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In my opinion

Paradise Lost and the election of Donald Trump

Do not despair: A letter to my students.


Editor’s note: as the results of the U.S. presidential election became known, Jessica Riddell, who writes our “Adventures in Academe” column, felt compelled to compose an email to her students. Here is what she sent them:

Dear lovely students,

[Tuesday] night, as I watched the election results with growing disbelief, I thought, “If this happens – if Trump wins the presidency – I will have to cancel classes tomorrow.” I couldn’t possibly imagine how I would step into the classroom and pretend that the world hasn’t shifted on its axis. I could not fathom how I could – as Cordelia says in King Lear – heave my heart into my mouth and articulate my sense of disorientation in an increasingly polarizing world.

[Wednesday] morning, I woke up to confirmation of my deepest fears. First, I hugged Sophie, my three-year-old daughter, and cried. I had to grieve the loss of a highly anticipated moment: to tell her that the president of the United States is a girl. I wanted her to know that a highly qualified, hardworking, experienced and articulate candidate – who also happens to be a woman – got the job. That the world runs as a meritocracy and that hope vanquishes fear.

After my momentary despair, I put on my big girl pants and got to work. I looked at Paradise Lost through new eyes for a new world. What I discovered in this old 17th century Protestant epic was not refuge (which is what I sought), but rather my horror writ large in the lines of Milton’s poetry. While I found deep remorse and despair, I also found hope, which gave me a sense of renewed conviction in the power of higher education – and the humanities especially – to help us navigate our uncertain world.

By some stroke of chance, we tackled Book 10 of Paradise Lost in class today. Reading about the immediate aftermath of Adam and Eve’s decision to eat the apple resonated today like no other day. For nine books, we have explored the tensions between free will and predestination, examined obedience and rebellion, and were present – as literary witnesses – when Raphael warned Adam and Eve about the consequences of eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

At the end of Book 9, their transgression gives them a momentary high and they partake in amorous play “as with new wine intoxicated.” The morning after, however, Adam and Eve wake up with a wicked existential hangover, and “soon found their eyes how opened and their minds how darkened.”

In the light of day, and with a dawning awareness of their actions, they descend into a cycle of blame, recriminations and ultimately regret. Just as Americans are crashing the Canadian immigration website this morning, Adam wishes to hide away from the consequences of his and Eve’s actions, exclaiming, “O might I here in solitude live savage in some glade obscured.” Just as many of us wanted to pull the covers over our heads and go back to sleep this morning, Adam wants to find a way to “hide their guilt and dreaded shame.”

As the implications of a Trump presidency sink in, people are looking to blame someone. The angry white man with no university degree is the number one target. (The New York Times published the demographics that show white, uneducated men tipped the balance for Trump). And yet, blame gets us nowhere. In Paradise Lost, Adam first blames Eve for making him eat the apple when God comes down to deliver the sentence of guilt. He says, “This woman whom thou made to be my help and gave her to me as thy perfect gift … That from her hand I could suspect no ill … she gave me of the tree and I did eat.” In one fell swoop, Adam blames both God for making Eve in the first place and Eve for making him eat the apple.

What God says next should resonate with us: “Was she thy God that her thou did obey before his voice?” In other words, you should have known better. You should have listened better. You should have been better.

Despite the despair of being kicked out of Paradise, and grieving the loss of what might have been, Adam and Eve leave Eden with a sense of faint but palpable hope, and the final lines of the poem open up space for redemption and reconciliation:

The world was all before them, where to choose
Their Place of rest, and Providence their guide.
They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow
Through Eden took their solitary way.

We do not lose ourselves in old books. We find our way in them, through them, to understand the world through new lenses. In the light of a new day, we must look back to our literary guides for purpose to sustain our hope for the future. My hope lies in our classroom, which is full of engaged, thoughtful citizens who will have to go “hand in hand, with wandering steps slow” forward, onwards, upwards.

I am proud of you.

I am proud to be your professor.

I am proud of what you will accomplish as you forge a path that is not for the faint of heart and will call upon you to be brave and resilient and just.

I stand behind you, by you, with you, for you.

Yours sincerely,

Jessica Riddell

Dr. Riddell is chair of the department of English, and chair of the teaching and learning centre, at Bishop’s University.

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  1. Anne Winch / November 11, 2016 at 18:12

    Thank you for an insightful analysis of Paradise Lost and connecting it to the world today. It is a good day when we can inspire hope in our young people for the future, in spite of the darkness. My daughter is lucky to be able to experience this with you this year.

  2. Margaret Reeves / November 11, 2016 at 20:46

    Thanks for this column. In my Milton course we addressed the election loss in Wednesday’s class by returning briefly to the Invocation to Book VII, and talked about how Milton’s poetry functioned, and functions for us, as a model for confrontations with loss and disappointment. I also reminded my class that the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy was, in the end, temporary, and that the nature and power of the monarchy began its decline with the quiet revolution in 1689.

  3. Greg MacDonald / November 12, 2016 at 11:43

    I am an old classmate of your dad and I appreciate the sentiment you are trying to spread but never forget the old Greeks. “Pride cometh before a fall” still applies to most of human kind. Revolutions begin in quiet corners more often than on the streets. When the flood waters are lapping on the lawns of the White house Trump will have been buried in the rubble of the failed Empire. Coleridge understood.
    I didn’t intend to be a depressive but sometimes you have to look the facts in the eye and see the world for what it is. In the mean time enjoy every minute you can with your daughter and your classes. That is the true joy of life.
    Keep smiling to, that is very important.
    Greg MacDonald

  4. Robin Enns / November 16, 2016 at 14:52

    Nice piece. Particularly germane amidst the tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth this week after the week that was. It brought to mind a poem by Arthur Clough I memorized when I was in high school. It served the Québec English literature curriculum then, and reflects Dr. Riddell’s closing (for students to be “brave, resilient and just”), now.

    Say not the struggle naught availeth,
    The labour and the wounds are vain,
    The enemy faints not, nor faileth
    And as things have been, they remain.

  5. ingwor holmqvist / November 18, 2016 at 16:36

    Thank you, Dr Riddell, for voicing your concerns, and your hopes; that same feeling was universal last week; the shock was felt all over the world, the question “how was this possible”…and the unfairness; not taking the chance to show the world that “yes, we can”…we can elect a WOMAN, a very well prepared and highly qualified politician to be the next president of the US, and so important for the whole world. What remains now, and unites us, is HOPE!