[Milton-L] Thinking or Rehearsing?

Michael Bryson michael.bryson at csun.edu
Wed Feb 20 17:49:59 EST 2008


Interesting...I am familiar with the prose (and make
it a major component of my courses on Milton--I am
lucky enough to get to teach a Milton course each
semester, in fact...SoCal students seem to respond
to him!). I also agree with this:

"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"

And that agreement is reflected in my own use of the
Milton-as-pedagogue sort of argument. I wonder,
though, about why that questioning of "the old
truths" seems so often to run into a "none shall
pass" roadblock over the ways in which Milton is/may
be/may not be using ideas of "God." Why is it simply
naive to read the Father as (at least in part)
manipulative and tyrannical? I ask the same question
about readings of Satan as heroic, Adam as
chivalrous, Eve as seductive, etc.

I do not, however, mean to imply that I am
necessarily advocating such readings (so much as I
am advocating making a space available for them...a
space that is not simply labled "Error--Do Not
Approach"). I do not, for example, think Satan
simply and unproblematically heroic. In my view, he
is presented as a master of the appearance of
heroism, and as having a moment or two in which he
approaches living up to that appearance, but no
more. Adam may, indeed, have a chivalrous moment or
two, but he has plenty of rather more sniveling and
petulant moments. Eve certainly can be seen as
seductive, but her character is ever so much more
than that. And the Father...ah, yes, the Father.
Nothing either simple or unproblematic about that
character, so far as I can tell.

Fish's argument was also something I encountered
only after--years after, actually--I had first read
Paradise Lost. What it enapsulated for me was not
the experience of reading the poem. Far from it.
What is captured for me was the experience of being
"taught" the poem in a university setting. I
realized, on reading, that my undergraduate
instructor had been more or less cribbing from Fish,
and teaching me to do the same. I was being taught
to rehearse an argument, not think through one of my
own, and I wonder whether--or to what extent--I may
be doing the same thing with my own students today.

I also agree that Milton is concerned with the issue
described below:

how to distinguish between propaganda,
self-delusion, and the truth.

But I would ask the Pontius Pilate question: "What
is Truth?" (According to whom, as expressed in what
words, images, concepts, etc.?)

Michael Bryson

---- Original message ----

  Date: Wed, 20 Feb 2008 16:33:44 -0500
  From: "Carol Barton" <cbartonphd1 at verizon.net>
  Subject: Re: [Milton-L] Thinking or Rehearsing?
  To: "John Milton Discussion List"
  <milton-l at lists.richmond.edu>

  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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