[Milton-L] turtles

Richard A. Strier rastrier at uchicago.edu
Mon Sep 4 15:51:47 EDT 2017


I do not believe that in the contexts in which the phrase normally occurs, "Please pass the salt" is at all ambiguous.  If it is, something has gone wrong.


One can pretend to see problems at this level, but, as Wittgenstein would say, this is philosophy creating the problems that it is purporting to solve (or simply to ponder).


One doesn't need the view of language that you, Hannibal, purport to have to make the case that poetry often -- but not always -- delights in ambiguities.  There are, it seems to me, enough real puzzles in poetry (and life) that one need not create ones where they do not exist. The more ingenuity is necessary to see a (supposed) problem, the less pressing the problem and the more dubious its existence at all.  Sometimes poets make straightforward statements, and sometimes they don't.


That M wanted to justify -- in the normal logical/ethical sense -- the ways of God in both senses of the rest of the line -- in general and with regard to humans -- seems to me simply true.  The ambiguity here allows him to say two things at once -- two quite definite things.  And they do not contradict each other.  I think that probably he intended the more general (justifying the ways of God to a human audience), but I think that the other meaning was on his mind as well, as it had to be, so he would (I think) have been happy with the ambiguity and, if he noticed it, have let it stand.  But this is an unambiguous ambiguity, if I may be mildly paradoxical.  The advantage of poetry in this case was that M could simply let the ambiguity stand.  But these are not, from a literary point of view, especially interesting lines.  Poetry can, obviously, do more interesting things than these lines do.  But this is not to say that the lines are not important to the poem.


Richard Strier
Sulzberger Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus
Department of English
University of Chicago
1115 E. 58th St.
Chicago, IL 60637
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From: milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu <milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu> on behalf of Hannibal Hamlin <hamlin.hannibal at gmail.com>
Sent: Monday, September 4, 2017 1:15:22 PM
To: John Milton Discussion List
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] turtles

Well, the point I was making was obviously in the context of the discussion on the thread, especially in terms of comments about the sonnets and ambiguity (which arose from comments about Milton and ambiguity). We may of course disagree on this, Richard, but I don't think it is either trivial or misleading to say that all language requires interpretation. I do agree that normal communication depends upon our agreeing about a host of ordinary utterances, but there is an element of interpretation, perhaps barely conscious, even in these mundane agreements. When I hear "please pass the salt," for instance, I must decide whether this means "to me" or "to Jane" sitting on my left. To get more finicky, I might say that I need to understand that I should pass the salt in the salt shaker, rather than passing the salt itself, after shaking it into my hand. This sounds silly, but I think it is still true. The reason it is not trivial is because it suggests that our discussions of ambiguities and interpretations are not a result of the "linguistic turn," or the perversity of particular readers, but of language itself, especially when cast in the exceptionally dense and complex forms we often find in poems. Shakespeare and Milton knew this and crafted their poems to capitalize on ambiguities which enrich the experience we have in reading them.

Hannibal


On Mon, Sep 4, 2017 at 12:21 PM, Richard A. Strier <rastrier at uchicago.edu<mailto:rastrier at uchicago.edu>> wrote:

I'm not sure what it means to say that "it's interpretation all the way down."  This is either trivially true (every statement requires some framework) or misleading, as the dismissed example of "pass the salt" suggests.  Every competent speaker of a language can agree -- in fact, must agree -- on a great many things (easily dismissed as uninteresting, of course) before we get to the area of contestation.  But that large area of uninteresting, trivial agreement (it's in a book, it's printed, it's a poem, a sonnet, by Shakespeare, etc) is crucial.  See Donald Davidson's classic essay on "The Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme" -- easily available.  (I try to argue for the importance of this to literary criticism in the Intro to Resistant Structures.)


RS


________________________________
From: milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu<mailto:milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu> <milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu<mailto:milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu>> on behalf of Bryson, Michael E <michael.bryson at csun.edu<mailto:michael.bryson at csun.edu>>
Sent: Monday, September 4, 2017 10:56 AM
To: Hannibal Hamlin; John Milton Discussion List
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] Milton's Deliberate Ambiguities

"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)
<https://www.openbookpublishers.com/product/611>https://www.openbookpublishers.com/product/611

------ Original message------
From: Hannibal Hamlin
Date: Mon, Sep 4, 2017 8:35 AM
To: John Milton Discussion List;
Cc:
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.

Hannibal


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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