[Milton-L] Milton's Deliberate Ambiguities

Bryson, Michael E michael.bryson at csun.edu
Sun Sep 3 17:35:52 EDT 2017

Yes. A thousand times yes. Thank you.

Critics (and I by no means exempt myself from this) often get so wrapped up in our desire to see (or create) complexities beneath or behind the surfaces of texts, that we neglect the texts themselves, in favor of rewritings/recastings of our own. We tell ourselves that all interpretation is a form of representation, and that objectivity is, strictly speaking, impossible (nor, perhaps, even desirable)--and we use those positions to justify our various re-presentations, which often seem to take the form of what I call the X is Y argument: what seems to be X is actually Y (or at least, anything other than X). If a brief quote might be forgiven, it explains what I mean by the idea:


What appears to be erotic longing is actually just friendship. What appears to be [fill in the blank] is actually [fill in the blank differently]. William Burgwinkle argues along similar lines when he suggests that the poem Tanz salutz e tantas amors, perhaps by the mid-thirteenth century troubadour Uc de Saint Circ, “mocks all future discussions of whether ladies writing to ladies might be lesbians by simply pulling the linguistic rug from beneath the supposed signs of sentiment, the words in question”77<https://www.openbookpublishers.com/htmlreader/978-1-78374-348-3/ch4.xhtml#footnote-492> Once a critic is in the habit of suspicion, regarding words as always or even usually meaning something other than they merely seem to mean, it appears that the habit is never broken. Thus Burgwinkle argues that love poems are not actually love poems, because they are really something else, in this case, a currency for exchange:

love songs should probably be seen more as a sort of currency in these Southern courts than as personal love missives. […]. The “Lady” in such songs is often more an empty signifier than a flesh-and-blood woman. As in much of classical literature, the woman is an allegorical stand-in for something else. [This could be] an actual woman at court, the court itself, a fiefdom or castle, a male patron, or an empty category.78<https://www.openbookpublishers.com/htmlreader/978-1-78374-348-3/ch4.xhtml#footnote-491>

With the inclusion of the “empty category”, the critic claims that what appears to be X is not only not X, but is potentially anything in the world other than X. Burgwinkle decries the fact that troubadour love poems “continue to be read as personal love missives […] rather than as musings on language”, repeating the familiar critical move that reduces poetry only to language, or to a meta-discourse in which it always and only speaks of itself. He then declares that his argument will “show just how deeply representation, even of what seems to be the most personal nature, is imbued with issues of profit, marketing, and self-promotion”.79<https://www.openbookpublishers.com/htmlreader/978-1-78374-348-3/ch4.xhtml#footnote-490> Everything that comes after “seems” is the not-X of the formula. Troubadour love poems seem to be personal, but are actually [fill in the blank]. This same basic argument is made so often, about so many different poems, plays, novels, etc., that one begins to wonder if it is hard-wired into the academic psyche. What Harold Rosenberg once called “The Herd of Independent Minds”80<https://www.openbookpublishers.com/htmlreader/978-1-78374-348-3/ch4.xhtml#footnote-489> is alive and well and publishing books and journal articles.

(Love and its Critics, 146-47)


And yes, I have done this. I have been guilty of this. I was trained to do this. But I am trying to unlearn what I have learned. It is part of (to borrow shamelessly from Joyce) the nightmare of graduate training in literary study from which I am trying to awake. It's a work in process...

Michael Bryson

Love and its Critics: From the Song of Songs to Shakespeare and Milton’s Eden (Cambridge: Open Book, 2017)
From: milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu <milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu> on behalf of Hugh M. RICHMOND <hmr at berkeley.edu>
Sent: Sunday, September 3, 2017 1:55:19 PM
To: John Milton Discussion List
Subject: [Milton-L] Milton's Deliberate Ambiguities

The attempts to make the Shakespeare sonnets 116 & 130 ambiguous illustrates my point perfectly: that the ambiguity lies in the mind of the critic. The explicit sense of both sonnets is made vividly and consistently  clear:  ‘I will not admit that true love requires perfection in the beloved.” That point of view is all I am interested in, as that of WS since it also explains many of the plot and character details in the plays. All the destructive conjectures of hypothetical subsidiary meanings originate with the critic, which leaves us with just a confused heap of depressing wreckage. For fuller discussion of these issues see my essay on “The Dark Lady as Reformation Mistress” and other essays in my academia.edu<https://urldefense.proofpoint.com/v2/url?u=http-3A__academia.edu&d=DwMFaQ&c=Oo8bPJf7k7r_cPTz1JF7vEiFxvFRfQtp-j14fFwh71U&r=SVEkja9Nrd6Hg1GH7TdeI3785MSpURszHIkHGHr1feU&m=YMiiNPvX-kkWgq5SCQs39a80GCtgsWpdWlYhsAcsMyw&s=_tLsL_2bpPaFVJQQPZJXXvtD-dJ4fj3a6D1wUCHZPj8&e=> folder.

  As for Miltonic complexities, I recall one of my better students progressing enthusiastically from my naive Milton course of 200 students to my office-mate’s, the Great Fish’s  Milton seminar - and disappearing into modern American literature thereafter. Years later she told me “You were wrong about Milton’s positive value, and Fish is right about how he tricks readers - I hate Milton and will never read him again.” No wonder university presses no longer  want to print such sophisticated literary criticism showing everything is too complicated to understand or enjoy. HR
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