[Milton-L] Fish

Harold Skulsky hskulsky at smith.edu
Sat Aug 4 16:36:35 EDT 2012


Hugh Richmond writes:
"I greatly admire his critical intelligence, dynamism, and high
professional impact. Though I do not always agree with his ideas, I do not
consider them other than well-intentioned and they have certainly greatly
invigorated Milton criticism, perhaps because they transcend possible
origins."

The style of this purported tribute is conciliatory. But if I read it
aright, the tribute is a polite but devastating exercise in damning with
faint praise, nimble and oblique enough to guarantee the author a measure
of deniability with Professor Fish's legion of admirers.

As Professor Richmond seems to have argued in his original posting,
Professor Fish's book "naively" takes for granted a target audience
that Milton would clearly have regarded as unqualified, since its members
would have had to lack even a nodding acquaintance with uncontroversial
truisms of Christian theology and ethics, and hence would have been capable
of responding only sophomorically to Satan's fallacious *apologia pro vita
sua* and the Miltonic irony that penetrates and surrounds it.

Acquaintance with those truisms is a fundamental requirement for membership
of the "fit audience though few." Given this requirement, the axioms are
the context of Milton's act of communication, and, as Professor Richmond
says, again in the earlier posting, meaning varies with context. As usual,
naiveté of this kind cooks the book.

The sophisticated exegetical methods by which Fish succeeds in forcing the
text to do his bidding can hardly be expected to redeem the forcing in
Professor Richmond's eyes. Surely the sophistication compounds the forcing.
Sophistication and sophistic in such cases are identical twins. Likewise,
it hardly discourages an ironic reading of Professor Richard's encomium
that (by his own eye witness report) this particular forcing was originally
designed to manufacture a catharsis powerful enough to boost the dwindling
enrollment of an undergraduate course.
.
In his later posting Professor Richmond suggests that what on his account
is meretricious through and through is, at one and the same time, an
authentic example of "critical intelligence" and "dynamism" at
work--"intelligence" and "dynamism" that account for Professor Fish's "high
professional impact."

Once again, meaning is a function of context. The context provided by
Professor Richmond's postings strongly supports a thinly veiled insinuation
that, thanks to his "intelligence," Fish was well aware of what he was
doing, Whether Fish's awareness of what he was doing is consistent with the
claim that what Fish was doing was "well intentioned" I will leave to
others to decide. I will also leave to others a decision on whether, in
Professor Richmond's considered judgment, Fish's approach to the
"invigoration" of Milton criticism is altogether to the credit of the
criticism in question.

I began with the disclaimer that, despite my belief that my interpetation
of Professor Richmond's posting is right, it may not be. It is a fact that
verges on tautology that certainty, be it ever so meticulously
grounded, does not shield one from error. If in fact I am in error, I
regret this deeply, all the  more so as there is not a word, of what I
suppose Professor Richmond to have meant to convey, with which I disagree.
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