[Milton-L] obedience to your creator

David Ainsworth dainsworth at as.ua.edu
Fri Apr 11 14:16:30 EDT 2014

I'm late to this discussion and wallowing in end-of-semester work, so 
I'm contributing having read only a portion of the thread. Apologies.

I see Michael's point here about shutting down discourse, but I don't 
see that either a theological or a historicist perspective necessarily 
shuts down discourse, only that it is at present the dominant means to 
do so. Approaching the poem theologically can open up or (more 
interestingly, to me) replicate existing discourse within the 
Judeo-Christian tradition.

My undergrad Milton class this year is focused on Milton's Satan. Most 
of my students could be reasonably described as strongly Protestant 
Christians. As they started Paradise Lost, they began convinced that 
Satan was evil and a deceiver, and I worried that no debate would arise 
at all.

As reading and discussion continued, the class attitude shifted against 
God and toward Satan. One of my more outspoken students declared Satan 
the hero and God a jerk (he may have used stronger language). Several 
students maintained God's virtue--that these students typically paid 
more attention to the specific language of the poem does not prove their 
position accurate, only that one must attend closely to language in 
order to maintain it--while a few proposed that God was using Satan, 
possibly with his connivance, to test Creation.

As they finished the poem, their positions altered yet again. My 
outspoken student concluded that the events of the poem were a scheme by 
God "the jerk" to put the Son in his place, and that this end was "good" 
even if the means were suspect; he thus ended up defending God in a 
sense and condemning Satan. One student differentiated between "good" 
(which she took both God and Milton's God to be by definition) and 
"just," concluding that Satan is right that God is unjust but that God 
must be good regardless. One student noted that while Satan talks about 
good and evil all the time, the Father doesn't directly call Satan evil, 
instead using terms like "adversary" or "rebel" or "Fiend." Given 
another week of thought, I suspect he'd have arrived at the conclusion 
that evil in the poem is an illusion and that only good is "real."

My students are quite aware that Paradise Lost isn't direct from the 
mouth of the God most of them believe in. But they see a difference in 
how they parse the characters because to them, the poem is "based on a 
true story" (although for some, that story is itself allegorical). If I 
have understood correctly what my Creative Writing colleagues have told 
me about the field of creative non-fiction, Paradise Lost might 
comfortably sit on the boundary between that and historical fiction 
(depending in large part upon how far one buys in to the "Milton as 
prophet" narrative which he offers in several of his works). Holding up 
the mirror to Creation must inevitably result in distortion, but fiction 
and non-fiction can't be easily or readily disentangled, even if they 
can be differentiated. If we posit this kind of artistic production as 
an attempt to access an ontological truth, then I think Jim can be both 
right and wrong: right in that the poem may actually mimetically 
associate itself with its subject, wrong about the level of reality of 
the characters in the poem. Even autobiography walks the line between 
truth and invention; its success as autobiography depends more upon the 
results of the mixture of the two, less on how it upholds the truth alone.

Am I rambling toward a point? Only that Paradise Lost's ability to 
generate out of itself that which the Judeo-Christian tradition 
generates suggests that the epic successfully engages with its 
subject(s). Whether or not "God" exists as the Judeo-Christian tradition 
defines him (in the many, sometimes differing ways it does) matters 
less, I think, than whether Paradise Lost can be read as a part of that 
tradition, or as an artifact about or regarding the tradition. The 
tradition is real, even if all its contents are fictions.

If I understand Michael's argument, I disagree with him in that I think 
Milton's God must be taken with (but not as) the Judeo-Christian God. 
But Carrol's distinction matters deeply in my arriving at that 
disagreement. "Based on a true story" offers a wide range between 
"historical reconstruction" and "utterly unsupported wish-fulfillment."


On 4/10/2014 2:45 PM, Bryson, Michael E wrote:
> And *this* sums up very eloquently the massive divide we seem to have in Milton Studies. Yes, Milton's PL does participate in theological discourse--but it does so as an epic poem, not as non-fiction, however creative. The historicist impulse--which is one I very much share--to place PL in the context of theological, political, and other debates of his time can serve an enlightening and constructive function, but it can also be used to simply *shut down* discourse, or define "good" questions as somehow not mattering. It is incredibly important to get as accurate a sense as possible of how "Milton's readers" (a construct which by no means needs to be construed as simple or ideologically/theologically unified) might have received the text. But a literary work (*as* literary work) dies if that is the realm to which we exclusively limit it and bracket it off.
> And an analogy between a demonstrably historical character and God is a bit tricky. MLK existed, apart from anyone's belief. The existence of God was not even a matter of universal agreement in Milton's own time, much less in our own. PL does not participate in discourse about a "real" character in anything like the same way that the HBO movie does.
> But a given scholar's personal theoretical/theological/political commitments may make that either an obvious point, or a point that is impossible to grant. I am reminded of Upton Sinclair at this point:  "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary [or religion, or politics, or other idea] depends on his not understanding it." Perhaps we have a divide here that is impossible to cross, as Sinclair has a point for both sides of any debate...
> Michael Bryson
> (who has taken up far too much bandwidth for one day)
> ________________________________________
> From: milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu [milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu] On Behalf Of James Rovira [jamesrovira at gmail.com]
> Sent: Thursday, April 10, 2014 12:22 PM
> To: John Milton Discussion List
> Subject: Re: [Milton-L] obedience to your creator
> Carrol --
> That's a good question that, I think, doesn't matter. Milton's PL participates in theological discourse about the Christian God by dramatizing it. For him and his readers, his subject matter was non-fiction, so that he is engaged in commentary on at least some ontological truths. That commentary is in fictional form, so that the reconstruction is a fiction, but the object represented is not: something like creative non-fiction. Of course from an atheist point of view it's all a massive fiction, but that's a metaquestion that doesn't help us with the text. For Milton's readers, PL was probably something akin to our watching an HBO movie about the life of MLK. The characters are real even if the conversations are not, and it participates in discourse about a real character.
> How Milton's PL stands in relationship to other discourse about the same subject is therefore an eminently reasonable question to pursue.
> Jim R
> On Thu, Apr 10, 2014 at 3:13 PM, JD Fleming <jfleming at sfu.ca<mailto:jfleming at sfu.ca>> wrote:
> It has not always been clear in this thread whether the interest is in correctly construing a fiction or in asserting some ontological truth.
> Carrol
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