Myth, Politics, History, Religion, and Eritrean State
Human beings are endowed with that unique ability to recall our history, live in the present, and plan of future (Close to Heidegger’s notion of “temporality” in “Being & Time”). Similarly, thus, we are also endowed as F. Scott Fitzgerald quipped, with “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” So, I trust the reader will see today’s article in that light, the intention certainly is that. So, then, to say we struggle in this life to balance matters of politics, work, leisure, friendships, and faith is NOT to overstate it at all. The latter is the focus of today’s piece. Consider my struggles with faith. Religion was instilled in me from childhood in that venerable place Akhriya, QeyyaH Meriet.
Over the decades since I left home, I have had my struggles with staying true to its tenets. The first few years after fleeing home, I clung to it like one does to a dear life. But, by the time I lived in Cairo as a young man of middle school age, I was becoming a Ramadan-Eid-and-Friday-praying kind of a fellow.
The ebb and flow of my struggles continued to intensify when I arrived in the US. Over the last several years, however, these trios remain to be the ones that I faithfully try to follow except for Ramadan. This month of reflection and introspection I really find to be of a monumental challenge, though I do keep up with it; nevertheless, I operate at a low, very low fuel, consequently, productivity suffers along with it. With this brief personal vignette serving as a backdrop, attempts will be made to strike a balance between personal sovereignty and the freedom for an individual to believe or not to believe in the sovereignty of God. What brought this to the fore, at least for me is the interview that Alamin Mohammed Seid gave to an Eritrean media outlet.
Considering that interview, where one could make no head or tail of, what is one supposed to do: Ignore it as another bait for us in the diaspora to get into endless circular arguments about? Or do we try to elevate the discussion by bringing some of the issues he raises, namely, religion or lack thereof it (for example, atheism), myth, tradition, culture, in the context of nation-state aspirations? These, of course, bring with them other layers of issues (for example, conspiracies, fallacies, perceptions embedded within us all) that must be treated if one is going to have clarity about it all. Making a genuine attempt at addressing these issues can only help in the fleshing out process. Of course, the hope is that, at the other end of this, we will all come out with a better understanding of our human condition. Why not use literature to highlight some of the defaulted positions we the believers take as we inadvertently or not dismiss those who choose not to believe. Milton’s Paradise Lost (PL) will serve as the background that could conceivably not only shed a light but challenge us all in our presumptions. Though delving deeper on Milton’s epic narrative poem would be next to impossible to do in this short article, bringing some salient points from it, however, can give us sufficient distance to evaluate certain myths that we may otherwise have not carefully considered before. Let us then start with notions of myth, politics, and history before drawing notions of religion from PL.
The propagation of myth and its shelf life in human history seems to continue unabated for generations. In the Cambridge Companion to English Literature 1500 – 1600, Arthur F. Kinney offers a compelling testimony to this notion:
“Nothing of great note happened in 1500, and nothing of great note happened in 1600 either, as the timeline appended to this volume shows. As a unit of political history, the century effectively begins in 1485, when Henry Tudor defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth field. Henry VII, as he became, was keen to present this event as a beginning: he employed historians such as Polydore Vergil and Bernard Andre to construct a Tudor version of history in which Richard III was portrayed as a murderous tyrant, and in which the marriage of Henry himself to Elizabeth of York was presented as the final resolution of fifteenth-century battles between the rival houses of York and Lancaster over the succession.” (p. 11)
What this illustrates is the staying power of myth along the historical and political trajectories, once concocted and its delivery meticulously orchestrated, there seems to not be a mechanism in place of stopping it even after its veracity was questioned and disproven. Mythology was not employed just in the written word narratives, “careful manipulation of images, even in death, was a means by which this family sought to ensure national stability and dynastic continuity. Therefore, Kinney states that “[t]his was a century in which representations were a crucial tool of government. This is one reason why its literature is so strong: as an art of representation, it knows it matters. But it is also why we should be uneasy with mythically unified tales about the period” (p. 13). Kinney’s assertion is not ambiguous at all that we should always be leery about picture perfect historical narratives because “England was frequently presented as a mixed polity, which counterpoised the power of the Crown with the moral force of parliament and counsel” (p. 13). A deep understanding of this polity is not lost on Milton who was aware, hence for being able to intricately and in sophisticatedly woven an epic poem narrative best known as Paradise Lost.
Throughout Milton’s Paradise Lost (PL), a reader is kept abreast of that elusively mythic “free will” that God claims has endowed the Angels, Adam & Eve with; and at the root of which rests a choice they make if they are going to fall like the Fallen Angel, Satan and his disciples, or, remain loyal to God’s rules. Just like Satan, Adam and Eve also make their respective choices to transgress God’s rules as they consumed the forbidden fruit and for such disobedience punishment is exacted by the Omniscient, the all-knowing; never mind that God could have prevented the temptation for Satan to disobey or could have disallowed Satan from perversely tempting Eve in consuming that “fatal fruit.” But, then, what keeps the epic’s narrative structure from falling apart, arguably, is that elusive “free will.” From a structural standpoint, Paradise Lost (PL) shows certain themes, patterns, and parallels that a reader can clearly surmise. In the case of the latter, for example, Satan’s despair parallels that of Adam’s despair, both of whom are given a chance to express their inner turmoil in their respective soliloquies. So, the notion of God’s free will, sin, and disobedience in a juxtaposition of Adam’s self-subversion, religious despair and the genesis of personal growth and other intersection in that process evident if one reads PL carefully.
The notion of free will as postulated by God is a two-edged sword that cuts its adherents both ways. On the one hand, the Angels, Adam, and Eve are free to choose their actions, but there will be a consequence for any action deemed inappropriate by God, such as when eating from the Tree of Knowledge. Now, if one were to go Freudian on God, one can stockpile, at best, a God who is not confident in Himself so much so that He does not want his subordinates to learn and perhaps challenge the notion of the “all-knowing.” But then one is quickly reminded that in Milton’s Paradise Lost, God, for all intents and purposes, is one of the main characters who should be treated as such in owing some of the human fallibilities, privy to “self-subversions” that Webber alludes to when she states that Milton does “consciously justify  God simply by reminding us of the available tradition: from the beginning, men, when they thought seriously about life, chose to keep it; therefore, life must be valuable” (p. 518). In the same vein, Webber reminds her readers that “Adam and Eve [do] consciously  accept their fate. Turning from thoughts of suicide or genocide to assume mortality for themselves and their descendants, they involve themselves in the creative action by which men will be redeemed” (p. 518).
Redemption or not at each turn God seems to be on the receiving end of the subversion, first from Satan then from Adam & Eve. In essence, the issuer of the very idea of “free will” seems to be not free of consequences because each time it is used God throws his forceful wrath upon those who dare exercise it. Webber believes that Milton’s “expressed subject is sin and disobedience, not heroic warfare. While his immediate story is of defeat and loss, his long-range forecast is for joy and triumph” (p. 518). Defeat, loss, joy, or triumph, at the end of the day, the human spirit seems to trump God’s notion of free will even if the corollary to such action is capital punishment, not an instantaneous one but the dubbing and imposing mortality to mankind is nothing more than a euphemistic-inevitable-slow-death, no less.
Be that as it may, approaching the issue of free-will from a different angle may even be more instructive, in this regard. For example, in “The Verbal Gate to Paradise: Adam’s “Literary Experience” in Book X of Paradise Lost, Georgia B. Christopher captures the essence of the free will which also inculcates free to love in that “the notion that Adam eats the forbidden fruit out of “love” for Eve has recently been challenged by Dennis Burden, and it is time to challenge the equally romantic notion that it is Eve’s love that leads Adam back to God” (as quoted by Christopher, p. 69). Now arguments and counter-arguments can be made to justify one way or another, but at the end of the day, where the influence on action, any action, emanates from ought to be rendered irrelevant, once the notion of the free will is injected in the conversation. Whether Satan tempted Eve or Eve tempted Adam to eat the forbidden fruit does not stand to reason, because God must be dragged into the center of the argument, as God, the all-knowing, could have manipulated the outcome, but for His free-will-mantra, mankind goes down the treacherous path akin to the familiar proverb, “there but for the grace of God, go I.” Indeed, the only entity that does not grow seems to be God himself, managing, conducting his executive duties from high heaven, vis-à-vis proxies as He delegates the chores to various Angels depending on the type of the deemed crime deserving punishment or the good deed that deserves a reward.
The way Adam progresses and evolves in his thinking is akin to how humans develop from childhood to adulthood. Milton introduces Adam in Book IV, whereupon the reader learns of Adam as the first man to be created by God and is forbidden to eat from the “Tree of Knowledge” in Paradise. At this junction, however, it is worth noting that Satan has fallen and is going through his despair as he had been expelled from Heaven, thusly, is atop of Mount Niphates that is within a seeing distance from Eden, where Adam & Eve reside. Satan seems to be determined in executing his agenda of “bold enterprise” to oppose God’s rules and tempt mankind to exercise the free will as prescribed by God even if it comes at the expense of disobeying the very God who made those rules.
But, suddenly Satan seems to be struck by the lightning of despair, in Lewalski’s words, “falls into many doubts with himself, and many passion, fear, envy, and despair” (p. 91). What one notices then is that as Satan is going through his disparaging moments, Adam & Eve are barely at the stage of their “cloud nine” moments, moments akin to a little child’s state of bliss so long it is fed, ate, slept, and is given adequate attention by the adults, all is well and good. The caveat for Adam is, of course, at the begging of God to enshrine him with a partner, God, surprisingly, obliges in creating Eve for Adam’s entertainment and intimacies, out of Adam’s left rib.
From Satan’s viewpoint the reader is in for a treat, albeit more than just a glimpse of Adam & Eve’s state of bliss when he states that “Two of far nobler shape erect and tall/Godlike erect, with native Honor clad, in naked Majesty seemed, for in their looks Divine/The image of their glorious Maker shone,” (ll. 288-291). Satan appears to be on a jealousy and infatuation binge spontaneously; jealousy toward Adam for being created in the image of God as the reader also senses the sensuality of Adam and Eve in general and the infatuation toward Eve is particularly evident. Satan states that “Her unadorned golden tresses wore/Disheveled, but in wanton ringlets waved. As the Vine curls her tendrils, which implied/Subjection, but required with gentle sway. And by her yielded, by him best received, Yielded with coy submission, modest pride, /And sweet reluctant amorous delay” (ll. 305-311). Satan’s muse seems to be on his side prompting him to express his feelings in such lucid fashion and he is not done yet until he reaches not only the summit but the resolution to how besotted he is with Eve, tantamount to some journey of a “wet dream.” The innocence of Adam & Eve and their state of bliss is more than apparent as described by Satan. So, the struggles we undergo as we deal with the free will that we are – for all practical purposes – endowed with what appears to be the story of our humanity from its inception.
Thus, the progressive elements in our midst – at awate forum – appeared to have had trouble giving those Eritreans who may wish to distance themselves from any religious tenets, opting instead to either be agnostic or full-fledged atheists. This was notable during the reactions and counter-reactions that people were sharing about Alamin Moammed Seid’s interview in which he unabashedly wished to claim that there were no religious persecutions in Eritrea when the veracity of the matter was in stark contrast to such a false claim by the mouthpiece of PFDJ. If anything, what this brought forth for the diaspora Eritreans is that we have our limits in how far we are willing to give that freedom of choice to those who choose not to believe.