[Milton-L] Eve's curls (reply to William Moeck)
lschwart at richmond.edu
Tue Sep 1 13:54:46 EDT 2009
The following was posted by Alan Horn in response to Beth Bradburn:
"M. is not approving automatic 'subjection,' but 'subjection' earned - earned by being 'required WITH GENTLE SWAY.'"
In the passage in question, Eve's subordination is justified by her natural inferiority ("not equal, as their sex not equal seemed"),which is backed up by reference to divine purpose (God made her for Adam). It is not freely given and Adam does not have to win it by being a good master. He is a good master, but that's not the grounds for his authority.
"If gentleness fails, the kind of subjection M. endorses is out of the question. M. does not give Adam carte blanche to fall back on ungentle 'sway'"
Where does it say any of this in the passage? Where is the "appropriate background evidence" to suggest that Milton or any writer of his period thought that men had no right to enforce the obedience of their female dependents "if gentleness failed"?
"'subjection' and tyranny are two quite different things."
That's right. Tyranny is illegitimate rule over another. For Milton patriarchy was natural and divinely ordered. Women's liberation was not on the agenda for seventeenth-century bourgeois revolutionaries like him.
I think that perhaps the strong feelings behind Allen's remarks have made him, in the above, inattentive to some important details and nuances. 1) Beth Bradburn did not say that Adam, according to the poem "had no right to enforce" Eve's obedience, only that he did not have "carte blanche" to do so. In other words, he cannot, according to the poem, exercise arbitrary authority. 2) Alan's comment also fails to note that the passage itself, in some of the lines he himself refers to, provides at least some of the "background evidence" he asks for. It does so, for example (according to Campbell, in the essay I mentioned in an earlier post), a few lines earlier in the description of "filial freedom" and "true authority." Campbell also suggests that the separation scene and the scene of Adam's fall offer together a pretty full gloss on what limits Adam's exercise of whatever authority he derives from the shape of his forehead and etc. (and this insight is supported by Jeffery Hodges' suggestion about the importance of Adam's more self-justifying rehearsal of what happened on the morning of the fall at 9.1171-4). According to Campbell's argument, "true authority" is expressed in the image of God that appears in both genders and in the filial freedom that all human individuals have been granted by that God. This image expresses both freedom and an obligation, and it's one that cannot be defaced legitimately by any human command. In fact, it works to delegitimize any human command that contradicts the higher dictates of the freedom it expresses.
This may not be enough to clear the poem entirely of the charge Alan has leveled at it (and of course he's not alone in doing that). The passage does, after all, go on to note inequalities (or perhaps it would be more exact to say that it notes characteristics or differences that it claims are or seem to be marks of inequality). And it also bases its sense of a hierarchy on its reading of those differences. But it also clearly roots Adam's "true authority" over Eve in his obligations to God, not in what makes him either different from Eve or seemingly superior to her when it comes to commanding. And this suggests, importantly, that some of these obligations will require him to defer not only to God, but to her as well. The key, for Campbell, is that Eve's argument on the morning of the fall itself constitutes or articulates a command, that this command is based on an authority higher than Adam's manly whatever, and that Adam himself must obey it. All of this suggests, in turn, that as far as the poem is concerned there are legitimate and illegitimate forms of authority (that would be the poem's way of distinguishing between what it calls "subjection," on the one hand, and "tyranny" -or what we would call oppression-on the other). It also suggests that masculinity is not an absolute guarantor of legitimate authority.
A poem that tells its story this way may not necessarily be a tract in favor of the liberation of women from patriarchy, but it is certainly one that has got something at little more complicated to say about gender hierarchy than simply that men have a natural "right to enforce the obedience of their female dependents."
In other words, Paradise Lost does fail to prosecute a full-blown critique, but it's also important that it's not a text that represents an Adam who had the right to coerce Eve in order to make her stay on the morning of the fall. It is entirely possible that in some other instance Adam would have been justified (in the poem's terms) in coercing Eve to follow his commands. It's hard to say because the poem never depicts such a situation, even as a matter of future speculation, but that doesn't mean it somehow disallows it as a possibility. On the other hand-and this may seem strange and a little unsettling to say-the poem does offer, in the separation scene and in its various passages about political tyranny, some very strong indications that Eve would have had the right to resist Adam by force if he had tried to make her stay by force on the day of the fall against her will. If his coercions got bad enough, she might have even had the right to kill him, although it's hard to imagine Adam behaving that tyrannically before the fall. That's at least a reading I'd like to float out there to see how it might fly.
I'm aware that this kind of reading is complicated, in turn, by things like the bald reinforcement of patriarchy that comes with the sentence the Son pronounces on Eve in Book 10. I suppose that the last part of any argument about these issues has to consider the status and the meaning of the Edenic state in the structure of the poem. If we're meant to emulate and restore it, one sense of the poem's purpose follows. If we are to see that state as irretrievably lost and replaced by a new regimen appropriate to the fallen state, then I suppose it's possible to argue that the curse places women under "absolute rule" and suggests that this is exactly how they should stay. Hard to see how that would line up with the political arguments about liberty on offer in the poem and elsewhere in Milton's work, but in the end it seems to me that the arguments these works offer on the issue of gender hierarchy are simply incomplete, and their conclusions are perhaps for that reason ambiguous.
In any case, I don't think that a text that saw patriarchy as unproblematically rooted in "natural" or "created" differences- as well as some fixed divine purpose-would have bothered to complicate Adam's authority in the ways that I think the passages in Books 4 and 9 do complicate it. And I agree with those who see the portrayal of gender hierarchy as to some extent fluid and unstable precisely because of what the poem presents as a more fundamental sameness in Adam and Eve: the filial freedom that they share and that is expressed in the image that shines in "their looks divine." I think it's also reasonable to say that this sameness is, for the poem, expressive of a higher divine purpose than the one expressed in the gender differences themselves (although they have their complicated purposes, too-and not all of those have to do with hierarchy).
Even if the portrayal fails to fully criticize and reject what it ought to see as oppressive, I don't think it simply offers, even in this incomplete and ambiguous form, an apology that seeks to make a bad thing look good. It does articulate important limitations by complicating any easy connection between physical differences, fixed hierarchies, and divine purposes, and it may even have, at least, some revolutionary implications. A fuller critique was clearly possible, and some were mounted in the period. It makes sense to compare the poem to those other texts, and it's reasonable to find it wanting. But I don't see what's gained by reducing what it does argue to apologetics.
Associate Professor of English
University of Richmond
Richmond, VA 23173
lschwart at richmond.edu
From: milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu [mailto:milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu] On Behalf Of alan horn
Sent: Sunday, August 30, 2009 2:23 PM
To: John Milton Discussion List
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] Eve's curls (reply to William Moeck)
"M. is not approving automatic 'subjection,' but 'subjection' earned -
earned by being
'required WITH GENTLE SWAY.'"
In the passage in question, Eve's subordination is justified by her
natural inferiority ("not equal, as their sex not equal seemed"),
which is backed up by reference to divine purpose (God made her for
Adam). It is not freely given and Adam does not have to win it by
being a good master. He is a good master, but that's not the grounds
for his authority.
"If gentleness fails, the kind of subjection M. endorses is out of the
question. M. does not give Adam carte blanche
to fall back on ungentle 'sway'"
Where does it say any of this in the passage? Where is the
"appropriate background evidence" to suggest that Milton or any writer
of his period thought that men had no right to enforce the obedience
of their female dependents "if gentleness failed"?
"'subjection' and tyranny are two quite different things."
That's right. Tyranny is illegitimate rule over another. For Milton
patriarchy was natural and divinely ordered. Women's liberation was
not on the agenda for seventeenth-century bourgeois revolutionaries
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