[Milton-L] Thinking or Rehearsing?

Carol Barton cbartonphd1 at verizon.net
Wed Feb 20 16:33:44 EST 2008

Again, Michael, I would send you to the prose, and in particular to Eikonoklastes, in which Milton "deconstructs" (to use the term very anachronistically!) "Charles I's" Eikon Basilike (which he knows is not even "the king's book," as popularly attributed and received). As David Ainsworth has observed from a religious perspective, Milton is perceptibly *teaching his readers how to read*--which is to say, how to get past the propaganda, and see through the ad misericordia manipulation. Fish contends--and I am certain, too--that Milton is doing no less in _Paradise Lost_ (and _Paradise Regained_ and _Samson_ and almost everything else written in his maturity)--and in fact wrote a rather lengthy dissertation on the subject of why that is the case. The world has "turned upside down" at this point in history--none of the old truths about the physical universe or kingly divinity or the flatness of the world or even the contents of the Bible (as "translated" by the clerisy) can be relied upon, and all one can know is what his own right reason tells him, as informed by the Holy Spirit. It's imperative that the faithful be taught how to spot wolves in sheeps' clothing--and wolves in mitres, and wolves in coronets--and how to distinguish between propaganda, self-delusion, and the truth. That's the purpose of Milton's pedagogy--and less overtly, Shakespeare's too, to some degree, especially in _Hamlet_ and _Lear_ and the "problem plays," I think. Not to denigrate his accomplishment in the least, Fish only put into words what I (and others) experienced, but couldn't express: I didn't encounter him until long after I'd read _Paradise Lost_ for the first time, so he couldn't have influenced "how" I read it then.

Best to all,

Carol Barton
  ----- Original Message ----- 
  From: Michael Bryson 
  To: John Milton Discussion List 
  Sent: Wednesday, February 20, 2008 3:52 PM
  Subject: [Milton-L] Thinking or Rehearsing?

  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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