Against the Law
Stanley Fish's explanation of how Milton works.
Aug 20, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 46 • By JASON P. ROSENBLATT
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
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.