Marcia Karp wrote:
> Dear Nancy,
> I didn't mean to set Milton against his time or anything else. I
> meant only that I read PL as a poem that is self-contained, though I
> try to understand what it contains; the two immediate elements are the
> King James (is that right?) Bible and the work of John Milton.. My
> mistake was in expanding "Milton." I'll probably not get it right,
> again, if I say that a particular person, of a particular time (though
> not a spokesman for that time), with particular interests, talents, etc.
> wrote the poem.
I have other things to do and this will be quick and off the top of my
head, but I can't resist some comment.
Any one perspective is not going to do justice to PL, but that's part of
the fun of epic.
PL makes the reader constantly _choose_. In this it (and almost all
modern literature since then) differs radically from preceding
literature. Consider the Odyssey. Odysseus chooses home over
immortality. Why does he make that choice? You Must Not Ask That
Question. It is simply a given. Odysseus separated from his Oikos is
nobbdy to use Fitzgerald's translation (I may have the spelling wrong,
but some unintelligible version of nobody.) One doesn't ask why the sun
comes up in the morning. It just does. Odysseus just tries to return to
his oikos (not Penelope -- that is a 19th c. novel; his oikos). That is
what it _means_ to be Odysseus and to live in the world of Odysseus. The
poem becomes chaos if the reader tries to analyze motive or judge the
judgements the poet is making. Poet and audience, one might say, are
both listeners to the story the Muses tell.
Look what happens if one retells the story for oneself form an
individualist (analyzing, questioning) perspective. Odysseus leaves home
carrying a whole generation of the men of Ithaka with him. Twenty years
later he returns (carrying a huge treasure) and what is the first thing
he does: he kills off the generation that has grown to adulthood while
he was gone. With a King like that who needs enemies! And look at the
hoaked up ending. Here we have an unresolvable contradiction if there
ever was one. Odysseus has killed the cream of Ithaka and is about to
kill off everyone who remains. And Athena makes peace between the
contending parties. How? On what grounds? Don't ask. The poem will fall
apart on you.
Skip 2000 years or so and, whatever the other complications are, at the
level of abstraction relevant here we are still debarred from
questioning, choosing, judging.
All ye, who in small bark have following sail'd,
Eager to listen, on the advent'rous track
Of my proud keel, that singing cuts its way,
Am I eager to listen? What is the significance of his treating me as a
passenger in a rowboat following? These questions and others like them
are simply irrelevant. They reduce the poem to fragments.
Backward return with speed, and your own shores
Revisit, nor put out to open sea,
Where losing me, perchance ye may remain
Bewilder'd in deep maze. The way I pass
Ne'er yet was run: Minerva breathes the gale,
Apollo guides me, and another Nine
Why does he care whether I'm confused or not? Is he trying to tempt me
to polytheism by citing Apollo and Minerva? If this comes from Apollo
rather than Mary should I be a bit suspicious of what follows?
But such questions, forbidden by (or rather inconceivable to) the
Odyssey poet and Dante, are exactly the questions Milton _forces_ us to
ask constantly, not least often when he confronts us with what Ross 60
years ago labelled "Signpost Sentences." Ross was objecting, but he
missed the point. Faced with a signpost from the narrator affirming a
meaning which is seemly not there in the facts as presented, the reader
(seated in solitary splendor in his/her home, reading the text in forced
independence from the rest of humanity) experiences what I have come
call compulsory free choice.
It happens over and over again, "inside" the poem and "outside"
(isolated reader and invisible narrator). Uriel angel of the sun
confronts a young cherub on a solitary sight-seeing tour, asking for
travel advice. Uriel _has_ to choose, in isolation, whether the _MOTIVE_
of the cherub is a correct motive. Uriel and the Cherub (forget that the
Cherub is Satan -- Uriel can't know that, as Milton reminds us by
pointing out that hypocrisy is undetectable by men or angels) share
_nothing_ in common, they have no given _place_ (contrast the Rose at
the end of Dante's Comedy), they are not caught up in a shared practice,
they have only abstract principles as to what is and is not proper
curiosity to guide them. And the reader must, in his/her isolation, make
up her own mind about the action.
Do Adam & Eve engage in ideal conversation? Who knows, but you have to
make up your mind tentatively on this or you can't go on reading.
O For that warning voice, which he who saw
Th' Apocalyps, heard cry in Heaven aloud,
Then when the Dragon, put to second rout,
Came furious down to be reveng'd on men,
Wo to the inhabitants on Earth! that now,
While time was, our first-Parents had bin warnd
The coming of thir secret foe, and scap'd
Haply so scap'd his mortal snare;
Would a warning voice have done the trick? Again, the reader must in
some rough and ready way at least make a judgment here. And if you keep
on coming back to the poem, you have to keep complicating that judgment,
perhaps changing it. Push this in some ways (and there is nothing in the
poem to keep you from doing this -- in fact the poem encourages it --
and you could build a whole new theology all of your own out of
balancing different answers to this question.
I coined the term, "compulsory free choice," to name the situation in
which one must make choices in abstraction from the whole meaning of the
choice. If you pause here and go to the kitchen to make yourself a ham
sandwich, the meaning of your choice is visible in the action itself.
That (apparent) visibility of motive (the unity of thought and action)
characterizes all social orders in which production is directly for use.
But now watch someone making that sandwich for you in a coffee shop. She
is going through the same motions you would in your kitchen at home --
but her motive is totally separated from the act. Her motive would be
just the same if instead of making you a sandwich she was at the
cashregister in a department store selling you a shirt or operating a
gear shaving machine in a factory. Her motive is whatever she hopes to
do with the salary she is being paid, which has nothing to do with ham
sandwiches or automatic transmissions or Izod shirts.
The meaning of making a ham sandwich is invisible. And moreover the
locus of reality has been shifted from present or past to future. You
can say that was always so. After all the Athenian peasant sowing barley
was doing so for the sake of the harvest many months away. But from time
immemorial the action from sowing to eating the bread had been endlessly
repeated: the future was visible in the present, which was 'merely' a
recapitualtion of the past. So reality remained fixed (and,
incidentally, hierarchical). To "know yourself" as the oracle at Delphi
proclaimed, was not to engage in deep introspection but simply to "Know
Your Place" in the world. What twisted the knickers of Plato and
Socrates is that peasants and artisans in Athens had ceased several
generations previously to know their place. You can find all this nicely
displayed if you look up "career" in the OED and contrast the first four
definitions to the fifth one. (Two whole worlds could turn on the use of
"career" in Donne's poem.)
It's all condensed in the opening page of _Pride and Prejudice_. With
the first sentence the reader is thrown on her own. The main clause is
"It is a truth universally acknowledged," and if the reader is part of
the universe then he/she can judge the truth of that. And since I the
reader don't agree with the subordinate clause, I then have to decide --
on the very first sentence -- whether the narrator is a liar, a fool, or
meaning something which only the future will reveal. It does turn out
that Darcy cannot become Darcy until he marries Elizabeth. He thought he
had only to be himself (which would have been enough for Socrates or
Dante), and found out that he wasn't himself until he made a choice of
an invisible future.
Reason is but choosing Milton said. Paradise Lost is one damn choice
after another. For Adam. For Uriel. For the angels who hear:
Hear all ye Angels, Progenie of Light,
Thrones, Dominations, Princedoms, Vertues, Powers,
Hear my Decree, which unrevok't shall stand.
This day I have begot whom I declare
My onely Son, and on this holy Hill
Him have anointed, whom ye now behold
At my right hand; your Head I him appoint;
And by my Self have sworn to him shall bow
All knees in Heav'n, and shall confess him Lord:
Under his great Vice-gerent Reign abide
United as one individual Soule
For ever happie: him who disobeyes
Mee disobeyes, breaks union, and that day
Cast out from God and blessed vision, falls
Into utter darkness, deep ingulft, his place
Ordaind without redemption, without end.
I would guess that several thousand pages have been produced by critics
trying to define how one should choose as reader to react to these
lines. (Or almost any passage you choose to cite.) But while can argue
endlessly over how the reader should judge Milton's God, there is no
doubt whatever that the experience of reading PL is the experience of
reaching judgments on that an hundreds of other choices, small and
large. (Try out for yourself what to do with "United as one individual
Soule." Compare and contrast with "They say in Harlan County There are
no neutrals there You either are a union man or a thug for J.H. Blair.")
But I've got to stop someplace.