[Milton-L] on not imagining in paradise lost

Carol Barton, Ph.D., CPCM cbartonphd1 at verizon.net
Fri Apr 4 15:50:54 EDT 2014


With one (cheeky) exception, Greg: it was the one that was FORBIDDEN!

(I do hope it wasn't a McIntosh, though. Those are my favorites, hands down.)

Best to all,

Carol Barton


From: Gregory Machacek 
Sent: Wednesday, April 02, 2014 8:18 PM
To: John Milton Discussion List 
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] on not imagining in paradise lost


I'm trying to make sense of the fact that this poem is so coy about identifying the variety of fruit that was the Forbidden Fruit.


I take the following as the relevant background to his treatment of the fruit.  Milton is writing in a time when 1) there was controversy over the matter, various commentators proposing figs, pomegranates and other contenders and 2) the common opinion was that it was an apple (genus malus, what we today call an apple: Macintosh, Empire, Red Delicious; also crabapples, I guess).


John Leonard will say, the poem isn't coy at all; Satan twice names the fruit as an apple.


But we know that apple had two seemingly equally current and well-established meanings in Milton's day.  The OED gives as a second definition "any of various fruits that resemble an apple" and gives 17c instances of pomegranates, palm trees and oaks all as producing "apples" in this sense.


So, in Milton's day, "apple" could mean, essentially, "fruit."


I think the first of Satan's uses of the word must mean this, and the second can.  If the forbidden fruit was known to Eve as an apple, she would not have had to wait until Satan brought her to the tree to say, "Oh we can't eat from this one" (9.647).  As soon as he'd told her that he'd tasted "those fair apples" (9.585), she could right then have said "Oh we can't eat apples."  She must take "apple" at 585 as meaning just "fruit."  And all that the boast in 10.487 requires is the meaning "some minor thing," "a mere piece of fruit," not genus malus specifically.


That would leave us nowhere in identifying the variety of fruit that is the forbidden fruit.  (Which, I'm arguing, is where we should stay.)


But, the two Satanic uses do introduce the word "apple" into the poem, and it's hard therefore for our minds to prevent the "genus malus" meaning from entering, not least because it's the common opinion, and therefore to begin to raise the question of what is the variety of this fruit.


But I think Milton's consistency elsewhere in the poem in only calling it a "fruit," signals that he wants to avoid the interpretive controversy of his day over the variety of the fruit.  And his assigning the only two uses of "apple" to Satan constitutes a temptation to the reader to begin to try to identify or speculate or argue about its variety.  I think Milton thinks the controversy of his day is a fruitless controversy; I think he would say we know everything we need to know about the fruit when we know that it is forbidden.  Look how much of a mess A&E get themselves into by trying to interpret the tree's name rather than just know what God has told them to know about it.  We are to see the possibility of speculating on the genus of the fruit, and decline to pursue that line of speculation (like Adam with the controversy over the motion of celestial bodies).


Now this might seem a Fishian argument:  the poem gives us readerly equivalents to the moral choices depicted in the poem.  But I take courage from noting that Patrick Hume's second annotation for PL is for the phrase "Fruit of that forbidden tree" and he says the following: "it imports not much to know, nor can it be determined, what kind this Interdicted Tree was of, the Prohibition having no regard to, or influence on, its Fruit, more than that it was made the Trial of man's entire Obedience to his Maker."  That last bit is what I've been arguing we must discipline ourselves to have be the only thing we think about the fruit in this poem.  It's hard to tell if Hume is saying what he is about the "real life" forbidden fruit, or the one in Milton's poem, but I will note that, relative to 9.585, he repeats "Tis difficult to divine what Tree the forbidden one was"; he must be taking "apple" here in the broader definition. 


An early reader thought we ought not be spending our time with such questions, and seems to have thought that Milton thought that as well.


In sum, I don't think refusing to consider the genus of the fruit is tendentious, or if it is, its a kind of tendentiousness that Milton's God, and Milton, want us to exercise.


I decline to speculate on what the fruit was.  It doesn't matter.

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: "Salwa Khoddam" 
Sent by: milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu
Date: 04/02/2014 05:20PM
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] on not imagining in paradise lost


"but that Milton believed we should exercise the mental discipline to know about it that it variety is irrelevant.  Does the poem call on us steadily to say to ourselves "though I am curious as to the variety of this fruit, I will fight that curiosity and remember that the only thing important about it is its being forbidden". 

 One could also see "mental discipline" in reading literature as an "intellectual askesis," as as emptying of one's self from a tendentious argument and opening up to the text, including images and symbols, that excite our imagination, and let them speak to us freely before we render our conclusions. 
Then we can be ready to absorb the "intention" of the author, assuming we can. It would be bad poetry, if the poet asked us to do any restraining of our curiosity or imagination ,  in the first stage of interpretation. I believe that reading a poem begins with the text, moves into research, ponderings, and deliberations, and returns to the text for validation. I don't think it matters whether the fruit is an apple, peach, or banana, I agree, but it matters that a poet would be asking his readers to restrict their imagination in the first stages of the interpretation in order to get his theological doctrine across. A reader would get his doctrine without the restriction of the imagination to wander in pleasure and appreciation of colors, smells, and beautiful shapes. (A platan is nicer than a fig tree and gives more shade). To use Renaissance faculty psychology, the sensual experiences are relayed to the imagination, and then to understanding (higher reason) and will. Before the will interferes to act to restrain (the last stage of intepretation) there must be something in the imagination to be acted upon. Restrain the imagination early in the process and the will delivers abstract doctrines. Those who studied the apple/peach as a symbol, conclude that it doesn't matter what it is, but only at the end of an enriching  process of interpretation. What a loss to the richness of Milton's poem (linguistic, cultural, etymological) and to the pleasure of interpretation itself if curiosity about the fruit is enforced.
I hope I'm making some sense. If not, let me know.
Best,
Salwa




Salwa Khoddam PhD



Professor of English Emerita
Oklahoma City University
Author of *Mythopoeic Narnia:
Memory, Metaphor, and Metamorphoses 
in The Chronicles of Narnia*
skhoddam at cox.net
  ----- Original Message ----- 
  From: Gregory Machacek 
  To: John Milton Discussion List 
  Sent: Wednesday, April 02, 2014 9:18 AM
  Subject: [Milton-L] on not imagining in paradise lost


  Yes, Jim, I feel that that is in accord with what I am asking/proposing.  Except that I think I going this degree further:  Not Milton "believed the type of fruit was either unknown [or] irrelevant," but that Milton believed we should exercise the mental discipline to know about it that it variety is irrelevant.  Does the poem call on us steadily to say to ourselves "though I am curious as to the variety of this fruit, I will fight that curiosity and remember that the only thing important about it is its being forbidden".  If that kind of determined and sustained anti-curiosity is a mode of ambiguity (I'll have to go reread Empson), then yes, ambiguity.  But I'm thinking something that depends on "registering ambiguity to get Milton's point," but goes beyond that.



  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: James Rovira 
  Sent by: milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu
  Date: 04/02/2014 10:04AM
  Subject: Re: [Milton-L] oops, "proud" not "vain"


  It could be that Milton deliberately used a less than precise term to describe the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil because he himself believed the type of fruit was either unknown, irrelevant, or both. In this case, the ambiguity is the point, and registering ambiguity is to get Milton's point.  


  Saying that the nature or type of the fruit is irrelevant existentializes the act of eating rather than attributes some kind of magical property to the fruit itself, which I think is more consistent with Milton's presentation of and emphasis upon character. Satan's physical appearance certainly isn't trustworthy, and where he goes is hell, as he himself is hell, regardless of his physical nature.


  Jim R 



  On Wed, Apr 2, 2014 at 9:48 AM, Gregory Machacek <Gregory.Machacek at marist.edu> wrote:

    (I'm prepping the Limbo of Vanities for class and got a wire crossed.  Here's the correct version of my reply to Salwa)


    Salwa, you claim that "we have to imagine it as readers before we can picture the action involved with it" and in the next breath tell us that the poem prevents us from being able to imagine it to the degree we "have to" do: "the 'apple' was a generic term for a group of fruits," and therefore could be a peach.  If the most precise term Milton gives us for imagining the variety of what he elsewhere calls just a "fruit" is itself a category word, how do we then do this imagining that we "have to" do?


    And do we have to do it?  Must "poems as poems" prioritize imagination in this way?  I know that presupposition is plausible and deeply ingrained in us.  But might a given poem challenge us to adopt the "rational viewpoint of God" over the imagination that other poems (and even it itself) do routinely expect us to exercise?  Particularly a poem that explicitly states that fancy serves "reason as chief," a poem that links "imagination" with "aery things," not to mention "proud" Satanic ambitions (2.10).


    The only "actions involved with"  the fruit that I can remember being called on to imagine are plucking and eating (and avoiding), I can picture those actions relative to a generic "fruit" as easily as to a generic "apple."  (The rapidity of 9.781, "she pluckt, she eat" does seem to me to rule out fruits that would need to be peeled, but still rules in many other kinds of fruit.)


    That is all to say, might the poem be calling on us to check our natural desire to know what variety of fruit this is and instead regard it as (as God calls it) a fruit, and "know to know no more"?  All in service of sustaining the view/resolution that theonly important thing about it is that it has been forbidden.


    These may sound like rhetorical questions, but I'm in fact genuinely asking them, because, while I do believe what I say about the fruit, I've never realized what a profound ramification that has for the operation of our imaginations in reading this poem.  So I'd like the list members' help in working these thoughts out, even if it means that we're back to one of those questions that, as John Leonard pointed out, refuse to stay settled and periodically re-emerge on this list.





    Greg Machacek
    Professor of English
    Marist College

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  -- 

  Dr. James Rovira 
  Associate Professor of English
  Tiffin University
  http://www.jamesrovira.com
  Blake and Kierkegaard: Creation and Anxiety
  Continuum 2010
  http://jamesrovira.com/blake-and-kierkegaard-creation-and-anxiety/

  Text, Identity, Subjectivity
  http://scalar.usc.edu/works/text-identity-subjectivity/index

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