November 27, 2010

Milton, Derrida, and the site of hospitality


In his seminars on hospitality, Jacques Derrida sets out to distinguish conditional hospitality (which follows the ancient Greek and Judeo-Christian customs of hospitality toward to the stranger or foreigner as a legal obligation) from unconditional hospitality (which says “yes to who or what turns up, before any determination, before any anticipation, before identification, whether or not it has to do with . . . a human, animal, or divine creature,” (77)). Unconditional hospitality is transgressive, lawless, and absolutely heterogeneous to conditional hospitality; but it also depends on the limit of the law in order to break it. The scene of hospitality is therefore necessarily bound up with the religious and the emancipatory:
It is as if the stranger or foreigner held the keys. This is always the situation of the foreigner, in politics too, that of coming as a legislator to lay down the  law and liberate the people or the nation by coming from outside, by entering into the nation or the house, into the home that lets him enter after having appealed to him. . . . as if, then, the stranger could save the master and liberate the power of his host. (Derrida 123)
This post is an exercise for an upcoming paper: a preliminary attempt to explore Derrida's aporia of hospitality through the meeting of spirit and matter, divine guest and human host, in Milton's epic poem. Book V of Paradise Lost illustrates Milton’s attempt at an original, prelapsarian rule of hospitality, which inevitably involves the creation of domestic space. Adam and Eve are allowed to play host to Raphael. However, it is not humanity that first prepares for the arrival of a divine creature, but a gendered earth, who is depicted “Wantoned as in her prime, and played at will / Her virgin fancies, pouring forth more sweet, / Wild above rule or art; enormous bliss” (V.295-297). To call the earth “wanton” is to identify its essential excess, which is at once unnecessary (or gratuitous) and sexually suggestive: earth warms her “inmost womb” and it proves to be “more warmth than Adam needs” (V.302). Although female in type, the earth is constantly overstepping its domestic bounds. Perhaps this requires a rethinking of prelapsarian domesticity. In other words, the earth’s generous (potentially transgressive) hospitality prefigures, conditions Adam and Eve’s opening to the stranger from heaven. Indeed, says Adam, nature’s “fertile growth . . . instructs us not to spare” (V.319-320).

Roles are quickly established: this is one condition of hospitality. Adam is first host, while Eve is relegated to the food preparation. Adam’s directions to Eve are made in haste, for the occasion demands nothing less than their finest show of hospitality: “. . . go with speed, / And what thy stores contain, bring forth and pour / Abundance, fit to honor and receive / Our Heav’nly stranger” (V.313-316). As Derrida points out, in the act of hospitality, “Desire is waiting for what does not wait” (123). But the host’s desire also involves a certain expectation in which the host’s boundaries are breached: that “[c]rossing the threshold is entering and not only approaching or coming” and so the invited guest becomes the one who invites, “the guest becomes the host of the host” (123). Eve at once suggests that she and Adam are partly motivated by their own earthly pride. In their presentation of their home, Adam and Eve are suggesting to their superior guest that “. . . on Earth / God hath dispensed his bounties as in Heav’n” (V.329-330). In this way, their subjective importance to God lies hostage to the  potential validation of their heavenly visitor.

Milton’s description of Eve’s preparation emphasizes the place of labour in the domestic sphere. This scene of food preparation and composition is “a trope for poetry,” which orders and maintains the sensuous into rhyme and verse (333-336n). Meanwhile, Adam greets their guest, “bowing low” and praising Raphael, while attempting to articulate humanity’s giftedness, its favor in God’s eyes. That Adam and Eve “by sov’reign gift possess / This spacious ground” already puts them in receptive and submissive roles, thereby making their hospitality entirely conditional upon their status.

Raphael is a kind and hospitable guest; so hospitable in fact, that he condescends to eat earthly produce. But would Raphael have eaten earth’s harvest had Adam not invoked their mutual submission to God the father? By eating with them, Raphael fulfills the pretentious wishes of Adam and Eve. He admits, “God hath here / Varied his bounty so with new delights, / As may compare with Heaven” (V.430-433). But unlike humans, Raphael’s digestive process involves transubstantiation and secretes the food that is not absorbed by his spiritual body through his pores. Thus spiritual food differs from material food “in degree”; “. . .what God for you saw good,” says Raphael, “I refuse not, but convert, as you, to proper substance” (V.490-493). It is thus Raphael’s display of hospitality to the human pair which more closely resembles the unconditional hospitality of which Derrida speaks. Indeed, it allows for the story of Satan’s fall from heaven, it makes good on the human curiosity which later becomes transgressive, and temporarily disrupts the order of creation. Perhaps something similar takes place when Eve encounters and speaks (!) to the serpent.

Defourmantelle, Anne and Jacques Derrida. Of Hospitality. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.

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