Memorizing Milton


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John Milton (1608-1674) was, in many ways, the Puritan’s Puritan. A vigorous defender of the cause, he wrestled with the jarring contradiction between the persistence of sin and the sublimity of heaven. His 1667 masterwork Paradise Lost embodied his belief in the material presence of sin in the form of a wily and dashing Satan, who inveigled the prideful Adam to disobedience.

It is a creed that sounds very much like Basinger’s. “The reward for good behavior is eternal bliss; the penalty for [unredeemed] bad behavior is eternal damnation,” he says.

Sounds simple, but the devil, as it were, is in the details. Basinger describes it as the choice between two fictions: the belief that God is alive and active in the world, and the belief that he isn’t. “I believe devoutly in what I know does not exist,” he says with characteristic ambiguity. “If I am going to believe in a metaphor, I am going to go with a metaphor that can bring me some closure, some comfort.”

That became particularly important to Basinger last October when, during surgery to repair a blockage in his carotid artery, he went into cardiac arrest. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh, boy, that’s simple,’” he says, “and then, gone. There was no trauma, no stress. It was, ‘Oh, I can do this.’ It was a simple understanding of death. What I felt was a feeling of tremendous ease. It was a feeling of release.”

For Basinger, there was no blinding light, no shattering epiphany that forever altered his faith—or lack thereof. He was merely alive again, facing the old, familiar struggles. “For me, all stories end up being Paradise Lost in that we strive for good but end up falling and needing redemption. And so it goes, an endless cycle. God help us.” 

For more information on Basinger’s Paradise Lost performances, or to buy the DVD of Basinger’s recitation, visit

Memorizing Milton

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