[Milton-L] Flaws

Watt, James jwatt at butler.edu
Wed Oct 23 18:21:32 EDT 2013


Friends:
Friends:

Hmmm.  I’m coming late to this thread, but it is interesting, I think, that the objection to J.M.’s ‘allegory of Sin & Death’ in Book II is, apparently, that it is risible –but not because J.M. is trying to be funny so much as because it violates philosophic (and theological) propriety (i.e. Sin is for free agents (and only for them) a negative quality, not quantity since its ontological status is that of a deliberately malicious choice. Of course the choice may be to act and any action involves consequences. But the consequences of sin, whatever they may be, are as irrelevant to its essence as whatever clothes the sinner may be wearing at the time of choice; hence it can’t be envisaged as an entity, no matter how Milton dresses it up. This being true, Sin and Death become fairly ridiculous hand-puppets and so make it hard for the reader to take them, or their temporary adversary, Satan, seriously.

O.K. So, if we simply delete or elide this episode on the grounds that it diminishes the high seriousness of the epic and constitutes a near fatal lapse of taste or aesthetic judgment on the poet’s part, something far more serious than ‘nodding,’ what do we have?

After 1446 lines (Book I = 798 + 648 lines of Book II) the reader arrives at Hell’s 3-fold [Brass, Iron & Rock] Gates. Skip ahead to line 877 and the Gates of a sudden spring open and Satan continues on to Earth where the Garden (and all of us) await. And, since the Gates are now open (and Hell itself open for business) the wonderful bridge that follows Satan’s track is simply a piece of the mysterious opening in the first place. No need for hand puppets Sin and Death to follow Satan since they only make sense, after all, in a place where there are agents who can sin, and, more importantly, die.

What have we lost? Nothing. Except something experienced by all of us: the sense that our choice of deliberate malice engenders in us something truly monstrous –and unending. Something very like that sinking sensation every reader has when Pandora opens the box. That what is unleashed is something no one can put back where it came from. Indeed, we can sit, if we like, under the Bo tree as long as we wish. But the problem ain’t under the Bo tree with us. It IS us –and the progeny of our sin.

In short, I wouldn’t take it out. Its one of those things you find in any work of art; it grates, it feels wrong, you think if you take it out, you’ll improve the thing. But you’re wrong; once you start untangling it, once you begin pulling the threads, it unravels --and you end up worse off than you were to begin with.

It's a poem, friends. An epic poem, yes –but still, a poem. It isn’t a recipe; it’s a poem.

“How many other things might be tolerated in peace and left to conscience, had we but charity, and were it not the chief stronghold of our hypocrisy to be ever judging one another.” Areop. [Hughes, p. 747]

I so love that J.M. includes himself by writing “our” hypocrisy. All of us. From Adam on. For some, though not for me, there is to come One greater. They’re blessed and I am glad on it.

I’m thinking of a quotation from Will Rogers I saw the other day at the vets. “If there are no dogs in Heaven, I want to go where they are,” says Will. Yeah. Amen.

Jim Watt


________________________________
From: milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu [milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu] on behalf of Richard A. Strier [rastrier at uchicago.edu]
Sent: Wednesday, October 23, 2013 3:36 PM
To: John Milton Discussion List
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] Flaws

Question: "if Milton is full of improprieties, why object to that one?  The others are just better domesticated by now?  We share Addison's taste for representational consistency?"

I don't think Milton is "full of improprieties."  That's why I mentioned audacity, and claimed (I think rightly) that this is a characteristic of the other great epics ("Homer" dares to give us two heroes in The Iliad, and it is not clear how we are to think about them. Is it the story of Achilles, as the first line announces, or Hector?  How can he begin and end where he does?  Vergil is equally daring.  Yes, I would distinguish between a nod and a misjudgment (which is why I added "or just a bad idea").  Yes, I, for one, do share "Addison's taste for representational consistency?"

Good that we agree that the tendency to see everything in a great work as equally great is silly, and mistaken.  This opens the way to real thinking, rather than using "finagler's constant" (as we called it at the Bx HS of Science) always to come up with the expected (and same) answer.

Question:  "Do you really have the courage of your evaluative convictions.  Do you believe the Sin and Death episode is so bad (represenationally unintegrated), that by the Johnsonian standard, you would "take it away"?  Would Paradise Lost be a better poem without that episode?"

My answer:  yes.

So shoot me.

RS
________________________________
From: milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu [milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu] on behalf of Gregory Machacek [Gregory.Machacek at marist.edu]
Sent: Wednesday, October 23, 2013 2:10 PM
To: John Milton Discussion List
Subject: [Milton-L] Flaws

Dear Professor Strier,

I understand why the allegory is improper.  I tried to telescope and telegraph that understanding through my concept of self-established narrative proprieties.  Representational would have been a better word.  An allegorical figure can't carry a key that opens a door that a historical-mimetic being can walk through.  I get that.

My question was, if Milton is full of improprieties, why object to that one?  The others are just better domesticated by now?  We share Addison's taste for representational consistency?

A "nod" as I understand it, is an inadvertent mistake:  Eumaios putting on a cloak after he said he gave Odysseus his last one.  Hard to believe Milton just slipped up and let the Sin-Death-Chaos allegories into the poem through a momentary inadvertence.  So, an artistic misjudgment on his part; an artistic flaw from our perspective.

I'm asking my questions maybe too flippantly and maybe too elliptically (that part because I'm in a hurry), but they're questions that I'm serious about.  In fact, I share what I believe is your impatience with the critical tendency to recuperate all flaws through interpretation, to never let a flaw just be a flaw, to not have standards for declaring artistic flaws flaws.  The version of that tendency with which I am authentically struggling right now has to do with the rhythmic analyses of Creaser and Attridge. In REP and PR: An Intro, Attridge never adduces a line that he will flatly call unmetrical; the most any do is "push to the extreme limits of metricality."  The same for Creaser; the lines that violate every metrical "rule" turn out to do so for expressive purposes.  Could the mature Milton write a poor line of blank verse?  It seems not, since one can always find an expressive purpose served by the seeming flaw.

But I also want to see if you really have the courage of your evaluative convictions.  Do you believe the Sin and Death episode is so bad (represenationally unintegrated), that by the Johnsonian standard, you would "take it away"?  Would Paradise Lost be a better poem without that episode?

More to say, but gotta dash.

Greg Machacek
Professor of English
Marist College


-----milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu wrote: -----
To: John Milton Discussion List <milton-l at lists.richmond.edu>
From: "Richard A. Strier"
Sent by: milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu
Date: 10/23/2013 12:06PM
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] Sin and other Improprieties

Well, the point, such as it is, has to do with the shift in representational mode, from the historical-mimetic to personification allegory.  I can see the attraction of Sin from Satan's head -- a brilliant adaptation of a classical motif -- but still think it a mistake, since sin is not an entity but a quality of actions/thoughts, etc.  I find Chaos as a character unbelievably tedious and silly, and think, like Johnson, that it's one of Milton's unfortunate and elephantine attempts at humor.  And Death, of course, needs to be internal to nature, not a separate entity (the presentation of sickness, etc in XI-XII does better with this).

All epic poems are audacious; Milton nor more so than Homer or Vergil; but M is, of course, as Johnson said, up there with them.  But not at all moments.  And as the good Dr. said about Shakespeare (about whom he also had some doubts), when he needs to be great he is.  But surely we need to recognize when Milton (or Homer) nods (or just gets a bad idea).

RS
________________________________
From: milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu [milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu] on behalf of Gregory Machacek [Gregory.Machacek at marist.edu]
Sent: Wednesday, October 23, 2013 7:47 AM
To: John Milton Discussion List
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] Sin and other Improprieties

Well, if forced to stick to a point, I guess I would argue as follows: if one grants that Milton's poem is massively or radically Improper, then to object to one of its improprieties is to strain at a gnat while one swallows a camel.

I don't know whether your "clever and charming" does grant me my larger point, but if so, then the allegory represents Milton disappropriating even from himself, from the narrative proprieties that he establishes and observes elsewhere in the poem.  Seems, somehow, proper.

But I can also be content to be clever, charming and impertinent.

Greg Machacek
Professor of English
Marist College


-----milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu wrote: -----
To: John Milton Discussion List <milton-l at lists.richmond.edu>
From: "Richard A. Strier"
Sent by: milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu
Date: 10/23/2013 12:55AM
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] Sin and other Improprieties

That is all very clever and charming, but I don't see that it's to the point.

RS

From: milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu [milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu] on behalf of JD Fleming [jfleming at sfu.ca]
Sent: Tuesday, October 22, 2013 10:29 PM
To: John Milton Discussion List
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] Sin and other Improprieties

*like*

________________________________
From: "Gregory Machacek" <Gregory.Machacek at marist.edu>
To: "John Milton Discussion List" <milton-l at lists.richmond.edu>
Sent: Tuesday, 22 October, 2013 20:08:06
Subject: [Milton-L] Sin and other Improprieties

But, as Johnson asked of another impropriety, "who would take [it] away?"  Indeed, we must be thankful most for Milton's improprieties, for an Impropriety so astounding it perhaps merits allegorical status.  The poem itself is a massive impropriety, wars hitherto the only argument heroic deemed.  Once one starts down the path, one finds it hard to think of a single impropriety Milton omits to perpetrate.  He refuses to rhyme.  To stay within the lines.  Eschews a national subject.  Doesn't give us a clear hero.  His giant foils his knight.  Or himself emerges as a candidate for hero.  Or as more appealing than the poem's God.  One sometimes wishes Milton had done at least one thing properly, just so one could get one's bearings.



Greg Machacek
Professor of English
Marist College


-----milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu wrote: -----
To: John Milton Discussion List <milton-l at lists.richmond.edu>
From: "Richard A. Strier"
Sent by: milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu
Date: 10/22/2013 08:01PM
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] Sin

I'm afraid I agree with Addison on the impropriety of the allegory.

RS
________________________________
From: milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu [milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu] on behalf of Kevin Donovan [Kevin.Donovan at mtsu.edu]
Sent: Tuesday, October 22, 2013 9:45 AM
To: John Milton Discussion List
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] Sin

And a fine paper it was, Diana! I’ll be drawing on it in my teaching this week.

Kevin J. Donovan
Professor of English
Middle Tennessee State University
MTSU Box 70
Murfreesboro, TN 37132
Phone: 615-898-5898
Fax: 615-494-8744

From: milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu [mailto:milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu] On Behalf Of Diana
Sent: Tuesday, October 22, 2013 9:34 AM
To: milton-l at lists.richmond.edu
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] Sin

I recommend an excellent article by Andrew Escobedo: "Allegorical Agency and the Sin of Angels" (ELH 75 (2008).  I just presented an article at Murfreesboro that had a section of Sin, but it's not "out" anywhere yet.
Diana T Benet
-----Original Message-----
From: Arlene Stiebel <amstiebel at verizon.net<mailto:amstiebel at verizon.net>>
To: John Milton Discussion List <milton-l at lists.richmond.edu<mailto:milton-l at lists.richmond.edu>>
Sent: Fri, Oct 4, 2013 12:37 pm
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] Sin
I'd recommend CS Lewis: A Preface to Paradise Lost as an essential resource.

-- Arlene


On Oct 4, 2013, at 9:15 AM, Brendan Prawdzik <brendanprawdzik at gmail.com<mailto:brendanprawdzik at gmail.com>> wrote:


Hi Hannibal and all,

I'm much interested in the way that Sin emerges, almost like a cancer, from the head of Satan ("in sight of all the Seraphim").  (We see something like the raising of Pandemonium.) The description of his semi- or unconscious state is peculiar and suggestive.  Sin as product of passivity, of non-agency.  This idea seems related to her status as rigid allegory (and is of course associated with rigidly anti-feminist exegesis, representing in her serpentine, grotesque features not only Spenser's Errour but also the woman-snake tempter who appears in some Fall dramas and paintings).  As rigid allegory she is self-referential, not a product of active choice and deliberation, but of an entropic agency in relation to prepackaged, inflexible "truths" or abstractions.  What is "sin" in Paradise Lost?  This idea of fixed self-referentiality recalls Satan's narcissistic love for her as a product of his own mind (that leapt out sans his control).  She is the divesture of authority masked as ultimate authority.  She is complicated!  (Your student should certainly look at Victoria Kahn's essay on allegory and the sublime in Paradise Lost.)

Regards,

Brendan

On Fri, Oct 4, 2013 at 10:41 AM, Hannibal Hamlin <hamlin.hannibal at gmail.com<mailto:hamlin.hannibal at gmail.com>> wrote:
Friends and colleagues,

I realize this is a bit of a cheat (I do have ideas of my own), but I'm curious to know what you all think might be the essential reading on Milton's allegorical Sin in PL. I have a senior undergrad interested in writing a thesis on the topic. We had a discussion of Sin on the list not too long ago, so many of you may have ideas fresh in mind.

Yours gratefully,

Hannibal



--
Hannibal Hamlin
Associate Professor of English
Author of The Bible in Shakespeare, now available through all good bookshops, or direct from Oxford University Press at http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/product/9780199677610.do
Editor, Reformation
The Ohio State University
164 West 17th Ave., 421 Denney Hall
Columbus, OH 43210-1340
hamlin.22 at osu.edu/<http://hamlin.22@osu.edu/>
hamlin.hannibal at gmail.com<mailto:hamlin.hannibal at gmail.com>

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--
James Dougal Fleming
Associate Professor
Department of English
Simon Fraser University
778-782-4713

"Upstairs was a room for travelers. ‘You know, I shall take it for the rest of my life,’ Vasili Ivanovich is reported to have said as soon as he had entered it."
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