Above is a many-layered photograph of Gustav Dore’s illustration of an episode from Book IV of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. I say “many-layered” because it’s a photograph of a blacklight poster that uses the Dore image as a starting-point for a psychedelic vision of a psychedelic poem published by a blind genius in 1667.
The poster is in fact illuminated by a blacklight in this photograph, which is why the colors give off a strange and compelling glow. I took the photo during an all-night Paradise Lost readathon at the University of Mary Washington March 23-24, 2007. The photo has been viewed on Flickr 537 times since then. I did fourteen of those readathons from 1980, when I did my own first reading of Paradise Lost all the way through, overnight, in one sitting, to the summer of 2008, when I taught the last Milton seminar of my tenure at Mary Washington. One of the students who came to that final readathon had done the readathon ten times over the years.
The second readathon I did, and the first as a professor, was at the University of San Diego. During the later books, the sky began to rain. Because rain was an unusual occurrence in San Diego, the students got very excited. They ran outside during the break so they could play in the rain. I found this strange and weirdly engaging, too. Rain is to SoCal as snow is to Virginia, or so it seemed to me at the time.
I bought this poster from a head shop in Bristol, Tennessee in the fall of 1970, ten years before I would read the poem it came from. I had no idea what it was a picture of. The caption said “Overlooking Paradise,” and the picture looked to me like an angel overlooking a landscape of such extraordinary beauty that I hoped one day I might be able to climb inside the picture and explore that country. I didn’t know that the angel was really a fallen angel, and that the figure was that of Satan as he overlooked the Paradise that would break his heart and harden it, too, as he resolved to bring ruin and destruction, war and hatred and death, to a country in which, to quote Milton, “spring and fall danced hand in hand.” A country with a garden at the center, one that was “wild above rule or art,” a country of “enormous bliss.” That’s what this angel wrecked.
In 1970 I was building an associative trail without any knowledge that I was doing so. Maybe I was continuing it. I had no idea at all that the blacklight poster I bought in one of the coolest stores I’ve ever seen (the house was painted purple, and it was called “The Spirit House”) was a picture from my future commitment to a poem from centuries past. I did not know that I was at that moment making good on Milton’s words that “books are not absolutely dead things.” All I knew was that the poster was shopworn and a little tattered, so the shop had it on sale for a dollar. And I had a dollar to spend, so I bought it.
In “As We May Think,” Vannevar Bush writes,
Presumably man’s spirit should be elevated if he can better review his shady past and analyze more completely and objectively his present problems. He has built a civilization so complex that he needs to mechanize his records more fully if he is to push his experiment to its logical conclusion and not merely become bogged down part way there by overtaxing his limited memory. His excursions may be more enjoyable if he can reacquire the privilege of forgetting the manifold things he does not need to have immediately at hand, with some assurance that he can find them again if they prove important.
Reviewing our shady past better, analyzing our present problems more completely and objectively: is this a way forward, or a moment in which we will overlook the Paradise from which we are now excluded, the Paradise to which we can bring only destruction. We have indeed built a complex civilization. The building we have done together makes the words I type at this very moment able to appear and move on a screen as I push tiny switches on a keyboard. The complexity allows me to turn every bit of nearly everything into a bit, thus to send it at the speed of light around the world, discoverable by that world, reviewed perhaps by some part of it. What do we see as we look over this complexity in this civilization we have built? What do we overlook and what do we overlook? Vannevar Bush writes of pushing our experiment–presumably, the experiment of “civilization”–to its logical conclusion. Will the machines we have invented, these personal interactive networked Memexes, bring us a happy conclusion for our experiment? How will we know the experiment has ended?
These are important questions. At this moment however I write not of them, but of a moment from my own past, shaded by years but lighted by memory, that proved important on a scale I could not then imagine, but which now I can share, with a whole heart, and with you.