[Milton-L] Milton's Deliberate Ambiguities

Bryson, Michael E michael.bryson at csun.edu
Sun Sep 3 20:56:05 EDT 2017

Each of those sources is concerned with a kind of interpretation which veers significantly into rewriting. In my view, the issue is one of exegetic (reading out of) versus eisegetic (reading into or onto) interpretations.

The example that comes to mind, given what I have been working with lately, is Jacques Lacan's entirely eisegetic reading of troubadour poetry, and his use of the troubadours to develop his own ideas about desire. (The discussion can be seen in Le Seminiare de Jacques Lacan. Livre VII. L’Éthique de la Psychanalyse [1959–60] [Paris: Seuil, 1986], 177–78.) Essentially, rather than reading the poetry, he is manipulating the poetry into serving his purposes. He approaches the poetry with a fixed idea of what he is going to find there (in part, an idea borrowed wholly from Gaston Paris, the nineteenth-century French scholar who gave us the unfortunate concept of amour courtois), and then--surprise, surprise--finds exactly what he then proceeds to impose upon the poems. He is certainly not alone in approaching troubadour poetry (or any other poetry) in this way.

Longxi, in particular, makes some very interesting points by comparing the interpretive methods of Western and Eastern critics, remarking on how much is shared in terms of an urge to "stretch the words out of all proportion" (207), in order to make poetry fit the preconceived idea of the critic. Eisegesis. Rewriting.

Sontag refers to "interpretation" as "the revenge of the intellect upon art" (7), and calls it a situation in which "for some reason a text has become unacceptable; yet it cannot be discarded. Interpretation is a radical strategy for conserving an old text, which is thought too precious to repudiate, by revamping it. The interpreter, without actually erasing or rewriting the text, is altering it. But he can’t admit to doing this" (5-6). Gerson Cohen, in his “The Song of Songs and the Jewish Religious Mentality” (In Studies in the Variety of Rabbinic Cultures [Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1991]), calls this procedure--in the case of the Song of Songs--an attempt to control the eros of and in poetry: “if love could not be ignored, it could be channeled, reformulated, and controlled, and this is precisely what the rabbinic [and Christian] allegory of the Song of Songs attempted to achieve” (14).

As Longxi remarks, "When poetry is thought to give us divine knowledge, virtue, and wisdom, we cease to read it as poetry, but read it instead as religion, ethics, or philosophy. That is to say, we begin to read it as allegory" (200).

Eisegesis. Rewriting. Channeling, reformulating, and controlling poetry. That, I think, is the kind of "interpretation" that is being objected to here.

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 James Rovira <jamesrovira at gmail.com>
Sent: Sunday, September 3, 2017 5:02:44 PM
To: John Milton Discussion List
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] Milton's Deliberate Ambiguities

Thanks for the reply, Michael. I will look up the journal article you recommend. I have read Against Interpretation, and have it, but it's been quite a while. Can you elaborate on the specific part of the argument there that you think applies?


Sent from my iPhone

> On Sep 3, 2017, at 5:07 PM, Bryson, Michael E <michael.bryson at csun.edu> wrote:
> I really don't think this--"complex literary texts only ever mean one thing and nothing else"--is the argument being made here.
> A couple of sources that argue at much greater length for what I do see as the case being made are listed below:
> Longxi, Zhang. “The Letter or the Spirit: The Song of Songs, Allegoresis,
> and the Book of Poetry”. Comparative Literature: 193–217, https://urldefense.proofpoint.com/v2/url?u=https-3A__doi&d=DwIGaQ&c=Oo8bPJf7k7r_cPTz1JF7vEiFxvFRfQtp-j14fFwh71U&r=SVEkja9Nrd6Hg1GH7TdeI3785MSpURszHIkHGHr1feU&m=vIIWo87K83DyiuiQ5mobn9lIFntkQXSCNWcRHuASNkk&s=wN911RVSsDS2dU6noidvkzt3mWipUG1y6KEVxkhSs0U&e= .
> org/10.2307/1770241
> Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation: And Other Essays. New York: Farrar, Straus
> and Giroux, 2013.
> Michael Bryson

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