The Magazine

Against the Law

Stanley Fish's explanation of how Milton works.

Aug 20, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 46 • By JASON P. ROSENBLATT
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IT’S BEEN THIRTY-FOUR YEARS, and you haven’t changed at all—flattering if exclaimed immediately by a friend one hasn’t seen in all that time, less so if blurted out after fifteen minutes of conversation. It’s true in both senses of Stanley Fish, whose latest book, How Milton Works, contains pages of still-youthful exuberance that match the verve, insight, and persuasive force of Surprised by Sin, his indispensable 1967 book on Paradise Lost. Yet at times in his new book—mostly a collection of previously published articles on Milton—two overlapping essays on the same Miltonic text, written decades apart, sitting cheek by jowl, create in the reader a sense of unease, as if the stranger sitting next to you at a bar has just told you a perfectly wonderful story and then, after you have registered your delight, followed it by repeating the same story.

In the 1970s, a series of book ads, designed to resemble post-office posters, described Fish as "the most wanted" person in American literary criticism. This is truer than Fish’s publicist realized. As a reader, he has always been thoroughly antinomian, that is, one who opposes the obligations of the Hebrew Bible’s moral law, including the Ten Commandments—and that makes him something of an outlaw.

In Paradise Lost, Milton hints at the connection between the prohibition against the forbidden fruit in paradise and the Ten Commandments when, just after the Fall, sinful Adam tells Eve: if such pleasure be / In things to us forbidden, it might be wish’d, / For this one Tree had been forbidden ten. In How Milton Works—and despite much Miltonic evidence to the contrary—Fish repeats incessantly that all authority is internalized and that all external forms, even the Ten Commandments, are examples of idolatrous temptation. In his radical interiority, Fish would make Milton’s readers spiritually blind to the beauties of the world, though the blind poet Milton himself, compressing the six days of creation into three short lines, complains of the beauty lost to him: the sweet approach of Ev’n or Morn, / Or sight of vernal bloom, or Summer’s Rose, / Or flocks, or herds, or human face divine.

Theology is of crucial importance to Fish, and ultimately his most important authority is St. Paul. Paul, as John Drury has noted, had difficulty in being remotely positive about material matters, most notoriously marriage and sex. His headlong concentration on Christ crucified—"nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified," as First Corinthians puts it—had, in this reading, bankrupted the world.

The assumptions behind all of Stanley Fish’s hyper-Pauline criticism derive from the writings in the 1930s and 1940s of A.S.P. Woodhouse and Arthur Barker on Milton and the Pauline doctrine of Christian liberty. Paul is the ultimate guilty reader "surprised by sin," and the Hebrew Bible is literature’s supreme example of the self-consuming artifact, "the vehicle of its own abandonment." In a brilliantly seductive early essay, "Discovery as Form"—the blueprint for most of his work on Milton—Fish argues that Paradise Lost operates in a way "analogous to that of the Mosaic Law, which, we are told in [Milton’s] The Christian Doctrine, calls forth ‘our natural depravity, that by this means it might bring us to the righteousness of Christ.’"

Substituting Paradise Lost for the Hebrew Bible, Fish rejects the epic’s literal narrative, "whose temporal structure, as many have observed, is confused." Fish asks about Paradise Lost "the obvious question" that Paul asks about the Hebrew Bible read merely as law: If "the action is interior, taking place inside the reader’s mind, what is the function of the exterior form? Why is it there?" The answer to Fish’s question, and to Paul’s, is the same: to provoke an awareness of sin. Once that happens, the Hebrew Bible and Paradise Lost can be rejected: "The outer form of the poem is a ‘scaffolding’ which ‘so soon as the building is finished’ is but a ‘troublesome disfigurement’ that is to be cast aside."