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IN April 1981 the television critic of The Observer, Clive James, described the launching of the space shuttle Columbia, which had been delayed for several days by a malfunction in one of its four computers. He fantasised that the computer’s mind was on other things. Having processed tax returns for Pittsburgh, it moved on to cataloguing old Bing Crosby hits and ‘counting all the cows in India’. The computer dragged itself back to the launch only after completing a ‘digital rewrite of Paradise Lost’ [1983, 180–81]. Apart from their massiveness and pointlessness, the computer’s extramural activities evidently shared an incongruity with its high-tech environment. They are also all readily recognisable cultural symbols or ‘signs’. In this respect Paradise Lost is a text representative of Western culture, an accepted ‘classic’ of English literature. Through the centuries it has been constantly reread and re-evaluated in ways which reflect the shifting attitudes and values of its readers. This has been at once the most admired and the most reviled of literary ‘classics’: no major text has been so strongly challenged by influential critics as this epic was in the mid-twentieth century, or so thoroughly defended.
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