[Milton-L] The War in Heaven

Michael Bryson michael.bryson at csun.edu
Thu Jul 13 17:44:17 EDT 2006

In response to Harold Skulsky's stimulating post of Wednesday:

>Any readers who protest against the doings of God in PL are not
>adopting a position on how PL is to be interpreted; they are
>embellishing the poem by introducing themselves into the narrative as
>God's interlocutors.

This seems rather in the spirit of Lewis, who preferred to "prevent the reader from ever raising certain questions" (A Preface to Paradise Lost, 69) by declaring them out of bounds for a proper interpretation, casting those who ask them into the darkness of embellishers, misreaders, and rewriters. This might not "make a serious dialogue impossible," but I can certainly see how it might threaten to make it so.

>A subset of such readers understand that PL's assumption of God's
>justice doesn't beg the question because it functions as a hypothesis to
>be tested against the facts as recorded in the traditional account, and
>presented in the narrative; PL on this understanding does not preempt
>objections to its hypothesis--objection to the effect that, when granted
>for the sake of argument, the hypothesis is either internally
>inconsistent or fails to accord with the facts, and is therefore either
>false or unconfirmed. (This is the traditional modus operandi of
>theodicy from Plotinus on, through his many heirs in Christian

I agree that PL assumes that God is just. (I part with Empson there, among other places.) But I do not agree that the character presented in Paradise Lost is God. A portrait is not that which is portrayed, after all. God-for-us (limited humanity) is not God. I think that what Milton is trying to portray in Paradise Lost is not God, but merely an idea of God. I also regard it as open to question whether, or to what extent, the character in Paradise Lost is even a portrayal of God-for-us, much less a portrayal specifically of God-for-Milton. In that case, the question is this: whose idea is being portrayed, and to what end?

>A subset of that subset of readers (including this reader) will
>conclude that at the end of the day PL fails, out of serious
>inconsistencies in its moral premises, and inconsistencies between the
>premises and the facts it alleges. 

I think Paradise Lost is successful in its theodicy, in no small part because I think the major thrust of its defense of God is a rejection of "God." In a similar vein, Eckhart said--quoting from memory here--that "the last and highest parting is when, for God’s sake, one takes leave of god." I see Paradise Lost as part of a project of a similar kind of leave-taking.

Such readers will join with defenders
>of PL 

Defenders of PL? I was not aware than anyone was attacking it. I adore it, and have been well-nigh obsessed with it since I first discovered it in a public library when I was 13. (I think Empson rather liked it too...). Does "defenders of PL" equal "subscribers to a certain approach to reading and interpreting PL"? 

>in regarding protests against God the Father's despotism as either
>gross confusions or covert attempts to recruit Milton against

Recruit Milton against Christianity? I don't think even Empson was trying to do that. Recruit Milton against a particular interpretation of Christianity, perhaps...but in that case he has already so recruited himself.

>in defiance of the historical and biographical record, 

Oh no, quite the contrary--dependent on both, actually.

>and above all in defiance of principles of interpretation so fundamental
>that they make a serious dialogue impossible.

Fundamental principles? Whose? The appeal to such fundamental principles is all too often front and center in the attempt to prevent questions from being raised (and keep a privileged point of view unchallenged and unchallengeable--the first chapter of Peter Herman's "Destablizing Milton" has an excellent account of how this dynamic has worked in Milton scholarship). In other words, we can’t have a dialogue—-a "serious" one at any rate—-unless it is to be had on the terms of the one making such an appeal (and no, that is not the same as "Milton’s" terms or "17th-century" terms or even "Christian" terms--labels the meaning of which, the latter especially, can be, and are, disputed). Such an approach does seem to render dialogue, serious or otherwise, more or less impossible. And so, perhaps, we reach an impasse. But the path to get here has certainly been diverting and interesting.

Michael Bryson

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