[Milton-L] Milton as challenger?

richard strier rastrier at uchicago.edu
Sat Oct 3 14:27:48 EDT 2009


Good answer, Hannibal.  Thanks.

---- Original message ----
>Date: Sat, 3 Oct 2009 14:10:09 -0400
>From: Hannibal Hamlin <hamlin.hannibal at gmail.com>  
>Subject: Re: [Milton-L] Milton as challenger?  
>To: John Milton Discussion List <milton-l at lists.richmond.edu>
>
>   Hmmm. Well, I should probably qualify or complicate
>   this I suppose. I'm still inclined to think that a
>   careful reading of, say , Paradise Lost, is likely
>   to challenge the orthodoxies or received religious
>   beliefs of our students. Sex before the fall,
>   angelic sex, the charismatic appeal (at times
>   seemingly logical --  highable contestable I know)
>   of Satan, the two-dimensionality of the Father (how
>   does one dramatize omniscience?), and so forth. At
>   the same time, I acknowledge that orthodoxy
>   (religious or other) has always proved remarkably
>   resistant to challenge, and readers of both Milton
>   and the Bible have proven adept at both ignoring
>   what is in the text and inserting what is not in it.
>   That Paradise Lost was sitting comfortably for
>   centuries on the bookshelves of the pious and
>   upright, alongside the Bible and Pilgrim's Progress
>   is proof enough. One of our greatest challenges as
>   teachers, I think, is simply to force students onto
>   the page. But then the history of biblical exegesis
>   as well as Milton criticism also shows how a
>   brilliant reader and/or theologian can wriggle out
>   of almost any interpretive difficulty. Of course,
>   our students our not, for the most part, working on
>   the level of Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin. On the
>   second half of my sentence, it is also true that
>   there are many ways of teaching the heresy out of
>   Milton. For C.S. Lewis it simply wasn't there, if
>   one read properly, and for Stanley Fish it's there
>   only as a test (I oversimplify of course). My sense
>   -- hardly expert, I confess -- of the
>   current orthodoxy among Milton scholars is that it
>   tends more in this direction than in that of the
>   Blake-Shelley-Empson line, though I myself find the
>   latter hard to resist.
>    
>   So I suppose, Richard, that, in response to your
>   question, I'm acknowledging the limitations of my
>   earlier statement, while still hanging on to it in a
>   more restricted sense. Perhaps better to say that,
>   while we can't rely on our students to read Milton
>   aright, and while a forceful teacher can (re)shape
>   Milton in any number of ways, if our concern as
>   teachers is to complicate our students' overfacile
>   orthodoxies while not directly attacking their
>   cherished beliefs, we can let Milton do this for us,
>   if we encourage careful and sensitive reading.
>    
>   Hannibal
>
>    
>   On Fri, Oct 2, 2009 at 6:57 PM, richard strier
>   <rastrier at uchicago.edu> wrote:
>
>     Hannibal.
>
>     I'm interested in this claim:  that Milton "will
>     inevitably challenge any orthodox
>     position of belief, however we teach him."  It's
>     hard for me to believe this,
>     especially the second half of the claim ("however
>     we teach him").  I guess I think
>     that can't be true.  Could you elaborate on what
>     you mean?
>
>     Thanks,
>     RS
>
>     ---- Original message ----
>     >Date: Fri, 2 Oct 2009 17:25:25 -0400
>     >From: Hannibal Hamlin <hamlin.hannibal at gmail.com>
>     >Subject: Re: [Milton-L] Herbert's poetry and
>     belief
>     >To: John Milton Discussion List
>     <milton-l at lists.richmond.edu>
>     >
>     >   This is indeed a more complex question, one
>     I've
>     >   thought about for many years in teaching a
>     Bible
>     >   course in an English Department. My
>     conclusion, not
>     >   easily arrived at, is that those of us who
>     teach
>     >   "The Bible as Literature" are kidding
>     ourselves if
>     >   we think we are not going to shake certain
>     kinds of
>     >   faith, since some do not believe the Bible is
>     >   literature -- that it isn't all historically
>     true or
>     >   inerrant, for instance, or that "God" and
>     "Jesus"
>     >   can be discussed as literary characters, or
>     that
>     >   much in the Gospels in fiction (Matthew's and
>     Luke's
>     >   childhood narratives can't both be true, for
>     >   instance, but that's missing the point --
>     each
>     >   serves its own purpose in the different
>     stories). I
>     >   also believe (!!) that to challenge a
>     position of
>     >   belief is not to destroy it, and I have
>     indeed had
>     >   some devout, even evangelical, students who
>     have
>     >   relished an open-minded discussion. And yet,
>     and
>     >   yet. There will inevitably be students whose
>     beliefs
>     >   are more seriously troubled, who go home and
>     have
>     >   difficult arguments with parents or pastors
>     (I've
>     >   heard this). I think we're copping out as
>     scholars
>     >   and teachers, though, if we shy away from
>     this.
>     >   Education is sometimes challenging, sometimes
>     even
>     >   scary, for the very good reason that giving
>     up our
>     >   comfortable received beliefs and opinions is
>     >   unsettling. So be it. Do our colleagues in
>     the
>     >   biological sciences worry that they are
>     intolerant
>     >   of their fundamentalist students who favor
>     >   Creationism or Intelligent Design over
>     Evolution? I
>     >   don't think so. But that's perhaps an oblique
>     >   analogy, since we are not engaged in
>     empirical
>     >   scientific study (though we might be if we
>     were
>     >   teaching biblical higher criticism).
>     >    
>     >   As for the question of how best to guide
>     students
>     >   through the process of open their minds to a
>     larger
>     >   world, I think we're lucky that we have
>     writers like
>     >   Milton to do that for us. I've found nothing
>     so
>     >   effective for expanding horizons in biblical
>     >   interpretation than teaching the history of
>     >   interpretation. Then it's not me against
>     them, but
>     >   rather all of us together looking at an
>     undeniable
>     >   fact -- the diverse range of responses to the
>     same
>     >   texts. So too with Milton, who will
>     inevitably
>     >   challenge any orthodox position of belief,
>     however
>     >   we teach him. Shifting to a more pedagogical
>     point,
>     >   I've usually found humor a very effective
>     tool, and
>     >   I often enjoy playing the heretic in a way
>     that
>     >   students seem aware is play (i.e., I am not
>     >   necessarily one or other brand of heretic
>     myself)
>     >   but which nevertheless raises the questions
>     that (as
>     >   Ohioans say) need raised.
>     >    
>     >   Hannibal 
>     >
>     >   On Fri, Oct 2, 2009 at 4:59 PM, Jason Kerr
>     >   <aelfric at gmail.com> wrote:
>     >
>     >       Well said. We call it a liberal
>     education
>     >       because it liberates us from our
>     particular
>     >       circumscribed experience so that we can
>     see the
>     >       world as others do.
>     >
>     >     I agree that this is, and should be, the
>     aim, but
>     >     it seems to me that the larger question
>     raised by
>     >     Prof. Thickstun's initial post is how to
>     guide
>     >     students with sensitivity through a
>     process that
>     >     can feel--as Samuel Smith rightly points
>     out--like
>     >     they're being told to doubt things that
>     they feel
>     >     deeply and fundamentally to be true. I'm a
>     >     Miltonist, and I believe with Milton that
>     belief
>     >     can be strengthened by being challenged,
>     but not
>     >     everyone feels this way. Sensitivity is
>     important
>     >     not so much for the sake of being PC or
>     >     touchy-feely, but because the challenge
>     won't work
>     >     if students feel threatened and decide to
>     turn
>     >     off.
>     >
>     >     Of course, sensitivity framed in this way
>     sounds
>     >     like political guile, which I suppose it
>     is, but
>     >     on the other hand there's the question of
>     just
>     >     what it is students expect to get for
>     their
>     >     tuition. For me, the point is not to breed
>     >     heretics in the truth by directing
>     students to
>     >     preconceived ideas, but to help situate
>     them such
>     >     that they are sufficiently exposed to
>     difference
>     >     that they can start sorting things out for
>     >     themselves. Simple reinforcement of what I
>     already
>     >     think to be true can be had for nothing
>     more than
>     >     the price of an internet connection or a
>     cable TV
>     >     subscription (not that these media
>     necessarily
>     >     work only to that end). Cheaper than
>     college, in
>     >     either case.
>     >
>     >     I suppose the issue here is the same as in
>     Of
>     >     Toleration: everyone should be tolerated,
>     except
>     >     the Catholics, because they reject the
>     system of
>     >     testing ideas that makes toleration
>     possible. If
>     >     my classroom needs a certain amount of
>     tolerance
>     >     to work, to what extent am I justified in
>     pushing
>     >     an ideological agenda of tolerance? I
>     realize that
>     >     I'm talking about a minority of cases
>     here, but
>     >     isn't respecting minority views one of the
>     tenets
>     >     of toleration?
>     >
>     >     Jason A. Kerr
>     >     --
>     >     The purpose of poetry is to remind us
>     >     how difficult it is to remain just one
>     person,
>     >     for our house is open, there are no keys
>     in the
>     >     doors,
>     >     and invisible guests come in and out at
>     will.
>     >
>     >               —Czeslaw Milosz, from
>     "Ars
>     >     Poetica?"
>     >    
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>     >
>     >   --
>     >   Hannibal Hamlin
>     >   Associate Professor of English
>     >   The Ohio State University
>     >   164 West 17th Ave., 421 Denney Hall
>     >   Columbus, OH 43210-1340
>     >   hamlin.22 at osu.edu/
>     >   hamlin.hannibal at gmail.com
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>   --
>   Hannibal Hamlin
>   Associate Professor of English
>   The Ohio State University
>   164 West 17th Ave., 421 Denney Hall
>   Columbus, OH 43210-1340
>   hamlin.22 at osu.edu/
>   hamlin.hannibal at gmail.com
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