine inspiration. Likewise, Milton seeks divine inspiration from the “Aonian mount,” the place of the muses (1.15). By linking Moses’s mission with his own, Milton succeeds in elevating his work by divine standards. This move ties his project intrinsically with Christian theology and institution. God chooses Moses to lead his people and execute judgment and justice in the name of God, a mandate Milton believes he shares with the prophet of old. Equiano complicates this Miltonic invocation by subverting the Moses ethos. Equiano refers to the “just cause Moses had in redressing his brother against the Egyptian” as cause for Equiano and his fellow brothers and sisters in bondage to “look up still to the God on the top” (127). Equiano also seeks inspiration from the mountaintop, but the inspiration he receives is of a different strain than Milton. Equiano’s Moses is not the prophet, but the revolutionary, the man who led his people out of bondage in Egypt. Equiano draws parallels between himself and Moses, subverting the parallel Milton makes. This is the Moses adopted by the antislavery movement as a symbol of revolt and freedom, the Moses adopted by a slave girl named Harriet Ross who would become Harriet Tubman. He is a catalyst for the change and justice that eludes enslaved peoples. Equiano is like Moses, ready to lead his people from the bondage of slavery.

Conclusion

Nyquist and Wilburn occupy two concurrent spaces in the discourse surrounding Milton’s influence on early African American literature and politics but they do not intersect. The politics of slavery overlap both arguments however, and this paper sought to bring these two divergent theories in conversation through Equiano. Though Nyquist does not discuss Equiano, her reading of Milton deconstructs the tension between philosophy and political action. Equiano subverts the subversion of Enlightenment thought, which is what truly makes him an audio-visionary. What makes Equiano’s subversion so significant is that he uses the very institutional parameters of Christianity and theology to dismantle the very same institution. Equiano’s “satanic gospel of revolt” is manifest in his narrative. Subsequent black audio-visionaries, particularly in the slave narrative tradition take up the mantle of subversive writing, which Equiano establishes, in his pioneering narrative.

Works Cited

Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. Broadview, 2001.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Norton, 1993.

Nyquist, Mary. “Slavery, Resistance, and Nation in Milton and Locke.” Early Modern Nationalism and Milton’s England, ed. by David Loewenstein and Paul Stevens, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008. 356-397.

Wilburn, Reginald. Preaching the Gospel of Black Revolt: Appropriating Milton in Early African   American Literature. Duquesne UP, 2014.

 

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