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A.D. Nuttall. The Alternative Trinity: Gnostic Heresy in Marlowe, Milton and Blake

Elizabeth MULLER
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A.D. NUTTALL : The Alternative Trinity : Gnostic Heresy in Marlowe, Milton and Blake, Clarendon Press Oxford (paperback edition 2007), 282 p., ISBN 978-0-19-921316-0.

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1This reprint of the late and much missed Anthony Nuttall’s The Alternative Trinity reminds us of his astounding erudition as well as his brilliantly funny wit. These ingredients which have become the hallmark of Nuttall’s work make this book both challenging and entertaining to read. Indeed, the ramifications of Gnosticism must give us pause and Professor Nuttall pursues his hypothesis of a haeresis perennis in the works of Marlowe, Milton and Blake with fascinating liveliness.

2The basic axiom of Gnosticism, i.e. that creation, far from being good in itself, spells out catastrophe and a disruption of unity, will indeed sound familiar to many readers of Blake. Parallel to this first premise, Knowledge (Gnosis) is traditionally seen as the ultimate good which restores this lost unity, whence it logically follows that partaking of the fruit of good and evil makes our first forefathers’ Fall a blessing in disguise, otherwise known as a felix culpa (p. 117). But, if the part of the villain in Genesis falls rather obviously to Jehovah, the jealous God of the Old Testament, the respective roles of Satan, Christ and Adam are less easy to interpret and generally fluctuate along the various trends of different heresies. Discerning who our saviour really is becomes a tricky question. The possible answers oscillate between Christ as the epitome of the liberator (Blake’s belief), Satan as a second Christ, a doctrine known as Ophism (p. 10), or Adam, himself, who as the creative logos and the partaker of the fruit of Knowledge challenges Jehovah’s false creation (p.167 and p. 213).

3One of the strong points of this study is the insight which is afforded the reader into the various possible deviations of Protestant extremist views, owing in particular to the influence of Calvinism. In truth, Calvinistic doctrine mocks our attempts at saving ourselves to such an extent that libertinism and amorality may be derived from the precept of predestination (p. 204). Libertinism, it is argued, comes as a direct consequence of both extreme Calvinism (as practised by Pietists or Anabaptists or Antinomians) and the subjacent theory of the felix culpa which makes clear that good and evil are complementary, not contrary to one another (p. 2). The latter theory sounds unmistakenly Blakean but another great merit of the book is to have traced such heretical notions in the works of those authors whom we do not ordinarily suspect of Gnosticism: Marlowe and Milton. Marlowe’s Faustus presents us with mere glimpses of rebellion against the divine injunctions regarding forbidden knowledge and only obliquely re-affirms the principle of a jealous and tyrannical creator (p. 25) but the case of Milton is a more challenging proposition. Professor Nuttall’s argument concerning Milton’s heresy rejoins Blake’s in that it is primarily based on aesthetics (p. 177 and p. 189) and we are given a vision of Satan as a true poet (p. 182). As the epic plot of Paradise Lost unfolds, the dynamism of satanic force is set in opposition to the relatively uninspiring stasis of Heaven. The doctrinal point, however, is not quite so forceful: according to Nuttall, Milton’s God seems to divide against Himself and becomes a sort of Dyad whose second “superior” self wars against the first and rehabilitates Adam. Thus, in Paradise Lost,God the Father unexpectedly usurps the traditional place of Christ(p. 166).

4Where the book falls short, it is mostly through a lack of clarity. While Gnosticism is admittedly a Christian heresy and is discussed as such by Nuttall, its obvious link with other doctrines of Antiquity as well as non-Christian religions cannot be denied. In fact, Nuttall feels obliged to intersperse references to the Corpus Hermeticum and to pre-Christian authors. However, such references, derived as they are from theodicies which wildly differ from our Christian tradition, sometimes confuse the issue. We feel the parallel between Gnosticism and other non-Christian beliefs would have deserved a comparative study of its own. Problems also arise from the fact that any Christian theory of creation is invariably tangled up with the story we find in Genesis, a text which might have been conceived to extol creation, not debase it. In that respect, Professor Nuttal’s assertion that the story of Genesis “smells of Gnosticism” (p. 17) seems to beg the question.

5The general feeling of confusion intensifies as we are confronted with widely different instances of heretical thought, a fact which makes it difficult for the author to establish the existence of a unique haeresis perennis. For instance, when Rosicrucians are listed pell-mell with Philadelphians and Behmenists as corroborating evidence of a continuous heretical legacy (p. 220), one cannot help calling into question the assimilation of these groups with the Ranters and the Antinomians that were apparently at the forefront of Nuttall’s research. In addition, the theories of some other particularly obscure sects sound so extreme (p. 49), so far removed from the mainstream of our religious culture, that by dwelling upon them Nuttall seems to defeat his own purpose which is to demonstrate that such ideas are more wide spread than generally admitted. All this noticeably weakens the general argument, namely the persistence of one haeresis perennis throughout English literature and European thought (p. 8 and p. 272).

6Finally, Nuttall’s true position itself seems difficult to ascertain: at the beginning of the book, we assume a Blakean bias since Blake is, after all, the only self-proclaimed “heretic” in our trilogy of authors, but, in the end, Blake’s transcendental vision of nature is rejected as too idealistic in favour of Wordsworth’s more natural world. As a result, we remain at a loss to understand Professor Nuttall’s final stand on the matter of Gnosticism or indeed the relevance of bringing Wordsworth into this analysis at all (p. 266).

7However, that sort of perplexing questions is only natural when one is faced with thought-provoking studies such as this one. Undoubtedly, Professor Nuttall makes good his initial claim that, despite C. S. Lewis’ assertion to the contrary, all kinds of subversive theories “could in fact be thought” long before the seventeenth century (p. 272) and that transgression  can indeed be detected in such famous authors of the English Canon as Marlowe, Milton and Blake.

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Elizabeth MULLER, « A.D. Nuttall. The Alternative Trinity: Gnostic Heresy in Marlowe, Milton and Blake », E-rea [En ligne], 6.1 | 2008, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2008, consulté le 26 mars 2017. URL :

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Elizabeth MULLER

Université de Nantes

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