Friday, December 5, 2008

You could live in a soapbox this big. (Wait,...I do!)

I got into a discussion about Danielson’s “translation” of Paradise Lost with a colleague the other day, who remarked that s/he was in favor of it, in principle, and sympathetic to the enterprise of popularizing or making accessible a text perceived by so many to be formidable or intimidating. S/he expressed surprise that I would be against such an accommodated text.

Let me expand, then—just a little—on my comments from the last post on this subject. Though the poem is written in English, I do understand that its English takes a style that seems daunting. The sentences of the poem are complex, their syntax smacking more of ancient languages than any familiar or conversational idiom. They take work. Sometimes, as I tell my students, they take reading aloud: indeed, Paradise Lost often reveals its most compelling dramas when it is read aloud. (And three cheers to that good man Rich DuRocher at St. Olaf College, who knows it. Wish I were there to participate!)

But I’d suggest that the complexity of Milton’s sentences is PART OF THE POINT OF THE POEM. The poem’s drama revolves around, among other things, acts of interpretation. Satan may make for an intriguing spectacle as a talking snake, but it is only after he is figured as a rhetor that he is able to accomplish Eve’s seduction. And it happens that the serpent reports to Eve more or less what Raphael has already suggested to the edenic pair over lunch: that by means of eating they may sublimate into divinity. Eve’s problem isn’t that she’s vain, it’s that she’s an inexperienced reader. Adam, for his part, repeatedly engages in acts of profound misreading, as when he dries Eve’s tears following her dream “as the gracious signs of sweet remorse/ And pious awe,” though nothing in her breathless and thrilled narration of the dream suggests that she’s feeling sorry to have had it. Paradise Lost aims at every turn to activate our sense of the burden of interpretation, conceived in this text as an ethical burden—an argument close to Milton’s heart. Recall his argument in the Areopagitica, that heart-stopping tract against censorship:

The worthy man (St. Paul), loath to give offence, fell into a new debate with himself what was to be thought; when suddenly a vision sent from God (it is his own epistle that so avers it) confirmed him in these words: Read any books whatever come to thy hands, for thou art sufficient both to judge aright and to examine each matter. To this revelation he assented the sooner, as he confesses, because it was answerable to that of the Apostle to the Thessalonians, Prove all things, hold fast that which is good.

For Milton, interpretation is an ennobling activity, bound up with the fundamental human task of choosing, of discernment. To put it reductively, reading—especially challenging reading—builds character, in Milton’s view. Reading carefully and attentively, and against the easy interpretation, and choosing according to what you’ve read, is really one of the central concerns of Paradise Lost. To smooth over the difficulty of Milton’s sentences is to evacuate the text of its careful correspondence between style and content.

And, speaking of choosing, Milton’s weird epic similes, which are unnecessarily cluttered and complex and surely ripe for simplification in “translation,” also tend to present the reader with moments of interpretive crisis. Think of the passage at the beginning of Book 4, which describes Satan leaping over the wall into Eden for the first time. The text tells us that Satan enters the garden like a wolf into a sheepcote OR like a thief into a rich burgher’s hoard. The first simile diminishes the malice of Satan, since wolves raven for hunger, but the second one problematizes the character of God, who becomes this miserly gold-stasher to whom Satan plays Robin Hood. The choice before us in this set of similes presents two unsettling and contradictory options---but again, reading and reasoning and their interconnectedness is part of the point of the poem. {Sidenote: A couple of years ago I heard Peter C. Herman give a paper at GEMCS on the function of “or” in PL; he’s recently published an article whose title is something like “The Miltonic ‘Or,’” which I assume arose from that talk. Check it out if you’re interested. He’s smart and funny.)

Moreover, to update Milton’s language threatens to lose the interpretive choices that the poem constantly puts before the reader in its diction. When Milton uses “savor,” for example, to describe the fruit, he means not only to evoke its gustatory allurement but also to activate that word’s etymological connection to “sapience,” or wisdom. Of course, it’s Satan’s argument that both qualities are simultaneous in the fruit. But you’d lose that sly bit of linguistic seduction if you read, in “translation,” that the fruit looked tasty, or even sensual or alluring or some other description lifted from food-porn magazines.

Finally, Milton’s blank verse, which positions itself against rhymed verse, repudiates the formal conclusiveness, the judgments, of rhymed verse, but maintains the tension between the headlong progress of the syntax and the arrestive properties of the line. To put it simply, the poem wants to fall down the page, but the form keeps it suspended in that progress. The form enacts a version of the drama we see performed in the poem: a tendency to fall in tension with the resistance to falling offered by adherence to rules. Obedience.

Paradise Lost is a poem, and that means that its argument IS, at the end of the day, its style. If you wanted to read Paradise Lost for its plot, you wouldn’t need to go any further than its title. But its priorities aren’t argumentatively hypotactic, they’re paratactic, completely bound up in the act/performance of saying. Which is to say, the substance IS the style.

And you can’t get that shit from a modern American prose version.


Lisa B. said...

I wholeheartedly agree with your argument. And yet . . . this is part of the problem narrative poetry poses for itself, yes? It calls not only for poetic strategies of reading, but also narrative strategies, i.e., figuring out what's "happening," especially at first. And that, at least for the young reader, the reader encountering the text for the first time, might seem sort of paramount . . . and if the difficulty of it is too great, there will be no second time. But still. Love your soap-boxing.

miltonista said...

My first instinct is also to pooh-pooh the Danielson paraphrase (although I haven't taken a look at it). But just to play devil's (or, uhh, Jesus') advocate, isn't it somewhat problematic to apply Milton's comments about interpretation and reading to the act of reading Milton? After all, the Son himself seems to have a rather low view of reading difficult texts ("he who receives / Light from above, from the fountain of light,/ No other doctrine needs, though granted true"; and, a little later, "A spirit and judgment equal or superior/ [And what he brings, what needs he elsewhere seek]).

He does, of course, add a key qualification with yet another Miltonic "or," but he seems thereby to relegate reading even scriptures to a private act that serves only the purpose of delight. By the end of his speech, he does attribute a lofty public function to reading the scriptures, but only insofar as those texts are easy "in thir majestic unaffected stile / . . . / In them is plainest taught, and easiest learnt.")

All of this to say: is it possible that Milton might object to Danielson's treatment of his poem, but Milton's Jesus might not care so much?

Blue Cheese said...

Did you just call my medium of choice (modern American prose) what I think you called it? This sporty Americanist thinkest thou art whack!

I wholeheartedly agree with your arguments about the Milton. If only I understood his prose, I'd probably agree with them even more.

Renaissance Girl said...

Miltonista: maybe, but Milton's Jesus occupies a rare position of perfection. He doesn't need to read and be ennobled. But the rest of us...?