[Milton-L] Why oh Why

Dr. Larry Gorman larry at eastwest.edu
Wed Feb 20 17:54:41 EST 2008


So the question then turns to why do we assign the entire Miltonic
canon?  Would we do that in a non-specialist course?  (We probably would
assign Paradise Lost or Lycidas or something that requires a less
Everest-like commitment.)  

So we assign it.  Is "because it is there" a convincing explanation of
the assignment?  There are others we can give: because it is an
important text for understanding literary history; because it
demonstrates a retrograde ideology about gender roles; because if I make
you read it, you might find yourself liking it.  

Now reading the poem can expand a student's mind in certain ways.  It
seems to have expanded Blake's mind quite differently than Stanley
Fish's. It might not expand the poor mind at all.  Certainly reading
Paradise Lost is an investment; it makes demands upon me that The
National Enquirer doesn't.  It may give more substantial rewards.  Let's
say I read it for the rewards, which are different from the rewards of
Don Quixote, or King Lear, or, to switch media, Persona or Weekend.  

There are all kinds of Everests out there.  Why do we choose the ones we
choose?  

-----Original Message-----
From: milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu
[mailto:milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu] On Behalf Of Carol Barton
Sent: Wednesday, February 20, 2008 1:26 PM
To: John Milton Discussion List
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] Why oh Why

Larry Gorman asks, "Do we read Paradise Lost because the strenuousness
of 
the effort makes
us a better person or do we read it because something within the text
gives us access to joy?"
-----------------------------------------

Again, I was not referring specifically or solely to _Paradise Lost_,
but to 
the entire Miltonic canon -- and as to the results of reading it, my
answer 
would be "both." I have never climbed Everest, but after a climb of the
432 
ancient (and slippery) stone steps up a narrow passageway to the top of
Il 
Duomo in Firenze, I can say that the getting there took a good deal of 
effort, but oh, the view from that circular ledge! The experience of
reading 
Milton (or Chaucer, or Shakespeare, or any early modern author) for the 
first time may be similar: only after one has accomplished it can he or
she 
see what was gained along the way, and experience the full joy of that 
revelation.

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.

Is that why we read _Paradise Lost_ the first time? Probably not. The
answer 
to that one is "because some dumb English teacher made us do it." But
the 
second, or the hundredth? You betcha.

Best to all,

Carol Barton 


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