[Milton-L] Eve's curls (reply to William Moeck)

Schwartz, Louis lschwart at richmond.edu
Fri Sep 4 12:22:56 EDT 2009


That does clarify things for me, and I'm sorry that I jumped to the conclusion about "leveling charges."

I also think you're entirely right that many of the actual practices that followed from the ideology of male supremacy in the period were far worse than the mythic portrayal we get of a flexible hierarchy in the garden.  I do think, however, that despite the seemingly unquestioned authority that the poem seems to lend to male supremacy at 10.193-96, much of what I tried to bring to our attention about the other passages would have to continue to trouble the practice of male authority after the fall.  

How far Milton would have gone in the direction of what Mary Astell famously called crying up "Liberty to poor female slaves, or.the lawfulness of Resisting a Private Tyranny" is hard to say.  I would guess that if he had been asked directly, he'd have answered that he had no such notion in mind at all.  As I've argued elsewhere, Milton does not seem to have thought in terms of women's oppression, even if he did have a pained sense of the problems that arose from women's suffering.  

However, the fact that the passages I've pointed to suggest that the limitations on Adam's authority would have had to follow into the fallen state is interesting and important.  I think the least we can say is that the text makes an incomplete argument for the destabilizing of male supremacy, implying ideas that the text never sees through to their logical conclusions without some contradiction.  And again, I'm not sure that this is the same thing as defending an oppressive institution by depicting it as harmonious and humane.  There's an apprehension here, rooted in a set of theological commitments, of a disharmony in the foundations of that institution, something that does not quite add up. 

As far as the issue of challenges to male supremacy in the period is concerned, it's a vexed and complicated issue.  At this point at least I'm more or less convinced by the position that several forces were at work in the 17th century that in some complex way worked together toward setting up the cultural conditions for the emergence of the serious challenges that were to come.  Economics were obviously important, but the social and intellectual responses and consequences were varied.  Margie is right, for example, that some of the most important challenges emerged within the more radical religious sects.  Patricia Crawford and other historians have made a pretty good case for the idea that these sects were important testing-grounds for new conceptions of female identity and etc., and that these "experiments," if you will, left an important legacy to the 18th century and beyond.  


Louis Schwartz
Associate Professor of English
University of Richmond
Richmond, VA  23173
(804) 289-8315
lschwart at richmond.edu

-----Original Message-----
From: milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu [mailto:milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu] On Behalf Of alan horn
Sent: Thursday, September 03, 2009 4:38 PM
To: John Milton Discussion List
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] Eve's curls (reply to William Moeck)

I appreciate the contributions of Louis Schwartz and David Ainsworth
to this thread. I'm sorry that my own earlier remarks have been
understood as denying the points they make so well.

Nor did I entirely disagree with Beth Bradburn's original post. I only
wanted to question the implication that Milton's emphasis on the
gentleness of Adam's exercise of authority over Eve was some kind of
(anachronistic) proto-feminist gesture. In fact, the effect of this
idealized portrayal of patriarchal relations is not to qualify the
poem's defense of them, but to reinforce it. The most common way to
defend an oppressive institution is to depict it as harmonious and
humane, at least in theory or in the mythical past.

Schwartz and Ainsworth go some distance toward showing the subtlety
and depth with which Milton accomplishes this, as well as the many
ways this effort not incidentally intersects the poem's larger
political and religious concerns. As Ainsworth writes:

"Eve's display of her own free spirit looks parallel to me to Adam's
earlier display; the freedom Adam grants her demonstrates the justice
of his authority, exercised in the image of God the Father.  Later
human tyrants depart from this model; if husbands rule wives
tyrannically, it is in consequence of their fallen states, not of the
prelapsarian patriarchy."

I take "their" in "their fallen states," I hope correctly, to refer to
the wives as well as the husbands. It is the fallen nature of humanity
as a whole, not merely of the tyrants personally, that makes the rule
of the latter necessary ("though to the tyrant thereby no excuse").
Likewise, presumably, postlapsarian women deserve their not-so-gentle
subjection. And so, as I wrote earlier in this thread, "if women's
oppression as actually practiced seems less humane than the mythical
ideal [Milton] depicts, the institution itself is not to blame."

In a couple of asides above I noted that the reality of the
patriarchal family is not as nice as the poem's ideal portrayal of it.
Jeffery Hodges and Louis Schwartz seem to think I was referring to the
latter and adduce evidence from the poem to refute my point. I hope
I've been able to clear up this confusion.

"Paradise Lost" is obviously a great deal more than an apology for
patriarchy, but that is a part of what it is, and what it is in
addition to that does not make it any less of one. In pointing that
out, I was not, as several people have thought, "leveling charges"
against the poem or passing "moral judgments" on it. I would consider
it absurd and ahistorical to do so.

Alan Horn

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