Thursday, March 25, 2010
On irritable reaching...
Kneejerk Poetics sez John Milton is a boring old whiteguy-canonical-too-religious poet who quit rhyme, used Latinate diction, went blind, gave Satan all the good lines, came up with a not-as-good sequel to Paradise Lost (which no one would wish to be a page longer), and was mean to his daughters who wrote everything down for him. His worst sin of all: influencing Robert Lowell.
Nobody in AmPo today would think of Milton as a revolutionary - but that's, in fact, what he was.
Like Shakespeare the son of usurer, Milton devoted many years to thinking and writing about the problem of money - long, long before Pound did so, and more rationally. David Hawkes's new book John Milton: A Hero of Our Time shows how even though Milton wrote in a time during which there was no conception of such a thing as an "economy," he could have predicted our present worldwide moneymess. As for being a revolutionary, Milton made the case for regicide and defended it when it was actually implemented - doing so in a time when there had been no other revolutions in the Western world - and in a place where the idea of throwing out even a tyrannical King (let alone executing him) was virtually unthinkable. He also advocated the separation of church and state, and made the case for legalizing divorce. And of course, in verse, Milton's move away from conventional rhyme - no doubt considered to be yet another dubious career move at the time - is also now taken completely for granted.
So what does it take for a poet to be considered revolutionary?
Anyway, this is from the introduction to Hawkes's book:
"Milton tried to imagine a world completely free of idols. He even tried to bring such a world into existence, in his revolutionary political career. He applied the principle of iconoclasm to everything: to religion, but also politics, to law, to marriage, gender and sexuality to the most intimate feelings and experiences. He practiced iconoclasm everywhere: in church, in the Council of State, in the law courts and, one suspects, in bed. He made iconoclasm his way of life.
And it is here that we find Milton's relevance to the present, day, for ours is an era of the image. Capitalist society is idolatrous to a degree surpassing the worst nightmares of seventeenth-century iconoclasts. It is a cliche of postmodernist philosophy that the distinction between sign and referent has collapsed and with it our ability to distinguish an essential, objective reality beneath the hyper-real world of simulacra that constitutes everyday experience. For example, the concern of today's politics with style over substance, with perception rather than reality, is obvious and undisguised. The rise of the image has often been linked to a relativist, pragmatist morality that can conceive of no absolute, ultimate truth underlying rhetorical signification, and to the spread of popular materialism: the widespread assumption that the world of appearances is the only reality. Its causes have been traced to the growth of the market economy, which depends upon the manipulation of images, and to a change in the nature of money, which has mutated into a non-material, purely imaginary or symbolic form. Images rule our world, and a world ruled by images needs an iconoclast.
Since Milton believed that idolatry was slavery, he would not be surprised to find that virtually everyone in capitalist society is enslaved.
Milton was that rarest of beasts, otherwise virtually unknown in the modern Western world: a supremely talented artist who also exercised significant political power. The author of Paradise Lost was also Secretary for Foreign Tongues to the revolutionary Council of State. The poet who gave us "Lycidas" was also the government propagandist commissioned to produce the official defense of the King's execution... Milton provides an example, almost unique in the history of capitalist society, of an artistic intellectual's attempt to put his theories into practice."
After 9/11, the English critic John Carey wrote a piece in the TLS that referred to the violent and angry Samson Agonistes as "an incitement to terrorism" - and wondered whether it should be "withdrawn from schools and colleges and, indeed, banned more generally." So much, remarks Hawkes, "for the notion that Milton's work is 'a monument to dead ideas.' Milton's prose and poetry are just as dangerous and inflammatory, perhaps even more so, in the twenty-first century than they were in the seventeenth."
It is, Hawkes concludes, "the heavy responsibility of each individual student of Milton to decide for himself or herself who are the idolaters of the twenty-first century."