Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Stanley Fish, Surprised By Sin

Stanley Fish, Surprised by Sin; The Reader in Paradise Lost, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 1971.

Meaning is an event, something that happens, not on the page, where we are accustomed to look for it, but in the interaction between the flow of print (or sound) and the actively mediating consciousness of a reader-hearer. (Preface, x)

I would like to add a point of clarification. Chapter 5 argues that in the course of the poem, the reader is asked to make a series of interpretive choices either contribute to or undermine his understanding of the Fall. It was not made sufficiently clear, I think, that the reader who chooses correctly has nevertheless felt the attraction of the wrong choice, and is therefore always aware of the poem that a part of him would like to be reading and is, in some sense, writing. In short, there is no escape in the pem from the truth about oneself, which is finally its subject. (xi)

My subject is Milton’s reader, and my thesis, simply, that the uniqueness of the poem’s theme—man’s first disobedience and the fruit thereof—results in the reader’s being simultaneously a participant in the action and a critic of his own performance. (xiii)

I shall argue, the reader (1) is confronted with evidence of his corruption and becomes aware of his inability to respond adequately to spiritual conceptions, and / (2) is asked to refine his perceptions so that his understanding will be once more proportionable to truth the object of it. / The following chapters, then, will explore two patterns—the reader’s humiliation and his education—(xiii)

The reader is prepared to hiss the devil off the stage and applaud the pronouncements of a partisan and somewhat human deity… but that Milton consciously wants to worry his reader, to force him to doubt the correctness of his responses, and to bring him to the realization that his inability to read the poem with any confidence in his own perceptions is its focus. (4)

This is our first view of Satan and the impression given, reinforced by a succession of speeches in Book I, is described by Waldock: ‘fortitude in adversity, enormous endurance, a certain splendid recklessness, remarkable powers of rising to an occasion, extraordinary qualities of leadership (shown not least in his salutary taunts)’. But in each case Milton follows the voice of Satan with a comment which complicates, and according to some, falsifies, our reaction to it: / So spake th’ Apostate Angel, though in pain, / Vaunting aloud, but rackt with deep despair. (125-6) Waldock’s indignation at this authorial intrusion is instruction: / ‘If one observes what is happening one sees that there is hardly a great speech of Satan’s that Milton is not at paints to correct, to damp down and neutralize. He will put some glorious thing in Satan’s mouth, then, anxious about the effect of it, will pull us gently by the sleeve, saying (for this is what it amounts to) : Do not be carried away by this fellow: he sounds splendid, but take my word for it…’ (4-5)

There are several assumptions… (5) The question of relative authority is purely an aesthetic one. That is, the reader is obliged to hearken to the most dramatically persuasive of any conflicting voices. / Of these I can assent only to the first. (5)

…logic is a safeguard against a rhetorical effect only after the effect has been noted. The deep distrust, even fear, of verbal manipulation in the seventeenth century is a recognition of the fact that there is no adequate defence against eloquence at the moment of impact. (The appeal of rhetoric was traditionally associated with the weakness of the fallen intellect—the defect of our hearers; its fine phrases flatter the desires of the cupidinous self and perpetuate the disorder which has reigned in the soul since the Fall.) (6)

In writing Paradise Lost, then Milton is able to draw upon a tradition of didacticism which finds its expression in a distrust of the affective and an insistence on the intellectual involvement of the listener-pupil; in addition he could rely on his readers to associate logic and the capacity for logical reasoning with the godly instinct in man, and the passions, to which rhetorical appeals, with his carnal instincts. (7)

In Books I and II these ‘correctives’ are particularly numerous and, if the word can be used here, tactless. Waldock falsifies his experience of the poem, I think, when he characterized Milton’s countermands as gentle; we are not warned (‘Do not be carried away by this fellow’), but accused, taunted by an imperious voice… we resent this rebuke, not, as Waldock suggests, because our aesthetic sense balks at a clumsy attempt to neutralize an unintentional effect, but because a failing has been exposed in a context that forces us to acknowledge it. (9)

In Book I, Milton is the conjurer: by naming Satan he disarms us, and allows us to feel secure in the identification of an enemy who traditionally succeeds through disguise (serpent, cherub). But as William Haller notes, in The Rise of Puritanism, nothing is more indicative of a graceless state than a sense of security: … Protected from one error (the possibility of listening sympathetically to a disgusted enemy) we fall easily into another (spiritual inattentiveness) and fail to read Satan’s speech with the critical acumen it demands. (14)

After I.125-6 the reader proceeds determined not to be caught out again; but invariably he is. … this mental armour is never quite strong enough to resist the insidious attack of verbal power; and always the irritatingly omniscient epic voice is there to point out a deception even as it succeeds. As the poem proceeds and this little drama is repeated, the reader’s only gain is an awareness of what is happening to him; he understands that his responses are being controlled and mocked by the same authority, (15)

Satan continually deludes himself by supposing that he can act apart from God, and in this passage we come to understand that delusion by (momentarily) sharing it. … Thomas Greene observes that ‘it is a little anti-climactic for the reader after following the tremulously the fallen couple’s gropings towards redemption… to hear from the Father’s lips that he has decreed it—that all of this tenderly human scene, this triumph of conjugal affection and tentative moral searching, occurred only by divine fiat’ (19)

In the divorce tracts Milton reveals the source of this poetic technique when he analyzes the teaching of Christ, ‘not so much a teaching, as an intangling’. … ‘for Christ gives no full comments or continu’d discourses…scattering the heavenly grain of his doctrin like pearle heer and there, which requires a skilfull and laborious gatherer.’ … he does not scruple to mislead them, temporarily: ‘But why did not Christ seeing their error informe them? For good cause; it was his profest method not to teach them all things at all times, but each thing in due place and season… the Disciples took it [one of his gnomic utterances] in a manifest wrong sense, yet our Saviour did not there informe them better… ‘Due season’ means when they are ready for it, and they will be ready for it when the seeds he has sown obliquely have brought them to the point where a more direct revelation of the truth will be efficacious; (21)

By first ‘intangling’ us in the folds of Satan’s rhetoric, and then ‘informing us better’ in ‘due season’, Milton forces us to acknowledge the personal relevance of the Arch-fiend’s existence; (22)

Finally, the experience of reading the simile tells us a great deal about ourselves. How large is Satan’s spear? The answer is, we don’t know, although it is important that for a moment we thing we do. … Book III, Satan lands on the Sun: / There lands the Fiend, a spot like which perhaps/ Astronomer in the Sun’s lucent Orb/ Through his glaz’d optic Tube yet never saw. (588-90)… the reader is encouraged to assume that his perceptions extend to the object the poet would present, only to be informed that he is in error; … constructed in such a way that the error must be made before it can be acknowledged by a surprised reader. (28)

It is at this time, when the reader’s attention has relaxed, that Milton slips by him the ‘now’ of 54 and the present tense of ‘torments’, the first present in the passage. The effect is to alert the reader both to his location (Hell) and to his inability to retrace the journey that brought him there. Re-reading leads him only to repeat the mental operations the passage demands, and while the arrival in Hell is anticipated, it is always a surprise. The technique is of course the technique of the spot and spear similes, and of the clash between involuntary response and authorial rebuke, and again Milton’s intention is to strip from us another of the natural aids we bring to the task of reading. The passage itself tells us this in lines 50-51, although the message may pass unnoted at first: ‘Nine times the Space that measures Day and Night’. Does space measure day and night? Are day and night space? The line raises these questions, and the half-line that follows answers them, not ‘to mortal men’, who think in terms of duration and sequence, not to us. In this poem we must, we will, learn a new time. (33-34)

Milton cannot recreate the eternal moment, but by encouraging and then blocking the construction of sequential relationships he can lead the reader to accept the necessity of, and perhaps even apprehend, negatively, a time that is ultimately unavailable to him because of his limitation. (35)

…the reader who fails repeatedly before the pressures of the poem soon realizes that his difficulty proves its major assertions—the fact of the Fall, and his own (that is Adam’s) responsibility for it, and the subsequent woes of the human situation. The reasoning is circular, but the circularity is appropriate to the uniqueness of the poem’s subject matter; (38)

in Book ix when Adam chooses to disobey. … The ambivalence of the response is meaningful because the reader is able to identify its components with different parts of his being: one part, faithful to what he has been taught to believe (his ‘erected wit’) and responsive to the unmistakable sentiments of the poem’s official voice, recoils in the presence of what he knows to be wrong; but another part, subversive and unbidden (his ‘infected will’) surprises and overcomes him and Adam is secretly applauded. It would be a mistake to deny either of these impulses; they must be accepted and noted because the self must be accepted before it can be transformed. (43)

The fifth inference I drew from Waldock’s criticism of the intrusive epic voice was that for him the question of relative authority is a purely aesthetic one. ‘Milton’s allegations clash with his demonstrations… in any work of imagination literature at all it is the demonstration… that has the higher validity: an allegation can possess no comparable authority’ … The insistence on the superiority of showing as opposed to telling is, as Wayne Booth has shown, a modern one, and particularly unfortunate in this case since it ignores the historical reality of the genre… the authority of epic voices in other epics is accepted because their comments either confirm or anticipate the reading experience; Milton invites us to put his epic voice on trial by allowing the reading experience to contradict it. … Milton assumes a predisposition in favour of the epic voice rather than a modern eagerness to put that voice on trial; (46-7)

Satan’s initial attractiveness owes as much to a traditional idea of what is heroic as it does to our weakness before the rhetorical lure. He exemplifies a form of heroism most of us find easy to admire because it is visible and flamboyant (the epic voice also admires: the ‘though in pain’ of ‘So spake th’ Apostate Angel, though in pain’ is a recognition of the steadfastness that can belong even to perversity; the devil is always given his due). Because his courage is never denied (instead Milton insists on it) while his virtue and goodness are (in the ‘allegations’ of the epic voice), the reader is led to revise his idea of what a true hero is. If this poem does anything to its readers, it forces them to make finer and finer discriminations. (49)

To summarize: Paradise Lost is a dialectical experience which has the advantage traditionally claimed for dialectic of involving the respondent in his own edification. On one level at least the poem has the form of a Platonic dialogue, with the epic voice taking the role of Socrates, and the reader in the position of a Phaedrus or a Cratylus, continually forced to acknowledge his errors, (49)

Arnold stein notes that God’s ‘language and cadence are as unsensuous as if Milton were writing a model for the Royal Society… Jackson Cope makes more explicit Stein’s coupling of the human and the metaphorical: ‘This eye of God does not see things metaphorically, but in their essential natures… God in his own voice can never speak metaphorically.’ [The Metaphorical Structure of Paradise Lost, p. 168. Actually Cope goes on to argue that God does indeed use metaphorical language, but he is using the word ‘metaphoric’ in a sense that makes his inclusion here not much of a distortion.] (59)

In the seventeenth century, …To the watchful Christian, the rhetorical appeal is something to be feared because it panders to a part of him he knows to be subversive, while the philosopher disdains it as a clouder of men’s minds and an impediment to scientific investigation; conversely, bareness and clarity or organization are not only valued, but welcomed, with the kind of physical pleasure men in other ages reserve for beautiful (lyric) poems or beautiful women. In other words, the prevailing orthodoxies—linguistic, theological, scientific—make possible an affective response to a presentation because it is determinedly non-affective. (61-2)

Cope might well be describing it when he speaks of ‘the spatialized form of logic which reduced reality to a visual object, and supplanted dialogue by the monologue of the expositor pointing out the connections among parts’. [Metaphorical Structure, pp. 33-34] Walter Ong’s characterization of Ramist-Puritan poetry is similarly apposite: /
‘When the Puritan mentality which is…the Ramist mentality, produces poetry, it is at first blatantly didactic, but shades gradually into reflective poetry which does not talk to anyone in particular but meditates on objects.’ [Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue, pp. 287-8] /
To those who are accustomed to think Milton’s God querulous or self-justifying, the suggestion that he does not talk to anyone in particular may seem curious. Technically, however, the tonal qualities usually ascribed to his voice are accidental, the result of what the reader reads into the speech rather than of what is there. (62)

When Milton’s God asks ‘whose fault?’ and answers ‘Whose but his own? ingrate’, the question is posed because the exposition of the thing or item under consideration (man’s position in the universe) requires that it be answered; and in the answer given, ‘ingrate’, is a term not of reproach, but of definition. (64)

God… speaks… a language free of ‘synonymous words’, ‘Equivocals’, words of ‘several significations’, and of metaphors, those ‘affected ornaments’ which prejudice the native simplicity of speech ‘and contribute to the disguising of it with false appearances’ (p.18). God is the perfect name-giver whose word is the thing in all its aspects. In the ultimate philosophical sense his words are true. (65)

Milton’s Art of Logic, arranged after the method of Peter Ramus, the first of the arguments or logical topics to be applied is cause: ‘This first place of invention is the fount of all knowledge; and in fact if the cause of something can be comprehended it is believed to be known’. God asks ‘whose fault?’ (what cause?) and replies immediately, ‘Whose but his own?’. (The mode of Ramist logic is self-interrogation.) Before the answer can be said to be truly comprehensive the agent must be more precisely identified. … There follows a proof or argument (in the Ramist sense) by negatives: Adam is at fault because no one else is (‘Not I’). The unfolding of the discourse continues until nothing remains to be clarified or disposed, and we end with God’s mercy, that attribute which shows him to be independent of his own causal sequences while indicating his willingness to extricate his creates from them. (68)

Yet he would be aware also of his obligation to readers ‘of soft and delicious temper who will not somuch as look upon Truth herselfe, unlesse they see her elegantly drest’, and as a teacher he would know that ‘Truth…ere she can come to the triall and inspection of the Understanding’ must first ‘passe through many little wards and limits of the several Affections and Desires’, putting on ‘such colours and attire as those Pathetick [appealing to the emotions] handmaids of the soul please to lead her in to their Queen’. [Complete Prose Works of John Milton, ed. Don Wolfe (New Haven, 1953), i. 817, 818, 830.] In this passage from Reason of Church Government, Milton joins those who echo Aristotle’s reluctant concession to the ‘defect of our hearers’, admitting rhetoric into their systems in recognition of a basic human weakness. (69)

If the soliloquy is finally the first stage in the progressive humanization of the epic voice, it is also a revelation of his fallibility. the tersely confident declaratives, so familiar in Books I and II, give way here to the provisionality of the suppliant (‘that I may see’). The blind poet who wanders ‘where the Muses haunt’ and seeks guidance is suddenly with us rather than above us (it is the father who now bends down ‘from above’), (72)

God’s syntax also contributes to the ‘proof’ or demonstration of his character. Satan’s fallacies are wrapped in serpentine trains of false beginnings, faulty pronoun references, missing verbs and verbal schemes which sacrifice sense to sound (‘Surer to prosper than prosperity/ Could have assur’d us’); it is a loose style, irresponsibility digressive, moving away steadily from logical coherence (despite the appearance of logic) … God… his syntax is close and sinewy, adhering to the ideal of brevity (brevitas) … the intrusion of personality is minimal, the figures of speech are unobtrusive and the point, and one has little sense of a style apart from the thought. The speech is an example of the lucidity anonymous style Cicero recommends to anyone seeking to appear authorative: ‘The exordium… should contain everything which contributes to dignity…It should contain very little brilliance, vivacity, or finish of style, because these give rise to a suspicion of preparation and excessive ingenuity. As a result… the speech lose conviction and the speaker, author.’ (75)

In this case the orator’s task is not so much to arouse passions as to assuage them by providing reassurance and clarification to counteract the fear and confusion his auditors feel when they come to him. The emotion Milton is reaching for here is relief, the physical sense of having exchanged the chaotic liveliness of Hell for the calm stasis of Heaven. (77)

God is not a rhetorician, but he has a rhetorician’s success. The formal proof of deity, rigorously non-rhetorical, becomes part of the rhetorical proof (in Stoic-Ramus theory the oratorical and philosophical ideals tend to merge). We flee our compromising involvement with the affective in Books I and II and respond affectively to its antithesis in Book III. (80)

The idea that books (sacred or profane) read the reader is not a novel one. Replying to the charge that poets are ‘corruptors of morals’, Boccaccio replies, ‘Rather, if the reader is prompted by a healthy mind, not a diseased one, they will prove actual stimulators to virtue, either subtle or poignant, as occasion requires.’ And Milton is even more explicit in Areopagitica, when he declares /
‘To the pure all things are pure, not only meats and drinks, but all kinde of knowledge of good or evill; the knowledge cannot defile, nor consequently the books, if the will and conscience be not defil’d. For books are as meats and viands are; some of good, some of evill substance; and yet … bad books, that they to a discreet and judicious Reader serve in many respects to discover, to confute, to forewarn, and to illustrate. [Complete Prose Works, ii. 512-13] (84)

The division some see in the logical and rhetorical aspects of God’s public personality is a reflection of the division in the fallen reader, between that part of him which recognizes the truth and that part of him which rises, unbidden, against it, and resists its efforts to make him free. (86)

The emotional content of a word like ‘ingrate’ (if it is felt) is provided by the reader who receives it defensively, his pride resisting the just accusation, and confers on the speaker a tone compatible with his own reaction; … Equally illusory is God’s vaunted defensiveness. He does not argue, he asserts, disposing a series a self-evident axioms in an objective order, ‘not talking to anyone in particular but meditating on objects’. (Of course, God technically addresses the Son, but he is not in any sense, we feel, initiating a discussion, although he is, as we discover, creating a situation within which the poem’s first truly heroic act will be performed. (86)

A logical proof in the Ramist (non-syllogistic) manner proceeds by contraries. The positive (‘Whose but his own?’) is proved by elimination alternative possibilities; (86-7)

A morality of stylistics. The poem embodies a Platonic aesthetic or anti-aesthetic in which the still clarity and white light of divine reality, represented (figured forth) in the atonal formality of God’s abstract discourse, is preferred to the colour and chaotic liveliness of earthly motions, represented in Satan’s ‘grand style’ … contrasting appeals of the beauty of the created world and the heavenly (true) beauty of which all bodily forms are an expression. (88)

Cf. Plato, Laws, VII. 802c-d (trans. R. G. Bury, London, 1926): ‘For if a man has been reared from childhood up to the age of steadiness and sense in the use of music that is sober and regulated, then he detests the opposite kind whenever he hears it, and calls it ‘vulgar’; whereas if he had been reared in the common honeyed kind of music, he declares the opposite of this to be cold and unpleasing.’ Thus the ‘uneducated’ reader finds God’s music ‘cold and unpleasing’, but responds to the ‘honeyed kind’ of Satan. (89)

The invitation to ascend. Once the reader becomes aware of his situation with respect to the contraries of Heaven and Hell, and has located himself somewhere between the two, he is invited to ascend on the stylistic scale by ‘purging his intellectual ray’ to the point where his understanding is once more ‘fit and proportionable to Truth the object and end of it’, and his affections follows what his reason (the eye of the mind) approves. [The arc of the narrative describes a Platonic ascent, which culminates (for the reader who is able to move with it) in the simultaneous apprehension of the absolute form of the Good and the Beautiful, ‘without shape or colour, intangible, visible only to reason, the soul’s pilot’ (Phaedrus, 247). In Christian terms, the movement imitates the return of the soul to God and pre-figures Christ’s victory over death: … Jackson Cope, op. cit., p. 108] (90)

If he is successful as a guide, the narrator confers on us the gift of his blindness (to earthly things) and persuades us to value it above the sight he has lost and we acknowledge as unreliable. (91)

Satan thinks himself grandly ironic whenhe reminds his groveling and prostate legions of the titles they fought to preserve. … (315-23) What Satan fails to realize is that physical posture has nothing to do with virtue, a cast of mind now unavailable to the rebels. (98)

Any admiration one might have for Satan’s rhetoric as a piece of strategy is submerged in the terrible irony of ‘Awake, arise, or be for ever fall’n’ (300). … Milton will not allow Satan even a small success. His force are only half awake (‘ere well awake’): / Nor did they not perceive the evil plight/ In which they were, or the fierce pains not feel. (335-6)… They do perceive the fire, the pain, the gloom, but they are blind to the moral meaning of their situation, that is to their evil plight. (99)

…when ‘fall’ is taken to have no meaing beyond the obviously physical, and ‘loss’ is a political concept, and light the province of the interior decorator, the reader is entitled to congratulate himself on his superior understanding. (100)

the fallen reader betrays himself when he fells obliged to pass moral judgement or every action or utterance. ‘Wanton’ and ‘loose’ and ‘error’ trouble us because we cannot help but read into them moral implications that are not relevant until the Fall has occurred. … These lines move easily, lulling the reader into a complacency that renders him vulnerable to the shock of ‘dishevell’d’. The tradition calls for an idealized Eve… the word troubles. Is there, can there be, disorder in Paradise? (101)

In retrospect, ‘dishevell’d’ is seen to mean ‘not arranged in any symmetirical pattern’ and ‘wanton’ to be standard seventeenth-century usage for ‘unrestrained’ (there are no restraints in Paradise). If Eve’s tresses were plaited or bejeweled, she would be open to the suspicion of vanity; as it is, her ‘sweet disorder’, her ‘wantonness’ is innocent precisely because it is not ‘too precise in every part’. /
In short, the reader will declare Even innocent of a sensuality whose only existence is in his mind; but it is a conscious effort, made necessary ultimately by his inability to delimit the connotations of a prelasparian vocabulary and more immediately by Milton’s deliberate evocation of the preachers’ scarlet woman. (102)

A pure sexuality may seem a contradiction in terms, but only because it is unavailable to us in our present state; … the sudden introduction of a third perspective: /
With kisses pure: aside the Devil turn’d
For envy, yet with jealous leer malign
Ey’d them askance (502-4)/
The effort of the devil’s entrance (he has been there all along as our widow on the scene, but we have forgotten him) is not unlike the effect of ‘Then was not guilty shame’ (313). The reader is alerted to the contrast between the ‘kisses pure’ and the impurity of the voyeur’s response and is forced to acknowledge whatver part of that response he shares. (106)

whatsoever Adam called every living thing creature that was the name thereof.’ This act is taken to be proof of Adam’s superior knowledge, and the names he gives the animals are thought to be exact, corresponding in each case to the essence of the species. Adam’s knowledge is infused into him directly by God (114)

Milton provides a prose gloss to this passage in Tetrachordon: ‘Adam who had the wisdom giv’n him to know all creatures, and to name them according to their properties, no doubt but had the gift to discern perfectly.’ [Complete Prose Works of John Milton, ed. Ernest Sirluck (New Haven, 1959), ii. 642.] (114)

R. F. Jones, whose researches are indispensable for this period, argues that ‘the remarkable development of mathematics in the seventeenth century, to which Descartes contributed much, and especially the improved mathematical symbols that were coming into use, exerted no small influence upon conceptions of what language should be… the movement toward clear definitions characteristic of this period drew much of its inspiration from mathematics. [The Seventeenth Century, Studies in the History of English Thought and Literature form Bacon to Pope (Stanford, 1951), pp. 150-1.] (117)

Mrs. MacCaffrey cites a sermon of Donne’s: ‘God shall create us all Doctors in a minute… no more preaching, no more reading of Scriptures, and that great School-Mistress, Experience, and Observation shall be remov’d, no new thing to be done, and in an instant, I shall know more, than they all could reveal unto me.’ [Paradise Lost as ‘Myth’, p. 36] According to Donne, this awaits us in the life to come, but for Ward, Webster, Sprat and others it is a goal attainable on the earth, if not immediately, then within several generations. (119)

Cf. Hobbes on the abuse of words: ‘When men register their thoughts wrong by the inconstancy of the signification of their words, by which they register for their conception that which they never conceived… when they use words metaphorically—that is, in other sense than that they are ordained for—and thereby deceive others’ (Leviathan i. 4, p. 38) (note, 122)

Sprat: ‘How many rewards, which are due to more profitable, and difficult arts, have been still snatch’d away by the easie vanity of fine speaking? [The History of the Royal Society, London, 1667, pp. 111-13] (123) Sprat qualifies his indictment with the usual concession to the importance of rhetoric as a defensive weapon, lest ‘the naked Innocence’ of virtue, would be on all occasions ‘expos’d to the armed malice of the wicked’, but for all practical purposes the devil has disappeared or has at least been disarmed by the corrective control of methodical plainness. (123)

The plain style associated with the scientific movement is not the plain style Morris Croll has identified with anti-Ciceronianism. The two share an ideal—mirror-like fidelity to a reality. It is the realities that differ, at least in the early stages of each movement when goals are unambiguously stated. The anti-Ciceronians attempt in their style to portray ‘exactly those athletic movements of the mind by which it arrives at a sense of reality [124] … On the other hand, the philosophy that yields the mathematical plainness of Sprat and Wilkins implicitly denies or skirts the concept of individuality. In Croll’s terms, the scientific style is oratorical (members of the Royal Society would blanch at the accusation) because it concerns itself with ‘general and communal ideas’ and does not recognize the thinking mind as an active part of the cognitive process. The universal applicability of method makes all minds one mind, a common and passive machine harnessed and directed by a power independent of it; and the machine, properly controlled, is assumed to be answerable to the reality it would record. In this way, the human factor is phased out and the epistemological gap between concepts in the mind and their objective existence in nature is bridged… Lip service is still paid to the inherent weakness of mortal faculties, but once that weakness has been isolated, it can be discounted, at least in practice, and finally ignored, even in theory. (124-5)

Actually, as modern physicists are quick to admit, mathematical or neutral notations are no more objective, in a final sense, than are the ‘reports from within’ sent out to us by a lyric poet. (126)

Sympathetic though he may be to the more limited aims of his contemporaries, especially as they relate to the distrust of rhetoric he everywhere evidences, Milton is unable to share their optimism, largely because it contains a latent impiety. It is this that D. C. Allen discerns when he explains Milton’s reticence on the subject of the original tongue, despite the fact that he ‘was quite aware of the general linguistic theories of his age’ : A similar observation underlies P. Albert Duhamel’s insistence that Milton could never have been a committed Ramist: … for Milton ‘the immediate intuitive perception of logical relations’ is the hallmark of prelapsarian thought processes, as is the possession of a perfect language. (126-7)

I cannot emphasize too much the deliberateness of this pattern. The placing of ‘wanton’ and ‘dishevell’d’ and later of ‘loose’ (IV. 497) is too conspicuously awkward to be accidental. They are there to create problems or puzzles which the reader feels obliged to solve since he wishes, naturally, to retain a sense of control over the reading experience. (130)

If there are any moments in the poem which should be free of evil or even of the suggestion of evil, surely they are when Paradise is put before our eyes and again when God performs his first and greatest mercy, creation. Mrs. McCaffrey seems almost to attribute the ‘sense of danger’ we feel in the presence of innocence and Godhead, respectively, to a potential for evil in nature. But Milton everywhere insists that ‘matter… proceeded incorruptible from God, and even since the fall it remains incorruptible.’ Again one must exclude (consciously) the tainted meaning, rejecting with it the idea of a guilty nature. The serpent too much be pronounced innocent. … By confronting the reader with a vocabulary bearing the taint of sin in a situation that could not possibly harbour it, Milton leaves him no choice but to acknowledge himself as the source, and to lament. (136)

The reader does not think to cry, ‘What shall I do?’, because he is always doing something—analyzing, judging, comparing, recalling. The intuition that man is unworthy and can do nothing is not likely to be properly humbling if one has worked very hard to earn it. (It is physically and psychologically exhausting to read this poem.) What the reader must finally learn is that the analytical intellect, so important to the formulation of necessary distinctions, is itself an instrument of perversion and the child of corruption because it divides and contrasts and evaluates where there is in reality a single harmonious unity. The probing and discursive mind may be essential to the piecing together of the shining oneness of Truth, but at the end of the effort is the abandonment of self-consciousness … the stasis assumed as its goal. Overvalue the process and you deny the goal as something to be desired; (143)

The reader must understand that mindlessness—a sense of well-being because the mind knows nothing else (no better, we might say mistakenly)—is virtuous, and that his inability to be mindless is his punishment. This insight awaits the reader in Book VII, the creation scene, when Milton gives him an opportunity to relax, and be at his ease, and lets him feel the horror of being able to do neither. (144)

A similar manoeuvre is called for when Milton insists on the innocence of icons he has previously used to represent sin… It is, to say at least, surprising, then, to meet the simile once again in strange surroundings, amidst the joyful numbering of God’s created: …
…there Leviathan
Hugest of living Creatures, on the Deep
Stretched like a Promontory sleeps or swims,
And seems like a moving Land. (412-15) (150)

When Milton asks of Eve’s and Adam’s trespass, ‘For what sin can be named, which was not included in this one act’, he does not mean that in this sin are potentially all sins, but that this sin is all sins: … ‘unbelief; ingratitude; disobedience; gluttony; in the man excessive uxoriousness, in the woman a want of proper regard for her husband, in both an insensibility to the welfare of their offspring, and that offspring the whole human race; patricide, theft’ [etc] … While the moral structure of the universe—its radical unity—survives the Fall, man’s ability to perceive it does not. … Adam and Eve need only refrain from doing something to affirm their obedience, … But fallen man must keep every point in order to fulfill one. (159)

The tree is always there and eating of it is always a possibility and not eating of it is always virtue. The literal physicality of the law—the fact of the tree— In the Fall… he is no longer able to see the oneness of God’s law and is delivered to the Mosaic law, the perfect reflection of his divided vision. … What Milton describes in the Areopagitica—the piecing together of the shattered image of truth—is not more than this, the recovery of the unified moral vision of Edenic innocence; and it is the task he sets the reader in the poem. (160)

In an important way epic heroism, of which Satan is a noteworthy instance, is the antithesis of Christian heroism, and a large part of the poem is devoted to distinguishing between the two and showing the superiority of the latter. Since this involves the debunking of an ideal the reader brings with him from other epics, the reading experience is once again educative and, in a special sense, disillusioning. (162)

I would suggest an even more complex and more ambivalent relationship: for if the devils suffer when their actions and motives are contrasted with the actions and motives of epic heroes, these heroes in turn do not escape the taint of Satanism, since their valour is qualified by its availability to devils. The reader… can only wait on the promise of something more clearly exemplary. (169)

While it is not technically military, the debate in Hell can be viewed as such a scene. (Forensic wars are not unlike real ones.) Each of the speakers rises with the intention of ending the battle of words at a single blow, much as Abdiel and Michael hope to decide the war in Heaven by the strength of their own right arms; but Beelzebub’s victory (which has been staged by Satan) is hollow, for there can be no victory, rhetorical or otherwise, in a contest whose goal is the formulation of a plan to be used against God. (170)

When the devils disperse, some play games of war—all wars are games of the most infantile kind—and they face each other in the now familiar configuration of battle. Here the language of Milton’s description indicates the contempt we are supposed to share: (171)

Gabriel knows it:
Satan, I know thy strength, and thou know’st mine,
Neither our own, but giv’n; what folly then
To boast what Arms can do, since thine no more
Than Heav’n permits, nor mine though doubl’d now
To trample thee as mire. (1006-10)
Not that Gabriel’s strength has actually been redoubled; but if it were he could take no credit for the results. This is an open and direct statement of what has previously been implied: Whatever heroism and virtue are, they do not reside where men have been accustomed to look for them. Later, when the battles and events of Book VI have unfolded, we shall realize that Gabriel is heroic here because he admits that, in the conventional sense, he cannot be. (175-6)

The battle decides nothing because battles have no real relationship to the issues one would have them settle. Adam learns this when he mistakenly expects a final struggle between God and Satan: /
…say where and when
Thir fight, what stroke shall bruise the Victor’s heel. (XII. 384-5)
And Michael, who knows from experience how inconclusive any physical contact is, answers:
Dream not of thir fight,
As of a Duel, or the local wounds
Of head or heel…
…nor so is overcome
Satan, whose fall from Heav’n, a deadlier bruise,
Disabl’d not to give thee thy death’s wound:
Which hee, who comes thy Saviour, shall recure,
Not by destroying Satan, but his works
In thee and in thy Seed. (XII. 386-8, 390-5)
Perhaps Michael is remembering at this moment that the victor in the struggle against sin (Satan’s works) was also the victor in the war he had hoped to end. (180)

On one hand, ‘we are led to expect that Michael’s army will soon prevail’, yet ‘in the even they can achieve nothing better than a stalemate. The effect is surely to expose them to our disappointment, to make ‘the excellence, the power Which God hath in his mighty Angels plac’d’ (637-8) appear equivocal’. (Peter was of course anticipated by Voltaire, who protested in 1727 at ‘the visible Contradiction which reigns in that Episode’, that is at the failure of the angels to drive out the rebels. (181)

True virtue is a state of mind—loyalty to the best one knows—and true heroism is a psychic (willful) action—the decision, continually made in a variety of physical situations, to maintain that loyalty. … The problem, then, is to separate the drama from the heroism, an operation which Milton forces on us in Book VI. He presents Abdiel to us fully aware that we are likely to accept him uncritically and uncomprehendingly. Once accepted, the angel is systemically stripped of everything not directly relevant to his heroism, until we are left to recognize (if we are willing) the naked essence of itself. In effect, the reader comes to understand heroism by repeatedly adjusting his idea of what makes one hero heroic. (184)

But if the loyal angels are incapable of pain and cannot be wearied, their ability to stand in fight is hardly remarkable or praiseworthy. Indeed this advantage is a disadvantage if ‘difficulty’ is one condition of heroism (ultimately, as we shall see, it is not), for it gives Satan and his followers something to put up with, something to rise above: ‘Some disadvantage we endur’d and pain, / Till now not known, but known as soon contemn’d’ (431-2). This is perverted stoicism, … Still the picture of Satan gritting his teeth and bearing it does have a certain force, and it is certainly more visibly impressive than anything we see on the other side. (187)

Believing it only just ‘That he who in debate of Truth hath won,/ Should win in Arms’, he does not abandon his post or question the ways of God when his sense of justice is disappointed; (188)

The desire to serve God is a particularly subtle form of pride if it is in fact a desire to feel needed and important. Milton is especially aware of this danger. In ‘When I consider’ he murmurs against that decree of God’s which has rendered him ‘useless’ … The admission, however, is wrung from him with difficulty, and one wonders how long it will be before the passion to be useful reasserts itself. In contrast, Abdiel’s acceptance of his uselessness is impressive precisely because it is unconscious. He is able to regard his own superfluousness as a matter of praise and feel no personal injury (sense of injured merit) at all. (188-9)

What has been said here of Abdiel applies also to his fellow warriors who all fight a battle they know to be pointless, under conditions that can justly be described as humiliating, for a leader who could do very well without them. ‘They perceive or come to perceive themselves as agents in an action beyond their anticipations or immediate comprehensions.’ Michael’s experience parallels Abdiel’s exactly, the expectation (to end intestine war), the apparent victory, the final absurdity (Yet soon he healed). (190)

As a patron, God presents a definite problem. One cannot give him anything, because everything is his in the first place, that is, proceeds from him. It is equally difficult to render him a service, since he is by definition self-sufficient. Praise, in any number of forms, including useless tasks, is the only commodity the suppliant can offer. (191)

By assigning them a task they cannot accomplish and an enemy whose disloyalty should be a crippling liability but is not, and a physical arena designed to force them into strategic absurdities, God creates a situation in which the conventional motives for heroic fortitude—success, glory, personal fulfillment—do not pertain and perseverance can only be attributed to a faith in the goodness of the Almighty, to obedience. (192)

All the angels, good and bad, are props in a gigantic stage setting constructed for the sole purpose of providing a moment of glory for God’s only begotten son. The epic voice says as much—‘and permitted all…/ That his great purpose he might so fulfil, / To honor his Anointed Son’ (674-6)—and the angels no doubt infer it when they see his chariot: ‘far off his coming shone.’ Here is provocation and an incitement to resentment if resentment is to be forthcoming; but wondrously the angels greet the appearance of the Messiah and his assumption of their appointed task with joy: (194)

Seeking spectacular occasions for trial and therefore for glory is itself a temptation. So that perhaps the ultimate in heroism. … to sit at God’s table without feeling constrained to earn a place there. (196)

The individual is involved in a series of indeterminate actions whose relationship to the desired end is, from his point of view, oblique. Such actions often appear ridiculous and base (i.e. the indignities Christian and Faithful suffer at Vanity Fair). (197)

If our hearers are defective, if the age will not be prompted, are we not justified in abandoning them? Milton answers this question by continuing to write Paradise Lost, … The divine imperative implicit in the prophetic gift—‘Let all things be done unto edification’—does not cease to be relevant when success seems unlikely or insignificant in political terms. (204)

The opportunities to yield to such sophistications are provided by God and Milton, respectively, who wish to try the faith and integrity of their charges. Lewis hopes to ‘prevent the reader from ever raising certain question’, but Milton insists that the reader raise them, (208)

Rationalizations… How does one reconcile freedom of will with the absolute foreknowledge of the Creator? How can actions which have been foreseen be free? How can evil proceed form a perfectly good being? The declarative forms of these questions are the staples of anti-Milton criticism: (1) Adam and Even were fated to fall. [209] … (2) Their disobedience, as we see it, is determined, partly by circumstances, partly be their own natures. … (3) They were created with a propensity to fall… Obviously these arguments represent slightly different paths to the same conclusion: God, not Adam and Eve, is guilty of the Fall [210] … These difficulties are acknowledged (not personally, but as part of a logical proof) by God, and resolved; but the reader will have been exposed… and thereafter, whenever an innocent detail is capable of being twisted so that it seems to forebode the Fall, whenever an isolated incident can be (illegitimately) structured into a ‘net of circumstance’, whenever Adam and Eve evidence their ability not to fall), these evasions, in all their seductiveness, are recalled, and, if we allow them, they undermine our understanding of the situation as God and Milton have instituted it. (211)

Innocence, Raphael tells Adam and Eve, far from being static, includes large possibilities for growth as well as the possibility of declining to grow. By continuing to obey and by maturing in wisdom, as Eve matures when she recognizes Adam’s superior fairness, they may ascend ‘in tract of time’ from the perfection of Paradise to a higher perfection; [if Adam and Eve are perfect, they are perfect with respect to their species, not absolutely perfect. Absolute perfection belongs to God; human perfection demands that man be able (free) to make mistakes.] (226)

Thus if we read properly and refuse to rest in superficial resemblances, the Fall is continually thrown into brilliant relief as an incomprehensible phenomenon; otherwise we comprehend it, and by comprehending, deny it. (228)

Adam replies with new care, describing in analytical fashion the right working of his faculties: … Eve’s beauty, of form… and manner… is admired… Even so, his consciousness of her worth does not make him her captive, because he retains his powers of judgment [230] … Had these words been spoken earlier, they would have been accepted as a true indication of Adam’s state of mind. But here in Book VIII, shortly (in poem time) before he is said to be fondly overcome with female charm, the reader may be tempted… Because we know Adam will soon fall, the argument goes, he could not now be as firm as he seems to be; already corruption has occurred. This is an example of the blind alleys foreknowledge can lead us into… slips past the paradox Milton is at pains to impress on us at this conspicuously late stage—Adam is firm, yet Adam falls—and substitutes for it an intelligible sequence of events. Immediately, the uniqueness of the Fall as an action unrelated to its antecedents is obscured, and the focus of temptation is transferred from the will to a temporal process. (The implication that the Fall must have antecedents is a denial of the freedom of the will. Watching Eve leave Adam’s side in Book IX Stein comments, ‘The eating of the apple is as good as done’, thereby assuming, incorrectly, that neither of them can reverse the process… (231)

When Satan deceives Uriel, ‘The sharpest slighted Spirit of all in Heav’n’, … the reader is invited to ask himself if Eve, in an analogous situation, should be expected to be more discerning than one of God’s eyes. … he may even suppose that Satan’s entrance into Paradise, permitted by God in the incompetent persons of Uriel and Gabriel, is decisive. Yet… Eve since she need only recall what God has said in response to any tempter no matter what his appearance. Uriel’s failure is excusable, because he is by nature incapable of piercing Satan’s disguise; (233)

By the end of Book III, Satan is no longer sufficiently attractive to serve as a recipient of the reader’s misguided sympathy, and he is replaced by Adam and Eve, and thus by the reader himself. (239)

Waldock observes, ‘There was no way for Milton of making the transition from sinlessness to sin perfectly intelligible’ (Paradise Lost and its Critics, p. 61). The unintelligibility, and hence the freedom, of the transition is Milton’s thesis. Making it intelligible, and hence excusable, either by compromising the sufficiency of the will or by forging a chain of causality, is the reader’s temptation. … (reason plays a flatterer’s role, not unlike rhetoric’s) (239-40)

If the light of reason coincides with the word of God, well and good; if not, reason must retire, and not fall into the presumption of denying or questioning what it cannot explains: … ‘It was necessary that something should be forbidden or commanded as a test of fidelity, and that an act in its own nature indifferent [quod neque bonum in se esset, neque malum], in order that man’s obedience might be thereby manifested. For since it was the disposition of amn to do what was right, as a being naturally good and holy, it was not necessary that he should be bound by the obligation of a covenant to perform that to which he was of himself inclined; … (The Works of John Milton, XV. 113-15) … This holds true also for fallen man who must affirm his faith in the same way, independently of reason. (243)

…the reader is able to discern (or invent) any number of ‘seeming contradictions’ with which to question divine justice. (244)

The error of substituting the law of reason and the evidence of things seen for the law of God is repeated by the reader if he regards Eve’s failure as a failure of reason and declines to judge her in accordance with the terms of God’s decree. … First of all, he must hold in abeyance the analytical powers whose use the poem has encouraged elsewhere. Specifically, he must distance himself from the rhythm of the exchange, and not fall into the mistake of considering Satan’s propositions on his terms, that is as if they were relevant either to the question of eating or to the intelligibility of Eve’s action. … Wholly intent on detecting Eve’s errors of omission, he himself may slip into the error of believing that she might not have fallen, had she been a better logician. (254-5)

…the temptation to inquire into the causes of matters which are specifically exempted from such inquiries. The Fall is no more an object of understanding than the prohibition it violates. (256)

what, exactly, caused his Fall. … ‘causes’ … no one of which is finally more satisfactory than those offered in the poem: … not deceiv’d / But fondly overcome with Female charm. (IX. 998-9) / For still they knew, and ought to have still remember’d. (X. 12) / The first, as has often been remarked, is lamentably weak; the second, simply uninformative (they forgot). Together they assert what every reader should have by now realized: there is no cause of the Fall as it has been sought, (258)

Eve’s despair is not so reprehensible as Adam’s which proceeds from a conviction of eternal misery and is thus a mortal sin: ‘Despair is a mortal sin when it arises from distrust of God’s goodness and fidelity; venial when due to melancholy or to fear of one’s own weakness.’ The latter is clearly Eve’s case. (275)

Much of what is usually thought to be unsatisfactory in Books XI and XII results from the substitution of Adam for the reader in the dialectic of trial and error which is the basis of Milton’s method. There is still to be sure a drama of the mind, but it is Adam’s, and the reader stands in relation to him as an advanced pupil to a novice. (288)

Books XI and XII… As recently as 1964, Louis Martz, after conceding that Milton’s plan is clear and theologically sound, concludes reluctantly, ‘poetically it is a disaster’. Without question the verse exhibits few of the characteristics usually thought of as Miltonic—the sonorous richness of sound, the intricate but precise syntax, the wealth of pointedly relevant ambiguities; in their place, in the words of a critic who comes to praise, there is substituted ‘a rhetoric that consistently avoids all deeper imaginative surprise; the surface of things dominates, clear, cold, hard.’ Also, I might add, bare, not in the sense exactly of ‘unadorned’ (the watchword of Puritan pulpit rhetoric) but more nearly as a synonym for ‘toneless’. (301)

For the most part there is merely the straightforward narration of the course of man’s woe and misery, ‘not unlike a bad dream remembered with relentless accuracy’. (301)

When he appears to be describing Paradise he is in fact drawing out the Paradisial stop in us.’ (302)

Philosophically, the bareness of these books returns us to the expository rhetoric of God’s speeches and to the flinty clarity of his illusionless vision; and once again our reaction is an indication of the distance we have (hopefully) traveled since our original infatuation with the Satanic grand style. … here are not points of view, here is only what is. Even the epic voice’s ‘point of view’ is absorbed into the relentless drone. … Milton uses this ‘stylistic shock’ to prepare us for the transformation of Eden into ‘an Island salt and bare, / The haunt of Seals and Orcs, and Sea-mews’ clang’ (834-5), and for the moral God intends: /
To teach thee that God attributes to place/ No sanctity. (836-7)
The hard literalism of ‘Rock’ warns us against ‘attributing overmuch’ to a ‘fair outside’. By seeing the essential unimpressiveness of physical objects on a purely physical level we are moved to seek the spirit whose presence gives them value, in this case the ‘true Rock’ upon whose foundation man can build his inner (non-corporeal) life. This has been the purpose of the poem—to induce in us this motion—and the reader who is able to greet the ‘bodiless’ style of XI and XII as Adam does, with joy, attests to Milton’s success. (307)

Here in Book XII, the various perspectives whose juxtaposition has so often been the source of discomfort (and instruction) merge into a single perspective, that of fallen humanity. Where the reader might have resisted the preaching of the pure word in Book III, and felt some difficulty in sharing the joy of the angelic choir, here resistance disappears along with self-consciousness, and joy (of an impersonal kind) is induced by the verbal techniques I have been describing. The aloofness of the epic voice has long since given way to something more recognizable; like us he ‘is human, corrupted and disinherited because he is fallen’. Satan, to whose glozing lies th reader too often listened has been hissed off the stage (for a seaon) and does not influence our response to the incarnation and crucifixion. The innocence of Adam and Eve, in relation to which the reader has been made to feel guilt and shame, is no more; they, like the epic voice, have joined us. And God, too, has stepped down from his prospect high to unite with man, to share his pain, his trials, and his temptations. (329-330)


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