[Milton-L] Sin, Death, and other improprieties

James Rovira jamesrovira at gmail.com
Tue Oct 29 21:19:41 EDT 2013


Just for the sake of clarity -- on my end, I wasn't arguing that the
practice of mixing mimetic narrative conventions with allegorical was
itself problematic, just that the practice yielded problems for the reader
in the form of tensions between consistently allegorical and consistently
mimetic readings in the Sin and Death episode of Bk 2 of PL. My criticism
of the Sin and Death episode wasn't that it should be cut, but that it
could have been improved if the mimetic was more fully in the service of
the allegorical. I don't think that Richard Strier's suggestion that the
episode be cut needs to be treated in jest -- it could be treated as a
serious analytical exercise if it takes the form of a thought experiment,
or it could be treated as a serious aesthetic exercise if it yielded a
different version of the poem which could then be compared to the original.

As a result, observing that mixing these modes was regular practice in the
Early Modern period is besides the point: I wasn't being critical of the
practice itself, just questioning how effective it was in Milton's case in
the Sin and Death episode of Bk 2. Observing that readers contemporary to
Milton wouldn't see the problems that I see is besides the point too, as it
doesn't tell me why I'm not allowed to see these problems. These are all
varieties of intentional arguments that seem a bit naive 70 or 80 years or
so after the inauguration of the New Criticism and 40 years after Barthes's
death of the author, and I don't think it is standard in professional
Milton criticism to limit legitimate readings of PL to Milton's probable
intent or to the reading practices of his original audience. Even if we
did, it could be that they could be made to see these problems if we were
to describe them. Imagining how they would respond is just a further
thought experiment.

One response to my actual claims (by Louis Schwartz) took the form of
asserting that the tensions or lapses themselves were intentional, serving
a purpose later in the narrative (perhaps a Fishian move on his part?),
which may indeed be true, but still doesn't tell us how effective this
strategy is while reading. The fact that an effect is intentional does not
mean that it is effective, unless we are engaged in author worship and
believe that the author can do no wrong. Another response was a further
elaboration of the allegory (Alan Horn conveniently reposted some of Harold
Skulsky's previous discussion), which asserted that the point is to
describe what happens when one seeks release from the prison of one's own
hell by the sin itself, the result being the exchange of physical torment
for worse psychological torment.

This was a very intelligent reading, but I feel it isn't supported by the
facts of the text, as Satan did suffer psychological torment upon first
seeing the sun, but it's not clear that this torment is greater than what
he suffered in Hell, and in fact it seems clear that living on Earth was a
form of relief for him and his demons rather than further suffering, as
once Adam and Eve fell the demons chose to live on Earth. I think this
observation is particularly validated by Satan's softness and weakness in
Paradise Regained, which indicates a softness that results from comfort
rather than torment. It may also indicate that God's condemning Satan to
suffering ennobled him -- the Satan of Paradise Lost is more admirable than
the Satan of Paradise Regained in my opinion.

Anyway, that's the recap of the discussion from my point of view, and I'd
like to re-emphasize that my initial post in this thread also included a
list of the pleasures I derived from the Sin and Death episode. And, that
the discussion as usual leaves me again with more appreciation of Milton's
text than it did before, so was worth it on my end, at least. Thanks again
to all.

Jim R

On Tue, Oct 29, 2013 at 8:54 AM, Dario Rivarossa
<dario.rivarossa at gmail.com>wrote:

> Having been off home in these past few days, I found a synthesis of
> the M-L discussion about Sin and Death in Prof. H. Jeffery Hodges'
> blog. Here's the brief remarks I posted there:
> Your reconstruction of Milton's psychological process is vivid and
> witty, but I can't get the point of Machaceck's problem. Renaissance
> poems were full of allegorical figures. Milton, besides, had a big
> classical culture, so he could easily remember Virgil's description of
> the entrance of 'hell' in Aeneid 6.273-281, where a lot of allegorical
> monsters were set, the first two of which being basically Death and
> Sin (i.e. Grief and Remorse, v. 274). Then Milton reinterpreted this
> in the light of James and Paul ("per peccatum mors," "through / out of
> Sin, Death did come"), of course.
> >Hodges: The problem lay in having real characters in a historical
> narrative interacting with unreal allegorical characters in a purely
> symbolic fable.
> But precisely this was normal in Renaissance poetry and drama -- as
> well as in Medieval plays before. See e.g. the whole episode of
> Alcina's island in "Orlando Furioso," that shows a sort of hell on
> earth (in fact, Tasso will draw on this when describing the actual
> hell).
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Dr. James Rovira
Associate Professor of English
Tiffin University
Blake and Kierkegaard: Creation and Anxiety
Continuum 2010
Text, Identity, Subjectivity
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