The Magazine

Against the Law

Stanley Fish's explanation of how Milton works.

Aug 20, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 46 • By JASON P. ROSENBLATT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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."

This turns Milton’s great epic into one more seventeenth-century tract on the relations of law and gospel. Although Fish’s rhetoric is bold and often dazzling, one wonders if his rejection of the great epic as an independent entity would have been received so eagerly by Milton scholars in 1967 if Woodhouse and Barker had not prepared the way. In How Milton Works, Fish extends and complicates his argument, as when he declares, about the problem of authorship, "It is the letter (of the law, of aesthetics, of prayer, of right action) from which Milton...wishes to drive us, yet it is only by means of the letter that living and writing can proceed." The damned seem able to do nothing right, while the elect of God can do no wrong—and this is a "component of Milton’s antinomianism, his reserving to the godly (self- or internally identified) the privilege of breaking laws others...are obliged to keep," justified by the purity of one’s intention, which cannot be evaluated by external criteria.

Fish is often completely persuasive about individual passages. How Milton Works applies his antinomian readings brilliantly and outrageously to Milton’s prose works, in particular the Areopagitica and The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce. Yeats once said that out of our quarrels with others we make rhetoric; out of our quarrels with ourselves we make poetry. Perhaps this is the reason that Fish, a professor of rhetoric at Berkeley early in his career, is more successful in his relentless analyses of Milton’s rhetorical prose than he is with Milton’s poetry, whose ambiguities can never be exactly regulated even by the poet’s own moral intention. (Two critics who actually understand poetry’s rich ambiguity are Frank Kermode, whose elegant essay "Adam Unparadised" points out the difference between doctrine and poetry in Milton, and William Empson, whose Milton’s God argues that Paradise Lost is great because of its moral confusions.)

In a splendidly wrongheaded essay on the Areopagitica, generally read as an argument for a free press, Fish claims that books for Milton are "a thing indifferent." His Milton is virtually an obscurantist who holds that no book, not even the Bible, can teach a fool, while "whatever we make available to a wise man will not be essential to his wisdom." Indeed, the Bible itself is an example of an external form, and "truth is not the property of any external form, even of a form that proclaims the truth."

There are individual sentences in Milton’s tract that do seem to support Fish’s reading. When Fish encounters a passage that doesn’t—such as the famous encomium to books, which proclaims that to kill a book is to slay "an immortality rather than a life"—he peremptorily declares it "unMiltonic." Yet in the Areopagitica books are of capital importance. Milton adapts and extends the Reformation’s argument that abolishes distinctions between clergy and laity, and he insists on the right of all people to search the scriptures. Indeed, he widens the freedom to read the Bible to include the freedom to read any text. Quite Miltonically, he defines "the true warfaring Christian" as one who "can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain." For us, in 2001, it seems impossible to know "the utmost that vice promises to her followers" and at the same time to abstain. But for Milton the power of culture, and particularly of books, to convey experience would have made explanation unnecessary. It is he, after all, who defines poetry as "simple, sensuous, and passionate." And who better understands the attractions of evil, Milton or a flat-eyed serial killer?

In his zeal to oppose the true doctrine of the inner light to "the false authority of some external and imposed rule," even that of the gospel, Fish misquotes a famous passage from the Areopagitica. Where Milton writes, "Truth indeed came once into the world with her divine Master, and was a perfect shape most glorious to look on," Fish reads, "truth ‘indeed came once into her divine Master.’" Truth, in Milton’s actual quotation, is an external entity separate from Christ her Master. If, as Milton has it, "a good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life," then the New Testament is the good book that contains the essence of Christ, the master-spirit whose lifeblood was spilled on the Cross and whom Joseph of Arimathea entombed with myrrh and aloes.

Fish applies his interpretive ingenuity most impressively in an essay on Milton’s own most ingenious and impressive treatise, The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce. Arguing for divorce on grounds of incompatibility—a radical idea in 1644—this Puritan poet whose personal behavior met the highest ethical standards was accused by his contemporaries of libertinism. (The Oxford English Dictionary still defines "Miltonist" as "a follower of Milton in his views on divorce.") Fish recognizes that Milton’s real enemies in the treatise—unacknowledged, of course—are the New Testament’s clear pronouncements against divorce. Most biblical interpreters hold that Jesus dissociated himself directly from a regulation of the Torah on only one occasion, when, in Matthew 19:3-9, he rejected explicitly and categorically the right of divorce pronounced in Deuteronomy 24:1-2.

Fish argues that Milton neutralizes the New Testament verses against divorce by submitting them to the judgment of charity. Instead of deducing the Bible’s position from its own words, Milton begins with a "preunderstanding" that gives him privileged access to an authorial intention independent of the words of the text that are universally used to establish that intention: "Once words have been dislodged as the repository of meaning in favor of intention, no amount of them will suffice to establish an intention, since the value they have will always depend on that which they presume to establish."

Fish’s description of Milton seems, in fact, better as a description of Fish’s own interpretive strategy. Milton "supplies the essence of God by specifying for him an intention for which there is no evidence save the persuasiveness of its own assertion." God wants to provide divorce as an escape from a bad marriage, and therefore biblical verses must be wrestled into compliance with that intention. The Bible is not a self-reading text—no text is—and centuries of supplementary readings in the form of biblical commentary have created the "original" scriptural text. Fish loves to play with relationships and to reverse them, and his examples are always provocative. In The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, we infer the meaning of the text from the author’s intention, instead of the other way around.

Readers of Fish’s 1980 work Is There a Text in This Class? will recognize this as a version of the idea that the text isn’t the object of interpretation, but the product. Explaining what makes a text literature, he argues that readers are not autonomous but always act as members of an interpretive community that governs their choices: "It is not that literature exhibits certain formal properties that compel a certain kind of attention; rather, paying a certain kind of attention (as defined by what literature is understood to be) results in the emergence into noticeability of the properties we know in advance to be literary."

The limitation of Fish’s otherwise compelling reading of The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce is that it underestimates the range and complexity of its arguments by providing only one interpretive key. In thirty-six short chapters, each with its own head note, Milton employs many different rhetorical strategies. What is suppressed in Fish’s antinomian reading is that this is the poet’s most Hebraic treatise. Milton forces Christ’s words into compliance with the deuteronomic right to divorce and thus becomes in effect a defender of the entire Mosaic law.

For Milton, in this instance, it is the Hebrew Bible that is clear and charitable, the Gospel obscure and ostensibly rigid. He reverses typology by insisting, "If we examine over all [Christ’s] sayings, we shall find him not so much interpreting the Law with his words, as referring his own words to be interpreted by the Law." One of the central arguments in the treatise is that divorce must be permitted since the law cannot be more charitable than the Gospel.

Fish’s antinomian reading of Samson Agonistes, Milton’s most Hebraic poem, similarly betrays a hostile and limiting conception of the law. But the law in this work is less monolithic than Fish suggests, and it is broad enough to permit Hebraic Samson to take Dalila back or not, to enter the temple of Dagon or not.

Fish’s antinomianism provides continuity throughout How Milton Works, but there are times when different essays betray different attitudes toward divine epistemology: There is one truth about God, and it can be known, or there is one truth, and it can’t. Early in the book, human freedom and separation from the divine are bad, indeed Satanic: Satan’s "words display the false freedom of irresponsibility—the freedom that comes with not being tethered to anything but the emptiness within." The desired state is the annihilation of personality and absorption in the divine. The joy of such union is so complete that "one who inhabits that condition can be said to have nothing to do, nowhere to go, no goal to achieve."

But late in How Milton Works the failure to achieve such union is desired: "What is fortunate about the Fall, about not being in the optimum place, is that there is somewhere for you to go and something for you to do." It’s not that Fish is unaware that union is both a promise and a threat; a great deal of his book is about the tension between the desires for self-assertion and a self-transcendence that entails anonymity. Rather, it’s that his attitude toward these desires switches abruptly.

Fish loves Milton, and in How Milton Works, he graciously observes the scholarly courtesies and writes as a member of a community of Milton scholars. Those scholars will find readings of individual passages to be cherished. Anyone who teaches Milton should be grateful for the way Fish illuminates the Nativity Ode’s last line, Bright-harness’d Angels sit in order serviceable, every word underscoring angelic obedience. He gives the definitive reading of "At a Solemn Music," and he explains why the "pensive Nun" in Il Penseroso is "held in holy passion still," where the word "still" has "the triple meaning of quietly, without movement, and with duration." Fish’s reading of the "parching wind" that turns the drowned body of Lycidas into parchment, effacing its distinguishing features, is affecting—although less so after one reads something similar later on about Manoa’s desire to wash the body of his dead son Samson. (Similarly, the threat of castration facing the Miltonic bard in the invocation of book seven of Paradise Lost is reprised in an essay on Samson.)

The most serious problem with How Milton Works is simply its master-simile, Fish’s antinomian reading of the world as evil and virtue as renunciation. One would never know from Fish that Milton was a great public poet and secretary for foreign tongues in Oliver Cromwell’s Council of State. For students of Milton, the most important publishing event of 2001 is the appearance of Barbara K. Lewalski’s magisterial The Life of John Milton. To read Lewalski’s incisive scholarship and criticism after reading How Milton Works is to emerge from a musty, shuttered room into an open lawn on a breezy day in May. It’s to turn the cliché that "There’s a big world out there" into reality. The great poet of interiority is not John Milton, but John Milton’s Satan, whose manifesto Fish does not quote:

The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.

Jason P. Rosenblatt, professor of English at Georgetown University, is past president of the Milton Society of America and author of Torah and Law in Paradise Lost.