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Infinite Wrath and Infinite Despair: What John Milton’s Satan Can Tell Us about Donald Trump

by David Shaddock

This regular column for Poetry Flash looks at poetry to illuminate issues relevant to health, mental health, and coping with our lives today.

A FEW DAYS AGO I HAD an experience that felt like a bad acid trip. I walked out of my home office, where I'd been Zooming with clients, to give my wife a brief greeting. She was watching President Trump land at the White House after leaving Walter Reed Hospital. As I walked in there was a close up of the President on the portico, glaring at the camera and taking his mask off. The sight of his pouty, defiant, pusillanimous puss under that shock of fake orange hair exploded in my mind and then repeated itself in a cascade of Hitchcock knife-in-the-shower iterations, fainter, but still present as I write this. This was not Apprentice-Trump fake, this was real: pure, defiant evil. Facing defeat, was he thinking of burning the whole shithouse down? Unmasking to take revenge on all of us, including his own staff and family? Had he crossed the line from hubris to malice?

In search for some understanding and context, I decided to look at Satan's soliloquy from Book IV of Milton's Paradise Lost. Defeated rebel, exiled to hell, Satan contemplates his revenge: the destruction of God's favorite creation, man. The famous soliloquy takes us inside Satan's mind, where we see self-doubt and vengeful rage battle for supremacy.

It's a grudge, a primary, all-encompassing grudge, that's pushing him to "…wreck on innocent frail man the loss / Of that first battle, and his flight to Hell." We are in Fox News territory here, the mythos of exile from an imagined paradise, the hatred of the liberals who engineered it. But Milton makes us immediately aware that inside Satan's bluster lies "His troubled thoughts… / The hell within him." "I myself am Hell," he tells us a few lines later. Tortured and torturer, the Evil One. The great literary depictions of Evil insist on this interiority. Here's Euripides's Medea, about to slay her own children to avenge their unfaithful father:

Don't play the coward. Don't remember now

How much you love them, how you gave them life.

For this short day forget they are your children

And mourn them later.

Such interiority seems unimaginable for Trump. We'll ask our literary sources to provide it.

Satan is torn between conscience and action. After he says, "I myself am Hell," he continues:

And in the lowest deep a lower deep

Still threatening to devour me opens wide

To which the Hell I suffer seems a heaven.

What is this lower deep? Shame plays a part, the shame for weakness that would kick in if he capitulated and resubmitted to God's will:

None left but by submission; and that word

Disdain forbids me, and my dread of shame

Among the spirits beneath, whom I seduced

With other promises and other vaunts…

Shame to submit, to be exposed to the others, to be vulnerable. It's a toxic mix. You can see it in the President, as he can't admit that he's weak, that he's been brought low by the virus, that he's not a tough guy. Never look weak, even if it drives you over a cliff.

But if Shame bids evil on, what drives it in the first place? "…pride and worse ambition threw me down / Warring in heaven against heaven's matchless King." In the backstory provided by Mary Trump's Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World's Most Dangerous Man, the President's niece, a clinical psychologist, describes the toxic family atmosphere of Trump's childhood, in which her father, Fred Jr., was psychologically destroyed for wanting to individuate by being a pilot instead of a real estate developer. Brother Donald, meanwhile, was subjected to relentless scrutiny and disapproval. Satan, like Fred Jr., the rebel, crushed and punished by the God/father figure. Toady Trump, by contrast, tries to conform and please, becoming a bottomless pit for adulation and approval, substitutes for the love his father withheld.

Submission and contrition ruled out, Satan closes his internal ruminations and sequesters himself from feeling:

So farewell hope, and with hope farewell fear,

Farewell remorse: all good to me is lost;

Evil be thou my good…

Something shuts down in the psyche. Contradictions and conflicts are crushed down to a single imperative: action, a bit hard to imagine in Trump. But you have to wonder if his performing seal act, designed to arouse the adoring mobs, hides or resolves into something far more sinister—his father's endless greed and racial animus.

Even if this is so, Trump, who can barely string together an English sentence, seems better described by Hannah Arendt's phrase "the banality of evil" than in Milton's ringing verse. At the end of his long speech, Satan, committed to doing evil, leaps the gates of Paradise,

At one slight bound, high over leaped all bound

Of hill or highest wall, and sheer within

Lights on his feet. As when a prowling wolf,

Whom hunger drives to seek new haunt for prey

A stunning, energetic image. One that pits evil in perpetual battle with the moral shepherd—Christ—protecting his innocent flock. Plump Trump may be Satan's enabler, but—to his shame and our relief—he lacks Satan's cunning.

My friend and mentor, the poet Denise Levertov, became a devout Catholic at the end of her life. She maintained that Satan was a clever and perpetual enemy, against whom we must stay ever vigilant. I am sympathetic, if a bit agnostic, to this dualistic worldview. Interested in a different perspective, I described Denise's belief to poet and Zen priest Norman Fischer. "Denise believed that?" he replied. "I'd be reluctant to give evil that much credit."

David Shaddock PhD is a poet and psychotherapist. His most recent poetry book is A Book of Splendor: New and Selected Poems on Spiritual Themes. He is also the author of Poetry and Psychoanalysis: The Opening of the Field, from Routledge, and two books on relationships and couples therapy. He lectures widely on those topics, and maintains a private practice in Berkeley.

— posted MARCH 2020

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