[Milton-L] Milton's Deliberate Ambiguities

Bryson, Michael E michael.bryson at csun.edu
Mon Sep 4 11:56:11 EDT 2017

"I'm inclined to say -- and I guess I will -- that there is really nothing but interpretation. It's interpretation (substituting for turtles) all the way down. To argue otherwise is to entirely misunderstand the fundamental nature of language."

And there we have the problem with the entire "linguistic turn" in theory, and the effects that turn has wrought upon literary criticism over the last century. It has been, in my view, something akin to a disaster, and I will take the Susan Sontags and Oscar Wildes over the whole lot of us any day of the week.

Michael Bryson

Love and its Critics: From the Song of Songs to Shakespeare and Milton’s Eden (Cambridge: Open Book, 2017)

------ Original message------
From: Hannibal Hamlin
Date: Mon, Sep 4, 2017 8:35 AM
To: John Milton Discussion List;
Subject:Re: [Milton-L] Milton's Deliberate Ambiguities

I don't like Sontag's argument at all, and it actually has a whiff of bad faith about it, an anti-intellectual pose by one of 20th century America's most famous intellectuals. I'm inclined to say -- and I guess I will -- that there is really nothing but interpretation. It's interpretation (substituting for turtles) all the way down. To argue otherwise is to entirely misunderstand the fundamental nature of language. We may strive for the precise utterance, but we are so bound up in metaphors that this is an impossible dream. Of course, if I ask someone to please pass me the salt, I am unlikely to be misunderstood, which is handy. But if I write "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day" and have it printed, this is quite another matter. I've already described some of the potential ambiguities of both the line and the poem it begins. Professor Richmond feels I have invented these, but how would he go about proving this? My comments are rooted in the language on the page, just as his are. The only difference between them is that he wants to believe the poem is a straightforward declaration of love, and I find it more interesting to think of it as somewhat more nervous -- love, certainly, but perhaps charged with a sense that neither men, lovers, love, nor poems may be quite as eternal as we might like them to be. I cannot prove that this is what Shakespeare had in mind, but then neither can Professor make the same claim for his interpretation, the author being dead (in a literal if not Barthesian sense), and his intentions inaccessible except in the words he left behind.

I am not advocating Deconstructive nihilism. I venture to say that I love sonnet 18 as much as Professor Richmond. But every utterance needs to be interpreted, and the pleasure I derive from Shakespeare (or Milton) is enhanced rather than diminished by the complex ambiguities in which they delight.


On Sun, Sep 3, 2017 at 9:42 PM, James Rovira <jamesrovira at gmail.com<mailto:jamesrovira at gmail.com>> wrote:
Thanks very much for the elaboration, Michael. I've become dissatisfied with the eisegesis versus exegesis model. It seems to treat literary texts like buckets of meaning in which authors put meaning in and readers are obligated to take only the same meaning out.

I prefer to think in terms of pattern recognition. In this practice, the reader is applying different filters, so to speak, to look for different kinds of patterns of meaning in the text. The author or his or her immediate historical context is maybe one filter that we use to examine a text, but it doesn't have to be the only one. Any conceivable pattern is legitimate so long as it's supported by evidence provided by the text.

Of course, when you think that way, you have to carefully distinguish between the patterns that you're using and the author himself (in this case). We can ascribe patterns to the text that don't necessarily reflect on the person who wrote it. This isn't an arbitrary practice, as a filter looks for specific things, should set the terms of its own practice of pattern recognition, and then follow them.

Jim R

PS If Milton had an iPhone, Steve Jobs would be Satan.

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