[Milton-L] Re: orthodoxy

Carrol Cox cbcox at ilstu.edu
Sat Jan 23 23:56:17 EST 2010

Marlene Edelstein wrote:
> A brilliant suggestion, Dario, and, as you say, extremely fruitfull. It's often crossed my mind too that how a poet lives in those that come after him (or, indeed, her) is much more essential to their value than what they had read and thought they were doing - that's not the stuff of greatness. Why else should we love Milton rather than Blackmore? (And, as Touchstone says, the truest poetry is the most feigning - so what price orthodoxy?)

"The anatomy of man is a clue to the anatomy of the ape."
	Karl Marx,_Grundrisse_

The  implication is that the opposite, that the "anatomy of the ape is a
clue to the anatomy of man" (which is the major assumption of
historicism) does not hold. (Marx's statement is pre-Darwinian, but the
Stephen J. Gould and others have argued that were the tape of evolution
to be played over again,the results would probably be quite different.
That is, there would have been _many_ possible futures in the ape, and a
study of ape anatomy would give no knowledtge of how those potentials
might develop.) Berteel Ollman has developed this under the phrase,
"Reading History Backwards," and it is also reflected in the phrase "The
present as historyD": that is, to understand the present one must look
_back_ on it from a hypothetical future point.

I suggest looking backward on crucial aspects of Paradise Lost from two
subsequent sentences (which can stand for the whole development of
modern history): The first sentence of _Pride and Prejudice_ and
Margaret Thatcher's "Society does not exist; only individuals and
families exist." Several crticis have noted that Milton conceives of
society as a collection of independent individuals -- a really radical
perspective in the 17th-c and earlier (though of course one can find
premonitions of it at least as far back as the _Republic_.) Consider in
this light all the several marraige of Adam & Eve: that is, one can,
only half facetiously, summarize the poem as boy gets girl (recounted in
Books 4 & 8), boy loses girl (the parting in the garden in Book 9), boy
gets girl a second time (their lustful post-lapsarian sex; boy loses
girl (they blame each other, Book 10), boy gets girl again (their
reconciliation), boy loses her again (she sleeps while Michael shows the
future to Adam), and at the end boy and girl get each other for one last
time in the lines that so outraged Benley. (I think I have left out a
couple of such partings/unitings, but these will do.)  That is, the poem
viewed this way and in the light of Margaret Thatcher's claim, is the
repeated story of how two "abstract," autonomous individuals, coming as
it were from nowhere (existing prior to and independently of any social
relations) continually strive to form a society where none existed
before. Milton preages, for example, the premises of neoclassical
And a major literary feature of Paradise Lost is also best seen by
looking back on it from the perspective of later literature. One of the
most endlessly debated features of the poem are those sentences
("signpost sentences" Malcolm Ross called them) in which Milton
instructs the reader how to look at an image or a narrative event. Fish
more or less cosntructs Surprised by Sin around that 'clash.' That is,
the poem contiually forces the reader to make a free decision as to
whether or not to accept the judgment of the narrator on his narrative
events. (I don't think this _ever_ happpens in the Iliad or Dante's
Comedy or Ovid's Metamorphoses.) But that of course is what Austen
immediately imposes on the reader in that famous first sentence. Note
that the main clause, "It is a truth universally acknowledged," is about
the _reader_, if we assume that when Austen uses a word (universally)
she _means_ that word. Hence the reader must immediately decide whether
he/she agres. that is, whether it is true that everyone in all times
acknowledges the truth of what follows. We have a sort of double plot:
one internal and the other external. In both two persons, coming as it
were from nowhere (as is the case, incidentally, with Milton's narrator
at least from Lycidas on), "abstract" in the sense of _full of ptential
not visible unti looked back on from the end), form (or fail to form) a
'new society' where none existed before. The internal one is of curse
that of Darcy and Elizabeth, the external one that between implied
narrator and implied reader, both abstract in this same sense of
invisible potential. (Just as the potential of the ape was invisible
until the appearance of thehuman.) (It has been awhile since I read
Clarissa, but if I recall correctly, very early in the narrative
Richardson introuces a minor character who plays very little role in the
remainder of the novel but who expresses the reader's impatience with
Clarissa's obedience to stupid control. That confrontthe reader to the
same sort of compulsory free choice that confronts the readers of PL &
P&P -- and I t hink with almost the whole tradition of the modern novel.

Had not the increasingly atomized social relations of the followign
centuries and the literature reflecting that atomization developed, no
reader would be apt to identify this feature of the poem, any more than
a hypothetical space traveller arriving on earth 15 million years ago
would have noted in primates the potential for t he human anatomy.


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