Into the Liquid Plain: Narcissus-Eve-Scarlett

Though it generally deserves its reputation for aggressive difficulty, there are moments in Paradise Lost when the valiant reader, having slashed through Milton’s syntactical thickets and webs, lights upon a beautifully tended glade, uncluttered yet lush. One such moment occurs about halfway through Book IV, when Eve describes to Adam her first delicate hours of consciousness. After a time of knocking about Eden, “wondering where/And what I was”, she comes across a “liquid plain” – some sort of pool or shallow lake. Mesmerized, she moves closer, and catches in the water her first glimpse of a human face and body, her own:

As I bent down to look, just opposite

A shape within the watery gleam appeared,

Bending to look on me: I started back,

It started back; but pleased I soon returned,

Pleased it returned as soon with answering looks

Of sympathy and love. There I had fixed

Mine eyes till now, and pined with vain desire,

Had not a voice thus warned me: ‘What thou seest,

What there thou seest, fair creature, is thyself…’

The first thing to point out is just how gorgeous this is. Notice how Eve’s language is filled with reflections and refractions (“pleased I soon returned,/Pleased it returned as soon”), just like the water it invokes. And look again at that characteristically Miltonic phrase, ‘a shape within the watery gleam’. It is a phrase that works, I think, by a kind of lovely paradox. Each of its individual words are vague, and yet, when strung together, they are not at all vague, they are purged of vagueness and the image they elicit is shimmeringly precise. We can see that shape in the gleam, and moreover, we can see Eve seeing it.

John Martin Paradise Lost Eve at the Fountain

But the scene’s prettiness is distorted by the theological certitude that carries it. If Milton seems stranded in the seventeenth century, while his near-contemporary Shakespeare feels everlastingly relevant, it is partly because of the blind old Puritan’s religiosity, and because that religiosity is inextricably bound up with so much of his poetry. We are left in no doubt that the mysterious voice which speaks to Eve at the end of the passage (and which will promptly redirect her gaze towards Adam’s) is the voice of God, of morality, and, quite unblushingly, of Milton himself. We do not question the voice’s motives, or indeed its reality, because the divine logic of the this so-called “third testament” will not allow it. By contrast, the ambiguous ghosts that haunt Macbeth and Hamlet remain so powerful precisely because of their ambiguity. In his Lectures on the English Poets, William Hazlitt designates Shakespeare as the “poet of nature”, while Milton is granted the less honourable title of “poet of morality”; Milton, he contends, is always striving for “elevation”, while Shakespeare strives for “everything.” Shakespeare will be a peasant, a whore, a madman, a murderer – whatever is necessary – while Milton is content only to be God (or, indeed, Satan). And the “warning” voice he summons leaves no room for human uncertainty. Uncertainty, after all, did not come easily to the man who believed, genuinely, that angels had helped him with the composition of Paradise Lost.

Since Milton’s time, we have learned not to trust the voices in our heads so readily. Nowadays, if anyone overheard Eve’s soliloquy they would assume she was a schizophrenic (with perhaps a side-suffering of narcissistic personality disorder). Yet even in our post-Christian age, in which the languages of medicine and psychiatry have gone a way toward displacing the language of theology, and notions like vanity and idolatry (let alone those unfashionable concepts, good and evil) have retreated to the Philosophy Department and the chapel and the seminary, we nevertheless continue to perceive a relationship between self-absorption and death, albeit a muddy one. Whether it is sheathed in the hard lexicon of faith or in the softer fabrics of wellbeing, community, and mental health, the relationship holds. This is why my little Milton fragment retains its power, I think. Because it speaks to an eternal fear of being sucked into the self. And because we are always looking for ways to deal with that fear. And, as with the great books of the Bible, because though the moral element has gone stale, the images are strong enough to endure. And what simple, lucid, timeless images they are: the liquid plain; the lonely, wandering Eve; her obscure refection. These are essential, and they have no Biblical precedents. They are solely Milton’s.

Or not exactly solely. I cannot proceed without invoking a name I have only so far mentioned in passing. The name, of course, is Narcissus. Milton the classicist might have felt, when he read of the poor vain boy drowning in his own reflection, that he’d encountered a story with tremendous metaphorical potential, an elegant prelude to the catastrophic Fall. Of course, the myth of Narcissus has inspired countless artists, from Caravaggio to Poussin to Dali to Lucien Freud (by way of his grandfather, Sigmund, who popularized the term “narcissism” in 1914), and we can surely add Milton to the list. Of the artists mentioned above, I will single out Caravaggio and his interpretation of the story as the most potent. Milton, for all his “elevation”, cannot speak to me with the eerie immediacy of Caravaggio, whose painting of 1599, or thereabouts, strikes me as ferociously modern, which is to say, complex and melancholic and flagrantly godless. In the picture, the boy Narcissus, dressed in contemporary clothing, peers into a pool so black it looks like tar, while his arms join their murky doubles to form an inescapable circle of lust. His reflection in the dark water looks less pretty than it should, older and closer to death, suggesting that self-love is really a kind of self-disgust, that the two have more in common than they appear to.

If there is something gentle and tender and feminine about Milton’s vision, then there is a savage maleness at the heart of Caravaggio’s. Since male desire is inherently more violent than female desire, it follows that male narcissism is going to be the uglier subject of the two, and the more interesting. After all, Narcissus dies and Eve is saved, and death fascinates us more than survival. Yet Eve’s original moment of vanity has its descendants. I’ve got two in mind, a poem and a film, both dealing in very different ways with “the female experience”. The first is Sylvia Plath’s ‘Mirror’, written in 1961. The first half of the poem describes an everyday mirror, “silver and exact” and like “the eye of a little god, four-cornered.” The mirror then, in the second half, transforms itself into an Edenic lake. The poem turns positively Miltonic:

Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,

Searching my reaches for what she really is.

Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.

I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.

She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.

I am important to her. She comes and goes.

Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.

In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman

Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.

One could read these lines as a deep “what-if” posed by Plath. What if no cautionary voice turned Eve away from her reflection; would she have been condemned to gaze at it forever? But this isn’t a what-if question at all, since there really is no voice, no poetic guardian interfering with free will. Modern woman has returned to that original Eve, watching her reflection age and rot “day after day”. Here, the phrase “she comes and goes” seems less about one person and more evocative of a general, eternal terror toward ageing, a terror we all feel but which women tend to feel more acutely than men, and which everyone feels more acutely since God has fled. And Plath’s final image may be a sarcastic retort to the Lord himself, who says in Genesis 1:26 that humankind will have “dominion over the fish in the sea”.

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Another modern work of art which contains traces and echoes of Milton’s fragment is Under the Skin, directed by Jonathan Glazer and released in 2013. In this extraordinary film, Scarlett Johansson is an alien lifeform who spends most of the runtime driving around Glasgow, looking for men to consume – in the widest, weirdest sense of the word. Having successfully brought them back to her place – and this ‘place’ of hers is a strange dark nowhere, a realm or room whose floor consists of black unworldly slime, a “liquid plain” indeed (and, it suddenly occurs to me, not terribly unlike Caravaggio’s tarry pool) – she lures them with her irresistible sex-eyes to a shocking, surreal death.

Part of the film’s power lies in Scarlett Johansson’s physical presence; she fills Under the Skin just as Satan, another vividly human shadow, fills Paradise Lost. By ‘presence’ I do not simply mean her performance as the cosmic manhunter, which is breath-taking. No, I mean the way in which she negotiates a frontier between reality and fiction, a misty, unsettling borderland where she is sometimes utterly convincing as an extra-terrestrial, and other times is inescapably herself – inescapably Scarlett Johansson, ‘Scar-Jo’, one of the world’s most iconic film stars. Glazer used hidden cameras for many of the early scenes, in which Johansson drives around Glasgow, interacting with non-actors. Set against the Kubrickian abstractions of the opening scene, the effect of so many long sequences of grainy realism – indeed, reality – is jarring to say the least. The zone of reality and the zone of fantasy come into weird alignment towards the end of the movie, in an astonishing scene that has all the complex tenderness of Paradise Lost, and the cold menace of Caravaggio’s Narcissus, postmodernly rewired.

At this point in the film, our mysterious lifeform has suffered a crisis of identity – i.e., she’s begun to suspect she has one. Several hesitations and glitches and unknown desires have brought her here. She has betrayed her predator’s instinct by sparing the life of a deformed but harmless Glaswegian. Like a malfunctioning vehicle, she has fallen facedown in the middle of a street. She has tried, in a charming scenelet, to eat chocolate cake. Finally, she has abandoned her terrestrial operation and fled to a small town outside of Glasgow. Obviously, her character shares affinities with Eve; she has been dropped into an unfathomable world – in this case, the austere, sodden landscapes and townscapes of Scotland – fully-formed and “adult” and extremely beautiful and in possession of speech, motive, consciousness, yearning, and a limited reserve of self-knowledge. She wonders where and what she is. But whereas Eve discovered her reflection before anything else, and had to be persuaded away from its allure and towards her cosmic mission, the spiritual itinerary of Johansson’s alien corresponds to a backwards timetable. She begins with a frigid cosmic mission in mind, and is led thrillingly astray. All of this brings Scarlett’s alien to the culmination of her Evelike wandering, and to a scene that appears to be whisperingly intimate with Milton’s.

In the spare bedroom of a kind stranger, the newly vulnerable and self-conscious creature stands before a full-length mirror, naked as Eve, and lit by the reddish, atmospheric glow of an electric heater. She has looked at her reflection before but this is the first time she’s seen it. She likes it, is captivated by it. Slow, atonal music drones on the soundtrack. She takes a childish pleasure in the smoothness and strangeness of her earth-clothes, twisting her body into playful shapes, rolling around on the balls of her feet, curling her fingers, even practising an amorous half-smile. In these moments, self-scrutiny seems to equal life, not death. It is a fabulous inversion of the Eve-Narcissus injunction. And at the same time, it isn’t. Because she will soon be dead. The beauty she has found in her own image and in herself, in her own selfness, will ultimately serve to deepen her isolation. Her superhuman faculty for survival will be lost. After this, she will just be another one of us, alone and delicate and at the mercy of the world.

But we can never quite forget that the alien’s earth-clothes happen to resemble a massively famous actress, an actress whose body has been the subject of endless attention. As a medium, film is more lurid and erotic than poetry, even painting. Reality, and real people, hide within the narrative, and there is a voyeuristic delight to be had in peering through the mask of character to the actual face beneath. Subtly, Under the Skin acknowledges this delight, and works through it – hinting, too, that the bedroom mirror in question is more than a slab of glass, more than a Miltonic liquid plain. It is also a camera, or a computer: it looks back. At any rate, it is a new kind of mirror, a technological portal, a world-mirror, and what we see in it is a new kind of reflection, neither wholly private nor wholly public, as our great classical heroes were neither private nor public, as Eve was discreetly watched by heaven and Satan, Narcissus by the gods. In this ubiquitous world-mirror, with its eyes and hidden depths, we have all become a blank-gazed alien, and we have all become Scarlett Johansson, too – implicated in the dialectic of watching and being watched. Where exactly death fits in remains to be seen, but the all the great minds of literature seem to agree it can’t be far away.

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