[Milton-L] Thinking or Rehearsing?

Michael Bryson michael.bryson at csun.edu
Wed Feb 20 15:52:04 EST 2008


The paragraph quoted below encapsulates something
that has long fascinated me about Milton studies,
and about the way many of us were taught, starting
as undergraduates, to read Paradise Lost.

We talk about this text in an unusual way. I do this
as well, of course, so I am not trying to point
fingers here. I wonder, however, what it might look
like to talk about Hamlet in a similar way.

"To take Hamlet as one example, one does not
(indeed, is not even *supposed to*) recognize how he
or she is being entrapped by the text into drawing
the same wrong conclusions that its characters
do--that Hamlet is heroic, Laertes chivalrous,
Ophelia so seductive that
her poor mate is incapable of rational thought in
her presence, and Claudius a manipulative tyrant. It
is only through the process of rethinking and
rediscovery that we [...] realize that we've been
'had.'"

One might argue that the two texts have different
purposes (and to be fair, one might also argue the
difference in genre), that Paradise Lost is
pedagogical in a way that Hamlet is not, but that
argument seems circular (though again, I have used a
variation of that pedagogical argument). Why do we
do this? I am reminded of Peter Herman's point (in
Destabilizing Milton) about dominant interpretive
paradigms, and Carol Barton's observation sums up
the "Fish" paradigm very well. But teaching our
students to "see" the text in that way (which is
also a way of not seeing...) seems less like
encouraging them to *think* than like teaching them
to become well-rehearsed--even virtuosic--in the use
of an elaborate tradition of interpretation that has
become quite nearly co-equal with the text itself.

(Though perhaps such an exercise is one way of
encouraging the exercise and development of our
students' thinking abilities, at least for those
inclined to do more than simply say "yes...and will
I need to know this for the test?")

Ruminations while trying to fight off a massive head
cold...

Michael Bryson

---- Original message ----

  Date: Wed, 20 Feb 2008 14:25:32 -0500
  From: "Carol Barton" <cbartonphd1 at verizon.net>
  Subject: Re: [Milton-L] Why oh Why
  >Milton does something unforgivable, in the
  context of today's classroom: he
  >expands the mind, and makes the reader *think.*
  To take PL as one example,
  >one does not (indeed, is not even *supposed to*)
  recognize how he or she is
  >being entrapped by the text into drawing the same
  wrong conclusions that its
  >characters do--that Satan is heroic, Adam
  chivalrous, Eve so seductive that
  >her poor mate is incapable of rational thought in
  her presence, and God a
  >manipulative tyrant. It is only through the
  process of rethinking and
  >rediscovery that we engage in the reversion that
  Stanley Fish so
  >perceptively described in _Surprised by Sin_, and
  realize that we've been
  >"had." That's more work than many of today's
  readers want to do--but the
  >benefits of the effort are inestimable, and if
  you take nothing else away
  >from careful study of _Paradise Lost_, you leave
  it never able to read
  >anything else in the old naive way again.
  >
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