Impolitic Worms

In Book II of Paradise Lost the fallen angels, now horribly transformed, hold a debate over the course of action they should take now that they are damned. The first to speak is Moloch, a fierce and bloodthirsty advocate for eternal war. In effect, Moloch says that they have nothing to lose, for annihilation is surely preferable to an eternity in Hell. As he puts it, “At worst, we stand on this side nothingness.” In response Belial, a wily and silver-tongued devil, says that nothingness is not preferable to him. At least in Hell one has one’s thoughts. He says something like this:

To be no more; sad cure; For who would lose,
Though full of pain, this intellectual being,
Those thoughts that wander through Eternity,
To perish rather, swallowed up and lost
In the wide womb of uncreated night
Devoid of sense and motion?

These lines have always affected me. Is it life we treasure? The mere act of breath and metabolation? Or is it the intimacy of our own thoughts and memories, the onrush of moments so peculiarly our own that have been spewing forth like an endless billow of octopus ink for as long as we can recall? Life is a few chemicals twitching in a moist sinkhole. It’s that breed of impolitic worms that Hamlet mentions. But all of one’s afternoons, sensations, the odd memories and synaptic firings... To annihilate these forever, to make them as if they never were? That gives one pause. Always has.


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