[Milton-L] Free Will, Forgiveness

Michael Bryson michael.bryson at csun.edu
Thu Jul 27 14:40:45 EDT 2006

With the disagreement between Stephen Fallon and Peter Herman, I think we have come to the central controversy (which has never gone away) about Paradise Lost: God, and Milton's literary character the Father (with a dash of the Son as well).

Ever since I can remember, I have been reading defenses of this character, hearing defenses of this character (in classrooms, seminars, conference presentations), and being at times nearly overwhelmed by what seems the emotional urgency behind the various defenses. In my undergraduate studies of the poem, it was made clear to me that certain questions were simply off limits, that what I was discouraged from questioning was simply to be assumed (it seemed to me even then that Milton studies were alarmingly like Milton ministries). Fine. Well and good. I did what was expected of me, and parroted the opinions I was told were the only correct options (how many of our students do *exactly* the same thing when we come on a bit too strong about our readings of texts? The gut-level feeling that *something is wrong here* is not going to be persuaded away, or brow-beaten away with any amount of historical contextualizing...). And, with all due respect, Professor Skulsky speaks of "rhetorical intimidation"? In my admittedly limited experience, such intimidation (often in institutional form) has come exclusively from the side that *wills* to read Paradise Lost as presenting a "good" God. Now, does that mean that arguments against such a paradigm are automatically correct, that it is the only correct option to read the Father (and the various pictures of the Son) as mendacious or malevolent or evil? No. Of course not. Definitely not. But both options are on the table--especially for modern readers, many of whom are not Christian even in name (and by this I do not mean Empson's Chinese students, but many of my own students in southern California). 

Milton's intention is fascinating, even crucial, but it is not the only standard of analysis (though I consider it a very important standard, we do, after all, live in a world in which the privileging of authorial intention has been put into question--Freud, Derrida, Foucault, etc., even Fish's idea of "interpretive communities" can be pressed into service here: there can exist more than one interpretive community for a text). That is why I find Peter Herman's quotation of Drummond so telling, "Of course, this isn’t Milton’s intention. It can’t be Milton’s intention": it captures perfectly a certain dynamic that has long been prevalent in studies of Milton. Stephen Fallon, whom I respect greatly, expresses this neatly in his recent post here: 

"it strains credulity to suggest that Milton wanted us to conceive of God as mendacious and cruel.  Milton implicitly admitted the logical possibility of divine malfeasance in taking up the project of theodicy seriously in the first place.  But as I read the poem Milton concludes that God is just after all." 

Why does it strain credulity? Why is this thought more or less unthinkable? It was quite thinkable for the author(s) of Job (as evidenced, at least in part, by the history of brutally girdled "translations" and interpretations of 42:6), as it also was for many of the 17th-century exegetes for whom the book of Job was a suddenly urgent problem. The hypothesis that Milton *may* have wanted his readers to confront a "mendacious and cruel" image of God does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that such an image is what Milton wanted to justify to his readers, after all. "Divine malfeasance" and the malfeasance of a literary character are two enormously different things. I find it perfectly within the realm of possibility (not a strain to credulity at all) that Milton may have taken the project of theodicy seriously *by* presenting a "cruel and mendacious" *image* of God, while still concluding that "God is just after all." Why? Because the image and the God are not the same thing: one is a way of thinking (through a glass darkly) about what cannot finally be grasped, and the other is precisely that which cannot be grasped (only crudely point to) in human terms.

And, Milton's intentions aside, does it "strain credulity" to suggest that the Father in Paradise Lost might be experienced by some, even many, readers as "mendacious and cruel"? Are we simply--Drummond-like--to discount that reaction? The persistence of the reaction over the centuries suggests that sort of strategy hasn't been too effective. Far more effective, as Stephen Fallon noted, were Fish's and Danielson's arguments. And yet, the reaction persists, as new, and new, and new readers experience the text that is right in front of them and think: *Something is wrong here.*

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