[Milton-L] obedience to your creator

Bryson, Michael E michael.bryson at csun.edu
Fri Apr 11 16:12:18 EDT 2014


I don’t think we are really disagreeing here, at least not about this point: “The tradition is real, even if all its contents are fictions.” I absolutely agree with that (really, how could I not?). I also agree that Milton’s character “the Father” must be taken, as you say, “with” though not as the Christian God (to leave aside for the moment any complicating of that broad term). But there is where I see things as getting sticky—the character is a commentary of some kind, a construction of some kind, but of what kind? And there is where the argument and debate goes on.

I teach an undergrad course on Milton each semester (and sometimes also a grad seminar as well, but that one is explicitly framed through theology and philosophy), and I always try to frame the “God” material in PL in exactly the way I outline above—as a commentary/construction. But we spend the first half of each semester on the prose—which I warn them in advance will be difficult, but necessary (and the entire midterm is on the prose, so no slacking!)—and by the time we get to the big works at the end, they have a pretty clear sense of how Milton thinks and puts an argument together. I find that leaves them—without much, if any, prompting from me—with a strong sense of how complex these characters are, “the Father” and “Satan” as well as his “Adam” and “Eve.” I get a good deal of work from my students that attempts to express and analyze that complexity through the various Miltonic arguments they recognize/remember from the prose. Of course, I am also working with a student body here that is somewhat distanced from the scriptural narratives and characters to begin with. I regularly have to explain who Daniel is when going over Areopagitica, for example. Moses, most of them know. Paul sometimes takes a little prompting. Daniel? Always needs the full explanation. (It’s not just the Bible, though, that they lack. While teaching the Merchant of Venice recently, I had to explain who Jason was, in order to explain what Bassanio’s remark about his rivals for Portia--“many Jasons come in quest of her”--might be saying about him, and them.)

Michael Bryson
From: milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu [milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu] On Behalf Of David Ainsworth [dainsworth at as.ua.edu]
Sent: Friday, April 11, 2014 11:16 AM
To: milton-l at lists.richmond.edu
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] obedience to your creator

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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