[Milton-L] Fish

Watt, James jwatt at butler.edu
Sun Aug 5 17:54:16 EDT 2012

Dear Harold:

I don't know you, obviously, but I have been following this thread with some interest. I was introduced to Stanley Fish's work (actually, I like Self-Consuming Artifacts better than Surprised By Sin or Is There a Text in This Class?) by O. B. Hardison, jr. at UNC-Chapel Hill when I took every class he offered, including a legendary (for those of us lucky enough to have been in it) Spenser Seminar. O.B. was a lot, I think, like Stanley; extraordinarily quick witted, very deeply familiar with a wide range of material (remember, his first book was on Medieval Drama, I think). He was also very widely liked because he listened so closely to his students and responded so clearly that anyone who had a half-baked idea when they came to him left with a detailed critique of it and very useful hints as to what direction to go with it.

These are, as I'm sure from your writing, very unusual gifts and make for the best kind of teacher/scholar. I was very disappointed when O.B. took the job as head of the Folger in Washington before I could convince him to direct my thesis. But he was still very generous with his time and made sure I got an excellent advisor.

O.B. was a very enthusiastic endorser of Stanley's work and I am sure was part of his circle when he taught at Duke, just down the road from Chapel Hill. We spent some time in our Milton Class on this 'fit audience, tho' few' few matter. As I recall it, O.B.'s position re: political and philosophical/theological requirements for admission to the group was similar to Jesus' response in Luke 15:33, "So therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple." In a word, O.B. believed, along with Stanley, that Milton was a poet prophet in the classical sense, that is that his rhetoric transcends doctrine and confronts the reader directly, depriving him of his old formulations and requiring a heartfelt and profoundly intelligent reading of the dramatic context he discovers himself in.

In my work on Blake I have encountered sorts of the condescending you suspect you find in Professor Richmond from experts in 18th Century contexts who wouldn't know Jerusalem from Jalapeno if they suddenly found themselves there. One of the points, surely, of P.L. as well as Blake's work is that they are perennially pertinent and immediately contemporary. Otherwise, why read them?

cheers, Jim Watt
(I taught at Butler University in Indianapolis from 1970 to 2010... and loved every minute!)
From: milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu [milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu] on behalf of Harold Skulsky [hskulsky at smith.edu]
Sent: Saturday, August 04, 2012 4:36 PM
To: John Milton Discussion List
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] Fish

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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