[Milton-L] Thinking or Rehearsing?

Carol Barton cbartonphd1 at verizon.net
Wed Feb 20 20:28:22 EST 2008


Responding to Prof. Bryson's thoughtful post, which reads in part:

MB: "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:"

[CB1: "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.
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CB: I am not advocating an "Error--Do Not Approach" stance either, Michael--nor am I sure that Milton is


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
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