Milton in the Age of Fish: Essays on Authorship, Text, and Terrorism – Edited by Michael Lieb and Albert C. Labriola
Article first published online: 17 APR 2008
© 2008 The Author. Journal compilation © 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
Volume 42, Issue 1, pages 83–85, March 2008
How to Cite
Kerrigan, W. (2008), Milton in the Age of Fish: Essays on Authorship, Text, and Terrorism – Edited by Michael Lieb and Albert C. Labriola. Milton Quarterly, 42: 83–85. doi: 10.1111/j.1094-348X.2008.00186_2.x
- Issue published online: 17 APR 2008
- Article first published online: 17 APR 2008
Milton in the Age of Fish: Essays on Authorship, Text, and Terrorism . Pittsburgh : Duquesne UP , 2006 . xi + 320 pp. ISBN 13: 978-0-8207-0384-8 . $60.00 (cloth ).and , eds .
Lana Cable introduces this distinguished anthology honoring the work of her former professor, Stanley Fish, and ably performs the difficult role of student champion. There follow some essays that, in the usual manner of festschriften, are no more than tangentially related to the work of the honoree.
Marshall Grossman's “The Onomastic Destiny of Stanley Fish” certainly yearns to be intimately connected to Fish, even to the point of linking Fish with Morris Zapp, and both with some remarks by Joel Fineman identifying the desire of the reader with the desire of the homosexual for the heterosexual (or something like that). Grossman has the brains to be one of our best literary critics. As a writer, however, he is constantly having to win back authority squandered by a desperately unfunny clown, still bedazzled with the rhetorical excesses of the early theory years, who keeps seizing control of his prose style. “But first,” Grossman writes, introducing what ought to be a fairly straightforward transition, “to traverse the distance between the seductions of Bunyan-fish and Fish-Zapp,”—the clown is now at the helm, and will soon be quoting gibberish in an attitude of ecstasy—“which is also a distance traversed, in some way, by literary criticism in the past 35 years, I will recur again to Fineman's remarks on The Importance of Being Earnest, in which is embedded a specifically literary language, which in contrast to the ‘perennial philosophical dream of true language, of language that always means what it says [. . .] can never mean what it says because it never means anything except the fact that it is saying something it does not mean’ ” (33). Grossman has the instincts of a superior comedian. When he writes this badly, however, our amusement gets into an uphill struggle with our derision.
Barbara Lewalski's “Milton's Idea of Authorship” is an impressively concentrated summary of the evolution of Milton's self-conceptions. It should be heartily recommended to students, although the most demanding ones may well find that the word “autonomy,” which undergirds the essay, requires clarification. Annabel Patterson's “Milton's Negativity” imprudently vows to unveil a “pattern that, for some extraordinary reason which must have something to do with our own critical blindness, has hitherto gone unnoticed, or at least unremarked” (81). I think not. The matters she proceeds to discuss (Milton's fondness for rhetorical experiments with litotes and the prefix “un-”) have been noted again and again in Milton criticism, particularly in the work of Thomas Sloane, Suzanne Woods, and John Hale. I myself, thinking it no great originality, devoted a few pages in my first book to a Miltonic “metaphysics of the double negative” (The Prophetic Milton 181). Albert Labiola's “The Son as Angel in Paradise Lost” proposes that the Son “is thrice begotten literally, not metaphorically: first as divine, second as angelic, and third as human” (105). Labriola insists that his argument is not “situated in the context of ongoing commentary on Milton's orthodox trinitarianism, Arianism, or subordinationalism” (274). But why not? And why should clarifying Milton's Christology “divert attention from my focus” (274)?
Stella Revard's essay on Milton and Henry More joins Michael Lieb and others in identifying the chariot mounted by the Son in Book 6 of Paradise Lost with the Merkabah of kabbalistic tradition. Revard argues that Milton drew on the work of Henry More for this detail, and confidently states that Milton “would undoubtedly have known the various treatises More published in the 1650s and 1660s” (121). Because Milton was entirely blind by 1652, there does seem to be room for doubt. The mystical chariot does not appear in More's work until the 1668 Divine Dialogues. Since the first edition of the epic appeared during the previous year, direct influence would seem seriously unlikely, and if someone actually did read More's dialogues to the blind poet, Milton chose not to revise his lines on the paternal chariot for the second edition of 1674. Moreover, the millenarian symbolism Revard detects in both the More and Milton chariots could arise independently of kabbalistic influence. What remains, once the dubious historical trappings are cleared away, is an interesting comparison between More and Milton. Joan Bennett offers another in her ongoing efforts to link Milton with the “liberation theology” of contemporary Catholicism. The burden of this installment is to counter some of the most negative feminist critiques of Paradise Lost.
At this point the loosely organized festschrift suddenly achieves unity—and force. It finds a real subject, which is to assess the degree to which Samson Agonistes, the new crisis center of Milton Studies, must be reconsidered in the light of modern terrorism. John Carey's well-known piece in the 2002 TLS set the terms of this discussion by maintaining that Milton's Samson, if seen as a regenerate hero doing the bidding of his God, is little different from the suicidal Islamic terrorists who brought down the World Trade Center, its twin towers so uncannily evoking the twin massy pillars at the climax of Milton's drama. Carey excoriated Stanley Fish in particular, a critic so far gone in moral corruption, that he found Samson's temple-toppling “praiseworthy.”
This section opens appropriately with an essay by Joseph Wittreich, whose Interpreting Samson Agonistes (1986), while not without precursors, more than any other work fathered the view that the work's dire climax, insofar as it makes revenge righteous, is morally repugnant. Unlike others who share this conviction, Wittreich insists that moral backlash belongs to the intentional meaning of Samson Agonistes. In the essay under review, he tries to establish grounds for thinking Samson Agonistes a “protest poem” by an author grown suspicious of religious enthusiasm in the manner of royalists such as Sir Thomas Browne. A few bits of mistreated evidence weaken the argument. Thus Marvell's “So Samson groped the temple's posts in spite, / The world o'erwhelming to revenge his sight” (from “On Mr. Milton's Paradise Lost”) is said to inaugurate the Wittreich reading of Samson Agonistes. But in fact Marvell was almost certainly alluding not only to Samson Agonistes, but to Samson's cry to God between the pillars that “I may be at once avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes” in Judges 16.28, a passage that Milton pointedly does not represent in his drama.
The next essay is David Loewenstein's superb “Samson Agonistes and the Culture of Religious Terror.” Essays by Michael Lieb and Stanley Fish follow it. But Loewenstein's is by important measures the volume's intellectual climax. Replacing the distorting context of twenty-first-century terrorism with a brilliant sketch of Christian God-terror in the seventeenth century, the author develops much the most satisfying reading of Samson Agonistes to be found in this book. Unlike the ends of modern terrorists, Samson's final act is not intentionally suicidal. He is “self-killed,” but “not willingly.” Death comes “by accident to himself,” as the Argument has it. Milton's hero is not driven by a vision of his own heroic martyrdom or of after-world beatitudes. He does not deliberately seek out the temple in order to destroy it, but is instead certain that performing there would be an abomination until “rousing motions” infuse his mind. In his initial refusal to entertain at Dagon's festival, Samson is a hero of conscience. When he consents to go with the Public Officer, Samson has no clear idea what will happen. If he is indeed being led by God, as we have reason to suppose, God has suspended normal moral strictures, and this mysterious suspension becomes part and parcel of the work's deep anxiety over the mysterious ways of providence. Nifty pieces of historical research fortify this argument, including a telling glance at Christian terror in Thomas Ellwood's An Alarum to the Priests. Loewenstein earns the right to observe that “The identification of Samson with a modern-day suicide bomber tells us more about our own fears and values than it does about Milton's poem and its unique dramatization of religious terror” (212).
Lieb begins by defending Fish against Carey's attack, noting quite rightly that the remark about Samson's end being “praiseworthy” was a deviant moment in a discussion mostly focused on the unknowability of Samson's internal spirit during the catastrophe. Really, Lieb somewhat poignantly declares, Carey should have attacked Lieb, not Fish. For Lieb thinks that Samson and God were indeed acting in accord, and that Milton had no qualms about the strange vengeances enacted by the God of Israel. No doubt a scapegoated Fish took the fall for a lot of us repellent Miltonists in Carey's angry denunciation.
And Fish? As one has come to expect, he makes the most of getting the last word, and answers Carey with admirable clarity and flourish. Although future discussions will surely dwell on the Carey attack of 2002 and the delayed Fish answer of 2006, one hopes that the cool voice of David Loewenstein will get a fair hearing amid the shock and awe of titanic Miltonists trading barbs over the old poet's newly relevant tragedy.
Speaking of shock and awe, or at least of shock, why did the editors choose to entitle their collection Milton in the Age of Fish? Although I live in dread of Grossman's clown possessing my tongue, I wonder if Stanley is really that big a fish? Perhaps we live in the Age of Terrorism. Miltonists might think of themselves as inhabiting the Age of Samson Agonistes. But not many of the students, teachers, and scholars now engaged with John Milton will awaken tomorrow morning and think to themselves “Another day in the Age of Fish! What shall I do?” Whatever the intent, which is in any case as unknowable as the interior spirit of Samson, it looks for all the world like a cheap provocation.