Fw: [Milton-L] Thinking or Rehearsing?

Carol Barton cbartonphd1 at verizon.net
Wed Feb 20 20:30:32 EST 2008

My apologies , all, if this is a duplication. I received an error message that said transmission was interrupted mid-post, and instructed me to re-send.

----- Original Message ----- 
From: Carol Barton 
To: John Milton Discussion List 
Sent: Wednesday, February 20, 2008 8:27 PM
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] Thinking or Rehearsing?

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.
CB2: I am not advocating an "Error--Do Not Approach" stance either, Michael--nor am I sure that Milton is (except that he may have been more radical about some of the religious aspects of our reading than I am). The Father is--to some degree--manipulative and tyrannical, and that is a "fact" of OT documentation; and I like your phrasing, "master of the appearance of heroism" for Satan (it applies to Charles I, too). He does have some heroic moments--always destroyed upon reflection, and sometimes by Satan himself--but there, nonetheless. Adam makes "the grand gesture," but compared to the Son's, it's more self-serving than heroic (and I've always been amused by the way he tells the lesser devils to keep house while he's off on his great adventure). And Eve is far more than seductress: it is she who ultimately emulates her Saviour, in ways that Adam could have, but didn't, and she who ultimately saves the day. The Father is problematic because the pretext is problematic--he's not Zeus-pater or Jove, a fiction capable of recasting as the writer sees fit . . . he's the Primum Mobile, the Creator, the Alpha and Omega, and his character is well-established. (Sort of.)

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

[CB1: 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.?)

CB2: Truth is whatever is real, to the extent that an "upright heart and pure" as guided by the Holy Ghost can perceive it. It is not "truth" as depicted by the duplicitous Satan, or "truth" as we wish to (and therefore seduce ourselves to) see it. I don't think Milton is trying to define truth, as much as he is trying to get us to see and recognize its antithesis. It was easier, when Sin wore horns and a pointed tail and had cloven hoofs and a pitchfork. Iago doesn't prance onstage costumed as evil . . . and neither does Satan (who first appears as a pious Cherub, spouting hypocrisy that only the Father can discern).

It seems to me that one of the difficulties we have in understanding Milton's approach is that we *aren't * the naive readers to whom Milton addressed the more incendiary pieces of his work, and we can't imagine a time when people couldn't see through political posturing and legerdemain with a clarity that provokes the kind of knee-jerk "whom are you trying to kid?" response that such things engender--among intelligent people, anyway--today. Both sides worried about the opposition's ability to work their respective propagandistic sorcery on the general public before and after the regicide, and I will be happy to provide evidence of that to anyone who'd like to see it. We shake our heads in dismay at those who buy into political rhetoric, or credulously consume the Enquirer or the Globe today, but the general public wasn't always so literate--or so sophisticated, in a literary sense. Propaganda was a real and compelling issue for Milton and his contemporaries--and it is that against which he strives again and again in his writing to provide the antidote.

Best to all,

Carol Barton 
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