[Okay, let’s all just pretend that first blog post never happened because I definitely was looking at the wrong prompt. Sorry Zakir, it won’t happen again. On a different note, I highly recommend listening to the Rolling Stones song that this post was so lovingly named after, because it’s really good, and the odds suggest that I’ll never get the chance to write about it ever again.]
The Interesting Life and Narrative of Olaudah Equiano is a showcasing of the transformation of man through his endurance in slavery. This narrative is an example of how education and cunning allowed one man to purchase his liberty, while also achieving spiritual enlightenment and literary stamina. However, this text is filled with quotations from a plethora of other authors and works, including one of the most controversial pieces of the time: John Milton’s Paradise Lost. By including work such as this one, Olaudah Equiano is suggesting that perhaps sympathy or grace upon those cast away as damned is necessary, literally making him a sympathizer of the Devil.
Some context is necessary if one is to make a claim such as this. Paradise Lost is a religious work of prose which describes the downfall of Lucifer. The poem is written from the perspective of the Devil, staging Lucifer as the story’s protagonist and God as the antagonist. As the work was published in 1667, this piece was one of the most controversial publications of its time; for Equiano to sympathize with it, as well as relay it in his own narrative only complicates the matter. To claim that Equiano is sympathizing with Lucifer by quoting various passages wherein he bemoans the maltreatment he has, in his opinion, been undeservingly delivered, is not an over-exaggeration of religious affiliation. It is a claim that, as Olaudah Equiano is clearly an intelligent individual who understands the piece enough to stitch it into his own narrative, he knows exactly what sort of claim he is making. By reestablishing God as an antagonist, he is not so much stunting his own religious journey as he is placing European or White individuals in the outline of his place, giving a vivid example of how others played God with the lives of slaves.
In The Interesting Life and Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, one of the boldest passages quoting Paradise Lost is seen near the conclusion of Volume one. It states:
“——— No peace is given
To us enslav’d, but custody severe;
And stripes and arbitrary punishment
Inflicted— What peace can we return?
But to our power, hostility and hate;
Untam’d reluctance, and revenge, though slow.
Yet ever plotting how the conqueror least
May reap his conquest, and may least rejoice
In doing what we most suffering feel” (Milton, Paradise Lost, 2.232-40)
Imagine being so bold as to claim God a figure of conquest over all he already created? Imagine arguing that God was the root of all suffering through punishment of his own design in such a religiously warred time? Imagine making the claim that God enjoys reaping the benefits of others’ suffering? The boldness of Milton’s piece speaks for itself, but by choosing this passage in his narrative Olaudah Equiano is also stating that the justification of the conquest of people cannot be founded upon religious affiliation unless some sort of response is expected. Sympathizing with Lucifer, his narrative is claiming that revenge and hostility are only natural responses to such unwarranted treatment. Not only is he flaunting his literary ability to read and understand a text, but he is also advertising his ability to make loaded statements under the guise of “not aspiring praise” while comparing himself figuratively and literally to Lucifer in Milton’s piece (Equiano, The Interesting Life and Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, 35).
This is why, at the start of his narrative, Equiano states: “I regard myself as a particular favourite of Heaven” (Equiano, The Interesting Life and Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, 35). Lucifer, for those unaware, was cast from Heaven for having loved God too deeply, as he was God’s favorite angel until the creation of mankind. Equiano is then regarding himself as a greatly wronged figure in his own story, using Milton’s poem to justify his feelings of necessary revenge and hostility on the matter, while also illuminating the actions of man as they parallel the antagonist of Paradise Lost: God.