[Milton-L] Fish

Harold Skulsky hskulsky at smith.edu
Sun Aug 5 16:14:50 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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