[Milton-L] PL VI as Paen to Power

Michael Bryson michael.bryson at csun.edu
Tue Jul 11 14:25:18 EDT 2006

In response to Richard and Feisal particularly, I can't help but think of the Son's military "victory" in book 6 as a version of "Shock and Awe" (the active--and immediately destructive--arm of a "moronic foreign policy"). A military operation that merely hardens the enemy's resolve to continue hostilities ("he no less / At length from us may find, who overcomes / By force hath overcome but half his foe." 1.647-49) seems all too familiar these days. While I agree that the resolution of the war in heaven is, as Richard puts it, "a paean to Power" (Might, not Right wins the war in heaven, making Satan's calculations about the nature of the place and those who run it rather more credible--at least to this reader--than other Miltonists have often argued), I also agree with Feisal's point that "pointlessness and absurdity" characterize the war (though I would extend that to the *entire* war, not just the first two days).

As for Richard's "feeling more and more like Empson," well, I've been accused of trying to "out-Empson Empson" in one or two places recently. I gather that the accusation was intended to be devastating. (I rather enjoyed it.) I still love that book, all the more so because of its provocative nature. I find the fact that a nearly 50-year-old work of literary criticism still has such power as a taboo at once heartening and hilarious (true story: the Northwestern University library has a copy of "Milton's God" upon the title page of which some enterprising reader has written, "This book is the work of the Devil"--always nice to have a helpful guide to one's reading, isn't it?). 

Back to the war, though, I think that there is a fairly clear reference to merkabah lore in the idea of the "The chariot of Paternal Deity, / Flashing thick flames, wheel within wheel undrawn" (6.750-51), which is not at all incompatible with the idea that the war's resolution is a paean to power. What is more problematic--indeed, more interesting, to me anyway--is the way in which such a use of the merkabah imagery might function as a critique of the ultimate usefulness of such power. Michael Lieb talks much about the ways in which the "visionary mode" reveals more about the visionary (and the exegete) than that which is being envisioned (and interpreted) in his discussion of the merkabah lore--perhaps a similar dynamic is at work in the portrayal of the war in heaven: the war, and its resolution, reflects *us* (readers, interpreters), and our ways of insisting on imagining deity. I'm bracketing the poet off from that for the moment, because I think Milton is working both s!
es of the street here, both indulging and critiquing his own imaginings of God (affirming and negating all at once).

Michael Bryson

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