Mary C. Fenton and Louis Schwartz, eds.: With Wandering Steps: Generative Ambiguity in Milton's Poetics.
This collection contains nine valuable essays on Milton's Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, but I question the premise contained in the title, viz. that Milton's poetics are (as we read in Louis Schwartz's introduction) characterized by generative ambiguity. Words such as "problematic," "contingent," "ambiguity," "ambivalence" and unresolved "differences" dominate the discourse. We are, as readers, invited to explore differences which can never be resolved: "The poetic and the prose works themselves, moreover, draw readers into aesthetic, rhetorical, and epistemological schemes--plots, tropes, and arguments--that assert the value of differences, assert their own value, while at the same time gesturing offstage to an ultimate but temporally inaccessible source of truth--singular, undifferentiated--that calls all differences into question" (ix). One might recall that Paradise Lost is about a highly complex topic: the fall of humankind. After Adam and Eve leave the Garden, "with wandering steps and slow" (Paradise Lost 12.648), the whole of human history follows. The full impact of the fall of humankind is not problematic or ambiguous: it is unknown, both to the deceased Milton and to everyone else.
The essays are subdivided into three parts: "Speech, Gesture, and Ritual Display"; "Relationships"; and "Places." In "Speech, Gesture, and Ritual Display," Alex Garganigo ("God's Swearing by Himself: Milton's Troubling Coronation Oath") explores the possible ambiguities in Milton's treatment of the coronation of the Son and the coronation rituals in seventeenth-century England. Garganigo contrasts the coronation of Charles II with the coronation of the Son in Paradise Lost, where the traditional ceremonies marking the transfer of power have been eliminated: "The whole ritual could just as easily been called an anointment, a consecration, an enthronement, and installation, or a swearing in.
By contrast, the coronation of the Son in Paradise Lost consists solely of God's announcement to the assembled angels that he has already begotten the Son, already anointed him, already sworn an oath that they shall obey him" (8). Milton's own references to the coronation bear this out: This day I have begot whom I declare / My only Son, and on this holy hill / I have anointed, whom ye now behold / At my right hand; your head I him appoint; / And by myself have sworn to him shall bow / All knees in heaven, and shall confess him Lord." (Paradise Lost 5. 602-08).
One can only concur with Garganigo that "By comparison, even the absolutist Charles II seems to have been allowed a more contracturalist coronation ceremony than that of Milton's God" (9).
In the same section, Brendan Prawdzik ("Naked Writhing Flesh: Rhetorical Authority, Theatrical Recursion, and Milton's Poetic of the Viewed Body") points to "the rich evidence of theatricality (as opposed to dramatic intent) in Paradise Lost" (37). But, theatricality can also be turned on its head to dramatize the lack of interiority in the melodramatic Satan: "The use of antitheatrical rhetoric to underscore the fetishizing of the external or visible to the neglect of ethos and spirit thoroughly informs Milton's representation of Satan in Paradise Lost" (41). For example, Satan's theatrical skills enable him to deceive Uriel, the sharpest of the angels, rendering him less perceptive than Milton's own readers: "Toward the close of book 3, Satan demonstrates a skill of theatrical self-presentation expert enough to deceive Uriel. Uriel's exceptional perspicuity, caught 'fixt in cogitation deep' (629), reveals him at this moment to be blinder than the reader, who foreknowing can easily see the artificiality of the disguise [Satan dressed for a masque] and the fraudulence it conceals" (45). Again, in Part One, James J. Rutherford ("Argument in Heaven: Logic and Action in Paradise Lost, Book 3") explores Milton's analysis of Ramist Logic in his own treatise on the subject, but he also notes that "the main thing that makes Milton's argument so hard to follow is that he does not give consistent definitions of his terms" (69). Indeed, "insofar as Ramist logic is open to the charge of being simply rhetoric in disguise, so are the ostensibly logical arguments of Milton's divine characters" (71).
In Part Two, "Relationships," Maggie Kilgour ("Growing Up With Virgil") points out that a lot of people had to die to help Aeneas grow up ("if Aeneas's journey demands self-sacrifice, it also requires the sacrifice of others"(86)), and this is poignantly true of Adam and Eve. "They too must begin growing up, not with Virgil, but with each other, as Virgil's isolated wanderer becomes Milton's alienated but still united couple" (96). Danielle A. St. Hilaire ("Reason, Love, and Regeneration in Paradise Lost, Book 10") rebukes both Adam and Eve for each of their attempts to take sole responsibility for the Fall. For St. Hilaire, human redemption is contingent on making the right choice, but "the 'lapsed powers' God restores cannot be merely the ability to make any choice, but [rather] the ability to choose what is right" (102). I cannot, however, accept her insistence on the indissoluble connection between reason and love in Paradise Lost, which is based on a particular reading of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas: "Following an Augustinian and Thomist tradition in which love 'is partly a matter of feeling, but it is primarily a matter of will,'" Milton, according to St. Hilaire, connects love, reason, and obedience in a neat package that I do not find particularly persuasive: "Love without reason has no power to act in the world, while reason without love is not right reason and is not properly directed because it will not be seeking to obey he 'whom to love is to obey'" (109). In "Preferring his Mother's House: Jesus at Home and in Exile in Paradise Regained'" Margaret Justice Dean explores the physical spaces of Temple and Church, explaining how they were de-sanctified by the Reformers: "Reformed teaching on the irrelevance of place to sanctity was well established by Milton's time" (119). This essay really belongs in part three, "Places," the most focused of the divisions. In the first essay in Part Three, "'An Island salt and bare' The Fate of the Garden in Paradise Lost" Maura Brady explores the history of the Garden of Eden after the Fall, particularly the Reformers' insistence that the Garden was totally destroyed. Luther, in particular, insisted that the Garden of Eden was destroyed in order to forestall any allegorical theories based on the belief in a still-existing Paradise: "Luther asserts emphatically that the garden was altogether obliterated by the floodwaters, an insistence that would appear to be driven by the need to take an unequivocal position on this much-debated question, and to defend against erroneous theories of paradise extant and allegorical paradise," resulting in "a confusing jumble of allegorical interpretations" (143). Of course this description does not square with Milton's own description of a devastated but still-existing Paradisiacal site: "And there take root an Iland salt and bare, / The haunt of Seals and Orcs, and Sea-mews clang" (Paradise Lost, 11, 834-35). In "Images of the East in Paradise Lost," Talya Meyers points out that Milton's East is less detailed than Spenser's but just as fanciful. Milton, it appears, preferred images of the East to the place itself: "Milton's epic incorporates the increasingly familiar Eastern world into a Christian and European story ... rather than writing an epic in which Middle Easterners or Asians are integral to the plotline ... The fact that this East exists as a series of illustrative images rather than as a real place to be experienced and understood ... suggests that the energy of the poet can now be concentrated elsewhere, that he no longer needs to confront this varied and uncontrollable place at all" (171). Finally, in "Alternative Histories and the New World," Joshua Lee Wisebaker confronts "Milton's engagement with the New World on the axis of temporality" (175). Milton also ties Satan to a degenerative, cyclical view of history in both Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained: "Satan as a figure for repetition and historical cycles seems to be a consistent aspect of his characterization throughout Milton's two epics" (184).
Thus, "With Wandering Steps: Generative Ambiguity in Milton's Poetics" provides the reader with a fine clutch of essays on topics of interest to all Milton scholars. It's a pity that Duquesne University Press, the press that sponsored these essays, is no more.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2017|
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