[I thought I'd sent this but I haven't seen it appear.]

The following thoughtful post from the Milton-L list came near the end
of a very long and complex thread on questions of literary
interpretation. The first few sentences refer back to details of that
thread, but the remainder is of interest by itself, and it touches at
least indirectly on topics often raised on this list concerning poetry
and truth/reality/belief.


-------- Original Message --------
 Subject: Re: [Milton-L] Reply to Prof. Fleming on totalization
    Date: Sun, 30 Nov 2008 09:32:51 -0800 (PST)
    From: Kim Maxwell <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To: John Milton Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
      To: John Milton Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>

Prof. Fleming

As our posts have gotten long and irritating to others, I will take up
any matters from my last two, which you have generally answered, with
you off line, at a later time, after I have read your book (which I
started last spring)   However, I feel the question of mimesis is
important, and I offer the following response. 

Yes. literature must be about something.But (1) I presume you are not
going to ask something to be ontological, that literature provides and
internally justifies truthful statements about the real world
itself.Does Hell really have burning lakes, or Paradise a real tree of
life?I think (2) that we decide on the something as a first act of
interpretation, not as an outcome, particularly about a work with as
vast a compass as Paradise Lost.We may be interested in Eve and
patriarchy (the something), then read relevant passages of the poem and
other opinions to decide for ourselves what we think the poem has to say
about Eve and patriarchy.As there are more than fifty articles and one
book on Eve (not all about patriarchy), with diverse and incompatible
conclusions drawn from the poem, it would be hard to say that the poem
itself produces a mimesis of Eve and patriarchy. Instead, (3) as you
observe through Gadamer, an interpretation comprises (at least) the
text, our interests in the text (not drawn from the text itself), and
within those interest various beliefs that we bring to the poem.Those
interests must influence our interpretation, provide content to the
interpretation, and (more often than we would like to admit) direct and
may provide all of the material of an interpretation.How do we read He
for God only, she for God in him?Well, it depends.If we decide it is not
ironic, then it may become either a claim for the actual relationship
between men, women, and God (with the usual biblical citations), or a
statement of female oppression (with various real-world treatments of
women quivering in the background).If we decide it is ironic, (it is
seen through Satans eyes, after all, and the narrator is not reliable),
then we begin a journey through the poem that has Eve resisting
patriarchy, or ironically defending patriarchy as a necessary component
of civil order. None of these can be justified by the poem alone. I
claim that (4) mimesis works in one direction, from the reader to the
poem, as a means of understanding and organizing the interpretative
process, but that mimesis does not work in the other direction, that we
learn from the poem on its own terms something about the world.I believe
a careful reading of Aristotles poetics will reach the same idea, that
fictions have necessary properties that require mimesis to understand
but preclude mimesis as a poetic outcome. 

Perhaps a classic formulation of the problem I mean can be found in
Kerrigans The Sacred ComplexHe says, The survival of literature as
anything more than an artifact depends on our ability to extend its
original reference into a genuinely revelatory description . . . of the
world we inhabit now.(p2)He then proceeds to self-consciously read the
poem through the lens of Freudian psychoanalysis.This is not revelation,
it is (very ingenious and interesting) imposition of an external theory
of the world.If anyone believes that the poem cannot be made to confute
rather than defend a Freudian view, they have not been reading criticism

I realize this makes the justification of literature itself difficult.If
it does not teach us about the world, or make a better world (by
teaching virtue, or otherness, or any of the other things so many even
recent scholars have advanced in favor of beauty and instruction, still
the most common justification), or critique or defend our cultural,
moral, political order, or order our thoughts, or create a consciousness
(all of which may be considered mimetic), what does it do?I do not know
the answer to this question.It may have no answer (rather like saying
what poetry is).But it seems to that literature on its own revealing
truths of the world cannot be one of them.

Kim Maxwell
Milton-L mailing list
[log in to unmask]
Manage your list membership and access list archives at

Milton-L web site:

This email was cleaned by emailStripper, available for free from