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Paradise Lost, the Miltonic "Or" and the poetics of incertitude

Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900Wntr, 2003   by Peter C. Herman

Miltonists tread gingerly around the issue of Paradise Lost and uncertainty as unresolved contradiction subverts the masterplot of Milton criticism, which is that Paradise Lost coheres, and the critic's task is to make the poem cohere. In this article, I contest this faith in the poem's thematic and formal unity by demonstrating that Milton structures Paradise Lost according to a poetics of incertitude, as exemplified by the Miltonic "Or." I argue that Milton structures Praradise Lost according to a series of suspended choices, and this structure determines the smallest details of the poem as well as the competing narratives, especially the differing versions of the Son's elevation.


Miltonists tread gingerly around the issue of Paradise Lost and uncertainty. While critics and readers from the eighteenth century onward have noted the many places where Milton's epic constitutes, to use Joseph Wittreich's phrase, "a field of opposing stresses and signals, (1) by and large they have dealt with this problem through a variety of containment strategies. (2) For a long time, Milton's readers simply ignored the contradictions (e.g., E. M. W. Tillyard and C. S. Lewis), but when this issue finally started emerging to the fore in the early 1960s, such critics as A. J. A. Waldock and John Peters ascribed the discontinuities of Paradise Lost to a regrettable failure of poetic craftsmanship. (3) Yet in a curious reversal of the trend in early modern scholarship toward privileging discontinuity and ideological fissures, Miltonists tend to assume that the contradictions are only superficial and that a "proper" understanding of the poem erases the difficulty. To give but two of the most recent examples, C atherine Gimelli Martin writes that "because Paradise Lost cannot be consistent with itself does not mean that it cannot be made generally consistent with a mode featuring the uses of irony outlined above [in her book], nor do these ironies fail to support certain conjectures about the poet's intentions" (my emphasis); and Steven Jablonski asserts that he will attempt "to reconcile Milton's republican beliefs about political liberty... with his seeming support for monarchy in his epic poem" (my emphasis). (4)

Even critics who seemingly foreground Milton's contradictions usually seek to master them through the principle of discordia concors. (5) Thus William Koibrener argues that "mediation" figures as the central fact of Milton's works, and he defines this term as "the means through which Milton joins, without reconciLing, apparently contradictory positions" (emphasis in the original). (6) Like Wittreich, David Norbrook notes that "we are constantly denied a stable point of reference," yet he nonetheless argues that Raphael provides Adam a vision of the universe as a "sublime concordia discors" and insists that "God's ways can be justified, but they must first be held up to difficult scrutiny... God is justified because of his refusal to treat his subjects as mere puppets or instruments. (7) Even Wittreich contains the poem's conflicting signals by analogizing Paradise Lost to A. Bartlett Giamatti's ideal university, a place where "competing systems of thought collide; where they are 'tested, debated... freely, op enly." (8)

The underlying assumption, I would even go so far as to call it the masterplot of Milton criticism, is that Milton produced an epic that coheres, and the task of the critic is to make the poem cohere, even in the face of massive evidence to the contrary. (9) Furthermore, this masterplot controls the analyses produced by the supposedly warring camps of "angelic" and "satanic" critics. In the introduction to the second edition of Surprised by Sin, Stanley Fish rebuts those arguing for unresolved tensions by stating that Milton deliberately fills his epic with moments when "the affirmation of variety is immediately countered by the imposition of unity and the insistence on an underlying sameness," (10) yet the differences between Fish and his supposed antagonists really are a matter of degree rather than substance: Fish argues that there are no unresolved antinomies, Kolbrenner et al. say that unresolved antinomies can coexist in a sort of supra-coherence that contains multitudes. The route may be different, but the conclusions are remarkably similar.

It is precisely this confidence in this poem's thematic and formal unity that I contest, and in this article I will demonstrate that Milton structures Paradise Lost according to what I call a poetics of incertitude. Granted, John P. Rumrich has argued for the shaping presence of "indeterminacy and differences of opinion" in Paradise Lost." Rumrich finds "the theme of indeterminacy as a vital dimension of human experience and behavior." (12) Indeterminacy is thus a positive state of creative flux; if certainty is deferred, the jouissance of infinite possibility takes its place. Hence Rumrich's recuperation of Chaos. I replace Rumrich's "indeterminacy" with "incertitude" because I think that Rumrich's interpretation de-fangs the poem in much the same way that Wittreich does with his analogy between Paradise Lost and the ideal, contemporary university. I use "incertitude" because I believe that in the aftermath of the Revolution Milton engaged in a wholesale questioning of just about everything he had argued for in his prose works, and he does not come to a conclusion. (13) Therefore, in place of Rumrich's "poetics of becoming" (his emphasis), (14) I propose a poetics of incertitude because it is out of the turmoil of not knowing what to affirm in the wake of the Revolution's failure that Milton creates his finest poetry.


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